In his poem O pravitelyakh (“On Rulers,” 1945) VN compares Stalin (who said that life became better and merrier) to Khan Mamay ("a particularly evil Tartar prince of the fourteenth century"):
Умирает со скуки историк:
за Мамаем все тот же Мамай.
В самом деле, нельзя же нам с горя
поступить, как чиновный Китай,
кучу лишних веков присчитавший
к истории скромной своей,
от этого, впрочем, не ставшей
ни лучше, ни веселей.
The historian dies of sheer boredom:
on the heels of Mamay comes another Mamay.
Does our plight really force us to do
what did bureaucratic Cathay
that with heaps of superfluous centuries
augmented her limited history
which, however, hardly became
either better or merrier.
In the battle of Kulikovo (1380) the Russians led by Prince Dmitri (nicknamed Donskoy) defeated the Tartars led by Khan Mamay. Na pole Kulikovom (“In the Field of Kulikovo,” 1908) is a cycle of poetry by Alexander Blok. In VN’s story Lik (1939) Alexander Lik’s real name seems to be Kulikov. Lik is an actor. In his Parizhskaya poema (“The Paris Poem,” 1943) VN mentions aktyory (actors):
В этой жизни, богатой узорами
(неповторной, поскольку она
по-другому, с другими актерами,
будет в новом театре дана)…
In this life, rich in patterns (a life
unrepeatable, since with a different
cast, in a different manner,
in a new theater it will be given)…
“The Paris Poem” was written after the battle of Stalingrad (August 1942 to February 1943) in which the Russians defeated the Germans. The dominant height overlooking the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) is called Mamaev kurgan (the Mamay tumulus). The battle of Stalingrad can be compared to the battle of Kulikovo and to the battle of Poltava (1709) in which the Russians led by Peter I defeated the Swedes led by Karl XII. I notice that in a letter to Edmund Wilson VN compares Pushkin’s poem Poltava (1829) to his novel Podvig (“Glory,” 1930). The characters of Pushkin’s Poltava include Orlik, Mazepa’s adviser. There is lik in Orlik. One of the two main characters in VN’s Lik is Oleg Koldunov. His surname comes from koldun (a sorcerer). Koldun is a character in Gogol’s Strashnaya mest’ (“The Terrible Vengeance”), the story directly alluded to in “The Paris Poem” (see my previous post). Btw., in 882 Oleg (who governed Rus during the reign of Ryurik’s young son Igor) took Kiev, the city on the Dnepr, and made it the capital of Rus. In “The Abyss” Lik plays Igor, a young Russian who is compared to yabloko razdora (the apple of discord). There is Blok in yabloko.