Like with every prolonged emotional experience, with war, we make a journey. Extremal journey, that happened to us, but still shapes our personal road with many stops and discoveries. “We saw destruction and losses, we couldn’t accept the immediate transition from life to the death of our friends, but… we met real solidarity, real friendship, and sympathy” – the WWII veterans often said. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and victim of Nazi concentration camps, called this acquisition a “preserved community of spirit and life”, and accepted it with gratitude. His final book, published posthumously, was called “Resistance and Submission”. In this name we hear the challenge of his time, putting the human being at the center of universal contradictions.
The horrific experience of war multiplies conflicts. Intimacy between people is tested and often fails. Traumatized consciousness seeks balance and the spirit that has seen the abyss, seeks support. Force of love, the appearance of God, acquires in its light a primordial meaning. At the same time questions to God and the universe sound in their unbearable concreteness. Why did the bomb kill children in the morning square of the Ukrainian city? Why women in occupation became victims of sexual violence and civil men were killed just for having some symbols on their clothes or bodies? Just for being themselves? The border between your own experience and the experience of others, your compatriots, becomes fragile. Our psyche enters the territory of risk and instability, the territory of unbearable sympathy. And as never before you feel as a part of the collective body, a body of your nation – which suffers, dies, and recreates itself. After all the books you read, you used to correlate this feeling with medieval grotesque thinking – but now you are not sure, that the middle ages ever ended.
War is a stolen time. While putting you into the brutal past, it steals your individual timer. You could live youthfully – but feel old. Could have individual calculations, but have a common one. You stop making plans, and one day find yourself homeless even if you still have a home. Hesitating in nowhere, you see that your everyday rituals, small stops in time, lose any sense. The past with its “madeleine cakes” no longer seems to be yours. You would run into yourself, but need an open space… just there you don’t feel so small. Truly religious people can feel such time as sacral, mystically open… for others – it is just absolutely catastrophic.
War is always a crash of humanistic thinking (although this philosophy recreates itself almost in a magic way). Meeting a world with no progress, where people are ready to kill each other again and again, you periodically get overturned by individual kindness and sacrifice. But all your daily feelings stay on the bottom of sadness – and too often you just don’t want to be a human.
Moving forward from this restless point, what would you like to take with you in the unknown future?
– some naivety, and waiting that the heart can be reborn again and again;
– order of thinking, and the belief that awareness converts facts of reality into mental experience;
– sense of harmony, the irrational background of human happiness.
Then, when the war ended, and a new orderliness will streamline the land for the next decades, we will say with hope:
We passed through deep despair. We save ourselves as people.
For almost 200 years since the “Crimean sonnets” of Polish genius Adam Mickiewicz were published in 1826, the main interpretations of this cycle are mostly settled. The sonnets are marked as a prominent example of orientalism, an important trend in romantic literature of that time. Besides this, the cycle written by Mickiewicz during his Russian exile, and published in Moscow, has nuances of Polish and Russian interpretations. Polish tradition puts accents on the innovative genre and language of the cycle, its nationally colored reflectivity – with an image of a pilgrim and implicit theme of Polish pilgrimage. Russian tradition highlights the sensitive romantic hero, secretly inspired by the idea of freedom – partly because right before his Crimea trip, of the summer/autumn of 1825, Mickiewicz became friends with Russian Decembrists in Moscow and then in Odesa. He also struck up a friendship with Pushkin and accepted him like a brother in freedom (Mickiewicz was deeply disappointed in Pushkin a few years later) – so it was easy to view “Crimean sonnets” poetically somewhere in-between “The Giaour” of Byron and “The fountain of Bakhchisarai” of Pushkin, in dialogue with them.
The dialogic structure of “Crimean sonnets” is visible to the naked eye: some sonnets are written as a direct dialogue between the lyric hero (Pilgrim or Giaour) – and Mirza, his experienced Crimean guide. But this plot was mostly recognized as belonging to Orientalism: a dialogue between East and West. Reading the cycle from today we can see, that the dialogism of “Crimean sonnets” has a more deep and fundamental character. By and large, it’s just a different dialogue – between two oppressed cultures (Polish and Crimean Tatar), where the geography is not as important as history. In this sense, Mickiewicz’s palette is richer than that of many poets of his time. When Mickiewicz, a rarely gifted polyglot with also a complicated identity (Polish poet with Lithuanian and Belarusian background) arrived in Crimea, he was already open to deeper relations with this place, than the romantic paradigm of East-West. He was a bearer of an unprecedented optic, which makes the cycle especially relevant for our time.
How was it reflected in the poems?
The cycle, which includes 18 sonnets, shows more and more deep inclusion of Mickiewicz in Crimea’s history. The way of the hero symbolically goes up from the sea line to the historic towns and valleys of Crimea and then to the mountains, to be finished with a panoramic view from Ayu-Dag. In the first part, which can be provisionally named “Sea sonnets” (sonnets 1-4), the sea trip to Crimea from Odesa is depicted. Interesting, that the first – and very famous – sonnet “Ackerman steppes” is not really connected with the sea, but pictures the Ukrainian steppes in the Odesa region – these steppes are given in the open association with the sea, as its foreboding. The comparison of the steppe and the sea is very typical for the Ukrainian attitude and poetry – Mickiewicz could have learned it while being in Odesa.
The poet twice mentions Ukraine in the author’s comments on the cycle – and the first time right in connection with “Ackerman steppes”. He explains the meaning of the Ukrainian word burjan – weeds – which is important to the perception of this specific place (in the next sonnets he will the same carefully preserve concepts of the Tatars’ life and of course Crimea’s original toponyms). For the second time, Mickiewicz mentions Ukraine in the comment to the sonnet “The tomb of Potocka”. Speaking of this legend he links to Ukrainian liberation uprisings when Tatars often raided Ukraine – it’s how a noble Polish girl from the Potocki family could get into the khan’s harem. In this way, from the first sonnet, we see Mickiewicz as a person that extremely open to other cultures. For him, Crimea is not an exotic separated East as in Orientalism, but a specific point on the historic and cultural map, which needs to be understood. Feeling quite aloof from his fellow travelers during the sea trip (keep in mind that these people are just travelers, while Mickiewicz is still in exile) he is already prepared to meet Mirza. We will observe their first conversation in sonnet 5, “View on mountains from Kozlov steppes”.
This poem, “View on mountains from Kozlov steppes”, preсeds a very important part of the cycle, so-called “Bakhchisaray sonnets” (sonnets 5 – 9). It’s a first look of the hero on real Crimea (with an amazing view of the Chatyr-Dag mountain far away). It’s also the first open dialog between Mirza and Pilgrim, at the end of which the Pilgrim freezes in delight in front of the greatness he saw (exclaiming just a-a!, like in search of a new language). This sonnet is the first and only instance where Mickiewicz uses the new Russian name for this place (Kozlov) – from that point forward, after genuinely learning the essence of the Crimea spirit, he only uses the original Tatar names.
Four sonnets about Bakhchisaray, the old capital of Tatar khans, tell of the ruins of culture ravaged by the Russian invasion. The invasion left the city with only “ivy and decay invade the palace’s galleries” and only the solitary cry of a fountain declares the capital’s brilliant past. In the sonnet “The tomb of Potocka” the hero relates to the fate of the legendary concubine of khan Giray, Potocka, – and openly tells of his own exile. He cries near the old graveyard in the sonnet “Harem graves”, and Mirza recognizes him as an exception from all foreigners who came to this land. The main tone of Bakhchisaray sonnets is a deep sympathy for the destroyed Tatar civilization, and awareness of the injustice of history. The dialogue between Pilgrim and Mirza comes here to a new level. Two oppressed nations (Tatars and Poles) speak through them, and the historic winners – Russians – just remain barbarous.
The sonnets of “Crimean valleys” (10 –13) are the most self-reflective part of the cycle. The Crimea landscapes deeply touch the poet through the prism of Tatar culture. He sees fog as through a Tatar robe, night as odalisque… he observes how the lamp of Universe fell down on Chatyr-Dag… The last of these four poems, sonnet 13 (Chatyr-Dag) is transferred to Mirza, who prays to the unique mountain, savior of the national memory. The hero is just quiet…
Sonnet 14, which starts the last, “mountain” part of the cycle, is the most confessional. Titled “Pilgrim” it gives birth to the topic of Polish pilgrimage, important for the mature lyrics of Mickiewicz, and his conception of the Polish purpose. His nostalgia for Lithuania, in connection with the sadness about his left love, sends us to the epigraph of “Crimean sonnets” from Goethe: “To know a poet you need to know his country”. The country of Mickiewicz is nowhere and everywhere, but it grows from the real image of his motherland. His view is cosmopolitan, with an emphasis on inclusion and empathy for other people’s lives. And as it happens, traveling through Crimea becomes for Mickiewicz – a person of the world – also a deep personal journey.
The last four poems, starting from “Road over the abyss in Chufut-Kale” describe the mountain landscapes of Crimea. In these sonnets mutual understanding between Mirza and Pilgrim becomes complete – in fact, Mirza turns out to be a mentor for his younger friend. He teaches him to pass through dangerous mountain roads, listen to his intuition and trust his horse – and read the timeless Crimea beauty. The symbolic end of “Crimean sonnets” is made by the sonnet “Ayu-dag”, where the poet looks at the land from the mountains. We see that during the cycle he gets more and more scale optic – to finish his travel by words in honor of poetry “and just songs will stay with you from the squall – crown of immortality for you brow”.
Mickiewicz wrote his cycle in the genre of Petrarch’s sonnets – and his choice had a fundamental meaning. He was a consistent “petrarchist” – not just in his understanding of poetry, but also in his conception of history. He believed in Europe as a multicultural space, where nations will find their peace and development. Two indirect confirmations of these we can find in Russian resources: first is the poem of Pushkin “He lived among us…” (“Он между нами жил…”) about Mickiewicz. Pushkin describes Mickiewicz by the time of his Russian exile as a person who “spoke of times to come when people forgetting strife join a great family”. The second is a case of polemics by Mickiewicz with his future censor Kachenovsky, which happened right in August of 1826 when Mickiewicz was preparing his sonnets to publish. Revolted by the article of Offman “Dispute on Petrarch poems”, which was published in Kachenovsky’s magazine “Bестник Европы” (“Herald of Europe”), Mickiewicz exclaimed “No poetry in the world if this is not poetry!” and called Petrarch the most tender and passionate of poets ever. It’s very symbolic, that the main Russian magazine, oriented on European history and art, rejected the figure of Petrarch – the biggest profit of future Europe.
Mickiewicz’s conception of Europe was developed in harmony with his personal history. Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine were not alien to him. As France, Italy, Greece and Great Britain were not alien to him either. He believed that the ability for dialogue and mutual understanding will determine the development of Europe. In the face of the Russian Empire, he discovered a barbarous state, speaking just the language of aggression. Not dialogue, but rather strife was the tradition of Russia. The destroyed culture and life of Crimea Tatars became for him one more confirmation of this. The dialogue of Pilgrim and Mirza in his cycle is a dialogue of two conquered nations, two victims of history. West and East are just conditional measurements for Mickiewicz, while the clash of civilization and barbarism is a real conflict of his life.
Reading “Crimean sonnets” by Mickiewicz, we see a poet of an open mind, with a consciousness close to us, people of the XXI century. He is a person of civilization, and a person of human values, based on the value of freedom. Looking at his noble nature, it’s a real shame to read Pushkin’s “To the slanderers of Russia”, “The anniversary of Borodino” or “He lived among us…”, written after Polish uprising and directly dedicated to his former friend – but full of aggression, neglect, and selfishness. There are centuries between these two people. And there are invisible oceans between Russia and Europe.
The Crimean Sonnets in its original language Polish, and also English and Russian translations.
“Pamuk is a famous novelist, but he is not one of us” – these words you can often hear in Turkey. And this is not the strongest insult that compatriots give to their most glorious writer. The medal has two sides: Many Turkish readers can’t accept the exquisite esthetic of Pamuk’s prose (its slowness, branching, its complicated language – some people even assure, that it’s better to read Pamuk in translation) – but from the other side, a big part of Turkish society can’t accept his public position, which leaves an imprint on the interpretation of his novels.
Famous for his uncompromising statements on the Armenian genocide and criticism of the totalitarian tendencies in Turkish policy, Pamuk met his 70’s with new accusations. His last novel Nights of Plague was investigated under the authority of law 5816 – “Law concerning crimes against Ataturk”. Also, he was suspected of mockery of the Turkish flag. To top it off Pamuk openly supports Ukraine as a victim of Russian aggression and criticizes Turkish power for its controversial position in this war. “I’ve never considered myself an explicitly political writer, but at a time like this, in a country like mine, it would seem dishonest, even immoral, not to talk about politics” – said Pamuk in the interview with Der Spiegel 11.03.2022.
Ironically, being the most consistent Turkish intellectual of the European variety, Pamuk is not perceived by compatriots as an Ataturk successor, which should be natural. They see him as an upstart, seeking to serve the West. And the idea of the hostile colonial West – accompanied by classifying intellectuals as enemies of the state – has been growing strongly in Turkey during this last decade. Moving more and more conservative, plunging people of the country into greater and greater poverty, Turkish nationalism is hypocritically hiding behind the image of Ataturk, using it in its own political games. Although Turkey becomes noticeably more religious in this conservative wave, “Islam doesn’t stay at the center of problems”, Pamuk said during the public discussion in Paris in October of 2021, “…the problem is authoritarianism. I am not saying that Islam does not exist in this discussion, but Erdoğan is using Islam…”
In the fascinating world of Pamuk’s prose, his historic and imaginary vision meet head-on. A native of Istanbul, immersed in a timeless sense of his place, Pamuk provides a focused optic in his famous book “Istanbul. Memory and the City” (as often in his works, the reflection of whole generations with their hopes and disappointments stays behind the image of the lyric hero). We observe the story of slow impoverishment and destruction of Orhan’s family – but it’s also a story of the devastation of the European-oriented Turkish elite. Gradually thinning, it gives way to ruder, unprincipled people, who inherited from Europe only banal desires for creature comforts. Emptiness, with the destruction of historical Istanbul and the poverty of its inhabitants, becomes one of the melancholic leitmotifs of this book. Young Orhan, the artistically gifted boy, tries to add more and more details to his first pictures, struggling against this emptiness – it becomes the first metaphor of his intellectual development. Behind the scenes, we seem to hear the voices of Proust, Nabokov… all the eternal sadness of culture, which loses the competition with history.
In 2012 Pamuk opened the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul – a unique place and project, connected with his novel of the same name. The exposition is focused on two conditional Istanbul families with their traditions, secrets, and fears. It also speaks about a wonderful young woman, which was suffocated by the cultural limitations of her time. But behind the fictional characters, it creates a story of the generation of Turkish people in the late 1970s – early 1980s, who were fighting for their private and personal freedom. It especially concerns women, whose rights have always been Pamuk’s focus as a Turkish writer. The philosophy of this museum stays at the crossroads of the key topics of our time – private history, alternative history, history of ideas. As a private, unofficial place, it tends to speak “from people to people”. And – a sign of our global times – when university professors from all over the world fly to visit this specific museum, most of Istanbul’s inhabitants don’t even know about it.
Where is the balance between political action, and creativity? Russian philosopher Anatoly Akhutin who moved to Ukraine in 2014, protesting against the first ‘stage of Russian aggression on this country, wrote in his blog a few days ago (it’s a long quote, but worth it! ): “The aversion of people of culture (in general “spiritual life”) from politics is connected with deep oblivion of the meaning of the political. The political, we used to think, is what politicians do. The abodes of culture – beauty, truth, goodness – are pure, and the dwellings of politics are intrigues in the struggle for power, lies, manipulations, demagogy … – in a word, dirt. Meanwhile, politics, as the word suggests, is the awareness of one’s life in the polis (πόλις), the civic consciousness of life, as it says, in complicity, in other words, responsibility. If the ethical is the consciousness of responsibility for one’s actions in a community of people – close, oncoming, distant, then the political is the dimension of our existence in which we are responsible for our polis being. Politics becomes dirty when we relieve ourselves of this responsibility”. The responsibility, which Akhutin writes about, is sometimes costly but leads to progress in our social life. It gives a chance to be figures (or actors) on history’s board – and not only its victims.
Speaking in these categories, what should “to be one of us” mean? To choose directly what Pamuk choose – be a voice of reason, honesty, and self-reflection.
A few weeks ago I came across the Bulgarian newspaper “Утро” (“Morning”), published in Sofia on October 7, 1912. A historical release with Tsar Ferdinand’s Manifest to the Bulgarian Nation (Манифст към българския народ), where he announced a War against the Ottoman Empire. Created on October 5, the Manifest urged to fight for the human rights of the Christian population in Turkey and called this campaign “right, great and sacral”. What the Tsar didn’t say, was that according to the national conception of “Great Bulgaria”, the intended borders of the country should include Moesia, Thrace, and Macedonia, making Bulgaria the #1 country in the Balkans. What he didn’t say also, was that Russia, supporting this war, hoped to take possession of Constantinople and let lose the Austro-Hungarian Empire in its Balkan influence.
The newspaper accents, that Bulgarians met the war with great enthusiasm, and the allies of Bulgaria – Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro – have the same determination against Turkey. However, it happened, that just in a year the Balkan union fell apart because of the exorbitant territorial claims of its participants – and Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro united with Turkey to fight Bulgaria. In 1914 demoralized Bulgaria (so-called The First National Catastrophe) took the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary, while Russian Empire supported Serbia.
The First Balkan war was a prologue of the large conflicts in Europe in the XX-th century. It set the base for the Second Balkan War, WWI, and – indirectly – WWII. It largely explains the background of the Balkan tragedy at the end of the century and still speaks even now, in the problem of Macedonia, which is blocked entering the EU due to the Bulgarian veto.
Let’s look at the top figures of the military campaign, which started in 1912. The newspaper provides ascetic, severe portraits of the heroic leaders of the Balkan Union – Tsar Ferdinand, kings Peter I of Serbia, Nikolas I of Montenegro (in the newspaper he is called Nikita by mistake), and George I of Greece. However, nobody of them owned history and couldn’t predict the way it will turn. Tsar Ferdinand lost his power in 1918 after The Second National Catastrophe, which befell Bulgaria during WWI. King George I was shot in Thessaloniki in March of 1913, and his long successful reign was changed by the decades of critical instability in Greece… Serbian king Peter I died in 1921 after several years of exile… he is still popular in Serbia, although his national project of the Kingdom of Serbians, Croatians, and Slovenians was clearly unsuccessful. King Nikolas died in exile, totally forgotten, but before his death was deposed in Montenegro, which became a part of the Kingdom of Serbians, Croatians, and Slovenians. Russian tsar Nikolay II was executed by Bolsheviks. The Russian Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Austro-Hungarian Empire all ceased to exist.
Reading this superficially bold newspaper (what is newspaper rhetoric if not apotheosis of superficiality?), looking at the map on its first page, where the proud reader had to note new battles and future conquests, this thought immediately comes to mind. Can we rid ourselves with the ancient strategy of territorial conquests, and be done with the brutality of the national greatness? Too many pieces of our common land is watered with blood. And if somebody still monetizes these categories, and endangers human lives and the stability of the whole world, our meaningful solidarity has to be a coordinated and resolute response opposing him. We need to choose this solidarity every day – to develop our countries in peace, to make an unfalsified history of people.
History doesn’t operate with good times. One day you find yourself standing right in front of the upcoming darkness and brutality. War or hunger, which happens in other regions right now, just casually pass you by. Your life is equally as fragile as those unfortunate people, and your empathy towards others is the range of your intellectual honesty.
Finally having lost my stability in 2013, when I left Putin’s Russia because of my beliefs, I don’t calculate my defeats and victories on the way to liberation. Writer of Russian language and Ukrainian roots, forever homeless professor of nothing (let’s call it Slavic philology), with Jewish grandparents and Big Terror family memories, I held onto Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Kundera. They were before, like a first experience of meaningful losses. The matter of text always served me as a second home, although sometimes I feel like an emigrant even there.
Now, when my heart is suffering for Ukraine, when I ask everybody to help Ukraine as palpably as possible, I start to publish here my essays on the history of words. Words, which, according to the Bible, were “in the beginning”. “Take it easy, – says the playful name of this blog. – It’s just Lit. aperitif”… Take it easy, because we need our forces for real life and deeds. And maybe will need more and more forces soon.
But sometimes in the darkness of texts we can find a word to support us. The one, which truly unites us with the other humanity.
I am incredibly thankful to my co-author Shon Wims, whose intellectual bravery pushes my heart to beat stronger.