Egypt’s Geniza Texts

Fragment of the Cairo Geniza

Egypt’s Geniza Texts

Darrell Sutton considers an incomparable collection 

Discoveries are sometimes made by accident, as archaeologists can readily attest. Hidden passageways can lead to welcome treasures of real historical value. This happened in the case of Howard Carter (1874-1939) and the famed Tutankhamen cache of riches found in Egypt years ago. He stumbled upon a priceless gold mask that still captivates crowds in museums around the globe when ever it is on display.

Moreover, Egypt has yielded up numerous artifacts that are useful for studying peoples of ancient times: e.g., (1) the thirteen leather bound codices of Nag Hammadi, found in upper Egypt in 1945, paved the way for new approaches to understanding the beliefs of Gnosticism in the earliest centuries of “Late Antiquity” (2) the discovery of Codex Sinaiticus at Saint Catherine’s Monastery persuaded scholars of early Christian studies to accept it as a standard critical text in transmission of the New Testament. Sinaiticus’ one practical virtue is the Syriac which shares its pages with the Greek New Testament text. Practically ready for disposal in flames at that remote monks’ residence, C. Tischendorf (1815-1874) rescued the manuscript and altered text-critical studies of the New Testament, for good and for bad.  Moreover, it is impossible to overlook the 4000 years of hieroglyphic information available in pyramid texts, coffin texts and papyri lately found in secret places along the Nile valley.

The ‘ancient Geniza’, likewise, has helped scholars to glean microscopic pieces of information from hundreds of thousands of tiny fragments. These small bits tell a great deal about the times in which Jews dwelled among Muslims and Christians of the medieval era. S.D. Goitein (1900-1985), the doyen of Geniza studies, published a multi-volume set of books (see A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, Vol. I-VI). A comprehensive understanding of the Mediterranean worlds cannot be acquired without extensive use of his research.

To begin with, concerning the meaning of the term ‘Geniza’, Hebrew literature contains a number of uses. One of its definitions in the Middle Ages means a ‘room or space (typically connected to a synagogue but not always) where useful texts, once highly regarded, were set aside and removed from public use and view’. Through the centuries, vast numbers of written texts accumulated over time were forgotten. There was no catalogue system for ancient Genizan materials. All items therein found their way into its confines by reason of the verdicts of men and women who no longer esteemed them. The systematic removal has been chronicled with detail. And a great deal of further information can be gathered by reading S.C. Reif, The Cambridge Genizah Collections: Their Contents and Significance (2002).

The importance of Genizan studies today is underscored by the massive amount of material presently being registered in the Taylor-Schechter library of Cambridge. The 1896-97 acquisition of thousands of fragments from Cairo’s Genizas has led to a reassessment of ideas concerning the middle ages. Jacques Mosseri (1884-1934) ventured around the area of Fustat and other locales in Cairo, Egypt and found valuable MSS in the Ben Ezra synagogues. This occurrence took place after Solomon Schechter’s (1847-1915) rummaging through the materials. The discovered texts comprised personal letters, commentaries on biblical texts, and shorter notes from notable Jewish and/or rabbinic figures, plus legal texts, marriage certificates, property transaction deeds and various lists which annotate purchases et cetera.

One would like to think that scholarship changed overnight, but this would be stretching the truth. Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls’, whose discovery was celebrated with such exuberance, the Geniza texts, though recognized to be of immense value, were undervalued, underappreciated and lightly esteemed by far too many biblical scholars and historians seven decades ago. It is true that the Dead Sea Scroll MSS have highlighted a number of interesting enigmas in Hebrew texts, but since their provenance is still unsettled[i] for some—their use and placement in caves near the Dead Sea remains a mystery. And with all the books on the market today, little is known of the supposed authors or maintainers of the texts, aside from speculation.

The Geniza texts, on the other hand, provide intricate insight into worlds hitherto unknown. Social contexts come alive, medieval cultural issues are brought before the eyes of a twenty-first century reading public, and changes in epigraphy, lexical diversities and anomalies are now apparent. Atop all this are the recorded interactions between various subgroups of the majority religions. To study the fragments is to read ‘what was going on’ at the time and also to see how they viewed their own sacred writings, since these texts were no longer in mainstream use, nor meant for publication.

Readers are permitted to look in on the discussions of ancient rabbis, study Islamic philosophy and culture from a Jewish perspective, while at the same time reading of the Christian authors whose writings had remained extant since the patristic era. Knowledge of the degrees of richness among the Geniza texts depends largely upon the particular field of expertise in which one labors. There are Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, and Judeo-German texts and there are Judeo-Greek documents. There are also a number of Syriac or Aramaic MSS worth investigating.

One text of note is T-S AS 139.1. It is a fragment in the Cambridge Taylor-Schechter corpus of MSS and it is a palimpsest containing a sermon by the venerable theologian, Augustine (AD 354-430). F.C. Burkitt (1864-1935) offered some reconstructive remarks on it in his note ‘Augustine-Fragments from the Cairo Genizah’ in The Journal of Theological Studies, Jan. 1916, 1, 137-138. The words have been somewhat rubbed out and overwritten by a Jewish scribe who needed the space to write a Masoretic list. The whole fragment is not in the best condition. Still, from a paleographical perspective, both the Hebrew and Latin scripts are crisp and clear. I have received some prepared notes on the fragment from the hand of Dr. Ben Outhwaite, head of the Cambridge Geniza [1]Unit. Hopefully, he will publish a complete transcription of the Masorah. From his notes it is easy to deduce that a tremendous amount of work went into the restoration of the text. All that remains to be said relates to a few points which will hopefully enlighten a reader’s mind on Middle Age thought and practice:

  1. The Latin script is dated cautiously to about the sixth century.[ii] If this date holds it will be of everlasting importance to Augustine scholars. I would not be surprised if the script is judged favorably to replicate the literary inscriptions of the late fifth century. The shape of each ligature is definitely patristic in style. At the least, what the palimpsest tells us is that Augustine’s writings were in use for devotional purposes. The careful scribbling of a portion of De Sermone Domini in Monte (The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount) proves the on-going utility of writings of arguably the most influential ancient church father who expressed himself in Latin.
  2. How this text came into Jewish hands, and eventually found its way into a Geniza, requires too much re-imagining for it to be of any value at all. Of note is the fact that a Jewish writer or scribe would have used a MS upon which Christian writing is found. Jewish precepts concerning the preparation of biblical documents were strict. In this case the strictures seem to have been relaxed, which is odd. Not only would there have been variants and alternate Hebrew renderings recorded by Jews and written on a vellum MS formerly used by Christians, but they would have been placed upon a document whose words were still legible and therefore still providing a witness to later readers of a belief in a Messiah all orthodox Jews of the middle ages categorically denied to be God’s Son. This point may seem moot, but it speaks volumes of the possible variegated conformities of some Jews to modern culture during the tenth to thirteenth centuries. And we can see that a Jewish scribe somehow, but indirectly, made Augustine’s voice resound in the Middle Ages.
  3. Looking at the columns in the fragments and comparing them to the notes made by Dr. Outhwaite, I am of the opinion that the author of the list may have either been a Masorete or somehow connected to this professional school of copyists. The famed Aleppo Codex, Keter Aram Tzova, was well known in later antiquity, in part, by the popularization of Maimonides—who made use of it at one time. The manner in which these notes are drawn up seem to imply that this scribe had access to either the variants of Shlomo Halevi ben Buya’a (c.AD 929) or to a later set of books also distributed in the era before that of Jacob ben Chayyim ibn Adonijah’s (c.1470-1538) recension. My own collation of many of these notes lead me to this conclusion.

The collections in the Cambridge Geniza unit’s treasuries deserve the notice of today’s scholars of sacred and secular studies. With interdisciplinary curriculums taking shape and spreading quickly, who, but the masters of these texts, will be able to study the features of Islam in West Asia, the Jews of the Middle East or even engage in research fields that deal with ancient Mediterranean peoples and religions.

[i] There was once a consensus theory among scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls that Qumran was a home for an all male Essenic group who used the texts/ritual documents for liturgical purposes. Archaeologist Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg’s 2007 publication, The Qumran Excavations (1993-2004) Preliminary Report, refuted many popularly held arguments regarding evidence for a ‘monkish style’ habitation in Qumran, and, like Norman Golb, they view the scrolls in the cave as a repository of Jerusalem escapees who hid the scrolls in the caves in order to prevent their destruction at the hands of the invading Romans. The latter hypothesis also is based on speculation, and is equally without evidence; even though it is more plausible than the former theory noted.
[ii] So states the Taylor-Schecter Genizah Research unit (May 2007).

Darrell Sutton is a Pastor and independent research scholar-in-residence in Red Cloud, Nebraska. He publishes poetry, literary studies on the writings of A.E. Housman and technical studies on Manilius’ Astronomica (a 1st century AD text), in addition to studies and reviews on numerous other biblical and classical themes

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We Will Bury You

Kiev Holodomor Memorial

We Will Bury You

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Anne Applebaum, Alan Lane, 2017, £25, reviewed by GERRY DORRIAN

Marx wasn’t sure what to do about the peasants. Although he railed in Capital against the “corvée” or rent-in-kind that reduced them to serfs, he had condemned them for their patriotism in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), which had emboldened Bonaparte’s nephew to finally mount a successful coup d’état. He revealed the source of his ambivalence in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) in which he situates the origin of the working classes in peasants being forced off the land and into towns through changing agricultural practices. He was right in this, but according to the system he was formulating, the Revolution would not come until all peasants were subject to industrialised economics, and the failure of the 1848 wave of revolutions that convulsed Europe strengthened his belief.

In 1895, Lenin proclaimed that “The peasantry wants land and freedom…All class-conscious workers support the revolutionary peasantry with all their mind.” However, once in power, the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” he had promised became a Dictatorship of the Proletariat that excluded almost all working-class Russians, reducing them to serfs. Every aspect of their lives was a corvée in return for something they were told was freedom.

Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine opens with the Ukrainian Revoution of April 1917, then details Lenin’s outward acceptance of Ukraine’s independence after his Russian coup that October. In the meantime, he was secretly planning “a lesson” to sap Ukraine of the will to resist his version of the Tsars’ Russification.

In the mid-1920s, grain requisitioners started a famine in Ukraine, still a largely peasant country, by following Lenin’s orders actioned by his successor, Stalin, to subordinate the wellbeing of citizens of Russia’s breadbasket to the exigencies of the State. There was little doubt that the State in question was not Soviet Ukraine but Soviet Russia.

It is difficult to know (given Trotsky’s claims that he himself had been Lenin’s intended heir) whether in the 1930s Stalin pressed Ukraine harder than Lenin would have, or whether he was carrying out Lenin’s intentions – after all, Lenin even trusted Stalin with the task of killing him should he become too infirm.

Applebaum has mined new archival discoveries by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute to produce the definitive work on the Holodomor (from Ukrainian words meaning hunger and extermination) and its consequences. Her forensic examination of the causes of the famine and its results, including people dying in the street and cannibalism, and the subsequent cover-up until the USSR fell, is all the more horrifying for its sober clarity. She draws a straight line from the Holodomor to Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1990 that led to the breakup of the USSR and, subsequently, to Putin’s adoption of Lenin’s tactic of sending troops minus national identification over the border.

Red Famine is invaluable for giving voice to the victims of Europe’s largest genocide after the Holocaust, and more besides: it shows Marxism as conditioned and patterned by its first praxis as a method of government, and so acts as a mirror of contemporary Marxist praxis as its advocates seek to consolidate its political, social and cultural hegemony. For example, Stalin added “Nazi” and “Fascist” to the vocabulary of antifascism after his non-agression pacts with Hitler and Mussolini went sour – modern Stalinist “antifascists”, likewise, see Nazis and fascists everywhere, justifying in their minds the use of any means at hand to shut down democratic debate and reduce political diversity.

Applebaum describes how students brought in to harvest grain from deserted collective farms radicalised themselves to cope with the disconnect between utopian political propaganda on one hand, and the abominable effects of the famine they saw in in villages on the other. And she quotes followers of Balitsky wondering whether, under communism, humans “will become a luminous globe consisting of head and brain only”. Today’s antifascists still channel the “cleansing power of political violence” of Vsevolod Balitsky, Stalin’s enforcer in Ukraine. We don’t now have people dying in the street but the fictitious phobias and imaginary genders springing up point to a similar fantasy process masking the gap between prefabricated meaning and reality – witness the denial that still spans whole institutions over the scale of child grooming in the UK.

The hardest hit people in Ukraine were “kulaks”. The latter were originally peasants who had become smallholders, but the term was manipulated for political purposes until it referred to any peasants who had not yet been coerced into collective farms by thugs searching their houses for grain kept to eat and to plant the next year, which was classified as theft. In the contemporary West, all free-thinkers are kulaks, as we reserve the right to draw fact-based conclusions in defiance of the collectivist political-media machine which spews prefabricated interpretations at us. Given the abuses detailed in Red Famine, we would do well to familiarise ourselves with the lengths Stalinists will go to destroy any social, cultural or national resistance to their project.

 Historian and philosopher Gerry Dorrian writes from Cambridge

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River Cottage and Old Park Hall

Old Park Hall

River Cottage and Old Park Hall

Em Marshall-Luck finds a comfortable stay near the River Cottage HQ

If attending a River Cottage course would incur a long drive, Old Park Hall is a conveniently close place to stay the preceding and / following night. Located just the other side of the A35 from River Cottage, and just half a mile or so from the town of Axminster, it is a beautiful, mainly Georgian, stone house with Gothic features and impressive wings nestling in the Devonshire hills. It is easy to miss – look out for the all-too-discreet OPH sign-board by the side of the road, and follow the winding drive to a gravelled forecourt, with glorious house on one side and casual gardens lawns, exuberant rose bushes, lavender beds, chimenea, rusting ancient metal bed-frames and scrolled iron-work table and chairs on the other. Ring the bell for entry, and one will be greeted by Daisy: friendly, jokey and extremely casually-attired when we turned up. Continue reading

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ENDNOTES, 10th November 2017

The Mule Track, by Paul Nash

ENDNOTES, 10th November 2017

In this edition: Celebrating English Song – a new release from Somm Recordings, reviewed by STUART MILLSON

Taken largely from the early-20th-century ‘English songbook’ (the music of Butterworth, Ireland, Vaughan Williams, Gurney and Warlock) Somm’s new issue – ‘Celebrating English Song’ (SOMMCD 0177) – brings together the distinguished baritone, Roderick Williams, and piano accompanist, Susie Allen (a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and also associated with the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies). Roderick Williams has made a speciality of this era and genre, memorably performing Butterworth’s poignant Housman settings about three years ago at the Proms, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. For the piano version which appears on the new recording (made in the warm, intimate setting of Rectory Farm, Noke, Oxfordshire), Williams loses none of the commanding power for which his voice is famous – delivering beautifully-shaped, clear-as-crystal words. Another great British baritone, Benjamin Luxon, also made a recording of the Butterworth sequence, for Decca, in the late 1970s, and it is interesting to compare the somewhat growly tone of Luxon – where words are sometimes hard to discern and follow – with the careful, even perfect, yet never over-emphasised enunciation of Roderick Williams. Continue reading

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The Way We Write Now

From 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Dawn of Man

The Way We Write Now

Stoddard Martin goes with the flow

The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, edited by Houman Barekat, Robert Barry and David Winters. O/R Books, 14 GBP.

A decade ago Jeff Bezos remarked that at 500 years old, the printed book had had one of the most spectacular runs of any technology ever. From stone to papyrus, etching tools to illuminating brushes, pen to typewriter, we have moved. Hot metal to digital… Those who are over, say, fifty will remember the ugly crusts of Tipp-Ex, sole means by which to rethink and correct a final version. All now consigned to the trash of time. We ponder how best to save emails, modern equivalent to posted letters – burned disc? memory stick? printing out? Yet even email is going the way of old foolscap. What does one do with telegraphic missives on Messenger, let alone WhatsApp? Whose child at college answers the equivalent of Dad’s old-style weekly epistle? Whither the best of Byron, his correspondence, in the gone-tomorrow media of this new age?

Gutenberg is not wholly dead – books still proliferate in print – yet old tech is surely drifting from its pre-eminence. Who under thirty pays for ‘content’? And what is the value of ‘paywalls’ if they restrict research to an (un)happy few with access to academic accounts? So Lauren Elkin inquires in her wise contribution to this anthology. Continue reading

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Oakeshott’s World View, Part 2

Umberto Boccioni (1913), Dynamism of a Cyclist

Oakeshott’s World View, Part 2

Noel O’Sullivan (ed) The Place of Michael Oakeshott in Contemporary Western and Non-western Thought, Imprint Academic, 2017; £19.95; pbk; 197 pages, reviewed in three parts by ALLAN POND

[This collection includes some of the papers given at the 2015 conference of the Michael Oakeshott Association held at Hull University plus some papers not presented to the conference but on the same theme of the conference which also lends its title to the book.]

The individualism that Oakeshott esteems is traced by Coates, in his contribution, to a much older tradition in Western thought that comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition that stresses creativity and new beginnings which Coates contrasts with the tradition of Greek rationalism; the creative is versus the rationalist. This he believes gives a unity to Oakeshott’s oeuvre which otherwise can appear disparate and even discontinuous. The world is not pre-existent nor is its facticity unproblematic but rather is created through our engagement with it and it is this creative sense of being in the world which, from the beginning, Oakeshott insists is what makes for us a ‘world’ of experience. Everything is a contingency rather than a pattern of cause/effect, what Oakeshott calls ‘the poetic’ nature of human activity. And his political theory, the non-purposive civil association, where people are joined not in a common enterprise or because of a shared view of the world, but through an agreement to abide by a set of laws that are unspecific about substantive purpose but merely enjoin adherence to their own prescriptions – not to light fires ‘arsonically’ as he once described it, instantiates this idea of a creative as well as contingent relationship in terms of res publica. Continue reading

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Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas

BILL HARTLEY salutes a Hollywood hero

Very few stars from the great days of Hollywood are still with us. One who is and who has entered his eleventh decade is Kirk Douglas, who on December 9th celebrates his 101st birthday. Given his long and hugely successful career it seems strange that his centenary wasn’t marked by a season of his pictures on one of the television channels. There are many which would make a refreshing change from the usual fare served up, since they date back to the era of great film dramas backed up by high quality scripts.

Despite this a straw poll among colleagues who span a range of ages reveals that for the majority it is his action man roles for which Douglas is best remembered. The two mentioned most often were, The Vikings (1958) and of course Spartacus (1960). Both are excellent pictures and a good way of passing a wet Saturday afternoon, which is when they seem to crop up most often on television. In his prime, Douglas had the physique for these roles and he was effective alongside those other macho actors of his era Burt Lancaster (with whom he collaborated on seven occasions) and, of course, John Wayne. Continue reading

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Poland, Defending Christendom

Poland, Defending Christendom

Gregory Slysz gives us chapter and verse

Leftist commentators in both Poland and abroad have expressed bafflement and alarm about the current position adopted by the Polish government on a host of cultural and political issues. Its refusal to receive thousands of Islamic migrants in breach of the EU’s migrant relocation programme and its reforms to the post-communist judiciary have elicited accusations of impending tyranny and dictatorship not to mention threats of EU sanctions. Has all this finally revealed Poland’s incompatibility with Western culture? Has its pretence of being part of the Western world been shattered? Yet once the finger pointing is put aside a more complex scenario emerges that harbours insights not only into Poland’s national identity but also into the future of Western civilisation itself. Could these accusations be turned on their heads? Has not Poland, through its steadfast defence of its sovereignty and Christian heritage, a greater claim to being a champion of the West’s cultural legacy than its self-proclaimed liberal defenders? Here one can add other Eastern European states, including Russia, which are also increasingly at odds with contemporary cultural trends and agendas in the West.

As Western liberal establishments grapple with the self-inflicted disasters of their post-modernist and multicultural experiments, they wax lyrical about the importance of preserving Western values in a bid to avoid societal disintegration. Of course, none among them can agree on what these values actually are, given that everything is considered relative. The key problem that they face is that what once passed for universal Western values was rooted in the Judeo-Christian inheritance of moral certainly, faith, family and national heritage. Attempts to recast these values in secular garb focus on commercial-juridical-technical elements to the exclusion of religion.[1]

However, shorn of its religious roots, the Judeo-Christian heritage is an empty shell. And the more that Western societies stray from their founding principles the more civilizational division is reinforced, as is so evident, between the nation-states of Eastern and Western Europe, as well as within western European societies amid tension between traditionalists and cultural relativists.

The rapid development of both horizontal and vertical tensions in Western civilisation during the post-cold war period was not foreseen by commentators committed to the virtuousness of the Western heritage. In his seminal Foreign Affairs article in 1993 ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’, Samuel P. Huntington stated unequivocally that ‘The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural … The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.’[2] Although Huntington was broadly correct, he overestimated the cultural homogeneity of ‘western civilisation’ while he underestimated the role that ideology would play as a socio-political determinant in the post-Cold War world.

It was certainly true, as Huntington stated, that people’s cultural and religious identity in Eastern Europe would be heightened in the absence of the ideological constraints of the Soviet order. What has jarred with his thesis has been the hostile redirection of this renewed sense of identity against contemporary mainstream Western values. Indeed, Huntington’s claim that the disappearance of ‘the ideological division of Europe’ would reinstall a historical cultural fault line ‘between Western Christianity, on the one hand, and Orthodox Christianity and Islam on the other’ has not transpired as he envisaged. The main reason for this lies in the proactive adoption by Western governing elites of cultural Marxism, known popularly as political correctness. It is no surprise that these values, especially in the domain of sexual identity politics, are far removed from what even Soviet block leaders considered unpalatable.

In a further ironic twist, while Western governments have adopted a radical ideology in opposition to their historical inheritance, Russia has become one of the staunchest defenders of Judeo-Christian socio-cultural values against the transgressions by its erstwhile Cold War foes. Given this role reversal, it would seem appropriate to shift Huntington’s civilizational fault line in Europe further to the West, positioning it on the Order-Neisse line rather than on the borders of the Orthodox world. At the Valdai Forum in September 2013, Vladimir Putin highlighted the growing cultural chasm between the West and Russia. He emphasised Russia’s Christian revival while stressing the West’s civilizational crisis whereby ‘many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan’.

Putin decried the fact that ‘European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations [and yet they] are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis’.[3] These claims, which Putin revisits on a regular basis, could be dismissed as the political posturing of a former KGB operative were it not for the fact that Russia is experiencing a huge religious revival, with 86% of Russian people, according to a recent Levada poll, affiliating with Orthodoxy to some degree.[4] It is a view echoed by senior Orthodox clerics such as the Oxford educated renowned theologian and head of External relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hilarion, who at a recent conference in London on the ‘Christian future of Europe’, expressed alarm at the ‘transformation in the religious and ethnic landscape of Europe’, noting ‘an opposite trend in the Eastern European countries, in particular in Russia’ [5] It is a national mind-set that should resonate loudly in Poland, which is increasingly confronting the type of cultural imperialism that Putin alluded to, being regularly pressured by Western institutions to abandon its religio-cultural values, in favour of liberal social norms on a host of issues such as abortion.

A Russo-Polish rapprochement, which mutual cultural proximity would suggest is possible, is being hampered however by the current antagonism between the two countries. For the situation to change, conditions need to be reset. For one, Poles need to reject claims that Moscow’s policy in Ukraine represents a new era of Russian revanchism, and understand that the notion of ‘Russian aggression’, which their leaders continually parrot, has been devised in foreign climes, which use Poland as a spring-board for their anti-Russia foreign policy. The West’s regime-change strategy in Ukraine, which sought to undermine closer Russo-Ukrainian economic cooperation as well as threaten Russia’s access to the Black Sea, was the latest in a long list of provocations against Russia marked notably by the expansion of Nato to the Russian border.[6] Moscow’s swift reaction cannot in any way be taken as a precursor to a territorial aggrandisement strategy that would serve no strategic purpose.

Secondly, there needs to be a conscientious re-visiting of history in both Poland and Russia. Crucially, Russia needs to de-couple its contemporary identity from that of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s bewailing, implicit or otherwise, of the demise of the Soviet state is an affront to the millions of Russian victims of Soviet authorities as well as to Russia’s great Christian cultural heritage that was so wantonly vandalised, but also to countries like Poland for which the Soviet imperial legacy was so tragic. In Poland, conversely, there needs to be a recognition that Poles were not always the victim of Russia’s aggression but were frequently the aggressors which ultimately provoked a decisive Russian riposte in the nineteenth century at the expense of Polish independence. In this instance, Sergei Lavrov’s recent observation that the Polish public is being ‘brainwashed  into holding ‘unequivocally anti-Russian’ attitudes and that history is being re-written so as to ‘pin the blame for all of Poland’s misfortunes on [Russia]’ has merit, as does his conclusion that there is no evidence that Poles have a hostile predisposition toward Russia.[7] At the same time, Poles need to remind themselves that their historical experiences with their Western neighbours have consisted of a catalogue of deceit and betrayal of their cause of national independence, from Napoleon’s cynical exploitation of Poland’s interests during his Russian adventure to Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s notorious betrayal at Yalta, with much in between.

These experiences have certainly dampened enthusiasm among Poles for things Western. Despite the media frenzy at the time that sought to confirm Poland’s ‘Western’ credentials, Poland’s joining the European Union (EU) in 2004, which many Poles are increasingly regretting, especially the youth,[8] was not rooted in the integrationist agenda. Rather, it was partly a desire for western consumerism after decades of socialist austerity and, in a very large part, fear of a resurgent Russia, which weighed heavily on long-standing collective national memories of national subjugation stretching back to the Partition of the nineteenth century at the hands of Russia, Prussia and Austria. Yet it was precisely these experiences that rendered Poland incompatible with any supra-national integrationist agenda. With the total disappearance of the Polish state in the 1830s came a re-definition of the Polish national identity. Having no state of its own, the Polish nation came to be identified with the principle of jus sanguinis (the right of blood) that was determined by a combination of ethnic, historical and linguistic factors, and not by the principle of jus soli (the right of soil), as is standard in the West, which determines someone’s nationality by the place of his birth. Abandoning their more inclusive outlook towards foreigners during the golden age of Polish statehood in the sixteenth century, when, as masters of their own fate, they shared their state with many other nationalities, Poles now saw that the jus sanguinis principle was the only alternative to enforced Germanisation and Russification.

This mentality is difficult to shift, even in these more fruitful times. In fact, it is strengthening, especially among the youth, in direct contrast to trends in Western Europe and elsewhere in the West. The socially conservative, religio-nationalist ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), which in 2015 scored the biggest victory of any party in post-communist Poland, relied heavily on the youth vote[9] while nationalist marches, which in the West attract a few hundred participants, in Poland attract hundreds of thousands, in which youth groups like Młodzież Wszechpolska (All-Polish Youth) are highly active.[10] Only within this historical context can it be understood why three quarters of Poles reject the influx of refugees from Asia and Africa[11] and why the PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński could state during the election campaign, and be electorally rewarded for it,  that migrants carry ‘all sorts of parasites and protozoa, which … while not dangerous in the organisms of these people, could be dangerous here’. [12]

Poland’s ethno-nationalism, similarly, is determining the government’s defiance of the EU over its judicial reforms which Brussels claims break the rule of law by denying tenure to judges voted in by the antecedent parliament but which Warsaw insists are constitutionally legal, designed to purge Poland of political appointees. Threats of EU political and economic sanctions have failed to dent the government’s resilience in defending what it regards as a matter of national sovereignty. The moderate levels of active internal opposition to the government that manifests itself primarily in street protests by the so-called Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), an eclectic mix of liberal-leftist forces, has similarly had no effect on the government’s electoral support. With a government determined to implement its agenda, come what may, KOD increasingly looks to be less about defending democracy and more about preserving the privileges of the corrupt post-communist elite, as its critics always suspected and which the government, with its far-reaching socio-economic reforms, plans to remove. Talk of coups akin to that which toppled the Yanukovych regime in Ukraine, have been exposed as mere bravura by the Left, which as in the US in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory and in the UK after Brexit, finds it difficult to accept electoral defeat.

Speaking at the recent European Forum for New Ideas in the Polish Baltic resort town of Sopot, Elżbieta Bieńkowska, EU Commissioner for the internal market and Poland’s former deputy prime minister in the defeated liberal government of Civic Platform (PO), noted with exasperation that Poland now presents ‘a greater danger for the EU than Brexit’[13] for its disobedience of EU diktats. Hyperbole aside, she has a point. History has taught Poles many bitter lessons, chief among which is instinctively to suspect system-builders and if necessary to resist them. Donald Trump was politically astute in the words he chose in Warsaw, when he addressed huge crowds against the backdrop of the memorial to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. In declaring that ‘The people of Poland, the people of America, and the people of Europe still cry out “We want God” … We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the centre of our lives’,[14] he was both warning against those who ‘threaten to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are’ and validating Poland’s enduring commitment to these values. The implication was not lost that Poland was now one of the staunchest custodians of these values in the face of determined opposition against them.

Adherence to a regimented state system, which seeks to undermine its national identity for the sake of some alleged common good, is alien to Poland’s national character. Saddling the Polish cow, as Stalin once remarked and as history has repeatedly demonstrated, is a precarious and futile exercise. The failed attempts to do so serve as lessons to those who seek to re-invent the Polish nation so that it reflects the latest political fashion of far away places. They will discover quickly that their efforts will amount to nothing. And with populist rebellion sweeping the Western world, perhaps history is moving in Poland’s direction.

Statue of Cecil Rhodes, Oriel College, Oxford

Dr Gregory Slysz studied History at Oxford University. He lectures in History and International Relations


[1] See for instance, N. Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest, (Penguin, 2012)
[2] S. Huntington, ‘The clash of civilizations?’, Foreign Affairs, summer 1993, Vol.72
[3] TRANSCRIPT: [Putin at] Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club [partial transcript] September 20, 2013, Johnson’s Russia List,, accessed, 23 September, 2017
[4] Религиозность , 18.07.2017,, accessed, 23 September, 2017
[5] ‘The presentation by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk at the Christian future of Europe conference’, 23 September, 2017,, accessed, 29 September, 2017.
[6] For an excellent and objective study of the Ukrainian crisis, see R. Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, (I.B. Taurus, 2016). 
[7] ‘Busting the Myth of Poles’ ‘Naturally Occurring Russophobia’, Sputnik International, 2 September,2017, accessed, 17 September, 2017
[8] ‘Polish views of the EU: the illusion of consensus’, Stefan Batory Foundation, January, 2017,…/Polish%20views%20of%20the%20EU.pdf, accessed 29 September, 2017
[9] ‘Why Central Europe’s youth roll right: the appeal of a new anti-establishment nationalism takes root among the newest voters in Visegrad countries’, Politico, 10/24/16,, accessed, 22 September, 2017
[10] ‘150,000 Polish Nationalists march against Muslim immigration’,, accessed 27 September, 2017.
[11] Stosunek do przyjmowania uchodźców, CBOS, April, 2017,, accessed, 22 September 2017
[12] ‘Migrants carry ‘parasites and protozoa,’ warns Polish opposition leader’, Politico,, accessed, 23 September, 2017
[13] ‘POLITICO Brussels Playbook, presented by EPP Group: Indian summit — Bieńkowska goes nuclear — Catatonic cash crunch in Catalonia’,, accessed 1 October, 2017
[14] Full Text of Donald Trump’s Speech in Poland, NBC News, 6 July, 2017, accessed, 29 September, 2017


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Mourning Sickness

Mourning Sickness

 Lucia di Lammermoor; tragic opera in three acts, music composed by Gaetano Donizetti, libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor, directed by Katie Mitchell, conductor Michele Mariotti, Royal Opera, 30th October 2017, reviewed by LESLIE JONES

Jealousy and a thirst for bloody revenge were evidently family characteristics at Ravenswood Tower. For as Lucia herself informs us, a Ravenswood once stabbed his sweetheart to death at the Fountain of the Siren. Indeed, the poor girl’s ghost continues to haunt Lucia as does the ghost of her mother. This production is something of a “Gothic nightmare”, to quote Mary Ann Smart’s apt phrase in the official programme (‘Case Study or Gothic Nightmare?’)

Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto cried out for a feminist interpretation, although, as Diana Wallace observes, the “persecuted heroine” was already a well established trope (official programme, ‘Gothic Histories and Gothic Heroines’). Evidently men use and abuse women and ultimately drive them mad. The intrepid Edgardo, the Master of Ravenswood, once saved Lucia from a raging bull. Continue reading

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A Farewell to Patriarchy

Man in Restraint Chair

A Farewell to Patriarchy

Women vs Feminism: Why We All Need Liberating from the Gender Wars, Joanna Williams, 2017, Emerald Publishing, 318pp., paperback, £14.99, reviewed by Ed Dutton

The sexual harassment scandal surrounding the film maker Harvey Weinstein has placed women’s rights squarely in the spotlight. The ‘Me too’ campaign, which has been spread across social media, seems to imply that women need ‘feminism’ more than ever. They are, at best, victims of testosterone-fuelled micro-aggressions: being stared at, leered at, objectified – in a way that would never happen if they were men. The feminist fight for equality will never be won until precisely these kinds of sexist behaviours are banished to the past.

However, in Women vs Feminism, education lecturer Joanna Williams insists, au contraire, that ‘There’s never been a better time to be a woman’ and that today’s feminism has nothing to do with achieving quality, because a calm analysis of the statistics indicates that it has already been pretty much achieved. Modern day feminism, Williams argues, is a totalitarian ideology, through which its proponents aim to achieve power. Continue reading

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