The historian Orlando Figes, in both A People’s Tragedy and Natasha’s Dance, mentions a mythical land which he describes in the former book thus:

And there were equally fabulous tales of a ‘Kingdom of Opona’, somewhere on the edge of the flat earth, where the peasants lived happily, undisturbed by gentry or state. Groups of peasants even set out on expeditions in the far north in the hope of finding this arcadia.

He sources this to Gorky, M., ‘On the Russian Peasantry’, in R.E.F. Smith (ed.), The Russian Peasantry 1920 and 1984, London, 1977, and thanks to the magic of Google Books I can actually see the page where Gorky talks about this; Figes has basically reworded his account in the first sentence, but Gorky says nothing about expeditions. The other source cited is Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution, but Amazon’s “Search inside” feature allows me to discover that there is no reference to “Opona” in the book. Stites does talk about an expedition to find a similar utopia, “Belovode” [Беловодье] (“the Kingdom of the White Waters”) in the late 19th century, and mentions “similar arcadias… the City of Ignat, the Land of the River Darya, Nutland, and Kitezh.” So the trail peters out with Gorky’s 1922 book on the peasantry, to which I can find no other reference. I’ve checked the online Russian editions without success; you’d think it would be on this page if it started with О ‘about, on’ in Russian, and you’d think it would be here or here if it was published in 1922. Anyway, I’m fascinated by mythical places like this, I’d like to know more about “Opona” (there’s a word opona ‘covering, curtain’ in Russian, which may or may not be relevant), and if anyone knows more (about Opona or about Ignat, Darya, or Nutland), please share.


  1. Dahl says Belovod’e meant simply “free, unoccupied” land in the Tomsk dialect. See this page on an Old Believer site (pretty interesting in itself — the life, history and creed of бегуны) — it mentions Опоньское царство, which is apparently Japan. Search for опоньская + беловодье with, and you’ll get 187 pages. For instance, this bit from Merezhkovsky’s Peter and Alexei (i.e., Peter the Great and his son):
    “The starets invited Tikhon to come with him to some unknown Opon’ Kingdom on the seventy islands of White Water, where, in 179 churches of the Assyrian language (the starets maintained), the old faith was preserved inviolably; that kingdom was beyond Gog and Magog, at the very edge of the word, where the sun rises from. “God willing, in ten years we’ll make it on foot,” the starets consoled Tikhon.”
    The starets was also “from the beguny community,” and Opon’ look suspiciously like Japan, too.
    (Replace боом with boom in the first link about — the robot won’t let the link through.)

  2. Off topic, but I think you will love this:
    A highly interest “test of Russianness” based on shared cultural references: mainly quotes from literary classics, films, songs etc. It would be highly interesting to compare the view of national cultural identity implicit in this test with those expressed in citizenship tests e.g. in the US. Perhaps you or other readers will find the time to comment on this?

  3. Great test, Mischa — I now know I am an истинный совок though I must admit I barely made levels 3 and 4. The test is heavily biased towards the late Soviet and post-Soviet periods so we could call it a test of Sovietness or “extended modern Russianness.” I suppose that millions of 30+ citizens of former Soviet republics other than Russia would pass, too. As for the teenagers, I rather doubt they’d make it.
    If anybody’s interested, just leave the spaces blank in the test and see what explanations pop up.

  4. Alexei: Thanks, that’s a huge help! Опоньское царство: that’s why I couldn’t google it. I was trying Опона, and of course that didn’t do much good, especially since there’s a police branch called Опон.

  5. Have you read Pleij’s Dreaming of Cockaigne, which discusses a similar phenomenon among the Western European peasantry?
    “Grounded in peasant culture, Cockaigne was never taken seriously by medieval men and women but offered a way to cope with immediate concerns of famine and backbreaking work, as well as more monumental fears about heaven and the New World recently opened up by European adventurers.”

  6. No, I haven’t; thanks for the tip.

  7. The police group is called ОМОН

  8. Must be where they speak Toki Pona.

  9. I thought Cockaigne was more of a land of plenty in quite an earthy way — “eat, drink, man, woman,” “Ego sum abbas Cucaniensis
    et consilium meum est cum bibulis” — while the land of White Water, Alatyr’, the Opon’ kingdom and such were associated with righteousness and freedom. Perhaps the land of Prester John and legends of the Holy Grail would be better parallels?

  10. Yes, I agree about the difference between the Western fantasy lands and the Russian versions. I think Prester John and the grail are even less similar, though. Let’s face it, as brutal as Western European landowners could be, European peasants simply didn’t experience the slavelike situation of the Russian peasant, so naturally their fantasies would be different.

  11. Tat: I know about ОМОН, but I kept getting Google hits like “Войска ОПОН предприняли еще одно восстание в марте 1995 года…” Maybe they were just misprints.

  12. LH, we should be comparing, say, the 13th century in Germany and France, with the 17th century in Russia — I’m sure the difference in the condition of the serfs won’t be that drastic.
    Moreover, why should we assume that the legend of Belovod’e, popular with Old Believers and later with Russian peasants in general, originated in the peasant class? I am almost certain the Russian authors — or, rather, free-translators — of those legends belonged to the educated classes, such as the lesser nobility or the clerks (дьяки, подьячие) or the servicemen (стрельцы), or, if of peasant birth, were reared and educated in monasteries. Their might well be familiar with various medieval Western and Greek texts in Russian, Polish or Greek versions. For one, A Tale of the Indian Kingdom made it to Russian lands in the 13th century — the India of that tale was ruled by Presbyter John. Small wonder if Belovod’e turns out a Russian extension of the same line.
    Sure enough, the “righteous land” meme filtered down to the peasantry over time — all the way to the sad story Luka tells in Gorky’s “На дне”.

  13. ОПОН = Отряд полиции особого назначения, e.g. in Kazakhstan (not in Russia).

  14. Aw, so now they call it “police”!
    How funny. Хоть горшком…

  15. the India of that tale was ruled by Presbyter John. and after Eco’ Baudolino we all know who was the author of that.

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