Esenin, though not well-known in the west, is a very popular poet in Russia. Active in the early 20th century, he is the poet of the countryside and of nostalgia for the beauty of nature. Having achieved early success, he was lionised in St Petersburg society and literary circles. But success brought its own curse and a year after this poem was written, he hanged himself in a room at the Hotel Angleterre in the capital.
The poem seems to express the anguish or conflict he felt in the contrast between his current way of life in the big city and the beauty and simplicity of the countryside.
In Russian the poem has a particular rhythm and also rhymes, this musicality contributing to its distinctive melancholy tone and atmosphere. I have been trying to find a way of rendering this poem into English while maintaining both rhyme and rhythm, but all my attempts overcomplicate it and pack out the lines simply to make the metre work. Here’s one attempt at the first stanza:
The birch wood all in golden autumn dressed Beguiles me into staying with its song, And mournful cranes now flying home to rest Show not a shred of pity for the throng.
So, I’l go with this for now:
The golden trees, speaking In their own bright birch tongue, dissuaded me, And sad cranes flying overhead No longer feel sorry for anyone.
Who should they feel sorry for? For еvery wanderer in the world Will pass by, call in and then leave home again. The hemp field dreams of all those who have gone While the broad moon shines over the blue pond.
Standing alone amid the bare plain, While the wind carries the cranes off into the distance, My head is full of thoughts of my happy youth, But I don’t regret a thing about my past.
No regrets for the years wasted in vain, No regrets for my soul’s lilac hue. In the garden the fire of a red rowan burns, But it can’t consume anyone.
The rowanberry clusters are not burnt, The grass will not disappear from its yellowness. As a tree silently drops its leaves, I let fall sad words.
And if time, scattering them in the wind, Rakes them all into into one useless heap, Say this…that the golden trees In their sweet tongue, dissuaded me.
Mid November marks the uprising by students of the Athens Polytechnic against the military junta in 1973. The uprising started on 14 November and was brutally suppressed by the regime three days later.
Here’s a tribute to the student rebels by the poet Niikiforos Vrettakos:
Small burial mound (17 November 1973)
Without rifle or sword, the sun shining on your foreheads, you were both heroes and poets. You are the Poem.
Stretching out, my hand can’t reach the spot where the wind of virtue carries in procession your bodies, beautiful flowers, o my children!
In the face of this Poem, silence is the only worthy response.
On his Law and Policy Blog I came across a post recently by the lawyer, David Allen Green, on the issue of who legally owns the Parthenon Marbles. It’s a topic in the news again this week with the Greek Prime Minister raising the issue with Boris Johnson during a visit to the UK to discuss bilateral relations. Johnson in typical ‘not me guv’ fashion stated that it was a matter for the British Museum: another lie! The original purchase of the marbles from Elgin was authorised by an Act of Parliament and so can only be undone with one.
On the issue of ownership, the British Museum position is simply stated as follows:
“Lord Elgin’s activities were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal.”
David Allen Green’s blog provides a link to a fascinating article by an American academic lawyer called David Rudenstine that forensically examines this issue. I will summarise the paper here because it’s a lengthy but enthralling read and it makes me regret that I did not pursue a career in the law.
In 1801 Lord Elgin, then the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople had the the marble frieze and sculptures on the Parthenon removed and taken to England. This was the beginnings of his troubles as the endeavour led him to the verge of bankruptcy. By 1816 he decided to sell the marbles to the British government to be housed in the British Museum, just when the museum was rapidly expanding its collection of Classical artefacts.
In 1816 the House of Lords set up a Select Committee to enquire into the matter. Appearing before the Committee, Elgin was asked repeatedly whether he had any documentation proving his ownership and repeatedly he said ‘ no’. He claimed instead that in July 1801 he had received a document from the Ottoman government connected with the work he was undertaking on the Acropolis that entitled him to ‘draw, model and remove [items}’ as well as excavate in specific places. He had not however kept a copy of it.
Whilst in post in Constantinople Elgin retained as a secretary / chaplain a man called Philip Hunt, responsible for liaising with Elgin’s workmen through their supervisor, an Italian painter called Giovanni Battista Lusieri. It was Hunt who urged Elgin to get a detailed agreement from the Ottomans for the work on the Acropolis.
Hunt was also called to testify to the Select Committee in 1816 and in the course of giving evidence claimed he had an Italian translation of the original Ottoman document called a firman (an imperial decree issued by the Sultan), signed by the Grand Vizier (the Sultan’s chief minister). This clinched it for the Select Committee and their report to Parliament led to the government agreeing to purchase the marbles from Elgin.
There are some striking oddities about these documents. Evidence suggests that some sort of document was issued by the Ottoman authorities in July 1801. Yet no firman on this subject has ever been found in the Ottoman archives and no record of any dealing between Elgin and the Ottoman government on the subject have ever been found in the Foreign Office files. Legal ownership of the marbles therefore turns on this Italian document.
Hunt apparently asked for a literal translation of the Ottoman document, but received a translation (my italics). It begs the question as to why the translation was into Italian, a language that neither Elgin nor Hunt spoke. Hunt’s statement that it was because Italian was the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean is frankly incredible. The document’s introduction refers to it being conveyed to Athens by ‘N.N.’ which mystified people for many years, until legal experts pointed out that this stand for ‘non nullus’, ie someone. It’s a form of words often used in draft legal documents to indicate that a name will be inserted in the final draft.
Despite the findings in the Select committee report, the Italian document is not a firman as firmans are usually issued only by the Sultan. Only the Sultan could authorise anything to do with classical monuments in Ottoman lands.
Could this Italian document be a carefully contrived forgery cooked up by Elgin and Hunt working together? There was a two week gap between Elgin’s appearance before the Select Committee and Hunt’s. In his evidence to the Select Committee though, when he was asked repeatedly about documents proving his ownership, Elgin did not mention it. This suggests that he did not know of its existence. If they had forged a document, why did they not forge something that proved Elgin’s ownership unequivocally? The Italian ‘translation’ does not do this.
David Rudenstine’s conclusion is that the Italian document is a draft that Hunt, acting on behalf of Elgin, had drafted by Pisani a dragoman (interpreter and fixer) employed by Elgin to negotiate with the Ottoman authorities. It is not a translation of the original lost Ottoman document, but a draft request for the work on the Acropolis Elgin wanted the authorities to agree to.
The implication of this is that Elgin did not have any documentation proving that he owned the marbles and that the Select Committee was wrong to accept the Italian ‘translation’ as that document. As Elgin did not therefore legally own the marbles, he could not legally sell them to the British government. Rudenstine implies that the Select Committee jumped at the Italian document as the basis of Elgin’s for ownership and therefore his right to sell the marbles, without further forensic examination of the documentation story, because they were eager to acquire the marbles to display in the British Museum.
What a shabby story of misinformation by Hunt and Elgin and of collusion by Parliament! This story will never go away until the UK hands the marbles back to the country to which they belong and rights this longstanding wrong. That day may be getting closer.
Right next to the road between the villages of Moni and Khalki on the island of Naxos and in among the olive groves stands this little church, said to be one of the oldest in the Balkans and one of the most revered churches in Greece. It seems incredible, but the oldest part of the church dates back probably to the 6th century, though the little guide to the church claims it dates from the 4th century. Dedicated to the Panagia (Our Lady) Drosiani (the one who cools), it is the only remnant of an old monastery, perhaps giving the village of Moni its name (Moni in Greek means monastery).
Architecturally, the church was built and added to over the course of about a thousand years. The oldest part is the area consisting of the apse, the sanctuary, the iconostasis and the top part of the nave. On the northern side of the church are what look like three side chapels set at an angle to the nave, probably from the 7th century. The main body of the church, the nave, dates from the 12th-14th century.
Here’s a view of the church looking towards the iconostasis and apse:
Marble iconostases, like the one here, at this early stage in the development of Byzantine church architecture were generally low, as was the original one in Haghia Sofia. It was only later that it was raised in height to obscure the view of the sanctuary from the laity.
The church is famous for a miracle-working icon of the Mother of God which is said to perspire whenever the village is at threat. I have to confess I didn’t pay much attention to it in my eagerness to look at the frescoes.
The area around the apse and sanctuary are the only part that has frescoes. What makes them so special is that they date from the period before Iconoclasm (between the early 8th and mid 9th centuries) when the Byzantium turned against the making of images. Not only that, they destroyed many existing ones; very few frescoes or icons survived. Notable examples can be found at St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt Sinai, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. But it is remarkable that this church on Naxos pre-Iconoclasm frescoes. Perhaps its isolation and distance from Constantinople enabled it to preserve them.
On either side of the top of the nave facing each other are frescoes of the military saints on horseback, St George here:
and St Demetrios:
The tympanum of the apse has a seated Christ surrounded by angels that is really hard to make out and certainly too faint to photograph (even for me).
In the sanctuary there is a beautiful Virgin holding the infant Jesus in a circle in her breast, called the Nikopoios type in Greek (meaning Victory-making):
On either side of the Virgin are roundels of the healing saints, Kosmas and Damian:
In the space beneath the apse depiction of the Virgin, it is customary to depict four saints, usually the Three Hierarchs, the great teachers of the Orthodox Church (Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian and St John Chrysostom), plus usually in Greece, St Nicholas. In this case, there is an unusual selection.
In the centre is Christ standing on a footstool:
To the left of Christ are the Virgin also standing on a footstool, with hands held out in supplication:
and next to her is what the guidebook says is Solomon holding a cross, a really strange choice. To me he looks more like a Byzantine Emperor: his imperial purple clothes are studded with pearls and he wears a pearl-encrusted crown. I don’t know how to explain the halo though. To the right of Christ is the figure of St John the Baptist and next to Christ what looks to me like a Byzantine Empress (not a female saint as the guidebook says) with a pearl and jewel-encrusted crown and pearl pendilia (pendants hanging down from the crown). Maybe she is the companion of the Emperor depicted on the left. Could they be Justinian and Theodora or Constantine and Helena?
In the dome are two very badly damaged portraits of Christ, symbolising the human and divine natures of Christ:
On one of the arches are inscriptions referring to the donors who paid for the church to be built:
The arches also have damaged full length depictions of saints, most unidentifiable, such as this female saint with a bag of healing medicines:
and this one:
This is the Holy Martyr Julian in a very badly damaged fresco:
On the north wall are these two striking head fragments:
On the south wall is a very naïve depiction of the Mother of God, looking cross-eyed:
On the north and south walls under the frescoes of SS George and Demetrios are red crosses that looks as though they may date back to the time of Iconoclasm:
Of the three side chapels, one was used as an ossuary and one as a ‘secret’ school, a church school that taught Greek to local children during Ottoman rule. The Ottomans though had a light presence on the island and left the Venetians to administer it, so it may be that this is a piece of myth-making.
I had asked the old lady guardian if I could take photographs inside the church and she quite willingly me agreed to let me do it. However, as I got to the end of shooting the frescoes, I suddenly heard her shout at me ‘Stop!’ in a very angry voice. Of course, I stopped taking photographs, but I couldn’t understand why she had suddenly turned against me.
A very old olive tree near the entrance gate to the church:
Finally, a view of the church of the Panagia Drosiani at the bottom of the valley with Mt Fanari in the background:
Recently I have been reading a few Greek poems about homes and I thought I would post my translations. These poems range over 70 years in terms of their date of publication, but there is a remarkable consistency in attitudes between them.
Homes, like people, are complex things. They can be fortresses and places of refuge. They can also be prisons, places of restriction, museums, places haunted by memories where the past is frozen in time. They generate happy memories and sad memories, joy and resentment, reminders of death and decay. They are ambivalent spaces. There is nothing inherently positive or negative about them: it is our feelings about the past and the experiences we have had in them that colour our perception of them. Their decline and dilapidation reflects our own ageing process. Houses, like us, are temporary structures.
The house by the seaby Giorgos Seferis (the first poem in a cycle entitled Thrush published in 1947)
Do not talk to me about the nightingale or the skylark or the little wagtail that writes figures in the light with its tail; I do not know much about houses I know they have their tribe, nothing else. New in the beginning like babies, playing in the orchards with the fringes of the sun, they embroider painted shutters and doors shining in the daylight; when the architect finishes, they change, wrinkling or smiling or even sulking with those who stayed, with those who left with others who would come back if they could or who were lost, now that the world has become an infinite hotel.
I do not know much about houses., I remember their happiness and their sadness. sometimes when I stop; again sometimes, by the sea, in bare rooms with an iron bedstead and nothing else of my own looking at the evening spider I think about someone preparing to come back, being dressed in white and black clothes. in multicoloured jewellery and around him respectable matrons, with grey hair and dark laces, speak softly. I think about him getting ready to come and say goodbye to me; or, about a woman with curled eyelashes and a slim waist returning from southern ports, Smyrna, Rhodes, Syracusa, Alexandria, from closed cities like warm shutters, with the scents of golden fruits and herbs, and she is climbing the steps without seeing those who have fallen asleep beneath the stairs.
Houses, you know, sulk easily when you lay them bare.
This house by Giannis Ritsos (extracts from a longer poem called Moonlight Sonata published in 1956)
This house was haunted, it drives me away – I mean it has aged a lot, nails have pulled up picture frames launch themselves as if jumping into the void, plaster is falling silently like the hat of a dead person falling from the peg in a dark hallway like the woollen glove of silence falling from its lap or like a strip of moonlight falling on the old gutted armchair.
This house no longer agitates me. I can’t stand it getting me worked up. You must always be careful, be careful to prop up the wall with the big sideboard to prop up the sideboard with the ancient carved table to prop up the table with chairs to prop up the chairs with your hands to put your shoulder under the beam that’s hanging down. And the piano, like a closed, black coffin. You don’t dare open it. Be careful of everything. be careful they don’t fall, that you don’t fall. I can’t stand it. Let me come with you…
This house, in spite of all its dead, doesn’t intend to die. It insists on living with its dead on living on its dead on living with the certainty of its death and on providing still for its dead with dilapidated beds and shelves. Let me come with you.
This house is drowning me. The kitchen in particular is like the seabed. Hanging coffee pots shine like the big, round eyes of fantastic fish plates quiver slowly like jellyfish, seaweed and shells get caught in my hair I can’t get them out again later I can’t get back up to the surface again – the tray falls silently from my hands – I collapse and I see the bubbles of my breath go up and up and I try and entertain myself by looking at them and I wonder what someone looking down from above would say seeing these bubbles, perhaps someone’s drowning or perhaps a diver is exploring the depths.
‘I don’t even know what I’m searching for’ by Tolis Nikiforou (from the collection A chalk on the blackboard published in 2012)
sometimes late in the evening I go back again to our old house and open the door in anticipation searching in the darkness I don’t even know what for
with the key still in my hand that big, iron one I pass from room to room touching, smelling and looking in each of my intangible steps in case somewhere here there is the always-warm hand of my father and brother or their protective ferociousness and that of my mother the ever-present absence in case there are here our heavy polished table ithe photograph smiling on the wall the carpet with its multicoloured patterns in case there are here the floor, the walls, the same house in case, coming through the balcony door, is the square opposite that I used to love and suddenly I realise I’m crying I’m crying hopelessly in my dream the tears make everything mist over everything the light of memory illuminates.
Apeiranthos is a mountain village on the eastern side of the island of Naxos. We were a bit put off stopping there when we saw tour buses dropping people off and so we took the road down to the tiny village of Moutsouna on the east coast. I may blog about Moutsouna separately as it was such a beautiful and peaceful village. But something that day drew us back to Apeiranthos.
Wondering around the village at lunchtime, the tour buses seemed to have disappeared and there weren’t many people in the single main street, so we drifted in and out of shops, like this one with its strange horse whip:
Of course, as it was lunchtime several museums we wanted to visit were closed, until we came upon the open Archaeological Museum. We didn’t expect much: the man on the door wasn’t bothered whether we went in, it cost 1 Euro each and the museum only consisted of a single room, dusty and in need of a tidy-up. Many of the items were in glass cases with few labels, larger ones were spread around the floor.
There was a fine collections of Roman oil lamps on a table:
Some lovely pottery from 3000BC, very modern-looking, unfortunately too difficult to photograph; weapons including obsidian blades and spearheads; bronze tools; and a huge stone bowl:
It took me a while though to spot some of the museum’s most remarkable objects. Remarkable because so unexpected. They are a series of stick men and animals carved on stone. These petroglyphs were discovered in 1962 by the man who started the museum, Mikhalis Bardanis. He found them on a hill called Koryfi t’Aroniou in the south east of Naxos and they date between 2700-2200BC.
I suppose what makes them so striking is the contrast with my expectations of what Greek art is like: beautiful products of sophisticated craftsmanship. But these items have a directness and energy that comes from their simplicity.
This is one of my favourite carvings, three figures apparently dancing together in a circle, their arms raised and at least one of them holding some sort of stick. I say dancing, but I’m interpreting that from the character on the left with one foot in the air and the position of the central character’s body indicating that he is in motion. I wonder what sounds they were moving to. Were they celebrating something or calling on their gods or spirits to help them?
Here’s one of a figure of what looks like a deer, perhaps being confronted by a hunter:
In the next one the human figure behind the deer looks as if he is putting some sort of instrument to his mouth – perhaps calling for help with stalking the animal :
Three characters look like they are attacking a deer with spears:
Two animals together, possibly deer, though they look a bit sleeker:
Another hunting scene:
One or two animals grazing?
The next one is very unusual. It looks like two men standing on a boat with a mast on the right hand side. Or perhaps they are fighting? Very hard to make it out.
Some of them are difficult to see as they are painted on the rock surface in ochre:
There are also carvings using geometrical and other shapes:
It’s all very intriguing and the museum has no other information to help us make sense of these carvings. I would love to know more about the site they came from and what they signify.
Aperiranthos is a very attractive village and it’s not surprising that it gets so many visitors.
We stop off at a kafeneio for a fresh lemon juice and that’s when I spot these two gentlemen:
Looking back from high up on Mt Zas at the village of Filoti:
Relations between church and state can sometimes be fraught, but sometimes they can also be unhealthily close. I was reminded of this when I read this articleon the site of Proekt.media entitled The Kremlin’s Elder – how the Russian government fell in love with mysticism. Proekt.media is an initiative of independent investigative journalists in Russian that has been publishing some remarkable stories about corruption and cronyism, particularly involving the circle around Putin. This month the Russian government has declared it a banned organisation, confiscated all its financial assets and declared all its journalists to be foreign agents.
I was drawn into reading the article because I recognised the photograph of the Elder referred to in the article’s title: I had seen him during my visit to the Orthodox monastery of Optina Pustyn back in 2002.
His name is Starets Iliy (Elder Elijah) and he struck me then as being a remarkable man. According to my friend Dima who took me to the monastery on pilgrimage, Elder Iliy, like many Elders at Optina and at other monasteries in Russia, has the spiritual gifts of insight and foresight. I have written about my visit to Optina Pustyna at length in the following older posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
The article depicts him as a spiritual adviser to government officials who consult him for spiritual healing and advice about their futures. Since 2009 he has also been the spiritual adviser to Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. He is very anti-Communist and brands non-believers as Satanists.
I recall from my visit to Optina Pustyn that the monastery shop sold leaflets about the dangers of non-belief, including one called Meditation – the route to hell. However possibly a more serious reason for this is the terrible event at Easter 1993 when three monks were killed by a “satanist” who broke into the grounds. He attacked and killed one monk outright with a large knife and then attacked a second who managed to give the alarm by ringing the bells. A third monk, alerted by the bells, came out to see what was happening and was also attacked and killed. All three monks are now buried next to each other in the monastery’s grounds and celebrated as ‘new martyrs of the faith’. So, you can see that for the monks who experienced this attack, unbelief can literally be a matter of life or death.
The article points out that Putin has met the Elder on several occasions and that the Elder is a big supporter, attacking opponents of the regime and asking people who visit him whether they pray for the President. It points out that this closeness to Putin is probably why other government officials frequent the Elder, as it provides another means of accessing ultimate power.
The original Russian article gives some interesting biographical information about Elder Iliy that is not translated into the English version. Born Aleksey Nozdrin, on his mother’s side of the family they were not poor, but under Stalin they were branded as kulaks and driven out of their home. His grandfather later died of hunger.
In 1941, at the start of the Second World War in Russia, his family was living in a tent. He came to Christianity through hearing a Tatar praying. There are various ‘miracles associated with his younger years. For example, in 1943 returning home from staying with his godmother, he was passed by a German vehicle that went over a bump causing a door to open and a map case to fall out. The occupants of the vehicle were so drunk they didn’t notice. The future Elder took the map case home and showed them to a Russian prisoner who looked after the Germans’ horses. This prisoner somehow passed the maps to the Russian army where they ended up in the hands of the Russian Commander, General Rokossovsky, and helped him take out Germain fortified areas during the Battle of Kursk.
Another miracle dates back to the late 1940s when he and his brother worked as hired workers and were paid in bread. At the station on the way back home the bread was stolen from them, so they returned home empty-handed. Aleksey cried and prayed for a long time in front of the Kazan icon of the Mother of God. He then went out into the street and saw on a white cloth a piping hot loaf of white bread.
After leaving school he served in the army before going to a technical college and then on to the seminary at the Church Academy in Leningrad. It was here that he got to know the future Patriarch Kirill. In the picture below, taken with fellow students at his technical college, the future Elder Iliy is standing in the back row on the right hand side:
On becoming a monk he took the name Iliyan and claimed to see devils flying through the air. In the mid 1970s he was sent to the monastery of St Pantaleimon (then a run down monastery with a few Russian monks) on Mt Athos, where he served as a confessor until the late 1980s. On his return to Russian he ‘took the great schema’, in other words he took a vow to observe the most extreme ascetic practices (the highest level of monkhood), assumed the name Iliy and became a confessor at Optina Pustyn. Many ordinary people started going to him then to ask for help and also a lot of politicians and people from the underworld. I remember seeing him at Optina Pustyn in 2002 being asailed by people seeking advice wherever he went. I thought he looked ill and very tired.
In 2009 he moved to Peredelkino to become Patriarch Kirill’s confessor / spiritual advisor. That’s when he started to attract visits from government officials. The Elder can apparently take a lighter view of his reputation as a miracle worker. One evening, popping into the church he saw several people standing around and announced in a loud voice ‘Let there be light!” To the astonishment of those standing around suddenly there was light. The Elder was standing next to the light switch.
What is it that brings together church and state in these rather unhealthy relationships? I think this is particularly the case in Orthodox countries where often religion and nationalism go hand in hand. I am sure there are many reasons for this, but two stand out for me. The first goes back to Byzantine times when the Emperor was identified as God’s representative on earth and worked in close cooperation with the head of the church, the Patriarch. The interests of church and state largely coincided. That relationship was also transmitted to Russia and lasted really up to the eve of the Revolution, though probably during the last 20 years or so of that period the Church was showing signs of wanting to reform and modernise.
In the Soviet period, the Church survived on the ground partly ‘thanks to the babushkas’ as Solzhenitsyn said, but as an institution largely through endless tortuous accommodations, and at great cost to lives and faith. In the post Soviet area, there was a thaw: churches opened up, it was no longer a stigma to go to church. The state became a great patron to the Church, giving it back some of its old privileges, building new churches, increasing the number of seminaries and monasteries. In gratitude, the Church reverted to type and supported the state, encouraging people to vote for the government.
In Greece and other Balkan countries the church is associated with national identity. All through the long years of the Ottoman occupation, it was the church in Greece that kept alive the language and culture, becoming a focus for the development of a national identity when the new Greek state emerged after the 1821 Revolution.
Although we have a Church of England, established as a deliberate act of separation by a sulking monarch, it has never become the standard bearer for English identity. Perhaps because the monarch made themselves Supreme Governor (a heavily qualified form of Head of the Church), the national identification is with the monarchy, not with the established church. Not better, just different.