The news from Ukraine this week (cease-fire aside) was not good. Last Sunday night, a chemical factory in Donetsk exploded. Meanwhile, German intelligence claims the real casualty figures for the nearly yearlong conflict may be up to ten times the 5,000 deaths claimed by the Ukrainians. On Monday of this week, Angela Merkel and President Obama met at the White House to coordinate the Western response to the widening crisis. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Sen. John McCain played both political chicken and cowboy by calling for increased arms sales to Kiev, despite German insistence that this will only serve to inflame the conflict. In Russia, Vladimir Putin is faced with collapsing oil prices, putting more pressure on him to ramp up the neo-Czarist, imperialist rhetoric as a distraction from this fact. The situation is messy, dangerous, escalating rapidly and frankly scary when one considers how much nuclear material went missing after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This is not the first time, however, that the political fortunes of Eastern Europe’s breadbasket have captured the world’s attention. Three hundred years ago, Ukraine was the site of one of the most significant “turning-point” battles of modern European history. On July 8, 1709, at the Battle of Poltava during the Great Northern War, the army of Peter the Great crushed the combined forces of the Ukraine and the “Swedish Meteor,” Charles XII. From that moment on, Russia would be the major player in the region (as it is to this day). For the Ukraine, its dream of freeing itself from Moscow’s domination would wait until the 1990s and the breakup of the Communist Bloc.
The Ukrainian army at the Battle of Poltava was commanded by Ivan Mazepa, a hetman — an official Cossack title within the Czarist system, equal to Governor General. As with Kiev’s overtures to NATO, Mazepa allied himself with a Western power, Sweden, to counterbalance the ambitions of a Russian autocrat. The doomed revolt against Peter led directly to Mazepa’s death and his removal from all official records of the Russian empire and excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church, a decree that remains in force to this day. To Ukrainian nationalists, Mazepa is a hero; his image can be found on the 10-hryvinia currency note presently in circulation. Whether locals view him as a betrayer or a patriot reveals much about their political position in the present crisis.
Despite Russia’s efforts to erase Mazepa from memory, his story acquired a curious afterlife in European cultural practice. In 1731, Voltaire published his History of Charles XII, in which he used the story of the Battle of Poltava to illustrate the ironic reversals that categorize the lives of all rulers. In 1809, Lord Byron seized on Voltaire’s description of the battle’s aftermath as the framing device for his epic poem Mazeppa (changing the spelling of his hero’s name in the process). Byron imagined Charles and Mazeppa resting during retreat, with Mazeppa bolstering the king’s spirits by relating the story of how he survived the impossible ordeal of being tied naked to the back of horse and sent out into the wilderness. Somehow, miraculously, the horse found its way back to his home country, which is why he was alive to tell the tale.
Byron’s poem was a huge hit with the Romantic movement, especially its Parisian branch. As Hubert Babinski relates in The Mazeppa Legend in European Romanticism, artists of this period transformed a “historical figure with legendary overtones into a mythic-messianic hero.” Victor Hugo and Alexander Pushkin also penned epic poems based on the story. Franz Liszt composed both a piano étude and a tone poem inspired by it, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote on opera about Mazeppa’s life. In the visual arts, painters Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix created works depicting Mazeppa’s “wild ride.” For the bohemians of the period, Mazeppa’s story was very much Into the Wild meets International Velvet.
Where there’s a market for a cultural product, someone will eventually produce a cheaper knock-off of the more rarefied stuff. Enter British theatrical hack H.M. Milner, who in 1831 premiered his melodramatic adaptation of Byron’s poem, titled Mazeppa, or The Wild Horse of Tartary. Milner replaced the tortured isolation of the Byronic hero with sword fights, Cossack dances, stage spectacle and purple prose.
Initially successful, the play fell out of favor until 1861, when an ambitious American actress of murky ethnicity — likely a mix of Irish, Spanish, black and Jewish — assumed the role in drag. Her name was Adah Isaacs Menken — a.k.a., the “Naked Lady” and the “Great Bare” — and she literally ascended to stardom in the role. At the climax of the play’s first act, supernumeraries stripped her of her costume in full view of the audience, revealing a flesh-colored tunic and tights and thereby exposing legs, arms and cleavage to public gaze. Tied to the back of a live horse, she was sent up a papier-mâché stage mountain amidst sound and light effects that simulated a storm while a full orchestra played. (My theatre company is premiering a new work about Menken’s life, called Horseplay.)
Menken’s stunt made her arguably one of the first truly international celebrities; by the turn of the century, “mazeppa” had become shorthand for any woman publicly revealing her sexualized figure. In 1959, when the musical Gypsy premiered on Broadway, Miss Mazeppa, a hard-bitten survivor of Depression-era burlesque, initiates Louise Hovick into the secrets of the successful ecdysiast by telling her:
To have no talent is not enough. What you need to have is an idea that makes your strip special.
Miss Mazeppa and her co-workers then launch into “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” the second-act showstopper that bridges the musical’s transition from respectable vaudeville to the seedy milieu of stripping — and Louise’s transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee. It also marked the final transformation of the cultural trope of Mazeppa — from historical Ukrainian prince to fictional burlesque queen.
Karl Marx famously observed that history always repeats itself — first as tragedy, then as farce. Disaster for a Ukrainian ruler led, through the process of cultural evolution, to immortalization in a Broadway musical. Talk about irony. One might go so far as to call it Ridiculous — a spirit we all desperately need as we collectively endure our own wild ride through the flames.