Saturday, 29 January 2011

Veneto - Regarding the Body of the African Saint

John Ruskin, the famous 19th century art critic, famously described Venice's Basilica San Marco as a 'treasure heap'.  He meant it as a compliment, but the use of the word 'heap' is unusual in this context and suggests a carelessness that is alarmingly casual in a city that is famous for its aestheticism.  I imagine that Ruskin was also alluding to the fact that almost everything of value in the Basilica San Marco was robbed by the Venetians, during the centuries when they dominated and colonised the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean Sea. 

The bodysnatchers of Alexandria

The first church on the site of the Basilica was built to house the body of St Mark, which was stolen by Venetian merchants from its original resting place in Alexandria in Egypt.  Not having existed in Roman times, Venice lacked the religious sites or relics of other cities in the Roman Empire.  The theft of St Mark's body provided the Venetians with an important symbol for their city and a relic that was second-to-none!  If you believe the myths surrouding the event, the merchants smuggled the body past the guardians of the church, by covering it in slabs of pork, knowing that the Jewish and Muslim officials of Alexandria wouldn't search a container full of pig's meat.  To be honest, this sounds like an embellishment to the story, most likely added in later centuries, as European colonies in the East were being invaded by the Muslim Ottoman Turks. 

The first Basilica burnt to the ground in 976, but 'miraculously' St Mark's body reappeared in time for the consecration of the new Basilica almost a century later!  St Mark became the patron saint of Venice, displacing the previous, Byzantine saint, St Theodore.  The adoption of St Mark very much symbolised Venice's independence, as St Mark was neither a Roman nor a Byzantine saint.  Mind you, he wasn't the only saint who turned up in Venice - there was also St Nicholas of Myra (modern-day Demre in Turkey), whose body was robbed by sailors from Bari and brought to the south of Italy.  According to some accounts, his remains ended up in the church of San Nicolò al Lido in Venice.  St Nicholas wasn't just the original Santa Claus (see my earlier blogpost on this) but was also the patron saint of sailors, an important symbol for a sea-faring republic like Venice. 

The significance of relics

It find it fascinating that people would travel for miles in medieval times, to see the relics of their favourite saint.  I guess, it was a medieval version of 'celeb' culture and, to a certain extent, it's a tradition we continue in modern times (hands up who's been to see Jim Morrisson's grave in Paris?).  I guess it all started with visiting the saints tomb and then, as Christianity spread to the far reaches of Europe and the tombs were far away in the Middle East, crusaders and adventurers, like the Venetian merchants, took to robbing the saints bodies and bringing them back to a more convenient location. 

Many saints were associated with miracles and, I guess, people believed that the presence of their bones would either lead to more miracles or, at the very least, bring fortune and protection to the cities where the saints bodies were enshrined.  Often you didn't need a whole saint to make your church sacred, an arm or a leg would do!  A mania for religious relics swept through medieval Europe, so that any religious settlement worth its name, needed to have the relic of a revered saint, that pilgrims would be able to visit. 

Protecting their Christian heritage

One of the excuses for stealing the bodies of St Mark and St Nicholas was that the Venetians and others were protecting their Christian heritage from the growing influence of Islam.  This became even more important with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks and the conquest of lands in the Eastern Roman Empire.  Venice became a major departure point for Crusaders, on their way to the Middle East, who plundered cities in the Holy Land and brought back religious 'souvenirs' of their escapades. 

The publication of Golden Legends by the Genoese archbishop, Jacobus de Voragine, in the 13th century, caught the imagination of the medieval world so that, before long, every cathedral in Europe claimed to have a piece of the True Cross, the blood, arms, knees, elbows or feet of various saints or the various implements and clothing belonging to Jesus Christ (one of the biggest prizes of all!)  The relic that I find most bizarre is the veneration of the Holy Prepuce (ie. Christ's foreskin) - at one stage, in medieval Europe, there were no less than 18 Holy Prepuces doing the rounds!

The Shroud of Turin by Gilberto Viciedo
 To this day, the Catholic Church recognises the existence of relics and has even categorised them as First Class relics (things relating to Jesus, or the bones of saints), Second Class relics (objects that were worn or used by the saints) and Third Class relics (objects, usually pieces of cloth, that have come into contact with first or second class relics).  I'm sure every Catholic home in Ireland has a string of rosary beads, a picture of Christ or some other object that was blessed by Pope John Paul II when he visited Ireland in 1979.  Although I'm in no way religious, like any good Irish Catholic boy, I still carry the holy medal my mother gave me, in my wallet!

I guess what I'm getting at is the idea that relics are still relevant in the modern world.  The most famous case in modern times is the Turin Shroud.  The subject of numerous books, documentaries and scientific tests, it's an issue that remains controversial and divides the opinions of believers and non-believers.  Even more recently than that, the Turkish government has asked for the restoration of St Nicholas' body, to its original resting place in Myra (Demre), stating that this was what St Nicholas would have wanted (although I've no doubt they have an eye on the pilgrim dollar, all the same!)

The Reformation: a return to basics

The Crypt, St Wulfram's in Grantham
 The French theologian, John Calvin, claimed that there were enough pieces of the True Cross in Europe to fill a ship!  With the Reformation came a return to basics in the new Protestant churches.  One of the main differences between the Protestant and Catholic faiths is that the Protestants viewed icon-relic-saint worshipping as idolatry and superstition.  I guess, as the religious mood changed across Europe, the fad for relics eventually waned.  I'm not sure how many churches in Ireland and Britain claimed to have relics, but I remember my visit to St Wulfram's church in Grantham (see my blogpost about this) which claimed to have hosted the arm of this important 7th century saint. 

Relics in other religions

I also remember when I lived in Thailand, visiting a religious site which was built around the footprint of Buddha.  Like Jesus, relics of Buddha exist in many countries and, similarly, serve the purpose of providing a focal point for local people, far removed from the original sites that are significant to the development of their religion.  Whether or not Buddha actually visited Thailand is not really the point - people travel from all over the country to pay their respects. 

Relics remain important to Orthodox Christians and are still venerated by Orthodox churches, such as those in Greece and Russia.  Icons are very important in the Russian Orthodox Church and are carried in religious processions.  Also, the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul houses some of the most important relics of the Muslim world, including the Prophet Mohammed's cloak and sword.  I was really impressed when I visited these relics, both by the serious atmosphere in the reliquary and the continuous chanting of the Qu'ran in the background. 

I'm sure a lot of you, who are reading this blog, will have had some experience with relics.  Don't forget to share your experiences with me, by using the Comment box below.

Image credits:

The image of the flag of Veneto was provided copyright-free on Wikimedia, the original image having been supplied by wikuser Vajotwo with this derived version being added by wikiuser Flanker - you can see a more detailed description of this image at

The image of St Mark was created by wikiuser Lanternix who has released it into the public domain - you can see more information at the file's description page

The image of the Shroud of Turin created through a mosaic of flowers is by flickruser Gilberto Viciedo who is originally from Cuba, but now lives in Miami.  Gilberto has created a website to help photographers who are interested in photomosaics.  Thanks Gilberto for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons License. 

The image of the crypt in St Wulfram's Church in Grantham was taken by me, during my Ancaster walk in 2009.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Veneto - Benvegnùo!

This is my 100th blogpost on Learning about the World!  It feels quite apt to be starting a new place with this post and I'm really looking forward to learning more about the Veneto in the coming weeks.  I hope you are too!

Veneto is an interesting place in the sense that, although nowadays it's part of Italy, this is only a recent state of affairs and the Veneto, in its former guise - the Venetian Republic - was an independent state for around 1,000 years.  A very powerful state, at that.  It's sort of odd that the Veneto didn't end up existing as a country in its own right in the 20th century and I get the feeling that regional identity is incredibly strong in this 'corner of Italy'.  I'm sure most locals see themselves as Venetians first and Italians second (if at all).

Like neighbouring Lombardy, it's one of the wealthiest Italian regions, famous for its textile and fashion industries, but also made wealthy by the 60 million tourists who visit every year.  Of course, Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic, the City of Masques, the Old Lady of the Lagoon is famous the world over.  It's definitely an iconic city and, like Paris and Athens, is used as a standard for cities the world over.  I used to live in the Venice of the East, Bangkok, but there are other Venices of the East, including Osaka, Udaipur and Basra!  There is also the Venice of the North, St Petersburg or, if you prefer, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Hamburg or even . . . Birmingham?

Piazza San Marco by Scott Ingram
 But the Veneto is not all about Venice, it's also got the Dolomites and Lake Garda, not to mention the UNESCO heritage sites of Verona, Vicenza and Padua.  The region is only slightly smaller than Wales and, perhaps surprisingly, Venice has a relatively small population (about a quarter of a million), which makes it about the same size as Swansea!  For my American readers, the Veneto is about the size of New Jersey and Venice is comparable in size to Newark.  The Veneto is made up of seven provinces, including:

Venice - phenomenally sited in the middle of a lagoon, the city seems to have been built out of desperation, in an attempt to escape the invasions of the Goths from the north of Europe.  The wonder of Venice's existence has inspired artists, writers and myth makers throughout the centuries. 

Verona - on the other hand, has been around since Roman times and was the original 'capital' of the region.  It's famous for its amphitheatre where open-air operas are staged every summer.  It's also the setting for Shakespeare's version of Romeo and Juliet

Vicenza - is the industrial heartland of the Veneto.  It's suffered a lot in recent years, due to the decline in the steel and textile industries.  Unemployment is at an all-time high.  Interestingly, Sonia Gandhi was born in the Vicenza region - she met her husband Rajiv whilst she was working as a waitress in Cambridge, where Rajiv was studying engineering. 

Treviso - is the heart of the Veneto's fashion industry and the headquarters of the Benetton Group

Padua - is home to one of the world's oldest universities.  It was also the setting for Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

Rovigo - is in the very south of the Veneto and is a swampy wetland that contains the delta of the River Po.

Belluno - is the mountainous northern province.  It's the most sparsely populated province in the Veneto and is well-know for its production of (eye) glasses.

I visited the Veneto in 2003, spending a few days in Verona, which was an impressive city.  I saw Verdi's Nabucco performed in the Roman amphitheatre, which was one of the most amazing experiences ever!!  I also visited Venice, which was incredibly beautiful, despite the throngs of tourists.  I just happened to be there during the famous Biennale and, although I'm not usually a massive fan of modern art, I found the exhibition fascinating and would love to go back sometime (maybe this year!). 

As usual, I've got some books and movies lined up, I'm definitely going to delve into Opera music and, most of all, I look forward to trying my hand at Venetian cuisine!  I hope you'll join me, as I learn about the Veneto. 

Image credits:

The image of the flag of Veneto was provided copyright-free on Wikimedia, the original image having been supplied by wikuser Vajotwo with this derived version being added by wikiuser Flanker - you can see a more detailed description of this image at

I found the amazing image of Piazza San Marco on flickr and this is provided copyright-free by flickruser Scott Ingram Photography - Scott is a self-proclaimed technogeek from Denver, Colorado and has some amazing images on his flickrstream, the most recent being a series of images from Hawaii.  You can visit Scott's flickrstream at and you can also visit his website

The image of the Provinces of Veneto was taken from Wikimedia Commons.  It was created by Wikiuser NormanEinstein and is distributed using the Creative Commons License.  You can see the description page of this file at

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Urals Federal District - До свидания, ребята, до скорой встречи!

So, my time blogging about the Urals has come to an end.  As usual, I've learned a lot more than I've had time to blog about and I've touched on themes that I haven't had time to explore further.  As is tradition, in my final blogpost about the Urals, I'm going to summarise some of the other things I learned during my research into this region of Russia.

I learned about the American spy, Gary Powers, whose plane was shot down over the Urals in the 1960's.  I learned about Uralmash, the heavy machinery factory in Ekaterinburg and about the Cossack motorcycles, which the Urals region is famous for, manufactured in Irbit, Sverdlovsk Oblast.  I learned that part of the Hermitage's collection of Art was evacuated to Ekaterinburg in July 1941 and that an estimated 25,000 people were killed in Ekaterinburg during Stalin's rule.

I learned that the Ural mountains are actually quite low-lying, never rising above 2,000 metres.  I learned that Catherine is the patron saint of miners and that Chelyabinsk was nicknamed 'tank city'.

I learned that the famous bard, Okudzhava, was born in Nizhny Tagil.  I also learned that Nizhny Tagil has several maximum security prisons and that, on release from prison, prisoners aren't given an onward ticket, so they often settle in the town.  I learned that a mass grave was found in Nizhny Tagil in 2007, containing the bodies of some 30 local women who'd been forced into prostitution by local gang members.

I learned about Siberian orange snow.  I learned that Tyumen, the capital of villages, was the birthplace of the famous American composer, Irving Berlin and that one of Tyumen's main streets is named in honor of Maurice Thorez, who was leader of the French Communist Party for a good part of the 20th century.

Tobolsk by Clurross

I learned that Tobolsk used to be the capital of the whole of Siberia and was the first town to be settled in the 'wild east'.  I learned that Khanty-Mansiisk, capital of the Khanty-Mansi Autnomous Okrug, has become something of a boom town in recent years and that Norman Foster has been commissioned to design a skyscraper for the city. 

I learned that Salekhard, the capital of Yamalia, means 'house on the peninsula' and is the only town in the world that is situated right on the Arctic circle.  I learned that Surgut, the oil capital of Russia, means 'fish hole' in Khanty language and that the two biggest cities in Yamalia were only founded in the 70's - Novy Urengoy (1975) and Noyabrsk (1977). 

During the time I've been blogging about the Urals Federal District, news from Russia has, perhaps somewhat predictably, been mostly about spies and aviation accidents, with media speculation in December about the Russian aide to LidDem's MP for Portsmouth South, Mike Hancock, as well as the news of Kolavia flight 348 bursting into flames at Surgut airport on the 1st of January 2011.  On board the plane were members of the Russian 'boyband' Na-Na. 

I also had the opportunity to catch up on some Russian movies that I hadn't seen before, mainly Brat and Brat 2, both directed by Sverdlovsk-born Aleksei Balabanov.  The movies are classically Russian, telling the story of a gormless, but likeable ex-soldier and his attempts to establish some kind of justice in the criminal underworlds of post-communist Petersburg and Moscow.  In the second movie, the plot moves to America and it's interesting to see 'land of hope and glory' through Russian eyes.  I found Brat 2 to be more than a little bit racist, but I understand the way Russians see the world and how their intentions can be misunderstood by a culture (the West) which is incredibly different to theirs.

I really enjoyed both movies, as they capture the innocence of Russia's interaction with the late-20th century capitalist world, but they're also realistic about the dangers of criminal gangs and the sense of isolation felt by many Russians in the new society they suddenly find themselves in.  Sadly, the main actor in Brat and Brat 2, Sergei Bodrov Junior, was killed in a landslide whilst filming in the Caucasus in September 2002.  I'm going to leave you with the trailer for the original movie, to give you a taster of what the movie is like. 

Next up:  V for . . .

Image credits:

The image of Tobolsk is by flickuser clurross who is a Glasgow native.  See more of her images on her photostream.  Thanks to clurross for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons License. 

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Urals Federal District - was Rasputin bi-curious?

So much has been written about Rasputin and his murder that it's hard to find a new angle on the events surrounding his life and death. In his book, The Murder of Rasputin Greg King focuses on Rasputin's most famous assassin, Prince Felix Youssoupov and speculates on the nature of their relationship, adding a new theory that Rasputin and Felix Youssoupov may have had a physical relationship of some kind.

Greg King has written several books about the Romanovs and seems to have a fascination with the shadier or more eccentric royals, also having written about Ludwig II of Bavaria and Wallis Simpson, the divorcee from Pennsylvania who married Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII. He's certainly found an interesting subject in the Youssoupovs and, although I'd known a bit about Rasputin before I started researching for this blog, I'd never heard of Felix Youssoupov and his involvement in Rasputin's murder.

The mad monk from Siberia

Grigori Rasputin was born into a peasant family in a small village called Pokrovskoye in Tyumen region, which is now part of the Urals Federal District. In one of those strange ironies of Rasputin's life and death, the Romanov family were also killed in the Urals, just outside Ekaterinburg, fulfilling a prophecy he'd made that they would pass through his village of birth before they died. If Rasputin were alive today, he would, no doubt, have his own cult, like the modern-day Vissarion, ex-policeman turned Messiah, who heads up the Church of the Last Testament in Sun City near the Siberian town of Minusinsk.

As Rasputin discovered religion and his newfound role of prophet, he was influenced by fringe sects in the Orthodox Church, such as the Skopsty, who believed that man could, through prayer, become equal to God and the masochistic Khlysty who believed in spiritual enlightment through humiliation of the flesh, by whipping (the Russian for whip is хлыст khlyst) or through sexual humiliation in group orgies.

Rasputin is probably most (in)famous for his immense sexual appetite (and, by all accounts, the size of his 'talent'!). I suspect that his involvement with the Khlysty sect was a way of reconciling his genuine religious fervour, with the carnal desires that he found so hard to control. Something I didn't know about Rasputin was that he claimed that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him in a vision and instructed him to walk to the Orthodox Holy Land of Mount Athos in Greece, which he did, a distance of about 2,400 miles!

Although Rasputin's name is believed to have been a genuine birth name, it's interesting that the word распутье rasputye means 'a fork in the road' - also распущенность raspuschenost' from the same root, is the Russian word for 'debauchery'.

Rasputin and the Romanovs

Rasputin must have known that he'd hit the big time, when he found himself being invited to the Russian Imperial Court in St Petersburg, using his spiritual powers to heal the ailing son of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II. After the trauma of Catherine the Great, her son Pavel I changed the succession rules of the Russian Tsars, which meant that only male offspring could claim the throne of Russia. Although Nicholas and his German-born Tsarina, Alexandra, had had four daughters, their fifth child, Alexei was their only son and heir to the Russian throne. Not widely publicised at the time was the fact that Alexei had hemophilia, a hereditary disease that is passed through the maternal line, in this case from his mother and grand-mother, Queen Victoria.

As a result of his illness and the fact that he was the only one of their children who could inherit the throne, the Tsar and Tsarina became obsessive about Alexei's health. The fact that Rasputin seemed to have the ability to control Alexei's bleeding secured his place at the centre of the royal household and led to the situation where a Siberian peasant appeared to have so much influence over the Tsarina, to the point where the Tsarina's enemies accused her of letting him make political decisions that were detrimental to Russia's involvement in the First World War. Greg King's position on this, in his book, is that Rasputin's influence on the government of Russia was widely exaggerated and that the real 'issue' with the government of Russia during the First World War was that Nicholas II was a weak ruler and left too many important decisions to the caprices of his wife.

Enter Prince Youssoupov

The Youssoupov family were wealthy beyond belief in the pre-Revolution period. Of Tatar origin, they had their traditional home in Crimea and through centuries of tussles with the ruling Russian dynasties, they eventually converted from Islam to Christianity and threw their lot in with the Russian state. Although they were incredibly wealthy and part of the aristocracy, the Youssoupovs weren't royals and would not be considered eligible to take or marry into the Russian throne.

Felix's mother had wanted a girl and, when he came along, she dressed him as a girl until he was five years old, a common practice in Victorian Europe. She no doubt spoiled him as well, as he grew up to be an impossible child and went through a series of governesses and tutors, none of them being able to tame him. His first governess was discreetly packed off to a mental asylum, after she'd had a nervous breakdown.  A subsequent governess hit the bottle, before being dismissed from her post!

F Youssoupov by Vladimir Surov

He certainly had an interesting life, perhaps typical of rich young men, with nothing else to worry about apart from their own pleasure! He liked to cross-dress and didn't hide his relationships with men. He was known for his extravagence and his love of parties, but he also attempted to change his life, by studying at Oxford and marrying a Romanov princess, Irina - a marriage that would span decades until his death in 1967. How Felix got caught up in the assassination of Rasputin is still a mystery to me, despite King's attempts to explain. I can only assume that he was impulsive and that he somehow felt the need to redeem himself in the eyes of the Russian public, by murdering the person that was deemed to be Public Enemy number one.

The murder of Rasputin

Felix always said that he wanted to be remembered for something more than the murder of Rasputin, but that's hardly been the case. As one of the few eye-witnesses to the event, his account of the murder has entered modern folklore as fact. The most famous aspect of Rasputin's murder was that, despite being poisoned, shot and bludgeoned until he lost consciousness - he still somehow managed to stay alive and is only believed to have died when Youssoupov and his co-conspirators dumped his body into the icy River Neva, thereby drowning him. An autopsy showed water in Rasputin's lungs, which meant he was still breathing when they threw him in the river, but it's interesting to note that death by drowning meant Rasputin would never be canonised as, according to the Russian Orthodox tradition, a true saint could never die by drowning. I wonder how much of Youssoupov's account of Rasputin's death was made up? As King says, in his book, we'll probably never really know the truth.

Were Rasputin and Felix Youssoupov lovers?

So much of Rasputin's reputation was bound up in his pursuit of women, that it's hard to imagine him having an interest in men. Nevertheless, King points to some interesting evidence that Prince Youssoupov and Rasputin were closer than people believed. How else did Felix manage to convince Rasputin to come to his palace on the night of the murder? Perhaps it somehow explains part of Youssoupovs fascination with Rasputin and his motivation for killing him? Rasputin's daughter, Maria, certainly claims that Youssoupov tried to seduce her father, by appearing naked on a visit to him. My instinct tells me that there was nothing really physical between them. I think Felix had plenty of other, younger and more attractive, men at his beck and call. Plus, Rasputin just doesn't seem the type - my gaydar is deathly silent.

Felix Youssoupov has gone down in history as Rasputin's murderer and the notoriety that went with that, despite all of his protests of being something more than a murderer, ensured that Felix would remain in the spotlight for years to come.

The revolution and after

Rasputin's claim that, after his murder, the Romanovs would be dead within six months, proved eerily accurate. A series of revolutions came to St Petersburg, resulting in the Tsar's abdication and, in July 1918, the murder of the Tsar's family in Ekaterinburg. The Youssoupovs fled to Crimea and later Europe, settling in Paris, like many of the former Russian aristocracy and managing to spend excessive amounts of money, leaving themselves on the verge of financial ruin.

Felix went on to write a book about his involvement in Rasputin's death and he and his wife successfully sued MGM when they brought out a film version of the events, Rasputin and the Empress in 1932. As the only living survivors of those depicted in the film, Irina and Felix were able to claim damages for invasion of their privacy and libel. The case hung around a claim the film had made, which said it would depict persons who were still alive. Whenever you see the disclaimer on movies that says this movie is a work of fiction and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, this is as a direct result of the Youssoupovs court case.

I'm going to leave you with the Boney-M song, Rasputin, one of my favourite retellings of the Rasputin murder!

Image credits:

The photo of the book cover was taken by me and is a first Arrow edition, published in 1997.  The image on the book cover is from the author's private photo collection and I'm using this to illustrate my blog and promote his book. 

The portrait of Felix Youssoupov is by the famous Russian painter, Valentin Serov and now hangs in the Russia Museum in St Petersburg. It is in the public domain.

There is an amazing image of Prince Youssoupov dressed up for a costume ball in the Albert Hall, which I can't share with you, as it's copyrighted, but if you can find this picture on the Internet, it's well worth a look, to see the confidence and glamour of Prince Youssoupov in his younger days.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Urals Federal District - an Introduction to the Uralic Languages

I've long had a fascination with the Uralic languages.  Having studied Linguistics at university, I already had an idea of what these languages are and (more or less) where they are spoken.  This blogpost is meant as an introduction to the Uralic languages for those of you who have no idea of what they are and where they are spoken, but it's also an opportunity for me to refresh my memory and learn a little bit more about these languages, especially about their fate in the 21st century.

So where are they spoken?

It's no coincidence that I'm writing these blogs as part of my research into the Urals - I've already mentioned the Khanty-Mansi people in my overview of the Urals Federal district, but the Uralic languages are spoken by more than 20 million people and extend way beyond the Urals region, north and east into Siberia, west into the Volga region and into Eastern Europe, where the major Uralic languages of Finnish, Saami, Estonian and Hungarian can be found. 

It's still not really known with any certainty where the Uralic languages originated - the generally accepted theory is to the west of the Urals, in the Volga region - other theories, include, Siberia, the Baltic region, even eastern Poland has been posited as a possible homeland for the speakers of these languages. What's certain is that the languages exist on both sides of the Urals, so Uralic has been adopted as a kind of compromise term.

Further sub-divisions

What I didn't really realise, prior to doing some research into the Uralic languages is that they are further sub-divided in a way that roughly divides them up into:

- languages closely related to Finnish, Saami and Estonian
- languages closely related to Hungarian
- languages that are distinct from both of these

The languages related to Finnish, Saami and Estonian are the ones in the Volga region (Mordvin, Komi, Udmurt, Mari).  The ones closest to Hungarian are the Urals languages (Khanty and Mansi).  The languages that are distinct from both of these are those of the far north, eg Nenets and Selkup and are still known by the offensive term of Samoyedic languages, from the Russian самоед (samo-yed) which literally means 'self-eater' or cannibal! 

This reminds me of when I was blogging about Togo and Greenland and came across the origin of the term Eskimo which is from the Algonquian language and means 'eaters of raw flesh'.  The term has gone out of use, rightfully so, and so should the term Samoyedic - an alternative, Samodeic has been suggested by concerned ethnologists, but it would probably be even better to have a term derived from one of the languages concerned. 

Linguistic diversity in Russia

Again, it might surprise people to know that there is a real diversity of languages spoken in Russia, very few of them being Indo-European (Russian and Ossetian being the other most-referenced Indo-European languages, although I can't help thinking of all the ethnic Ukrainians, Germans etc. that live in Russia).  Apart from the Uralic languages, there are millions of speakers of other non-Indo-European language families, such as Altaic (Turkic, Mongolian and Tungusic), Caucasian languages and even Paleo-Asiatic languages, which bridge the linguistic spectrum from Russia into Alaska and Canada.  Of course, Russian is the lingua franca and spoken by 85% of Russia's population.  Being a champion of lesser used languages, I hate to see the smaller ones disappear and certainly the advent of the Internet age is helping revive and resusicate languages which, otherwise would be dying out.

Wikipedia and the preservation of lesser used languages

I think Wikipedia is a good example of how smaller languages can be given new life.  Being open-source and created by dedicated users, Wikipedia is a perfect platform (not the only one) for those who are interested in keeping a language alive.  As part of my research, I did a quick analysis of the presence of Uralic languages on Wikipedia.  Of course, Finnish has the greatest presence, with over a quarter of a million articles on the Finnish version of Wikipedia.  It's currently the 15th 'biggest' language on Wikipedia and has more articles than, for example, the Turkish and Korean wikipedias.  Finnish is followed by Hungarian (more than 180,000) articles and Estonian (more than 81,000 articles), but many of the 'smaller' Uralic languages also have a presence on Wikipedia.

Another thing I learned about the Uralic languages in Russia is that there is a big difference in numbers between the languages in the Volga region, which have about 2.5 million speakers between them and the languages in the Urals, which have about 12,000 (Khanty) and 3,000 (Mansi) speakers.  It's probably not surprising then, that the languages of the Volga (Mordvin etc.) have their own versions of Wikipedia, whereas Khanty and Mansi don't. 

Language preserved in songs and stories

As is often the way with languages that are dying out, it is the older generation who continue to speak them  on a day-to-day basis and as a native tongue.  I guess if you are a young person who speaks Khanty and you want to seek further opportunities, for example, by finding a job in Moscow, then it's inevitable that you will end up speaking Russian most of the time and lose touch with your native language.  Like my own native language, Irish, there does seem to be something of a revival of languages on the Internet and it's become a lot easier in recent years to communicate in your native language online with people at a distance and also to access native speech and texts through online media.

Another great source of materials is, of course, Youtube and I'm pasting in a little video below posted by nurianbek225 which will let you hear the Khanty language in speech and song.  Any of you who speak Hungarian might be surprised to find similarities between Hungarian and Khanty, whose modern-day speakers live thousands of miles apart!

The structure of Uralic languages and the importance of geography

What's interesting about the Uralic languages from an Indo-European point of view is that they are so different.  If you've ever heard spoken Finnish or Hungarian, I'm sure you'll know what I mean!  What's also interesting is that Hungarian and Khanty can retain so many similarities in vocabulary and grammatical structure, despite the geographical divide and the intervention of centuries of separation, with little contact between speakers. 

In the models of language families currently accepted by Linguists the world over, stemming from the Victorian period and the scientific emphasis on categorising everything, this is proof of fact that language families exist.  However, I'm always interested in looking at things from a different angle and there are a lot of question marks around the categorisation of Uralic languages, in the same way as I suspected a certain amount of 'lazy linguistics' in the categorisation of African languages (see my earlier blogpost). 

Rather than slotting things into a box and leaving it at that, I wonder if it would be worth spending more time exploring the non-Uralic languages that have come into contact with the languages mentioned in this blogpost.  I still have a few question marks, which I'm listing below:

1. Contact with Russian:  Uralic languages are notorious for the number of noun cases they have, including things like lative (to the thing) and locative suffixes (at the thing).  Finnish has no less than 15 cases, including Essive and Marginal cases, which makes it incredibly difficult for non-Uralic speakers to learn.  Of course, Indo-European languages also have cases, but nowhere near as many and they seem to fizzle out the further West you go, with English barely keeping any of them!

Having studied Russian, I'm also aware of the fact that the Russians have chosen to retain a large number of cases.  My question is if Russian and English are both descended from a proto-Indo-European language, why did Russian keep so many cases and English get rid of them?  I wonder if mere historical contact with the Uralic languages influenced the development of Russian.  In the same way, Old English had a lot more noun cases and declinations than modern English does, which has been influenced by contact with French. 

2. Contact with Swedish and Norwegian.  A small point, but the Uralic languages use postpositions, rather than prepositions (ie. home at, rather than at home).  With my very limited knowledge of Scandinavian languages, I've also wondered why they affix the definite article after the noun (eg. hem home, hemmet home-the) rather than before, like in most other Indo-European languages that have articles.  Again, could this be the influence of contact with Finnish and Saami?

3. Contact with Turkic and Mongolian languages.  There are a lot of similarities in the grammatical structure of Uralic and Altaic languages, the most obvious being that the languages are agglutinative, ie. they keep adding syllables to the root of the word, rather than have seperate words, which can then be moved around.  The similarities are so strong tha some Linguists have suggested a link between the Uralic languages and the languages of Mongolia. 

I think the danger with Historical Linguistics is that it puts too much emphasis on lexicon, ie. languages having similar words for things, eg. comparing the numbers 1-10, whereas words are easily borrowed and shift from one language into another.  Think of the vocabulary of your grandparents and the words you most frequently use today.  Would they understand concepts such as google, wiki and twitter?  Yet these words have entered the mainstream of most modern languages very very quickly!

I think it would be better to look at the underlying grammatical structures of language and compare these, as well as using lexicon to describe a languages' relationship to the ones around it.

4. Contact with the South of India.  Something I hadn't heard of before, was the idea that the Uralic languages might bear some similarities to the Dravidian languages of southern Indian, possibly due to earlier geographical proximity or migration! 

To be honest, I find it all fascinating and look forward to doing further research into the Uralic languages at a later date. 

Image credits:

The map of the where Uralic languages are spoken was provided copyright free on Wikimedia, by wikiuser Martintg - Martintg is a prolific contributor to Wikipedia and seems to have somewhat of a specilisation in Estonia and Estonian culture.  You can see more info at his user page

The image of the poster written in Estonian was taken by me on my recent trip to Tallinn.  I've providing this copyright free with attribution (especially a link to this blogpost) and share alike. 

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Urals Federal District - Biohazard

During my research into the Urals Federal region and Ekaterinburg, I came across a book called Biohazard by Kanatjan Alibekov (or Ken Alibek, as he's now called), a famous Soviet scientist who worked for an agency called Biopreparat, but later defected to the West, writing this book as an exposé.

Biological warfare

Although the Cold War has long ended, I think we're still living in fear of Biological warfare, as much as we ever did.  The use of bioweapons to disable or kill enemy troops and civilian populations goes back to Antiquity - whether it was poisoning the water supply of enemy villages in Ancient Greece, catapulting plague-infected bodies into besieged towns during the Medieval period or giving Native Americans blankets smeared in smallpox in the 17th century, airborne diseases, contagions and viruses have been used during warfare, as far back as the records of war go. 

Alibek exposed the extent to which the Soviet Union, under the guise of a supposedly 'civilian' pharmaceutical agency, developed dangerous weapons using Tularemia, Q fever, Brucellosis (Malta Fever), Glanders and (most controversially) Smallpox.  This was in direct violation of the agreements of the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons convention, where the Soviet Union and 136 other countries signed up to a ban on the development or stockpiling of dangerous microbes.  Since the collapse of the Soviet 'Empire' and shift in focus to Iraq and Afghanistan, we've heard a lot about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) - biological weapons are also considered to be a WMD. 

In the age of air travel and frequent contact between people all over the world, I believe that Bioweapons pose an even great threat to humanity than ever.  We've recently seen how viruses such as swine flu and bird flu have spread across the world like wildfire.  The release of dangerous microbes into a population that has no immunisation could cause untold devastation and death.  Viruses don't tend to recognise national borders, so no one really gains, in the end.  Biological weapons are notoriously hard to control, so much so, that many nations are reluctant to develop them in the first place.  Certainly, the weapons developed in the Soviet Union during the period Alibek describes, caused dozens of human deaths, mostly scientists working with the dangerous substances and civilians who happened to work or live in the vicinity of a bioweapons plant - not to mention all the monkeys, rodents and other animals that were exposed to viruses during testing.

Anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk

The reason I came across Alibek's book in the first place, was because I was reading about the outbreak of Anthrax in Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk) in 1979.  It's unbelievable, really, that the Soviets would carry out bioweapon manufacture, in the midst of a civilian population.  My experience of Russia is that a human life sometimes doesn't count for much.  Perhaps understandable in a country where millions of people lost their lives fighting the Nazis in the Second World War. 

An estimated 100 people died as a result of leaked Anthrax from Military Compound 19, just outside Ekaterinburg.  Alibek mentions how overworked scientists generally were, therefore it's no surprise that an accident like this one would happen when, during a shift change on a Friday evening, someone overlooked the need to replace an air vent in the building, which lead to Anthrax being sprayed into the atmosphere outside and being carried on the wind towards a neighbouring factory. 

At a time when events like this were covered up by the Soviet authorities, the official story was put out that the workers had died as a result of eating contaminated meat that they'd bought on the black market (conveniently putting the blame on the victims).  No explanation was given for the fact that the majority of those who died were men (as if women and children don't eat meat) and that the deaths continued months after the event.  The outbreak was prolonged by some of the locals who, not knowing that Anthrax had been released from the plant, decided to sweep everything clean, stirring up the microbes again and causing even more deaths.  Sadly, a hundred stray dogs were rounded up and shot dead, in the belief that they had been scavenging on the (fictional) contaminated meat and were somehow responsible for prolonging the outbreak. 

It seems as though the truth about what happened in Sverdlovsk in 1979 is now generally known by people in Russia and one of the rock groups I mentioned in my last blog, Smyslovye Gallyutsinatsii named one of their albums Rus-66, perhaps in tribute to the 66 deaths that were confirmed to be as a result of the Anthrax leak. 

The dangers of Smallpox

What was most frightening about Alibek's books was the fact that the Soviet Union was developing a weapon based on the Smallpox virus.  Smallpox was one of the greatest killer's in the world, a highly infectious disease that causes a very painful death, it was reponsible for the deaths of about 400,000 Europeans every year in the 18th century!  It also wiped out the native populations of the Americas and caused untold devastation among the native Australian population, when European carriers brought the disease to Australia in the 1780's.  As late as the 20th century Smallpox is believed to have caused between 300 and 500 million deaths.

The first ever vaccine for any disease was developed in response to the devastation caused by Smallpox.  In 1796 an English doctor, Edward Jenner from rural Gloucestershire, discovered that milkmaids who had been exposed, through their work, to a less virulent form of pox called 'cowpox', seemed to have immunity from Smallpox.  By taking fluid from the pus in blisters caused by cowpox and injecting these into a young boy, he was able to inoculate the boy and prevent him from falling ill with Smallpox, when he was later exposed to this.  The concept of vaccination is that of injecting a small piece of the virus into your body - not enough (hopefully) to make you seriously ill, but enough to rally your immune system and make your body 'ready' to fight the virus in the early stages of infection.  As I've travelled a lot, I've had quite a few vaccinations in my time!

The word vaccination comes from the Latin for cow, vacca, referring back to Jenner's original experiment.  One of the greatest achievements of modern Science was to completely eradicate the Smallpox virus and the world was free of Smallpox by 1977, the last natural case being recorded in Somalia in that year.  Vaccination against Smallpox had been routine up until that point, despite the fact that it was a little bit dangerous and would result in death in a small number of cases.  During the 1970's most of the world's governments decided to discontinue routine vaccination against Smallpox.  What makes Alibek's research frightening is that Soviet scientists recognised the potential power of harnassing a Smallpox bioweapon, precisely because the population of the late-20th century world no longer had immunisation against the disease. 

Alibek as a man

Alibek's character is a complicated one.  Here is someone who actively turned his knowledge and research to work that could potentially kill millions of people.  One of the main reasons he defected to the West was because he no longer wanted to be involved in the development of biological weapons.  I can kind of understand the way he got sucked into it as a young scientist, eager for a chance to be involved in exciting research and desperate to be promoted and recognised.  Like many of the decisions we make regarding our lives, it's harder to get out of the life you have created for yourself, the longer to continue to live in that way.  Certainly, Alibek rose through the ranks of the Soviet military and held a very powerful position, one of the few Kazakhs to gain that level of authority in the Soviet capital, Moscow. 

When Alibek defected to the West, his knowledge of biological warfare was suddenly very much in demand and he found himself being offered consultancy fees from various different countries.  He preferred to stick to the more positive work of developing vaccines, many of them to counteract the threat of the new viral strains he'd helped create in the 1980's.  Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, biological weapons are still a major threat to human populations.  As a result of the covert development of bioweapons in Soviet Union in the 70's and 80's, there are a lot of Russian scientists with experience in the manufacture of bioweapons, who have been attracted by lucrative contracts working for a range of governments, some of them a direct threat to the populations of Western countries. 

Having said that, an effective biological weapon has never actually been used in a way that caused millions of deaths and (I'm hoping) perhaps, at the end of the day, man won't manage to master nature in this regard. 

Image credits:

The photo of the book cover was taken by me.  I read the version published in 2000 by Arrow Books.

The image of Edward Jenner was taken from wikimedia and is in the public domain.