A three-horse sleigh

Image from discover-horse-carriage-driving.com

Image from discover-horse-carriage-driving.com

Were they allowed Christmas under Josef Stalin?

Not according to Aloysia, who grew up in Lithuania when it was part of the USSR. Vladimir Lenin, she said, eliminated Christmas.

Later the Christmas tree was outlawed by Stalin. Though when the great dark Russian winter bowed down the shoulders of the workers, even he relented, and declared New Year a holiday with a tree and lights, and an old figure called Grandfather Frost, who blew in from Siberia with presents for the children.

It was AntiChristmas: state intervention into folklore on a towering scale.

So what Sergei Prokofiev wrote about, when he composed the fourth movement of his film score Lieutenant Kijé,was more of a winter sleigh ride.

I know he was a child of the USSR. I know Peter, he of the wolf, was a pioneer, one of Stalin’s red-neckerchiefed zealous child-communists. I know that Lieutenant Kijé was an impish piece of fun poked at Imperialist Russia.

But his music. It takes you for that sleigh ride. It sends the pulse racing with all the fire of a shot of Russian vodka, and sits you in a sleigh in the midst of  the deep powdery snow of a dark forest, with three horses striking out ahead of you, the bells on their harnesses jingling, their flanks steaming in the sub-zero temperatures.

The music comes from a film score: a cheeky film about an administrative error which creates a non-existent lieutenant in the Tsar’s army. And when the error is assigned jobs to do, the palace staff are so aghast at the error, they oblige. And the Tsar is so impressed by his productiveness that he insists his lieutenant get married, and a fake marriage must be arranged. And then there’s the sleigh ride.


Troika refers to the three horses which pull the sleigh. I have always thought that a strange number, three abreast, requiring formidable team work by the horses. What is one is stronger, does that make them all more uncomfortable, flying through the snow? What if you are the weakest horse, what then?

With predictable Russian theatre the word crept onto the political platform of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

When the man who eliminated Christmas suffered a terrible stroke, three men stood up to rule the Union collectively. Known as a troika, the three horses pulling this monumental sleigh were Lev Kamenev. Grigory Zinoviev: and Josef Stalin.

Three guesses what happened to two of the horses before very long.

There were other troikas: for a few short months on Stalin’s death in 1953, and more successfully from 1964 to 1977, when Brezhnev was in the ascendancy.

But the last troika I shall address is not named as such. It has no sleigh bells, though I can imagine there were a few racing pulses at the time.

When Lenin died, his coffin was carried in dour Russian state from the Paveletsky Rail Terminal to the Labour Temple.


Image via Wikipedia

At the front, there were three men. This troika carried the front part of the coffin of the man who eliminated Christmas.

To your left side, Lev Kamenev, member of the first troika alongside Stalin, executed in 1936 after a show trial. To the other, Timofei Sapronov: Russian revolutionary and die-hard Bolshevik. He was imprisoned by Stalin in 1932, murdered at a notorious prison in 1939. And leading this grim troika: Felix Dzerzhinsky. He went on to develop the prototype for the Russian Secret Police. His methods included torture and thousands of shootings without trial.

He was dead, of heart failure, by August 1926.

A grim troika, and by no means an official one.

The concept of the three horses is embedded in the Russian psyche; the source of a thousand stories.

But for now, lets turn away from them, and towards Sergei’s joyful ride in the crisp winter’s snow.


27 thoughts on “A three-horse sleigh

  1. In an irreverent note, I do think Mr. Sapronov is it, to the right and slightly behind Dzerzhinsky, looks like Brad Pitt. The high-collared coat, the hat or hair standing straight up, mustache, and the Brad Pitt facial expression.

  2. They say bad news comes in threes. It certainly did with these guys. The music is cheerful. That’s surprising because I always think of Russian music as gloomy, Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead,” for example. (A song I loved to play when I was a teen. Then, after I hit the bottom of musical depression, I’d play something cheerful and uplifting.)

    1. Wonderful teenage music, Judy 😀 I am obsessed with Russian music: and whilst there is some seriously dark stuff it has its lighter moments. Rimsky Korsakov’s theme from Scheherezade, for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMKTaLaYBB8 -a sailor’s dream, mysterious and beckoning one to travel; or the theme from Brief Encounter, by Rachmaninov?

      Of course, like you, there are times when the dark does very nicely I have my stash of Russian stuff. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring- the sacrificing of a virgin on the Steppes – fits the bill nicely…

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