The Silver Crest by Kornei Chukovsky (Facebook group reading challenge)

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In English language school stories, a common trope is for a character to be accused of something they haven’t done, and for the culprit then either to be found out or be shamed into owning up, and Our Hero/Heroine to be vindicated and the dishonourable baddie, hanging their head in shame, to be punished, preferably expelled.   (Well, except in What Katy Did At School, where Katy sanctimoniously decides to “live it down”, and Bella gets away with it all.)   In this book, a true story written by a Soviet era children’s author about his boyhood in late Tsarist era Odessa, that doesn’t happen – because he’s the illegitimate son of a peasant washerwoman mother and a Jewish father, and the wrongful accusation is just an excuse to kick him out of a good school that’s being purged of perceived undesirables.  However, he eventually triumphs over the system by completing his secondary and university education via correspondence courses.   It’s very different from the sort of school story that Anglophone readers are used to.  And it makes no mention of the alternative version of events, which is that Chukovsky and his mate, the future Zionist leader Vladimir/Ze’ev Jabotinsky, were both expelled from school for their political activities … which might have been more interesting, if rather less appealing to readers in Soviet times.   Odessa is a fascinating place: I’m not sure I’ll ever get the chance to go there again (I went in 2008), but I’d certainly like to.

It’s only a short book, and doesn’t go into much detail. The reading group challenge for February was to read a children’s book originally written in another language.  I wanted something Russian that wasn’t going to cost me a fortune, and this was recommended.  Yes, I do know that Odessa is now in Ukraine, and also that the transliteration from Ukrainian is Odesa.  I’ve been there!   But it’s still mainly Russian-speaking, so I’m sticking with “Odessa”, and the book is actually subtitled “A Russian boyhood”.  There are tantalising glimpses into the fascinating multicultural society of Odessa in the 1890s: several characters have Greek names or German names, and there’s a reference to the main character’s mother, a Ukrainian peasant woman, having hidden a Jewish neighbour during a pogrom; but it is a fairly short and simplistic book, although it would probably be difficult to follow without some prior knowledge of the history of the Russian Empire.

The author, Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky, was born Nikolai Vasilyevich Korneychukov. I don’t know where the patronymic came from: it wasn’t from the name of his natural father.  In this book, which is the story of his own youth, he says that he didn’t at that time know who his father was.  I don’t know whether that’s true or not.  He spent some time working in London as a correspondent for an Odessa newspaper, and then, back in the Russian Empire, was imprisoned for allegedly insulting the Romanovs.  In Soviet times, he was based near Moscow, became a very well-known children’s author, and used his position to help other authors, including Anna Akhmatova for whom his daughter worked as a secretary, who were being persecuted by the regime.

His mother had been a maid for his father’s wealthy family in St Petersburg. Due to the differences in class and religion, they never officially married, and she eventually moved, with Nikolai/Kornei and his older sister, to Odessa.   The book, as I keep saying, is quite short, but it does give us an idea of what life was like for poor people in the Odessa of the 1890s.  It doesn’t go on about evil-oppressive-capitalist/imperialist systems, and in some ways is reminiscent of the kind of memoirs you often get about British working-class life – we never had two ha’pennies to rub together but everyone pulled together and kids could play out in the streets kind of thing.  What’s never mentioned is how Kornei came to be attending the gymnasium, i.e. the top level of secondary schools, from which pupils would generally go on to university.  The only likely explanation is that his father was paying, which does make it rather unlikely that he didn’t even know who his father was.  I suppose it would have spoilt the whole mood of the book if we’d been told that this poor family were getting financial support from a wealthy middle-class source!  I may have this all wrong, but I doubt there’d have been free places, and I can’t see that his mother could have made enough for the school fees by taking in washing.

His mother’s extremely proud of the fact that he’s at this school – and has the silver crest of the school on his cap. She’s desperate for him to get on in life.  This doesn’t happen in British school stories (I know I’m putting a very British interpretation on this, but the idea of the reading group challenge was that we’ve all read loads of British children’s books, and are looking at something different!)  In those, it’s very rare for someone from a working-class background to attend a top school, or to be shown aiming to get on in life – which is incredibly annoying, because pulling yourself up by the bootstraps was a big idea in the 19th century, but never made its way into school stories, which were generally written between around 1900 and 1960.  And it’s interesting that they’re working within the system of Imperial Russia: there’s no sense of wanting to change the system, only of wanting to work with it.

The book starts with young Kornei, who reckons that he’s always near the top of his class – boasting is a definite no-no in English language school stories, so there’s another cultural difference – trying to help his friends cheat in a test. There’s no suggestion that cheating is wrong: he’s just being a good friend by trying to stop his mates from getting bad marks and consequently getting into trouble.  It backfires.  So he’s got a bad reputation with the teachers, and he does actually deserve it.  But then he’s blamed for egging on another boy to try to hide his bad marks from his parents.  It doesn’t actually seem like that much of a big deal, but apparently it was.   And he’s expelled.  A teacher symbolically rips the silver crest off his cap.

He naively assumes that the truth will out and he will be vindicated. He initially expects that the real culprit will own up.  But there’s no way.  This boy is from an influential family who are very ambitious for him.  There’s no way he’s going to chance getting into trouble at school – and it’s his mum who explains this to Korney.  Then he assumes that his friends, who know the truth, will speak up for him.  They don’t.  Then, eventually, someone tells him that it wouldn’t achieve anything even if they did – he and several other boys from “undesirable” backgrounds are being kicked out because the authorities want to purge top schools of unsuitable elements, and the incident with the other boy hiding his bad marks is just an excuse.

There were certainly moves in late Imperial Russia to make sure that the gymnasia were turning out boys who’d promote … the phrase “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” belongs to the reign of Nicholas I rather than that of Nicholas II, but that sort of idea. As the book points out, it was part of the very reactionary attitude taken by the government during the reign of Alexander III.  After the assassination of the “Tsar-Liberator” Alexander II in 1881, and, really, before that, going back to the Polish-Lithuanian Uprising of 1863-4.  I’m resisting the temptation to write a long essay on Imperial Russia, because this isn’t really a history book!   So I don’t find it hard to believe that boys would have been expelled for reasons that had nothing to do with their actual schooling or with bad behaviour.

Was it a class war thing? The authorities were paranoid about any hint of revolutionary activity.  So I wouldn’t be surprised if the real truth of it was the alternative version of events, which is never even hinted at this book – that Chukovsky was running a satirical student magazine with his friend Vladimir Yevgenyevich Zhabotinsky, later better known as the militant Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and that that was the reason he was expelled.  But, then again, the decree of 1887, referred to in the book, did say that working-class children should be kicked out of top schools because they should be encouraged to stay within their milieu rather than thinking about university.

Could it have been partly a religious/cultural thing, as well?  This was the era of the May Laws.  His father isn’t mentioned in the book, and there’s no suggestion that the authorities, or even Kornei himself, knew anything about him, and it’s made clear that Kornei and his mother and sister are Orthodox Christians, insofar as they bother with religion at all – but could the Jewish connection have been a factor too?

Whatever the exact truth of it, he was expelled from school for socio-political reasons. And, whilst this honestly doesn’t come across as being propaganda, in the end we are left feeling that our hero has been the victim of an unfair and oppressive system.   But he doesn’t go off and join a revolutionary movement.  Instead, he beats the system – and, yes, he does beat the system! – by gaining his secondary school and university qualifications via a correspondence course.  And the book ends with a note saying that he hopes the reader will love all his friends and family, but also that he hopes they’ll hate all the baddies – the headmaster, the school inspector, etc, and, interestingly, that there are still people like them around.

As a story, and it is meant as a children’s book, this isn’t bad.  There’s plenty of stuff about japes he gets up to with his mates, nasty teachers, girls he fancies, and so on.  As a history book, it doesn’t tell us that much, but it does give us some glimpses into a time in which the author had grown up but which is now gone, and into the absolutely fascinating culture of late 19th century Odessa and its very diverse population.  It really is a very, very interesting city, and I’m glad to have had the chance to visit it in 2008.

It doesn’t tell us much of the politics of Odessa … once I realised when and where the book was set, I was expecting more about politics and revolutionary activities, especially as the book was written in the 1930s. The original, 1938, edition, apparently opened by quoting the part of Stalin’s constitution that stated that all children had the right to an education, including at university level, paid for by the state, so there were very strong political overtones there.  I didn’t really sense any suggestion that most people had much interest in politics … although I gather that the 1938 version was much more political than the later version which was translated into English and which I read.   And the idea of the self-made man who beat the system is really more redolent of Victorian Lancashire than of Tsarist Odessa.  Very Samuel Smiles … and he does actually mention reading books by Samuel Smiles.  He taught himself English, and he seems to be a great admirer of Britain – which, again, has strong overtones of Victorian Liberalism, which I wouldn’t quite have expected from a book written in Stalin’s Soviet Union.  But Chukovsky wasn’t a typical Soviet author, and this isn’t a typical book of any sort of genre – it’s very different, and, whilst it’s only short, is worth a read, and a lot of thinking about.

Chris Tarrant: Extreme Nuclear Railway – Channel 5

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There was a strange dearth of Cossacks in this.  Who goes on a tour of Ukraine and doesn’t have their photo taken with Cossacks?! And I was cringing when Chris Tarrant blithely informed a local guide in Lviv that he expected the place to look Russian. Someone give that man a very long and detailed lecture on the Polish partitions, please!   However, there was quite a bit of interesting information in this whistle-stop tour of Ukraine, not least the fact that the current head of health and safety at Chornobyl (and, yes, it is transliterated with a second o, not with an e) comes from Bury.  I love that!

And I love Russia. And so nobody has ever accused me of being biased towards Ukraine: it’s awkward to do both!  However, it does really annoy me when people refer to “the Ukraine”.  Lose the “the”, OK.  And transliterate the Ukrainian names for places, not the Russian names, unless you’re talking about majority Russian-speaking areas, like Odessa (which would be Odesa in Ukrainian).  There.  I like to be pedantic.  Oh, and don’t moan about Ukrainian railway maps being in Cyrillic.  Of course they’re in Cyrillic – what do you expect?!

So, we kicked off with a railway journey through the Carpathians and a visit to the capital of Ukrainian Galicia – Lviv, also known as Lemberg in German and Yiddish, Lwow in Polish, Lvov in Russian and Ilyvo in Hungarian, formerly the capital of Ruthenia, then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then under Austrian rule, then under Polish rule, briefly part the Soviet Union for less than half a century and now very loudly and proudly Ukrainian. Chris said that he expected it to look Russian.  Ouch.  Even worse, he was using “Russian” to mean “Soviet”, as in drab and grey and miserable.  No, no, no.  Galicia is not Russian, and Russian is very, very definitely not a synonym for drab.  Anything but!

However, the guide soon put him right, and he seemed very impressed with the place. Fascinating history.  I could waffle about the history of Galicia all day!  He also acknowledged the darkest period of its history, with a visit to sewers in which a number of Galician Jews had hidden during the Nazi occupation.

Next up came a place called Rivrie. No history there, but it was apparently supposed to be very romantic.  Hmm.  I think I’ll stick to Venice!   But the next long railway trip was interesting, because that part of the track, built in 1873, linked Austro-Hungarian Poland and Russian Poland.  That would have been ten years after the uprising, but the uprising wasn’t mentioned … and possibly wasn’t very relevant.  Both Russia and Hungary were industrialising big time at that point, though, and the railway link must have been crucial.

Then back to the twentieth century, and the Holodomor. I really want to put “Holodymyr”, which looks more Ukrainian, but “Holodomor” does seem to be the generally-used spelling.  There is still so much controversy over this, the famine in 1932-33 which killed as many as ten million people.  Stalinist collectivisation, forced industrialisation and appalling mismanagement led to grain shortages.  Food was requisitioned, and anyone who resisted was killed or sent to Siberia.  The official Soviet stance was that there never was a famine.  Others have claimed that it was due to natural causes and wasn’t man-made.  However, it’s now generally accepted it was a result of the policies of Stalin’s government.  Certainly it seems that the rural and to some extent urban population of Ukraine was sacrificed to his Five Year Plans, but there’s some debate as to whether or not it was also an deliberate attempt to suppress Ukrainian nationalism.  Some countries have recognised it as genocide.  Whatever the issues of semantics, what’s indisputable is that millions of people died.

The Chornobyl disaster wasn’t deliberate, at least, but who will ever know how many deaths it was responsible for, how many people’s health has been affected by it, and what sort of damage has been done to the environment. We were told that $700 billion has so far been spent on such clean-up operations have been possible, and reminded that the Soviet authorities didn’t admit that anything had happened until abnormal levels of radiation were detected over Sweden.

You can actually go on trips there, now. I always wonder why anyone would want to, but Chris seemed to find it quite interesting.  Well, it was interesting … just a rather odd choice of destination.  And what was particularly interesting was that the guy currently in charge of the clean-up operation was from Bury!   Brilliant.

It was a whistle-stop tour, and it wasn’t meant as a history programme, so I suppose it can be excused for not giving a long and detailed explanation of the causes of the civil war. I’d have gone back to the 1640s and taken it from there!  Or maybe I’d’ve gone right back to Kievan Rus.  Kyivan Rus.  Whatever!   We were, however, reminded that this ongoing conflict has so far killed 10,000 people, and were shown an area of a railway station where soldiers get physical and moral support.

Then on to Podilsk, where nuclear weapons were stored… to play some rather sick computer thing which made it look as if you were launching a nuclear missile and blowing up a Western city. No, me neither!  Give me Kyiv and its incredible churches and monasteries!  Why would you want to pretend to launch a nuclear weapon?!!

And finally, Odessa. Chris was travelling by train, so his luggage arrived at the same time he did.  I arrived at Odessa airport to find that my luggage had been left in Prague.  About eight of us were in the same boat.  I don’t think the lost luggage department at Odessa airport had ever got out of the Stalinist era.  It was a nightmare.  But our luggage did turn up the following day.  Anyway.  Chris did talk about Ukraine being “the bread basket of Europe”, and I thought we were going to get a nice history lecture.  I’d’ve started with the reign of Catherine the Great and then gone on at length about the Crimean War and the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin … but the programme was nearly over by then, and we just got a few shots of grain being transported and stuff being loaded on to ships.

Oh well. It wasn’t really meant to be a history of Ukraine, and there’s only so much you can fit into an hour, minus adverts.  But there was some interesting stuff in there.  It’s just such a shame that they chose to call the programme “Extreme Nuclear Railway”.  Rather an insult to Ukrainian history and culture!  My trip to Ukraine, in 2008, was advertised as “Land of the Cossacks”.  Much better marketing!

Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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Hooray, I am actually not the only person in Britain who thinks that Ukraine is a fascinating place to visit, although when I went it was ten years ago and there wasn’t a war going on.  I went from Odessa to Kyiv: Michael Portillo, dressed in Ukrainian blue and yellow in the Ukrainian sunshine, did it the other way round, going from Kyiv to Odessa, and also visiting Lviv which I haven’t yet been to but would love to see, in this hour-long special which was fascinating even if it did present Ukrainian history from a rather biased Ukrainian-only viewpoint.

I’m rather hoping that the fact that the Champions League final is in Kyiv this year, and all the marketing stuff says “Kyiv”, the transliteration of the city’s Ukrainian name, might finally stop people from spelling it “Kiev”, the transliteration of the city’s Russian name!  And, yes, I know that I’ve just typed “Odessa”, whereas in transliterated Ukrainian it would be “Odesa”, but most people in Odessa speak Russian.  And then there’s Lviv, also known as Lvov (in Russian), Lwow (in Polish) and Lemberg (in German).  Oh, and it’s “Ukraine”, not “the Ukraine” – something else that sometimes needs to be pointed out.  It’s a country, not a region!   Gloriously confusing, isn’t it 🙂 ?

I wanted to see Kyiv because it was the centre of Kievan Rus, the first East Slavic state.  Well, more of a confederation of tribes.  And ruled over by the descendants of Vikings.  See, I said it was gloriously confusing J .  It emerged in the 9th century AD, but began disintegrating by the 11th century and eventually collapsed amid the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.  When another strong East Slavic state finally began to form, in the late 14th and 15th centuries, this time it was under the leadership of Muscovy, with the state later becoming known as Russia, and centred on Moscow.

By that time, Kyiv, and most of the rest of what’s now Ukraine and Belarus, had fallen under the rule of Lithuania – from 1569, Poland-Lithuania.  After the Khmelnytsky Uprising of the 1640s, Left Bank (Eastern) Ukraine came under Russian rule.  Right Bank Ukraine remained under Polish-Lithuanian rule until the Polish Partitions of 1772, 1793 and 1795, whereupon it also became part of the Russian Empire.  That was apart from Lviv and the rest of Galicia, which came under the rule of Austria, and then, after the First World War, part of Poland … and then became part of Soviet Ukraine after the Second World War.  The Black Sea area of Ukraine, meanwhile, was part of the Ottoman Empire until it was conquered by Catherine the Great in the war of 1787-1792, with the port of Odessa being founded there in 1794.  Crystal clear, all that, isn’t it 🙂 ?  I so love Ukrainian history.

Moscow is the Third Rome, following the fall of Constantinople 😉 , but it’s Kyiv which is the cradle of Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy (all a bit messy these days, with different patriarchates within Ukraine), following Prince Vladimir (OK, Volodymyr, if you’re being Ukrainian)’s decision to convert to Orthodoxy in 988.  The story is that he decided to convert himself and his people to AN major religion, and thought about Islam but didn’t fancy it because of the booze ban.  I like that story, so I was very glad that Michael mentioned it.  Very Russian/Ukrainian!  St Sophia’s Cathedral, built in the early 11th century, was the main place I wanted to see in Kyiv and the first place Michael visited, and it is glorious.  Sadly, it hasn’t been a working cathedral since the Revolution, but at least the Communists didn’t destroy it as they destroyed so many other beautiful, historic places of worship – including 80% of churches in Ukraine.

I got quite excited, seeing the cathedral again.  So Byzantine.  So beautiful.  I love Orthodox churches!  And my favourite Catholic cathedral is St Mark’s in Venice, because it looks Orthodox.  Michael – via the metro system, stopping at one of those stunning metro stations you often find in former Eastern Bloc states – also visited the Pechersk Lavra monastery complex, closed during the communist era but now operational again, which was also just as beautiful as I remembered it.  He saw some of the relics of the saints close up: I’m quite glad I didn’t do that.  I know some people are really into relics, and that relics even go on tour sometimes, but they’re not really my thing.  Each to their own.  Michael seemed quite impressed by them.  Being a bloke, he was OK to go bare-headed.  Headscarves (I’ve got a nice silky one!) for ladies.  Orthodox churches in most places aren’t so bothered these days, but Russia and Ukraine are both still quite strict in that department.   And the music!   Orthodox choral music is amazing.  And there’s lots of it.  Religious services, in any religion, are generally very boring.  So, the more music, the better!

Michael met up with two historians during his time in Kyiv, and they discussed this whole difficult issue of whose heritage Kievan Rus is.  The historians insisted that Russian wanted to recreate Kievan Rus, although he did point out that the Crimean issue was also about access to the Black Sea.  Michael, to be fair, pointed out that Crimea is actually mainly Russian-speaking, although he didn’t say out loud that most people in Crimea want to be ruled by Russia.  Neither of them pointed out that Crimea was never part of Kievan Rus.  Nor did they mention the Left Bank/Right Bank issue and the fact that, as a result, Left Bank Ukraine has far closer cultural ties to Russia than Right Bank Ukraine was.  Everyone seemed very keen to present Ukraine as being united.  It isn’t.  All countries have regional divides.  As for the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy issue, although I think Moscow has long been regarded as the Holy City of Russian Orthodoxy – well, yes, there certainly is that, and there’s the general Slavophile issue.  There was talk when the Soviet Union collapsed of creating a union between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.   It’s complicated.  Ukraine’s very complicated!

Going back to St Sophia’s, the only thing I didn’t like was the enormous statue of the aforementioned Khmelnytsky stood very close to it, and my guidebook said that a lot of Western visitors familiar with Ukrainian history feel like that.  The Cossacks have a mixed reputation: the Khmelytsky Massacres are one of the main reasons for that, and the pogroms of the late Tsarist period are the other.  The other side of it is the Cossacks’ reputation for bravery and superb horsemanship, and the general romantic and dramatic image which they’ve got, and that does live on.  We went to an exhibition of Cossack riding and dancing, and it was great.  And the rather glamorous-looking blokes were very happy to pose for photos with tourists!

Michael visited a “living history” Cossack museum, and dressed up as a Cossack, and it was all very nice … but the woman there didn’t half come out with a biased view of things.   Cossacks are all about Ukrainian identity and defending Ukraine against outsiders, and Ukraine looks to the Cossacks for its identity, apparently.  Well, to be fair, the trip I went on was advertised as “Ukraine: Land of the Cossacks”.  But there are Cossacks in Russia too!  And what about all the Cossacks, from both Russia and Ukraine, who fought for the Russian Empire?  Anglo-Russian relations being much in the news at the moment, what about all the Cossack involvement in the Crimean War, and the Great Game?  Oh dear.  I appreciate that a country that’s only very recently become independent wants to present its history in a way that works with nationalism, but I thought it went a bit too far.   (Khmelnytsky and the fact that he’s a big hero in Ukrainian history were not mentioned.)

Michael then spoke to a few locals about their views on Ukraine being an independent state.  OK, he only asked a few people, and their views may not have been representative, but it was interesting that the younger people were wholly in favour of independence and the older people less so.   And, as he said, we don’t know how it’s all going to pan out.  The possibility of EU membership wasn’t mentioned, but that’s certainly a big issue.  Oh, and he spoke to some bodybuilders as well.  I don’t know anything about bodybuilding: I am far too unfit for that!

Next up, Lviv – which looked lovely.  In a very Mitteleuropean sort of way, and there seemed to be a lot of posters in the Latin alphabet rather than Cyrillic. We saw a shot of a Roman Catholic cathedral.  Weirdly, there was not one mention of the Greek Catholic church.  (I would say “the Uniate church”, but apparently that term’s considered offensive.)  I’m rather confused about that.  I even wondered if maybe the cathedral was Greek Catholic, and the BBC’d got confused!  It’s much the biggest religious denomination in Lviv.  Most of the Ukrainian community in North Manchester is of Western Ukrainian heritage, and the Ukrainian church near me is Greek Catholic … er, which is totally irrelevant.  Having said which, the one in South Manchester’s Orthodox.  Which is also irrelevant.   Sorry!  Back to the point!!

According to Michael, Lviv seemed like “the cradle of Ukrainian patriotism”.   He went to a bar where people were doing (in a jokey way, I hope!) a lot of “down with the Muscovites” stuff.  He listened to a choir – whose members, young and older alike, spoke English impressively well. He visited a library, where he heard about the life and work of the great Ukrainian poet, writer and artist Taras Shevchenko (who came from central Ukraine, nowhere near Lviv!).  That was fine.  I’m certainly not knocking patriotism, and I get very annoyed when people do.  But not one reference was made to the fact that Lviv was under Polish rule in the inter-war period, or of the large numbers of Poles expelled from there after the Second World War … most of whom moved to Wroclaw (formerly Breslau), to replace the Germans expelled from there!   It was all about Ukrainian nationalism.  As I said, I’m not knocking that, but it’s quite worrying when history becomes a tool of nationalism to such an extent that it’s not presented accurately.

Then on to Odessa.  By train, obviously … which avoided the problem everyone in my group had, when all our luggage was mislaid and we had to deal with the Odessa airport lost luggage department, which was like some sort of Cold War nightmare.   We did get our luggage the next day, which, bearing in mind how inefficient the airport staff were, was a bloody miracle!  Anyway.  Nice pictures on the famous Potemkin steps, featured in the Eisenstein film about the 1905 mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin.  Like the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, what actually happened really wasn’t much like it appeared in the Eisenstein film, but still!   They’re supposed to be called the Pimorsky Steps (their pre-Soviet name) now, but I don’t think anyone calls them that.

With Odessa, hooray, it was not all about Ukrainian nationalism!  It was acknowledged that the city was founded by Catherine the Great (the German-born Russian empress!), although the conquest of the area from the Ottomans wasn’t really mentioned, and that Odessa’s first mayor, who had a huge influence on the city, was a Frenchman, the Duc de Richelieu (a direct descendant of the brother of Cardinal Richelieu, by the way).

Whilst Ukrainian Greek Catholics still failed to get a mention, Ukrainian Jews were the main focus of the visit to Odessa.  Ukraine has played a huge part in Jewish history and culture, and Odessa is one of the great cities in Jewish history.  No, it wasn’t a great centre of Jewish learning, like Vilnius and Warsaw, and Cordoba before them, were, and it didn’t produce great scientists who happened to be Jewish, like Vienna did, and it most certainly isn’t New York.  Of all the waffles I’ve ever written, the one that’s had the most views is the one about Downton Abbey’s misrepresentation of the Odessa pogroms … although, to be fair, that’s because people are interested in Downton Abbey, not because they’re interested in Odessa 🙂 .

Anyway, focusing on more positive things, around a third of the population of Odessa was Jewish in both late Tsarist times and (despite the large-scale emigration after the 1905 pogrom) early Soviet times, and many of those people were very important in politics, economics and the press.  Trotsky , whose parents seem to have identified as being Jewish even though they weren’t religious, attended school in Odessa. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Zionist leader who organised the Jewish Legion which fought alongside the British Army in (what was then) Palestine during the First World War, came from Odessa.  So, as Michael mentioned, did the author Isaac Babel; and amongst those who emigrated after the events of 1905 were the grandparents of Steven Spielberg and the grandparents of Bob Dylan.  There are also some brilliant stories about Jewish “humane gangsters” in Odessa – notably Mishka Yaponchik, Odessa’s answer to Robin Hood.  Far more interesting than all that religious studying that went on in Warsaw and Vilnius!

Then, in 1941, the Nazis and their Romanian allies – and it was the Romanians more than the Germans – murdered over 100,000 members of Odessa’s Jewish community.  And it was difficult to practise any religion in post-war Soviet times, and it’s only recently that Jewish religious and cultural life in Odessa has begun to flourish again – but it really is flourishing again now.  Michael visited the Great Synagogue in Odessa, which our tour group also went to see.  I thought it was a shame that there were no women in these scenes, but we got some lovely shots of the inside of the synagogue, and an interesting interview with its London-born rabbi about the revival of Jewish religion and culture in Ukraine – just as we’d seen the revival of Orthodox religion and culture in the scenes in Kyiv.

When I went, we got shown round the synagogue’s kosher food shop as well.  Being rather more interested in food than religion, I quite enjoyed that 🙂 .  Whilst my local Tesco has a larger selection of kosher food than they had there, it seemed such a big thing for the Jewish community of Odessa than they had this kosher food shop at all, after everything that’d happened, and so it was good to see it.  It’s a whole community complex: there’s a kindergarten there as well, although obviously the BBC couldn’t have filmed little kids.   It was also interesting to see that some of the men were in Orthodox Jewish clothing, and sporting long beards, whereas others were in Western clothing: it’d be unusual to see the two groups together in a synagogue in most countries.

Most of this programme was about the revival of cultural life which was repressed during the communist era.  There were many good reasons for the 1917 Revolution, but what followed was horrific.  It’s time to move on – and, in some ways, to move back.

And then he finished up with a mud bath!  The Black Sea area’s great.  Ukraine’s a fascinating country, and I hope so much that some sort of lasting peace can be reached there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Amber Heart by Catherine Czerkawska

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This is meant to be a star-crossed romance set against the complex political, social and ethno-religious background of 19th century Galicia (the Ukrainian/Polish one, not the Spanish one) … but there’s a delicious interlude in which Our Heroine is escorted round the sights of Imperial Vienna by a handsome nobleman who keeps buying her Viennese cakes and pastries.  We get long lists of these.  He even hires a personal patissier, in the hope of impressing the lady.  Maybe this is some sort of romantic fantasy of the author’s?  If so, it’s a pretty good one.  If anyone knows where you can find one of these cake-providing handsome noblemen, please shout up.

The Siege of Atlanta moment in this is the Galician Slaughter/Peasant Uprising of 1846.  Polish history puts a lot of emphasis on uprisings.  1794.  1830-1831.  1863-64.  The leaders of these are all lionised.  However, the 1846 Uprising – very badly timed, because if they’d waited another two years then Austria would have been trying to deal with Hungary and Northern Italy at the same time … although, in that case, Russia would probably have got stuck in – gets quietly overlooked because it ended up with the Poles all fighting each other and doing the Austrians’ job for them.  This is the first book I’ve ever found which deals with it as historical fiction, and one of very few books I’ve ever found which deal with the glorious confusion that is Galicia as historical fiction at all.

I don’t think the author quite knew how much historical/political background to give, and sometimes it seems as if she’s decided that she’d better explain things, so she includes some information about the Partitions and about the Habsburg Empire.  However, she doesn’t do it until after covering events which wouldn’t really make much sense if you didn’t know the background.   The Polish Partitions and the Habsburg Empire are both fascinating subjects, but I’m not sure that they’re that well-known in English-speaking countries, and it would have made more sense to have put the background info in first.  Having said which, it’s rather nice feeling that you’re expected to know what’s going on.  OK, I won’t write an essay on the Partitions, because this book’s about Austrian Poland/Ukraine and I always come at the whole thing from a Russian viewpoint.

Anyway.  A star-crossed romance.  Our Heroine is a Polish, Roman Catholic noblewoman.  Our Hero is a Ukrainian, Orthodox peasant.  You get the idea.  Come 1846, the Polish upper and middle classes staged a rebellion, centred on what was then the Free City of Krakow, with the hope of regaining their independence.  The Polish peasants in Austrian Poland (much of which is now part of Ukraine) rose up against the Polish landlords – serfdom still existed in Galicia at this point, although it was abolished two years later – and actually massacred a fair number of them, and the Austrians were able to put down both rebellions, but not before taking advantage of peasant support against the nobles.  And, to put the tin lid on it, a load of crops got destroyed in the chaos.  And Krakow lost its status as a free imperial city and was incorporated into the Habsburg Empire, which it wasn’t very pleased about.  So it’s probably no wonder 1846 doesn’t get spoken of in the same terms as 1863-64 et al.  It was a pretty major disaster from a Polish viewpoint.

Our Hero rescues Our Heroine from the peasant mob who attack her home and murder her husband, and, having fancied each other for years, they then get together.  It doesn’t fit in that well with the historical facts, though.  The uprising was in the Polish areas, not the areas where most of the peasantry were Ukrainian (or Ruthenian, or identifying as Orthodox rather than Catholic … the terminology’s a nightmare with Galicia).  The villages also seem to be very much mixed Polish and Ukrainian, which I’m not sure they would have been … although it’s meant to be set near Lviv (referred to in the book, correctly in terms of historical context, by its Austrian name of Lemberg), and that was much more mixed before the Poles moved out after Lviv was moved from Poland to Ukraine the Second World War … mostly to Wroclaw, which needed repopulating after the Germans had been booted out when it was moved from Germany to Poland.  That all makes complete sense, doesn’t it 🙂 ?

Oh, and how come all the Ukrainians are Orthodox?   Given that we’re near Lviv/Lwow/Lemberg, shouldn’t most or all of the Ukrainians be Greek Catholic?  I don’t like that expression in a Ukrainian/Belarusian context, and think that “Uniate” is far better, but apparently people prefer “Greek Catholic” and “Uniate”‘s seen as being a bit offensive.  Come to that, why are none of the characters Jewish, bearing in mind that we’re talking about Galicia in the mid-19th century?

Oh well, I suppose a bit of historical licence can be forgiven.  It’d spoil the story if the hero and heroine weren’t of different nationalities and different religions, as well as from different social backgrounds!   The idea is that everything’s against them.  It’s a lifelong relationship: the amber heart of the title is a necklace given to him by her mother, who dies after catching smallpox whilst trying to nurse his mother through it.   They never actually marry, and in fact they both marry other people, but they’re involved on and off for years, and have two children who are passed off as being someone else’s.  Funny how some of the greatest romantic novels of all time work like that: The Thorn Birds is the obvious one, and A Dark and Distant Shore is another.  This doesn’t come even close to being in that league, but it’s so rare to find a book set in Galicia.  James Michener’s Poland is, in part, and there’s Michael Andre Bernstein’s Conspirators which is great, but they aren’t sagas about the lives of particular characters like this is.  And there’s quite a bit of interesting description about the homes and lifestyles and customs of both the nobles and the peasants.

There’s even a feminist angle: Our Heroine does not remarry after her husband dies, but runs her estate on her own, with the help of Our Hero as the estate manager.  At the end, whilst it’s usually the bloke who dies first, leaving the woman to ruminate on what might have been – with the obvious exception of Wuthering Heights – in this case she dies first, and he actually does a bit of a Heathcliff: he doesn’t go around kidnapping people and forcing them into marriage, but he does mope around and drink too much for a while.  Then he dies too.  Hmm.  Books that just do the happy ever after thing end with the couple getting married: books like this inevitably end with one or both of them dead.

And finally, what of the cake-buying nobleman?   Well, he doesn’t get the girl either.  She leaves Vienna, and moves back to her country estate near Lemberg/Lviv/Lemberik/Lwow/Lvov.  At least all the commonly-used versions of the name begin with L:  Bratislava/Pressburg/Pozsony’s far more confusing.  Her cousin lives in Vienna for many years, and puts on loads of weight from eating all the cake.  Seriously, this book gives the distinct impression that all anyone does in Vienna is eat cake.  Ahem – not that I’ve got a photo just above the computer of myself in a Viennese coffee house with a huge piece of Sachertorte in front of me.  And I’m always moaning about how much I struggle to lose weight.

Anyway, you’d think that someone – one of these irritating people who eat cake all the time but never put on an ounce – would have snapped him up, but no.  He continues to adore Our Heroine, and, having sussed out what’s going on with her and Our Hero, he reflects sadly that he offered her cake when all she really wanted was rye bread.  That’s supposed to be some great allegory for the whole thing, but it doesn’t work because she carried on living in her big house, with her servants and her expensive gear, so it was hardly as if she was managing on bread and salt all for the love of Our Hero.  But it’d be a brilliant line if she had been.   So, he doesn’t get the girl, but they’re best friends, probably more like sister and brother.  It’s quite sad for him, but it’s nice as well.  Sometimes people aren’t destined to be a couple, but there’s no reason why they can’t still be friends.

Incidentally, I’ve never yet made it to Lviv, but I remember thinking in Krakow (and in various other Slavic areas which used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) how nice it was that you could have black bread for breakfast and Austrian-style cake for afternoon tea!   And that’s Mitteleuropa.  As of this week, the Berlin Wall has been down for longer than it was up.  That really makes me feel old!   But I think we still see Europe in terms of Eastern Europe and Western Europe, the way we did during the Cold War, and it’s time to stop that.  And that probably goes right against the grain (bad pun about Ukraine as a major grain producer entirely intended) of the 1846 attempt by the Galician nobility to get away from Austrian influence … and which all went wrong.  Very unusual choice of background for a book, and that’s nice.  It’s hard finding books set in Galicia!