A visit to Russian “Larp-poem 1905” to do living history and dream of changing the past
Have you heard about the Russian revolution of 1905? Don’t be embarrassed if you haven’t, it’s not that well known, not even Russians talk much about it. Yet, it was an interesting and decisive time in Russian history and, as it turned out, a great theme for a larp. A larp with an impressive scale and ambition, a cavalcade of beautiful costumes, and highly complex mechanics.
The event was called “Игра-поэма 1905“, translated to ”Larp-poem 1905”, and was set up by a group that has done some of the world’s biggest larps. It is also one of few Russian groups with the capacity to invite foreign participants. We ended up being two Scandinavians at the game. Erik played Finnish-Swedish nationalist Konni Zilliacus, a historical character who was active in politics at this time and who has been described as a “Monseigneur cowboy”. Frida took the shape of Anja Sjö, a journalist with communist sympathies. They were in Saint Petersburg to support Russian revolutionaries, undercover as a newspaper tycoon and a cultural reporter.
Life the Saint Petersburg Way
It was astounding to see at what rate the old Soviet era children’s camp, in the woods south of Moscow, was turned into a larp version of Saint Petersburg. There were lots of restaurants, bars, cafés, a casino, opium joints, hairdressers, hat makers, an opera/ballet house, an amateur theatre, photographers, telegraph and post station, and several newspapers. The hundred-headed game master (GM) team, together with the five hundred participants, managed to raise most of it in a day. It was a town where you could get a hair-do and a new hat, eat in restaurants, have tea in a café, see a theatre play in the evening, and much else – all for in-game money.
Not only did these options exist, but many were of remarkable quality. The restaurants and cafés were serving good food, cake and tea most of the day. Each newspaper was told to print two daily issues, which they did, apparently they had more than enough of material. The telegraph station gave the option to send letters and telegraphs to other players as well as to the GMs. From the station some twenty telephone lines spread out, leading to houses all over town. The players could thereby communicate over the phone, through an old fashioned switchboard in the telegraph station, operated by a person constantly on duty.
Perhaps the most impressive was the “Mariinsky theatre”. It had new ballets and operas each night, which were one to two hours long. The quality of these were almost as you would expect when going to a real opera house. It was way, way beyond any acts we’ve seen before at larps. The singers and dancers were professional or semi-professional, but had not all met before the game. They created the four evening shows in a week, starting with rehearsals on Monday and did the final act on Saturday. The music was playback but most of the singing, and of course the dancing, were original acts.
The game had a very well working economy. The fact that there were so many things to spend in-game money on meant that all players had good reasons to acquire and hold on to money. The bills and all kinds of paperwork – there was huge amounts of paperwork – were good looking. For one thing, everybody had their own passport, and you better hold on to it. After the first larp day there started to be inflation, a planned design feature from the GMs. While at first we hadn’t cared much about costs, when the price of restaurant food went up three-fold we were forced to think more economical.
The producers had successfully created a strict hierarchical system with large gaps in income; rich people had thousands or roubles while poor workers were dealing with kopek coins. The rich people who had property would receive a daily income, while workers were given a petty salary. Although anyone could enter any district, workers were in most cases effectively excluded from play with the higher classes. It seems a focus of the game was the experience of the unjust class system. Having an excluding game design can in some cases be problematic for the players that are excluded, but less so in this game, because with 500 participants you have more than enough play within your own ranks.
So how do you build a city in a matter of a few days? One thing is certain, it cannot be done with the 360 degree “what you see is what you get” realism of Nordic games. At larp-poem 1905, small wood buildings became pompous embassies, a school theatre was turned into an opera house and tent structures were palaces. The popular method of creating the transformation was to put a giant plastic tarp in front of a building or tent, with a photo-realistic image of the building it resembled. For example, the Winter Palace had a photo banner of the actual palace outside it. Although superficial, it did create a good game space where one could get the feeling of walking around in a city rather than camp grounds. If anyone finds it laughable, consider the fact that Nordic larpers use tape on the floor of classrooms for the same purpose. Fact is, the printed banner technique could be seen in other places in Russia, even in central Moscow, where giant tarps with imagery were put in front of buildings under construction to hide the building platforms.
If one could get used to the symbolic buildings there were, however, other aspects of the physical environment that were more difficult to understand. It was seemingly a haphazard which things that were put a great effort to make in-game and which things that no-one cared to bother with. While most players had put a tremendous effort into their costumes and personal gear, there were plenty of non-character GMs walking around, in plain sight, wearing very off-game clothes. One even had a big toy moose on his shoulder. There were other GMs who had put on in-game clothes so it apparently depended on personal preference, and which part of the huge Russian larp culture that they came from. Similarly, there could be a gathering of people sitting around a café table with wonderful cutlery, fine cakes and very authentic documents on, but in the middle would be modern soft drink bottles and candy wrapped in plastic. While some restaurant served their food and drink on fine china, others had single-use plastic for the purpose.
Next Stop: Far East
A particular aspect of the larp was that it spanned a much greater time and space in the fiction than in reality. The in-game town symbolised all of Saint Petersburg. It was divided into different districts, separated by rivers that were manifested by bright blue or white plastic tarps. The only way to pass between the districts was over wooden “bridges”. These would be drawn at some instances, some predicable and others less so, hence effectively preventing characters to get to other districts. The fact that one could get stranded in a district created openings for social game play, such as when two dancers from the ballet sat in our house for an hour or two in the middle of the night, sharing a drink and waiting to get home to their sleeping quarters.
Russia was at this time in war with Japan, a conflict that took place in Manchuria in the Far East. It was possible to go there as well, by taking the Trans-Siberian railway. The producers had actually built a train car out of wood, painted it nicely and added speakers with sounds to give an atmosphere. The train only left three times a day in each direction, so a trip to Manchuria took most of the day. We decided we wanted to try a trip to Manchuria, so Konni and Anja embarked the train as war reporters. After thirty minutes of mingling in the economy class, we arrived to the Far East. The exit was on the other side of the train car. Our whole group was led past the parking lot and into the forest. There we got to a separate camp, built with tents and plastic tarps. It was mainly a military camp but also had a large field hospital and “oriental cafés” with red rice paper lanterns to add an exotic atmosphere.
The war in Manchuria was played out at a battle front of sand bags close to the camp, where volunteers from the GM team playing “Japanese troops” would regularly show up for a fight. Konni jumped into the action at one of the battles and was shot in the arm. They had an interesting system at the game where the weapons used, which were real or well-looking replicas, were armed and shot soft felt bullets. It didn’t hurt to get shot, but it was noticeable.
One thing that was completely new for us Nordic players was the constant fast-tracking of time. In the larp, one day for the player was three months in-game. Not by using act breaks, but by the clock running constantly during game time. In this way, politics could speed forward and it was possible to cover a larger range of events. It made some things more logic, like the fact that it took a months to go to Manchuria and back, while other aspects were confounding. When we were told something like “I’ll have your hat ready for tomorrow” they usually meant the next day for us as players, not for our characters.
Five Is a Crowd
Russian larps work a lot with symbolism and larp-poem 1905 was not an exception. Not only in the physical environment, like the tarp resembling canals, but also in the game play. Most of it was rule-bound. For instance, if five or more players gathered in a public place, carrying placards and handing out flyers, they were counted as a revolution. That would activate other rules, like that it was possible to kill other characters more easily. The larp never got to a “revolutionary situation”, however, because the police were very effective in stopping the opposition from mobilizing.
We saw some very fine examples of symbolism one night, when Anja and Konni were led to an opium joint by the actors from the Mariinsky theatre. They served the drug as beautiful origami art, on which instructions could be read when it was unfolded. The instructions were very precise: 10 minutes of hallucinations and then 30 minutes of joyfulness. There was also a rule that anyone who took three or more doses of opium on the larp became an addict. Luckily, for our characters, we stayed on the safe side of that limit.
Konni and Anja risked their life and health in other ways, by engaging with the opposition. Anja participated in worker’s gatherings and established contacts with the leaders of worker’s movements. They were connected with Konni, who had a printing press in Stockholm. Letters were sent and some hours later – a few weeks in-game time – a GM arrived with fresh propaganda material. Konni had just delivered it to the distributors, when the police stormed in to catch them. Konni got away on the closest possible call, but the police were on his tail. After evasive manoeuvres, including hiding in the German embassy to avoid Russian law, the gendarmes caught him. He was locked into a prison cell in one of the houses, together with other political prisoners. The window was open and they could just climb out, but the rules would not allow it, because in-game they were on a high floor. The only way to get out was if someone on the outside found a ladder and helped them escape. Anja actually managed to do that, with the help from some students, but when they came to save Konni he had been taken to interrogation and it was too late.
The symbolism, together with the possibility to extent time and space, opened a lot of possibilities. It was possible to create a full, functional city and get a good coverage of a large and complex historical event. However, it also created some ambiguity. For one thing, the shooting in Manchuria could be heard in St Petersburg, which was a bit confusing, particularly since shooting was also possible within the parameters of the city. We could occasionally see people asking the GMs questions like “that thing over there, can my character see it?” The many rules required much GM intervention. Still, it was beautiful to see the intricate mechanics that were created for the game. There were so many details. For one example, if someone interrupted the workers in the factories, who were making the felt bullets, or stopped an arms shipment with the train, then the soldiers at the front would have nothing to shoot with and have to fight hand-to-hand in the battles.
Happily Lost in Translation
How was it then to play with Russian larpers? One thing is certain, they take larping very seriously. There is apparently much effort put into the role creation. Many of those we interviewed or talked with had well developed characters, where we could dig deep with questions and keep on discovering interesting views and traits. There was also a great focus on playing one’s function. A telegrapher worked hard to send and deliver telegraphs, the police really tried to stop political radicals and terrorists, and the priests put much effort into doing the rituals right. One restaurant owner who served us in his expensive establishment on the English embankment was flawless in clothes, manner and English. We noticed our neighbours, the German ambassadors, sitting up a full night just to sort out their paper work. The clockwork of the game was ticking well.
The dedication that players put into their functions gave many good moments of play. Being checked by police forces before and during train journeys meant some really intense experiences. When Konni got injured in Manchuria, there was a long sequence in the field hospital that was probably the best example of realistic medical play we have ever experienced. The operating scene in itself was some 20-30 minutes long and involved a surgeon and two nurses in intense, immersive play with a lot of different tools and procedures. There was also much energy put into enacting scenes like trials, university classes, and of course the theatre plays.
What we saw less of was emotional play. There were quite few who took the opportunity to play out their grief of losing a husband or friend, their fear of going to the front, anger towards unjust laws, strong friendship between friends, passionate new-found love, and so on. One GM told us that many view a high degree of acting out as “fake”. It appears that subtle or spontaneous reactions are better received. It was apparent that what many wanted with their larping was to do a good re-creation of the time, their character and the events, and preferably make their character succeed in what he or she was doing. We could see players laughing while demonstrating or lying wounded in the hospital. One larper told us that “we just want to larp to have fun“. That said, the Russian larp scene is huge and there are many different larp styles.
Over the board, there seemed to be no great emphasis on staying in character. Players frequently broke game play to discuss something with GMs or one another. In the evenings, when people gathered for some joyful drinking and to sing Russian folk songs, staying in-game was not always that stringent. Many also went off-character to ask us how we were experiencing the game, as it is uncommon to see non-Russian speaking players at Russian larps. They could also stop to explain who their historical character was – a very kind gesture, but a bit difficult to incorporate with the immersive role play that we are used to. In these cases, the language was a saviour. Much of the off-game talk passed us by completely, simply because we did not understand what people were saying.
The fact that we were playing on a foreign language was both difficult and very rewarding. Since many players were not that fluent in English, we had to have our two interpreters around in most cases. One situation where it worked out very well was in the medic scene, since the surgeon and the nurses could bullshit anything and it would seem very realistic, only because they were talking in a credible tone. Talking through an interpreter, when you really don’t know what the other person is saying, creates some dynamics that were fun to investigate. The fact that the interpreter can withhold some information can do lots for the game play; not passing on off-game things is just one of the benefits. It would have been a great situation to play out a romantic relationship, with the interpreter in between, so we hope to do that next time. What works less well with the foreign language is to view theatres and public announcements, to interact socially with large groups and to eavesdrop. It would have been almost impossible to understand what was going on and interact with the Russians without our interpreters.
The Dream of Unity
The larp ended with a scene where a parliament was elected, one person representing each of the classes in society. The emperor voluntarily gave up some of his powers, for the benefit of his people and to avoid revolution. One member of the game master crew described this as a symbolic ending, where the characters played out what they – or the players – wished had happened. Like HC Andersen’s “The little match girl”, the players light a match together and, for a fleeting moment, saw their dream of a happy, inclusive nation being born.
The main game master declared that the game was a way to urge people to learn from history and not repeat stupid mistakes over and over. That we should instead understand each other, think about things carefully before we spring into action, and then move forward – because getting stuck in history is not a good option.
How did it end for Konni and Anja? They did not spark the revolution as they had hoped. Konni was still in prison when the final gathering was held. We know that, IRL, he was caught and deported from Russia in 1903. It’s reasonable to think that he did not fare much better in our alternative history. And Anja? We think she found her way back to Sweden and took an important place in Konni’s newspaper, to take a stance for worker’s rights and the liberation of the Finns. She did get the communist revolution that she wanted, in 1917. The rest is history.
Credits: Main designers and producers were larp organizing group “Stairway to Heaven” led by Vladimir “Nuci” Molodych.
Our personal thanks to Vladislav Rozhkov with family, who helped us get to the larp, with gear and housing, and Olga Vorobyeva who helped us with translations, interpretation and knowledge about the Russian larp scene.
Date: July 29 – August 2, 2015
Location: Former children camp, near Stupino, south of Moscow, Russia
Length: 3 days (active game time)
Players: About 500
Cover photo: Demonstration in front of the royal palace (play, Frida Aronsson). Other photos by Erik Pihl and Frida Aronsson.