By ANTHONY HOWELL.
A FEW YEARS ago, I visited Aquileia, an ancient Roman city in Italy, at the top of the Adriatic and at the edge of its lagoons. It is now about six miles from the sea, on the river Natisone, the course of which has changed since Roman times. Today, it is little more than a village, but Aquileia was prominent in classical antiquity; indeed it was one of the world’s largest cities with a population of 100,000 in the 2nd century AD. Aquileia’s Patriarchal Basilica was built c. 1000 on the site of an earlier church, and it is a magnificent building with its entire floor covered with fourth-century mosaics depicting Biblical events such as Jonah being eaten by a monster the artists imagined might be a whale. In the crypt, archaeologists have discovered earlier, pagan mosaics which the Christian foundations broke apart, or the Biblical tesserae covered in the manner of a palimpsest.
Saint Peter first established Christianity in Italy here, before moving on to be crucified upside-down in Rome. In later antiquity, Aquileia was the first city on the Italian peninsula to be sacked by Attila the Hun.
In the basilica, I admired the knot-patterns on the floor, which reminded me of Celtic stonework. Then, when I surveyed the walls of the church and its pillars, I found martyrs everywhere, from the crypt to the ceiling of the apse above, each figure holding a palm, each a saint by dint of martyrdom during the persecution of Christians which occurred throughout the Roman Empire, beginning in the first century AD and ending in the fourth century when Constantine finally moved towards adopting Christianity as the official religion of the empire while establishing the capital of that empire in Constantinople.
Martyr after martyr after martyr. The hagiography of the saints dwells more often on their ends than on their works: broken on the wheel, torn apart by separating bulls, devoured by lions, burnt alive, crucified, beheaded; your breasts torn off, your limbs ripped from your body – perishing through all manner of tortures. Each calm figure drawn there with a palm was a testament to some cruelty inflicted. And yet what I experienced in that ancient basilica was a sense of immense strength. The great white bell-tower next to it scraped the blue sky. I sensed that the early Christian church was hugely empowered by its martyrs. The authorities in the eleventh century had obviously been keen to keep memories of persecution alive. Persecution strengthened the righteousness of their religion. The sufferings of the early Christians justified the redoubtable savagery of the crusades. This notion inspired a poem: The Shadow of a Campanile:
They have broken up the mosaics
Of the last century, together with those
Of the previous century, and of the centuries before.
This is the way with foundations, when you
Build your bell a tower towering above
The tallest cypresses; a tower as white
As cypresses are dark; a tower
As straight as knots are inextricable:
Knots that graced mosaics that you chose to break,
Striking apart all the mosaic’s bits.
And now the tower dreams. The tower
Dreams of knots. These dreams are inextricable
Now the hour is struck. The bell tolls
In the tower for all those broken bits.
It tolls through the centuries – tolls
For Saint Peter, tolls for Attila as well.
The bell is the dream that towers above
The cypresses: a dark dream, drinking
The blood of martyrs; martyrs with
The power to break all your mosaics up.
Justification is a passionate matter and the argument behind most vendettas. And it’s not only gangs. Faiths and languages can have vendettas. Memories of a previous persecution stoke the flames here that lead to retaliatory persecution. That’s why terms like Nazi and Soviet sound so vintage now to us, although still much used in Ukraine.
GETTING BACK TO our Christian martyrs, well before the sixteenth century, justification had evolved into exoneration. As the church itself grew stronger, scapegoats were found and destroyed because an enemy was needed to divert attention from the Church’s own shortcomings. The scapegoats were all-too-often identified as associated with a previous bloodbath. It is thus that the Balkans have forever been Balkanised.
However, martyrs give you justification. If you fight under the banner of your martyrs, you are innately in a state of Grace, you have divine endorsement for your actions. The leader of a nationalist vendetta carries the same arrogance as the antinomians in the Renaissance. Antinomians were the sect which, in the year 1538, listened to the teaching of Johannes Agricola: your sin of violence (or any sin) could be justified because you were blessed with Grace. Revenging martyrs is one way to be blessed.
Antinomians were convinced they were predestined for Paradise and thus they were ‘justified sinners’ – as in the novel by James Hogg. The gloss by André Gide on Hogg1 points out that even bad works might be done with impunity by those who were predestined to salvation. This sense of ‘Grace’ is what a vendetta against another race offers the para-military commander. It’s a Narcissism within vengeance. It epitomises the gospel of the vigilante. Danny Dyer’s Jimmy Vickers crystallises its gospel perfectly in Stephen Reynolds’ disturbing 2013 movie Vendetta. He is evidently a master torturer, but he works for us! My view is that justification requires an enemy.
As Christianity spread through the empire, it came into ideological conflict with the imperial cult of ancient Rome, which had originally been a polytheistic empire in the traditions of paganism and Hellenistic religion, but now, with the zeal of vigilance, Christianity sought to stamp out all traces of past belief – conflicting belief that it said had inflicted such harm on Christ’s first adherents – as the hagiography made graphically clear. Sometimes the old gods sought refuge in sainthood, Dionysius became Saint Denys, but in general the aim was to exterminate the old cults.
Machiavelli’s Prince maintains that to rid oneself of a powerful enemy one must exterminate every last one of his family or clan. Not an infant may be left alive even if still in the womb. The mass murder of another race or cult aspires to the same goal, a final solution. The target may well be a scapegoat for some suffering for which that race or cult may not be responsible, as the Christians were deemed responsible for the conflagration that engulfed Rome – at least, according to Nero. But what must be achieved is an absolute annulment. Otherwise a vendetta will ensue.
Such a vendetta now haunts Ukraine. Joseph Stalin’s decision to rid Russia (and what we are now obliged to call Ukraine) of a landed peasantry during the famine of 1932-33, expelling Ukrainians from their property in order to establish communal farming while moving Russian-speaking people into the region and prohibiting the Ukrainian language, caused ethnic cleansing and unparalleled devastation on a scale perhaps even larger than the Nazi Holocaust. So Ukrainian far-right Nationalists fetishize that Holodomor famine of 1932-33, perceiving its victims as martyrs in much the same way as today’s Zionist extremists seek justification via ‘their’ Holocaust.
Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’ However, the Russian government that replaced the Soviet Union has acknowledged that famine took place, but denied it was genocide. In other words, everyone died, of a famine, Russians and Ukrainians alike. Didn’t the Great Potato Famine in Ireland fuel its fight for independence? Famines are catastrophes which may have natural causes. In April 2008, Russia’s lower house of Parliament passed a resolution stating that ‘There is no historical proof that the famine was organized along ethnic lines.’ Nevertheless, at least 16 countries have recognized the Holodomor, and most recently, the U.S. Senate, in a 2018 resolution, affirmed the findings of the 1988 commission that Stalin had committed genocide.
So who is gaslighting who? As the situation in Ukraine continues, we have all become more aware, I think, of how the news is a story, and that conflicting stories do exist.
It is not the purpose of my essay to refute or to confirm that resolution and its story, any more than it is my purpose to deny or modify the consensual view of what is referred to as ‘the Holocaust’ – referring to the attempted extermination of Jews, Gypsies and political dissidents in the concentration camps of WW2. Still, it is interesting that this U.S. Senate resolution came about so recently, and we should acknowledge that when we view genocide from the perspective of what Braudel calls the longue durée, this mass-crime is generally exaggerated by the descendants of its victims – propagandised, graphically glamourised (as with the hagiography), for this is the way of the world. With genocide there is always a counsel for the prosecution, but rarely one for the defence.
Genocide generates fascists, and fascists in turn retaliate with genocide. This is vendetta on a grand scale, ever enlarging its spiral. The nationalist politicians who took command after the violent overthrow of the elected government in the February 2014 Maidan coup were set in place there by the violent actions of Nationalist paramilitaries, who we all know are rife in Ukraine (and no version of your story can deny it) and their brigades have since been accommodated by the regular army there. And for the last eight years they have opted for being a haven for oligarchs (as was the case with Russia in the Yeltsin era) and they brew up their own Stalin-like persecution, banning the use of the Russian language and insisting on the return of the Crimea to Ukraine – despite Crimea’s 97 percent vote to return to Russia with an 83 percent turnout in the referendum of 2014, after the Maidan coup. Since then, again for the last eight years, Kiev has been violently blockading the Donbas, while applying for NATO and EU membership, and signalling it wishes to break entirely with Russia.
I sense that Vladimir Putin’s hope for resolution in Ukraine has been rooted in his own faith and his comprehension of post-Stalinist history. Seventy percent of Ukraine is Orthodox in a variety of denominations, not all adhering to Russian orthodoxy, but it is clear that Russia and Ukraine largely share a faith. And now, for better or worse, Ukraine is not that of the landed peasantry prior to Stalin’s interventions. It is an industrialised country which is also rich in wheat, grain and mineral resources. Because it was an industrial and a sustenance hub for the USSR, the standard of living went up, wounds started to heal, and a largely bilingual population were in the process of accommodating each other’s ethnic differences (including Greek and Jewish sectors of the population). However, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, disappointment with the economic situation after independence, as the Ukraine turned towards Europe with fruitless results, fuelled dissatisfaction and extremism.
With manipulation, the fault-lines can be re-opened, just as they were re-opened in Yugoslavia, where NATO capitalised on Croatia’s Ustasha (pro-Nazi) back-story and sponsored Muslim fanaticism. As per usual, opponents are personified as individual monsters – Milosevic, Saddam, Ghaddafi, Assad and now Putin. Only one narrative is permitted in the West, since the media is now firmly under NATO control. That today’s ‘Infotainment’ can be so controlled is nothing to be sceptical about. Does no one recall the South African Information Scandal, which concerned the attempt to erase criticism of apartheid from the world media between 1977 and 1979?2
Oh, it’s all too awful. Can’t we just ‘tend our own gardens’ – as Voltaire advises; his remedy for times of nigh-catastrophic stress? The trouble is, Ukraine is not some dusty corner of Asia. It matters. How does it matter? Here’s how:
Ukraine can meet the food needs of 600 million people. It is first in Europe in proven recoverable reserves of uranium ores; it has second place in Europe and tenth place in the world in terms of titanium ore reserves; second place in the world in terms of explored reserves of manganese ores (2.3 billion tons, or 12 percent of the world’s reserves); second-largest iron ore reserves in the world (30 billion tons); second place in Europe in terms of mercury ore reserves; third place in Europe (thirteenth place in the world) in shale gas reserves (22 trillion cubic meters) fourth in the world by the total value of natural resources; seventh place in the world in coal reserves (33.9 billion tons); then first in Europe in terms of arable land area; third place in the world by the area of black soil (25 percent of world’s volume); first place in the world in exports of sunflower and sunflower oil; second place in the world in barley production and fourth place in barley exports; third largest producer and fourth largest exporter of corn in the world; fourth largest producer of potatoes in the world; fifth largest rye producer in the world; fifth place in the world in bee production (75,000 tons); eighth place in the world in wheat exports; ninth place in the world in the production of chicken eggs; sixteenth place in the world in cheese exports. It is first in Europe in ammonia production; and it is Europe’s second and has the world’s fourth largest natural gas pipeline system.
In terms of installed capacity of nuclear power plants, it is the third largest in Europe and eighth largest in the world. It is in third place in the world (after the U.S. and France) in production of locators and locating equipment; it is the third largest iron exporter in the world, fourth largest exporter of turbines for nuclear power plants in the world; fourth largest manufacturer in the world’s rocket launchers; fourth place in the world in clay exports; fourth place in the world in titanium exports; eighth place in the world in exports of ores and concentrates; ninth place in the world in exports of defense industry products; and it’s the tenth largest steel producer in the world (32.4 million tons).
Who benefits from re-opening the fault-lines that may lay waste to this industrious land? NATO primarily, or so this outdated cold-war organisation intends, seeded as it is with pardoned Nazis and the CIA – another leftover from the end of WW2 – entities bent on the destruction of Russia and the very notion of communism, but entities which ignore the fact that Russia is a democracy where the communist party is simply a large minority and where Putin’s Russia party has been democratically elected to govern.
Who else? The crime families who dominate Washington and what Putin has dubbed ‘The Empire of Lies’ – as ‘the laptop from Hell’ makes perfectly clear. These corrupt families, along with the CEOs of Ukraine’s energy companies, the investors in the world’s armament industries, and the mass-media choir they have infiltrated, they benefit.
And then, there is the stateless Nazi. But wait, isn’t that last beneficiary a contradiction in terms? I don’t think so. The stateless Nazi is the worst sort of crook, often an oligarch or a politician and certainly an antinomian. He may adopt a state – but solely for his own gain, the gain of his gang or his clan. He will often have three passports – like the oligarch Kolomoisky, who sponsors a Nazi brigade in Ukraine, paid Hunter Biden a fat salary through Burisma, his energy company, and who has financed Zelensky’s entertainment career as well as his political career. The stateless Nazi can appear to honour both genocides at the same time – a Nazi in the Ukraine, a Zionist in Israel. In reality, he honours no cause or ideal. His allegiance is to his wealth, his family and their collective power.
Russia seeks security for the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine’s Eastern regions and a clear pronouncement agreeing to neutrality. The first of these resolves has led to Russia’s recent acknowledgement of the autonomous statehood of these regions. And why the neutrality? Well, the border of Ukraine is only some 500 k from Moscow. Imagine Chinese cruise missiles installed in Canada! Imagine also a brigade of the KKK serving as an official part of the army of the USA. That is what is going on in Ukraine.
We should remind ourselves that the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 established that:
- The U.S. would not interfere in the internal affairs of European states, including a commitment not to get involved in wars between European powers,
- The U.S. would recognize the existing European colonies in the Western Hemisphere and would not interfere in their affairs,
- No new colonies or dependencies could be claimed in the Western Hemisphere,
- Any intentions by European states to colonize new territory in the Western Hemisphere would be viewed as a hostile act against the U.S.
While the USA has not always adhered to its own rules in regard to this doctrine, it seems fair that Russia should be able to apply the same principles to its own hemisphere in the East.
And finally, neutrality would be a useful thing. The next goal of the E.U. should be to seek divorce from NATO. This would allow Ukraine to trade both ways, which could only be to its benefit. The EU itself will not survive if it remains smitten by NATO. Outdated alliances are dangerous, to say the least!
ANTHONY HOWELL, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Multilation (with Consciouness), was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).
Author’s note: Appropriately named for the title of this essay, of all commentators on Ukraine, Andrei Martyanov, who resides near Seattle, is for me the most astute, with a wit to his remarks and a pungent vocabulary. His youtube channel is here.
- The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg, with an Introduction by Andre Gide, London, the Cresset Press, 1947
- I offer a reminder here.