Putin's Russia, Tolkien's Mordor: What's the Difference?
I was rendered temporarily speechless by the news that a design company was planning to light up an enormous Eye of Sauron over a Moscow skyscraper this week. Though the project was ostensibly meant to mark the premiere of the third part of director Peter Jackson's ambitious Hobbit trilogy, it was impossible to ignore the symbolism of the evil all-seeing eye imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien watching over President Vladimir Putin's capital.
The stunt was canceled yesterday, however, one day before its intended unveiling -- one might say, precisely because today's Moscow is a lot like Barad-dur, Sauron's tyrannous seat of power in Tolkien's epic.
The event design firm and architectural bureau Svechenie worked for months on the Eye, and it seemed at first to have the tacit approval of the government. It was supposed to light up over one of the towers at IQ Quarter, a cluster of three skyscrapers in Moscow's futuristic City district whose developer, Gals, is owned by the state-controlled bank VTB. Even government-owned media gave favorable coverage to the idea: perhaps the Moscow-Mordor analogy had not occurred to their editors.
It's an analogy I've been considering for a while. When I worked in Kiev in 2012, my colleagues and I joked about Ukraine being much like Shire, the hobbits' home country, while Putin's Russia was Mordor, working its evil magic on the bucolic land.
Ukrainians admit they share many of the hobbits' characteristics: They are hedonistic, easygoing, not overly fond of hard work, attached to their homes and land plots and prone to stockpile supplies; they can also be fiercely courageous when in danger, and they tend to form strong support networks. Like the Shire, Ukraine has a temperate climate and an economy mostly based on agriculture; it has also never had a strong government.
Putin, for his part, bears a certain resemblance to Sauron, the lord of Mordor, a country to the east of Shire that has a harsher climate and a government that merges with religion to run every facet of its citizens' lives. The repressive machine is run by orcs, orurqui in Tolkien's invented quenya language. In Russian, coincidentally, urki are gangsters.
Sauron's rise to power is broadly analogous to Putin's. Sauron, at one point, retreated into hiding after suffering a setback -- and then gradually returned to his old ways, gaining sinister power over the realm:
Now of old the name of that forest was Greenwood the Great, and its wide halls and aisles were the haunt of many beasts and of birds of bright song; and there was the realm of King Thranduil under the oak and the beech. But after many years, when well nigh a third of that age of the world had passed, a darkness crept slowly through the wood from the southward, and fear walked there in shadowy glades; fell beasts came hunting, and cruel and evil creatures laid there their snares.
Putin, of course, was a KGB agent until the Soviet Union fell, then a quiet official at the St. Petersburg mayor's office. His path to power was stealthy, and Russia's descent into authoritarianism, which started about a third of the way into the Putin era, was akin to Greenwood's creeping metamorphosis into Mirkwood.
I wasn't the first to draw this kind of broad analogy. A Swedish translator of the Tolkien saga, Ake Ohlmark, suggested in 1961 that Sauron was a fantasy version of Josef Stalin, a leader whose legacy Putin treats with a measure of respect. The suggestion drove Tolkien to pen an outraged letter to his publishers, Allen & Unwin:
I utterly repudiate any such 'reading', which angers me. The situation was conceived long before the Russian revolution. Such allegory is entirely foreign to my thought. The placing of Mordor in the east was due to simple narrative and geographical necessity, within my 'mythology'. The original stronghold of Evil was (as traditionally) in the North; but as that had been destroyed, and was indeed under the sea, there had to be a new stronghold, far removed from the Valar, the Elves, and the sea-power of Númenor.
Reading any political analogy into the Tolkien mythology, then, would have been against the author's express wishes. Still, I suspect the designers of Svechenie of committing the same heresy as we did in Kiev. It's not hard to imagine them chuckling at the thought of Sauron's fiery eye pulsating over downtown Moscow.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious that it would never come to pass. First the Russian Orthodox Church voiced strong objections. "One could try to turn this into a joke, say this is just fun and games," church spokesman Father Vsevolod Chaplin told state-owned TASS news agency. "The rise of an evil symbol above the city -- what is it? A sign of victory? Is that an occupation banner raised over the captured residents?"
Then, the Moscow city government stepped in, saying it had not given permission to install the eye and that it would be dismantled as unsanctioned advertising.
In the face of such opposition, Sveсhenie had little choice but to cave. "Unfortunately, we have to stop the Sauron's Eye project," the firm wrote on its Facebook page. "We did not expect our fan action... would cause such a public reaction. The project had no religious of political undertones."
So Moscow is not getting a tower with a fiery eye on top. That's OK: I've always thought the city's TV tower at Ostankino already resembled an Eye of Sauron at sunset. If anyone from the Shire comes bearing a ring to destroy the evil lord, they might consider using it as a guide.
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