The spirit of the nation and its legends

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On the creators of the Slavonic alphabet Cyril and Methodius and Pushkin Day in Russia – the Day of the Russian language

By Kirill Privalov

As is generally known, there are no coincidences. If they do occur, it’s no more than God’s grimace. However, the proximity of two landmark memorable dates, which are truly historic and fundamental for us, makes us reflect on a lot: on the dependence of civilization on the language of the peoples that form it; on language as a tool that makes a nation; on the relationship of culture (and, above all, literature) with the path of a country’s development, economy, politics and public thought; on us, the Russian people, regardless of our religion and ethnicity; and, lastly, on national spiritual values. For language is not only the “spirit of a people” (we thank the German Wilhelm von Humboldt for the formulation!), but also a powerful means of consolidating a nation, an impetus to its awareness of its historical significance, a means of determining the place of a State on the world map.

All the more so because we need not invent our national history – its milestones are concrete and obvious, even though ancient facts and events, having filtered through the centuries, have already turned into legend, including the legend of the great Russian language. Every day, every hour and every minute we live and create, enjoy and suffer in its space. We live in this extremely rich, amazing language without realizing our happiness that is given freely.

Monument to the holy brothers Methodius and Cyril in Saratov. Sculptor A.A. Rozhnikov. 2009

Now about the significant dates. In their proximity I see a certain sign, saturated with many meanings, which are yet to be deciphered by many generations. 24th May is the Slavonic Literature and Culture Day, which, of course, is perceived by us as a holiday in honour of the holy brothers Cyril and Methodius Equal–to-the-Apostles, the creators of the Slavonic alphabet.

And after it, on 6th June, is Pushkin Day, as well as the International Russian Language Day. The holiday is timed to coincide with the birthday of the great writer, and this year Alexander Sergeevich turns 225. Happy birthday, “our everything”!

And we will congratulate ourselves as well. We are terribly lucky that such a genius as Pushkin was born in our land. (Though, given the truly Russian nature of Pushkin’s work, it probably could not have been otherwise). And he, the creator of the modern Russian language, was lucky enough to create his masterpieces with the help of a wonderful tool inherited from his ancestors, called the Cyrillic alphabet.

Not every inventor manages to give his invention his own name. The younger of the “brothers of Thessalonica” was one of them. But, of course, the merit belongs to both creators – they are inseparable in history and in our grateful memory: Saints Cyril and Methodius Equal-to-the-Apostles. They are the authors of the eloquent letters of many meanings, thanks to which the powerful and immortal Slavonic Words gained their essence and flesh. In the beginning was the Word… Isn’t it about us? Well, as is generally known, the word (just as the world is not made of atoms, but of stories) consists of letters.

The letters…

Ancient icons thrown into the fire by iconoclasts are instantly devoured by flames and turned into burned pieces of wood. A dove-coloured column of smoke from the fire rises into the sky of Constantinople. And in the tongues of flame, fatally creeping upward, one after another Slavonic letters float out, materializing: Az, Buki, Vedi, Glagol, Dobro, Est, Zhivete, Zelo… They soar into eternity and carry an easy–to-read message to posterity for many centuries: “I know the letters: writing is a treasure. Live virtuously…” Let him who has eyes see, let him who has ears hear, and let him who has a heart understand! Behind each of our (Slavonic, Russian) letters there is a deep meaning – not only philosophical, but also worldly.

This is how the script of a full-length film, conceived not so long ago by a Russian film-making crew about Saints Cyril and Methodius, began. It’s not an easy task. After all, we know so little about these wonderful people, whose lives are like a historical detective story in the style of Umberto Eco, and about their era: wanderings, suffering, palace intrigues, imprisonment, slave markets… I remember once staying in the very centre of Rome. I woke up unusually early. Since it wasn’t breakfast time at the hotel yet, I decided to look around in the area, which resembled an archaeological site. Once I turned into a neighbouring narrow street, I saw a plaque attached to ancient masonry: “Saints Cyril and Methodius served at this monastery.” And – an amazing thing! – an old low door in the wall (that had sunk into the ground in the Middle Ages) was open early in the morning. I entered, trying not to hit my head on the lintel, and found myself in a humid, semi-dark chapel, where I immediately felt as if I had been transported back into the ninth century A.D., a period that historians justly associate with the “brothers of Thessalonica”.

They spent their childhood and youth in Thessalonica, the second largest city of the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople. It was not a frontier city, but it stood at the border of the Romaic, Greco-Latin and Slavonic cultures. However, the brothers were fluent in Slavonic because their mothers were Slavs. According to various documents, the elder brother, Methodius, who was orphaned early, and the younger, Constantine (in the schema: Cyril), were half-brothers and only had the same father. He, the droungarios Leo, the commander of a large military unit in the Byzantine army, believed that his sons (with their significant age gap) would continue his military career. However, only Methodius initially pursued it: after serving in the army he rose to the position of governor of the province. As for Constantine, he was sickly from childhood: according to some sources, he had epilepsy and from a young age was keen on sciences. His family had a good reason to nickname him “Philosopher”.

Indeed, the young man who was taken to the court of Emperor himself for his talents, whose teachers were the outstanding thinkers Leo the Mathematician and Photius (later he was elected Patriarch of Constantinople), showed extraordinary abilities, especially in learning foreign languages, mathematics and studying the sacred books of the Abrahamic religions. All this would later be useful to him in very difficult diplomatic and intelligence missions in the lands of the Arabs and the Germans, the Khazars and the Slavs…

Constantine-Cyril, who refused a prestigious marriage, a good dowry and a brilliant career at the imperial court, chose the monastic life as his vocation. He entered a monastery on Mt Olympus on the Asia Minor coast of the Sea of Marmara, an important monastic centre in the early Middle Ages. Methodius, who had previously decided to serve God, too, was already abbot there. Most likely, it is Mt Olympus that can be considered as the birthplace of the written Slavonic language.

What was the impetus for this? Today it is impossible to give an exact answer. It is known that Cyril travelled to Bulgaria, where he baptised local people, but was dissatisfied with his mission: the Bulgarians did not have a written language, which meant they could not translate liturgical books from Greek and live according to Christian canons. There are such key moments in history when all the conditions for a major discovery come together and but there is no genius to give an impetus to a spiritual breakthrough. Saints Cyril and Methodius proved to be such people who were in the right place at the right time.

Note in which order this tandem is usually given: Cyril is always first. It is no coincidence: it was he, so fragile yet such a persistent Philosopher, who studied the writing systems of different languages and, starting from the Greek alphabet, undertook many years of work on the creation of the Slavonic alphabet. He successfully used the three main Christian symbols as a graphic basis: a cross, a circle and a triangle. For the “brothers of Thessalonica”, who defended the spiritual foundation of the new letters, the creation of the Slavonic alphabet was part of their monastic feat. Saints Cyril and Methodius, who were sent from Constantinople to the remote parts of the empire, uncovered the relics of St Clement – the Pope of Rome who was martyred by pagans – in Chersonesos, the centre of the Byzantine colony in the Crimea. They solemnly translated the relics to the cathedral of Chersonesos and then transferred a portion of them to Rome.

This solemn act later saved the “brothers of Thessalonica” from many troubles. For before their arrival in the Vatican Saints Cyril and Methodius had been on another Byzantine mission in Great Moravia, a Slavonic state on the site of what is now Czech Republic and partly Slovakia. There, under the auspices of Prince Rastislav, who had appealed to Constantinople with a request to send a “mission of teachers” to the banks of the Vltava River, a translation of the Church service into their native language was made for the Slavs. Constantine-Cyril translated selected Greek texts, which included the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. As a result of the mission, which lasted forty months, not only the foundation of the Slavonic written tradition was laid, but also a whole school for the development of Slavonic writing was set up with the participation of many students. This caused great indignation among the German clergy, who always considered the lands of the Slavs to be a region of their influence and not only in the spiritual sense. The German clergy were strongly opposed to translating sacred texts into “barbaric” languages, believing that the laity were not ready to perceive them except in Latin, Greek or Hebrew. And here was an affront of some “half-blooded” monks!

Uncovering of St Clement’s Relics by Saints Cyril and Methodius. Miniature from the Menologion of Emperor Basil II, 11th century

The German clergy arranged the trial of the “brothers of Thessalonica” when they came to Italy: first in Venice, then in the Vatican. But the newly elected Pope Adrian II, an Italian by birth, received the Byzantines with honour, because they brought the relics of Pope Clement, the third Bishop of Rome, from the Crimea. Adrian II “blessed… the Slovenian books”, laying them on the altar of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, the main Church in Rome, where the Liturgy was celebrated in Slavonic…

We could talk for hours about the thorny path of the founders of the Slavonic alphabet, but then we will have to focus only on Methodius. For in 869 in Rome Cyril, who was in his early forties, would fall ill and die (according to one version, he was poisoned). Following the testament of his younger brother, Methodius, who was appointed Archbishop of Pannonia and Moravia for a while by the Pope, carried on his missionary endeavours. But on 6th April 885 Methodius (after many trials caused through the efforts of the revengeful and treacherous Germans) passed away, blessing his Slovak disciple Gorazd to continue the work of their lives. However, in a relatively short span of time the labours of the equal-to-the-apostle brothers would be brought to naught in the lands of the Western Slavs, who joined the German-Roman world under threat of the sword. Only among the peoples who wholeheartedly embraced Orthodoxy – the Russians, the Bulgarians, the Serbs, the Belarusians and the Ukrainians – did the seeds of faith and culture, sowed by Cyril and Methodius, give and continue to give plentiful fruits.

Our contemporary

“Language is the body of thought,” Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel said. Forty-one letters of the Cyrillic alphabet took into account all the phonetic specifics of the Old Slavonic language. And then, as it turned out, the Russian language as well. Over more than a millennium only two (!) new letters needed to be added into the alphabet. The effectiveness of this alphabet was confirmed by the development of great literature, which flourished in Russia in the nineteenth century. But the language – a living organism – required updating, and Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin became the genius of the new, modern Russian language.

He is our contemporary. Gogol also perceived him as a man of the future. He said that Pushkin is “the Russian man in his final development.” Of course, Alexander Sergeevich is an absolutely Russian phenomenon, but also an international one.

“In France alone Eugene Onegin was published in different French versions at least ten times, and there were about forty translations into French in total,” says the French journalist and writer Dimitri de Kochko, the initiator of the annual festival of translations of Russian literature in Paris. “Even the President of the French Republic Jacques Chirac attempted to make a poetic translation of Pushkin’s novel into the language of Rabelais and Hugo.”

Oh my God! In the mid-1980s I heard this story from Chirac himself, who was at that time the Prime Minister of France. I remember Monsieur Chirac (he still wore spectacles back then) receiving me, Literaturnaya Gazeta’s correspondent in Paris, at Hotel Matignon and giving an interview ahead of an official visit to Moscow.

Charming, sociable, smoking nonstop one Marlboro after another, which he took out one by one from the inner pocket of his jacket, Jacques Chirac began to talk with pride and nostalgia about the Russian, or rather Pushkin, pages of his biography:

“In my student years in order to stand out among my peers I resolved to study Sanskrit. But where could I find an expert in this proto-language? I was recommended to approach an old Russian emigre who used to teach rare languages at St Petersburg University. I started studying, but a month later the professor told me frankly: ‘You will never master Sanskrit. But it seems to me that you will be able to learn Russian…’

“No sooner said than done! I started studying Russian and I made progress, especially because the professor had a fascinating daughter. She set a condition: ‘We’ll speak only in Russian.’ I was ready to do anything to win the heart of the beautiful lady. Soon I became almost a member of their family: they began to invite me to their dinners and Sunday lunches and took me to the Russian church… You won’t believe it: I even began to dream in Russian! Once the professor gave me Eugene Onegin to read, and in order to impress his daughter I (what a rascal!) decided to translate Pushkin’s masterpiece into French. And I succeeded. I even printed out the manuscript in several copies and sent them to prestigious Parisian publishers.

“None of them bothered to answer, which, frankly, upset me very much at the time.… The paradox of the situation is that when two decades later I became Prime Minister, several well-known publishing houses wrote me letters at once offering to print my Eugene Onegin. But this time I didn’t answer anyone. However, I memorised the publishers’ names…”

“Pushkin’s novels are full of a thirst for personal participation in modern life,” the remarkable writer and literary critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote. “Merry name – Pushkin,” Alexander Blok concluded. We will talk about Pushkin’s “world of events” and his unique “encyclopaedia of feelings” in this issue of Russian Mind.

Pushkin is boundless and unpredictable, eternal and universal. It’s not without reason that a wise person once told me: “When you don’t know what to talk about, talk about Pushkin.”

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