CALLIOPE AND/OR CLIO
Address to the Meridian Poltava Poetry Festival
Is it possible today to describe historical events in language that is not customary in academic circles? If yes, then what kind? I have a personal interest in the landscape of history, and, I have to confess, it’s an emotional and a writer’s interest. I see history as a place where lowlands, mountain ridges, chasms, deserts, tundra, volcanoes, steppes and geysers share borders and cohabit. I am especially drawn to precipices, over which whole armies and even nations plunge to their doom. From whence, from the abyss, can be heard whimpers, groans, curses, and even the most finely attuned ear finds it difficult to distinguish the wheeze of Sumerian from the whisper of Akkadian, or the crowing of a fighting cock from the rasping burr of a vulture. I am excited, too, by battles in river valleys, from the Bronze Age to our own day, and the streams of blood that flow into the main water arteries. Looking back, you can see clearly that the expressions ‘a sea of blood’ and ‘a mountain of corpses’ are neither hyperbole nor metaphor.
History might also find that the languages of meteorology and astronomy come in handy. Imagine how history looks at night. If this night lasted an eternity, we would still be living, to borrow from Petrarch, in the Dark Ages, and gazing with envy on the sunny domes of the cathedrals of Byzantium and the gleaming tiles of its minarets. I am not the first to conceive of history in meteo-astronomical terms. If you recall, the Dutch cultural historian, Johan Huizinga, called one of his books The Autumn of the Middle Ages. I will risk continuing this tradition. Can you imagine the Renaissance happening in wet weather? Hardly. In an era flooded with the light of antiquity, there was no such thing as rain, let alone drizzle. During the 20 th century many of us took part, voluntarily or involuntarily, in the Cold War. Today, us veterans of it watch warily as the Cold War is replaced by Global Warming. We stand confusedly on history’s shore, splashed with the foam of the world-wide ocean and prepare to swap the sails of a yacht for white flags.
The historian and the writer keep different optical instruments in their arsenals. The historian can reflect on why it was the gods of war chose as the battlefield beyond the Baltic Sea an open field six versts from Poltava, while the writer imagines the groaning souls of the fallen, soaring in clouds of smoke and dust, delves into memoirs of the atrocious winter of 1709, when sparrows fell frozen from the sky, of the field hospitals where surgeons amputated frost-bitten arms and legs, noses and ears, without anaesthetic, and human stumps scrabbled over the earth like beasts. It seems to me that discussion of the military and geopolitical significance of the battle of Poltava would divert our attention from the true consequences of the event. Writers have another language at their disposal, primarily artistic and associative, and it enables its own diagnosis of historical processes. The battle of Poltava altered Europeans’ ideas about North, West and East. It scrambled the points of the compass and erased the boundary between North and West. The East froze in the poise of victor and so condemned itself to experience the disastrous consequences of its triumph. In the 21 st century Ukraine decided to switch from Greenwich to Maidan Mean Time. Honoured guests from Sweden, I congratulate you with all my heart on your defeat the victory is yours.