Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
It was only a layover the other day at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, but it still made me tense.
It didn’t help that the uniformed Russian officer immediately began demanding to know the purpose of my trip, never mind that I was clearly not entering Russia and was therefore not his concern. I wanted to tell him not to worry, that I vowed years ago never to return to his country until and unless I obtained diplomatic immunity.
More or less on a whim, and as though I didn’t spend enough time in the classroom over the regular college semesters, I decided to spend the summer of 2002 studying Russian, a language entirely new to me. After a few weeks Stateside learning the rudiments, the cohort of us relocated to St. Petersburg for a few more weeks of immersion. When that finished at the end of July, I picked up my backpack and bought a train ticket to Moscow, hoping to see more of Russia and eventually to catch the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Jana, my guide on the walking tour of Bratislava’s old town, had a way of movement that reminded me of a great blue heron. She also reminded me that right around here was once the western extremity of the Mongol Empire.
We were standing at the foot of the hill atop of which stood Bratislava’s white-washed castle and its four towers. Jana pointed at it. “This castle withstood the Mongols, the Ottomans, and Napoleon’s army. But in 1811, a group of Italian soldiers garrisoned there decided to cook pasta. They started a fire, the fire got out of control, and the castle burned down. We didn’t start reconstructing it until 1953. So, in Slovakia, we like to joke — it’s kind of sad — that our castle withstood the Mongols and the Turks and Napoleon but couldn’t handle an Italian dinner.”
Yes, of course. Bratislava is only an hour’s drive from Vienna. And Prince Batu’s siege of Vienna marked the high-water mark of the Mongol Empire’s western expansion.
I shall complete the tetralogy on my time with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia soon enough. But because tomorrow is Inauguration Day, a.k.a. America-Becomes-a-Vassal-State Day, I interrupt the regularly scheduled programming and suggest — however tentatively as though in a late-night college dorm room discussion — new analogies for U.S.-Russian relations and for Mr. Trump.
During the Cold War a favorite comparison of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was to Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War — on the one hand, a raucous democracy prone to hubris, and on the other, a militaristic authoritarian regime. The analogy seemed so appropriate that the American service academies started teaching Thucydides to officers and cadets.
Another celebrated strain of thought (for example, in George F. Kennan’s Sources of Soviet Conduct) was to see the contest through the lens of Alexis de Tocqueville. Back in the early 19th century, in Democracy in America, de Tocqueville had declared that America and Russia “each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world,” so that they were headed toward inevitable contest. And in that contest, America “has freedom as the principal means of action,” while Russia “has servitude.” Kennan extended and revised de Tocqueville’s remarks, concluding that to prevail in the Cold War, all that the United States had to do was to “measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”
It’s a well-known story in Russia. But I assume that most non-Russians haven’t heard it. And in this age of ours when Russia appears to be instigating white supremacist movements abroad, maybe even Russians need a reminder.
Abram Hannibal was a black man born in today’s Cameroon in 1696. At the age of seven he was kidnapped by Ottoman Turks before being presented to the court of Peter the Great as a gift. In Russia he came to be known as Abram Petrovich Gannibal (the Russian language has a way of changing Hs to Gs, so much so that “Harry Potter” in Russian is “Garry Potter”). Peter took a liking to the young African boy and took him into his household. He faithfully served the Tsar and later his daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, first as a valet and eventually as a general in the Russian army.
Fast forward a hundred years to Abram’s great-grandson Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin. Like so many Russian aristocrats of his day, as a child Pushkin knew French better than he knew Russian, a defect he would remedy soon enough. By the age of fifteen he had published his first poem and gained a literary reputation. But his politics were far too liberal for the Tsarist autocracy, and he got himself exiled to the Crimea, Moldova, and the Caucasus, that romantic part of Russian imperial territory where I am as of this writing, a place that would inspire other Russian writers as well, like Mikhail Lermontov.
So World War III may start with Russian encroachment into the Baltics. That reminds me of the Battle on the Ice of 1242 A.D. This, too, had been a battle between Russia and the West. It, too, had taken place in the Baltics. And it holds lessons on how Russia sees itself, or even how Putin sees himself, even today.
The “ice” was the frozen surface of Lake Peipus, the body of water straddling the modern border between Estonia and Russia. As a part of the so-called “northern Crusade,” an army led by the Teutonic Knights attacked the Russian state of Novgorod. Whereas the more familiar Crusade had as its aim the conquest of the Holy Land, the northern Crusade was directed against the Eastern Orthodox Slavs and their pagan neighbors. Christianity having split into two halves, the Western Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, in the Great Schism of 1054, Catholic Europe now would have the Easterners convert to their version of the religion.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."