Friday, April 15, 2022

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine

Serhii Plokhy's The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine is a history both of the land occupied by the contemporary nation of Ukraine, but even more of the people who are Ukrainians. It covers 2500 years ending with 2020 in the revised edition. (The revised edition came out in 2021.)

Especially now it made for a pretty fascinating read.

The history begins with Herodotus, which any history that justifiably can ought to do. 😉 The area was not then inhabited by Slavic speakers, but Cimmerians and Scythians, who spoke Iranian languages. Plokhy also makes use of Procopius' history, to discuss the area's relation to Byzantium, but he mostly moves over this period pretty quickly.

Slavic speakers first move to the area as part of the migrations caused by Attila the Hun. (5th or 6th century.) As the power of the Huns wanes, a new state, Kievan Rus' is established covering most of what is now Ukraine, Belorussia, and European Russia. Kyiv is the capitol. The nobles, led by the Rurikid dynasty, are a mix of Vikings and Slavs; the people, mostly Slavs. It reached its political apex under Yaroslav the Wise (978-1054).

It seems the word Rus' (the basis of Russian) comes (via the Finns) from the Swedish word 'ruotsi' used to describe the Vikings as the 'men who row.' 

Yaroslav partitioned out the kingdom to his three eldest sons. Plokhy compares this division to that of Charlemagne. Like Charlemagne, Yaroslav did it to prevent inheritance squabbles among his sons, and it succeeded about as well as Charlemagne's attempt did. (That is, not at all.) New successor kingdoms were the result. These fought among themselves and tried to work with their more powerful neighbors (the Khazars, Byzantium). The word Ukraine first appears in the historical record at this time (in the 1180s). Then everything was swept away by the Mongol Horde in 1240. This was the beginning of differences between the various east Slavic states though none of them exactly correspond to three current ones. (Belarus, Ukraine, Russia).

Two east Slavic vassal states are formed in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion. One is Muscovy, with its capital Vladimir (near Moscow) and is the area around Moscow. The other, Galicia-Volhynia, was centred in Kyiv but moved its capitol to Kholm (now Chełm in Poland) and occupied the area of what's now western Ukraine and eastern Poland. The two vassal states received different treatment; the Muscovy state, closer to the Mongol heartland was more oppressed; the Kholm state was allowed a looser rein. 

In 1323 the last male heirs (grandsons of the founder) of the Galicia-Volhynia dynasty died. The Mongols were a bit weaker. Galicia was taken over by the Polish kingdom; Volhynia by the Lithuanians. 1386 marks the beginning of the joining of Poland and Lithuania in a commonwealth. But the administration of the two areas remains separate. Plokhy thinks this is the beginning of a separate identity for Belarusians and Ukrainians. 

The Cossacks begin as a sort of peasant rebellion in what is now eastern Ukraine, but in 1648 Bohdan Khmelnitsky creates a state (the Hetmanate) out of Polish-Lithuanian lands in what is now eastern Ukraine. Plokhy doesn't play down the pogroms that have left Khmelnitsky as little more than a swear word in Jewish history, but he did create a sort of Ukrainian state. But by 1780 the Hetmanate had been absorbed into Russia. Western Ukraine is split between Austria-Hungary (Lviv) and Russia (Kyiv) during the partitions of Poland.

There's an attempt to set up a new Ukrainian state in the immediate aftermath of World War I, but it doesn't last, doesn't really even get on its feet.

Plokhy discusses the state of education in the Ukrainian language in the various jurisdictions as one of the formative elements of a Ukrainian identity. The ability to use one's native Ukrainian in a public setting comes and goes at the political whim of the various powers. For instance, Austria-Hungary at one point trying to beat back Polish nationalism allows schools to use Ukrainian. Later to placate the Poles, Ukrainian is no longer taught. 

Plokhy makes a good case for a Ukrainian identity, which is, of course, like anybody else's, only strengthened by persecution. In the 19th century a number of nationalities were finding their feet; Plokhy does suggest that the Ukrainians were a little late in finding theirs, though they did not really have a state of their own at any point in the 19th century.

I felt like I learned a lot from the book, especially in the time frames that were more obscure to me: the Middle Ages in Slavic lands. Looking at Plokhy's list of publications on Wikipedia, (he's now a professor at Harvard) it's clear one of his real interests is the formation of Ukrainian identity, and I found that the most interesting part. 

This is a book for a non-specialist reader. (Like me!) It reads well, but it does cover 2500 years in 360 pages, so there are a few places where it felt a bit thin--World War I, for instance. Still. Full of fascinating and timely and suddenly--unfortunately--much more important things to know. Recommended.

R W Wood (#poem)


The Penguin. The Sword-fish.
We have for many years been bored
By that old saw about the sword
And pen, and now we all rejoice,
To see how Nature made her choice.
She made, regardless of offendin'
The Sword-fish mightier than the Penguin.

-R. W. Wood

Various byways led me to a discover The Norton Book of Light Verse (1986) edited by Russell Baker. My library had it! I have a few other anthologies of light verse already, and this one had a number of the usual suspects: Ogden Nash, Don Marquis, Dorothy Parker. Always fun to read them again. But it had a few I didn't know at all, and one of those Robert Williams Wood. (1868-1955) He was an important figure in optics, pioneering infrared and ultraviolet photography, according to Wikipedia. But he also wrote (1907) this book,... and for our purposes today... You can find it here at Project Gutenberg.

A couple more, while we're here:

The Clover. The Plover.

The Plover and the Clover can be told apart with ease,
By paying close attention to the habits of the Bees,
For, Entomologists aver, the Bee can be in Clover 
While Etymologists concur, there is no B in Plover.

The Parrot. The Carrot.
The Parrot and the Carrot one may easily confound.
They're very much alike in looks and similar in sound,
We recognize the parrot by his clear articulation,
For carrots are unable to engage in conversation.


The drawings are pretty amusing as well:


Thursday, April 7, 2022

Richard Howard's At Sixty-Five (#poem)


At Sixty-Five

The tragedy, Colette said, is that one
does not age. Everyone else does, of course
(as Marcel was so shocked to discover),
and upon one’s mask odd disfigurements
are imposed; but that garrulous presence
we sometimes call the self, sometimes deny
it exists at all despite its carping
monologue, is the same as when we stole
the pears, spied on mother in the bath, ran
away from home. What has altered is what
Kant called Categories: the shapes of time
change altogether! Days, weeks, months,
and especially years are reassigned.
Famous for her timing, a Broadway wit
told me her “method”: asked to do something,
anything, she would acquiesce next year—
“I’ll commit suicide, provided it’s
next year.” But after sixty-five, next year
is now. Hours? there are none, only a few
reckless postponements before it is time . . .
When was it you “last” saw Jimmy—last spring?
last winter? That scribbled arbiter
your calendar reveals—betrays—the date:
over a year ago. Come again? No
time like the present, endlessly deferred.
Which makes a difference: once upon a time
there was only time (. . . as the day is long)
between the wanting self and what it wants.
Wanting still, you have no dimension where
fulfillment or frustration can occur.
Of course you have, but you must cease waiting
upon it: simply turn around and look
back. Like Orpheus, like Mrs. Lot, you
will be petrified—astonished—to learn
memory is endless, life very long,
and you—you are immortal after all.

-Richard Howard

Richard Howard (1929-2022) passed away last week, a favorite as a poet and an important translator from the French.

As a consequence there have been links: the NY Times obituary, an article, emphasizing his Jewishness in the Forward, a conversation at a Pen event between him and Susan Sontag. That last, from which I lifted the poem, also has an amusing anecdote involving Hermann Broch: it seems Broch, assisted in his emigration from Europe by Howard's adoptive mother, flirted with her, bringing on young Howard's jealousy. To no avail. (The romance didn't come off anyway.)

I also learned that Howard's husband insisted that one book leave their New York apartment every time a new one came in. The horror! There was generally large stack of books by the door to be schlepped down to the Strand and sold.

The poem uses a syllable-counting pattern. Ten syllables in each line, though it's not five accents, and so it's not blank verse.

For Howard, at sixty-five, next year wasn't yet now. He went on well past that. But 'you are immortal after all.'

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Kate O'Brien's Farewell Spain

 "...and in any case, say only [blank] were fighting this war it is being fought for an issue which is everyone's immediate concern everywhere. It is a war waged by the forces of militaristic absolutism against democracy."

You might guess from the title above that the nationality I've blanked is 'Spaniards', and that the time of its writing in early 1937, and of course it is. But it resonates.

Kate O'Brien (1897-1974) was an Irish-born novelist. She worked as an au pair in Bilbao, Spain, in the early 20s, and fell in love with the country. She had come back as a tourist in 1936 and this book, half travelogue, half angry lament that the republic is under attack is the result. As she's writing it, late in 1936 and early 1937, it's not clear who will win, but, of course, in the end it was Franco and the nationalists, and O'Brien was denied entry to Spain until 1957 because of this book.

But half the book--probably more, actually--is travelogue, and witty and amusing travelogue at that:
"But it is no good. The cathedral is on your conscience. You paid good money and took some trouble to get here to see it, and you can sit in a café anywhere. Ah, turismo, what a slave-driver you are!"

O'Brien arrives by boat in the north. She visits Santander, Compostela, Salamanca, Ávila:

"All the rest of the town [Ávila] is lovely. It slithers carelessly about the sides of a golden hill and west and south down to the Adaja. It is placed high, but far away on every side the cold points of mountains fence its landscape in."

O'Brien is quite taken with Saint Teresa of Ávila, and went on to write a book about her. (She had been raised Catholic, but was agnostic as an adult.) She gets to Madrid, by then under attack from the Nationalist forces, though it hasn't yet fallen. Her final stop is Burgos. The edition I have is a Virago reprint from 1985 with illustrations and an introduction by Mary O'Neill, her life partner.

I've never read anything else by Kate O'Brien (have you?) and I quite liked it. She's best known as a novelist, I think. I'm going to have find other of her books.

I read it now because we're going to Spain soon for a little over two weeks. (Yay!) This was the trip we'd planned for two years ago, but then had to cancel at the last minute. We'll mostly be in the south (Córdoba, Granada, the Alhambra) so, in fact, the book didn't do much to prepare me, but that's OK, but it was still pretty good...

It's nice to be able to go somewhere again.

And not only is this a place I want to go visit, it is a place I'm actually going to go visit!