The Secret Year (Тайный год) by Mikhail Gigolashvili

It wasn’t Sergey Eizenstein’s bombastic epic Ivan the Terrible that Mikhail Gigolashvili had at the back of his mind when writing The Secret Year, but, as he mentioned in an interview, Alexei German’s infernal fresco Hard to be a God. The sprawling, slow-paced narrative unfolds within several weeks of the year 1575, when the Russian tsar ceded the Moscow throne to baptised Tatar Khan Simeon Bekbulatovich and withdrew to his residence in Alexandrova Sloboda, a fortified settlement 75 miles north-east of Moscow. Besides committing a synesthetic assault on the reader’s senses of smell and vision by virtue of its unflinching depiction of the sordid squalor and casual cruelty of the medieval times in Russia, the novel also impresses by its masterfully archaised language modelled on the florid style of Ivan the Terrible’s epistolary writings (you might be surprised to learn that the ruthless tsar, notorious for the barbaric acts of violence, was also one of the greatest stylists of the Russian language of his time). This linguistic experiment could be compared in its ambition to the famous pastiches of 18th century English prose accomplished by John Barth in The Sot-Weed Factor and Thomas Pynchon in Mason & Dixon. It’s one of those books where not much happens, and the plot is sketchy at best. What Gigolashvili’s novel offers instead is an atmospheric experience, an invitation to inhabit a period so little documented in the historical sources that the author feels free to create his own version of this past, a psychedelic fantasia dominated by the thoughts and voice of the imagined Tsar Ivan IV, which could possibly help us understand better the original historical figure.

Alexandrova Sloboda. Engraving by Theodor de Bry (d. 1598), published by Jacob Ulfeldt in 1627.

Most of the novel’s 15 chapters adhere to the same pattern. They usually start with a description of Ivan’s dream preceding his awakening and getting ready for the busy day lying ahead. The tsar’s official routine consists of receiving a number of sundry visitors: foreign ambassadors, messengers from Moscow and more distant parts of Russia, hired professionals from western Europe, and various members of his personal entourage. His prolonged dialogues with the guests provide us with a detailed picture of the situation in the country at the time when the main action takes place as well as give informative and vivid flashbacks of the earlier days of Tsar Ivan’s reign, most notably, the 7-year period of the oprichnina, the policy of repressions, executions and forcible relocations of the nobility carried out by the corps of oprichniki, an elite military guard and political police in one. After that, we follow the protagonist on whatever personal business or adventure he has in mind on the given day until the moment he goes to bed in his chamber. At the end of each chapter except the last one there is a short section dedicated to two servants who at night arrive at the printing house to make, by hand, fair copies of the two documents drafted by the monarch himself. The first one is called the List of State Servitors and includes the names of the faithful oprichniki. The second one bears the title Memorial List of the Disgraced (Sinodik opal’nykh) and contains the names of men, women and children executed by the tsar’s order. The list of the disgraced is meant for the churches as the pious Ivan wants prayers said for the soul of each of his victims. As a matter of fact, fourteen chapters of The Secret Year invariably end with authentic excerpts from both lists placed side-by-side in two columns: the murderers next to the murdered.

David Fassmann, Gespräche in dem Reiche derer Todten, Entrevue Nr. 84, Leipzig 1725, Title Page.

The general tenor of the tsar’s official meetings is the inevitable juxtaposition of the still medieval Muscovy and her western European neighbours enjoying the technological and cultural advances of the late Renaissance. Thus, while admiring the German pocket watch given to him as a gift, the tsar bitterly regrets that his country hasn’t produced anything of the kind, for up to this moment he could only relate the notion of a timepiece to a huge tower clock. The fortepiano for the music school in the Sloboda has been imported from Italy. The pig-intestine condom Ivan is compelled to use after discovering a syphilitic chancre on his glans is the invention of an Englishman. If it were not for his German engineer and factotum Ortwin Schlosser, there wouldn’t be the indoor menagerie, the bakery, the music school, and even the water-supply system in Alexandrov Kremlin. Almost every day the sovereign has to listen to never-ending complaints about the theft and corruption in the nascent Russian Tsardom’s ineffective administrative system, which renders Russia’s backwardness in comparison to the West even more poignant: they have universities, banks, well-established schools of visual arts, newspapers — and we don’t. Possessed by the idea of accelerating Russia’s development and bringing it closer to western Europe, Ivan makes arrangements for the establishment of the first school of interpreters, correctly believing that no transmission of knowledge is possible without effective communication. Establishing this dialogue is essential, but not so easy with the Livonian War at the background. In foreign states the Russian tsar is viewed as a sadistic and obscurant tyrant and Ivan IV strongly resents this image of a monster ballyhooed by his political opponents. The bias against him is even reflected in the translation of his sobriquet, for in Russian the word “groznyi” means “formidable”, not “terrible”. When he is shown a German print portraying him as a feral beast sitting on a throne amid mass executions, Ivan has mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, he is vexed by the hypocrisy and injustice of this attitude, for there is no lack of cruelty and despotism among his political opponents either. On the other hand, he feels flattered by the awe and fear he instills in them. The introduction of this engraving, by the way, is a brilliant touch of playful anachronism on the part of Gigaloshvili, for it appeared only in 1725, on the title page of German publicist David Fassmann’s moral weekly Gespräche in dem Reiche derer Todten (Dialogues in the Realm of the Dead).

The long-windedness of the book (my edition of the novel is more than 800 pages long) from time to time is jazzed up by the elements of detective and mystery genres. In a fit of the overwhelming desire to escape from it all, the tsar makes a botched attempt to flee to England by setting off alone in a horse wagon. He doesn’t make it far from his estate before the wagon breaks down and he is robbed by two wandering artisans who fail to recognise the monarch in the dishevelled and unkempt man before them. The detective thread of the narrative is represented by the subsequent probe into the case by the best representatives of the Banditry Office (Razboinaya izba), a fledgling criminal investigation department established by the tsar in the 1570s. The other mystery to be solved is of seemingly supernatural character, most probably involving witchcraft: a stone slab with writings in an ancient language falls from the sky and maims Ivan’s factotum Schlosser. But the most impressive “interruptions” of the mostly sluggish main narrative are provided by Ivan’s dreams and hallucinations. The oneiric experiences of the tsar are as important to him as his wakeful activities, for quite often the symbolic omens received in the dreams serve for him as clues or even instructions when dealing with practical issues at hand. In dreams he can directly communicate not only with angels, but also with demons, as the powers of evil also require close attention of the God-fearing man. The workings of the devil are especially evident in his opium-induced reveries — the tsar has become addicted to the drug as a means of mitigating the pain caused by his proliferating ailments. An admirer of Hieronymus Bosch, (in the novel there is an apocryphal story of Ivan IV getting hold of a stolen Bosch painting) the tsar generates mental pictures of matching weirdness:

The black dog put its front paws on the bed and opened its maw, giving off unearthly fetor. … But it’s not the dog’s mouth – it’s a twilight temple! The Ambon is black. Pitch candles are crackling.  Bundles of bats are fluttering in the corners. The icons show the muzzles of beasts wearing cone hats. A smoking chalice is sitting on the pulpit. Hairy scorpions, long-legged spiders, fish-snakes and toad-rats are crawling out of it, arshin-long worms are stretching their naked necks. In front of the Ambon, an obese priest is swinging a thurible with something shit-smelling. Greenish glistening slugs are slithering on his shoulders, leaving slippery trails. The priest has a black face, his eyes are scarlet, his mouth is spewing smoke, and his fingers seem charred. And here is the flock bustling about the corners: some freaks tear off their own noses, ears and lips and throw them into a rusty bucket. The filled bucket travels by itself through the air and right into the hands of the priest, who pokes his mug inside and begins to chomp with such gusto that the slugs start dropping onto the floor with a hollow squelching sound.

In a dream that Tsar Ivan has several days before Archangel Michael’s day, the culmination of the whole narrative, he is visited both by Michael and his fallen companion Dennitsa, which was the Russian word for Lucifer at the time. It is Dennitsa who marks his shoulder with a branding iron, leaving the acrid smell of sulphur in the air. Perhaps, after all, the satanic forces are getting the upper-hand in the struggle for the Russian monarch’s soul. The extent of the book allows the author to explore in depth the controversial dualism of Ivan IV, who is still viewed by many as a mere caricature of wanton cruelty not unlike the Wallachian voivode Vlad III (the Impaler).  The two different sides of the tsar are shown in all their horrendousness and splendour. For those morbidly interested in the ingeniuos methods of torturing and killing human beings applied by Ivan and the members of his court there is a veritable sick feast: the condemned get fried alive in enormous frying pans with boiling oil; outlawed oprichniki murder people in the manner which in some way corresponds to their last names (e.g. a man whose last name Sobakov is derived from sobaka, the Russian for a dog, is beaten up to pulp and fed to ravenous dogs); the teenaged Ivan and his cronies let loose four bears into the throng of Muscovites on a market day and set about punching to death the panicking folk with knuckle-dusters; a literal blood bath is given to Tsar Ivan by his cruellest henchman Malyuta Skuratov, who lets ten Tatar captives bleed into a basin and then washes his sovereign in the blood using a lopped curly-haired head as a sponge; a giant albino sheatfish in the tsar’s menagerie is given the nickname Glutton because of its appetite for the cut-off human fingers, noses and ears fed to him by the same Malyuta.  This list could go on, but I think that the few examples I have given here will suffice. Alongside the pathological cruelty there is another aspect of Tsar Ivan, which is often overlooked. Here we speak not only of Ivan IV as the architect of the centralised Russian state and the founder of the incipient empire during whose reign the territory of the tsardom was considerably expanded. It is also worth considering the tsar as a very knowledgeable and creative man whose talent manifested itself not only in his famous correspondence with the runaway Prince Kurbsky, but also in a number of religious musical compositions. Offering a powerful counterpoint to the atrocities witnessed and recollected throughout the novel, the final chapter concludes with a choir of children standing against a painted backdrop depicting Paradise and singing a magnificent canon in praise of Archangel Michael, the “terrible voivode”. This hymn was composed by Parfenii Urodivyi, which was the artistic pseudonym of the terrible tsar.

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2 Responses to The Secret Year (Тайный год) by Mikhail Gigolashvili

  1. languagehat says:

    Sounds amazing (though the length is daunting), and I’ll add it to my ever-expanding to-read list! (Typo alert: “in the 1770s” should be “in the 1570s.”)

    • Thanks for the alert! Yes, it is a bit longer than it could have been, but that was the point: to immerse the reader into the everyday routine of the tsar. Nobody was in a hurry in those times. I also think Gigolashvili managed to find a good compromise as to the language: it is defamiliarised, but not to the extent of hampering the reader’s progress. Also, some contemporary slang anachronistically woven in makes for lots of hilarity. There’s very peculiar humour that runs through the whole novel, despite the grim subject matter.

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