This large canvas is called After Igor Svyatoslavitch’s fighting with the Polovtsy ("После побоища Игоря Святославовича с половцами"), or simply After the Battle.
It is the 1880 work of Viktor Vasnetsov, the Russian painter who produced a number of historical and folklore paintings. They became popular in Imperial Russia and, with their patriotic message, stayed so during the Soviet period. After the Battle is exhibited in Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and scores of school excursions have been filing past it for decades (as well as ordinary visitors).
After the Battle draws on the imagery of the Tale of Igor’s Campaign, the medieval Russian poem (late 12th Century), about the 1185 raid of Prince Igor against the Polovtsy (Cuman), the nomadic raiders of the steppes in the Don region. He was defeated and taken prisoner. Alexander Borodin based the opera Prince Igor (1890) on the Tale of Igor’s Campaign. The famous Polovetsian Dances (link to wiki) is from that opera.
In books, visual references are often lost simply because an image instantly recognisable in one generation, or in one culture, is completely lost in the general consciousness of the next generation, or another culture. A popular picture, a poster, an ad, or a cinema episode may go out of circulation.
This is especially true of translated books. Different cultures have different sets of cultural references. And that includes images.
It is seventy years since the great battle of Stalingrad (July 1942-February 1943), when the nazi army was crushed between the rivers Don and Volga deep in the steppes of Russia.
Vassily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate (1959) has Stalingrad as its background. In the following passage, the Red Army is amassing troops and armour to the North and South of the besieged city to go on the counter-offensive and encircle a vast German army. As preparations are under way, officers and soldiers have a few pensive moments, when they link their war to wars of the past. And Vasnetsov’s painting, that is in all Russian history textbooks, on postcards and posters, and in reproductions hang in public places, springs up.
This extract is from Part Two, Chapter 58 of Life and Fate, English translation by Robert Chandler:
The camels passed by, leaving a smell of hay in the frosty air. The same huge moon — more black than red — had shone over the deserted fields where Prince Igor was to give battle. The same moon had shone when the Persian hosts marched into Greece, when the Roman legions invaded the German forests, when the battalions of the first consul had watched night fall over the pyramids...
Darensky, his head sunk into his shoulders, was sitting on a box of shells and listening to two soldiers who lay stretched out under their greatcoats beside the guns. ... The soldiers puffed blissfull at the cigarettes they had rolled, letting out clouds of smoke.
'Just look at the night! You know, I once saw a picture like this when I was at school: a full moon over a field and dead warriors lying on the ground.'
'That doesn't sound much like us,' said the other with a laugh. 'We're not warriors. We're more like sparrows.'
See Russian text below the video. After the Battle and other images by Viktor Vasnetsov can be found on Wikipedia.
Here, Valery Gergiev conducts the Polovtsian Dances suite. The drum beat sequence begins at 3:25 minutes into the video.
Отрывки из романа "Жизнь и судьба", Часть вторая, глава 59:
Верблюды прошли, в морозном воздухе встал деревенский запах сена. Вот такая же, больше черная, чем красная, выплывала огромная луна над пустынным полем, где сражалась дружина Игоря. Вот такая же луна стояла в небе, когда полчища персов шли на Грецию, римские легионы вторгались в германские леса, когда батальоны первого консула встречали ночь у пирамид.
Даренский, нахохлившись, сидел на снарядном ящике на огневых позициях артиллерийской батареи и слушал разговор двух крансоармейцев, лежавших под шинелями у орудий. [...] Красноармейцы блаженно дымилси самокрутками, выпускали клубы теплого дыма.
— А погляди, ночь-то какая, знаешь, я еще в школе учился, картину такую видел: стоит луна над полем, и кругом лежат побитые богатыри.
— Что ж тут похожего, рассмеялся второй, — то богатыри, а мы что, воробьиного рода, наше дело телячье.