Friday, 22 September 2006

In the ranks that were led by the Tsar

Only those who know the difference between Ruy Lopez and Jennifer will be following closely the news from Kalmykia this week. In Elista, a small town in this self-governing republic, Veselin Topalov and Vladimir Kramnik, the title holders of international chess's two rival federations, are fighting a series of matches in the World Chess Championships.

The inhabitants of Kalmykia are called Kalmyks, or Kalmuks. Finding out about them throws an interesting light on the story, for many years celebrated in song, which describes quite a different sort of battle: I had always thought of it as an epic fight between representatives of two different civilisations, the Western and the Eastern, or if you like the Christian and the Islamic, which ended in the death of both.

But this was clearly not the case: there is no doubt about Abdul the Bul-Bul Emir’s appearance and background, and I had imagined his opponent as being lean, dark, thin-moustached or possibly looking like this, a high-ranking officer in the Preobajensky Guard:

As Abdul’s long knife was extracting the life
In fact, he was shouting “Huzzah!”
He felt himself struck by that wily Kalmuk
Count Ivan Skivinsky Skivar

The Kalmuks are of Mongol stock, either Buddhist or Muslim, so Ivan probably looked like this.

Nevertheless, country boy or not, Ivan is referred to as “this bold Russian”, so he must have spent much of his life in Moscow and acquired sophisticated skills there:
He could imitate Irving, play Euchre and Pool
And strum on the Spanish guitar
In fact quite the cream of the Muscovite team
Was Ivan Skivinsky Skivar.

and after his death:
There’s a Muscovite maiden her lone vigil keeps
‘Neath the light of a pale Polar star
And the name that she whispers so oft as she weeps
Is Ivan Skivinsky Skivar.

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