Heathens’ greetings to all!
I did not grow up celebrating Christmas in my family. But, despite increasing secularization of our society, Christmas is still an inescapable part of life in Canada, and its temporal creep has advanced it to start as soon as the Halloween decorations have been pushed off the shelves (with many retailers not even bothering to wait that long). For me, music exemplifies both the best and the worst of the holiday season. I’m sure everyone has their favourite worsts, so I won’t go into that here.
But I confess that I do enjoy some pieces of seasonal music. One of my favourites is technically about winter, not Christmas: the Troika from Sergei Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kizhé (Kijé) Suite. (Troika is a traditional Russian sleigh pulled by three horses abreast: a three-horse open sleigh.) Sometime after I had made its acquaintance, I learned about the backstory of the Lieutenant Kizhé Suite: Commissioned as a film score in the 1930s, it was the soundtrack for a movie based on Soviet novelist Yury Tynyanov’s satire “on the stupidity of royalty and the particularly Russian terror of displeasing one’s superior.” (A version of the movie with English subtitles is available.)
In short, the story sees Czar Paul reading a proclamation intended to promote some soldiers from ensign to second lieutenant, but he misinterprets a phrase in the document as a reference to a particular lieutenant named Kizhé. (I will not attempt to further explain the Russian wordplay; see here for more details.)
Of course, it is a terrible thing for the Czar to be wrong, so suddenly this mysterious lieutenant must be acknowledged by the top brass. Kizhé is brought into existence, and his “life” includes an accusation of malfeasance, followed by an exoneration, a marriage, several promotions, and then finally his death, all of which manage to be celebrated without the physical appearance of the protagonist. His posthumous demotion also includes a condemnation from Czar Paul that Kizhé was a “dangerous freethinker.”
Fast forward about 90 years and watch life imitate art: The Russian State Space Corporation, Roscosmos, has a project for a satellite constellation to provide internet and observation services. It was initially named “Ehfir,” Russian for “ether.” But, as recently reported by Ars Technica, the name was officially changed in 2018, when Vladimir Putin erroneously called it “Sfera” (meaning “sphere”) in a public announcement. The head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, showed his devotion to Putin by immediately changing the name of the program to be officially known as Sfera, thus preventing his leader from suffering any embarrassing consequences from his error.
My holiday wish for the world is that we would have more “dangerous freethinkers,” like Kizhé (and Prokofiev).
[photo of a (real) statue of the mythical Kizhe, hiding in the brickwork at Czar Paul’s castle in St Petersburg]