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Playground of the Autocrats: The Russian Empire and How Terrain Shapes Society

 
     

4. The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth: Portraying Human Vulnerability on the Endless Steppes

Triptych No. 1

  
I named my triptych series collectively Playground of the Autocrats because—like the Russian steppes—a playground is typically flat. There may be vertical structures on it, but the ground itself is level, allowing unfettered play.

The first Playground triptych is The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth. It’s about the vast Russian playground, the bullies who ruled it, and the protection racket they concocted to attain power. Ronald Wright has reflected:

People afraid of outsiders are easily manipulated. The warrior caste, supposedly society’s protectors, often become protection racketeers. In times of war or crisis, power is easily stolen from the many by the few on a promise of security.
  

Triptych No. 1: The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth.
Triptych No. 1: The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth. 24" x 48".
 

Russia, encompassing the largest wide-open flatland in the world, provided such extravagant opportunities for a protection racket that one autocrat at a time could seize full charge of it. Russia’s state of emergency was permanent, so it needed a commander-in-chief who controlled everything, all the time.

But how can a painter visualize all this? What recipe can be cooked up to entertainingly portray an immense landscape and the historical processes it set in motion?
 

Portraying the Most Exposed Terrain on Earth

To begin with, how could I conjure up in viewers’ minds a plain whose vastness few have a reference point for? Americans have the Great Plains, but our flatland is perhaps one-third the size of Russia’s. And we never had large-scale enemy entities sharing our plains.

To convey the extent of Russia’s steppes, I first designed one of my autocrat characters, Ivan the Terrible, dancing aboard a globe. I drew arrows of Mongol invasion routes on the globe, labeled “Nomad Express: 3,500 open miles.”
 

Detail: Mother with slain child.
 

This triptych focuses on the Mongol period, so another way I visually conveyed the relationship between landscape and autocracy was by painting a Mongol battle raging on a flat plain.

I wanted to convey the tragedy and terror experienced by individual war victims, so I painted a Russian peasant woman and a noblewoman each holding a wounded child.

The accumulation of many Russians’ personal terror and grief was a crucial link in the causal chain from naturally-defenseless terrain to autocracy. Ronald Wright says, “In times of war or crisis, power is easily stolen from the many by the few on a promise of security.”

Another way I conveyed the flatness of Russia’s endless steppes was through song lyrics “sung” by my characters Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible. I wrote these lyrics to the tune of the ubiquitous folksong, “Kalinka” [listen to the song]:

With no mountains to stop them,
Endless steppes on all sides,
Russia was Grand Central Station
For barbarian tribes! ...

No castles perched atop high cliffs can our poor lives prolong.
Our open homeland got us conquered by the Mongol throng!
Sooo AUTOCRACY - DICTATORSHIP - will now make Russia strong!
  

  

Detail: Peter the Great.
 

A last way I conveyed the endless, wide-open flatness of Russia was through a border around the center panel of the triptych. I created this border from digital images of paintings by the great 19th century Russian painters, the Peredvizhniki. Many of their evocative and deeply moving landscapes are of the Russian steppes. You can find more detail on how and why I built this border on my website.
 

The Great Protection Racket

The Mongols’ war organization, tactics, and composite bows were the great military advances of their day. “The level of organization of the Mongol army was not seen elsewhere in the Middle Ages and stands in marked contrast to that of the feuding Russian Princes,” writes Gregory Frux.

If Russia was to survive the Mongols and their Tatar descendants, its fractious princes needed to whip themselves into a unified fighting force under a single central command. The necessity for Russians of all classes to unify beneath a single commander presented the tsars with an opportunity to amass vast power and wealth for themselves. The state leveraged this situation to its own fullest benefit.

To convey this large-scale social phenomenon, I painted a character called AUTOCRACY towering in the midst of my wide-open battlefield, skirts held open to receive the terrorized Russian people. The gleeful AUTOCRACY character is a satirical visualization of how the tsars as a group took advantage of their people’s need for protection on the vast playground.

 

Detail: AUTOCRACY man.
 

View more closeup images of triptych panels here.
  

 

 

  

"The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth"
Lyrics by Anne Bobroff-Hajal
Music: Russian folktune "Kalinka", played and sung by Robert Catenaccio in the voices of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.
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