After the 1991 coup attempt in the Soviet Union failed, Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev arrived back in Moscow in the wee hours of August 21. That night or the night after, it was reported on US news that the Gorbachevs attended the "historically significant" Alexander Borodin opera Prince Igor.

Now, this could have merely been an attempt to show a return to normalcy (it wasn't; the Soviet Union was effectively dead within a week). But given the extreme scripting of everything in the Soviet Union, and in light of the "historically significant" remark, was there any significance to the opera being Prince Igor specifically?

My research has shown me precisely bupkus. I'm afraid the only evidence I can find for this is my recollection of the news reported at the time.

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    Perhaps the answer is as simple as: "That was the opera being performed that month." To avoid being closed as trivial and primarily opinion based, please provide evidence that there wee other operatic choices of comparable quality available. Jul 9, 2018 at 2:39
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    @PeterGeerkens I'll be happy to include that information if you can demonstrate that such information survived. Until then, I'm going to have to rely on the fact that US television news reported the name of a specific opera. They could have just reported "the Gorbachevs attended the opera..." Most TV viewers can't tell Prince Igor from The Pirates of Penzance.
    – Spencer
    Jul 9, 2018 at 3:10
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    Who called the opera "historically significant"? Jul 9, 2018 at 4:18
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    That said, if nothing else on the internet remembers this, are you sure you got the right opera and quote? How?
    – lly
    Jul 11, 2018 at 17:06

1 Answer 1


First off Moscow has many fine Opera houses to choose from. Bolshoi, State Kremlin Palace, Helicon Opera Theatre, Moscow Operetta Theatre, Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Center, Novaya Opera Theatre(founded 1991) and Moscow Chamber Opera Theatre.

Why did Gorbachev go to see “Prince Igor” after the August 1991 coup attempt?

I don't know if historic is the right word. The Opera dates from the late 1800's and is based on the 12th-century work of literature about the campaign of Prince Igor of Kiev. (Raisa Gorbacheva was an ethnic Ukranian). More like the literary offerings from antiquity of King Arthur rather than actual history. However the opera is nationalistic and patriotic. It is also apropos.

The opera tells the story of an intrepid heroic ruler, Prince Igor who goes to war to defend his boarders from a powerful foreign invader. Igor's chances of victory are slim but he goes anyway because it's the "honorable" thing to do. His army is annihilated, he and his son are captured by his enemies. Meanwhile back in his capital his brother in law who was a refugee, whom Igor took in; Prince Galitsky is taking advantage of the ruler Igor's absence. He is molesting women, and threatening his sister, Igor's wife. Prince Galitsky is portrayed as a selfish shallow character only interested in molesting women, drinking and pursuing his own pleasure. A man who betrays his benefactor and changes his character when his brother-in-law is away. Ultimately Galitsky in the absence of Igor, organizes a coup, paying his supporters with a barrel of vodka each. Meanwhile Igor earns the respect of his captor who proclaims Igor his honored guest not his captive nor even his enemy. He offers Igor his freedom but Igor refuses again it is not honorable, Igor will not be indebted to his enemy. His enemy laments that if they were friends they could conquer all of Russia. Igor then escapes from captivity alone, returns to Novgorod-Seversk and the Play ends with the citizens of the capital rejoicing on the return of their king, denouncing the usurper Prince Galitsky as Igor rides into the city.

I would say the Gorbachevs probably chose this play specifically both to frame Gorbachev in the heroic cloth of Prince Igor, and his antagonists who had placed him under house arrest in the incompetent and self-interested garb of Prince Galitsky.

I would also say that this historic story is one Raisa Gorbachev was very familiar with. Five years prior to the coupe attempt Raisa gifted a book on the story of Prince Igor to a museum at an Icelandic summit with Reagan.


The more academic and esoteric the subject, the more animated she (Raisa Gorbachev) became. Looking at a 12th-century manuscript of Icelandic sagas at the Arnamagnaean Institute, she said: ''I conclude from these manuscripts that there are deep roots in the relationship between Iceland and Russia through history and our generation should promote these traditions. Yes?''

She was always ready to ask or tell more. When she gave the museum a gift of a book about Prince Igor, an Icelandic reporter asked if it was the same Prince Igor as the character in the opera of the same name, because it was the reporter's favorite.

Mrs. Gorbachev stopped her tour to give the woman a detailed account of the plot of the opera, based on the 12th-century work of literature about the campaign of Prince Igor of Kiev.


  • I like this. We'll let it soak a day or so and see if there's more activity. I bought a copy of Nabokov's translation but it only arrived recently.
    – Spencer
    Jul 31, 2018 at 21:55

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