Olga of Kiev: Queen of the Rus

Vikings here, Vikings there, Vikings everywhere…! So today I take us back to one of my favourite women in history: an absolute kick ass queen who manage to take rulership of an old Norse state to a different level. Today, I bring you Olga of Kiev – or rather a summary of the things we know about Olga, because, as you know, I love me nothing better than dark characters and subjects in history that no one else seems to care about…Or that have hardly any research published in English…Oh Well!

So… Who’s Olga?

Good question! As far as we understand, Queen Olga of Kiev, ruled the realm after the death of her husband Igor, in the first half of the tenth century. Olga and Igor had only one son who was at the time of the death of his father, an underaged infant, which meant Olga acted as his regent…And the rest that we know about this incredible woman, is patchwork – at best. On a further note about the issue with the secondary sources- there is more availability of materials in other languages, mainly in Russian and other Eastern European languages. Even though, it is surprising how little in general has been written about her despite she was the first member of the royal family leave paganism behind and adopt Orthodox Christianity. Despite there are not many secondary sources about her, there was an increase in the amount of research done about her related to her conversion to Christianity and the millennium anniversary of her baptism In fact, Olga was the first member of the dynasty that became Christian; an event that had repercussions for the entire kingdom in the following years. This event was exposed in different ways in contemporary sources, which allowed the historical debate to begin.

According to Moseley, there are extensive materials for the study of middle- and upper-class women, such as personal correspondence and diaries; nevertheless, this does not apply to the Early Middle Ages where it was commonly the monks who recorded most events. Moreover, it was uncommon for women to write for it was seen as ‘exceeding society’s expectations. Apart from a few exceptions, like Christine of Pissan, the limited chances a woman had to influence written work were through patronage, as seen in the Encomium of Emma of Normandy. No sources written by Olga have been preserved or are known, although it has been suggested that the two Slavonic contemporary sources that remain could be based on a lost Encomium. Zemon Davis states that there are plenty of materials for research on European women, despite these might sometimes be under represented. However, we cannot be certain this applies to women that were not from mainland Europe. One of the very few sources we have availale that talk at lenght about Olga is the Russian primary Chronicle (which is super epic by the way, and if you have the time to read it, I thoroughly recommend it). Written in the twelfth century, this is nonetheless a controversial source: The text is meant to be a compilation of earlier manuscripts as well as oral traditions, although it is not disregarded it could just be the product of propaganda: both from the state and the Church.  Jesch defines it as an “apocryphal” and “legendary” text where the events are clearly manipulated by the author, but on the contrary Riha thinks that despite the religious bias it is the only remaining source of the early Russian past, so it cannot be disregarded. Thus, this source explains how Olga tricks the Derevlians, killers of her husband, and then leads the army to avenge the death of Igor and impose her rule over the neighbouring land .

According to Stafford, Olga was no exception as others like Aethelflead or Gerberga took active roles in siege and town defence. Furthermore, she states that ‘the struggles surrounding succession were often accompanied by propaganda wars’, a fact that fits in with the circumstances of Olga’s son’s minority and the political instability after the death of Igor. Moreover, it also reflects the Viking literary heritage presented in the sagas of the warrior maiden, that shows the perceptions of contemporary women by society. Finally, this source does mention other affairs related to the administrative power of the queen, like the economic prosperity reached since c.947 due to the building of several trading posts and the imposition of a tax on the goods transported through the Russian rivers. But, this does not say much about Olga’s personal life or experience of queenship. There is a passage of the Russian Primary Chronicle that perhaps reflects on this issue or maybe is just a remain of how she wanted to portray herself as a ruler. According to the events described, the Byzantine emperor fascinated by Olga proposes her marriage, for it is what she requires to be baptised. As he performs the rite, she eludes the proposal because of the formula used by the emperor, which calls her his daughter and therefore the incestuous controversy stands in Olga’s favour. It is interesting to know, though, that this is the only source that mentions this event. There is much debate amongst scholars regarding the truth behind this passage. Some consider that was the reality, some others that it never did happen. In addition, there are some that think that even if it happened it would not have been recorded elsewhere as it would have been a humiliation of the Emperor and, thus, too favourable for Olga, who after all was a widowed queen from a “lesser” kingdom. Perhaps that was her way to reinforce her position of widow, the one moment when women enjoyed more freedom and respect.

Related to that episode is the most celebrated part of Olga’s life: her baptism and conversion to the Christian faith. She was the first Russian Christian ruler who was the most inspiring figure for later tsar’s wives ‘who manipulated her image as intercessor for her people to legitimize their own roles as spiritual mothers of the realm and independent rulers’, according to Schaus. The importance of religion in life reaches its peak with her later beatification and sanctification. Interestingly, Schulenburg’s research shows how in the first half of the tenth century the number of female saints, all the clear example of piety, devotion and morality, increased by 20 per cent. Indeed, it is known women were a key part in the conversion process and spread of Christianity, and one of the few subjects where queens could get involved and develop their own affairs. Specifically, Norse women seem to have used this new opportunity that Christianity gave them to acquire more influence within their communities, just like Olga. Furthermore, women, and queens in particular, were the ones in charge of the spiritual protection of their families, which was very important for the well-being and prosperity of a dynasty. The importance of such matter is partially seen in a passage of Adalbert of Magdeburg’s Chronicle of Regino of Prüm that includes information regarding missionary work agreed between Olga and the court of Otto I. This is odd considering she was on good terms with Byzantium and she was converted to the Orthodox faith. However, it has been suggested that one of her multiple visits to Constantinople was intended to get a bishop for her realm but due to internal issues within the Byzantine administration this never happened, which may have made her get in contact with the Holy-Roman Empire.

 However, the German mission failed and with it the developments of Christianity in the Rus. Certainly Olga did not manage to convert her own son to the new faith, but the influence spread, reaching even a more important figure than the heir to the throne: Vladimir, Olga’s grandson. It was with Vladimir’s rule that Kiev became officially Christian, two decades after Olga’s attempt. Poppe suggests that this shows how important it was for female rulers to have support in different spheres and how religion was a way of gaining control and allies at the same time. Related to this, is the general question about status being so prominent and relevant in the study of these figures. There is one last source that deals with this subject, De Caeremonis: the book of ceremonies from the Byzantine court which provides details on the ceremonies Olga attended in Constantinople, and her dinners with the royal family, evidence of her high status and diplomatic abilities. Finally, Jesch mentions the large number of females from her family that had an active role in Olga’s court, perhaps suggesting a sort of female agency, and most definitely establishing the importance of household and family support for these individuals.

So, this is what we can comfortably talk about Olga. There is a very important issue that I need to address here which is something that Schaus points out and is the issue of romanticism with figures like Olga. There are extra difficulties to investigate characters like this due to the pagan-Christian controversy. After all, Kievan women suffered from the romanticism of the sources and their personas due to the Romantic and Nationalistic movements Kievan scholars experimented. Therefore, perhaps what we know about her must be taken with a pinch of salt? I am a little reluctant to believe it is all a fantasy or apocryphal. However, the lack of access to sources in different languages make this a very biased discussion.

Regardless, I still think that Olga is a well interesting figure that did a lot of great things for her people and that is still very under represented in her field.  

And here is the bibliography from where I pulled most of this research…So you can see it is archaic…However, I would like to point out that a few things have come out recently which will be worth examining…I just haven’t had the chance to get my hands on to them.

‘The Russian Primary Chronicle’, ed. T.Riha, Readings in Russian Civilization, Vol. 1, (Chicago and London, 1964), pp. 20-30.

Featherstone, J., ‘Ol’ga’s Visit to Constantinople’, Harvard Ukranian Studies, Vol. 14, No 3-4, (Dec., 1990), pp. 293-312.

Jesch, J., Women in the Viking Age (Woodbridge, 1991).

Jewell, H.M., Women in Dark Age and Early Medieval Europe c.500-1200 (Basingstoke and New York, 2007).

Moseley, E.S., ‘Sources for the New Women’s History’, The American Archivist, Vol. 43, No. 2, (Spring, 1980), pp. 180-190.

Poppe, A., ‘Once Again Concerning the Baptism of Olga, Archontissa of Rus’, Dumbaton Oak Papers, Vol. 46-Homo Byzantinus: Papers in Honour of Alexander Kazhdan, (1992), pp. 271-277.

Schaus, M., Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: an Encyclopedia (London, 2006).

Smith-Rosenberg, C., ‘The New Women and the New History’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1-2, (Aut., 1975), pp. 185-198.

Stafford, P., Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages (London and Virginia, 1983).

Zemon Davis, N., ‘“Women’s History” in Transition: the European Case’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3-4, (Spring-Summer, 1976), pp. 83-103.

Political Unrest in Russia: The Abdication of Nicholas II

Nikolai Aleksandrovich, known as Tsar Nicholas II, was the last Russian Emperor and a member of the illustrious Romanov dynasty that had sat on the imperial throne since the early seventeenth century. Born on the 18th of May in Tsarskoye Selo, now Pushkin, Nicholas was born to rule only to die in a bloody revolution designed to end the formal monarchy of Russia. Nicholas II was the son and heir of his predecessor Tsarevich Aleksandr Aleksandrovich and his consort the Dagmar of Denmark Maria Fyodorovna, and his succeeded his father in Moscow on May 26th 1896. As a child Nicholas was trained to be an excellent military officer but his intellectual skills were inadequate to be prepared for the role of emperor. It is well documented that he possessed a good personality, but naturally shy with a compulsion to remain within the privacy of the family quarters instead of socialising with the court subjects. His close family was intimate and happy since Nicholas had a genuine affection and love for his wife Alexandra whom he married two years before his ascension on 26th November 1894. Alexandra was the stronger of the two in temperament and was the leader in their religious guidance during their marriage and reign. However well his family circle functioned the political undercurrents of court life was rumbling with discontent. Nicholas had a tendency to lean on favourites, to distrust his ministers, and to believe his right to rule was derived from the outdated notion of Divine Right and absolutism that had already seen the fall of the French monarchy.

The year running up to the 18th March 1917 had several upheavals close in on the Russian imperial family, their downfall and eventual execution in 1918. Nicholas II had run through a series of ministers that had presented the emperor with a skewed perception of common Russian life that he preferred to what he read in the official reports that landed in his office. His belief in autocratic rule meant that he never attempted to produce policies to aid his government and people. Russia maintained the medieval ideology of feudalism and the people being closely tied to the land ensured a limited measure of freedom. This meant that the people’s faith in the imperial monarchy was low and morale sank lower during Russia’s involvement in World War One from 1914. Nicholas as a monarch has interests in Balkans and attempted to salve peace within the great powers of Europe, however the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo meant Nicholas’ resistance to war ended in the mobilization of Russian troops. Yet this war would see Russia falling from being a world power to an economic and military failure. In the years running up to the world war Nicholas II had been to seen to be the blame for several catastrophes from the execution of multiple political opponents, the instigation of the Russo-Japanese War, a very violent defeat for the leaders of the 1905 Revolution, and links with England attempting to suppress the power of Germany.

One of the reasons the people grew increasing disaffected with the imperial monarchy was the lack of order and control to the Russian army who had already seen a recent war with Japan. The imperial army lost approximately over three million soldiers, lack of food and supplies alongside poor management from the higher level military leaders. As the government failed to provide for their own army and citizens, riots and rebellions grew in frequency, particularly with Nicholas away, and authority crumbled. There had been several attempts at constitutional reform to become more similar to the role of parliament in Britain  but they were resisted. The increasingly isolation of the Tsar to his ministers prevented anything meaningful taking place.

The Russians began the war in the strong position in regards to supplies, but by 1917 severe winters had caused a standstill in railways, emergency shipments of coal and the treasury being depleted significantly. On the 23rd February 1917 the citizens of Petrograd resorted to stealing and rioting which slowly spread to other cities all with the aim to gain the attention and bring down the Tsar. With the best of the militia dead the police created a forced recruitment and gave them very little training. Although the police and militia deployed fired into the air rather than the mob of over twenty thousand that had formed they were not deterred but reinforcements from Nicholas’ base were too late. On the 12th of March the Volinsky Regiment mutinied which led to successive rebellions within the militia to join the mob themselves. Nicholas II knew that the situation was die when the imperial guards loyalists the Preobrazhensky Regiment formed under Peer the Great also turned their anger against the Tsar. By the end of the day sixty thousand soldiers had joined the revolution to march against the Tsar.

Up against such numbers members of government, the Duma and the Soviet attempted to restore order with provisional preparations. The most significant order was that Nicholas II was to abdicate and create a clean slate for ruling Russia. Nicholas II faced the decision with the threat of civil war, the army generals pushing for abdication and his citizens deprived of food with his family in the hands of the Soviet.

Nicholas II abdicated on the 15th March 1917, thus formally ending what is now known as the February Revolution. Originally he had abdicated in the favour of his son Alexei who was weak but soon the aim of the revolution was to force the whole imperial family into exile. The ideology of whether Russia should remain in the hands of the monarchy or become a republic was put to a vote by the people. Nicholas’ abdication and further revolution by the Bolsheviks would formally bring the end of the Romanov dynasty that had lasted three centuries. By October 2017 the last Romanov imperial family were imprisoned.

If you would like more information one of the best Romanov biographers is Simon Sebag Montifiore whose books are available on amazon and in most booksellers.

When Politics Come to Sport: A History of Protest and Boycott at the Olympic and Paralympic Games

Politics and professional sport have forever been intertwined. Recently this has become more apparent with a number of news stories demonstrating this relationship. The American footballer Colin Kaepernick has made headlines and received a great deal of harassment for kneeling during the American national anthem at matches in protest of police violence against African Americans. There has been a great deal of political fallout over the choice to ban Russian para-athletes in the Paralympic Games, leading to the hacking of WADA. There was also the recent death of Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, famous for her protests against the Soviet Union during her career. My fellow W.U History contributor Matt wrote about Mandela’s use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup back in 2014, so I have decided to focus on the use of political protests in the modern  Olympic and Paralympic Games.  Despite the repeated attempts (and harsh punishments against those do) of theIOC and IPC, the Olympics and Paralympics have rarely been politically free.

Irish athletes protested their inclusion in the Great Britain team. In 1906, the Irish high jumper Peter O’Connor had the British flag raised for his silver medal position; he scaled the pole with an Irish flag and waved that instead while his teammate Con Leahy remained at the foot of the pole to guard him. This led in 1908 to the team name being changed to Great Britain/Ireland and even allowing in several events Ireland to compete separately despite Irish independence not being achieved until 1911.

The 1956 Olympics faced a number of boycotts from countries due to a range of political tensions. The Suez crisis led to Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq boycotting. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland also boycotted in protest of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Finally China decided to boycott upon Taiwan being allowed to compete. Supporters of countries such as Australia vocally supported the Hungarian athletes in protest of the Soviet invasion. For the most part tensions never reached a boiling point except during the water polo, which became known as the Blood in the Water match. The match was between the Hungarians and the USSR, with the match turning violent very quickly. The match earned the name after the Hungarian Ervin Zádor was punched by one of the Russian team leading to him bleeding from his forehead. The spectators of the match were mostly Hungarian, Australian and American leading to an almost riot, only avoided by the police moving the crowd out. The Hungarians won the match and eventually the gold medal.

South Africa’s participation in the Olympic and Paralympic Games caused a huge deal of controversy between 1960 and 1992. Not only did many of the African nations protest against the policy of Apartheid itself, but South Africa’s attempts to send only white athletes caused controversy. Many Western countries however continued to try and include South Africa in the competitions; South Africa was only officially banned from the Olympics in 1970. They had been disinvited from the Olympics in 1964 and 1968, due to the protests from African countries.  However, until the Dutch hosted the Paralympics in 1980, the South Africans continued to participate in the Paralympics. They were only expelled by IPC in 1985. With the exception of the a few countries from the Eastern Bloc and Finland, white majority countries did not boycott but a number of countries with non-white majorities did. The 1976 Games also had a boycott because of the continued inclusion of New Zealand, after the protests of a number of African countries. New Zealand’s rugby team had toured South Africa despite the majority of countries boycotting Apartheid South Africa;  twenty nine countries in all, mostly countries from Africa and the Middle East. Upon the end of apartheid, South Africa was allowed to compete with a multi-racial team.

Perhaps the most famous of all Olympic protests was Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Games. The American pair had placed first and third in the 200m respectively but drew outrage on the podium during the American national anthem. The pair both raised their fists, the well-known symbol of the Black Power movement, in protest of the treatment of Black Americans. Martin Luther King Jnr had been assassinated earlier in the year and despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act, unsurprisingly racial tensions were still high. The pair were booed as they left and were quickly punished by the IOC, leading to their expulsion from the games and Olympic Village. The implications of their protest continued to affect the pair after the 1968 Games. Both were subject to deaths threats and criticism in the US. Neither pair competed again in the Olympics, although both men continued in sport.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were not the only athletes to protest during the 1968 Olympic Games. Czech gymnast Věra Čáslavská had already upset Soviet authorities earlier in 1968 having signed the protest manifesto ‘The Two Thousand Words’ during the Prague Spring, a period of political liberalisation that threatened the Soviet Union’s control over Czechoslovakia. Upon the Soviet invasion in August 1968, Čáslavská was forced into hiding in the Moravian mountains. Having lost her training facilities she trained for the games outside in the forests of Moravia, using logs as beams and potato sacks as weights to defend her titles from the previous Games. She only received permission at the last minute to participate in the 1968 games. While Čáslavská managed to defend two of her medals and gained a further two medals, controversy arose when two judging decisions favoured Soviet gymnasts over her. As a protest Čáslavská bowed her head and turned away during the playing of the Soviet anthem. While she received no punishment from the IOC, Čáslavská was banned from sport events in Czechoslovakia and abroad. This forced her into early retirement. It was not until the threat of ceasing oil exports to Czechslovakia by Mexico was she allowed to leave the country in 1978. In 1985 under the pressure of the IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch she was finally allowed to return to the sport as a coach and judge. After the fall of communism Čáslavská held a number of positions within the IOC.

The 1980 Olympics in Moscow caused one of the largest boycotts in Olympic history. Due to the decision not to hold the Paralympics by the Soviet Union, instead it was hosted by the Netherlands with no boycott. Upon the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US gave the ultimatum for the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan or there would be a boycott of the games. Despite the efforts of the IOC, no compromise was made; in all, mostly because of the boycott (although a few were for other reasons) sixty six countries who were invited to be part of the games did not attend. These were mostly African and Asian countries. Several Western countries did not fully boycott, but did protest by refusing to attend the Opening Ceremony, or athletes competed under the Olympic flag rather than their own.

The following games in 1984 were held in Los Angeles, where this time the Soviet Union and a number of their allies boycotted. However this boycott was on a much smaller scale, only 14 countries. The boycott was called because of claims of security concerns and an anti-Soviet climate. The Paralympics were mostly boycotted again by Soviet countries; however East Germany, Poland and Hungary participated when they had boycotted the Olympics.

Since 1992, despite political concerns, there have been no large scale boycotts or major political gestures at either the Olympics or Paralympics. Despite concerns about the 2008 Beijing Games and possible boycotts being discussed, the Games were largely successful.

The reluctance to boycott more recently has no exact reasoning, but is probably down to several reasons. Primarily I believe this is mostly down to the large cost, in both money and time that athletes – and their supporters – must dedicate to helping their training. Athletes had previously been outspoken about missing their chances to compete due to political interference but were more likely to toe the line. Today they would be less likely to accept their countries’ decisions to boycott, they are less likely to risk their position at the Games by protesting at all. The end of the Cold War has also removed one of the biggest political obstacles, but while there are still tensions between Russia and the USA, the Olympics almost seem to now be seen as an opportunity to compete, in a non-violent way.

Karjala – In search of Karelia

Let me take you away to the white taiga of the north of Europe today. Where lakes cover the land, and the tundra approaches on the horizon. Okay, it may not be Lapland with all its mythos, but this border region has been a very contested area of influence up in Scandinavia. Swedes, Finns and Russians, all want to possess the beautiful and wild Karelia. You would then think, what have I got lost all that way to the east, being this a different type of Scandinavian territory? Well, Karelia and I have a different type of bond. Karelia is where all the cool quirky things come from – folk music and symphonic metal delivered by the great Varttina and Nightwish…Karelia is also Tolkien land, for the Kalevala tells its story and that of all Finland.

So what or where is Karelia, you will be thinking? And so the problem begins. Karelia has been traditionally referred to the territory comprised between the White Sea and south-eastern Finland colliding with the Russian border. The area passes through the Lake Onega, Lake Ladoga and finally down to the Gulf of Finland. However, for the Russians Karelian has always been the eastern side of the region, the piece of the puzzle they got after the Winter War (1939-1940).  The called it the Republic of Karelia, becoming then a Russian federal subject. Nowadays, for the Finnish, Karelia is majorly the territory still within their borders – north and south Karelia, traditionally speaking, although sometimes they also include the area of Kymenlaakso and southern Savonia. In essence…Too many ideas of one Karelia. And this is part of the problem currently. The Karelian identity is so lost in the tensions of nationalism and geopolitics that it is difficult to understand what there is left of its people and its culture.

Just so you get an idea, the entire history of Karelia – or the known big history –  is all about how this provide changed hands and master over and over. We begin with the early Finno-Ugrian tribes, attracted to this land due to the abundance of cooper mines and the natural geological formations of the relief that constituted viable refuges for the people inhabiting the area after the Ice Age. Mining became the main resource for these people from the year 1 AD up until the year 1000. This agglomeration of hunter/gatherers was composed by Korela, Sum, Ves and a few Saami people at the north (otherwise referred as Pol). After the year 1000 AD, groups of Slavs started to come into the territory from and through the areas surrounding the White Sea. Karelia became part of the Kievan Rus around the 9th century. With the decline of Kievan power, the Novgorod Republic took over in the 13th century. Nevertheless, Karelia remained fairly independent. its main town and administrative center was the town of Korela (currently known as Priosersk). However, the crusading campaign of the German and Scandinavian states of the end of the 13th century would bring more changes to the puzzle. Here commences the conflict known as the Swedish-Novgorodian Wars. The ever-growing tension between the Swedes and the inhabitants of the Rus had been apparent since the Viking Age. As Sweden grew stronger, their desire to control the Gulf of Finland increased as this would improve their commerce by seizing trading routes from the Rus to Byzantium. However, this was the economic-political niche of the Novgorod Republic. And thus the quarrel begun. After a series of fights, everything resumed with the Treaty of Noteborg (1323). The result? Karelia is split in 2. The Swedes established their capital in Viborg.

Swedish control was not something the Karelians appreciated much. So little by little the exodus begun. By 1617 Sweden acquired more territories in what then was Russian Karelia. The culture clash and discomfort of the inhabitants meant that a great portion of the population fled to the East, into Russia’s territory. However, the Russians were not to be undermined, for the prowess of the Swedish Military Revolution eventually had to come to an end. Therefore, some 100 years later, in 1721, in a sudden turn of events, the Swedes found themselves on the losing side of the argument, resulting in the Russians taking for themselves most of Karelia, thanks to the Treaty of Nystad. This opened the door to the never-stopping imperial power of Russia: with nothing and no one stopping them, the intruded into Finland. By 1809 Suomi was effectively yet another Russian Province.

Despite Russian rule would only last another 100 years, Karelia did not return to its Finnish mother. After the rise of Bolshevism, Karelia became an ASSR (Autonomous republic of the Soviet Union) in 1923. The few pieces of Karelia still left in Finland became Russian in 1940, after the events of the Winter War and thanks to the Moscow Peace Treaty. Further commotion spread across the region, with thousands inhabitants having to be relocated. Bitterness grew in the hearts of the Finns as their land was taken away alongside with its second biggest city: Viipuri, the old Swedish Viborg, which was then a center for Finnish industry. Moreover, Karelia became the only SRR to be degraded to an ASSR within the Soviet Union. It is assumed this is due to the increasing minority of Russian population by the 1940s in the area, which lead to believe this could result in secession – and this was not in the plans of Mother Russia. Therefore, by demoting Karelia to a merely administrative republic, with no rights of its own, the Russians were saving face in case their most feared outcome turned into reality.

And of course, these are just the political consequences and tensions over the area…But, have I mentioned the religious issue? Well, you see this is the problem when you find yourself in a contested border: different nations can equal different religions. Since the Reformation, Scandinavia became primarily of Lutheran or Protestant affiliation. Nevertheless, we all know that on the other side of the border, the Orthodox Church was an important pillar of Russian prowess…And this is without to mention the pre-Christian, pagan roots and vestiges of native cults in the area, predominantly now represented by the Saami minority…Karelia, oh broken Karjala…Ah, of course I was forgetting…Language, another diverging point. Of course, at heart Karelia’s native tongue is of Finnish ascendency. But what is Karelian language? Depends on who you ask. For some linguists Karelian is just a dialect of Finnish, but for others it is a linguistic entity of its own with strong ties to Suomi. Just to make things more complicated, and assuming that Karelian is a language on its own, I must inform you know that there is no standardisation of the lingo. Therefore each author would speak and write Karelian according to their own local accent and dialect…However three main trends have been established. There is the Latin based alphabet, and used in the territories of the north as well as the territories of the Lakes Onega and Ladoga (Olonets Karelian). And then, we have the Tver Karelian, for the Russian sympathisers, which uses the Cyrillic script…And let’s not forget about that time during the 1940s that due to the centralisation of the USSR, the Republic of Karelia spoke Karelian but written in Cyrillic…

As you can see the situation is quite complicated, and particularly mesmerising to get your head around, so I shall not go into this much further. I think the message is clear: the only Karelia that remains one piece is the ecologic region. Now, I thought after the dissolution of the USSR, perhaps the cultural identity of Karelia had been restored somehow somewhat…It will appear that some attempts have been done through history. The Fennoman movement in Finland during the 19th century, which emerged from the nationalisms and romanticisms of this time, vouched for the incorporation of Karelia as a Finnish territory, and inspired many of the reconciliation attempts with Eastern Karelia in the 20th century. Of course, one cannot forget Karelianism – the movement inspired by the Kalevala, Finnish national epic, mostly composed of traditional Karelian poems.

However, the complications are many, and Karelia is always in the nationalistic political agenda of Finland. Perhaps it would not be so bad it the collapse of the Soviet Union would not have been so brutal for the region. This effectively supposed a huge economic recession in the area, to such an extreme that the inhabitants of diverse  Karelian territories even abandoned their homeland and relocated in Finland; a few going East as well. The urban decay of this territory has only contributed to the disappearance of a unique culture, as all the refugees mingle with Finns or Russians…and this leaves me no choice but to conclude my update of today. What is Karelia? I am still uncertain. Only time can tell if the once wild and independent Karjala will rise again.

 

 

 

Boris Godunov:A Tsar and a musician walk into a bar…

So, what about an opera about a Tsar, written by a serf’s grandson and which was rejected by the Maryinsky Theatre just because (allegedly) it lacked a leading female character, then turning into a massive success (but not with the Imperial family) only to be adapted, shortened, reconstructed and who knows what else after its alcoholic composer died in the exact day of his 42nd birthday? That could be worth a little more reading…

Modest Mussorgsky’s father was the son of a serf. He, eventually, was recognised as a noble and owned a vast estate which contained eighteen villages at Karevo not that far from nowadays Russian frontier with Belarus and a rough 250 miles from Saint Petersburg, then the capital. Granny was still alive when Modest was a small boy and we can only imagine the strange thing that a noble man son to a serf woman was at the time. Yet they were not part of the very affluent. Serfs and nobles would be important in the future of Modest; but before that, see him learning to play piano, taking lessons from Mum, listening to the folk tunes his nurse would sing. Then at the age of thirteen, he was sent to Saint Petersburg’s cadet school, joining in the event the Preobrazhensky Guards. Not exactly the same than at home.

There he spent the next years, getting in contact with some of the leading members of Russian musical society, as Balakirev or Borodin. But in 1861, the serfs would force him back home at the age of 21. Well, to be honest, it was the Tsar, not the serfs, who forced him back. Being not a really brilliant nor decisive leader, Alexander II was somewhat convinced, possibly because of the pressure enacted by his resourceful aunt Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, that serfs needed some sort of emancipation. That, in a huge autocracy where education and alphabetization levels were appalling and, as we have seen, lesser nobles owned almost twenty villages and all in them, people inclusive.

Continue reading “Boris Godunov:A Tsar and a musician walk into a bar…”

Mazeppa: Cossack, Hero and Betrayer

Does the name Mazepa mean anything to you? Perhaps if you are from Ukraine or Poland, but maybe not. Hopefully Pyotr Ilvich Tchaikovsky would be a name that you would be more familiar with. Well, it is of an opera of his, and a symphonic poem by Liszt that we are going to talk about today and the deeds and story of a Cossack Hetman: Ivan Stepanovych Mazepa. But first let’s set the scenery for you…

Poland,  (or the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, depending on how picky you want to be) 17th century, a young man is born into a decent family, the month is March and the year 1639. His mother’s side of the family had strong connections to the Cossacks for generations. After being educated by the Jesuits in Warsaw the young man is sent to serve to the court of John II Casimir, and was put in charge of dealing with the business of the Polish court in Ukraine, as an emissary or a diplomat if you like. And at this stage of his career, according to Franz Liszt, Mr. Ivan Stepanovych Mazepa gets involved in a love affair with a polish lady called Madam Falbowska, and this romance is the reason why the gentleman mentioned above was tie naked to a horse and sent back to Ukraine…Where then he joins the Cossacks and become a renown officer. His work was first premiered in 1854 and was focused in Mazepa’s glory days which, as we will see later, is a clear example of Romantic interpretations and stories of the 19th Century.

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Did the Brezhnev Doctrine Prolong the Cold War?

http://rusopedia.rt.com/images/publications/45/slide_issue_252.jpg
As part of our new challenges task set, here is my challenge, to do a blog post on Leonid Brezhnev as requested by fellow blogger Ali. Brezhnev was General Secretary of the Soviet Union 1964 till his death in 1982, and was the second longest-serving Secretary after Stalin. Other than his famous eyebrows, Brezhnev was well-known for introducing the Brezhnev doctrine into Soviet society in 1968 in reply to the Czechoslovakia uprising. What I am researching within this blog post will be to see how this act in fact prolonged the Cold War.

Firstly before explaining what the Doctrine itself included, I should explain the political climate at the time. The Soviet Union at the time was near to disarray, with some of the satellite states within it hoping to break away from the Soviet Union and liberalise themselves as an independent country. The time was 1968, the year of the Prague Spring, when Czechoslovakian Alexander Dubcek the reformist was First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. This was a big moment because in the April of that year, Dubcek put in place an action plan calling for a more independent state and a new model of socialism which would remove state control over industry and allowed freedom of speech.

It is also worth quickly mentioning that the relations between the Soviet Union and the USA had been steady, they would soon be entering a period of Détente in which both sides entered a period of strained relations. Since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 between Kennedy and Khrushchev, both sides had been relatively neutral towards each other, with no direct conflict of interests.

 Image of Alexander Dubcek.

Although Dubcek stayed loyal to Moscow, Brezhnev got worried over the changes he saw within the country, the fact that the villains who had been purged had since been pardoned, the fact that press censorship had been eased, and even things like some plays had come back to light and the dress sense of the Moscow people changed, with men growing their hair and woman wearing shorter skirts. To Brezhnev this was worrying, due to the fact that he felt that his reign was now under increasing threat of being over thrown. This in turn led to Brezhnev meeting with Dubcek in July 1968 to discuss re-imposing strict communist ideals, and to reign in his counter-revolutionary methods. However when Brezhnev noticed that nothing was changing after his chat and after Tito of Yugoslavia visited the country, he decided to act.

The meeting between Dubcek and Brezhnev.

After a meeting in Bratislava on 3rd August 1968, in which Brezhnev read out a letter from Czechoslovakian communists asking for help, he announced the Brezhnev Doctrine. This is a very important moment in the Cold War, because although there was no direct conflict between the East and the West due to it, it did send out a very clear and aggressive message. The Brezhnev Doctrine announced to the world that the USSR would not allow any Eastern European country to reject communism. Although you can argue that there had been the agreement between the big 3 near the end of the Second World War that the Soviets had their Eastern Sphere of influence to act as a buffer zone, it pretty much stated that for the long-term there was going to be conflict if anybody tried to step out of the Iron Curtain.

 Tank heading into Prague

To really enforce his point, Brezhnev used force. On 20th August 1968, with the help of 500,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 2,000 tanks, Brezhnev’s forces moved into Prague taking control of vital communication points such as the airport before making their presence known on the streets of the capital. With the soldiers expecting a warm welcome from the Czechs as Moscow had promised them, they were soon disheartened to find strengthened yet unarmed resistance. Eleven Soviet Soldiers and 72 civilians were killed, and the majority of the Czechoslovakian people did not fight, just stood in front of the tanks and put flowers in the soldiers hair.

Colour image from the Prague Spring

In the end Brezhnev put Gustav Husak, a supporter of the Soviets as the leader of the KSC. But in the long-term, this show of force really did help to prolong the Cold War. With the Romanian’s at the time having broken free from Soviet Control and improving relations with the West in this détente period, it made it look to other countries like they could too. The Czechoslovakians were angry that the Soviets were controlling and running down their economy, making the country suffer from poverty.

 Image showing just how outnumbered the Czechs were

The Doctrine not only enforced further communist rule over the country, meaning that 47 anti-communists were arrested and half the leadership of the KSC was arrested, but it sent shock waves right the way through the rest of the Iron Curtain. People in the West were horrified by the idea of the Doctrine, and countries within like Yugoslavia and Romania were worried what the future will hold for them. Therefore it is easy to see that in fact the Doctrine did prolong the Cold War, due to the fact that after giving out such a clear message to the people, it was easy to see that the countries within the Soviet Union were not going to get out.

Cartoon of Prague Spring http://www.cartoons.ac.uk/record-image/standard/13774

It’s not just in the East where I feel that the Doctrine was used, but also in their future actions, such as their war in Afghanistan 1979-1989 which was effected by this. The idea that no matter what, communist control was going to rule did prolong the Cold War, because it will without a doubt have been seen by America as an aggressive act. Although you can argue that the Eastern European countries were under state supervision already within the Soviet Sphere, it pointed to the fact that there was a possibility for future countries to not be able to escape. Therefore in conclusion to the question set at the beginning of this post, yes, the Brezhnev Doctrine did in fact prolong the Cold War due to the fact that at the time, the political climate in the East was that they had some hope of being able to make it out of the Communist rule. Yet as soon as this Doctrine was put in place, it completely shattered any hopes of this and meant that the countries would stay under the rule with little or no uprisings against it.

Another Cartoon of the Prague Spring

http://www.cartoons.ac.uk/record-image/standard/13786