The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades

Helena P. Schrader has just published a very important book that we encourage you to read. It is The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations, which counters common misconceptions and prevailing popular myths about the crusader states by demonstrating that religious tolerance rather than fanaticism, intellectual activity rather than warfare, and cultural exchange rather than bigotry characterized these unique societies. It is a fabulous and comprehensive history of the Latin East.

Helena Schrader holds a PhD in history from the University of Hamburg, which she earned with a ground-breaking biography of a leader of the German Resistance to Hitler. She served as an American diplomat in Europe and Africa, and since her retirement works as an independent scholar. Her areas of expertise are ancient Sparta, the Crusader States and the Second World War. She has also published six novels set in the Latin East. You can find out more at her website.

Please support Dr. Schrader’s valuable work by purchasing a copy of this unique book. To get you going, here is an excerpt.

Because of the ignorant or irresponsible misuse of the term “crusader” and “crusades” by politicians, journalists and Islamist terrorists, long-discredited theories from the last century about the crusades have been perpetuated with thoughtless references and careless comparisons. This shallow and sensationalist – not to mention intellectually lazy – commentary drowns out the voices of serious scholars. As a result, most of the public today believes that the crusades and the crusader states were characterised by bigotry, racism and brutality aimed at the oppression and destruction of the native peoples of the Near East.

Yet, the picture of the crusader states that scholars have meticulously pieced together based on contemporary chronicles, data mining and archaeology does not corroborate these popular assumptions. Instead, the historical record provides concrete evidence of Frankish tolerance, adaptability, peaceful co-existence and cooperation with the various peoples inhabiting the Middle East. For example, from the moment they arrived in Antioch, the crusaders preserved, cherished and expanded the Arab libraries they discovered. Rather than destroying mosques and synagogues, the crusaders either repurposed them or allowed them to continue to operate, preserving these architectural monuments for posterity. Furthermore, the crusaders allowed Jews, Samaritans and Muslims to build new houses of worship. They allowed these religious groups to live according to their laws and publicly celebrate their religious festivals without interference.

Likewise, from the First Crusade onwards, the Franks recognised and respected the Orthodox clergy, at times taking Orthodox priests for their confessors and consistently sponsoring the re-establishment and restoration of Orthodox churches and monasteries. As a result, Greek monasteries flourished and expanded, particularly around Jerusalem, in Antioch and Sinai.

The hospitals of one of the crusading orders, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, employed doctors of any religion. In the luxurious wards, patients of all religions were treated equally as “lords” by members of an order that viewed themselves as “serfs” of the poor.

The courts sought to ensure that anyone accused of a crime was judged by his peers following local custom rather than an alien legal code. Civil and criminal conflicts between members of different ethnic and religious groups were adjudicated in accordance with the law of the defendant.

Absent from the popular image of crusaders and the crusader states are the more than one hundred truces and the many alliances across religious borders. Likewise, the native Christians who worked as scribes, customs officials, merchants and manufacturers, both forming the administrative backbone of and contributing materially to the economic prosperity of the Holy Land have been erased from popular history by the simplistic popular picture of the crusader states. Invisible too are the Arabic and Syriac-speaking native Christian infantry and archers that made up the bulk of the Frankish armies, even though these fighting men saved the crusader states from destruction on multiple occasions.

The popular picture of the crusader states does not include the icon workshops, mass book production, or a society that rewarded knowledge of the law as assiduously as skill with the sword. Forgotten are the Muslims who sought refuge in the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the Mongol invasion of Syria and the Jews who immigrated to the Kingdom of Jerusalem because it was an oasis of tolerance in an anti-Semitic world. The historical reality of Templars hosting the Ayyubid princes in their Acre headquarters in 1244 and Frankish noblemen translating Arab poetry into French is obscured by Hollywood depictions of Templars shouting for Muslim and Jewish blood and Frankish noblemen slaughtering unarmed Muslims.

Yet, it is not only the need to correct common misconceptions that make the study of the crusader states rewarding. These kingdoms, sitting on the crossroads of civilizations, were established by newcomers from the West who were compelled to adapt rapidly to their new environment or face extinction. Not only did they adapt, but they evolved into a unique hybrid society that mixed European culture with Near Eastern traditions. This was not a matter of imitating—much less “stealing”—technology, art or ideas from more sophisticated neighbours. It was a matter of developing new and innovative products, forms and concepts. In doing so, the Franks of Outremer made significant contributions to the evolution of European society, stimulating advancement across a range of fields.

The most obvious innovations came in the field of warfare. From the adoption of surcoats to the construction of concentric castles, the confrontation between the armies of the Middle East and Western Europe led to significant military advances. The Franks pioneered Western use of mounted archers, evolved the fighting box (combined arms warfare), and in the military orders, rediscovered the value of professional and disciplined regular forces. They perfected the massed charge of heavy cavalry yet also effectively exploited light cavalry in reconnaissance and hit-and-run raids. Finally, they deployed archers behind shield walls to good effect, while Frankish crossbows represented cutting-edge technology. In his study of crusader warfare, Steve Tibble concludes that “warfare in the east was a crucible of innovation for European warfare.”

The architecture of the Franks was unique and not only regarding castles. Frankish domestic architecture combined such Western features as outward-oriented multistorey structures, high ceilings, large windows, loges and balconies with Arab and Byzantine artisanry, such as inlaid marble, glazed tiles, running fountains and intricate decoration. The result was gracious and sunlit structures that used local products such as glass windows, glazed tiles and polychrome marble. Frankish houses included fireplaces with hoods that reduced smoke accumulation (a Western feature) and sophisticated plumbing systems of cistern-fed ceramic pipes feeding into centrally-planned sewage systems (an Eastern feature).

As noted earlier, hospitals as institutions for healing the sick and injured evolved in the Holy Land in the crusader era, based on Byzantine and Arab precedents. Along with hospitals came advances in medicine and progress towards the professionalization of medical practitioners and the protection of patients from malpractice. The Frankish states provided a meeting place for physicians from various cultures, and Antioch became a centre for the study and development of medical theory.

International banking was another field significantly advanced by the Frankish presence in the Levant. The need for cash transfers over enormous distances fostered the evolution of letters of credit, cheques, currency exchange and other financial services previously unknown, at least not on such a scale.

Last but not least, the Franks contributed to constitutional law. Nowhere else in the medieval world was interest in and discussion of the concept of good governance, the rule-of-law and the monarch’s role carried to such heights of sophistication or conducted on as wide a scale as in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the mid-thirteenth century. In no other kingdom did so many noblemen of a single era study and write about the law, let alone serve as advocates in the courts. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was also exceptional for the number of men of lower social standing who gained prominence through legal expertise. The inclusion of the commons in governing assemblies was equally innovative and progressive, albeit limited. Yet most important was the advocacy and defence of key constitutional concepts such as the monarchs’ subordination to the constitution and the right to due process. In defending these principles against the authoritarianism of Frederick II, the rebels of Outremer undoubtedly influenced the English parliamentary reformer, Simon de Montfort. They deserve credit for their steadfast opposition to tyranny.

The Frankish states of the Levant were not paradise. Even if not perpetually on the brink of collapse, they were vulnerable. They were subject to frequent small-scale attacks, periodic invasions and were ultimately destroyed by warfare. In the thirteenth century, they also suffered from absentee monarchs, political intrigue, and factional infighting. Yet, they were neither fragile constructs doomed to failure nor genocidal, apartheid regimes established by barbarians to oppress enlightened natives.

The evidence is overwhelming—preserved in stone and meticulously documented by Arab, Greek, Syrian and Jewish sources no less than in the Latin and French chronicles: The crusader states in the Levant were the home to a rare flourishing of international trade, intellectual and technological exchange, innovation, hybrid art forms and unique architecture, advances in health care and evolution of the constitutional principles of the rule-of-law. They brought forth a vivid, multicultural society in which tolerance outweighed bigotry. As such, the crusader states’ contribution to the evolution of European culture deserves more attention and appreciation as we struggle to integrate diverse cultures in our own time.

Featured: Knight, Westminster Psalter (BL Royal MS 2 A xxii f. 220); 13th century.

How the West Brought War to Ukraine

We are so very pleased to bring you an excerpt from a very crucial book, How the West Brought War to Ukraine, by Benjamin Abelow. To orient readers, we begin by quoting the one-paragraph blurb from the back cover:

According to the Western narrative, Vladimir Putin is an insatiable, Hitler-like expansionist who invaded Ukraine as an unprovoked land grab. That story is incorrect. In reality, the United States and NATO bear significant responsibility for the Ukraine crisis. Through a series of misguided policies, Washington and its European allies placed Russia in an untenable situation for which war seemed, to Mr. Putin and his military staff, the only workable solution. This book lays out the relevant history and explains how the West needlessly created conflict and now labors under an existential threat of its own making.

The book is endorsed by many experts. For example, in the words John J. Mearsheimer: “For anyone interested in understanding the true causes of the disaster in Ukraine, How the West Brought War to Ukraine is required reading.”

Please support the valuable work of Benjamin Abelow and purchase a copy of this book, and spread the word. What follows, copied by permission, is the entire Chapter Seven from this short and readable eight-chapter book.

[Read our review]

How Overly Pessimistic Narratives Become Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

The story of an evil, irrational, intrinsically expansionist Russia with a paranoid leader at its helm, opposed by a virtuous United States and Europe, is a confused and strange confabulation, inconsistent with a whole series of directionally aligned events during the past 30 years—events whose significance and meaning should have been readily apparent. In fact, the predominant Western narrative might itself be viewed as a kind of paranoia.

The provocations that the United State and its allies have directed at Russia are policy blunders so serious that, had the situation been reversed, U.S. leaders would long ago have risked nuclear war with Russia. For U.S. leaders to assert otherwise, as they now are doing, represents a dangerous disregard of reality. In some cases, this disregard surely represents willful demagoguery. But for some policy makers it must be well intentioned, occurring for the simple reason that they continue to interpret new facts in light of the same spent narrative.

Major press outlets also bear responsibility. Rather than seeking to contextualize events properly for their readers, the media have trumpeted the government’s preferred narrative. Whatever its motivations, the mainstream media have implemented, and continue to implement, a regime of propaganda that misinforms the public and can only be perceived by Russia as an affront to the national character of its people. Online providers of information are doing much the same. In fact, as the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and First Amendment lawyer Glenn Greenwald has shown, massive censorship of dissenting views is now occurring at many levels of society in both the United States and Europe.

Although it is difficult to look at the horrific images coming out of Ukraine without revulsion and anger, succumbing to blind emotion and embracing the dominant Western narrative is a dangerous error. It empowers the worst forces in Washington, including the nexus of bureaucratic power and commercial interest that President Eisenhower, a fivestar Army general, termed the military-industrial complex, about which he warned the American public in his final televised address as U.S. president. This narrative also enables the most Russophobic and militaristic of European leaders, as well as those with the least guts to stand up to misguided American policies. The narrative clouds the minds of American and European citizens, leading to jingoism and war-mongering.

My primary goal in this book is to correct a false narrative, and for a very practical reason: because false narratives lead to bad outcomes. Narratives are inevitably reflected in behaviors; they are both descriptive and generative. By functioning as models of reality, narratives serve as guides for action. Then, through the dynamic of action and reaction, push and pushback, they can produce the results they allege are already present. In this way, a narrative that is overly pessimistic about the intentions of a potential opponent—what I term a “narrative of suspicion”—can potentiate the very threats it purports to mitigate.

This description underlies the classic dynamic of an arms race that culminates in escalation and war. It instantiates not the paradigm of World War II, with its associated images of implacable expansionism and Western appeasement, but of World War I, in which Germany, Britain, Western Europe, and ultimately America sleep-walked into catastrophe. Yet now, because of the nature of nuclear weaponry, catastrophe can happen more easily, and with more devastating effect.

As with World War I, each side, fearing the worst from the other, seeks to make itself invulnerable through a military strategy that necessarily also has offensive potential—a double-edged strategic sword that policy analysts term a “security dilemma.” This is precisely what George Kennan predicted with respect to NATO expansion, and in respect to which he has proven correct. That expansion, which was justified in the name of defense, has been perceived by Russia as an offensive threat and led to actions that are, in turn, perceived by the West as expansionist. In 2014, Richard Sakwa offered a pithy retrospect on the situation that Kennan had anticipated:

In the end, NATO’s existence became justified by the need to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargement. The former Warsaw Pact and Baltic states joined NATO to enhance their security, but the very act of doing so created a security dilemma for Russia that undermined the security of all.

And since Sakwa wrote, the situation has only gotten worse, in good measure because the United States and its allies have carried out a parallel set of military expansions outside of NATO.

Mr. Putin, whatever authoritarian tendencies he might possess, was not born on a set path. In the current zeitgeist, it may be considered heretical to state the obvious: that Mr. Putin, like all human beings, is influenced by a combination of what is within—his psychology, beliefs, and values—and what is without, the dynamic external circumstances that confront him. This is simply a truism. It is likewise a truism that chronic exposure to certain patterns of external events can change a person’s inner tendencies, or, at least, selectively magnify some tendencies at the expense of other,
sometimes opposite tendencies.

Incrementally, in steps small and large, the West has disregarded Russia’s reasonable security concerns, considering them irrelevant, stoking Russian concerns about encirclement and invasion. At the same time, the United States and its European allies have implied that a rational actor would be assuaged by the West’s statements of benign intention: that the weapons, training, and interoperability exercises, no matter how provocative, powerful, or close to Russia’s borders, are purely defensive and not to be feared. In many instances, Western leaders, especially from the United States, have actively disrespected Mr. Putin, sometimes insulting him to his face.

In doing all this, the West has suggested that Mr. Putin is imagining strategic threats where none in fact exist. This Western framing—which posits a lack of legitimate Russian security concerns coupled with implied and explicit accusations of irrationality—underlies much of the currently dominant narrative. It also underlies the ideological position of the Russia hawks who play such a prominent role in Washington. In personal relationships, the combination of threatening actions and accusations of paranoia would be considered gaslighting. Is the situation really so different in the realm of international politics?

During times of war and military threat, even the leaders of free countries lean toward authoritarianism. Sensing great danger, they may tighten the reins of power, imposing top-down control and expanding the categories of domestic action and speech that are considered treasonous. It is not extreme to suggest that the provocations described in this book created in the mind of Mr. Putin and other members of the Russian political and military class an evolving sense of siege and emergency. My point is that one must contemplate the possibility that Western actions contributed not only to Russia’s foreign policies, but to untoward aspects of Russia’s domestic politics as well. In fact, George Kennan predicted this in 1998. NATO expansion, he said, would “have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy.”

Political actors, both individuals and corporate actors, such as bureaucracies and nations, are not static entities. Rather, the human decisions we call “policies” emerge from a concatenation of conscious intentions; unconscious motivations; accidents of history; and personal, human interactions, including blatantly threatening, humiliating, and disrespectful interactions and words, such as those that have emanated from the mouth of President Biden. And it is quite possible that the actions of the United States and its European allies exerted, and continue to exert, a more profound effect on the policies of Mr. Putin, including his domestic policies, than some are inclined to think.

In Defense of German Colonialism

Through the kind courtesy of Regnery Publishing and Regnery Gateway, we are so very honored to present this excerpt from Professor Bruce Gilley’s recently published book, In Defense of German Colonialism, a tour-de-force of the great good that the German colonial effort achieved in Africa, such as economic development, the rule of law, good governance, and human rights for minorities and women.

In an insightful link-up with the present, Professor Gilley shows that the dismantlement of the German colonies enabled Nazism which, in turn, is the root of wokeness. Professor Gilley’s research is impeccable and his conclusions undeniable. Please support his valuable work by purchasing your copy of this intriguing and informative book. You will not be disappointed.

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The Spirit of Berlin

Bismarck’s ironclad indifference towards the colonies cracked in 1883 when a failed tobacco merchant from Bremen named Adolf Lüderitz wired to say that he had run up the German flag on a thin strip of land on the Atlantic coast of southern Africa. Lüderitz had bought the land from natives of the Nama tribe for two hundred loaded rifles and a box of gold. The Nama needed the rifles for their ongoing wars against their historic enemies, the Herero. Bismarck at last gave in. Following his recognition of Lüderitzland (population twenty), Bismarck told the Reichstag that henceforth he would fly the flag whenever established German merchants requested the protection of the state. “We do not want to install colonies artificially,” Bismarck sighed. “When they emerge, however, we will try to protect them.” His hope was for empire on the cheap: “Clerks from the trading houses, not German generals,” would handle the functions of government.

Since Germany was a colonial newcomer, it had the neutrality to convene the 1884–85 conference to set new ground rules for colonial endeavors. Being sensitive to publicity, the Germans invited some Africans from the Niger river to join their delegation, at first calling them porters, then river navigators, then caravan leaders, and finally “princes.” Other European powers hastened to bring their own “loyal Africans” to wintry Berlin to demonstrate their own legitimacy.

During the meetings, Bismarck oversaw a major redefinition of colonialism. The Germans spoke most frequently and thus their views had tremendous influence on the final agreement. While the immediate issues were the Congo and West Africa, as well as free trade, the broader question was on what basis colonial rule could be justified. Initial fears that Bismarck planned to make vast claims on unmarked territory proved unfounded. His aim was simply to promote European trade in a way that did not bring the European powers to blows and that delivered uplift for the natives.

The Spirit of Berlin was embodied in two principles. First, colonial powers, whatever else they did, had a responsibility to improve the lives of native populations. European powers, the agreement stated, should be “preoccupied with the means of increasing the moral and material wellbeing of the indigenous populations.” When a colony was established, the powers “engage themselves to watch over the conservation of the indigenous populations and the amelioration of their moral and material conditions of existence.” That included putting an end to slavery and the slave trade. It also meant supporting religious, scientific, and charitable endeavors to bring the “advantages of civilization.” Bismarck praised the “careful solicitude” the European powers showed towards colonial subjects. Native uplift was now an explicit rather than implicit promise of colonialism. A British delegate noted that “humanitarian considerations have occupied a prominent place in the discussions.” Words only. But words that would create norms, and norms that would shape behavior.

The second principle insisted that any colonial claim needed to be backed up by “the existence of an authority sufficient to cause acquired rights to be respected.” Merely planting the flag or signing a treaty with local chiefs for a box of cigars was no longer enough. Colonialism required governance so that “new occupations . . . may be considered as effective.” This was later known as the principle of “effective occupation.” With this idea, Bismarck introduced the expectation that colonialism was not mere claim-staking or resource development—even if those things were still better than no colonialism at all. Rather, as with his newly created Germany, political institutions needed to provide the means to deliver the end of good governance.

The “effective occupation” principle applied at first only to coastal areas since the powers did not want to set off conflicts over border demarcations in inland areas. But as mapping of the inland proceeded in subsequent years, it crept willy-nilly into the bush as well. It “became the instrument for sanctioning and formalizing colonial occupation even in the African hinterland,” noted a legal historian.

One result of the Spirit of Berlin was a surge in trans-colonial cooperation among the major colonial powers. British, French, and German officials, especially in Africa, acted as if they were part of a common European project. They regularly swapped bits of territory, shared tips on governing, and got gloriously drunk to cement the bonds of colonial friendship. Germany’s top colonial official hosted a dinner to honor the retiring British governor of Uganda when they found themselves together aboard a homebound German steamer in 1909: “We made flowery speeches, vowing eternal friendship between our two nations,” the governor recalled. In German Samoa, the governor in 1901 appointed a Brit who did not speak German as the top official of the largest island. At the outbreak of war in 1914, the Brit was still expecting to draw his civil service pension from the British colonial office, arguing that European colonialism was a unified endeavor for the betterment of other peoples.

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The Berlin conference has been subject to a relentless campaign of debunking by modern intellectuals. One claim they make is that the assembled delegates “carved up” Africa like a bunch of gluttons. This is wrong. For one, the carving was already happening when Bismarck acted. The conference was a response to, not a cause of, expanded colonial claims. Critics seem to think that absent the conference Africa would have been left untouched. Quite the opposite. The scramble for Africa created tensions, suspicions, and fears on all sides. Bismarck wanted to set some ground rules.

Second, if “carving up” is taken to mean staking territorial claims on a map with a view to gobbling up resources, this is flatly untrue. Of course, economic interests took a prominent role in colonial expansion as a way to pay the costs and reward the effort. But the attendant responsibilities were new. Expansion now required an explicit commitment to native uplift alongside economic development, and this commitment required the creation of effective governing structures.

Finally, the notion of “carving” conjures images of high-handed mandarins in Europe ignorant of local conditions absent-mindedly drawing boundaries on a map while playing a game of whist. The myth of “artificial boundaries” drawn by ignorant Europeans is one that dies hard. In fact, as the French scholar Camille Lefebvre has shown, colonial administrators went to great lengths to figure out where boundaries should be drawn. In doing so, they made use of extensive local knowledge. Later demands by critics to redraw borders along ethnic lines, she argued, “had the paradoxical effect of erasing the history of African political structures and the role of the local populations in defining colonial boundaries.” This reflected a racist idea “that the essence of Africans is to be found in their ethnicity.”

The final border between German Cameroon and neighboring British and French colonies, for instance, was the result of tortuous field surveys carried out with native guides between 1902 and 1913. “The boundary is, as far as possible, a natural one, but, whenever practicable, tribal limits have been taken into consideration,” a Times of London correspondent reported on the arduous demarcation, noting “no opposition was met with by the natives, who realize the advantage of having a definite chain of landmarks between English and German territory.” In German East Africa, the Germans allowed the neighboring British territory to control all of the lake between the two in order to protect native trading patterns. The treaty of 1890 also allowed that “any correction of the demarcation lines that becomes necessary due to local requirements may be untaken by agreement between the two powers.” Critics forget that drawing borders on a map would mean little if they could not be enforced, and enforcement in turn depended on local social and economic conditions.

What is true is that these political boundaries did not always coincide with ethnic boundaries. Many ethnic groups ended up on different sides of borders because carving up “ethnic homelands” would have been both impractical as well as, in Lefebvre’s view, racist. If there is a “high-handed” assumption at play, it is the assumption of later critics that Africans are essentially tribal and need to be organized on tribal lines. Thus borders should be redrawn not based on political, social, and economic logic but on ethnic essentialism. When the apartheid state of South Africa created such ethnic “homelands,” they were roundly derided because they created ethnic ghettos cut off from modern lines of economic and political life. Yet the “artificial boundaries” critique of the borders resulting from the Berlin conference is an appeal for just such apartheid-style “homelands.”

Broader criticism of the Spirit of Berlin is even more hyperbolic: no white man, German or otherwise, the critics avail, had a right to march around the world oppressing helpless brown and black people at gunpoint. One Harvard professor wrote that the British and French should be equally blamed for the rapacious Spirit of Berlin even though the Germans hosted the conference. There should be no Sonderweg or “separate path” theory that explained why only Germans were evil. Any suggestion of a “German (colonial) Sonderweg” would exculpate Britain and France from their fair share of the blame for the great evil that was European colonialism. Scholars like him censure as racist the idea that Western civilization had anything to offer to non-Western peoples. The so-called humanitarian principles of the conference were so much hypocrisy, a clever cloak for
self-interest, they charge.

Not one of these claims withstands scrutiny. Civilization is a descriptive concept that emerged in the field of archaeology to measure the progress that cultures achieved towards the universally common ends of intensive agriculture, urbanization, state formation, the division of labor, the use of machinery, civic government, and a written tradition with record keeping. If Europeans truly believed that black Africans were inherently inferior, why would they try to raise them up to European levels of civilization? It would be impossible. The assumption that European progress was accessible to all was based on a belief in the universal human potential of all peoples.

As to the inevitable coercion that this entailed against dominant local elites, critics forget important lessons from the past in their sermonizing. World history is a story of more civilized nations conquering less civilized ones because they are better organized and thus able to create and sustain more lives, production, and material wealth. Nowhere in the world at the time was it assumed that conquest was bad. Certainly, powerful African groups like the Fulani and the Buganda assumed they had a right to conquer nearby peoples. As Jörg Fisch wrote: “Strictly speaking, the colonial acquisition of Africa needed no justification. The Europeans had the necessary strength and, even within Europe, the right of conquest was widely accepted both in theory and state practice.”

Claims that no African was involved or that colonial expansion ignored African interests are rather bizarre given that such norms were alien to Africa itself. The Fulani, Buganda, Bantu, or Ngoni had not asked whether they should “consult” the African peoples they subjugated before the Europeans arrived. With the Spirit of Berlin promising high living standards, Europe’s conquest of Africa was justified, not just legally but also ethically, and just as much it was unavoidable. The idea that it was “arbitrary” for Western civilization to spread (or that such a spread was based on ill intent) simply ignores the fact that human societies all strive to be more civilized.

Civilization isn’t racist and violent; denying it is. Anti-civilizational discourses that wish upon non-European peoples a return to the five thousand–year developmental gap that they faced when the European encounter began deny the humanity of non-Europeans. These Woke theories embody the racism they decry. As the Canadian scholar Tom Flanagan asked in rebutting claims that the “First Nations” (Siberian migrants to North America) should have been left in their primitive state in Canada, “Though one might dislike many aspects of civilization, would it be morally defensible to call for a radical decline in population, necessitating early death and reproductive failure for billions of people now living?”

The “civilizing mission” was both proper and reasonable as an aim of European colonialism. Germany more than any other colonial power took that mission seriously, as shown by its extensive training academies for colonial administrators and special institutes to understand native cultures, geographies, languages, and economics. As one American historian wrote:

Of all the European powers engaged in colonization in tropical territories before 1914, the Germans made the most extensive efforts in the direction of preparing themselves for their colonial responsibilities. Though their emphasis on colonial education had developed only late in the history of the German colonial empire, it was one of the determinants of their stature in 1914 as one of the most progressive and energetic of all the colonial powers.

In 1988, American historian Suzanne Miers claimed to have “uncovered” a dark secret about the Spirit of Berlin: the conference participants did not give a fig about the civilizing mission (an odd critique when set against the charge by others that they did, but that this mission was racist). Her evidence? The powers were also motivated by self-interest, and they did not try their hardest to enact their altruistic ends. Miers writes, for instance, that the British agreed to limit liquor sales in the Niger River region only “if all powers agreed to it, as, if they refused, British traders would be excluded from a lucrative traffic.” In the next sentence she states: “The Colonial Office certainly was not contemplating British self-denial for humanitarian reasons.” Yet her own sentence shows that they were contemplating this if it could be achieved. Like other scholars, she seems to think that Quixotic and ineffective romantic gestures are what was needed. Thank goodness the Colonial Office was staffed by men of practical bent.

None of this will convince colonial critics, of course, who hasten to point out that the abolition of slavery came slowly, liquor imports continued despite prohibitions, wars were fought using brutal tactics, and all the blessings of civilization like the rule of law, health systems, roads, and education came only piecemeal. Having set up a high standard, the European powers immediately fell short of it, thus “proving” in the eyes of the critics that they never meant it in the first place. Yet these critics never seek to establish what “best effort” would have looked like: What was fiscally, technically, and organizationally feasible circa, say, 1885, even if we wish away all political obstacles? A more accurate view, propounded by the Stanford economists Lewis Gann and Peter Duignan, is that Western colonial powers like Britain and Germany exceeded “best effort,” and the costs that this effort imposed eventually forced Europe to abandon the colonial project altogether.

Bruce Gilley is a professor of political science at Portland State University and the author of five books, including The Last Imperialist.

Featured image: a postcard from ca. 1910. Caption reads: “Our navy. ‘Take me across handsome sailor.'”

Ukraine: Statehood in Question

The dynamics and challenges of state formation in post-Soviet Ukraine can only be understood and appreciated in the context of the history of Ukraine. Its history, like many other nations of Eastern and Central Europe, was marred by failed or circumscribed statehood. Since the period of Kyiv Rus’, Ukraine witnessed two attempts to build an independent polity, both of which to some degree succeeded in establishing an institutional infrastructure, controlling territory, winning the allegiance of its population and gaining international recognition. However, there was hardly any temporal or symbolic continuity between those historical reincarnations of statehood; they differed radically in terms of the form of government, territory, and the conception of “the people.”

The first, the Cossack Hetmanate, was a pre-modern formation, while, the second, during the Ukrainian Revolution, 1917–1921, not only lasted for a short period of time, but also spawned several different embodiments of the Ukrainian state. Under Soviet rule, Ukraine possessed all of the nominal trappings of sovereign statehood, most notably, a full set of republican institutions, like all other Soviet republics. Yet in reality, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was only a hollow institutional caricature of a sovereign state. In the light of discontinuity and diversity of legal and political institutions, Ukraine’s history does not lend itself to configuration as linear national history modelled on the Western historical narratives of a nation-state, which tend to be centred on dynastic, institutional– administrative and/or territorial continuities.

Post-soviet Ukraine lacks the ‘historical legitimacy’ derived from distinct and ‘identifiable institutional traditions and stable territorial boundaries. Moreover, there is not much else to pin national history onto, because the church, elites, language, and culture were all damaged, disrupted or destroyed and thus could not serve as firm pillars of national history. As von Hagen asserted, “today’s Ukraine is a very modern creation, with little firmly established precedent in the national past.”

As a result of its history, Ukraine emerged as an independent state in 1991 with incompletely articulated and competing ‘grand narratives’ of its past, which glorified conflicting political traditions and historical periods, either pre-communist or Soviet. While few states in Central and Eastern Europe have an unblemished historiographical legitimacy by (ethnocentric) Western standards, the case of Ukraine is particularly complex and interesting because of, firstly, the multiple historical ruptures and, secondly, the advanced erosion of memories of pre-communist statehood. Both of these issues raised the vexed question of what exactly the indigenous political tradition was that Ukraine should embrace upon gaining independence in 1991. History left the elites in post-Soviet Ukraine with a Pandora’s box of constitutional choices when it came to defining the conception of statehood in institutional, territorial and national terms. In particular, the significance of the Soviet rule in Ukraine’s history proved difficult to define with any degree of consensus.

From Kyiv Rus’ to the Hetmanate

The meaning of the name Ukraine, literally “borderland,” reflects its location on the borders of other states, which dominated that part of Europe over the centuries after the disintegration of the first state on the territory of today’s Ukraine—Kyiv Rus’. In the tenth century the Kyivan Rus’ patrimony fostered contacts with Byzantium and converted to Christianity. After the schism within Christendom in 1054, Rus’ became confined to a domain of Orthodox Slavic people. Following the death of Prince Yaroslav the Wise, Kyiv Rus’ disintegrated into many principalities, amongst which the Galician principality to the west was the most powerful. After its demise in 1340 Galicia was incorporated into the Polish state. At the same time, the remaining territory of Kyiv Rus’ fell pray to a Mongol invasion. Undoubtedly, the topography of Ukraine—the flat steppes, which posed no natural boundaries— accounts for the ease and frequency with which the territory of Ukraine was plundered and conquered over centuries, as Ukraine turned into a battle ground for domination by the states which surrounded it, such as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Ottoman Empire, the Polish– Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Crimean Tatar Khanate, Moscovy, the Russian empire, and the Habsburg empire.

Apart from the Mongol devastation, in the fourteenth centuries Ukraine was incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to the north, which was simultaneously coming closer to Poland. The dynastic union of Krevo in 1385 between Lithuania and Poland was followed by the 1569 Union of Lublin, which created the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita). The exposure to the gentrified republic resulted in Ukraine’s Polonisation and conversion to Catholicism. This conversion was institutionalised in the Union of Brest in the 1596 when the Uniate Church was created, which recognised the authority of the Pope, but retained Eastern rites. However, as Poland was not strong enough to defend its eastern borders, it had effective control only of the Right Bank of Dnieper. The Left Bank, the so-called “wild fields,” witnessed the rise of a distinctive socio-political formation—the Zaporizhian Host. The ranks of free Cossack warriors swelled from the influx of peasants who had run away from their masters against encroaching serfdom from Polish Ukraine; as Subtelny pointed out: “in newly colonised Ukraine, some of Europe’s most exploitative feudal lords confronted some of its most defiant masses.”

In 1648, Cossack Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytskyi staged a Great Revolt against Polish landlords, inspired also to defend Orthodoxy again Catholic expansion and the autonomous political formation—the Cossack Host—was established on both banks of the Dnieper. Unable to win the war with Poland without help, Khmelnytskyi looked for an ally and in 1654, the Union of Pereiaslav was signed between the Cossack Host and Russia, according to which the Cossacks recognised the authority and obtained the protection of the tsar and the Host joined Russia as an autonomous entity. However, more military struggles followed, and the Treaty of Andrushevo of 1667 split Ukraine: the Left Bank—the so-called Hetmanate—went to Russia, while Poland retained the Right Bank.

In eighteenth century Russia, the Hetmanate developed a separate political identity underpinned by a unique system of government, liberties and rights, which facilitated an emergence of a distinctive Little Russian identity.4 However, the Hetmanate could not survive the strengthening and centralisation of the Russian state and political and cultural differences between Little and Great Russia were gradually ironed out. In 1720 Peter the Great prohibited the publication of books in Ukraine other than religious ones. In addition to halting the development of Ukrainian national culture, which had thrived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this retarded Ukraine, in comparison to Russia, in the development of a modern secular culture. In 1775 the Cossack Sich on the Dnieper was destroyed, followed by the abolition of the Hetmanate in 1783 by Catherine the Great.

The subsequent integration of the Ukrainian elites (starshyna) into the Russian nobility led to the loss of their distinct Little Russian identity, as they took advantage of new career opportunities within the Russian states. By 1820s, the starshyna—the main carrier of a Little Russian identity—was Russified and the peasantry was fully enserfed. By the early nineteenth century, Ukraine’s role as a bridge between the West and Russia came to an end, and Ukraine effectively turned into a province within the Russian empire. Although the Cossack Sich—in the form of the Hetmanate—could survive only under protectorate of a more powerful state, Ukraine developed a distinct political and administrative entity, which survived the best part of the eighteenth century. The Sich and the Hetmanate served as a fertile ground for cultivating glorifying myths of a national liberation struggle and a concerted aspiration for national autonomy, which were apparently frustrated by the tsars’ breach of the Pereiaslav Agreement.

However, the legacy of Cossackdom cannot be easily moulded into the “tradition of statehood.” The stabilisation of the Hetmanate associated with the transformation of the Cossack starshyna into gentry contrasted with the anarchistic-individualistic tradition of the Sich and the Haidamak movements, which exemplified a rebellion against the emergence of the modern, centralised state.

The Cossack tradition did not provide an equivocal design for the institutional framework of a modern state. The Hetmanate combined republican and monarchical traits, as a collective deliberative body (Heneralna Rada, and then Rada Starshykh) co-existed with powerful Hetmans. As such this form of government has been interpreted both as a precursor of a presidential system, in which powers are concentrated in a chief executive, and the government by assembly. But even if mythologised as “the tradition of state building,” the Russification of the Cossack starshyna and the strangling of the autonomy of the Hetmanate meant that this episode in the history of Ukraine did not provide the basis for modern Ukrainian statehood.

Beyond the realm of myths and symbols, the actual impact of the Cossack state on the future make-up of the Ukrainian state, in terms of institutional and legal traditions was minimal, with the exception of the intermittent conservative regime of Hetman Skoropadskyi in 1918. In the context of the discontinuity which followed the Cossack period, the intellectual aspirations to political trappings of statehood in Ukraine cannot be traced back firmly beyond the mid-nineteenth.

Ukraine’s National “Awakening” in the Nineteenth Century

Following the partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795, the political subordination of Ukraine changed once again. Right-bank Ukraine (Kyiv, Podila, Volynia) was transferred to Russia, hence “re-joining” Left-bank Ukraine, while Galicia became part of the Habsburg Empire. As the modern Ukrainian national movements incubated in parallel in two empires, they developed different traits as a result of diverse political, cultural and socio-economic conditions.

The rise of the modern Ukrainian national movement in the tsarist empire can be conceptualised by using the scheme developed by the Czech historian Miroslav Hroch. Despite its shortcomings, for the purpose of this study, the scheme serves as a useful analytical tool for succinctly outlining developments. Hroch distinguished three phases in the process of national awakening of non-dominant ethnic groups in Eastern Europe: academic, cultural, and political. In the academic stage, from the 1820’s onwards during the so-called Ukrainian Revival, scholars developed an interest in the culture and language of the peasantry, albeit without any defined and articulated political goals.

In the second, cultural stage, a new type of activist embarked on agitation of the ‘ethnographic masses’ in order to win them over to the national cause. In Ukraine, the populists, who rejected the primary historical role of the nobility (especially as by then the Cossack starshyna had been assimilated into the Russian landlord class)11 focused on the masses as an engine of human progress. The work of artist Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861), a redeemed serf, played a pivotal role in this phase. In his writings, Shevchenko used the Ukrainian vernacular to tell of past glories and the present ignominy of Ukraine and its people under foreign yoke.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the predominantly cultural activities of the populists had developed a political vein. The clandestine Cyrillo–Methodian Society of 1846–1847 and the Hromady in the 1850–1860’s combined populism with demands for cultural autonomy. These political ideas, however moderate, had little resonance beyond a narrow group of urban intellectuals. According to the 1897 census, 93 percent of Ukrainians were peasants, in Kyiv 54 percent of the population were Russians, and only 22 percent Ukrainians. There was hardly any Ukrainian bourgeoisie in Left-bank (that is territories to the east of the Dnieper) Ukraine. While the nascent working class was predominantly Russian and Jewish, ethnic Ukrainians—impoverished, peasant, illiterate, passive, and parochial—were not receptive to ideas of national revival and the assertion of cultural rights.

The cultural stage of the development of national consciousness was frustrated by the slow modernisation under tsarist rule and political repression. The process of raising the national awareness of the masses was given a crushing blow in the 1860–1880s in the form of the banning of the Ukrainian language in the public domain, including schools and publishing. Thus, economic backwardness, the repressive policies of the tsarist regime, and the underdevelopment of the educational and cultural infrastructure seriously thwarted the emergence of third stage—the politicisation of the masses in support of national autonomy. Throughout the second part of the nineteenth century, the nascent intellectual elites in tsarist Ukraine grappled with the conception of ‘the Ukrainian people’. They oscillated between the assertion that Ukrainians were a branch of one people (Russkiy narod), who developed a distinct culture because of their different historical experiences (Mykola Kostomarov, 1817–1885), and the more radical assertion that Ukrainians had distinct roots from Russians (Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, 1866– 1934).

Despite these differences, the intellectuals adhered to the federalist model of statehood, in which Ukraine would be one of the constituting units. This model was most fully formulated in the writings of Mykhailo Drahomanov (1841–1895) who advocated the transformation of the Russian Empire into a democratic, constitutional republic composed of twenty states; the territory of Ukraine was to be organised into four states. As a committed socialist-anarchist Drahomanov doubted the role of the state in securing individual freedoms, and thus rejected the Western European model of a centralised nation-state for democratised Russia in general and Ukraine in particular. In Drahomanov’s view, federalism would ensure not only the optimal conditions for Ukraine’s national emancipation, which the centralised tsarist state hampered, but would also realise the universal principle of the individual freedom and autonomy.

In contrast to the proponents of federalism, by the turn of century, the advocates of separatism, that is supporters of outright independence for Ukraine (samostiinist), such as Mykola Mikhnovskyi, Viacheslav Lypynskyi and Dmytro Dontsov were in a minority in “Russian” Ukraine, although they were stronger in Galicia. The obstacles to the development of national movement, however, were not as pronounced in Galicia, which was incorporated into the Habsburg Empire at the end of the eighteenth century, where Ukrainians were known as Ruthenians.

Although the level of socio-economic development was the same or even lower than in tsarist Ukraine, the Crown provinces of Galicia and, to a lesser extent, Bukovina, benefited from the fledging practices of parliamentarism (after 1867), an educational system in Ukrainian, religious freedoms, the right to use Ukrainian in state institutions, they also developed specifically Ukrainian institutions such as economic co-operatives, reading societies, newspapers, etc. In Eastern Galicia ethnic and religious divides coincided with the key social cleavage, as the Polish landlords ruled the Ukrainian peasantry. As a result, the Ukrainian national movement developed in fierce opposition to Poles (but in loyalty to Vienna). Despite some confusion over the issues of identity in Eastern Galicia, independent statehood (samostiinist) was declared the objective of the Ukrainian national movement once Austria–Hungary crumbled, and Ukrainian nationalists encountered competing Polish claims to Eastern Galicia.

The Ukrainian Revolution, 1917-1921

The collapse of the empires in the course of the First World War presented the Ukrainian elites with a long-awaited chance to realise their socio-economic and political ideals. Yet the international context and the divisions between the elites led to a creation of a string of successive governments: the Central Council, the Hetmanate, the Directory in Dnieper Ukraine, and the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic in Galicia (Halychyna). While all of them claimed to embody Ukrainian statehood, the relations between them were often full of tensions. The period of the Ukrainian Revolution will be briefly presented below in order to argue that the political, military and social context impacted on the attempt at state building to the extent that it is difficult to define the pre-communist tradition of statehood with a high degree of precision.

Taking into account the ideological profile of the Ukrainian elites, separatism was not on the cards, when in the aftermath of the February revolution, in March 1917, the Central Council (Tsentralna Rada) was created in Kyiv by the prominent Ukrainian populist and socialist intellectuals and activists, such as Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, Serkhiy Yefremov, and Semen Petliura.17 The Rada, which turned itself into a representative body in the summer of 1917, competed for power with the Bolsheviks and the Provisional Government in Ukraine.18 In April 1917 the Ukrainian elites called for the federalisation of the Russian state with Ukraine as one of its autonomous units.

Following the October Revolution, in its Third Universal (November 1917), the Central Council proclaimed the creation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) which was to be joined by federal ties to democratic Russia. It was only the military offensive of the Bolsheviks on Kyiv that forced the Ukrainian elites to accept that “a complete breakup of the Russian imperial state was a more realistic goal than its democratisation and federalisation, and that for Ukraine the alternatives were, indeed, either independent statehood or national annihilation.”

In January 1918 in its Fourth Universal the Rada proclaimed full independence of Russia. However, this accelerated radicalisation of the Ukrainian national movement was not backed by the institutional and human resources necessary to turn proclamations into reality. In particular, the Ukrainian leaders, inexperienced and idealistic as they were, failed to appreciate the need for establishing state institutions and an army to defend its territory. This proved to have pivotal consequences as soon as Ukraine became a theatre of numerous military interventions.

Despite the fact that the Bolsheviks lacked popular support in Ukraine (their power base was limited to the Russian working class), they had a competitive advantage over the Rada thanks to their military, industrial, and organisational superiority. The Bolsheviks refused to recognise the “bourgeois-nationalist” UNR as a legitimate government of Ukraine and staged a war against the new Ukrainian state. In turn, the Central Powers (Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey) recognised the UNR and signed a separate peace treaty in Brest in February 1918. Under the pretext of assisting the UNR against the Bolsheviks, the Germans entered Ukraine in April 1918 and triggered the fall of the Rada on 30 April 1918 (on the very day when the Constitution of the UNR was debated).

Under German tutelage power was taken over by the conservative Hetmanate led by a descendant of a Cossack Hetman, General Pavlo Skoropadskyi, who was supported predominantly by Russified and Russian landowners. Having announced the creation of the “Ukrainian State” (Ukrainska Derzhava), he assumed the role of the Hetman. However, following the defeat of Germany and Austro–Hungary and Skoropadskyi’s decision to enter a federal treaty with (non-Bolshevik) Russia, the Hetmanate was overturned seven months later. The UNR was restored when a new Ukrainian government, the Directory (Dyrektoriat), emerged in November 1918 led by, among others, social-democrats Volodymyr Vynnychenko and Symon Petliura. Soon Petliura assumed the role of Chief Otaman of the republican army in order to lead a military struggle on several fronts. However, mass support for the UNR and revolutionary vigour of the peasantry had evaporated by early 1919, and anarchy and chaos swept Ukraine, with the Bolsheviks, Whites, Denikin, anarchist Makchno and the Ukrainian troops moving across and fighting on its territory.

In Western Ukraine, in November 1918, the collapse of Austro– Hungary prompted the creation of the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic (ZUNR), under the leadership of Yevhen Petrushevych. The ZUNR immediately clashed with Poles who voiced competing claims to Eastern Galicia, and the resulting war with Poland engulfed the larger part of the province. Apart from military actions against the ZUNR, the Polish army simultaneously fought the army of Petliura in Volynia. Thus, before the Directory’s troops were expelled from Kyiv by the Bolsheviks in January 1919, Ukrainian forces consolidated to fight the common enemies.

On 22 January 1919 unification of the UNR and the ZUNR was proclaimed in Kyiv in the “Act of Unity” (Akt Sobornosti). The concept of Sobornist’, which until then referred to the ecclesiastical unity of the Orthodox Church, came to denote the unification of all historical Ukrainian territories into one state. The enlarged Ukrainian state was to be a quasi-federal as Galicia was to maintain its autonomy as a Western Ukrainian Oblast of the UNR (ZOUNR). Yet the scope of this autonomy remained undefined, as actual unification never took place, because of the military struggle on the one hand, and the profound ideological and cultural rift between the revolutionary Dnieper elites and more conservative, legally-minded and nationalist Galician leaders, on the other.

The weakness of Ukrainian forces and their military defeats against the Bolsheviks prompted Petliura to enter an alliance with Poland at the cost of conceding Galicia. According to the Treaty of Warsaw in April 1920, the UNR renounced its authority over Eastern Galicia in favour of Poland in exchange for military help against the Bolsheviks, which by that time had instituted their government in Kharkiv. The treaty was interpreted as treason by Western Ukrainians, who, in retaliation broke off their alliance with Petliura. The joint Ukrainian–Polish forces failed to win their war with Bolshevik Russia, and the Treaty of Riga of 1921 between Poland, Russia and the Soviet Ukraine confirmed the division of Ukraine along the lines defined in the Treaty of Warsaw, which conceded Eastern Galicia and Volynia to Poland.

The bitter disillusionment with the failure to secure independence over 1917–1921 steered some sections of the Ukrainian elites towards an indigenous strand of integral nationalism, the leading ideologist of which was Dmytro Dontsov. It is beyond the scope of this section to debate the causes of the ultimate failure of a state building project. In general, this failure has been attributed to a lack of social basis and incompleteness of the sociological nation; a lack of experience, procrastination, indecisiveness and internal divisions amongst the revolutionary elites; and the ideology of the elites, and neglect of institution building coupled with a lack of international support.

Yet the UNR, the existence of which was punctuated by the regime of Hetman Skoropadskyi in 1918, represented not only the first consolidated effort to organise a Ukrainian state in the modern era, but also a particular framing of statehood, which was nurtured by the conjunction of particular historical, political, socioeconomic and cultural circumstances. In contrast to a centralised, autocratic tsarist regime, the UNR embodied aspirations to radical parliamentarism, decentralisation, and the pluralist conception of a political community. And the socio-economic plight of Ukrainian society shaped the socialist and social-democratic ideas on the state’s role in the socioeconomic transformation. However, the latter ideas were not shared by the Western Ukrainian elites, something that prevented the coming together of the elites from Galicia and Dnieper Ukraine to build a Soborna Ukraina.

The conceptions of statehood, embracing an institutional framework, territorial model and notion of the political community, which were put forward in the period of 1917–1921, will be analysed in more detail below. It will be shown that even if any particular institutional design is difficult to pin down because of disruptions, the overarching principles guiding the Ukrainian leaders can be asserted with some clarity. The principles, however, did not find much support when the renewed state building project was embarked on in 1991.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, 1919-1991

Despite the unmitigated failure to set up an independent state in 1917– 1921, the endeavour advanced the cause of Ukrainian statehood; it compelled the Bolsheviks, who from 1919 onwards consolidated power in Ukraine, to recognise these aspirations. The strength of the centrifugal forces unleashed in the peripheries of the tsarist empire prompted the Bolsheviks to take on the federalist principle of Austro–Marxism; they first set up an “alliance” and then a “union of states,” which in addition to Russia included national republics created of former borderlands of the Russian empire. In order to accommodate the fledging national sentiments of non-Russians in the new state, amongst others Ukrainians were granted their own ethno-territorial homeland—a Soviet Socialist Republic—as:

[T]he embodiment of a compromise between Ukrainian nationalism and Russian centralism—of course not in the sense of a formal, negotiated agreement but rather of a de facto balancing of antagonistic social forces, neither of which was strong enough to assert itself completely.

After two unsuccessful attempts to gain control over Ukraine in 1918 and 1919, the third Soviet Ukrainian government was established in December 1919. The 1919 constitution passed by the Soviet Ukrainian government in Kharkiv guaranteed the sovereignty of Soviet Ukraine and the right to conduct an independent foreign policy. Although the 1920 Treaty between Soviet Ukraine and RSFSR established an economic and military union, and Ukraine surrendered some commissariats to RSFSR, it was still defined as a sovereign and independent republic with rights to maintain direct diplomatic relations with other states.

On the basis of the 1919 constitution, the Ukrainian SSR acted as a constitutive member of the Soviet Union in December 1922, when the treaty was signed by the representatives of the Russian, Belarussian, Transcaucasian and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics, as a result of which the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics came into being. Alongside many ethnic groups in the borderland of the tsarist empire, Ukrainians were endowed with all the nominal trappings of statehood but denied sovereignty.

The subsequent republican constitutions of 1926, 1937 and 1978 defined Ukraine as a “sovereign republic,” while the constitutions of the USSR declared that “every union republic shall retain the free right to secession from the USSR” (article 13 of the 1936 constitution and article 72 of the 1977 constitution of the USSR).

The republic was equipped with a complete set of legal and administrative institutions. Moreover, perpetuating the façade of independence, together with Belarus, Ukraine was also granted membership of the United Nations in 1945. Like all other republics, Ukrainian sovereignty was a constitutional figure of speech. The new constitutions of the UkrSSR of 1926, 1937 and 1978 were duly adopted after the passage of the Constitutions of the USSR (in 1924, 1936 and 1977),44 and all the constitutional texts were drafted under the instructions from the centre.

Moscow provided all Soviet republics with an almost identical template of administrative, economic and cultural institutions, such as ministries, academy of sciences, writers’ unions, etc. The republican sovereignty was circumvented by removing decision-making powers from the republican institutions and vesting them with the Communist Party of Ukraine, which constituted an integral part of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in accordance with the principle of democratic centralism. But quite apart from the omnipotent role of the Communist Party, the constitutional provisions explicitly asserted the supremacy of the Union centre over the republics.

Republican institutions, including the Supreme Council, were subordinated to All-Union institutions, which had authority to override the decisions of the republican institutions. The 1936 and 1977 constitutions of the USSR included a provision that ‘in the event of divergence between the laws of the union republics and a law of the Union, the Union law prevails’ (arts. 20 and 74, respectively), while the 1978 constitution of the UkrSSR asserted that ‘the economy of UkrSSR forms an integral part of one economic system, which encompasses all aspects of social production, distribution and exchange on the territory of the USSR’ (art.16). The constitutional subordination of Soviet Ukraine to the Union, and the monopolisation of decision-making process in the Party rendered Ukrainian sovereignty a constitutional fiction. Because of the largely nominal character of the constitutions of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Sliusarenko and Tomenko, the editors of the post-Soviet compilation of Ukrainian constitutional acts, concluded

All four constitutions of the Soviet Ukraine were political documents and were drafted in the ideological departments of the Central Committee of the CPSU. Taking this into account, as well as Ukraine’s status of quasi-state these [Soviet] constitutional acts can be included in the category of the fundamental laws of the state only with great caution.

Nevertheless, even if the Ukrainian SSR can be defined as a pseudostate at best, it shaped the identity of independent Ukraine in institutional, territorial and national terms. While the Ukrainian Revolution lasted effectively for 4 years, Soviet rule in Ukraine spanned seven decades and left an enduring imprint on society and its political structures.

Territorial Changes and Administrative Division

The Soviet Union created a highly centralised model of statehood. Under Soviet rule, the bulk of ethnographic Ukrainian territories were unified for the first time within the boundaries of the Ukrainian SSR. The republic was initially made up of nine gubernias of the Russian empire: Kyiv, Podila, Volynia, Chernihiv, Poltava, Kharkiv, Katerynoslav, Kherson, Taurida, but without Crimea (that is the territory claimed by the UNR in the Third Universal of July 1917), and it also included some western districts of the Don Army province. In 1924 the Autonomous Socialist Republic of Moldova was created of several raions adjacent to the border with Romania, while some territorial adjustment in favour of the Russian SFSR were made in 1925.

In September 1939 Western Ukraine was annexed by the USSR, as a consequence of the Ribbentrop–Molotov pact, and on 1 November it was officially incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR.51 In 1940 Northern Bukovina and Southern Bessarabia became part of the UkrSSR, while the rest of Bessarabia formed the Moldovan SSR. In 1945 Transcarpathia (also known as Subcarpathia or the Carpathian Rus’) was conceded to Ukraine in a treaty with Czechoslovakia. As result of the 1939–1945 border changes the following oblasts were created: Lvivska, Volynska, Rivenska, IvanoFrankivska, Chernivetska, Ternopilska, Akermanska (Izmail), and Zakarpatska.52 The formation of present day Ukraine was completed with the transfer of the Crimean Oblast (which until 1945 was the Crimean Autonomous Socialist Republic) in 1954.

After 1954, the Ukrainian SSR consisted of 25 oblasts and 2 cities of republican subordination—Kyiv and Sevastopol. Oblasts were purely territorial–administrative units and did not correspond to historical regions. Oblasts were further divided into districts (raion), cities (which were further divided into raiony), and rural settlements.53 Each of those territorial units was represented in a soviet (rada). As pointed above, there was no conceptual distinction between local, territorial and central government as the Soviet Union adhered to the so-called state theory of self-government, and the local and territorial governing bodies formed an integrated part of the state apparatus. In contrast to the Western state tradition of self-government, the councils combined the functions of self-government with state powers, something that effectively denied their autonomy from the central authorities.

The Political Community

The Soviet regime in Ukraine constructed a complex, but essentially contradictory notion of the political community in attempt to reconcile class, ethnicity and territory as the markers of the political community in each republic. The four constitutions of the Soviet Ukraine (1919, 1926, 1937 and 1978) adhered to territory and class rather than ethnicity as the main criteria: “Ukraine (was) a state of all people, expressing the will and interests of the workers, peasants and intelligentsia: the working people of all nationalities of the Republic” (1978 Constitution of the UkrSSR).

At the same time, ethnicity was recognised as an important social category by the very formation of the UkrSSR, as Ukrainians were a titular nationality of a national–territorial administrative unit, after which that unit was named, and enjoyed some privileges conferred by the centre on titular majorities in the Soviet republics. Nationality was also institutionalised at a personal level as an ascriptive, legal category. It was fixed regardless of the place of residence, and, as such, acquired an extra-territorial, ethno-cultural dimension. Thus, as Brubaker argues the Soviet Union institutionalised two distinct models of nationhood: territorial/political and personal/ethnic.

While these categories were overlapping, they were never made fully congruent, as representatives of one nationality did not reside only in their ‘titular’ republics. The UkrSSR was not inhabited exclusively by Ukrainians, and Ukrainians lived in other Soviet republics. Yet the lack of congruence between the ethno-cultural and territorial models did not matter because of the largely symbolic nature of the republican, territorial boundaries. The constitutional fiction of sovereignty made Ukraine’s political community only nominally ‘national’ and fully submerged in the wider community of the Soviet People (Sovietskyi narod). However, once the republican boundaries acquired political significance, this dual conception of a political community could not be sustained and a choice had to be made. The question of what united and turned citizens of independent Ukraine into ‘the people’, and the related questions of attributes of the state, such as state language, symbols, minority rights, proved to be highly sensitive and contentious.


When new states emerge, their apparent newness tends to be underplayed by stressing the historical roots of a new polity; any preceding tradition of statehood, however short and circumstantial, is flagged up in order to boost the historical legitimacy of a new polity and dissipate an image of an artificial construct. Thus, the national past becomes a cognitive point of reference in the renewed process of state building and is often explicitly evoked (most tangibly in the Preamble of constitutions).

The predicament of Ukraine was that its different parts had different pasts. As it was variously ruled by other states, such as the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the tsarist Russia, the Habsburg empire, inter-war Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, prior to 1954 Ukraine did not exist as a state within its current borders under a uniform set of institutions. Moreover, the indigenous tradition of Ukrainian statehood in the pre-communist period was multivocal as was seen by the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Skoropadskyi’s Hetmanate, and the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic. Their existence was cut short by the formation of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The UkrSSR was nominally conceived as a sovereign state, with a fully blown institutional edifice, yet it was a skeleton state with no life of its own and was animated by Moscow. And despite their temporal succession, the UkrSSR was cut off from the traditions of the UNR. Any historical continuity was denied and throughout Soviet rule, the UNR was depicted as a creation of the “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists,” in spite of the socialist and social-democratic orientation of its leaders.

Also, in terms of institutional design and Marxist–Leninist ideology, Soviet rule spelled a marked departure from the parliamentary, decentralised, and pluralistic traditions of the UNR. Thus, the twentieth century developments were marred by the kind of discontinuity, which characterised Ukraine’s earlier history. With its multiple and disjointed pasts, there were multiple sources of cognitive reference for constitution-makers in post-Soviet Ukraine.

The demise of the USSR posed the question of the historical pedigree of the new state, and made any kind of restoration of pre-communist models in post-Soviet Ukraine onerous. Thus, Ukrainian state building, as reflected in the constitution making which started on the eve of independence, entailed the contest and reconciliation of alternative visions of an idealised political order, which were inspired by different interpretations of the Ukrainian pre-communist and communist past.

Kataryna Wolczuk is an associate fellow of Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia programme and professor of East European Politics at the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies (CREES), University of Birmingham. A version of this appeared as a chapter in The Moulding of Ukraine: The Constitutional Politics of State Formation.

Featured: “Knight at the Crossroads,” by Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov; painted in 1882.

Manuscript Hunting in Late Seventeenth-Century Iceland

The fervent collecting of ancient and medieval manuscripts—in Italy and Greece from the late fourteenth century, in France, Germany and England from the early fifteenth century, and in Spain and Iceland from the late sixteenth century onwards—resulted not only in the accumulation of new texts and information. It was also a reason for perplexity as scholars struggled to design methods for sifting evidence, for defining options, and for making choices concerning the texts they wished to use or publish, their struggle at times ending in despair and exhaustion. As more and more manuscripts were brought to light and made accessible in continuously growing libraries and private collections, scholars needed new tools to understand and manage textual variance. Which manuscripts should be used, and how could their quality be gauged? Why did their texts differ? How should they be transcribed and published? Should vernacular texts be translated into Latin? What kind of comments were needed – factual, historical, or textual?

Such technicalities, in other words the painstaking travails of textual scholarship, deserve to be a focus of attention in an overarching history of the humanities. This history should not restrict itself to the brilliant ideas of philosophers and theologians. Developments in the humanities were based on the “rough” material of ancient textual sources, and in this article I hope to show how scholarship in the Early Modern age needed to plough through vexed issues of textual variance, manuscript hunting and compilation that, although often coming to dead ends and not always resulting in successful publications, were nevertheless seminal to developments in history writing, philology, and language scholarship.

I will focus on an area to which the history of scholarship has paid scant attention: the kingdom of Denmark-Norway in the late seventeenth century. Somewhat earlier, the English antiquarian Henry Spelman characterized this “unlearned” kingdom as being on “the confines of the Arctic Circle.”

Although an abundance of Icelandic and Norwegian medieval texts and manuscripts was rediscovered and the first editions appeared in 1664-1673, none of them was based on a critical assessment of manuscripts. In the 1680s and 1690s a renewed effort was made that, had it succeeded, would have delivered interesting results. Lamentably, however, this endeavour did not produce editions, partly due to a lack of funds but chiefly because of methodological difficulties. The scholars involved were aware of the value of vellum manuscripts but unable to solve the problem of textual variance, that is the fact that manuscripts of any specific work differed in many ways, and a scholar who wanted to produce an edition would have to make choices based on critical discernment and clear principles.

Instead of using standards of philological correctness of our present age to judge these late seventeenth-century efforts, I shall base my estimate on the exceptional insights of the late fifteenth-century Florentine scholar Angelo Politian, the enfant terrible of late medieval and early modern scholarship. In a way, Politian’s philological ideals were so close to modern procedures that they seem almost too good to be true; his practice in that sense resembles what Ezio Ornato has calleduna semplice curiosità archeologica” [a mere archaeological curiosity]. Politian’s example was only followed by scholars in more recent times, but nonetheless his philological ideal can be used as a benchmark for developments in the Early Modern period. Arrogant and impatient at times, he was an incredibly observant scholar who wished to outperform his contemporaries as he strove to establish better versions of ancient Greek and Roman texts through linguistic refinement and the meticulous observation of manuscripts. He wanted to base his work on a thorough investigation of as many manuscripts as possible, preferring older ones but not discarding more recent texts that might be copies of ancient books.

Politian’s work demonstrates his critical assessment of the quality of manuscripts and the ways in which they were related. He made very careful collations of manuscripts and printed editions, rigorous transcripts of texts that he borrowed, and emendations, judiciously based on other texts written by the same author or his direct environment. Politian loathed inexactitude and harshly criticized his predecessors and contemporaries for making too many mistakes. In his Miscellaneorum centuria prima of 1489, for one, he attacked the late Domizio Calderini for his sloppy method. Jacopo Antiquari, Calderini’s friend in Milan, complained about this in a letter and claimed that since Calderini was long dead, it was like attacking a ghost. Politian retorted on 30 November 1489 that he could not know whether Calderini would have corrected his mistakes if he had still been alive:

How should I know this? Are you really saying that it is always and everywhere a good idea to expect intellectual progress? [An usquequaque de ingeniorum profectu bene sperare est?] Were not all of this particular person’s final contributions even more inaccurate?

In Politian’s view, progress came with hard work. His influence, however, was limited—like Calderini, in this respect, he died too soon. Most scholars continued to make many mistakes, and even the best were careless in their choice of manuscripts and variants. When Erasmus, for instance, published his Greek edition of the New Testament in Basel in 1516, he used five manuscripts. One of them is preserved, a twelfth-century vellum now known to be devoid of textual value. Although aware of the value of old manuscripts, Erasmus relied mostly on recent ones with scant merit. Where the Greek text was lacking, he even added bits of his own translation from the Vulgate, thus revealing, to quote L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, “a lack of a set of logical principles for the evaluation of manuscripts.” In his edition of the works of Seneca in 1515 and 1529, Erasmus recognized the worth of a ninth-century manuscript he had acquired, but he did not use it much: “Instead of basing his text of these works upon this prime witness, he drew on it spasmodically to emend what he had before him.”

It soon became standard practice for most editors to use first editions as a basic text—textus receptus or textus vulgatus—adding selected readings from manuscripts that were mentioned only vaguely (“emendatio ope codicum”) and various conjectures (“emendatio ope ingenii”), at times original, but just as often borrowed or stolen. Th ere were some exceptions, however. In around 1530-1570, scholars of Roman law, such as Antonio Agustín, Piero Vettori, Jacques Cujas and Joseph Scaliger, criticized older editions severely, tracing the genealogy of manuscripts and publishing transcripts of those they considered important. They normalized orthography and corrected errors, and even made typographical distinctions between variants and conjectures.

Such efforts were consolidated every time that scholars made a determined effort to gather manuscripts in growing libraries. Although most libraries were private, the biggest ones, kept by kings, dukes and universities, were public. From the 1640s onwards, this enabled Dutch scholars such as Nicolaas Heinsius and Isaac Vossius to produce better editions, partly through their ingenuity in making emendations and conjectures based on a wider knowledge of texts, but also through a closer scrutiny of manuscripts. Scholars came to prefer their specific texts above earlier editions, although at times some were overwhelmed and only produced heaps of variants without distinction.

This process of strenuous and uneven progress was mirrored further to the north, but developed more slowly and with less spectacular results in terms of editions. Influenced by Italian humanists, scholars in Northern Europe had begun searching for documents and manuscripts already in the early sixteenth century. Interesting texts were discovered such as the plays and poetry composed by Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim in the tenth century; they were edited and published by Konrad Celtis in Nürnberg 1501.

In 1515, his friend Konrad Peutinger used recently found manuscripts to publish The History of the Goths, written by Jordanes in the sixth century, and The History of the Longobards by the ninth-century historian Paulus Diaconus.

In 1514, Christiern Pedersen, a Danish student of theology in Paris, published the extensive early thirteenth-century Latin History of the Danes (Gesta Danorum) by Saxo Grammaticus—and was actually among the first editors to use the blurb text for claiming that this was the first time a text appeared in print: “nunc primum literaria seriæ illustratæ tersissime que impressæ.” Later, he wished to make a Danish translation of Saxo with detailed explanations on Nordic history. Aware of the existence of manuscripts of medieval sagas of Norwegian kings, he hired a Norwegian man of learning who knew the old language to make excerpts.

A Danish translation of Saxo first appeared in 1575, when the historian Anders Sørensen Vedel concluded one. The first Danish translation of the Norwegian kings’ sagas appeared in Copenhagen in 1594 and a more thorough one in 1633, when Ole Worm, in his introduction, compared the writings of the thirteenth-century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson to Greek and Roman historical works, stating that they were just as useful and truthful.

As late as the 1630s, the Dutch historians Johannes Meursius and Johannes Pontanus wrote eloquently on the medieval history of Denmark without using a single manuscript. It was by then well known that medieval manuscripts of great interest for the medieval history and culture of Scandinavia were to be found in Iceland. The first batches were sent as gifts to the Danish king in 1656 and 1662 by the learned bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson who hoped that Icelandic texts would be published with a Latin translation and a scholarly commentary.

Swedish scholars, arguing with Danish ones about the age of their two nations, also showed an interest in Icelandic texts containing references to Swedish kings. In 1664-1673, a series of text editions appeared in Uppsala and Copenhagen with translations into Danish, Swedish and Latin, but all of them were worse than anything produced in Europe at the time. Any available manuscripts were used regardless of their scholarly value, mostly recent and inexact copies from Iceland, and the editors’ commentaries reveal a credulous attitude towards the text and a blatant lack of critical zeal.

This was the scholarly norm when Árni Magnússon [1663-1730], or Arnas Magnæus as he will be called here, arrived in Copenhagen in 1683, at the age of twenty, to study theology at the university, just like many promising young men of good families in Iceland. A year later he became assistant to Thomas Bartholin the Younger, the recently appointed royal antiquarian, and provided numerous Icelandic texts for his fairly voluminous book on the fearlessness of medieval Danes, published in Copenhagen in 1689.

Magnæus developed rapidly as a textual scholar. In 1684-1685 he made hundreds of short excerpts from Icelandic manuscripts of sagas and historical works, using recent copies available in the city, most of them of disputable quality, copied without care for reading purposes and not for scholarly use. The Icelandic vellums that belonged to the king and the university were all at Stangeland, on the west coast of Norway, with the Icelander Þormóður Torfason or Thormod Torfæus, royal historiographer of Norway.

Magnæus’s method of transcription was simple. He used his own orthography and expanded the abbreviations in the manuscript he copied (exemplar), so that he gave everything his personal touch. Bartholin and Magnæus did not care about the age of the manuscripts or texts they used. To them, all texts were equally interesting, and they used what was at hand, such as an early seventeenth-century copy of Knytlinga saga, a saga on Danish medieval kings that Ole Worm had received from Iceland some decades earlier. In collaboration with an unknown Icelander, Magnæus copied the legendary Hrólfs saga kraka from a paper copy and translated it into Latin. He also made a copy of the Norwegian thirteenth-century Speculum regale (Konungs skuggsjá), again in collaboration with an unknown scribe, but now from a vellum manuscript that belonged to Peder Resen, professor of law at the university. In one place, Magnæus commented on the fact that a leaf was missing. He corrected what the other scribe had done, and they both modernized the spelling.

Although one of his exemplars was on vellum and the other a recent copy, the method was consistent. The goal was to make texts readable and accessible, so that information would be available on a variety of relevant issues. The transcripts were meticulous, and few changes were made, except for the spelling. This is how Icelandic scribes had worked earlier in the century. Magnæus followed their tradition and not without success.

In 1685-1686, Magnæus changed his mind completely, as if he suddenly discovered that things could be done so much better. In the spring of 1685, he went to Iceland in order to collect manuscripts for Bartholin; he stayed until the autumn of 1686. He found nothing that Bartholin needed, but obtained for himself a few legal codices and made copies of medieval legal texts in a manner totally different from what he had done so far, in more detail and with greater exactitude. As he returned to Copenhagen, he responded to this “revelation” by transcribing several texts from a late fourteenth-century collection of Icelandic sagas, recently acquired by Resen from a student who had been with Torfæus as a scribe for three years.

The transcript is exceptionally detailed and can be situated on what philologists now call the diplomatic level. Magnæus strove to imitate the orthography and abbreviations of the original, and succeeded except for minor inconsistencies in some details. He emended the text in a few places and put his additions within square brackets. This “new” method seems to have been based on a mixture of foreign models and personal fascination due to direct contact with vellum manuscripts.

The exceptional attention to detail was probably inspired by his reading of scholarly books and editions in Bartholin’s library of at least 2400 volumes. Here, Magnæus had access to hundreds of editions of classical and medieval texts and to the most recent scholarly feats of Jean Mabillon and others—not to mention Angeli Politiani opera, published in Paris in 1519. By now, Magnæus had decided to acquire as many Icelandic texts as possible in good copies, probably hoping to establish a research library of sorts. However, he soon found the newly developed diplomatic method too time-consuming and opted instead for a somewhat easier way of copying texts in a normalized orthography with expanded abbreviations. He did not go so far, however, as to use his own orthography like he had done earlier. In the winter of 1687-1688 he copied another fourteenth-century vellum of Icelandic sagas, Möðruvallabók, with two friends who studied at the university, Ásgeir Jónsson and Eyjólfur Björnsson. They expanded all abbreviations and wrote all names with a majuscule. Corrections were not indicated, and not all medieval letter-forms were maintained.

In the autumn of 1688, Torfæus came to Copenhagen to claim his salary that was long overdue. He was working on books on the medieval history of Denmark and Norway, published in 1702 and 1711, respectively. He befriended his much younger countryman Magnæus who confided that he planned an edition of a crucial historical work, the early twelfth-century Book of Icelanders (Íslendingabók). Written by chieftain, priest and historian Ari Thorgilsson the Wise, it succinctly narrates the discovery and colonization of Iceland in the late ninth century and its subsequent Christianization. The edition was intended for scholarly readers and was to contain a Latin translation and an extensive historical commentary. It would have added invaluably to the knowledge of Icelandic medieval history and was accepted for publication in Copenhagen in spring 1691, but never appeared. My contention is that Magnæus abandoned the edition because textual and factual inconsistencies in medieval manuscripts stretched the limits of his method. Rather than accepting these inconsistencies as some sort of challenge by integrating them in his work, he discontinued the project.

Magnæus’s first problem was that he had no decent copy of the text and had to use whatever manuscript he could lay his hands on. To our present knowledge, an early thirteenth-century vellum manuscript was extant in Iceland in around 1650. A highly qualified scribe, Jón Erlendsson, made two copies for the aforementioned Bishop Brynjólfur before the manuscript disappeared, one of them (AM 113 b fol.) better than the other (AM 113 a fol.)—now both in the Arnamagnæan collection. Several copies were soon made of the version that was most faulty; subsequent copies of these copies grew more deficient with each generation. At some point in 1688, Magnæus received one of those bad copies, unfortunately not preserved, and made a copy for himself that he intended to use in his edition.

In the summer of 1688, the Book of Icelanders was published together with the much longer Book of Settlement by Bishop Thordur Thorlaksson at the only printing press in Iceland. The text was based directly on the manuscript AM 113 a fol. with a few judicious corrections. The editorial principles are explained in a short introduction, but there is no commentary and no translation. When Magnæus received the printed book in the autumn of that year, he must have realized that this edition was far better than the copy he had made for himself. Paradoxically, he showed no sign of using the edition in his work but instead insisted that Torfæus should send him a manuscript of the text even if it contained exactly the same text as the printed edition.

In early 1690, Magnæus added to his copy a few marginal notes based on this manuscript, but should have made many more had he wanted to be thorough and consistent. In 1691 and 1692, Magnæus received both of Jón Erlendsson’s mid-century copies from Iceland and corrected his text in various places on the basis of the better copy, but again not consistently. Simultaneously, he collated that copy with the other good one. He now had the best manuscripts and knew it, but as he saw that there were more and different copies, he seems to have lost his way and instead of redoing the text, he abandoned the project. Magnæus’s other problem was the commentary. The Book of Icelanders is only five thousand words in length, but poses intricate issues of chronology that appeared insoluble—and some of them really are. Magnæus went to stay with Torfæus at Stangeland for a few months in 1689.

On his way back to Copenhagen, he wrote a letter asking Torfæus where he had read that the Norwegian king Harald Fairhair was born at the moment that King Gorm of Denmark had been in power for seven years. Torfæus replied that this conclusion was “ex hypothesi,” since medieval chronicles claimed that Gorm became king in the year 840 and Harald was born in 848. The problem Magnæus and Torfæus encountered was that medieval chronicles and kings’ sagas hardly ever mention dates and do not agree with each other on how many years various kings stayed in power.

About Harald Fairhair, allegedly the first king of a unified Norway, Magnæus concluded at one point that there was so much confusion that he saw no possibility of figuring out anything at all. Torfæus claimed that only the oldest historians should be used and not the ones that followed them. No author, however, could be entirely trusted since all of them made their own guesses and even mixed things up. For this reason, Torfæus repeated, a scholar had to work “ex hypothesibus.” Having done what could be done, the scholar should decide, or better still the community of scholars, or as Torfæus wrote on 2 October 1690: “It is best that both of us agree, and Bartholinus, and exclaim a single adieu!”

When Magnæus insisted, Torfæus offered to include his arguments in the book. Magnæus should also publish both versions, and it would be left to the readers to decide. Any further discussion would be a waste of time and paper. Torfæus went on to write several learned volumes, discussing various options for a variety of problems in the texts, but Magnæus only produced handwritten notes. It needs to be said that a contributing factor to Magnæus’s failure to produce an edition of the Book of Icelanders may have been the perceived or real lack of interest in Nordic medieval history on the continent. This lack of interest is apparent, for instance, in the fact that the only writers of Danish history mentioned in Adam Rechenberg’s general presentation of necessary learning, published in Leipzig in 1691, were Saxo Grammaticus and Pontanus, whose Rerum Danicarum historia was published sixty years earlier.

Perhaps in response to this lack of interest, Magnæus published a short Danish medieval chronicle in Latin in Leipzig in 1695, transcribed from an old vellum manuscript (“pervetusto codice membraneo“) that belonged to the university library in Copenhagen. In his introduction Magnæus shows his debt to his predecessors by connecting his modest effort to famous names in the scholarly world, praising Marcus Meibomius, Roger Twysden and Jean Mabillon for their exemplary editions. His hope of publishing a manuscript fragment on Danish kings did not come true, however. In his own words, this was because of the reluctance of German printers to print a text in the Icelandic language, although it is clear that his Latin translation was far from ready and the commentary in shambles, as Magnæus constantly changed his mind, and he was, as with The Book of Icelanders before, overcome with doubts.

The lesson Magnæus learned from his erudite struggles was that instead of writing and publishing, he should do two things, both of them within what can be called Politian’s program of a necessary assessment of the quality of manuscripts and the making of rigorous transcripts of borrowed ones:

1. Transcripts should be made with great care and exactitude. One example of this notion will have to suffice, relative to two Icelandic vellum manuscripts in the Ducal Library in Wolfenbüttel, registered as Icelandic mythology and poems. In the early months of 1697 the dukes sent their librarian [Lorenz] Hertel to Stockholm in order to pay their respects to Sweden’s new king. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, philosopher, historian and head-librarian in Wolfenbüttel, had recently become interested in septentrional matters and sent one of the manuscripts to his correspondent, the Swedish scholar Johan Gabriel Sparwenfeld. Leibniz did not know the contents but thought that the manuscript was written in verse without rhyme “en Islandois ou en vieux Scandinave.” Sparwenfeld persuaded Hertel to take the manuscript to Magnæus in Copenhagen, something Leibniz agreed to afterwards:

Mr. Hertel left our Icelandic manuscript with Mister Arnas Magnæus in Copenhagen, if it is useful to him, so much the better. Libraries and manuscripts need only be available for the use of skilled people.

Magnæus had the aforementioned Ásgeir Jónsson, again in Copenhagen, make a copy of the two Icelandic thirteenth-century family sagas: Eyrbyggja saga (AM 450 a 4to) and Egils saga (AM 461 4to). As the first and last pages were illegible, Magnæus copied them himself. He already had several copies of both sagas and filled two gaps in the Wolfenbüttel manuscript with a text from other versions. Another scribe helped him to compare the transcript with the original, and Magnæus concluded that, although not copied letter by letter and except for the poems and some important sentences, the transcript was reliable.

In June 1701 he sent the manuscript back with a report on its contents. In his collection as it survives to this day, there are at least 500 copies that he made or had his assistants make, all of them based on these principles, besides thousands of transcripts of Icelandic, Norwegian and Danish charters and other documents.

2. All extant manuscripts should be tracked down. Many interesting and quite dramatic stories could be told about Magnæus’s search for manuscripts. A good example is his chase after a fourteenth-century manuscript of the historical work Sturlunga saga, only preserved there and in another contemporary manuscript, acquired by Magnæus in 1699 (AM 122 a fol.).

The so-called Reykjarfjarðarbók (AM 122 b fol.) was torn to pieces in 1676-1679 as it was damaged by moisture. The owner, a well-to-do farmer, gave leaves to his friends for use as book covers. Magnæus was informed about the manuscript’s tormented existence in 1693 and went on to trace its remains for three decades. In all, he retrieved 30 pages out of an estimated 180 that made up the original manuscript. At least seven colleagues sent him one or more leaves, the last two leaves arriving in 1724. His painstaking efforts can be seen in his request to Árni Gudmundsson in 1707, as he asked where and when the first known owner at Reykjarfjörður had obtained the book. Was it complete when Árni saw it? If not, what was missing: how much or how little, in the beginning, middle or end? Was the whole book readable or was it damaged because of moisture or black stains? Who exactly possessed leaves, and would it be possible to retrieve them?

When Magnæus died on 7 January 1730, his collection comprised close to three thousand manuscripts and fragments, almost one-third of them on vellum. Half of those are fragments of less than six leaves. In a limited sense it can be claimed that he thus came close to the idea of recension—fully developed in the late eighteenth century, according to Timpanaro—as he desired to gather together all manuscripts of a determined text, not only vellums but also seventeenth-century copies. In this wish for completeness, Magnæus went further than any contemporary scholar or collector of manuscripts. Unlike Politian, however, he never developed a clear sense of how to manage the difference between manuscripts. He was not alone in this, as shown from the careless and arbitrary method of Lenglet de Fresnoy in his edition of Le Roman de la Rose in 1735; but it must be said that some or even many editors of that time were more scrupulous.

In the course of his studies, Magnæus’s understanding of textual variance hardly improved, as can be seen in his handling of some seventeenth-century copies of an otherwise lost medieval text on church history called Hungurvaka. It was hopelessly confused, and I shall spare the reader the details. Before 1700, one of his assistants made a copy (a) of one (b) of these manuscripts and Magnæus collated it with another one (c). He then asked another assistant to make a copy (d) of his collated copy (b), but without the added variants (“varias lectiones”). In 1724, Magnæus compared this second copy (d) “accuratissime” with the original (b) used to produce the first copy (a), making numerous corrections. Finally, he collated his copy (d) with a third seventeenth-century manuscript (e) and wrote down all the differences in the margins. His copy now contained an “accuratissima collation” of the two oldest manuscripts (b, e) of this important text, as he happily concluded. The only reason for doing all this appears to have been to throw away the first copy (a), useless since he now had its text on the margins of other copies.

Returning to the Book of Icelanders in his later years, Magnæus concluded, erroneously as we have seen, that as a young man he had copied the text as exactly as he then could. In around 1720 he made an exact copy of his best copy and most likely recognized that his own version of 1688-1690 was useless, although he did not discard it. He copied some of his old commentary and revised a number of items. When, ultimately, he did not publish an edition, he now justified his inactivity by claiming that the world of books was replete with products of vanity. He had never intended to write books himself and was convinced, as he explained to an assistant, “that a man could spend almost his whole life in putting together a little booklet.”

As a philologist, Magnæus gradually gained a finer understanding of the quality of texts and manuscripts, but this understanding was never brought to fruition in printed editions. His scholarship, seminal as it may have been for the origin of Icelandic studies, did not reach the public arena of European philology. The Republic of Letters allowed the participation of Scandinavian scholars of course, but there was limited interest in northern languages, culture and history. The thriving Anglo-Saxon studies in England were the closest field of research, much of it just as admirable in the details and the driving force the same, that is to replace or at least displace the old view that the origin of European languages and culture should be sought in Greek or Roman Antiquity. There was little contact, however, and scholars of medieval Iceland remained isolated.

We can thus safely conclude that Magnæus’s diligent but inconspicuous scholarship, inspired as it may have been by the wish to transplant the ideas of humanistic philology to Scandinavia, was only partly successful in the sense that his activities did not become an integrated part of the wider European developments in philology and historiography. His image in the historiography of the humanities therefore remains that of a hunter for manuscripts and maker of copies, and he left the task of coping with textual variance to posterity by donating his collection to the University of Copenhagen after his death. To be fair, some of the problems he encountered remain unresolved to this day.

Már Jónsson is professor of history at the University of Iceland (Reykjavík). This article originally appeared as a chapter in The Making of the Humanities. Volume 1: Early Modern Europe.

Featured: etching of Árni Magnússon (1663-1730), Icelandic scholar and collector of manuscripts.

Savonarola and His Cult

On 26 August 1583 a long and alarming-sounding letter was making its way through Florence, sent by the city’s leading prelate, Archbishop Alessandro de’ Medici, to its main political authority, the Grand-Duke of Tuscany Francesco I de’ Medici. With respect to the cult of Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican friar who had been hanged and burned at the stake in Florence in 1498, the archbishop observed: “si fanno delle conventicole per le case” (“they hold conventicles in houses”). Alessandro de’ Medici was referring to the Florentine laypeople who were gathering in private homes to venerate Savonarola. His remark tells us that, nearly one century after Savonarola’s death, the cult of the friar was still alive and that it was being practised in private households and not in public.

This essay examines the domestic cult of Savonarola and aims at providing a concise answer to a set of crucial questions: did domestic devotion to Savonarola really exist and if so in what did it consist? Why was it domestic? How reliable are the hagiographic sources that document it? How did political and religious authorities react to it? How did Savonarola’s followers manage to preserve it? How does it fit into the larger picture of Counter-Reformation Italy? Answering these questions will also help us to understand why the domestic cult of Savonarola continued throughout the sixteenth century, unlike his public veneration.

To begin with, we need to grasp the nature of Savonarola’s domestic cult. In the same letter of 1583, with reference to both lay and religious people, the archbishop gave a detailed description of these conventicles:

They secretly celebrate his office as if he were a martyr, they keep his relics as if he were a saint, including the stake from which he was hanged, the iron shackles that supported him, his clothes, his hoods, his bones which were left over from the fire, his ashes, and his cilice. They keep the wine he had consecrated, they give it to the sick, they collect his miracles, they produce portraits of him in bronze, in gold, in cameos, and in print.

From Alessandro de’ Medici’s account, it was clear that the collections of miracles ascribed to the friar were an essential component of a religious practice that sought to preserve Savonarola’s memory as a saint and a martyr. The most important of these is a text known as the Trattato dei miracoli (Treatise of Miracles of Fra Girolamo Savonarola), a collection of miracles that were attributed to Savonarola’s intercession. The Trattato was not the work of a single author: it was compiled during the course of the sixteenth century by various anonymous writers who wished to contribute to the development of a collective memory of Savonarola as a saint who had miraculous powers. This was a process of memory construction whose obvious hagiographical aim was a part of a larger operation aimed at whitewashing Savonarola’s image and turning a figure deemed by religious authorities to be a heretic and schismatic into a saint.

Understandably, like many other works on Savonarola penned during the same period, the Trattato was never printed: it was part of a clandestine literary production that could be written, circulated and read only in manuscript. Printed books needed a formal permission from the Roman Catholic Church authorities and no imprimatur of orthodoxy could be granted to a text that rehabilitated a heretic.

Owing to the unusual way the Trattato was produced, every manuscript copy of the work is different from all the others. The richest one of all, the one with the greatest number of miracles, is the MS Italian 13 in the John Rylands Library in Manchester. This is a thick volume, written in vernacular Italian in the sixteenth century in a clear hand, though poorly preserved. It contains more than one hundred miracles, the most recent of which dates to 1578. In it, there are many accounts that cannot be found in any other version of the work. Many speak of a devotion to Savonarola that was practised in private households.

The stories and people vary, but they all have this in common: in each narrative a miracle occurs after Savonarola (or one of his fellow martyrs) has been invoked and worshipped by some man or woman in dire circumstances. Such is the story of the sculptor Bartolo da Montelupo, who had been poisoned in Bologna in the house of a Canon of the local Cathedral. He lay bedridden for six months growing thin and weak, at which point he prayed to the late Savonarola who appeared to him. The friar instructed Bartolo to get up and leave the house, which he did; and from that moment he found that he was perfectly cured.

Then there is the story of a semi-paralysed Florentine woman named Cassandra Acciaiuoli. After languishing in bed at home for a long time, one day she prayed to the “three friars”—Savonarola and the two fellow-friars who had been executed with him in 1498. No sooner had she concluded her prayer than she suddenly felt better, her legs came back to life, and she was able to stand up and walk again.

These are just two examples of a huge number of miracles performed with Savonarola’s intercession for the benefit of private citizens who had prayed and sought help from him in their own homes. Quite surprisingly, the household might conceal different kinds of objects that could be used, if needed, to obtain a miracle from Savonarola. The wife of Paolo degli Albizzi was healed by a piece of Savonarola’s cowl which she conveniently kept in a trunk, while another Florentine woman, very seriously ill, immediately recovered after taking in her hand a portrait of Savonarola she owned.

This may imply that the devotion to Savonarola did not only exist in time of need: relics and portraits were often kept in the houses of the Florentines and other people, just as today portraits or devotional objects of official saints may still be found in many Italian households. And the domestic devotion of another sick woman, Fiammetta Martelli, appears to have been even more structured, since her bedroom was organised as a sacred space. Afflicted by an incurable disease of the throat, in 1565 she promptly got better after reading a biography of Savonarola, placing a relic of the friar on her diseased body part, and praying to him at a small altar in her bedroom. In the case of Carlo Pitti—suffering from a painful illness in his leg in Florence in 1508—we also have the text of the Latin prayer he recited in his room while holding a fragment of Savonarola’s flesh, before recovering and being able to walk again.

In the Trattato, invoking Savonarola clearly ran counter to more traditional medical methods. In fact, a certain Iacopo Lancillotti positively refused to take his doctor’s prescription and preferred to pray to Savonarola, upon which he was immediately healed. And sometimes devotion did not end with the recovery, as in the case of the Ferrarese Pellegrino Depedai. In commemoration of his miraculous healing, every week, on the same day, Depedai lit a candle in front of a portrait of Savonarola he kept at home. It is also interesting that apparently the domestic cult to Savonarola was not confined to Italy: the Trattato dei miracoli also tells of a priest healed in his home in Spain while lying in bed, after he had called on Savonarola who promptly appeared to him.

Most of the accounts contained in the Trattato tell of people lying in bed with a serious, often terminal illness, invoking Savonarola’s help to recover. This image calls to mind countless Italian ex-voto tablets: votive panels that were common in Renaissance Italy and were produced to thank the religious figure responsible for a miracle and preserve and transmit the memory of the event. In these tablets the scene is often centred on the sickbed, which plays a very important role in the creation of a sacred space. Unfortunately, no votive panel is known for Savonarola’s miracles, which is not surprising considering that he was an illegal saint whose cult had been forbidden. Ex-votos were made to be displayed at shrines and were much less easy to produce, reproduce, hide, and circulate than a manuscript volume.

Apart from the traditional healing of ill people lying in bed, other kinds of miracles exist in the Trattato, including a debtor obtaining a deferral for his payment and even a rotten and fetid wine transformed into an exquisite drink that smelt of violets. Savonarola’s miracles thus seemed to extend far beyond the domain of healing, and to encompass a wide range of practical problems that the faithful needed to solve. The more inexplicable the outcome, the more it could be ascribed to supernatural intervention and the more Savonarola’s authority was enhanced. The picture drawn by the narratives in the Trattato is one of a widespread devotion that was not limited to Florence, Tuscany or Italy, practised by both lay people and clerics, men and women, nobles and people of humble rank.

The accounts contained in the Trattato dei miracoli and in sources like it, such as biographies and hagiographic narratives written by Savonarola’s many followers, raise a question of trustworthiness that cannot be ignored. They certainly tell us much about popular culture and popular narratives, but to what extent can they be regarded as historical sources? What needs to be determined here is the reliability of the first part of the story, not the second: not the account of the supernatural event but of the report that people would invoke Savonarola’s help when they were ill in bed or in some other trouble. In other words: did devotion to Savonarola really exist in sixteenth-century Italy or was it the creation of the hagiographers who were seeking to build up the myth of the late friar? I argue that the Trattato’s narratives stem from a true historical fact: devotion to Savonarola really existed, was well known inside and outside Florence, and was an integral feature of early modern Tuscan piety.

In addition to the Trattato, a hagiographical work that was clearly inspired by Savonarolan propaganda, the existence of a Savonarolan cult is attested by other types of sources, such as letters, ordinances, chronicles, writings, liturgical texts, and even relics. Obviously, it is more difficult to find direct testimonies of private and intimate devotions than of cults openly performed in public places in front of hundreds of people, such as celebrations in churches or processions. This could have led to an underestimation of a phenomenon that was not only confined to the home but was also practised clandestinely. That said, even public documents can provide some useful evidence. Many of them are indirect testimonies, produced by worried religious and civic authorities who wished to suppress the Savonarolan cult, such as Archbishop Alessandro de’ Medici’s letter cited at the beginning of this essay.

The very existence of these concerns is itself a demonstration that the cult existed and was largely practised, or nobody would have felt the need to intervene. The ordinances against the cult of Savonarola in convents and private homes commenced long before 1583. Indeed, as early as February 1499, less than a year after the friar’s execution in May 1498, Francesco Mei, Procurator of the Dominican order, issued an ordinance banning any conversation about Savonarola and his prophecies, the possession of the three friars’ relics (bones, hair, fragments of skin, pieces of wood taken from the scaffold) and those of anybody else who was not canonised by the Church. It also prohibited the exposition of Savonarola’s prophecy both in public and private (“in publico vel private”).

A later offensive, which did not concern only the Dominican order, was launched in 1515. In that year, Giulio de’ Medici, vicar of the Florentine archbishop and future pope Clement VII, issued a new ordinance against Savonarolan devotion: anyone who harboured in his house ashes, bones, teeth, portraits, imprints, other relics or writings of the friar must turn them in to the vicar of the archbishop or face punishment. In 1545 the duke of Florence, Cosimo I de’ Medici, himself took action and even accused the friars of San Marco of idolatrous veneration of Savonarola, and promoting his worship as a saint.

Contrary to what one might think, after forty years, the problem had not gone away. Apparently, friars and lay citizens still had the unseemly habit of evoking Savonarola’s miracles, and their cells and households were still cluttered with objects associated with him. In 1585, not long after Alessandro de’ Medici’s concerned letter to the Grand-Duke, the head of the Dominican order acted again, as his predecessor had done in 1499. The fact that the new ordinance’s content is almost the word for word copy of the old one is the best demonstration that the devotion still existed. In much the same way as Francesco Mei had done, Sisto Fabbri, Master General of the order, commanded as follows:

Nobody must dare to name the name of Girolamo Savonarola when dealing with friars, nuns or lay people, to discuss his life or his miracles, or him and his companions in any way, or keep his portraits, pictures or any kind of object…. We order… that all such objects are to be handed over within one day (Ordinance of Sisto Fabbri, 5 April 1585).

That the above-mentioned objects were being used for the purposes of an illicit devotion and not for the harmless preservation of the friar’s memory clearly emerges in another passage of the same ordinance which refers to an earlier unheeded decree prescribing that only people officially canonised by the Church could be venerated, and not those who had been condemned. Formal ordinances issued by the authorities are not the only testimonies of the domestic cult of Savonarola. Sometimes convent chronicles mention friars and nuns praying to Savonarola in their own cells. The works written for and against the friar during the sixteenth century also tell us that private homes in and outside Florence were occasionally transformed into sacred spaces to worship Savonarola. Both defenders and opponents agreed that a cult of Savonarola existed. The former saw it as evidence of the spiritual fascination a true prophet exerted over a number of faithful, the latter as proof of the deception he had intentionally perpetrated on his naïve followers.

The most interesting testimony is undoubtedly that of the Dominican bishop Ambrogio Catarino Politi, a controversialist who turned against Savonarola after being one of his staunchest supporters. As such, he was in a privileged position to know even the most secret practices of the friar’s followers. In his Discorso contra fra Girolamo Savonarola (1548), printed exactly fifty years after Savonarola’s execution, he painted a vivid picture of the way Savonarola’s followers still venerated the late friar:

They should not superstitiously worship him, as I know for sure many of them are wont to do and persist in doing. And they keep his painted or sculpted image with letters that read ‘Prophet and Martyr’. There are even others who keep his ashes or some other things of his and venerate them as holy relics (Politi Ambrogio Catarino, Discorso contra la dottrina et le profetie di fra Girolamo Savonarola [Venice, Gabriele Giolito: 1548], fol. 18r).

As if this were not enough, Catarino also went to the trouble of offering advice to the authorities in order to show them the way to eradicate the cult of Savonarola: “‘strictly to order that nobody should dare to venerate him [Savonarola] in any way, and to forbid all the conventicles which I heard are held, where sacrifices and group prayers to Fra Girolamo are made.”

Another important source are the Divine Offices composed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for the purpose of praying to Savonarola. At least one of these was certainly composed during the papacy of Clement VIII Aldobrandini (1592–1605), when Savonarola’s followers thought that the time had finally come for him to be canonised. These texts were meant to be recited on the anniversary of Savonarola’s death (23 May) and inserted into the Roman Breviary. The offices are divided into parts to be prayed at different times of the day, and their structure – including psalms and hymns, antiphons and responsories – follows the traditional Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. The texts contain invocations to “Beatus Hieronymus” (“Blessed Girolamo”) and “Sanctus Martyr Hieronymus” (“Saint Martyr Girolamo”) and a long part is devoted to the description of Savonarola’s life from his childhood to his death. We do not know exactly when, where and by whom they were recited orally, but we may suppose that this is the sort of “office” to which Archbishop Alessandro de’ Medici was referring in his letter (“they secretly celebrate an office in his honour as if he were a martyr”). The picture is completed by material sources: alleged relics of Savonarola are currently housed in the Convent of San Marco in Florence, the very place where Savonarola spent all his years in the city: a cowl, a rosary, a wooden fragment of the scaffold, two cilices and a piece of cloth.

Obviously, there is no way of assessing whether these objects were actually linked with the friar himself. Most were donated to the convent in 1686, almost two centuries after his demise. However, their importance clearly goes well beyond whether they can be reliably attributed. Regardless of the links tracing them back to Savonarola, we know that relics like these existed and were an integral feature of the domestic devotion to Savonarola in households and convent cells.

Having ascertained that domestic devotion to Savonarola existed, the next question that arises is why this devotion was domestic. The most obvious answer is that, being prohibited, the Savonarolan cult could not be practised in public places. With the exception of the years 1527–1530, when a popular, anti-Medici republic was reintroduced in Florence and public celebrations in honour of Savonarola flourished, the cult of the friar was unwelcome not only to the Florentine government but also to religious authorities in and outside the Dominican order. Another possible answer focuses on a more intimate and private side of devotion to Savonarola.

We know that in the Savonarolan years the friar promoted theatrical and collective celebrations, not only public processions but spectacles performed in public squares before huge crowds, such as the bonfire of the vanities or the trial by fire. Nevertheless, alongside this sensational and public devotion a different kind of piety developed, one that was characterised by solitude and meditation. After all, Savonarola himself emphasised the primacy of mental over vocal prayer. Most importantly, Savonarola explicitly encouraged the practice of domestic devotion among late fifteenth-century Florentines. In one of his sermons, delivered in the Florentine cathedral in Lent 1496, the friar set out the programme of a liturgy to be recited in every home each evening and morning by all the members of the family, regardless of gender, age, or social status:

You, fathers, must order that at twenty-four hours on Saturday evening everybody should be at home with your family, and then all of you, men, women, children and servants shall go to a place in your house and here on your knees you shall recite the seven psalms and the litanies…. And then in the morning…. it will be good that you gather again in the same place, the master and the lady with the children around and the servants, and recite matins for the Virgin [Savonarola G., Prediche sopra Amos e Zaccaria, 3 vols., ed. P. Ghiglieri (Rome: 1971–72) vol. 3, 234–235].

His words did not go unheeded if we are to believe one of his hagiographers who (with clear exaggeration), observed that the kind of life Florentines led in the privacy of their homes was no different from that of churchmen: “In their houses [lay people] used to live like friars and clerics, and many noble people, waking up in the morning in their houses, and during the day, used to celebrate the divine office” (La vita del beato Ieronimo, 88).

In addition, Razzi wrote in another work: “We keep this veneration… with us, privately, and with God… in the hope that one day, at the order of the Holy Roman Catholic Church… he [Savonarola] will be canonised.” In short, Razzi claimed the right to a domestic devotion to Savonarola in spite of the friar’s condemnation, as if private devotion should not only be accepted de facto but recognised de jure. As if everybody, inside his own household, should be free to pray to and worship whomever he wanted, including a man condemned as a heretic. If this sounds odd, and in open contradiction with the Counter Reformation’s control over the private sphere, it is worth mentioning the decree that the Congregation of the Holy Office issued only three years later, in September 1601. The decree prohibited only public unauthorised prayers, and this meant that the Church surrendered control over private devotion. A confirmation of this compromise which was implied in the 1601 decree arrived, shortly after, from Giovanni Paolo Mucanzio, secretary of the Sacred Congregation of the Rites, the Catholic Church’s body responsible for the liturgical cult and canonisations. When asked about the legitimacy of the cult of a non-canonised person, he answered: “public cult and veneration… cannot be given to anybody without licence or authorisation of the Apostolic See… but private devotion and veneration cannot be denied to anybody.”

The same answer was also given by one of the most powerful and authoritative theologians of Counter-Reformation Italy, Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino: “whether it is permitted to venerate a noncanonised person, I answer that the private cult is permitted, but not the public one… It is permitted to invoke a non-canonised person… but not in public litanies.”

A manual for inquisitors composed a few years later refers to the 1601 decree and confirms that toleration towards the private sphere had been assimilated in everyday practice. In his Sacrum tribunal printed in Rome in 1648, the inquisitor and theologian Francesco Bordoni explained that the faithful were allowed privately to venerate people who had not been officially canonised by the Church: “They may invoke and worship [them] in their needs in private and secretly, because the decree forbids only public cults.”

The insistence on the word “private” in all the passages above, and my implicitly equating it with the term ‘domestic’ calls for a semantic clarification. One may think that the private cult refers to the interior dimension of prayer instead of the actual physical space where prayer was conducted, just like Savonarola’s distinction between mental and vocal orations. This is not what was meant, as was made quite clear by the theologian Felice Contelori in one of the major treatises of the time on canonisation, the Tractatus et praxis de canonizatione sanctorum, published in 1634. According to Contelori, place is the first criterion to distinguish a public from a private cult: a public cult is one held in a public place. A few decades later another work was even more explicit: in private homes people were allowed to venerate the portrait of a noncanonised person, “quia est cultus privatus” (“because this is a private cult”).

There can be no doubt that the “private” devotion referred to by Mucanzio, Bellarmino and Bordoni was the same thing as the “domestic” devotion practised in a household, a convent cell, or another private place. And, most importantly, this was the private devotion that Razzi claimed for his Savonarolan spirituality, and that in the same years the Congregation of the Holy Office renounced control over. This surrender of control over private devotion certainly comes as a surprise, in view of the fact this was an age when the Inquisition strove to intervene in a number of non-religious aspects of domestic everyday life, such as superstition, fasting, swearing and concubinage. But prayer was something different, and this compromise ultimately allowed a dual practice to emerge, creating the conditions in which certain devotions were prohibited in public but permitted in private spaces. Clearly this is a far cry from the ordinance issued by the Procurator of the Dominican order at the end of the fifteenth century, which sought simply to repress devotion to Savonarola “in publico vel private.”

The cult of Savonarola was certainly part of the processes known as the “domestication of the holy” and the “spiritualization of the household” which have ignited recent scholarly discussions, and not only with reference to Italy. After the Counter-Reformation, these processes involved the transfer of holy objects from sacred places into the household and, as a consequence, the sanctification of domestic space. The transfer of cults into private space clearly might allow the faithful to elude the control of Church authorities that oversaw the forms and contents of religious practice. It is not surprising that some centuries earlier the Carolingian Church conducted the process in reverse and transferred relics and the cults surrounding them from households to monasteries in order to bring them under institutional control.

In the sixteenth century the household could be a place of dissent, opposition and resistance to the official religion imposed by the state. With specific reference to early modern Italy, John Bossy observed that “the Counter-Reformation hierarchy seems to have taken it for granted that household religion was a seed-bed of subversion.” Duke Cosimo I and Archbishop Alessandro de’ Medici must have thought the same about the domestic devotion to Savonarola in Florentine houses and convents, but events would soon demonstrate that the friar’s legacy was no longer dangerous, neither politically nor religiously. As both the Republican and the Protestant threats had been defused, those few who wished to pray before an image of Savonarola could continue to do so, as long as they kept away from prying eyes.

Stefano Dall’Aglio is a political an religious historian at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. He is the author of Savonarola and Savonarolism, The Duke’s Assassin: Exile and Death of Lorenzino de’ Medici (winner of the Helen and Howard R. Marraro Prize), and Voices and Texts in Early Modern Italian Society. A version of this article appeared as a chapter in Domestic Devotions in Early Modern Italy.

Featured: A polychrome terracotta bust of Savonarola, attributed to Marco della Robbia, later Fra Mattia (1468-1534), and dating from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. (On loan to the Museum of St. Mark by Alessandro Kiniger, the current owner. From the collection of Giovanni Malfer).

In Search of Boris Poplavsky

An Introductory Digression

I first ran into Boris Poplavsky’s name in 1940 or 1941, and it was a case of mistaken identity. I was in Beverly Hills, California, at the home of a remarkable woman named Anna Semyonovna Meller, who in the days of my childhood was Madame Antoinette, the best known and most elegant couturiere in Harbin. My mother’s dressmaking establishment, Levitina-Karlinskaya, was not even a close second, but theirs was a friendly rivalry.

Anna Semyonovna’s adopted son Alex, six years my senior, was the idol and the despair of my Manchurian childhood: a champion ice skater, a concertizing pianist at the age of twelve, and a stoic who, during a hike in Chalantung, went on talking with a smile after a sharp rock had opened a bleeding gash on his knee. (I was half his age at the time and I remember screaming my head off at the mere sight.) Now, in California, he was a Surrealist painter, had been awarded a Guggenheim grant, and had spent a summer in New York, where he had met Pavel Tchelitchew (Chelishchev) and the son of Max Ernst and a number of other persons of equally supernatural stature.

Staying as a boarder at Anna Semyonovna’s was Alex’s friend Eddie, a young man of similar origins and background (his parents owned a dress shop on the Bubbling Well Road in Shanghai, and my mother had worked for them in her early youth), a former Berkeley architecture major who was now studying costume design at an art school somewhere near Westlake Park. Eddie’s sketches usually took first prize at school competitions, with the second prize going to his principal rival and fellow student, a melancholy-looking German refugee boy named Rudi Gernreich.

Waves of pure happiness would wash over me every time I waited for the Wilshire bus to take me for a day or a weekend to the Meller home in Beverly Hills, away from everything that made my life in Los Angeles glum and barely endurable: the incomprehensible courses in civics and physics (even their names seemed interchangeable) at Belmont High; the hopelessly boring afternoon job at the grocery store; and the pointless weekly exchange of mutual insults between Jack Benny and Rochester on the living room radio. (“It is all probably very funny and subtle, if we could only truly understand it,” my father would assure me after denying me permission to turn the dial to some concert music. But I did understand it all and it was not funny.)

At the Mellers’, things were altogether different. To begin with, it was perfectly all right to speak Russian and to have been born in China without having everyone exclaim, as they did at school, “How did you ever manage that?” or “Were your parents missionaries?” Instead of Jack Benny on the radio, there were real live stars to be encountered in Beverly Hills. Once I had to jump back when a long black car swung into a driveway with George Raft at the wheel and Rita Hayworth next to him.

Another time, Eddie and I were walking past the John Frederics millinery shop on Beverly Drive and were stopped dead in our tracks by the sight of the most unbelievably beautiful woman either of us had ever seen. She was selecting a hat inside. We stood there staring, exchanging whispered conjectures as to who this magical creature might be; then a saleslady came out, not to ask us to move, but to announce, “Miss del Rio would like to know which of the two models you gentlemen consider more becoming.” None of the Dolores del Rio films I saw later even began to do justice to the unforgettable radiance of her beauty.

Many years later, I felt a shudder of recognition as I watched that same scene reenacted (transposed into a comical key) in Billy Wilder’s film Witness for the Prosecution. Could Eddie have recounted it to someone during his brief career at the film studios? He was designing costumes for Gene Tierney and Maria Montez at Universal—or was it United Artists?—when he was run over and killed by a drunken driver. It happened as he was crossing Beverly Drive one evening in 1945, about half a block from where he and I had once stood admiring Dolores del Rio. Eddie also had connections in the world of burlesque. Rose La Rose wanted a new kind of stage costume and he came up with one that featured a quivering pink lobster over the G-string. One night he sneaked me backstage at the burlesque house on Main Street (I was too young to purchase a ticket), and I watched from the wings a performance of a tassel-twirler named Ermaine Parker. Afterward we went out for coffee with her and her tall, handsome husband, the straight man for the foul-mouthed, baggy-pants comedian in the show. The talk was mostly about the couple’s infant son, who had developed a liking for classical music before he learned to speak.

There were art exhibits of new painters, to which Alex or Eddie would take me: Salvador Dalí at the Ambassador Hotel, Eugene Berman and Christian Bérard at little galleries on Sunset Strip. But above all, books and poems were a part of daily life at the Mellers’. It was there that I was introduced to, or urged to read, Look Homeward, Angel; To the Lighthouse (which I couldn’t get through on the first try); Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (the book that provided the model for the title came later); a volume of short stories by Noel Coward (which I still think quite good); and collections of poems by Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, and (whatever happened to him?) George Barker.

While everyone at home and at school kept urging me to forget about those useless Russian books I was forever dragging about, Alex and Eddie, older and wiser, never considered giving up their cultural heritage. Alex had his cult of the “three fellow-Alexanders”—Pushkin, Blok, and Scriabin; he had given up playing the piano when he decided that, compared to the later period of Scriabin, all music was primitive and dull. The three of us used to get high reciting Blok to each other, mostly from The Mask of Snow and The Nightingale Garden cycles. But here I could contribute as well as receive.

One day, after leafing through A Synthetic History of the Arts, by a Soviet scholar named Ioffe, at the Los Angeles public library, I learned of the existence of Boris Pasternak and Velimir Khlebnikov. There was no Khlebnikov at the library, but I immediately copied out his poem about the grasshopper, which Ioffe had cited to illustrate some principle of modern painting or other. They did have My Sister Life and Themes and Variations. I took these over to the Mellers’ the next weekend, and while the older generation (Alex’s parents and his aunt Madame Olga) pronounced Pasternak incomprehensible, Alex and Eddie both agreed that here was a major discovery. I also introduced them to my favorite modern Russian novelist, a man I knew only as V. Sirin, with whose work I had become involved several years earlier. When I brought over my copy of Invitation to a Beheading, Eddie tried reading it out loud, but his long sojourns in Shanghai and Berkeley had done something to his Russian stress. (This was not noticeable when he spoke, only when he read aloud.) I took the book away from him and began to read slowly, getting all the stresses right, but after three pages I had to stop: Eddie was on the floor, his legs kicking in the air, a beatific smile on his face. “Stop it, I can’t stand it, it’s too beautiful,” he was moaning.

Alex’s reaction was a little more reserved. He kept the book for several days and when he returned it, he remarked, “If I were a writer, this is how I would want to write.” And a little later: “I had the damnedest feeling I wrote some of it myself.”

Sirin then joined Pushkin, Blok, Pasternak, Thomas Wolfe, and Dylan Thomas in our literary pantheon. It was on one such enchanted Sunday afternoon, leafing through the New York Russian newspaper Novoe russkoe slovo [published until 2010], to which Anna Semyonovna subscribed, that I came upon Poplavsky’s name—and this is where the mistaken identity part comes in. A memoirist (Yury Terapiano? Vladimir Varshavsky?) was reminiscing about the Russian Montparnasse of the 1920s. He could vividly remember the poet Boris Poplavsky drunkenly declaiming:

And the nightingale in the Sanskrit tongue
Shouts “More wine! More wine!” over the yellow rose.

The name was unfamiliar, but there was something about those two lines that made me resolve to look up their author. As a matter of plain fact, however, the lines were not by Poplavsky. I could never find them in any of his books, and after years of fruitless searching I finally, through sheer accident, discovered the awkward truth. The lines are a quotation from the Rubaiyat translated into Russian by Ivan Tkhorzhevsky. In connection with that translation Vladislav Khodasevich, when asked one morning why he looked so poorly, quipped: “I had a terrible nightmare. I dreamed that I was a Persian poet and that Tkhorzhevsky was translating me.” [The passage corresponds to stanza 6 of Edward Fitzgerald’s version, where the nightingale speaks in Pahlavi and the rose is sallow. The notes to my (New York, 1888) edition explain that the rose was yellow in the first edition of Fitzgerald’s translation and identify Pahlavi as the “old, heroic Sanskrit of Persia.” This seems to suggest that Tkhorzhevsky was translating Fitzgerald into Russian, rather than the original Omar.]

But never mind. These two lines of Tkhorzhevsky’s pseudo-Omar did direct me to Poplavsky.

The Discovery

The strange Aztec-Mayan pyramid that houses the main public library in downtown Los Angeles will always remain for me one of the endearing spots in Southern California. Its dark tile walls that kept the air comfortably cool on the muggiest days; the long, Alhambra-like vistas that opened from one room to another; the purling fountains in the inner yards (if I’m making it sound garish and eclectic, it no doubt was) I still find unforgettable. There was a Russian lady in the Foreign Books Room, whose name I never learned, who made it a point to purchase everything worthwhile in contemporary Soviet and Russian émigré literature. The library’s collection of volumes on Russian painters and painting and on the Soviet theater of the 1920s was nothing short of opulent.

Yes, of course they had Poplavsky at that library. There were two slim volumes: a selection from his journals and a volume of verse called Flags. I got Flags, opened it in the middle, and immediately felt as though I were falling through a hole in the ice. Nikolai Tatishchev described his first impression of reading Flags thus: “A pure and piercing sound. Hardly anything can be made out. Now and then something breaks through and stings you. ‘O Morella, come back, it will all be different one day.’ Alarm, apprehension. The barometer needle quiveringly indicates a storm. A degree of agitation that can be expressed only in deliberately approximate terms.” [N. Tatishchev, “O Poplavskom” [On Poplavsky], Krug [The circle], vol. 3 (Paris, 1938)].

This was how a mature person, a close friend of the poet and the publisher of his posthumous books, reacted to Flags. My own impression (and it remains one of the most vivid of my entire life) was somewhat different. I was struck first of all by the bright colors, the swirling images, the authenticity of the dreamlike states the poems conveyed:

In the emerald waters of the night
Sleep lovely faces of virgins
And in the shadow of blue pillars
A stone Apollo slumbers.

Orchards blossom forth in the fire,
White castles rise like smoke
And beyond the dark blue grove
Vividly dark sand is ablaze.

Flowers in the garden hum,
Statues of souls come to life
And like butterflies from the fire
Words reach me:

Believe me, angel, the moon is high,
Musical clouds
Surround her, fires
Are sonorous there and days are radiant.

My English cannot reproduce the pulsating music that emanates from these lines in Russian, nor does it convey the artful and often startling rhymes. There are pages and pages in this little book that project this blend of color and music, but there are also other things:

We shelter our caressing leisure
And unquestioningly hide from hope.
Naked trees sing in the forest
And the city is like a huge hunting horn.

How sweet it is to jest before the end
This is understood by the first and the last—
Why, a man vanishes, leaving fewer traces
Than a tragedian with a divine countenance.

There was an attitude in those poems, a vision, a sensibility quite new to me, but one that I instantly recognized and accepted:

But now the main entrance thundered and the bell started barking—
Springtime was ascending the stairs in silence.
And suddenly each one remembered that he was all alone
And screamed “I’m all alone!” choking with bile.
And in the singing of night, in the roar of morning,
In the indistinct seething of evening in the park
Dead years would arise from their deathbeds
And carry the beds like postage stamps.

I did not know enough about poetry at the time to recognize Poplavsky’s sources, to discern his French influences: Baudelaire (who had a greater impact on him than anyone except Blok), Nerval, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Apollinaire, Breton. I did not know then, as I know now, that Boris Poplavsky was in a sense a very fine French poet who belongs to Russian literature mainly because he wrote in Russian. But much of his sensibility was also a verbal equivalent of the visual imagery I knew and loved in the work of the exiled Russian neo-Romantic painters Pavel Tchelitchew and Eugene Berman. [“But Poplavsky’s surrealistic world is created illegitimately, using means borrowed from another art, namely painting (some of the critics have pointed out that Poplavsky is actually a visual rather than a musical poet; his poetry has been compared to Chagall’s painting…” Gleb Struve, Russkaia literatura v izgnanii [Russian literature in exile] (New York, 1956), 339. The observation is absolutely correct, but why is cross-fertilization between the arts illegitimate? Russian poetry of the twentieth century in particular has a deep-going and highly legitimate symbiotic involvement with both painting (Voloshin, Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov) and music (Bely, Blok, Kuzmin, Pasternak)].

An uncritical acceptance? I knew at once that much of what Poplavsky was doing was highly artificial. But I knew even then that artifice was a natural component of some of the finest art and had no objections. Despite its artificiality (and partly because of it), the book hit me with a wave of lyrical power I would not have believed possible, a wave that swept me off my feet and held me prisoner for many weeks. This was not like getting intoxicated on Blok’s verbal magic, nor was it like the intense intellectual pleasure afforded by Pasternak’s formal perfection and his freshness of perception.

Poplavsky came to me more like a fever or a demonic possession. I went around reciting Poplavsky’s lines by heart. I tried composing melodies to them. I discovered that stanzas 3 and 4 of his poem “To Arthur Rimbaud” could be conveniently sung to the tune of the clarinet solo from Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, and I did sing them, obsessively. The next thing I knew, my mother, normally infuriatingly indifferent to poetry, was muttering Poplavsky to Chaikovsky’s music in an undertone while fixing dinner.

It was a heavy burden to keep to oneself at sixteen. I was fortunate indeed to have two older friends with whom I could share it. Alex and Eddie were almost as enthusiastic about Poplavsky as I. The three of us leafed through the fragments of his journals. We did not find his religious quest congenial, but the seriousness and depth of his spiritual experience got through to us, and his ways of formulating it we also found impressive. Seeing that Russian poetry could be this closely allied with Surrealism in painting, Alex was moved to write a few Russian poems, which were meant as literary parallels to his paintings. He submitted them to Novoe russkoe slovo and one of them was printed, not in that newspaper’s Sunday poetry section as he had hoped, but as an illustration to an editorial which discussed the poor quality of Russian émigré poetry and asserted that Surrealism as a whole was an unimportant trend, by now entirely passé and forgotten. Then Alex was drafted into the army. He wrote me asking for the library copy of Flags. I sent it to him, he returned it, then he wanted it again, and it was lost in the mail. I ruefully paid the charges for the lost book ($2.50, I think). A few months later it turned up at Alex’s training camp. When I tried to return it, I was told that there was no need, because the library had replaced it. I now had my own copy of a book by Poplavsky… But just who, exactly, was Boris Poplavsky?

Some Biographical Materials

Exhibit A: His Father

[The vice president of the Moscow Association of Manufacturers] was Yulian Ignatievich Poplavsky, an extremely original and colorful personality even for the Moscow of those days. Poplavsky was a musician. He graduated (with very high grades) from the Moscow Conservatory where he majored in piano and was one of the favorite pupils of Pyotr Chaikovsky, with whom he was on intimate terms, as can be seen from his memoirs. I do not remember what it was that moved him to give up his musical career and take up industrial relations….

Poplavsky was a talented person; one seldom encounters such facility with word and pen. He could discuss any topic and could treat the most serious subject in a frivolous vein. His speech mannerisms, which corresponded to his manner of dress, irritated many and Poplavsky was widely disliked. It was said that he was “barred from the stock exchange.” This seems to be factually correct: invitations were not extended to him and this would cause clashes between the Manufacturers’ Association and the Stock Exchange Committee. He was also active in St. Petersburg where he was the representative of his organization, together with Jules Goujon [the president of the Manufacturers’ Association] at the Convention Council. When a petition had to be drafted or a summary of a discussion prepared, he was irreplaceable and was able to draft them with the utmost ease and elegance.

Gradually, people became accustomed to his manners, and he began receiving invitations to Stock Exchange Committee sessions, especially when labor problems were involved, inasmuch as the antiquated organization of the Stock Exchange Committee was falling behind the times in collecting current statistical data and the documentation pertaining to labor problems. Poplavsky’s office on Miasnitskaia Street was excellently organized and the Association (it was in existence for only twelve years) was able to accumulate much valuable material.

[A portrait of Boris Poplavsky’s father, from Paul A. Bouryschkine, Moskva kupecheskaia – The Merchants’ Moscow (New York, 1954), 256–57. This little-known volume is an astoundingly thorough and convincing record of the contribution made by the traditionally maligned and despised Russian merchant class to the development of Russian culture, literature, and the arts during the century preceding the Revolution.]

Exhibit B: His Sister

I can still see one [of these poetesses]—tall, feverish, everything about her dancing: the tip of her shoe, her fingers, her rings, the tails of her sables, her pearls, her teeth, the cocaine in the pupils of her eyes. She was hideous and enchanting with that tenth-rate enchantment which cannot but attract, to which people are ashamed to be attracted, to which I am openly and shamelessly attracted.…

I can say in general that I was met with kindness in this alien world of female practitioners of drug-addicted poetry. Women are in general kinder. Men do not forgive felt boots or having starving children. But this very same P——skaya, I am convinced, would have removed the sables from her shoulders had I told her that I had a starving child at home.…

I did not get to hear the feverish, fur-clad beauty recite her poetry, but I doubt that cocaine could have disposed her to write of love.…

[Three glimpses of Boris Poplavsky’s sister Natasha, gleaned from Marina Tsvetaeva’s memoir A Hero of Labor (1925). Tsvetaeva and Natasha Poplavskaya both appeared at a reading of women poets in the cold and starving Moscow of 1920].

Exhibit C: His Biography

Boris Poplavsky was born in Moscow on 24 May 1903. His father was a free artist—a musician, a journalist, and a well-known social figure; his mother, née Kokhmanskaya, came from an old, cultivated, aristocratic family, had a Western European education, and was a violinist with conservatory experience. As a child, Boris Poplavsky was first looked after by his nanny, Iraida, and then by a German nurse and a French governess. Later, as an adolescent, he had Swiss and English tutors, and when he reached school age, he was taught by Russian university students, hired to give him lessons. He also studied music, but showed no enthusiasm; lessons in drawing, however, were always his favorites.

In 1906, his mother had to take the children abroad because of the severe illness of her daughter. They lived alternately in Switzerland and Italy, while his father remained in Moscow. While abroad, Boris forgot his native tongue to such an extent that, when he returned to Moscow, his family had to enroll him and his brother at the French lycée of Saint Philippe Néri, where he remained until the Revolution. Boris took to reading early … and it was hard to tear him away from a book. When his elder sister Natasha, a dazzlingly educated and talented girl, published a collection of verse in Moscow, where she was considered an avant-garde poetess, Boris, either through competitiveness or imitation, also began to practice writing verses in his school notebooks, accompanying them with fanciful illustrations.

When the Revolution broke out in February 1917, Boris was fourteen years old. In 1918 his father was forced to travel to the south of Russia, and he took his son along. Thus, while still quite young, Boris had to part from his family and experience all the horrors of the civil war. In the winter of 1919, when he lived in Yalta, he gave his first reading as a poet at the Chekhov Literary Circle. And in March of the same year he and his father emigrated to Constantinople. This period of his life can be summed up in two words: he meditated and prayed. All the money his father gave him, his own belongings, even his food, Boris gave to the poor; at times several homeless people would spend the night in his room: students, officers, monks, sailors, and others, all of whom were literally refugees.

In Constantinople, Boris attended a makeshift equivalent of high school, did a great deal of sketching, read a lot, occasionally took incidental jobs, and spent much time with the cub scouts at the Russian Hearth, which was organized by the YMCA. At the same time, Boris saw life through a veil of profound mysticism, as if sensing the breath of Byzantium which gave birth to the Orthodox faith, to which he yielded himself unconditionally. In June 1921, his father was invited to Paris to attend a conference on Russian trade and industry.

For ten years Boris lived in the Latin Quarter, during the last four on the rue Barrault near the place d’Italie. There he died in the little annex at number 76-bis, located on the roof of the immense Citroën garage. The exciting and intriguing city of Paris absorbed Boris so much that he left it only once, in 1922, to spend a few months in Berlin. There he moved in the avant-garde literary circles, often appeared at literary gatherings and artistic soirées, and made a number of literary acquaintances.

The Poplavsky family gradually all assembled in Paris and Boris’s life seemed to enter upon a normal course. He regularly attended the Art Academy at La Grande Chaumière and was later enrolled at the Sorbonne, majoring in history and philology. He immersed himself in philosophy and theology and spent long hours in the rare manuscript room of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. He was a passionate book collector; he had two thousand volumes at his death. He regularly visited museums, where he would stay for days on end. He studied assiduously, practiced sports, and wrote. As in earlier days, he was interested in poetry, literature, economics, philosophy, sociology, history, aviation, music, and everything else. He was always in a hurry to live and work, and he sometimes dreamed of becoming a professor of philosophy in Russia … not merely when collective farmers got to wear top hats and drive around in Fords, as he put it, but when the persecution of faith would end and a free life of the spirit would begin.

His novel Homeward from Heaven, which is partly autobiographical, gives an idea of how Boris lived and worked in Paris. He frequently appeared at literary gatherings, debates, and conferences as the principal speaker or as a discussant; he was well known in literary and artistic circles. His close friends valued him as a religious mystic, a God seeker, and a perceptive philosopher and thinker. The last years of his life were profoundly enigmatic. Many found in him not only a friend, but a source of support for attaining an ideological turning point in their lives. He was destitute at the time, but he would still share his last penny with the poor.

A tragically absurd incident brought his life to an end. On 8 October 1935, Boris met a half-mad drug addict, who under the pressure of his own adversity decided to commit suicide and wrote a suicide note, addressed to the woman he loved. He persuaded Boris, “on a dare,” to try out a “powder of illusions,” but instead, excited by the maniacal idea of taking a fellow traveler along on his journey to the beyond, gave him a fatal dose of poison, taking one himself at the same time.

Boris left behind two parts of a trilogy in the form of two large novels, Apollon Bezobrazov and Homeward from Heaven, and sketches for the third part, The Apocalypse of Therese. Then there are three volumes of verse ready for publication, a philosophical treatise on logic and metaphysics, the essay “Solitude,” a multi-volume diary, notations, drawings, letters, his favorite books which contain many jottings on the margins, and a great deal of other material, which so far has not been sorted out.

Paris, October 1935
[Yulian Poplavsky’s biography of his son, slightly abridged. [Iu. I. Poplavskii, “Boris Poplavskii,” Nov’ (Tallinn), no. 8 (1936): 144–47.]

Exhibit D: A Friend

I began writing verse quite early, and in 1920 Boris Poplavsky and I organized a Poets’ Guild in Constantinople.

Vladimir Dukelsky, alias Vernon Duke. [Autobiographical note in the anthology Sodruzhestvo (Washington, 1966), 521. Although both wrote poetry at the time, it was the future composer of Cabin in the Sky and Le bal de blanchisseuses who considered himself a poet then, while Poplavsky saw himself as a future painter.]

Exhibit E: Self-Portraits

  1. “Poverty is a sin, retribution, impotence, while luxury is like a kingdom in which everything reflects, extends, incarnates the slightest flutter of God’s eyelashes. And nevertheless, stoically, heroically, Oleg managed to bring his life to a realization, extricated it out of its wraps, despite poverty, inertia, and the obscurity of his underground destiny. Having received no education, he wrenched one for himself from the stained, poorly illuminated library books, read while his behind grew numb on the uncomfortable benches. Anemic and emaciated, by abstinence and daily wrestling with heavy iron weights, he forced life to yield him cupola-like shoulder muscles and an iron handgrip. Not handsome, unsure of himself, he used his hellish solitude, know-it-allism, valor, asceticism to master that fierce eye mechanism which was able to subjugate, at times to his own amazement, female heads radiant with youth. For Oleg, like all ascetics, was extraordinarily attractive, and his ugliness, rudeness, and self-assurance only enhanced his charm. Life refused him everything and he created everything for himself, reigning and enjoying himself now amidst the invisible labors of his fifteen-year effort. Thus, in a conversation he would calmly and slyly radiate the universality of his knowledge, which astounded his listeners as much as did the ease with which he could, while sitting on a sofa, lift and toss about a thirty-kilogram weight or a chair, held horizontally by its back in his hand, as he laughed at the gloomy, lifeless, unascetic, sentimental, disbelieving Christianity of the Paris émigré poets.”
  2. “You thought, Oleg, that you could at last do without God, rest from His insatiable demands; and see, now He is doing without you.… Look, nature is about to enter upon her sad, brief summer triumph and you were asleep, your heavy head full of the hot waters of sleep, and you dreamed of earthly, full-blooded, bearded life. Once again you were insolent to God, Oleg, and tried living without Him, and your face hit the ground, heavily, stupidly, clownishly. You finally awoke from the pain, took a look around, and see, the trees are already in bloom and have hung out their vivid, abundant new leaves. It is summer in the city and again you are face to face with God, whether you want to be or not, like a child that conceived the wish to hide from the Eiffel Tower behind a flowering shrub in the Trocadero garden and after walking around it was instantly overtaken by the iron dancer-monster that takes up the entire sky. You try not to notice it, but it hurts you to look at the white sky and a heavy, sweaty stuffiness is pressing on your heart. You are again in the open sea, in the open desert, under an open sky covered up by white clouds, in the intolerable, ceaseless, manifest presence of God and sin. And there is no strength not to believe, to doubt, to despair happily in a cloud of tobacco smoke, to calm yourself at a daytime movie. The entire horizon is blindingly occupied by God; in every sweaty creature He is right there again. Eyesight grows dim and there is no shade anywhere, for there is no home of my own, but only history, eternity, apocalypse. There is no soul, no personality, no I, nothing is mine; from heaven to earth there is only the fiery waterfall of universal existence, inception, disappearance.”

[Two of Boris Poplavsky’s self-portraits as Oleg in his novel Homeward from Heaven. Fragments from Homeward from Heaven, in Krug, vol. 3].

Exhibit F: The Critical Response

[R]ecently Will of Russia (Volia Rossii) discovered the amazingly gifted B. Poplavsky. Of all his delightful poems it printed, not a single one could have possibly appeared in Contemporary Annals (Sovremennye zapiski)—they are far too good and uniquely original for it. [Georgy Ivanov in Latest News (Poslednie novosti), Paris, 31 May 1928]

Among the Parisians, Boris Poplavsky is particularly outstanding. Some of his poems (especially the one with the epigraph from Rimbaud that appeared in volume 2 of Poetry and the “Manuscript Found in a Bottle” in Will of Russia, number 7) force one to stop and listen in astonishment to the voice of a genuine and entirely new poet. What is interesting about Poplavsky is that he has severed all ties with Russian subject matter. He is the first émigré writer who lives not on memories of Russia, but in a foreign reality. This evolution is inevitable for the whole of the emigration. [D. S. Mirsky (Prince Dmitry Svyatopolk-Mirsky), in Eurasia (Evraziia), Paris, 5 January 1929.]

…Poplavsky’s pseudonaiveté and sleek imitation of the correctly grasped literary fashions. There is no point in mentioning Poplavsky’s name next to the names of Blok and Rimbaud (and yet this has been done by Weidlé and Adamovich and Mochulsky). The scribblings (pisaniia) of Mr. Poplavsky, whose critical articles are as deliberately insolent as his verse, would not even deserve mention were it not for the fact that these puerile and shrill scribblings found an echo in Georgy Adamovich. [Gleb Struve in Russia and Slavdom (Rossiia i slavianstvo), 11 May 1929; 11 October 1930.11].

Gleb Struve attacked Poplavsky’s work vehemently when it first appeared in print, and he remained Poplavsky’s most consistent critical opponent. The only other adverse response to Poplavsky’s literary beginnings in émigré criticism, Vladimir Nabokov’s review of Flags in Rul’ [The rudder]—which Nabokov subsequently repudiated—is far milder in both its tone and its conclusions. Although Nabokov took Poplavsky to task for his violations of meter, ungrammatical usages, and abuses of inappropriate colloquialisms, he ended the review with the admission that some of the poems in the collection “soared with genuine music.”

In his later history of Russian émigré literature, Professor Struve cites the highly favorable opinions of various important émigré writers and critics about Poplavsky’s poetry with exemplary scholarly objectivity; he even seems to see some promise in Poplavsky’s novels. But his ultimate judgment on Poplavsky can be summed up in this quote: “He was a gifted man and an interesting phenomenon, but he never became any kind of writer, no matter what his numerous admirers may say” (Struve, Russkaia literatura v izgnanii, 313).

Exhibit G:


The lower depths of Montparnasse have claimed the lives of two more young Russians. Under circumstances that are still being investigated, the poet Boris Poplavsky and nineteen-year-old Sergei Yarko, well known in certain shady cafés of boulevard du Montparnasse, died of narcotics poisoning.


The police commissioner of the Maison Blanche quarter immediately initiated an investigation. At first, the possibility of a double suicide was not ruled out. But upon examination of the evidence, it became clear that the young men were the victims of a drug overdose. It is also possible that the drug, purchased on Montparnasse from nameless dealers, contained an admixture of some kind of poison.

Boris Poplavsky never thought of suicide. Sunday evening he visited Dmitry Merezhkovsky and discussed literature and politics with him. On Monday he was seen on Montparnasse. His parents, with whom he had a conversation several hours before his death, categorically reject the possibility of suicide. Their son was a victim of “white powder” vendors.

Apparently Poplavsky and Yarko had been addicts for a long time. In the poet’s wallet, his own photograph was found, bearing a revealing inscription: “If you are interested, I found a source of cocaine, etc. Reasonably priced: heroin 25 fr. a gram, cocaine—40 fr.” This was written in Poplavsky’s hand—apparently in some café, where he was not able to announce the news out loud to his friend.


At 4 p.m. yesterday, Poplavsky’s and Yarko’s bodies were taken to the Institute of Forensic Medicine for autopsy. The funeral is planned within the next few days. But there are absolutely no funds available for Boris Poplavsky’s burial. His family is destitute. There is not a sou in the house. Boris Poplavsky’s parents are appealing to all his friends and to all generous people to help them pay for a coffin and a burial plot for the poet whose life ended so tragically. Donations may be sent to Latest News.

[Selected passages from the lengthy news story in Latest News (Poslednie novosti), Paris, 11 October 1935].

Excerpts from “The Book of Blessings,” Poplavsky’s Unpublished Journal for 1929.

109. I need only those writers whom I can apply practically in my life, from whom I can learn a particular form of pride or pity and, of course, whom I can develop and alter in my own way. Chekhov teaches me to endure in a special way, not to surrender, to hope, for in Chekhov there is much that is Roman, there is much of “no matter what happens,” of quand même. With Dostoevsky one can be ill and die, separate and perish, but it is impossible to live with him. As for Tolstoi, with his ancient Hebraic family idylls, I find him repulsive. But Chekhov I hope to put to use, after first rendering him harmless. How? By expanding and developing his admiration for the perishing, beautiful failures, by cleansing him of his disgusting squeamishness and his dignified contempt, contempt for what has failed, what has perished, i.e., extending him in a Christian or, more correctly, specifically Orthodox direction.

110. Chekhov is the most [Russian] Orthodox of Russian writers or, more correctly, the only Orthodox Russian writer. For what is Russian Orthodoxy if not absolute forgiveness, the absolute refusal to condemn which we hear in the voice of Sonya and of the Little Priest of the Swamps? [I.e., Sonya from Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, and the elfin creature from Blok’s poem of that name, who prays with equal fervor “for the injured leg of a frog and for the Pope in Rome.”]

111. Blok is also an Orthodox poet, the poet of absolute pity, angry at nothing, condemning nothing….

115. It seems to me that the closest work we have to the spirit of the Prometheus of Aeschylus is Chekhov’s Ivanov. Let us note, en passant, that the Prometheus of Aeschylus is one of the most pretentious heroes in world literature. But then, is there anything more beautiful than heroic pretentiousness, for is not the perishing hero higher than the smugly successful hero? And is not the point of a perishing hero in his pretense at being a hero?

116. All my poetry is only the voice of Sonya, or at least I would like for all my poetry to be the voice of Sonya, consoling Uncle Vanya abandoned by everyone in the midst of the demolished estate….

123. Oh, how the lower strata of the émigrés are irritated and outraged by the sight of an impoverished and merry friend of books and stars, with his tattered pants and a monocle in his eye! It is their enormous, base yearning for power that is outraged within them. What! He dares to be joyous, that owner of worn-out shoes? Isn’t he in the same position as we? He has no money, no power, and he dares to be joyous. Where does he get his joy? Surely not from that bookish, intellectual stuff—the very thing that ruined Russia? From Culture and Social Conscience? Thus the poor people. And a huge disgust hangs suspended in perplexity from their curled lip, while the friend of the stars goes his own way in his worn-out shoes, waving his handsome athletic arms in the air as he recites poetry to his neighbor.

124. The attitude of the wealthy émigrés toward the friend of the stars is even more base. What! We’ve done our best, we’ve achieved, we’ve recovered our own, and this one dares to be joyous while the seat of his pants is in patches? What was the point of our struggle?

125. But the attitude of foreigners is delightful. It can be seen from their glances in the street, for in them there still survive the ancient, beautiful ideals, merry and profound, of ancient stoical poverty. There was once this delightful philosopher—Anaximenes of Dorcrete seems to have been his name—a fine athletic old man. Diodorus tells us that he was once invited to some ritzy party, by some tyrant or other. Coming to the table, he bared himself and beshat the company and the table, and with this excellent deed he indubitably deserved his immortality. His other works were forgotten, but compared to this they could not have been important.

Poplavsky Yesterday and Today

When I first read Flags, I had no idea of Poplavsky’s position in the Russian literary hierarchy. I had simply assumed that he was a poet as famous as Blok and Pasternak. I knew little about Russian poetry as a whole at the time, and there were many important modern poets I was yet to discover and read. It took me a few years to realize that apart from a small cult centered in Paris, almost no one had ever heard of his name. In the late 1940s my colleagues at the Control Council for Germany, Alain Bosquet and Edouard Roditi, were publishing a literary journal in Berlin. They asked me to write something about Russian poetry for it, “about somebody modern and famous, like Selvinsky or Bagritsky,” as Roditi put it. I had no idea who Selvinsky and Bagritsky were, but I offered to write about the three poets who had been my favorites during my school years in Los Angeles. They let me, and I wrote three brief pieces on Khlebnikov, Pasternak, and Poplavsky; these were translated into German and published in Das Lot in 1950, with a selection of translated poems by each of these poets. [S. Karlinsky, “Drei russische Dichter,” Das Lot 4 (October 1950): 46–51].

The overindulgent accompanying note identified me as the author of “numerous articles published in American newspapers and magazines,” but apart from a few pieces in the college newspaper, this was actually my debut in print. I’m glad it had to do with Poplavsky and that I already then called him the most interesting poet produced by the Russian emigration between the two world wars.

By then I had already read his two posthumous collections of verse (they contain some astounding poems, but I found them on the whole a bit of a letdown after Flags); the published portions of his novels (Homeward from Heaven contains some of his finest lyrics, inserted between passages of prose and printed to look like prose); his paradoxical critical essays; the highly original short story “The Ball;” his pieces on painting and boxing.

When in 1965 Nikolai Tatishchev privately published a new volume of Poplavsky’s previously uncollected poems, Dirigible of Unknown Destination, my torch for the poet flared up again. The volume contained some of his most typical and most perfectly realized poems (“On the Frontier,” for instance, with its striking central metaphor of a poet as a customs official trying to stop the two-way smugglers’ traffic between the Land of Good and the Land of Evil; or “The Biography of a Clerk,” with its transposition of the humiliated clerk of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk into a Kafkaesque and surrealistic tonality).

I read a paper on Poplavsky’s surrealistic techniques at a scholarly gathering in Washington, D.C., and published it as an article in Slavic Review. A few graduate students purchased copies of the Dirigible as a result, but I knew that, with one or two exceptions, I had failed to convince my fellow Slavicists of the value of Poplavsky’s work. Just how badly I had failed was made clear to me by one of my most respected and discerning colleagues, who referred to him as a Parisian Vertinsky (a popular émigré nightclub singer) for the elect few.

Doing literary research in Europe in the fall of 1969, I made a point of seeking out and talking about Poplavsky with those who knew him or were his friends in an effort to reconstitute the reality of the man behind the poetry and the prose: the poets Alla Golovina and Sofiya Pregel; the painters Ida Karskaya (a marvelously warm and compassionate woman and a far more important painter than I had previously realized) and Constantine Terechkovitch; the critic Georgy Adamovich; the literary scholar Sophie Laffitte (née Glickman, later Sophie Stalinsky and Sophie Bonneau); and of course Poplavsky’s closest friend and the curator of his archive, Nikolai Tatishchev. All of them had observed Poplavsky at close range at one or another time in his life, all but the first two had poems dedicated to them in Flags, and all were willing to talk about him candidly and openly.

Some day I hope to transcribe these interviews in full, but for the moment I can say that their sum total has helped me to formulate the two sets of polarities that I feel primarily motivated and shaped Poplavsky’s literary art. The never-resolved dichotomy between poetry and painting is what accounts for the intensely visual nature of his imagery and much of his subject matter.

According to Terechkovitch, Poplavsky thought of himself during his first few years of exile not as a poet but as a painter. In 1922, Terechkovitch and Poplavsky traveled together to Berlin to study art. In Berlin, Poplavsky met the leading Soviet abstractionists as well as Chagall, Tchelitchew, and Chaim Soutine. But everyone, and particularly his teachers and colleagues, kept assuring him that he had no talent for painting. At first he tried to ignore their verdict. When he realized that they were right, the result was a total nervous breakdown that kept him bedridden for several weeks. Not only his highly personal articles on art exhibitions and painters, which appeared later in the journal Numbers (Chisla), but much of his prose and poetry testify to his never-ending yearning for mastery of the visual arts. His literary development reflects not so much the development of Russian émigré poetry as the evolution of the Paris schools of painting in the late 1920s and early 1930s—especially those of the Surrealists and the neo-Romantics.

The other central polarity has to do with his insatiable hunger for mystical experience (any kind of mysticism) and drug experience (any kind of drugs). It was his sister Natasha, that “dazzlingly educated and talented girl” his father wrote about, who introduced Boris to drugs by the time he was twelve. Her search for the ultimate high eventually took her to Madagascar, to Africa, to India, and finally to Shanghai, where she died in the late 1920s—of pneumonia, according to her father’s biography of Boris, but of a hopeless opium addiction according to everyone else.

Drugs remained a constant presence in Poplavsky’s life, both in Berlin and in Paris, and they (rather than imitation of his idol Rimbaud) account for the psychedelic swirling of images and the vivid, violent colors so typical of his verse. There are vast riches of authentic psychedelia to be mined in twentieth-century Russian poetry—Balmont and Khlebnikov are the names that come to mind most easily—but no one in the Russian tradition exploited the openings to other realities that drugs afford as systematically as did Poplavsky in the service of his poetry. There was, unfortunately, no LSD or mescaline to be had in those days, and he had to do it the hard way. (A tremendous stimulus for writing much of Flags came when his friend, the minor poet Boris Zakovich, the “Pusya” of Poplavsky’s journals, inherited a large supply of pain-killers and mind expanders from his dentist father.)

Those who are capable of appreciating the unique kind of beauty Poplavsky was thus able to glimpse and convey are the beneficiaries. Poplavsky’s religious quest was as intense as it was eclectic. A devout and loyal member of the Russian Orthodox Church (as his journals leave no doubt), he was powerfully drawn to Roman Catholic rite and lore, to Hindu mystics, to freemasonry, and to various forms of spiritualism.

One of the most intense experiences of his life, according to Tatishchev, occurred in 1918, when he met Jiddu Krishnamurti, the philosophical and spiritual teacher, who took his hand and addressed a few words in English to him. Poplavsky understood no English, but he was moved to tears. In Berlin he had several discussions about anthroposophy with Andrei Bely. (His mother and aunt were close to Moscow anthroposophic circles.)

Boris Poplavsky was loved by a number of exceptional and brilliant women in his day, but the central relationship of his life, its keynote, was what he himself called his love affair with God (roman s Bogom). This affair is the subject of many poems in Snowy Hour; it is basic to his novels, and it is vividly reflected in the portions of his diaries which his friends Dina Shraibman and Nikolai Tatishchev published after his death. It was also discussed in print by no less a thinker than Nikolai Berdyaev in his puzzled, perplexed, and not entirely sympathetic review of Poplavsky’s journals [In Sovremennye zapiski Contemporary annals, no. 68 (1939)]. I’ll venture to say, with all due respect, that the celebrated philosopher simply failed to grasp the point of Poplavsky’s mysticism. Like art, like drugs, mysticism was for Poplavsky both a way of expanding his personal vision and a means of transforming unbearable social reality.

Poplavsky’s lecture on Marcel Proust and James Joyce (he is the only Russian writer I can think of besides Vladimir Nabokov who responded creatively to Ulysses), of which I have the outline, concludes with a surprising prediction of impending social revolution in Western Europe, which would combine social, sexual, and personal-mystical elements. For Poplavsky, the reason the Soviet experiment turned Russia into a “vast, barbarous, snow-clad field” was that in its attempt to build a better society it suppressed the human spirit and its most precious manifestations. This was well understood by Poplavsky’s friends Zinaida Gippius and Dmitry Merezhkovsky; yet one can easily imagine the shock that this conclusion of the Proust-Joyce lecture occasioned among the émigré audience when Poplavsky delivered it at the Kochevie Club on 22 October 1931.

Poplavsky’s career in the world of émigré letters was brief and meteoric. Only six years separate his literary debut from his death. During that time he impressed some of the most important older writers-in-exile (Merezhkovsky, Khodasevich, Georgy Ivanov) and was acclaimed by the finest émigré critics (Mirsky, Mochulsky, Adamovich, Weidlé). He must have made an enormous impression on the émigré writers of his own age group, for he looms as a momentous presence in the subsequently written autobiographies and memoirs of Nina Berberova [The Italics Are Mine (New York, 1969)]; Yury Terapiano [Vstrechi [Encounters] (New York, 1953)]; Vladimir Varshavsky [Nezamechennoe pokolenie-The unnoticed generation (New York, 1956)]; and V. S. Yanovsky [“Eliseiskie polia” [Les Champs-Élysées], an excerpt from his memoirs, in Vozdushnye puti: Al’manakh [Aerial ways: An anthology], vol. 5 (New York, 1967), 175–200].

Vladimir Nabokov on two occasions singled out Poplavsky as the only poet of importance among the younger émigrés.20 At Poplavsky’s funeral, homage was paid to him by such diverse figures as Mark Aldanov, Aleksei Remizov, and Vladislav Khodasevich, whose eloquent obituary of Poplavsky was later reprinted in a collection of his critical essays [V. Khodasevich, “O smerti Poplavskogo” [On Poplavsky’s death], in Literaturnye stat’i i vospominaniia [Literary essays and memoirs] (New York, 1954)].

And yet, if we were to take a count, there would probably be fewer people in the world today who are aware of Poplavsky’s existence than there were in 1935. I am convinced that Boris Poplavsky has his readers somewhere. But where? Russians, either abroad or in the Soviet Union, don’t seem to want to read him. When Olga Carlisle included Denise Levertov’s fine translation of his poem, “Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” in her book Poets on Streetcorners, the Moscow Literary Gazette took her to task for including this “tramp of whom no one has heard” among the other fine Russian poets in her anthology.

Publication of a few excerpts from The Apocalypse of Therese in George [Yury] Ivask’s Russian literary journal Experiments (Opyty) in the late 1950s was met with similar scorn by Russian newspapers in Paris and New York.

I tried submitting several of his unpublished poems and a highly interesting essay on Russian painting (which I obtained from Nikolai Tatishchev and which Jean-Claude Marcadé carefully annotated) to the New York Russian literary journal Novyi zhurnal. Two of the poems were published, with distorting “corrections” by the editor, while the remainder of them and the article were rejected after a two-year wait. [An English translation (by Peter Lawless) of Poplavsky’s article about the Berlin Exhibition of 1922 was eventually published: “The Notes of Boris Poplavsky,” intro. by Simon Karlinsky, annotations by Jean-Claude Marcadé, Art International 18 (1974): 62–65].

In a personal letter to me, the editor of Novyi zhurnal, Roman Goul, wrote that Poplavsky was “an utter madman” and proudly recalled how he and a group of friends once threw Poplavsky out of a Berlin beer hall.

And yet, as Vladimir Nabokov put it when I informed him of my interest in Poplavsky: “Yes, write something about him. He was, after all, the first hippy, the original flower child.” This might simplify things a bit, but it is not wrong. [His involvements with drugs and Hindu mystics are two of the more striking ways in which Poplavsky seems to foreshadow the hip culture, but that is by no means all. He dressed unconventionally, was never without a pair of dark glasses, thought bathing unnecessary, and would wear the same shirt for weeks on end. His favorite music was by Bach, Scriabin, and Stravinsky. A beard and long hair are the only ingredients that were missing, but that tonsorial style was inextricably connected with the priestly caste in Russian culture. There clearly would have been no point in Poplavsky’s trying to pass for an Orthodox priest.]

During the past few years young Slavic scholars in the West, those in their early twenties, have been repeatedly taking to Poplavsky like the proverbial duck to water. I’ve read with pleasure the intelligent papers Olga Bazanoff and Mike Hathaway wrote about him for Vsevolod Setchkarev’s seminar on émigré literature at Harvard, and Hélène Paschutinsky’s first-rate MA thesis on Poplavsky’s imagery, written under Sophie Laffitte’s direction at the Sorbonne. I am excited about Anthony Olcott’s Stanford thesis.

[Particularly impressive is Mlle Paschutinsky’s demonstration of the central function of the states of flying, floating, and levitation in Poplavsky’s poetry, and of his systematic use of objects and beings capable of these states: fish, ships, dirigibles, balloons, submarines, interplanetary rockets, clouds, comets, and angels, as well as the role of Poplavsky’s ubiquitous bridges, balconies, and towers, functioning as steppingstones to flight and levitation. The resultant antithesis of lightness and heaviness is then used by Mlle Paschutinsky to construct a highly convincing and logical system that provides us with a key not only to Poplavsky’s imagery, but also to the whole of his complex metaphysics. Should Poplavsky’s poetry ever gain the wide readership it so very much deserves, Hélène Paschutinsky’s study will certainly be a fundamental source on this poet.

[In subsequent years Paschutinsky, under the name of Elena Menegaldo, published widely on Poplavsky. See, for example, her important edition of Boris Poplavskii, Neizdannoe: dnevniki, stat’i, stikhi, pis’ma, ed. A. Bogoslovskii and E. Menegal’do (Moscow: Khristianskoe izd-vo, 1996), and subsequent editions of Poplavsky’s collected works. See also Dmitrii Tokarev, “Mezhdu Indiei i Gegelem” (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011)].

Perhaps Poplavsky was an émigré in more senses than one. Caught between cultures, he was also trapped in the wrong historical period. Many young non-Russians today should have no trouble identifying with him and seeing him as one of themselves. As Emmett Jarrett and Dick Lourie wrote,25 when I sent them some trots of his poetry for translation: “He’s dynamite…”

How to detonate him?

It is of interest to read Karlinsky’s early publication—dating from 1950—which was written as an introduction to a German translation of three of Poplavsky’s lyrics:

Boris Poplavsky’s name is completely unknown in his own country. Poplavsky was perhaps the most gifted representative of a generation of Russian émigré poets who were born in Russia but whose literary activity between the two wars took place everywhere: from Warsaw to Addis Ababa. Poplavsky spent his short life (1903–35) mostly in Paris. His literary reputation was based on a small volume of poems with the title Flags. This book was published in Paris and Tallinn in 1931.

After his death, a collection of poems with the title In a Wreath of Wax, a short novel (Homeward from Heaven), and Diaries were found among his papers. A selection of these works was published by Poplavsky’s friends. In Diaries, Poplavsky gives a detailed description of his poetic method. In this context, Poplavsky quotes an old Hindu poem in which an unknown poet is not satisfied with the sentence “The tree of my life yearns on a hill;” a few lines later the same poet gives a modified version of the same sentence: “The blue tree of my life yearns on a hill.” As Poplavsky noted, the color blue is added to express the intangible.

Nowadays Poplavsky’s poetic method seems to be similar to French Surrealism, and Diaries shows that he had studied and admired the writings of André Breton. When reading Poplavsky’s poems one is reminded of surrealistic paintings.

[Translated by Joachim Klein, from S. Karlinsky, “Drei russische Dichter,” Das Lot 4 (October 1950): 50].

Simon Karlinsky (1924–2009) was a prolific scholar of modern Russian literature who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, from 1964 to 1991. This memoir is an excerpt from Freedom From Violence and Lies, a collection of Karlinsky’s essays.

Featured: Boris Poplavsky, at KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens, Department Store of the West), Berlin, 1922.

Ernesto De Martino: Crisis of Civilization

Ernesto de Martino (1908-1965) was an Italian historian of religions whose work is still not well-known in the English-speaking world, but his study of magic and its use in modernity is essential.

Student Years under Fascism

It is no coincidence that Ernesto de Martino published his first scholarly article as a twenty-one-year-old student at the University of Naples on Oswald Spengler’s (1880–1936) The Decline of the West (1918), one of the most important books published during WWI.1 Although scholarship has lamented that “The Decline of the West” (La decadenza dell’Occidente) consists of only “two immature pages,” and has hastily denied it the status of “insight, or, even less, formulation of specific hypotheses or theories,” it is of immense value to the historian of ideas. In fact, it is the starting point of what would become the marking trait of de Martino’s thinking for the rest of his life, namely a profound fascination with the crisis of his own civilization.

Besides the fact that Ernesto de Martino was born in Naples on December 1st 1908, we do not know much about his childhood and upbringing. Ernesto’s father, who gave his own name to his only son, was an engineer for the Italian State Railway, and his mother Gina Jaquinangelo was a teacher. About Ernesto Sr. it is said that he was secularized and patriotic. Introducing his mother, scholars emphasize that she was secular yet open to mediumistic and spiritualistic experiences. De Martino’s family was required to move frequently due to the profession of the pater familias. As a consequence, the young Ernesto moved in between Florence, Naples, and Turin. After finishing the liceo, where he studied Latin and German, he enrolled at the Polytechnic University (Politecnico) to study Engineering in 1927. Having done so in order to please his father, he became quickly dissatisfied with this inherited course of studies. A year later, de Martino left the Piemontese capital to return with his family to Naples where he commenced his studies in philosophy and religion.

The ideas lived out by his parents—between religion and the nation— thematically inform his early intellectual activities, which also move between these two concepts. In fact, de Martino’s early explorations of religion were closely related to his political engagement with fascism. Not unlike their generous treatment of other eminent Italian historians of religion—such as Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883–1959) and Giuseppe Tucci (1894–1984)—scholars have been slow to grasp the weight of de Martino’s youthful endeavors. In the case of de Martino, commentators have generally reduced his involvement with fascism to a mere outgrowth of the indoctrination in the Italy between the world wars.

There is, of course, some evidence for such a reading. After the March on Rome in late October 1922 and Benito Mussolini’s rise to power, the Duce quickly made the myth of Italy as new nation and as herald of cultural rebirth into his regime’s “political program.” To use a term coined by French sociologist Jean-Paul Willaime, Mussolini’s fascism became an “état éducateur.” In practice, this was nowhere more apparent than in his endeavors to portray fascism as a movement of youth and in his efforts to establish a program of political catechism. This led to “a gigantic operation of ‘public relations’ and ‘social pedagogy’,” which was first introduced in schools and universities, and then in other realms of culture, until it pervaded most sectors of Italian society.

De Martino entered the University of Naples in 1928 and immediately joined in the Neapolitan section of the GUF, the Fascist University Groups (Gruppi Universitari Fascisti), which served as the central vehicle for political persuasion in university education. Two years later he registered with the National Fascist Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista, PNF) and, in 1932, he joined the Blackshirts (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale). In her influential book, entitled Ernesto De Martino: Les vies antérieures d’un anthropologue (2009), the French anthropologist Giordana Charuty has convincingly shown that the newly established GUF were aimed at making university students into “apostles of the revolution [who] operate the pen just as well as the sword.” The fascist groups offered the students many benefits, such as a center to study, a library, and medical services. Charuty notes that all of these were “measures of ‘assistance’ through which the regime favors the learning process of variant competences necessary for the progression within the new social hierarchies, while simultaneously endeavoring to exercise ideological control on the teachers as well as on the students.” This being said, it is imperative to acknowledge that de Martino’s fascism was much more than merely convenient opportunism. In fact, I will demonstrate that he regarded fascism as a result of and response to a profound crisis affecting the modern Western world.

As for his early intellectual formation, de Martino was shaped by a trident of teachers: Adolfo Omodeo (1889–1946), Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883–1959), and Vittorio Macchioro (1880–1958). In 1932, he defended his dissertation on Greek ritual practices under the supervision of his most official teacher, Italy’s foremost historian of Christianity, Adolfo Omodeo. Two years later, as he proceeded to publish his research in Italy’s preeminent journal for scholars of religion, Studies and Materials in the History of Religions (Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni), he did so upon the invitation of the journal’s founder, the towering figure of religious studies in Italy, Raffaele Pettazzoni.

This being said, the theme of his earliest piece of academic scholarship, the “gephyrisms,” ritual jeers performed on the bridge of Cephisus in Athens during the procession of the Eleusian mysteries, point to the third and most esoteric of de Martino’s teachers. Vittorio Macchioro, indeed, wrote a highly influential book on Greek mystery religion by the name of Zagreus (1920/30), which offered an analysis of the paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries (Villa dei Misteri) in the Ancient Roman city of Pompeii after their discovery in 1909.

The villa in the South of the peninsula is famous for a series of spectacular and well-preserved frescos. Pursuing a career as curator in archeological museums, Macchioro had privileged access to these frescos, which are generally believed to depict the initiation of a young woman into the Greco-Roman mystery cult. Largely due to the neglect by the official Italian academic world—unlike the two renowned professors at the universities of Rome and Naples, de Martino’s third guide would never fulfil his dream of gaining access to a university position—Macchioro’s massive impact on his student’s thought has remained obscured for a long time. Considering that the creative interpreter of Greek religion was lecturing at some of the world’s most prestigious institutions and cultivated contacts with such luminaries as Mircea Eliade and Aby Warburg, it is indisputable that he is one of the most underestimated Italian intellectuals of the twentieth century.

De Martino and Macchioro maintained a fertile correspondence that started in the summer of 1930 when de Martino was stationed as a military cadet in Northern Italy. It would last for nearly a decade and provide us with precious insights into a profound and complex relationship. After the initial letters in 1930, the correspondence was interrupted for almost five years during which Macchioro traveled to lecture throughout the world—particularly in Europe, the United States, and India. During this time, the teacher’s career was “in full bloom,” while de Martino, finishing his dissertation in 1932 and making his first forays into religious studies journals in 1933 and 1934, matured from student to scholar. When their correspondence resumed, Macchioro still resided in India and prepared for his return to Trieste. De Martino, on the other hand, lived in the Southern Italian city of Bari where he taught history and philosophy at the Liceo Scientifico A. Scacchi. Around the same time, de Martino married his guru’s favorite daughter Anna (1911–72), who after finishing her studies in art history became a teacher at the technical institute of Molfetta, in December 1935. Just as Mussolini and the women of his nation—giving up their gold wedding rings in exchange for rings of steel during the “Day of Faith”—entered into a “state of mystic communion,” the wedding between Ernesto and Anna played a unifying role in the relationship between him and his new father-in-law. Vittorio, isolated from his own family, was relying on his new son-in-law for some of his emotional connection with his daughter and wife, who lived with him in an apartment on Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Bari. With the birth of Ernesto’s first daughter Lia in 1936, the bond between the two men deepened further. At this time, de Martino started to address his mentor no longer as “illustrious professor,” but rather as “dear professor,” “dear friend,” and, finally, “dear Papa.” The same is true for Macchioro who extended his paternity from his daughter to his son-in-law, signing every letter as “your father.”

What strikes the reader of their correspondence is not its content, but rather the apocalyptic atmosphere, the prophetic hope, and the overall dramatic tone expressed therein. Macchioro’s existence was marked by moments of intense crisis, religious experiences of rebirth, and radical metamorphosis. First and foremost amongst them was a “disheartening and aporetic” moment as a volunteer during WWI. According to Triestine scholar’s own account, it was during the night of Maundy Thursday (Giovedì santo) in 1916 when he was saved by divine hand and encouraged to dedicate the rest of his life to religion. What followed were multiple spiritual conversions, leading him first from Judaism to Catholicism, then to Protestantism, and finally back to Catholicism. In this vein, Macchioro liked to assume the mantle of the spiritual guide or the prophet towards the young Ernesto. In a letter he sent from Calcutta on September 3 1935, we read:

These are great days, my son. Apocalyptic days: God is revealing himself. If we could chat, I would tell you other things that provide you with a more complete picture of the apocalypse. I feel it like an enormous power: It started with my sickness that destroyed and reconstructed me, and now it continues with the testament and with the marriage. No one can tell what the apocalypse is yet to bring and how the revelation will continue, but I believe that one thing is certain: God is with us.

It is apparent that Macchioro felt a deep spiritual connection to his son-in-law, projecting the atmosphere of apocalypse and rebirth into their relationship. He described their bond, in a letter sent to de Martino in 1939, as a “spiritual symbiosis” and a “progressive fusion of two destinies and two souls.” There is little doubt that de Martino felt quite likewise for most of the 1930s. In his first letter, he told his prophetic guide about being “saved by a personal religious experience” in his quest to study Italian myths through the lens of Rudolf Otto’s numinous. A few years later, he mentioned a first adolescent “religious crisis” during his years in Florence, before he wrote the following lines in January 1939:

From now on, I should look at you with other eyes, and this means not the way one looks at the scientist or the artist, but the prophet. You might be suspicious of my enthusiasm. Nonetheless, I am certain, very certain, that the things are this way. My studies, of which you are the guardian angel, confirm it for me every day. Your existence does not solely concern the realm of my ideas, in which case it would not be that big of a deal. It concerns all of my spiritual life, my feelings, my character. I now look at things differently; I judge and feel differently.

Ruptured Modernity in Need of Orientation

While the letter exchange does not leave any trace of Macchioro ever offering his new son the “complete picture of the apocalypse,” de Martino himself would go on to dedicate much of his academic research to the revealing of such a vision. Throughout his career, he identified the radical rupture brought about by modernity as the most fundamental factor contributing to the cri-sis of his civilization. The idea that modernity represents a moment of crisis would remain remarkably stable throughout de Martino’s life. Consider, for instance, the following reflections stemming from the end of his life, where he makes a distinction between “traditional civilizations,” which “base them-selves on the intellectual intuition of a transcendent and sacred eternal truth,” on the one hand, and the modern Western world, on the other. Describing it is as “the only existing anti-traditional culture,” a “monstrosity,” and “a barbarity,” de Martino elaborates his time’s key attributes:

With the modern age… the patrimony of the eternal, metaphysical, and sacred truths has entered into crisis. Disorder, individual opinions, loss of unity, dispersion in groundless multiplicity… agitation, lack of superior principles… Democracy is the separation of the temporal from the spiritual, the social order from the sacred… the formation of modern nations, another element of dispersion and of disorder, of division and contradiction in the modern civilization.

Elsewhere, de Martino found the first signs of modernity’s crisis in the Renaissance period, which he similarly described as “the source of this loss of unity.” More importantly, he argued that the true issue might not simply lie in a loss of unity, but rather in its inability to reestablish cultural coherence: “The Renaissance was the time when the nascent modern civilization very quickly manifested an insufficient power of expansion and incorporation of the relics of the past, a defect that later on remained, at least to some extent, its constant characteristic.”

If we look a bit deeper, it becomes apparent that this loss of unity was due to two major transformations that dominated our culture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: The secularization of politics and the scientification of reason. On the one hand, it was a time during which the old Christian world-view was gradually abandoned and a new secular vision started to dominate the Western world. Liberalism, as a set of political ideas, arose out of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century wars of religion and culminated “in the Treaty of Westphalia,” which drastically recalibrated the balance between poli-tics and religion in Europe. In the political realm, modernization meant that religion would be “replaced by an autonomous politics,” which was “based on purely secular foundations,” conceived in exclusively “human terms, without appeal to divine revelation or cosmological speculation.” As de Martino put it in some hand-written notes in the early 1930s: “Westphalia: When the interest in that which you believe in diminishes, one declares ‘religious tolerance.’ The peace of Westphalia only represents a decline in Christian faith, both catholic and reformed.”

Mattias Koenig, more comprehensively, summarizes the most important modernization theories as being marked by their common emphasis on the “rationalization of previously religious world-views,” “a differentiation of religion and non-religious institutions,” “a pluralization and privatization of religious beliefs,” “a general decline of religion,” and then rightly elaborates on “the core of the classical paradigm of secularization, namely the thesis of a differentiation between politics and religion.” In Germany, this process was accelerated after the establishment of the German Reich in 1871, which brought a further distancing from the traditional Christian worldview by means of an unprecedented urbanization and industrialization. On the other hand, these political, industrial, and economic revolutions had significant scientific consequences as they allowed for the enlightenment of culture. Of particular importance was the unprecedented collection of data. Not only did Western people learn more about their bodies and the material world surrounding them, but they also accrued a massive amount of information about other cultures and other times through historical and philological research.

These transformations in the political realm—where the sacred world of Christianity gave way to a new political vision premised on the autonomy of man—and in the scientific realm—which was marked by an unprecedented accrual of new data about the world in its full cultural and temporal reach— had important consequences for the self-depiction of Western modern humanity. Indeed, although Western culture was empowered by its new socio-political and scientific accomplishments, the rupture of the old worldview and confrontation with many others, caused an unprecedented “need for orientation (Orientierungsbedarf).”

Modernity’s preferred tool to reestablish order in its socio-political, scientific, and, ultimately, cultural self-understanding was temporal in nature. For much of modernity, at least since the Enlightenment, the single most valuable tool for making sense in this new world was “progress.” Reinhard Koselleck—a wonderfully insightful expositor of modernity—has laid bare that modern man’s relationship to time changed dramatically between 1750 and 1850, what he calls the Sattelzeit or Neuzeit. It was during this period that the Western world experienced the “temporalization of history” (“Verzeitlichung der Geschichte”). This meant that the term “history” was for the first time thought of as a “linear and irreversible ‘arrow of time’,” as a totalizing force capable of encompassing all the particular histories, events, and processes.

As experts have demonstrated, in light of the overwhelming rise of alterity through new discoveries, the discipline of religious studies appropriated this new “time regime” because it offered its scholars a “comprehensive paradigm for ordering the new data.” With Hanegraaff, we could say that “the concept of ‘religion’ emerged, during the early modern period, in response to a crisis of comparison caused by the increasingly overwhelming evidence for global diversity in human belief and modes of worship.” Without much hesitation, students of religion used it to reestablish order in a godless world by locating any new culture, language, or religion that they encountered along a temporal axis that was driven by progress and moved inexorably from primitive cultures to the Western world’s superior sophistication. This became particularly evident in anthropology, where Auguste Comte’s (1798–1857) positivist model of cultural development and Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) biological theory of the evolution of species found their places within the humanistic framework of “evolutionism” developed by Herbert Spencer (1820–1903).

The creation of the concept “religion” coincided with the coining of others, such as “savage,” “barbaric,” and “civilized.” Serving the purpose of giving meaning to a disoriented civilization, these concepts turned the “heavy, tumultuous thickness of history, into an airy, die-straight thread.” The evolutionary current of religious studies was offering orientation in response to the overwhelming number of new discoveries in space by lining them on a temporal string. As one scholar noted many years ago: While the sighting of alternate histories “encouraged men to see parallels between primitive and civilized practices,” the theory of progress and evolution “drew the sting and the stimulus from the comparison by regarding the former as relics, aliens from another era.” Since then, especially in the wake of post-colonialism, an impressive cohort of scholars from diverse disciplines, primarily history, religious studies, and anthropology, has continued to argue that modern thinkers organized special realms (cultures, natures, and people) along a temporal axis that was based on evolution. As Eric Sharpe noted for the term “religion:” “Religion became something which it had never really been before. From being a body of revealed truth, it became a developing organism.” Thanks to these types of studies, I can move on without digging deeper into the petrified soil of our past to unearth the skeletons buried by scholars of religion.

In the modern time regime, the political and the scientific transformations were ultimately mapped onto the model of progress. If progress provided the axis, “religion” and “liberalism,” as well as “irrationalism” and “reason” were used to indicate specific positions along the axis. Indeed, religion and irrationalism were henceforth seen as a “tradition,” an inferior form of culture, relegated to some early strata of civilizational development, considered as conservative, and usually studied in cultures far removed from our own secularized world. Liberalism and science, by contrast, were considered to be “modernity,” that is, progressive and future-oriented categories used to describe our own culture and its advanced principles.

The Crisis of the First World War and the Rise of Oswald Spengler’s Cultural Pessimism

Everything would change with the devastating events of WWI. With the “sacred canopy” of religious order lifted, the “traditional structures and lifeways” torn into pieces, the pre-modern embeddedness within fixed conceptions of time and space “emptied out,” and with “progress” no longer a viable option in light of the destructive historical circumstances, a new sense-making crisis ensued. De Martino, like many of his contemporaries, started to doubt the validity of the premises of liberalism. In unpublished archival notes, written during the early 1930s, he commented that “the liberal individual is still a slave because of the existence of nature, an evil that dodges the jurisdiction of its will, an evil that it needs to endure.” Consequently, so de Martino concluded, “the liberty of the individual of liberalism [is] a useless declamation.” As political thinkers started to doubt the validity of liberalism, scholars of religion too abruptly abandoned their faith in reason and in evolutionary theories while getting pulled into the whirlwind of crisis. Talk about crisis and decline was one of the most popular responses to the collapse of the progress-liberalism-science nexus. In his analysis of the discourse of the crisis of modernity during the Weimar years, Michael Makropoulos has not only identified “crisis” and “contingency” as the two key terms for this period, but also emphasized the tremendous impact of WWI on the consciousness of modernity. “The 1920s,” so he remarks, “were not in this perspective the crisis of modernity, modernity was itself the completion of the historical crisis of the modern age.” Put differently, only with the cataclysmic failure of the myth of progress following the First World War does the crisis becomes so acute that even the past centuries are read under the category of “crisis.” As a student at the University of Naples, when the young Ernesto published his first article, he did so by standing on the shoulder of one of the twentieth-century’s greatest crisis-thinkers, Oswald Spengler (1880–1936). Spengler’s eponymous The Decline of the West (1918) had a “seismological” impact when it was first published in 1918; hitting the “nerve of time,” it became an immediate bestseller in the post-WWI climate of Germany. Even Ernst Cassirer, a neo-Kantian philosopher of a radically different orientation, was impressed by the book’s fortune noting that “the cause of Spengler‘s success is to be sought rather in the title of his book than in its contents,” as it “was an electric spark that set the imagination of Spengler‘s readers aflame.” Based on its pseudoscientific morphology of world history according to which each culture functions like a biological organism, moving through a series of stages that invariably culminate in a final period of destruction, it perfectly reflected the pessimistic worldview that dominated those years. Although there existed individual voices of pessimism before the outbreak of the war—I am thinking here particularly of Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)—and Spengler started his epoch-marking work before its outbreak, it was Germany’s disastrous defeat in 1918 that “tilted [its] delicate balance,” throwing the country in an unprecedented crisis. Even more, the war has been described as “the great seminal catastrophe of this century,” as a caesura that “initiated the European self-destruction and the end of European supremacy in the world,” and as the beginning of a thirty-year long “European civil war.” It is therefore not surprising that Spengler’s Untergang and its “epic metanarrative of how the sun of an entire civilization was setting, [turned] into an international bestseller.”

While this cultural pessimism might have been particularly prominent in Germany—perhaps, as Ian Kershaw speculates as a consequence of the “wide-spread feeling of national degradation” resulting from the Treaty of Versailles (1919), the blame for the war, and the significant debt payments—the sense of crisis was a pan-European phenomenon. Consequently, Spengler was only the most prominent of a series of prophets of crisis proclaiming the West’s downfall in increasingly apocalyptic tones. Italy was pulled into the war in the summer of 1915, a year after the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne. Unsurprisingly, the nation, which already before the war was one of the “weakest of those states that had developed a minimal level of modern industrialization,” was “plunged into an even deeper structural crisis after the cessation of hostilities,” which claimed the lives of six hundred thousand of its young men. Besides Spengler, who was well received in Italy, the peninsula had its own share of cultural pessimists.

In some ways, both the prophetic figure of Macchioro and the young Ernesto were part of this group of people. This is not only apparent if we look at their correspondence, but also if we examine de Martino’s writings during those years. Between 1932 and 1934, a few years after his inaugural writing on his century’s most famous pessimist, the newly-minted PhD published three articles in which he furthered his inquiries into the crisis of his civilization—“Letter to the Universale” (1932), “Current Observations” (1934), and “Critique and Faith” (1934). Here too, de Martino’s message remained the same: He spoke of the “days of crisis,” of the “explo[sion] of the crisis of the System,” of the “disorientation of the consciousness facing its fate to change its own Weltanschauungtoto caelo,’” and of “a crisis… that befalls the West to this day.”

De Martino was aware of the fact that the change on the temporal axis—the replacement of “progress” with “decline”—had to be accompanied by a critique of the ontological and the epistemological convictions of modernity. In describing the latter, he struck up one of the most reverberant tunes of the pessimist’s swan song by blaming the “excessive development of our critical faculty [which is] locking itself into the lucid concept of the philosopher” for the crisis of modernity. Experts have noted that de Martino’s “critical faculty” can be identified with “critical reason,” the “calculating and utilitarian ratio of Enlightenment origin.” Regarding the ontological crisis, de Martino appreciated that the conceptualization of religion is the result of a backward-looking attitude that was “armed with historicism” and characterized by an exclusive “enthusiasm [for] historical considerations: One could even say that for [the historian] only the past holds dignity and grandiosity.” He also defined the darkness surrounding him as a “crisis of ideals and faith” and, citing a paragraph of Ernest Renan’s The Future of Science (1891) that he “holds particularly dear,” he blamed “the critical spirit” for “prohibiting chimeras by poisoning them.” De Martino juxtaposed the modern conception of religion as historical fact to that of pre-modern times, when religion was conceived as myth, which is always marked by “propulsive,” “enthusiastic,” and based on a sense of “duty-to-be.”

Flavio Geisshuesler, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a historian of religions with an expertise in the contemplative systems of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. [This article is an excerpt from his recent book, The Life and Work of Ernesto De Martino.]

Falsehood in War-Time

What follows is the “Introduction” to Lord Alfred Ponsonby’s famous work, Falsehood in War-Time (1928), in which he established the rules for “building” public consent, and even enthusiasm, for war.

Given that war seems to be a constant given of our highly moralistic age, it seems worthwhile to turn to works such as these to better understand how readily our minds are hijacked.

Lord Ponsonby (1871—1946) was a British politician and writer. He opposed Britain’s involvement in the First World War and worked actively for peace.


The object of this volume is not to cast fresh blame on authorities and individuals, nor is it to expose one nation more than another to accusations of deceit. Falsehood is a recognized and extremely useful weapon in warfare, and every country uses it quite deliberately to deceive its own people, to attract neutrals, and to mislead the enemy. The ignorant and innocent masses in each country are unaware at the time that they are being misled, and when it is all over only here and there are the falsehoods discovered and exposed. As it is all past history and the desired effect has been produced by the stories and statements, no one troubles to investigate the facts and establish the truth.

Lying, as we all know, does not take place only in war-time. Man, it has been said, is not “a veridical animal,” but his habit of lying is not nearly so extraordinary as his amazing readiness to believe. It is, indeed, because of human credulity that lies flourish. But in war-time the authoritative organization of lying is not sufficiently recognized. The deception of whole peoples is not a matter which can be lightly regarded.

A useful purpose can therefore be served in the interval of so-called peace by a warning which people can examine with dispassionate calm, that the authorities in each country do, and indeed must, resort to this practice in order, first, to justify themselves by depicting the enemy as an undiluted criminal; and secondly, to inflame popular passion sufficiently to secure recruits for the continuance of the struggle. They cannot afford to tell the truth. In some cases it must be admitted that at the moment they do not know what the truth is.

The psychological factor in war is just as important as the military factor. The morale of civilians, as well as of soldiers, must be kept up to the mark. The War Offices, Admiralties, and Air Ministries look after the military side. Departments have to be created to see to the psychological side. People must never be allowed to become despondent; so victories must be exaggerated and defeats, if not concealed, at any rate minimized, and the stimulus of indignation, horror, and hatred must be assiduously and continuously pumped into the public mind by means of “propaganda.”

As Mr. Bonar Law said in an interview to the United Press of America, referring to patriotism, “It is well to have it properly stirred by German frightfulness”; and a sort of general confirmation of atrocities is given by vague phrases which avoid responsibility for the authenticity of any particular story, as when Mr. Asquith said (House of Commons, April 27, 1915) : “We shall not forget this horrible record of calculated cruelty and crime.”

The use of the weapon of falsehood is more necessary in a country where military conscription is not the law of the land than in countries where the manhood of the nation is automatically drafted into the Army, Navy, or Air Service. The public can be worked up emotionally by sham ideals. A sort of collective hysteria spreads and rises until finally it gets the better of sober people and reputable newspapers.

With a warning before them, the common people may be more on their guard when the war cloud next appears on the horizon and less disposed to accept as truth the rumours, explanations, and pronouncements issued for their consumption. They should realize that a Government which has decided on embarking on the hazardous and terrible enterprise of war must at the outset present a one-sided case in justification of its action, and cannot afford to admit in any particular whatever the smallest degree of right or reason on the part of the people it has made up its mind to fight. Facts must be distorted, relevant circumstances concealed and a picture presented which by its crude colouring will persuade the ignorant people that their Government is blameless, their cause is righteous, and that the indisputable wickedness of the enemy has been proved beyond question. A moment’s reflection would tell any reasonable person that such obvious bias cannot possibly represent the truth. But the moment’s. reflection is not allowed; lies are circulated with great rapidity. The unthinking mass accept them and by their excitement sway the rest. The amount of rubbish and humbug that pass under the name of patriotism in war-time in all countries is sufficient to make decent people blush when they are subsequently disillusioned.

At the outset the solemn asseverations of monarchs and leading statesmen in each nation that they did not want war must be placed on a par with the declarations of men who pour paraffin about a house knowing they are continually striking matches and yet assert they do not want a conflagration. This form of self-deception, which involves the deception of others, is fundamentally dishonest.

War being established as a recognized institution to be resorted to when Governments quarrel, the people are more or less prepared. They quite willingly delude themselves in order to justify their own actions. They are anxious to find an excuse for displaying their patriotism, or they are disposed to seize the opportunity for the excitement and new life of adventure which war opens out to them. So there is a sort of national wink, everyone goes forward, and the individual, in his turn, takes up lying as a patriotic duty. In the low standard of morality which prevails in war-time, such a practice appears almost innocent. His efforts are sometimes a little crude, but he does his best to follow the example set. Agents are employed by authority and encouraged in so-called propaganda work. The type which came prominently to the front in the broadcasting of falsehood at recruiting meetings is now well known. The fate which overtook at least one of the most popular of them in this country exemplifies the depth of degradation to which public opinion sinks in a war atmosphere.

With eavesdroppers, letter-openers, decipherers, telephone tappers, spies, an intercept department, a forgery department, a criminal investigation department, a propaganda department, an intelligence department, a censorship department, a ministry of information, a Press bureau, etc., the various Governments were well equipped to “instruct” their peoples.

The British official propaganda department at Crewe House, under Lord Northcliffe, was highly successful. Their methods, more especially the raining down of millions of leaflets on to the German Army, far surpassed anything undertaken by the enemy. In “The Secrets of Crewe House” by Sir Campbell Stuart, K.B.E., the methods are described for our satisfaction and approval. The declaration that only “truthful statements” were used is repeated just too often, and does not quite tally with the description of the faked letters and bogus titles and bookcovers, of which use was made. But, of course, we know that such clever propagandists are equally clever in dealing with us after the event as in dealing with the enemy at the time. In the apparently candid description of their activities we know we are hearing only part of the story. The circulators of base metal know how to use the right amount of alloy for us as well as for the enemy.

In the many tributes to the success of our propaganda from German Generals and the German Press, there is no evidence that our statements were always strictly truthful. To quote one : General von Hutier, of the Sixth German Army, sent a message in which the following passage occurs:”The method of Northcliffe at the Front is to distribute through airmen a constantly increasing number of leaflets and pamphlets; the letters of German prisoners are falsified in the most outrageous way; tracts and pamphlets are concocted, to which the names of German poets, writers, and statesmen are forged, or which present the appearance of having been printed in Germany, and bear, for example, the title of the Reclam series, when they really come from the Northcliffe press, which is working day and night for this same purpose. His thought and aim are that these forgeries, however obvious they may appear to the man who thinks twice, may suggest a doubt, even for a moment, in the minds of those who do not think for themselves, and that their confidence in their leaders, in their own strength, and in the inexhaustible resources of Germany may be shattered.”

The Propaganda, to begin with, was founded on the shifting sand of the myth of Germany’s sole responsibility. Later it became slightly confused owing to the inability of our statesmen to declare what our aims were, and towards the end it was fortified by descriptions of the magnificent, just, and righteous peace which was going to be “established on lasting foundations.” This unfortunately proved to be the greatest falsehood of all.

In calm retrospect we can appreciate better the disastrous effects of the poison of falsehood, whether officially, semiofficially, or privately manufactured. It has been rightly said that the injection of the poison of hatred into men’s minds by means of falsehood is a greater evil in wartime than the actual loss of life. The defilement of the human soul is worse than the destruction of the human body. A fuller realization of this is essential.

Another effect of the continual appearance of false and biased statement and the absorption of the lie atmosphere is that deeds of real valour, heroism, and physical endurance and genuine cases of inevitable torture and suffering are contaminated and desecrated; the wonderful comradeship of the battlefield becomes almost polluted. Lying tongues cannot speak of deeds of sacrifice to show their beauty or value. So it is that the praise bestowed on heroism by Government and Press always jars, more especially when, as is generally the case with the latter, it is accompanied by cheap and vulgar sentimentality. That is why one instinctively wishes the real heroes to remain unrecognized, so that their record may not be smirched by cynical tongues and pens so well versed in falsehood.

When war reaches such dimensions as to involve the whole nation, and when the people at its conclusion find they have gained nothing but only observe widespread calamity around them, they are inclined to become more sceptical and desire to investigate the foundations of the arguments which inspired their patriotism, inflamed their passions, and prepared them to offer the supreme sacrifice. They are curious to know why the ostensible objects for which they fought have none of them been attained, more especially if they are the victors. They are inclined to believe, with Lord Fisher, that “The nation was fooled into the war” (“London Magazine,” January 1920). They begin to wonder whether it does not rest with them to make one saying true of which they heard so much, that it was “a war to end war.”

When the generation that has known war is still alive, it is well that they should be given chapter and verse with regard to some of the best-known cries, catchwords, and exhortations by which they were so greatly influenced. As a warning, therefore, this collection is made. It constitutes only the exposure of a few samples. To cover the whole ground would be impossible. There must have been more deliberate lying in the world from 1914 to 1918 than in any other period of the world’s history.

There are several different sorts of disguises which falsehood can take. There is the deliberate official lie, issued either to delude the people at home or to mislead the enemy abroad; of this, several instances are given. As a Frenchman has said: ” Tant que les peuples seront armés, les uns contre les autres, ils auront des hommes d’état menteurs, comme ils auront des canons et des mitrailleuses.” (“As long as the peoples are armed against each other, there will be lying statesmen, just as there will be cannons and machine guns.”)

A circular was issued by the War Office inviting reports on war incidents from officers with regard to the enemy and stating that strict accuracy was not essential so long as there was inherent probability.

There is the deliberate lie concocted by an ingenious mind which may only reach a small circle, but which, if sufficiently graphic and picturesque, may be caught up and spread broadcast ; and there is the hysterical hallucination on the part of weak-minded individuals.

There is the lie heard and not denied, although lacking in evidence, and then repeated or allowed to circulate.

There is the mistranslation, occasionally originating in a genuine mistake, but more often deliberate. Two minor instances of this may be given.

The Times (agony column), July 9, 1915:

Jack F. G. — If you are not in khaki by the 20th, 1 shall cut you dead.—ETHEL M.

The Berlin correspondent of the Cologne Gazette transmitted this :

If you are not in khaki by the 20th, hacke ich dich zu Tode (I will hack you to death).

During the blockade of Germany, it was suggested that the diseases from which children suffered had been called Die englische Krankheit, as a permanent reflection on English inhumanity. As a matter of fact, die englische Krankheit is, and always has been, the common German name for rickets.

There is the general obsession, started by rumour and magnified by repetition and elaborated by hysteria, which at last gains general acceptance.

There is the deliberate forgery which has to be very carefully manufactured but serves its purpose at the moment, even though it be eventually exposed.

There is the omission of passages from official documents of which only a few of the many instances are given; and the “correctness” of words and commas in parliamentary answers which conceal evasions of the truth.

There is deliberate exaggeration, such, for instance, as the reports of the destruction of Louvain :

“The intellectual metropolis of the Low Countries since the fifteenth century is now no more than a heap of ashes” (Press Bureau, August 29, 1914),

“Louvain has ceased to exist” (The Times, August 29th , 1914).

As a matter of fact, it was estimated that about an eighth of the town had suffered.

There is the concealment of truth, which has to be resorted to so as to prevent anything to the credit of the enemy reaching the public. A war correspondent who mentioned some chivalrous act that a German had done to an Englishman during an action received a rebuking telegram from his employer: “Don’t want to hear about any good Germans”; and Sir Philip Gibbs, in Realities of War, says: “At the close of the day the Germans acted with chivalry, which I was not allowed to tell at the time.”

There is the faked photograph (“the camera cannot lie “). These were more popular in France than here. In Vienna an enterprising firm supplied atrocity photographs with blanks for the headings so that they might be used for propaganda purposes by either side.

The cinema also played a very important part, especially in neutral countries, and helped considerably in turning opinion in America in favour of coming in on the side of the Allies. To this day in this country attempts are made by means of films to keep the wound raw.

There is the “Russian scandal,” the best instance of which during the war, curiously enough, was the rumour of the passage of Russian troops through Britain. Some trivial and imperfectly understood statement of fact becomes magnified into enormous proportions by constant repetition from one person to another.

Atrocity lies were the most popular of all, especially in this country and America; no war can be without them. Slander of the enemy is esteemed a patriotic duty. An English soldier wrote (“The Times,” September 15, 1914) : “The stories in our papers are only exceptions. There are people like them in every army.” But at the earliest possible moment stories of the maltreatment of prisoners have to be circulated deliberately in order to prevent surrenders. This is done, of course, on both sides. Whereas naturally each side tries to treat its prisoners as well as possible so as to attract others.

The repetition of a single instance of cruelty and its exaggeration can be distorted into a prevailing habit on the part of the enemy. Unconsciously each one passes it on with trimmings and yet tries to persuade himself that he is speaking the truth.

There are lies emanating from the inherent unreliability and fallibility of human testimony. No two people can relate the occurrence of a street accident so as to make the two stories tally. When bias and emotion are introduced, human testimony becomes quite valueless. In war-time such testimony is accepted as conclusive. The scrappiest and most unreliable evidence is sufficient — “the friend of the brother of a man who was killed.” or, as a German investigator of his own liars puts it, “somebody who had seen it,” or, “an extremely respectable old woman.”

There is pure romance. Letters of soldiers who whiled away the days and weeks of intolerable waiting by writing home sometimes contained thrilling descriptions of engagements and adventures which had never occurred.

There are evasions, concealments, and half-truths which are more subtly misleading and gradually become a governmental habit.

There is official secrecy which must necessarily mislead public opinion. For instance, a popular English author, who was perhaps better informed than the majority of the public, wrote a letter to an American author, which was reproduced in the Press on May 21st , 19 18, stating:

“There are no Secret Treaties of any kind in which this country is concerned. It has been publicly and clearly stated more than once by our Foreign Minister, and apart from honour it would be political suicide for any British official to make a false statement of the kind.”

Yet a series of Secret Treaties existed. It is only fair to say that the author, not the Foreign Secretary, is the liar here. Nevertheless the official pamphlet, The Truth about the Secret Treaties, compiled by Mr. McCurdy, was published with a number of un-acknowledged excisions, and both Lord Robert Cecil, in 1917 and Mr. Lloyd George in 1918 declared (the latter to a deputation from the Trade Union Congress) that our policy was not directed to the disruption of Austro-Hungary, although they both knew that under the Secret Treaty concluded with Italy in April 1918 portions of Austria-Hungary were to be handed over to Italy and she was to be cut off from the sea. Secret Treaties naturally involve constant denials of the truth.

There is sham official indignation depending on genuine popular indignation which is a form of falsehood sometimes resorted to in an unguarded moment and subsequently regretted. The first use of gas by the Germans and the submarine warfare are good instances of this.

Contempt for the enemy, if illustrated, can prove to he an unwise form of falsehood. There was a time when German soldiers were popularly represented cringing, with their arms in the air and crying “Kamerad,” until it occurred to Press and propaganda authorities that people were asking why, if this was the sort of material we were fighting against, had we not wiped them off the field in a few weeks.

There are personal accusations and false charges made in a prejudiced war atmosphere to discredit persons who refuse to adopt the orthodox attitude towards war.

There are lying recriminations between one country and another. For instance, the Germans were accused of having engineered the Armenian massacres, and they, on their side, declared the Armenians, stimulated by the Russians, had killed 150,000 Mohammedans (Germania, October 9, 1915).

Other varieties of falsehood more subtle and elusive might be found, but the above pretty well cover the ground.

A good deal depends on the quality of the lie. You must have intellectual lies for intellectual people and crude lies for popular consumption, but if your popular lies are too blatant and your more intellectual section are shocked and see through them, they may (and indeed they did) begin to be suspicious as to whether they were not being hoodwinked too. Nevertheless, the inmates of colleges are just as credulous as the inmates of the slums.

Perhaps nothing did more to impress the public mind — and this is true in all countries —- than the assistance given in propaganda by intellectuals and literary notables. They were able to clothe the tough tissue of falsehood with phrases of literary merit and passages of eloquence better than the statesmen. Sometimes by expressions of spurious impartiality, at other times by rhetorical indignation, they could by their literary skill give this or that lie the stamp of indubitable authenticity, even without the shadow of a proof, or incidentally refer to it as an accepted fact. The narrowest patriotism could be made to appear noble, the foulest accusations could be represented as an indignant outburst of humanitarianism, and the meanest and most vindictive aims falsely disguised as idealism. Everything was legitimate which could make the soldiers go on fighting.

The frantic activity of ecclesiastics in recruiting by means of war propaganda made so deep an impression on the public mind that little comment on it is needed here. The few who courageously stood out became marked men. The resultant and significant loss of spiritual influence by the Churches is, in itself, sufficient evidence of the reaction against the betrayal in time of stress of the most elementary precepts of Christianity by those specially entrusted with the moral welfare of the people.

War is fought in this fog of falsehood, a great deal of it undiscovered and accepted as truth. The fog arises from fear and is fed by panic. Any attempt to doubt or deny even the most fantastic story has to be condemned at once as unpatriotic, if not traitorous. This allows a free field for the rapid spread of lies. If they were only used to deceive the enemy in the game of war it would not be worth troubling about. But, as the purpose of most of them is to fan indignation and induce the flower of the country’s youth to be ready to make the supreme sacrifice, it becomes a serious matter. Exposure, therefore, may be useful, even when the struggle is over, in order to show up the fraud, hypocrisy, and humbug on which all war rests, and the blatant and vulgar devices which have been used for so long to prevent the poor ignorant people from realizing the true meaning of war.

It must be admitted that many people were conscious and willing dupes. But many more were unconscious and were sincere in their patriotic zeal. Finding now that elaborately and carefully staged deceptions were practised on them, they feel a resentment which has not only served to open their eyes but may induce them to make their children keep their eyes open when next the bugle sounds.

Let us attempt a very faint and inadequate analogy between the conduct of nations and the conduct of individuals.

Imagine two large country houses containing large families with friends and relations. When the members of the family of the one house stay in the other, the butler is instructed to open all the letters they receive and send and inform the host of their contents, to listen at the keyhole, and tap the telephone. When a great match, say a cricket match, which excites the whole district, is played between them, those who are present are given false reports of the game to them think the side they favour is winning, the other side is accused of cheating and foul play, and scandalous reports are circulated about the head of the family the hideous goings on in the other house.

All this, of course, is very mild, and there would no specially dire consequences if people were to be in such an inconceivably caddish, low, and underhand way, except that they would at once be expelled from decent society.

But between nations, where the consequences are vital, where the destiny of countries and provinces hangs in the balance, the lives and fortunes of millions are affected and civilization itself is menaced, the most upright men honestly believe that there is no depth of duplicity to which they may not legitimately stoop. They have got to do it. The thing cannot go on without the help of lies.

This is no plea that lies should not be used in time, but a demonstration of how lies must be us in war-time. If the truth were told from the start there would be no reason and no will for war.

Anyone declaring the truth: “Whether you right or wrong, whether you win or lose, in no circumstances can war help you or your country,” would himself in gaol very quickly. . In wartime, failure of a lie is negligence, the doubting of a lie a misdemeanour, the declaration of the truth a crime.

In future wars we have now to look forward to a new and far more efficient instrument of propaganda – the Government control of broadcasting. Whereas therefore, in the past we have used the word “broadcast” symbolically as meaning the efforts of the Press and individual reporters, in future we must use the word literally, since falsehood can now be circulated universally, scientifically, and authoritatively.

Many of the samples given in the assortment are international, but some are exclusively British, as these are more easily found and investigated, and, after all, we are more concerned with our own Government and Press methods and our own national honour than with the duplicity of other Governments.

Lies told in other countries are also dealt with in cases where it has been possible to collect sufficient data. Without special investigation on the spot, the career of particular lies cannot be fully set out.

When the people of one country understand how the people in another country are duped, like themselves, in wartime, they will be more disposed to sympathize with them as victims than condemn them as criminals, because they will understand that their crime only consisted in obedience to the dictates of authority and acceptance of what their Government and Press represented to them as the truth.

The period covered is roughly the four years of the war., The intensity of the lying was mitigated after 1918, although fresh crops came up in connection with other of our international relations. The mischief done by the false cry “Make Germany pay” continued after 1918 and led, more especially in France, to high expectations and consequent indignation when it was found that the people who raised this slogan knew all the time it was a fantastic impossibility. Many of the old war lies survived for several years, and some survive even to this day.

There is nothing sensational in the way of revelations contained in these pages. All the cases mentioned are well known to those who were in authority, less well known to those primarily affected, and unknown, unfortunately, to the millions who fell. Although only a small part of the vast field of falsehood is covered, it may suffice to show how the unsuspecting innocence of the masses in all countries was ruthlessly and systematically exploited.

There are some who object to war because of its immorality, there are some who shrink from the arbitrament of arms because of its increased cruelty and barbarity; there are a growing number who protest against this method, at the outset known to be unsuccessful, of attempting to settle international disputes because of its imbecility and futility. But there is not a living soul in any country who does not deeply resent having his passions roused, his indignation inflamed, his patriotism exploited, and his highest ideals desecrated by concealment, subterfuge, fraud, falsehood, trickery, and deliberate lying on the part of those in whom he is taught to repose confidence and to whom he is enjoined to pay respect.

None of the heroes prepared for suffering and sacrifice, none of the common herd ready for service and obedience, will be inclined to listen to the call of their country once they discover the polluted sources from whence that call proceeds and recognize the monstrous finger of falsehood which beckons them to the battlefield.

Putin and Power

This excerpt is from Putins Macht: Warum Europa Russland braucht (Putin’s Power: Why Europe needs Russia), by Hubert Seipel, who is a well-known German journalist.

But what sets Seipel apart is the fact that he is the only Western journalist to have direct access to President Vladimir Putin. Therefore, his book is filled with great insights into the character, personality and geopolitical thinking of the man who currently leads Russia.

We are very grateful to El Manifesto for the opportunity to present this excerpt.

Learning from Capitalism

For Vladimir Putin, the missile shield is an example of the West’s failure to appreciate the way Russia has peacefully overcome the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin is quick to adapt to the negative historical judgment on “real socialism,” but he still considers that the fall of the Soviet Union was negotiated by its leaders in an unprofessional manner; that the Soviet Union, in December 1991, ceased to exist in less than two weeks after the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus announced its end. A few days later, the flag with the hammer and sickle gave way to that of the tsarist-era double-headed eagle.

When Putin was in charge of the economy of the St. Petersburg executive, he quickly understood that capital, in the era of globalization, does not move easily except in regions where it feels comfortable and secure. Russia had a number of advantages: tax rates were very low, as were wages, and the Russian people, despite miserable living conditions, were peaceful. However, Putin also saw very clearly, during this rapid initiation to capitalism, that millionaires should pay taxes in their country and respect the actions of the state.

But it is not only the feeling of having been abused that angers Putin. The lack of respect for Russia’s vital interests is, for him particularly hurtful, especially when the country shows signs of weakness. Putin confessed to me, during hours of conversation, without taking a breath, except to drink a little vodka, how the strategic configuration of Europe has been modified, without taking into account Russia’s susceptibilities. When the Warsaw Pact collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO took the opportunity to develop with expansive madness… Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Baltic States, Romania, Slovakia and finally Croatia and Albania, “when we had been promised, on the occasion of German reunification, that there would be no extension of NATO.”

From Lisbon to Vladivostok

Vladimir Putin’s political objective is to create an economic space from Vladivostok to Lisbon. At the end of November 2009, he chose the Adlon Hotel in Berlin to present his vision, to German businessmen, of a common economic zone, with the European Union. A free trade zone without customs duties, a common industrial policy and the abolition of visas were just a few of Putin’s proposals. Both sides would benefit, including Russia, of course. “Because Russia, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, has not had access to its main export markets. Problems have arisen with transit countries, which have tried to take advantage of their monopoly situation to extract unilateral advantages. This is a source of disputes.”

Putin insisted on a central point in his thinking: “It is of paramount importance that we learn to respect each other’s strategic interests through deeds and not just words.”

Two years later, Putin was still convinced of his proposals. At the end of 2013, in Sochi, he explained to me the reasons for his strategic reflections. “A rapprochement with Europe is not, in principle, bad for us. We have the natural resources and Europe has the know-how. We would both profit in the long term.”

His goal has always been an agreement with the European Union and Ukraine to modify the technical standards of Russia and countries such as Belarus and Ukraine, so that they become compatible with those of the European Union and thus competitive. Leveling the economy—and responding, at the same time, to the expansive policy of the West—is, for him, nothing more than a question of time, equal opportunities and increased investments. This is the reason why Putin insisted on joining the World Trade Organization, which decides by means of its binding international rules what is authorized and what is not. After several decades of arduous negotiations, Russia was able to overcome the obstacles and was admitted as a member in 2012. The EU’s simplistic reaction of rejecting Russian proposals before even examining them provoked his anger. “They have been repeating one thing to us for years: you must not interfere in Ukraine’s affairs. We do not intervene in your relations with China and you should not intervene in our relations with Canada.”

Putin regards the attempt to separate Ukraine economically from Russia as a political maneuver against his country; and the technocratic point of view of Brussels, for which Russia’s relations with Ukraine are of no importance, he sees it as a deliberate strategy. As a political man, he is appalled that initiatives of such importance, with enormous consequences for the neighboring country, can be taken without negotiation, but exclusively bureaucratically. “It is not difficult to realize that our relations with Ukraine are different from those between Brussels and Canada, as these really have no complexity,” Putin laconically lamented.