zondag 15 november 2015

a litter of churches.

An addition to my last post. The Russian lands weren't opened only by fur trappers and merchants. I would say, it was trappers, traders and churches. The Russian Orthodox Church functioned - functions - for a long time as a substitute, or at least a strong ally of the Russian state. Where the Russian church went, the Russians went - and Russian power came. The Russian name for the Orthodox church is pravoslavnyj - which means 'true Slavic'. Being a Russian is being an Orthodox. Churches and monasteries were build in far-away places, fortified and self-sufficient. Cloister lands often formed an outpost, a small village, which, one day, might have turned into a town, a city, a regional centre.

Uncultivated Nenets in the North

I imagined something like that whilst I worked on the properties of the Valaam monastery, up North of Saint Petersburg. Chopping wood on a small island, about two hours from the mainland, I could perfectly imagine the local monks literally cultivating the land. However, there were so many churches that not all churches on the island could possibly fulfil the role of outpost. I looked it up, and these 'sketes' facilitate both isolation and communal services. Besides a church or chapel, there's living space for monks - whether it cells or a cave. There isn't quite much of en mass masses going on in these sketes, but there's always monks who perform service. With only the act of service, they praise the higher being, I guess.

 A monk and a chapel ... or a hermit in a cave.

I volunteered on the Valaam archipelago, spread out in the Northern part of Lake Ladoga, the biggest lake of Europe, right at the border of Finland. The islands were moving back and forth between Finnish and Russian hands, but have always been Orthodox. Frontiers between nations in empires like the Swedish and the Russian were unclear. In time the Russians took the Duchy of Finland from the Swedish empire, and Valaam as well. The island and monastery were part of Finnish independence in 1917, however. Eventually, they ended up in Russian hands again , after the Finno-Russian Winter War in the fourties.

A skete that looks rather Finnish

The work I was doing wasn't work, technically. It was called poslushaniye - which can be translated as penance, obedience, submission and more like that. Sin is a quite central concept in Orthodoxy, and I contemplated if purgatory is an easier way out.

There was quite a lot of time to think. Lumber-jacking, collecting potatoes, cleaning up stables and beaches - it sometimes felt like a work camp. We ate buckwheat and fish soup from metal bowls, with a spoon only. Accommodation was simple, with no warm water and no toilet doors. And labour was physical and for free, but no slavery for sure.

Indeed, labour camps are no anachronism. Even though the GULAG doesn't exist any more, penal colonies live on. Convicts are still send to inhospitable places in the North and East of Russia. I have no idea to what extend they look like Valaam. The nature might be as stunning, the work might be worse. Food and isolation are probably similar.

Collecting wood

There's more churches to build.

In Orthodox churches, ritual is more important than theology. Contrary to Western church, sermon and Bible reading aren't as central as singing and praying. The gender roles are quite striking. It's both women and men who are veiled in Orthodox surroundings. On church properties we wore trousers and long sleeves - the women long skirts and head-scarfs. In church, the women were standing at the left, the men right.

Please, come further!

The island didn't seem to have a food culture. There was no chatting, just hurry. There's something with morning porridge with kompot, however. After work, there was always time for tea. We made potato pancakes with smetana, and raw garlic or horse radish could spice anything up. In the end, I will miss the omnipresent cats, the real banya, the cold lake swims, and the Russian club dancing.

Sunday morning mass

maandag 31 augustus 2015

america is russia.

Seen as the ultimate antagonists, I more and more think that America is Russia, or, for that matter, Russia is America. I mean, think about it: these countries share so much! Not only were they the opposing and sole superpowers in between the Second World War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but far more than that. Characteristics that makes them more alike, but differ from the rest.

Edes Harrison's depiction of the USSR. 

Their sheer size. The Russian Federation is the biggest country in the world (17 million square kilometres) and the United States are the fourth (9,5m km2). The US is third population-wise (326 million), whilst Russia is ninth (144m). However, in regard of population density, they rank respectively 224th and 182nd. It's enormous, empty space.

The Nearctic biogeographic region. 

Their geography. Yes, I admit, Canada is more similar to than, but both the US and Russia occupy a vast belt of the Northern hemisphere. As a result their countries are a composite of plains, evergreen forests, mountain ranges - and the occasional desert. As the Russia Federation lies even further Northwards than its mirror image, it consists of a lot of tundra as well, and nearly half of the Arctic circle. This creates challenges in logistics, accessibility, with water, roads, long winters, time-zones, and what not.

The Palearctic biogeographical region. 

Their politics. It is fairly popular to attribute the emergence of tsarism, stalinism and putinism to geographical factors such as a harsh climate, awkward logistics and a troubled history (think 'Asian despotism'). But aren't the USA composed of fifty states with an all-powerful President presiding as well? Since the fifteen republics of the USSR gained independence in 1991, the sixteen constituent republics of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic live on in a still federal Russia, now counting 22 republics (among a plethora of other bureaucratic divisions) - and with a President at its head.

The natives. The founders of the United States, and until today its most influential inhabitants, are 'white, Anglo-Saxon protestants' originating in Western Europe (of whom actually a plurality were German, so forget about the 'Anglo'). The original American inhabitants, Amerindians and Inuit, and Latino settlers as well, were pushed aside - expelled, assimilated, battled, killed. The Russians, originating in the Eastern Slav principalities or Kiev Rus in contemporary Ukraine, Belarus and South-western Russia, only moved Eastwards after being subjugated for hundreds of years by Mongols and Turkic Tatars - the so-called 'Tatar yoke.' As the native Americans, the Tatars are still around, but confined in their very own reserve (although Tatarstan indeed enjoys a high degree of autonomy and a lot of oil moreover).

Native populations. 

Colonialism. Even though never explicit, both Russia and the US might in fact be two of the last remaining colonial empires. During the Cold War and before, the USSR and the USA presented themselves as anti-colonial powers, trying to attract the support of newly independent former colonies - and probably believing in their idealistic selves as well. However, Dominic Lieven defines the imperial idea in Empire (2003) as large, multinational, hegemonic entities (China, India, and Indonesia - and possibly Iran, Brazil, etc. - are likely other candidates).

Today, both states still consist of multinational populations with a dominant people. In the USA, about sixty percent of the people identify as white, descending from immigrants from Europe, North Africa or the Middle East. About twenty percent identifies as Hispanic, and is from Iberian, Catholic descent. However, the dominant culture continues to be a Protestant one, and that's how about 45% of the Americans identify (70% as Christian in general). The population of Russia consists of about 80% ethnic Russians (in the Soviet Union, their majority was only just over half). The dominant religion in the Russian Federation is Orthodox Christianity, with which at least a plurality of 40%, but probably as much as three-quarters of the population identifies. As for the Russian colonialism, Alexander Etkind explains the concept of 'internal colonization' in the similarly titled book from 2013. Indeed, it was often the Russian nation itself that had to bear the heaviest burden of Russia's imperial ambitions, in both tax and human toll.

Ethnic composition of the former USSR. Pink is Great Russian. 

The frontier. As mentioned, the nations and states currently dominating the Northern confines of the Americas and Eurasia, didn't originate there. Their current hegemony started with small and insignificant settlements (such as Moscow) on the outskirts of far more powerful entities (the British Empire and Kiev Rus). The inhospitable environment of dense forests, wilderness and cold was pioneered by fur trappers and lumberjacks, only to be claimed afterwards by authorities in far away capital cities. These states kept growing, almost organically, before they became empires.

Russian expansion. 

The mentality, maybe? A vast country, abundant of natural riches, space and opportunities might create a people of pioneers, programmed to set their own rules, and - if not allowed to - who might as well move forward.

The world according to Reagan. 

dinsdag 31 maart 2015

across the sea.

When the late French historian Fernand Braudel wrote his La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II in 1949, he did something unusual. Before that, histories were written from a national perspective. Braudel wrote a history of the Mediterranean though. Indeed, the water connects - and probably even more than land does. For a long time, crossing a sea or lake by boat was a far easier task than the travel over land - over mountains and through woods full of dangers, both human and wild. In our age of cars, trains, highways, and TGV this might be difficult to imagine. Just as hard (even though it's logical) as it might be to see that history doesn't stop at a border. 

All these lands were once under Roman rule or influence. 

Indeed, the Roman Empire was centred around the Mediterranean - which was dubbed Mare nostrum after all. This made the British, Germanic and Northern Gallic provinces over here a periphery. When their link with a transalpine centre in the fourth century broke, however, they naturally reconnected over the North Sea. Germanic tribes migrated to Northern Gallia and Southern Britain. Frisians traded and fished up to Scandinavia. Wool of British sheep was processed in Flanders and Holland. Britons went for study to Paris. And it wasn't a surprise that it was coastal trading towns from the Baltics to England - but mainly from Northern Germany - that united in the Hanseatic League. 

As much as we are used to the idea of a sea that divides, it is striking how many of them don't. In many ways - history and economy for example, the Southern US shares more with the Caribbean than with the Great plains. The Southern Caucasian state of Azerbaijan is regarded at times part of Central Asia, with which it shares authoritarianism apart from an oil-dependent economy.

Connected by more than pipelines? Not only Azerbaijan, but basically 
all Caspian littoral states are oil dependent dictatorships. 

Both Ukraine (2004, 2013) and Georgia (2003) revolted against the mafiose Post-Soviet structures in their countries, and they subsequently even proposed a 'Black Sea Union'. Ukraine and Georgia bonded that much that currently many former Georgian revolutionaries serve in the Post-Maidan administration in Ukraine. Georgia looking West - over the Black Sea towards the European Union, and Azerbaijan looking East - over the Caspian towards Central Asia, suddenly sounds a lot more plausible. 

The Black Sea is surrounded by real (Turkey, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria) 
and would-be (Ukraine, Georgia) NATO members.

At the moment, we see how Egypt's Vietnam (Yemen) is just accross the Red Sea and how the Persian Gulf simultaneously holds Iran and Saudi Arabia in a deadly embrace. Yes, the more I look at my maps, the more they look like this:

zaterdag 31 januari 2015

when one turns two.

This year, I was lucky to spend Christmas and New Year with minus 26 high up in Northern Sweden. There, I spend some time with a Finnish-speaking family. I hear you thinking, and I thought as well: what are Finnish-speakers doing in Sweden, why don't they move to Finland, or why isn't their home part of it? Obviously, I started to read and this is what I found out. 

These Swedish Finnish-speakers are separated from their co-speakers since Finland became a part of the Russian Empire. Before, there was no border, and there was no Finland: all was Sweden. In 1809, the Treaty of Fredrikshamn (Hamina) ended the Finnish War (1808-9) between Sweden and Russia. It created two nations where there was only one before.

Large parts of present day Finland had become part of the Swedish realm in the fourteenth century. Finnish speaking people are living in the Swedish Torne valley since at least this day. Therefore, they are known as Tornedalians. At times, they were instrumental in the colonization of Northern Sweden. When the Russian Empire acquired present day Finland in 1809, the Tornedalians were not included, although the Russians pushed for it. Until after the 1950s the Swedish government tried to Swedify the Tornedalians. Since then, the policy was reversed, and in 1999 the Tornedalian language, Meänkieli, was officially recognized as a minority language. It is said that there's still about 150,000 Swedes who understand Meänkieli. Many of the developments of standard Finnish in the nineteenth and twentieth century didn't happen in the Meänkieli dialect. Moreover, it contains many Swedish loanwords. As such, a new nation with a distinct language is created.

There's also many Finns in Sweden, by the way, but they find their origin in what is now Finland. The Swedes in Finland settled there ages ago (since 1200), but as a matter of fact, they don't see or at least call themselves different than the Swedish Swedes. In Norway there's Finnish speaking people known as Kven.

Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language, as Hungarian is famously as well. These are not all of them, however. In Northern Russia there's many more Finno-Ugric speakers. Read more about this here. 

There's more examples of a divided nation which becomes or might become two - or more. For example, the Turks (Turkey and Azerbaijan), the Azeri (Azerbaijan and Iranian Azerbaijan), the Arabs (Syria, Iraq, etc.), the Bulgarians (Macedonia, Bulgaria), the Albanians (Kosovo, Albania), Mongolians (Inner and Outer Mongolia), Bengali (Bengal and Bangladesh), etc. Of course, it's all about identification. Even though many Arab dialects aren't mutually intelligible, many speakers see Arab as one tongue. And what about the Korea's, or the Pashtun in Pakistan and Afghanistan? The Germans were never together in one state, but what is it that separates Swiss, German Germans and Austrians? And what would have happened if the German Democratic Republic would have lived on? More people today identify with Meänkieli, but almost nobody without abandoning their Swedish identity. A feeling which is stronger, obviously, than the language bond with Finland.