Inspirations from Roberto Calasso

I aspire to write history not like a dry professor, but more like the shimmering mysteries of the past evoked by writers like W.G. Sebald or the sometimes ponderous but often astonishing Roberto Calasso.

“There is no essential reason for history to be distinguished from literature,” he writes in the most enigmatic of histories of modernity, The Ruin of Kasch.  In itself this thought is not so much a conclusion as an invitation, and it is with the following thought that Calasso springs his surprise. Historical research is the gradual reconstruction, through untying archival boxes, of an artificial memory. And the historian who clings to his prior ideas leaves the past imprisoned in the present’s preconceptions. “History finds itself when it decides to let the sources alone – and understands that these sources can be anything at all, can be whatever there is.”

So a thousand dull lectures about the holy trinity of race and class and gender, a thousand dull homilies about a political, a critical reading and purpose behind the interpretations, the text as an act of power, are discarded. What is left behind is the more mysterious purpose of the true historian – how do I reanimate the voices, the bodies, the minds of the dead? How can they walk amongst us again?

Third Rome

First there was the Latin empire, polyglot and legal, centred on Rome. Then there was the Eastern Empire, religious and magnificent, radiating out, then sucking itself back in when defending itself against Goths, Slavs, Persians and Arabs, in the seeming impregnable perfection of Constantinople. Then at last there was the third Rome – Holy Mother Russia.

Holy Mother Russia was formed by strands of Byzantine orthodoxy, Slavic peasants, Viking warriors, and Tatar raiders. From 1453 the Patriarch and Grand Duke of Muscovy lived out the rise and fall of this Third Rome. The Byzantine collapse gave them their mission to be the new centre of Christendom. For the next 160 years – four generations – its rise would lead to some of the most exquisite expressions of beauty and holiness, and the most terrifying acts of sovereignty and the madness of power.

They came together exquisitely in St Basil’s Cathedral. Built by imported Italian Renaissance architects for Ivan the Terrible, the awesome tsar blinded its designers so they could never make anything as beautiful again. This cathedral, named for the blessed intercession of the virgin, and meant to commemorate Ivan’s victory over the muslim tatars would however  come to be known for the holy fool, yurodovi, who wandered barefoot here and across the beautiful red square, krasnaya ploschard. One time on this square Basil scolded this tsar for living immodestly before God. Yet still here Ivan committed atrocities, executing his former loyal diaks with personal cruelty.

Ivan was the crest of the wave of the great Third Rome, and his savagery undid his empire. In the Kremlin he murdered his capable son in a fit of rage provoked by his daughter-in-law’s unseemly dress. His remaining son was pious but an idiot, and real power passed, after Ivan’s poisoned death, to the brother of this Feodor’s wife, Boris Godunov. Amidst the stories of murdered children, fleeing courtiers, plagues, famines and the end of Christian days, the Riurokivich dynasty was extinguished. Godunov became Tsar, and despite some glories was soon challenged by the pretender, False Dmitri. This Dmitri ultimately made his way to rule in Moscow if briefly.

The time of troubles proceeded in confusion, and Poland and the Swedes invaded. The country almost collapsed in its civil war. The Third and last Rome fell. Amidst its ruins and violence, two patriotic Russians fought back and saved Russia from extinction. The invaders and Catholics were repelled, and in their place the Romanov dynasty was crowned. So the Third Rome passed from the world, and the Russian empire began.