Geronimo!

Chiricahua Medicine Man and War Chief Geronimo of the Chirciahua Apaches

Chiricahua Apache Medicine Man and War Chief Geronimo

Why does the name Geronimo spring to mind when thinking of an Indian warrior chief? Probably because he was not only the most successful opponent of the U.S. Cavalry between 1876 and 1886, when he surrendered; and he was the subject of so many articles in the press of that time that he was therefore widely known among the American people around the turn of the century.

Curiously, Geronimo was never really a chief. The chiefs of the Chiricahuas included Mangas Coloradas (“Red Sleeves”), Cochise, Juh, and finally Cochise’s son Naiche. Rather, he was a famed medicine man and military tactician. Although he owed fealty to the chiefs of the Chiricahuas, he was the military genius behind most of the raiding that was done on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border, where he successfully evaded the military of both nations.

I have just finished reading Robert M. Utley’s Geronimo (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). Now retired (but still writing), Utley is former chief historian of the National Park Service, for whom he worked for many years. If you are interested in the history of the American West, I recommend you check out his website.

To a newspaperman who interviewed him in captivity at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Geronimo once said, “The run rises and shines for a time, and then it goes down, sinking out of sight and is lost. So it will be with the Indians.”

Marina Tsvetayeva Is Robbed

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

I have just finished reading Marina Tsvetayeva’s Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). Virtually unknown in the United States, Tsvetayeva was one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th Century. Here is one of her poems:

I Know the Truth (1915)

I know the truth – forget all other truths!
No need for anyone on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what will you say, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep beneath the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.

The above translation is by Elaine Feinstein.

In her Moscow diary, she recounts the experience of being robbed as she leaves a friend’s house late at night:

“Who goes there?”

A young guy about eighteen years old, in uniform, a jaunty forelock peeking out from under his cap. Light brown hair. Freckles.

“Any weapons?”

“What kind of weapons do women have?”

“What is that there?”

”Please, take a look.”

I take out of my purse and hand him, one after the other: my new, favorite cigarette case with lions (yellow, English: Dieu et mon droit), a coin purse, matches.

“And there’s also a comb, a key … If you have any doubts, we can go see the yardkeeper; I’ve lived here for four years.”

“Any documents?”

At this point, remembering the parting words of my cautious friends, I conscientiously and meaninglessly parry:

“And do you have any documents?”

“Right here!”

The steel of a revolver, white in the moonlight. (“So it’s white, and for some reason I always thought it was black.I saw it as black. A revolver—is death. Blackness.”)

At the same instant, the chain from my lorgnette flies over my head, strangling me and catching on my hat. Only then do I realize what’s going on.

“Put down that revolver and take it off with both hands, you’re strangling me.”

“Don’t scream.”

“You can hear how I’m speaking.”

He lowers it, and, no longer strangling me, swiftly and deftly removes the doubled chain. The action with the chain is the last one. I hear “Comrades!” behind my back as my other foot steps through the gate.

(I forgot to say that the whole time we were talking (a minute plus) there were people walking back and forth on the other side of the street.)

The soldier left me: all my rings, the lion brooch, the purse itself, both bracelets, my watch, book, comb, key.

He took: the coin purse with an invalid check for 1000 rubles, the new wonderful cigarette case (there you have it, droit without Dieu!), the chain and lorgnette, the cigarettes.

All in all, if not a fair price—a fraternal one.

The next day, Marina hears the young robber was killed by a church custodian:

They offered to let me go pick out my things. I refused with a shudder. How could I—one of the living (that is—happy, that is—wealthy), go and take from him, the dead, his last loot?! I quake at the very thought of it. One way or the other, I was his last (maybe next to the last!) joy, which he took to the grave with him. You don’t rob the dead.

I will have more to say about Tsvetaeva in a future post.

Not So Uncivilized

Carved Door at Reykjavík’s National Mseum

Carved Door at Reykjavík’s National Museum

“From the fury of the Norsemen, Oh Lord deliver us!” This was the cry of Western European churchmen in the 8th through 10th centuries as the Vikings raided coastal areas throughout Europe, seemingly killing and plundering at will. By the time any effective resistance was formed, the marauders had sailed away in their ships.

What many historians neglect to say is that these same marauders were every bid as advanced culturally as their victims. The main difference was that, until around AD 1000, the Scandinavian peoples were still pagans worshiping Thor, Odin, and Freya. By the time they themselves were Christianized, they left us a literature that was in no way inferior to that of the English and French.

The Icelandic sagas were written down in the 13th century, but they celebrated the deeds of their pagan ancestors (with a few Christian touches). In fact, I believe that no one could understand the period until they read the following five sagas: Njals Saga, Egils Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, Laxdaela Saga, and Grettir’s Saga. (The first two sagas listed have entire museums dedicated to them in Hvolsvöllur and Borgarnes respectively.)

If you visit the National Museum or the Culture House in Reykjavík, you will see the work of a people who do not deserve to be thought of as barbarians.

 

Does This Remind You of Anyone?

An Amazing Coincidence

An Amazing Coincidence

When I read Teffi’s essay on Rasputin in Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi, couldn’t help comparing the dread Siberian starets to an American political figure in the news. Here are three instances, from which you can draw your own conclusions:

The Black Automobile

According to Teffi:

The “Black Automobile” remains a mystery to this day. Several nights running this car had roared across the vField of Mars, sped over the Palace Bridge, and disappeared into the unknown. Shots had been fired from inside the car. Passers-by had been wounded.

“It’s Rasputin’s doing,” people were saying, “Who else?”

Dealings with Women

Teffi was seated next to Rasputin, who tried to get her to have some wine:

Rasputin was drinking a great deal and very quickly. Suddenly he leaned towards me and whispered, “Why aren’t you drinking, eh? God will forgive you. Drink.”

He kept trying to get her to drink and to come to his place, but she wisely refused.

He “Sows Discord and Panic”

Finally, Teffi writes:

He profits from everything black, evil and incomprehensible. Everything that sows discord and panic. And there’s nothing he can’t explain to his own advantage when he needs to.

Now I could add that he tweets nasty, ad hominem attacks in the middle of the night, but that would be giving it away, wouldn’t it?

 

 

 

 

Serendipity: A Glimpse of Rasputin

 

Gregory Rasputin in Color

Gregory Rasputin in Color

The following beguiling sketch comes from Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya—perhaps better known as Teffi—whose essay on the Siberian “holy man” is reprinted in her Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others and Me: The Best of Teffi, published by New York Review:

I had glimpsed Rasputin once before. In a train. He must have been on his way east, to visit his home village in Siberia. He was in a first-class compartment. With his entourage: a little man ho was something like a secretary to him, a woman of a certain age with her daughter, and Madame V—, a lady-in-waiting to the Tsaritsa.

It was very hot and the compartment doors were wide open. Rasputin was presiding over tea—with a tin teapot, dried bread rings and lumps of sugar on the side. He was wearing a pink calico smock over his trousers, wiping his forehead and neck with an embroidered towel and talking rather peevishly, with a broad Siberian accent.

“Dearie! Go and fetch us some more hot water! Hot water, I said, go and get us some. The tea’s right stewed, but they didn’t even give us any hot water. And where is the strainer? Annushka! The strainer—where is it? Oh, what a muddler you are!”

I love the picture of the demonic starets wearing a pink smock.

The photograph above was published by The Daily Mail, along with other interesting color pictures of Rasputin and the Tsar.

Teffi’s essay on Rasputin made me think, and you shall find out later this week exactly what it made me think about.

The Commie Sub Commander Who Saved the World

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov and Wife

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov and Wife

Not since the fall of Communism has America become so confrontational with Russia. Perhaps now is the right time to remind you that a Soviet submarine officer prevented the outbreak of a devastating nuclear World War III.

It was October 1962. The United States military had detected that Soviet nuclear missiles had been set up in Cuba: Kennedy was determined to face down Nikita Khruschchev in the world’s most dangerous nuclear confrontation to date. According to Wikipedia:

[A] group of eleven United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the diesel-powered nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the Americans started dropping practice signaling depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. There had been no contact from Moscow for a number of days and, although the submarine’s crew had earlier been picking up U.S. civilian radio broadcasts, once B-59 began attempting to hide from its U.S. Navy pursuers, it was too deep to monitor any radio traffic. Those on board did not know whether war had broken out or not. The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, decided that a war might already have started and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo.

Unlike the other subs in the flotilla, three officers on board the B-59 had to agree unanimously to authorize a nuclear launch: Captain Savitsky, the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and the second-in-command Arkhipov. Typically, Russian submarines armed with the “Special Weapon” only required the captain to get authorization from the political officer to launch a nuclear torpedo. However, due to Arkhipov’s position as flotilla commander, the B-59s captain also was required to gain Arkhipov’s approval. An argument broke out, with only Arkhipov against the launch.

Fortunately, it was Arkhipov’s voice that prevailed. He persuaded Savitsky to surface and to await further orders from Moscow. Had the nuclear torpedo been fired, war would have ensued within minutes.  According to U.S. Secretary of Defense under Kennedy, Robert McNamara, we came very close to nuclear war, closer than we knew at the time.

The important thing to remember here, I think, is that neither side had an exclusive claim on truth or morality: The “enemy,” a Communist sub commander, saved the world. If you’re interested, here is an interesting account on the subject in The Guardian.

Vladimir Putin is, to some, evil incarnated—but is Donald J. Trump any better? Sometimes there’s little to choose between a KGB officer and a New York real estate developer.

An Unnecessary Holiday

It Was Leif Eriksson Who Discovered America

It Was Leif Eriksson Who Discovered America

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue …

Okay, I’m willing to grant him that. He didn’t “discover” America, though. The original discoverers walked across what is now the Bering Strait (or sailed in from various Pacific islands) and scattered through North and South America thousands of years ago. If you’re looking for a European discoverer, your man is the Icelander Leif Eriksson, aided and abetted by information from one Bjarni Herjulfsson. He started a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland.

The Viking settlers did not stick around. They faced constant warfare with the Skraelings (i.e. aborigines) and gave it up as a lost cause. But they left behind an archeological record and wrote the experience up in the Vinland Saga, which you can read for yourself. Penguin Books has a good edition, which includes several related sagas bound in the same volume.

In the meantime, we are stuck with this holiday in October commemorating an Italian explorer who is reviled by generations of the people he called Indians. If you want to see what they really thought, read Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire. The Spanish and Portuguese colonial experiences left behind some very pretty churches and millions of tormented Indian slaves, if they were so unlucky as to survive.

Columbus himself was not himself an arrant villain, but he made it possible for real arrant villains like Pedro de Alvarado and Nuño de Guzman to control the lives of thousands of innocents. Okay, so maybe they had human sacrifice—but nowhere on the scale of death practiced by the Iberian newcomers.