Monday, September 17, 2012

'Virgin Mary Won't Allow This'


Russian cultural references

In connection with the Pussy Riot case, the phrase 'Bogoroditsa ne velit' has often been quoted.

The feminist punk band used as a refrain in their performance the words 'Virgin Mother, get rid of Putin'. While it has been widely quoted in Western press, the link, which is obvious to any Russian, may have been lost on the Western reader.

In fact it comes from Alexander Pushkin's epic historical drama 'Boris Godunov' (1831).

Boris was Ivan the Terrible's lieutenant. When Ivan died in 1584 leaving a weak son, Feodor, on the throne, Godunov became a de-facto ruler. And after Feodor died in 1598 Godunov was crowned as the new tsar.

He was an efficient administrator and reformer, but persistent rumours of his involvement in the alleged murder of Ivan's other son from his seventh marriage, tsarevitch Dimitriy. The rumours were, apparently, stirred by Godunov's enemies. Soon after Godunov died in 1605 his young son and widow were murdered. This marked the advent of 'the Time of Troubles', when effective rule was non-existent, the Poles invaded Russia and put their stooge, the False Dimitriy on the throne of Moscow. A popular uprising ensued and eventually the first of the Romanov's, Mikhail was selected as tsar.

Russia had to wait another hundred years for a successful reformer, Peter the Great.

Godunov's personality and the Time of Troubles have long fascinated Russian writers. To Russia, Godunov and tsarevitch Dimitriy in historical and literary terms is what Richard and the Princes in the Tower is to England.

The clip below is from Mussorgsky's classic opera 'Boris Godunov' (1868-73), based on Pushkin's poem. Tsar Boris is challenged by the city's Simpleton (Yurodiviy), here sung by Ivan Kozlovsky, to have the street boys, who had stolen a kopeck from him, to be slaughtered 'like you slaughtered tsarevitch Dimitriy.'

The tsar recoils and his aides want to arrest the Simpleton. Boris stops them and asks the Simpleton to pray for him. But the Simpletion says 'No, I can't, Virgin Mary, Mother of God (Bogoroditsa) does not allow this'.

The 'aaa-aaa' note in the Simpleton's aria is one of the most beautiful in Russian opera.

Illustration: detail of the painting by Vassily Surikov 'The Boyarinya Morozova', 1887, o/c, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

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