The Birth of Eternal Russia


Mussorgsky did not have the chance of having this opera of his performed during his life, but we will probably never know what it could have been if it had not been “finished” or “modified” by so many other composers over one century after the death of the composer in 1881. The subject is pure dynamite because it considers the messy situation in Russia and Moscow in a period known as the Streltsy uprisings of 1682. Power was divided between several factions, the Khovansky family that controlled the fearful Streltsy military police in Moscow that had a record of criminal cleansing of any opposition. The next faction was a religious movement that called for the closing up of the country and then going back to very fundamentalist orthodox Christianity. There was also among the ruling circles of Russia some members of the Tsar family who were for the opening of Russia and reform. The opera is exactly at this very moment when in Moscow the factions are confronting one another and the army of the future Tsar Peter the Great is approaching the city and will take it, which will mean centralization, regularization, and reform, nothing abolishing feudalism and serfdom, but reform nevertheless that might bring in some ideas from Europe, particularly those circles in France, England and Germany that were trying to imagine a state of law and a democratic political system based on the three independent powers of the state, what will be known later on as the Enlightenment.

The libretto takes a stance that is clearly dictated by the situation in Russia when the opera was composed. The situation, after the abolition of serfdom in 1861 by Alexander II, brought a lot of hope for further reforms that will never materialize. The stance in the opera in favor of reforms, though seen as meaning the increasing influence of the Germans, might have been difficult to put on the stage. It would be interesting to compare the original libretto and the libretto performed for the first time in 1886, five years after the Composer’s death. But reform is not really the main stake in the opera. The main stake is in fact double.

On one hand the violent and bloody repression of any opposition in Moscow due to the domination of the Khovansky family and the powerlessness of the main leader in Moscow, Golitsyn. The repression is performed by the Streltsy that is depicted as a band of drunkards who when drunk can kill anyone in sight.

On the other hand, the stake is to get rid of, to push back the strong fundamentalist orthodox movement that is more reactionary than conservative. They want to go back to what religion and its power were a century ago. They are the Old Believers and have their leader, Dosifey. But what is good on their side is that they will prefer dying in flames than bowing down in front of the new reformist Tsar. And that is the surprising end of this opera. The Streltsy goes out against Peter’s army and is defeated off stage. Then when Peter’s army arrives on stage, they find all the Old Believers burning on a pyre lit by the only woman in the band, Marfa who is a mixture of a witch, a seer, a fortune-teller, in fact, nothing but a fake person or an impostor. It reveals the level of gullibility these Moscow leaders exhibited, as well as the Old Believers.

The most surprising side of the libretto is the position of women. On stage we get two main women, Emma, a German Lutheran that is practically raped on stage by one Khovansky, and the other Marfa, the fortune teller who defends Emma, but is it successful, though Marfa, later on, is sent away from the palace by Andrey Khovansky with his servants ordered to follow her and get rid of her. She escapes, saved by Peter’s soldiers. But the Streltsky police or army is doubled up in act three with the band of their wives who protest they are abandoned. They will be the only happy ones because their husbands who are ready to accept a mass execution from Peter’s soldiers are in fact pardoned and sent home by Streshnev, the leader of Peter’s army. He is a Boyar and these Boyars have been hinted at all along in the opera. They are the old aristocracy of Russia and have joined their fight with Peter, the future Peter the Great.

There is something quite modern in this opera. It is the fact that when two or three factions are fighting together, against one another, in multiple and evanescent alliances among them, it is always an outsider who will come and clean up the plate, that is to say, take over the political situation. This is very Shakespearian if you think of Macbeth or Hamlet. The final winner is the outsider. The other modern element is that it is an undemocratic situation — characterized by some authoritarianism and the attempt by some to destabilize those in power by street agitation and demonstrations that can both turn violent or simply criminal — that is the real political danger in our modern supposedly democratic societies that can turn undemocratic in no time at all. Even if there is a savior somewhere in the wings, his intervention is not a democratic solution, even if that savior improved the situation at stake.


An old recording by a great company perfectly remastered. The first remark is that this production does not correspond to the libretto published by the English National Opera in 1994. We know the opera was not finished when the composer died, and that Rimsky-Korsakov was the first one to work on it to bring it to completion for the première in 1886. Then many other versions will be produced because quite a few composers actually worked on the score. The last attempt was Shostakovich’s but according to the information I got he did it for a 1959 production, and this here production was recorded in 1950. Either the information I got is wrong or it is a mystery and some sections have been !modified. I could not find Susanna, the elderly Old Believer who passes through Act III for a few sentences. She is a completely deranged Old Believer and she rants and raves about devils. Let me give you a small example. Speaking to Marfa, the daughter of the main leader of the Old Believers she says:

“God in heaven above! Drive this demon far from my sight. Drive her away! My heart is seized with hate, I must purge her of this profanity. Thou art deceiving me, thou art tempting me, thou hast kindled in me flames of wickedness. Sinner, thou shalt pay the price, judgment shall fall on thee. Tell of thy wicked ways. I shall prepare for thee fire to purge thy sins.”

Of course, this character is a caricature but to the point of considering too much is too much?

Apart from that the adaptation (at least what we can get from an audio recording, is faithful and I think the voices, chosen by Mussorgsky, with a dominance of male voices, and among these a dominance of bass and baritone, with a few tenors to bring the others out, are a fair choice to build and evoke a dense, dark and particularly ominous atmosphere. It is a simple situation. Some aristocrats whose privileges might be at stake when the new Tsar arrives on the throne have decided to organize what we could call today a putsch or a coup d’état. They have been plotting to seize power permanently and get rid of the new Tsar. They manipulate the Regent, his mother, and the main minister, and they use military political police to repress any discontentment. They are ruthless and bloody. A leak from someone inside gets the plot out to the new Tsar Peter in a letter written in front of us by a scribe. The new Tsar then sends his army and probably a few people inside to watch.

The main plotting family is the Khovansky family, a father, and a son. The father will be assassinated in his palace when the battle will be practically fought and won. The son will lose his mind. The main minister will be deported, I guess to Siberia in the Russian tradition. The military-political police will be defeated first and then when ready to accept their doom, they will be pardoned and thus neutralized. The Old Believers, an orthodox sect that is more fundamentalistic than the worst sectarian people you can imagine in any religion, will all commit suicide by burning themselves collectively at the end, just before the arrival of Peter’s troops. Their main leader, Dosifey will lead the move, the Khovansky son will be lured into it by the daughter of the main leader because she is in love with him and since he will be executed, she prefers he dies with her on the pyre, in the fire.

Peter who we do not see one single second at all, wins all the way, up and down, and we know he will finally bring Russia to some kind of modern status that will also open the country to some Enlightenment with one of his successors Catherine the Great who will bring French enlightenment to Russia with Voltaire.

But what is fundamental is that Russia at the time, in 1682 with the rebellion of the Streltsy, the military-political police, is trying to find her way to some kind of rule of law with some kind of stable state and administration and ideas coming from western Europe, England and France mainly, about the separation of the three powers (legislative, executive and justice). What Mussorgsky shows is in some way the last rebellion or maybe revulsive reaction of those who are going to be pushed out. We are still far from the repealing of feudalism and the liberation or emancipation of serfs, but the road to this objective is open then and there.

At the same time, it is treating politics in society as systematically being some kind of civil unrest and then some kind of upheaval, and it all states that there is no possible progress without the use of street democracy, as if street movements and demonstrations were democratic. It can bring some reform, some emergency measures taken by the state or negotiated by the state with the people in the movement in order to stop the movement that blocks the country and brings the economy of the country down, not to speak of the suffering of those who are blocked from what they need, be it medical treatment or social help, which may mean some deaths because of it. But the famous Eastern European or Arab revolutions brought by a massive street movement are neither democratic nor legitimate if really free elections are not organized straight away.

In this opera Mussorgsky describe such a street upheaval or “democracy,” a democracy of fear and cowardice for most people who remain hidden away, but at the same time he shows how this is perfectly well used by Peter and his armed forces and he is the one who gets the roasted chestnuts though it is the Khovanskys who get their hands burned when they got the chestnuts out of the fire. It is always those in the forerunning front of any movement who die first and pay most of the bills.

This ideology was of course welcomed by Stalin in 1950, but it corresponded to the spirit of the Russians, and not only the Russians, I would dare to say the Slavs, and it was also popular in the west for various reasons. In France, you have still a vast minority of people who think like that on both the extreme left and the extreme right of the political spectrum, in fact still today with the yellow vest movement. England has always been fascinated by this Russian way of looking at things and how the Russians are supposed to love some authoritarian power. But I must say, apart from the Overture of the opera, it is difficult to find many full recordings, and we cannot be sure we have the original version, first because it was not completed by the composer and second because it has often been manipulated and modified by various composers since the death of the composer himself.

To conclude this opera is definitely worth discovering. The music is very expressive and impressive, and it is sung all along as if it were only one continuous aria. In other words, there are no recitatives, and that’s good because these recitatives are just artificial and musically easy if not lazy. The music then is intense from beginning to end.


The version of this opera used here is clearly stated as being Modest Mussorgsky’s, orchestrated by Dimitri Shostakovich with an ending by Guerassim Voronkov. The general argument is both well-known but, outside Russia and Russian-opera lovers, rather ignored (both meanings). It is the historical period of the coming to power of Tsar Peter the Great. He used the great discontentment among people due to several episodes of dependence for Russia, under the Tartars, under the influence of the Teutons or Germans, under the power of the Boyars, aristocrats owning the land in a country where feudalism has not been abolished and serfdom is the rule for peasants. Power in Moscow is under a Tsarevna and her “prime minister” Prince Golitsyn who is trying to introduce in Russia his German education and reforms going that way. But this power is in fact based on the severe and corrupted violence of some political police, the Streltsy, in the hand of Andrei Khovansky, the son of the real master of Moscow, Ivan Khovansky. These two politicians and princes are just plain dictators who reign in blood, the blood of their victims.

The opera as a whole insists on the corruption of these people, their violence and their bloodthirst. Khovansky junior is also shown as a rapist of any woman available and in this case, it is a German woman who is shown as the victim of this public sexual violence of this prince who is not ashamed, nor in any way sorry or repentant. The whole opera turns around a “traitor” inside this circle of perverse dictators. Shaklovity, who is not a member of the aristocracy, but he is the inner spy of Peter, the future Peter the Great. This is revealed from the very start with him dictating a message to a public scribe or scrivener for it to be sent to Peter. The scribe is afraid of being recognized, at least his handwriting, but he is nicely paid for it and he imitates the handwriting of someone else. This message tells Peter the Moscow circle of corrupted politicians and princes’ plans on seizing full power, so organizing a putsch of some sort.

The corruption is shown in the game a dwarf is forced to play with Ivan Khovansky, a sort of plaything that does not speak but just accepts to be treated like a pet and be taken in the arms of this Khovansky Sr. Corruption always leads to death. It is this dwarf when taken in Khovansky Sr.’s arms who will kill him with a dagger.

The corruption is also heavily described with the presentation of the Streltsy as a band of drunkards who live on vodka and roll around on big cushions or it could be beds and play boyish games. It is doubled with the wives of these drunkards who complain that they are never home. But they are informed that Peter’s armies are coming and do not make prisoners. In fact, they will be defeated, and they will submit to the winner but when they hand out their weapons, instead of these being used to kill them all, Peter’s military chief grants them a full pardon that makes them inoffensive, once they have been disarmed.

But all along, another clan is depicted and widely represented, the Old Believers, some nostalgic fundamentalist Orthodox Believers. Their leader is Dosifei who has the tremendous power of being received and listened to by all these corrupted politicians and princes, and yet his ethical and moral preaching is never applied to or by them. His followers are living in this hypocritical ambiguity without any doubt about their beliefs. Dosifei’s daughter, Marfa, is in love with Andrei Khovansky who is not responding positively because he is only interested in girls he can use without any kind of attachment. These Old Believers are condemned by history since Peter is going to first clean up the place of all those who supported in a way or another the Khovansky’s, and among them, the Old Believers are a fair target, and then introduce some reforms and one will be to get rid of this fundamentalism. But we don’t know what would have been done, especially after the Streltsy was pardoned, because Dosifei and his daughter Marfa bring their supporters to committing self-sacrifice, meaning, they decided to burn themselves to death on a giant pyre. This final scene is absolutely remarkable in this production since the fire is represented by a lit candle held by every member of the congregation of Old Believers and their death is symbolized by each Believer blowing his or her candle and falling to the ground. We can note there are children among them in the front row, which is impressive since in such collective suicides children are double victims because they did it for their parents and without understanding what the stakes were. Marfa manages to get Andrei Khovansky in the general fire along with herself on the simple argument; “Die in communion with God, rather than being executed by Peter’s soldiers when they capture you.”

Peter will never appear on the stage. He is a presence in the back. The music is absolutely marvelous and it varies from one scene to the next. In this production, the setting is a basic stage structure that has a big gate in a city wall at the back and this gate can open onto various settings behind. It also contains structures on the sides with stairs and some kind of bridges across the stage, one at the top of the city wall and the other going up and down and connecting the two spiral stairs on the sides. But what is particularly remarkable is the way the vast space on the stage is used for many varioous massive groups of people who are both chorus, dancers and crowds. The opening scene with four or five dead bodies on the stage and five hanged men is, of course, sinister, especially since during the Overture these corpses are taken away and the hanged people are taken down. This creates the perfect atmosphere for this sordid and morbid description of the end of political tribal and feudal domination and the victory of the tsar who is going to bring Russia to some opening and greatness. Mussorgsky did not finish the opera that was never performed during his life maybe because it was dealing with delicate problems under Tsar Nikolai II. But the fact that it was performed, and it received its final orchestration under Stalin and afterward is meaningful in different ways. It sings the greatness of good Russian leaders, and Stalin definitely thought he was good, and, after Stalin, it showed that any dictatorship is impossible for very long in Russia, and it celebrates some benevolent but strong power and leadership.

To perform such an opera in today’s world is the attempt to understand Russian culture and also Russian people who are different in many ways from western people because of their historical heritage, the two world wars being essential to understanding the desire of Russians and Russia to be respected and maybe feared. This opera celebrates the victory of an open and progressive leader that was able to restore the authority of the state and to increase the power and prestige of the country.