“Here, our only way is to withstand the onslaught of Mordor,” declared the Ukrainian Minister of Defence in early March. “The area is free of orcs,” another Ukrainian official reported some months later. Meanwhile, President Zelenskyy pleaded that Ukraine not become “a frontier between orcs and elves”.
Since the start of the Russian invasion, more than one Ukrainian official has described his nation’s struggle with reference to The Lord of the Rings.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
It is perhaps peculiar that Tolkien’s trilogy resonates in this part of the world, given its troubled publication history in the Soviet Union. The first (unsuccessful) attempt saw it rewritten as a sci-fi book, in which the ring is a scientific instrument. Subsequent attempts were marginally more successful, but still only abridged versions. A full, authorised Russian translation appeared only in 1992, after the Soviet Union had collapsed. A Ukrainian one followed in 1993.
Why was the USSR so suspicious of Tolkien? From a Western perspective, his fantasy seems innocuous. But to Soviet eyes, it seemed dangerously close to a Cold War allegory: the good, individualistic, “free peoples” of the West versus the evil, industrial totalitarianism of the East. Tolkien certainly didn’t intend his novels to be interpreted this way, famously denouncing allegory “in all its manifestations”. But as those Ukrainian officials are showing today, finding allegories in familiar material can be used to powerful effect.
Join us at our upcoming events in the UnHerd Club, or tune in live online.
And they are not the only ones. In the late Nineties, years after the Soviet Union had collapsed, a Russian palaeontologist called Kirill Yeskov self-published a book that enshrines the Soviet interpretation of The Lord of the Rings. The Last Ringbearer assumes that Tolkien’s story is indeed a Cold War allegory, but tells it from the other side. “Lord of the Rings is the historiography of the victors,” Yeskov’s narrator reminds us towards the book’s end. He offers the Kremlin’s version of events.
In the face of a looming climate catastrophe, the peaceful eastern realm of Mordor, under His Majesty Sauron VIII, harnesses modern technology to embark upon an industrial revolution, aided by its elite class of scientists, the Nazgûl. A universal literacy law is passed, and thanks to an experienced diplomatic corps and powerful intelligence apparatus, the standing army is drastically reduced.
But the “bone-headed aggressive West”, led by the war-mongering imperialist Gandalf, feels threatened by Mordor’s achievements. Gandalf concocts a “final solution to the Mordorian problem”, in collusion with the racist elves from across the Western ocean. Using the puppet Aragorn, the elves have dominated the men of Middle Earth, leaving only Mordor a free country. But then Mordor is conquered, and in its place a “bad copy” of the West is erected.
In sum: a great civilisation attempting to build a rational society based on science and technology (the Soviet Union) is met with irrational hatred from the so-called “free peoples” (the West) led by elves from across the sea (Americans). These elves conspire to destroy Mordor and divide the race of men (Europeans), who constantly push their influence eastwards (Nato expansion). It is left to heroic spies (Putin?) to save Mordor.
Yeskov’s retelling is unauthorised by the Tolkien estate and not considered a masterpiece. But it is popular with Tolkien fans — especially in Russia. The Last Ringbearer is more than just a simple Cold War allegory, however. It is also a window into the mind of the Soviet baby boomer generation (to which both Putin and Yeskov belong) — and how the end of the Cold War informs their view of international relations. The best example is the fate of the Elven ally, the nation of Umbar.
Umbar, a republic to the south of Middle Earth, used to balance relations between Mordor and the elves. But when it decided to abandon Mordor and team up with the West, disaster struck. “A fad for all things Elvish swept the Umbrian youth. The simpler ones made do with Elven music and symbols, whereas the more sophisticated were offered a comprehensive ideology” — a “concoction” of what sounds like Zen Buddhism, “anarchism” and environmentalism. Aimless Western individualism, in other words.
It gets worse. “It transpired that not sharing those views was unseemly and even dangerous, all persons who had the ill grace of expressing anything other than admiration and support for them were ostracised and persecuted.” Umbar’s folly was its naivete. The nation allowed itself to be turned into a “bad copy” of the West. It failed to notice that the elves’ interest in an alliance sprang from nothing more than cold national interest.
When the USSR collapsed and Russia, under Yeltsin, embarked on a Westernising, capitalist course, the old Soviet certainties were thrown out. A fashion for all things Western swept the nation. For the older generation, this was difficult to come to terms with. Putin’s reign has seen a revival of Soviet nostalgia and neo-Soviet aesthetics for this very reason: Russian baby boomers have a deep and residing respect for the USSR, and a suspicion of all things Western.
Yeskov’s novel subverts the incredibly simplistic Western notion of the Cold War as a struggle between good and evil, by upending Tolkien’s tale of incredibly clear-cut morality and purely unsympathetic villains. In his version of Middle Earth, ideas such as “good” and “evil” are just ideological cloaks for the pursuit of national interests; they are the invention of the victors, like Tolkien, who chronicle events. Yeskov is not suggesting that Mordor and the orcs of Lord of the Rings are the good guys; he is suggesting that there are no good guys. Incidentally, the fact that we in the West can’t seem to understand this — that we apparently parrot idealism, while acting on realism — is one of Putin’s biggest gripes.
Yeskov’s playful reinterpretation of Tolkien’s work is not, however, the result of a nefarious Russian desire to identify with Mordor, as some commentators seem to suggest, and the Cold War parallels shouldn’t be stretched beyond their limits. Like The Lord of the Rings, The Last Ringbearer was not written as a straightforward allegory. Ultimately, it is a meditation on the nature of history written by the victors, and how it feels to be on the other side.
The question that drove Yeskov’s book is: what if Tolkien’s trilogy really were a historical chronicle? “One has to note that the public’s knowledge of these events is mostly derived from the adapted Western epos, The Lord of the Rings,” Yeskov’s narrator reminds us. It would make sense to wonder if the account is an exaggerated, romantic, simplified tale.
That Yeskov’s retelling gives us some insight into Putin’s perspective on international relations is incidental rather than intentional. But it is nonetheless an important insight. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the fears and desires that drove it, and the justifications claimed by the Russian side, all bear the hallmarks of an intergenerational conflict as much as a national one. The Russian attempt to portray the war in Ukraine as a war with the US and Nato — a war defending the memory of the Soviet victory in Second World War — is an attempt, by a Soviet baby boomer, to avenge the defeat of the Cold War.
“After all, that’s what memoirs are for: to let veterans recast their losses as victories after the fact,” Yeskov’s narrator pointedly tells us at the end of The Last Ringbearer. In a sense, this is Putin’s ultimate goal in Ukraine: to recast the confrontation of East and West as a victory for the East, not the West. For Mordor to persist as its own civilisation, free of elven values. For most Ukrainians, Tolkien’s original provides a preferable framework. It’s not yet clear which history will turn out to be that of the victors.