Danubian clouds

The plane takes off, for one minute it seems to move toward the downtown, but then turns sharply south, it follows the line of the Danube. On both sides of the river’s strip, the colorful chessboards of arable lands, mining lakes and salty backwaters shine in the vaporous afternoon sunshine.

After crossing the Serbian border, the plane soon reaches Vukovar where the Danube, obeying the orders of the old kings, turned to the east, and still outlines the boundaries of a missing country. The plane, before saying goodbye to that country, and continuing its journey south through the long Serbian corridor in front of the crowded rooms of the small Western Balkan peoples, describes an elegant circle above the last river bend, which, along with its three tributaries, draws a complex circuit on the Bačka plain.

The Erdőd (in Croatian, Erdut) Bend, as the Danubian Islands blog writes, was forced to turn to east by the Erdőd loess range, which rises up to sixty meters above the river. The loess range, extending from Almás to Erdőd, is well visible on the map of the First Military Survey (1763-1787). To the east, at Almás the Drava flows into the Danube, from the south the stream, which the map still calls Weis Graben, and from the north the tiny river of Mostunka. If, on the map of Mapire.eu, you click on Options, and then you set the layer of “First Military Survey” to 0%, you will see that the lake under the former Rácz Millidits and today’s Srpski Miletić, which, in the foreground of the photo, repeats the bend in the shape of a half moon, gathered up from the water of the river.

The afternoon vapors have become thicker, and a multitude of tiny clouds rise up from the hot plain, forming a threatening cloud cup. Sometime, when kayaking on the Danube, we used to look up worried, whether it would be poured upon us before we camped. Below, the Danube is the reality, the paddle strikes, the country borders. From below, the clouds floating above the large water belong to it: they are the Danubian clouds. Seen from above, the three-dimensional world of the clouds is realistic and self-contained: they do not belong to anything, least to the tiny strip meandering on the worn cloth of the earth. Nevertheless, they are the same Danubian clouds. This is why I could send this photo to the Danubian clouds photo contest of the Danubian Islands blog, where it won the first prize. The river has been stretched to the sky, “the foundations flew upon high.”

Tamás Sajó: The cloud looks back

Stalin's Vestal Virgins

When Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, the centuries old tradition of keeping dancing beers was banned in the country. The Austrian Four Paws foundation purchased the animals from their keepers, and carried them to the bear park of Belitsa, where they have been gradually teaching them how to live, move about, copulate and obtain food as free bears do. Yet, when they see a man, these bears stand again on two feet, and start dancing. As if they were calling their former keeper to come back and take their control in his hand again. As if they were telling: “Let him beat me, let him treat me badly, but let him relieve me of this goddamned need to deal with my own life”, writes the Polish star journalist Witold Szabłowski in his 2014 book Tańczące niedźwiedzie (Dancing bears. True stories of people nostalgic for life under tyranny).

Szabłowski devotes the first chapter to his conversations with Gypsy bear keepers and animal rights activists. But, as the subtitle of the book indicates, he also uses the figure of the bears longing for their former life, captive but without responsibilities, as a metaphor. While traveling through Eastern Europe, from Estonia to Grece, he shows in a series of reports how nostalgic these peoples are of the past dictatorships as a period of security in all sorts of ways, and how this nostalgia becomes a fertile soil for new dictatorships.

Chapter Eighth is about Georgia, and one of its emblematic buildings, the Stalin Museum in Gori. This was founded in 1957 by Gori’s council next to the modest birthplace of the Leader, which was surrounded by a stunning Stalin Baroque protective building as a sarcophagus. The foundation was indirectly inspired by Khrushchev’s secret speech on the 20th party congress of 1956, in which he condemned the sins of Stalinism. Although Georgia suffered a great deal from Stalin’s and Beria’s terror, the Georgians considered the speech as the plundering of their national pride, and two weeks later, on March 5, the anniversary of Stalin’s death, they went to the streets to protect Stalin'ş memory, absurdly, against the Soviet government. The demonstration, which lasted for several days, was finally suppressed by the tanks of the Soviet army, leaving dozens – or hundreds – of dead after them. From the on, the Georgian party leadership kept distance from the Soviet one, and one of its first gestures was the founding of the Stalin Museum, the memorial place of “the real Stalin”, in Gori.

In the 1990s, the museum was closed down for a long time, but the exhibition was not suppressed. They planned to reorganize it so it would also display the sins of Stalinism, but nothing came of it. After the reopening in the 2000s, the exhibition remained the same, only a couple of tableaus were added to illustrate the Georgian historical background. And the spirit of the museum and of the museum workers has also remained the same. This spirit has been captured by Szabłowski in his conversations with the museum staff, from which he compiled the following chapter, entitled Stalin’s Vestal Virgins.

“He comes to me at night. He gazes at me, puffs on his pipe, and twirls his mustache. He smiles, and then heads for the door. Then I weep and cry for him to stay. But what guy would be bothered by a woman crying? Georgian men are like that: they have a drink, enter you, come quickly, and fall asleep. I hate men who drink. But here in Gori there’s no other kind. The other kind only exists in American movies.

“Stalin was a different matter. Highly civilized. He knew how to take care of a woman, how to pay her a compliment, how to smell nice. He lived modestly, but he wore smart clothes. And he didn’t drink too much. And if he did, it was only good, foreign alcohol. I hardly need mention the fact that he conquered fascism and Hitler. So I said to myself many years ago, ‘Tanya, why the hell should you have to squabble with drunks? Why the hell, when you can live with Stalin?’”

Anna Sreseli: He’s like family

“We’re standing outside the house where Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was born. His parents lived in poverty. His mother did laundry for the local priests. His father was a cobbler. As you can see, his house has had a structure in the classical style built around it, and the neighboring ones have been demolished. Yes, the entire district. No, I don’t think there’s anything odd about that. Would you be happier if there were hens crapping here, and children playing ball?

“My grandmother lived in one of the houses that was demolished. She was given an apartment in a block. To the end of her life she kept saying, ‘How happy I am to have been born next to Stalin’s house. And that I can still see it from my windows.’

“Grandmother could remember Stalin’s mother. He lived here for more than a decade. She lived here almost to the end of her life. For us, it was a big source of pride. The biggest. Because in our town there’s nothing else going on. If it weren’t for the museum, the town would have ceased to exist long ago.

“A few years ago we had a war. The Ossetia border isn’t far away. A hundred Russian tanks drove into Gori. We fled to Tbilisi. I wasn’t afraid they’d blow up my housing block and my apartment, only that they’d blow up the museum. But they didn’t damage anything. They’re still afraid of Stalin. They didn’t touch the smallest patch of grass. They just took photos of each other by his statue. And that’s how Stalin saved us from beyond the grave.

“When I was at school, some of the girls dreamed of working in a store, others longed to fly into outer space, but I wanted to tell people about our great compatriot. I steered my entire life toward making it come true. I chose to study history. And after college I ran straight to the museum to ask for a job.

“But by then the Soviet Union had collapsed. The museum was closed and had barely survived. They had only recently begun to employ people again. I was the first person to be accepted in the new intake. Meanwhile I’d started to teach history at the high school—so I work part time at the museum.

“When I was at college, we were still taught that Stalin was an outstanding statesman. But the system changed, the curriculum changed, and now I have to teach that he was a tyrant and a criminal. I don’t think that’s true. The resettlements? They were necessary for people to live in peace. The killings? He wasn’t responsible for them—it was Beria. The famine in Ukraine? That was a natural disaster. The Katyn massacre? I knew you’d ask. All the Poles ask about it. But there was a war on—in wartime that sort of action is a normal thing. And before you start ranting, please let me finish. Are you feeling calmer now? All right, I’ll tell you my personal opinion.

“I regard Stalin as a great man, but I can’t say that, either to my students or to the tourists, so I say, ‘Some regard him as a dictator, others as a tyrant, and others see him as a genius. What he really was, you can decide for yourselves.’”

Tatiana Mardzhanishvili: O Christ, take me to dear Stalin

“When I see what they’ve done to our beloved Stalin, my heart bleeds! How could they? How could they make such a good man into a monster, a cannibal, an ogre?

“Once upon a time, bus after bus came to our museum. People stood in lines several hundred yards long. I used to look at those people’s faces, and I could see the goodness emanating from them. But nowadays? One would bite the other. That’s capitalism for you.

“Now I don’t go there anymore. First, because of regret—for my youth, my job, and my friends. And second, because my legs are weak. I can’t even get down the stairs on my own. In March I’ll be eighty-two, and you can’t expect a person to be healthy all their life. In the morning I get up, cut a slice of bread, make the tea, sit down, and say to myself, ‘O Christ, why did you let me live to see times like these? Why do they badmouth our darling Stalin?’

“But later I think, ‘Just remember, Tanya, how much Stalin suffered for the people. It was for you too that he went without enough food and sleep. He fought against fascism so you could finish your education.’ And then I fetch the medal with Stalin’s face on it, which I was given when I retired. I stroke the darling man’s mustache, and somehow I feel better.

“I worked at the museum from 1975. As a nabliudatel, a person responsible for the order and safety of the exhibits. If anyone tried to touch them, we had to go and shout at them.

“It wasn’t easy. Old women used to come from the villages and throw themselves at our Stalin. They had to kiss each picture in the display, like icons in a church. And there are over a thousand of those pictures! If a whole busload of those old crones drove in, and they all wanted to kiss them, what was I to do? If the director was looking, I’d go up and shout. But if he wasn’t, I’d say, ‘Kiss away, ladies. May God grant you good health! But don’t touch the mask! Under no circumstances.’ The mask is the most sacred object in the entire museum, because it’s his death mask.

“Before, I worked at the National Museum in Tbilisi, but my second husband was from Gori, and I managed to arrange a transfer. It wasn’t easy. The Stalin museum wasn’t a place you could just walk into off the street and ask, ‘You don’t have a job opening, do you?’ Public opinion counted. I was a divorcée. My first husband drank and beat me—the less said about him the better. At the time, I was afraid the divorce would be a problem. Luckily, I had a very good reference from the museum in Tbilisi.

“The smartest people from all over the world used to come and admire Stalin’s house. From all over Russia, Asia, and America. Journalists, ambassadors, and artists. And I stood among the exhibits with a small card showing my name, as proud as could be. That job meant everything to me. The museum was like a home to me. “My husband didn’t understand. I had nothing to talk to him about. Although I only guarded the exhibits, I used to read books and got to know new people. But he drank too. He tried to beat me, but this time I wasn’t having it. Later on, he fell sick and went on welfare. He’d spend all day long sitting in the apartment, or at his mother’s. He used to say nasty things about Stalin, just to spite me.

“When the USSR collapsed, he stuck out his tongue at me. It gave him great satisfaction. And then he died.

“It’s a shame he didn’t live to the present times. Now I’d be sticking out my tongue at him. What do we need all this capitalism for, all these American cheeses, juices, and chocolate? You can’t even buy normal milk anymore—it has to be in a carton, because that’s how it is in America. I think, ‘O Christ, take me off to my dear Stalin. Take me away from this world, because I can’t bear it here any longer.’”

Nana Magavariani: Whenever I see him, a shiver goes down my spine

“My job title used to be ‘head of personnel.’ Nowadays it’s ‘manager.’

“The museum has a total of sixty-three employees. I am responsible for their recruitment and employment. There are ten tour guides, eleven custodians, and two cashiers. Since last year, we also have a pioneer—a girl in a uniform and a red scarf who sells postcards and poses for pictures. That was my idea, for which I received a personal commendation from the director. ‘A tourist has to have something to be photographed with, sir. Otherwise he won’t praise our museum, and as a result we’ll have bad PR.’ I know, because we’ve had special training on tourist activity within capitalism.

“In the past, people used to come mainly from the Soviet Union. Russian was enough for us, but we also had two ladies who knew English and French. Nowadays a Russian tourist is a rare occasion for celebration. If one turns up, half the personnel comes to look at him. And we give him the best possible tour. Let them see that politics is politics, but the Georgians are their friends.

“These days most of the tourists are from America and Poland. And that’s a problem, because not all the ladies know English well enough to provide for that sort of tourist—here each tourist has a personal guide. What can we do? It’s not as if I’m going to fire the ladies before their retirement, or teach them English. They can see that in the new times they’re not needed, and that they’re a sort of burden for the museum. But we never talk to one another about it. I know what it means to lose your job in your prime.

“I used to work at a clothing factory. In the personnel department too. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the factory collapsed with it. And everything was looted—even the glass was stolen out of the window frames. In Stalin’s day something like that wouldn’t have been possible. The culprits would have been punished. So these days when I hear the stories they tell about him, I say, ‘People, you’ve lost your minds. Remember the Soviet Union. Everyone had work. The children had a free education. From Tbilisi to Vladivostok.’ If it weren’t for Communism, I, for example, would still be living in the countryside. I would never have thought of occupying a managerial position, because only men had those jobs before then. No system has ever given women as much.

“Since its collapse, everything is worse. In the past, the doctors couldn’t refuse to help a poor person. Now the health service is private, and even if you break a leg you have to pay. It’s the same with education. A retired person used to have the phone for free, and paid less for electricity. But now? You get a pension of twenty dollars, and the prices are like in the West.

“And life gets worse and worse for women. In the USSR men had a good life. There were no wars. And if a man hit you, you could go and complain to the party committee. The committee informed the party cell at the factory, and the abuser could get into big trouble.

“These days the men have no work and they’re frustrated. And when one of them hits you, you’ve no one to defend you.

“But at our museum most of the staff are women. Even in the support services, which I haven’t encountered at any other workplace of this kind. Most of the space here is dedicated to Stalin as a son, a husband, and a father. Less to him as a soldier or as a strategist. Women are much better suited to this.

“I also think Stalin’s magic is at work here. Women were always mad about him. The wives of diplomats wrote in their diaries that he was very attractive.

“Something of his charm remains to this day. Sometimes when I stop at his death mask, I only have to glance at it, and it sends such a shiver down my spine that I have to go outside into the fresh air for a while.”

Larisa Gazashvili: I love his poetry

“My parents were the Romeo and Juliet of the Stalin era.

“My paternal grandfather was a Georgian prince. He rode a white horse, he had a large estate, and in his house he kept a padlocked chest of gold. When Communism came along, they called him a kulak,* they took away his land and his gold, and left him with nothing but the chest. I still have it to this day.

“My maternal grandfather was from a peasant family. Thanks to Stalin, he went to school. Thanks to Stalin, he worked on a collective farm, and later on—also thanks to Stalin—he became its manager.

“The worse life became for my paternal grandfather, the better it was for my maternal one. When my parents fell in love, neither of their fathers would hear of them getting married.

“My grandfather, the manager, shut my mother in the house under lock and key. Later on he sent her to college in Moscow. He sought out suitors for her among the sons of his friends.

“My other grandfather, the prince, sought a wife for my father from the former aristocracy. Later on he shouted at him. And even later he cursed him.

“But as we all know, when young people dig in their heels there’s no one more determined. My parents got married, with neither set of parents present at the wedding. They never went to visit each other, and pretended not to know each other. So it was to the end of their lives. “So when I got a job at the Stalin museum, my grandfather the manager kissed me heartily. And my grandfather the prince was mortally offended.

“At the museum I was responsible for propaganda. It was a very serious role. We used to publish a newspaper, Stalin’s poetry, and other literature. He wrote beautiful poems. Romantic, tugging at the heartstrings. If he hadn’t become a politician, who knows, maybe he’d have won the Nobel Prize?

“The newspaper was called Bulletin. Or rather at one time it was called Bulletin of the Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin Museum. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, it was reduced to Bulletin. To avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.

“When the USSR collapsed, we had awful confusion. First they closed our museum; then they opened it again. They changed the exhibition, then went back to the old one. Nobody had the money to replace the entire display. Nor did anyone have the courage to close the museum down entirely. Too many Georgians still love Stalin.

“Now, unfortunately, there’s no money to publish the Bulletin. And I’m a tour guide.

“I went to college in Kaliningrad. I had a good life there. I worked at a school, but when Mommy fell seriously ill I had to come back to Gori.

“Some people we knew said a woman at the Stalin museum had gone on maternity leave. So I went to the party committee to ask about the job. They said first I had to pass an exam.

“The exam was hard. I had to quote by heart from the history of the Communist Party, Stalin’s biography, and the history of the USSR. But I had studied history. I knew it all by heart. So I passed with flying colors.

“So many bad things are said about Communism, but in the past the director understood that on Sundays I had to have the day off because I’m a churchgoer. Yet now they’ve put me down for Sundays. Out of malice, I’m sure.”

Tatiana Gurgenidze: I’d have been good to him

“I was born in a bad system. Because I have the mentality of a socialist hero of labor. When something needs to be done for society, I go and do it. I’ve produced a wall newspaper for the employees and classes for single mothers bringing up children on their own.

“In the Communist era, everyone would have respected me. But now that we have capitalism, they look at me as if I’m an idiot.

“So when I really can’t manage anymore, I come to the museum to calm down. And I say, ‘Mr. Stalin, I know you’d appreciate it.’ And it helps. And when I dream about Stalin—as I told you, he looks at me, twirls his moustache, and leaves—it’s usually a few days after one of those relaxing museum visits.

“I’m not really in the right era when it comes to my attitude to men either. You see, there wasn’t any sex in the Soviet Union, at least not obviously. There was ‘intercourse between the genders.’ There wasn’t any of what the young people watch on television these days. All those music videos and naked butts, if you’ll pardon the expression. Instead of a kiss, someone just lightly stroked someone else’s arm, and that was enough. A woman had to be a good worker, dress and behave modestly. So whenever I’m shocked by the sight of today’s young girls, I go to the museum too. And I say, ‘Mr. Stalin, you wouldn’t like it either.’ And once again it helps.

“I don’t like drunks. Or drug addicts. Our president upsets me, because why does he have to antagonize Russia? It’s a known fact that you can even come to terms with a bear if you want to. But Saakashvili* is insistent—with Russia just across the border—on making a second America here. We’ve had a war because of him, and we’re sure to have another one too. When the war was on, they closed the museum, so I came to the park, to the statue, and I said, ‘Mr. Stalin, you’d have got a firm grip on it all, and there’d be peace.’

“And sometimes I go and say to him, ‘If you were alive, maybe we’d be together. You’d have a good time with me. I know how to cook, I’m a cheerful person, and I can sing well too.’ And I fantasize about how nice it would be to be Stalin’s wife. But later on I reject those thoughts, because I’m behaving like an idiot. Stalin is dead. Communism has collapsed. It’s over. It’s finished. Been and gone.

“If I dream about him when I’m feeling like that, I’m very cold and official toward him in my dream.”

Natia Joldbori: son, be like Stalin

“My momma told me, ‘Darling, don’t go for that job. Of course Stalin was a great man. But something like that looks bad on your résumé these days. One day you’ll want a different job, and they won’t give it to you. Besides, it’s embarrassing to work there.’

“But I have a small son, and I needed the money. In Gori, if you have any ambitions, there’s no choice. You can teach at a school or work in the local administration. Or at Stalinland—that’s what some people call our museum. Young people especially like to make fun of it. They call the women who work here the Stalinettes or the vestal virgins—because it’s as if they’re doing their best not to let the flame of Communism go out. I keep all that at arm’s length, though I can see that for most people in Gori the world ended when the USSR collapsed. I have one elderly colleague whose grandfathers were both killed in the Stalin era, but even so she’ll never stop defending him and loving him.

“I can hardly remember Communism. I was born when it was in its decline. I remember seeing the tanks in Vilnius on TV. When we regained independence, my dad and I went to the main town square with a Georgian flag. Those are fine memories.

“Dad soon understood the new times. He sent me to learn English when I was just seven years old. Thanks to my English, I got my job at the museum. There are only two of us here who can speak it. As a result, we have the most tour groups, while the ladies who are deeply in love with Stalin sit and make themselves cup after cup of coffee. Afterward, we get the same salary as them. But I’m not complaining. The main thing is that I have a job.

“My son doesn’t know a single word of Russian. He’s had English since preschool. It’ll be a totally different generation. Stalin? A completely abstract concept.

“What do I think about Stalin? Here, in Gori, it’s customary for parents or grandparents to take their kids to the museum and tell them about him. I brought my toddler here too. And I told him, just like it says in those American guides to success, ‘He was much worse off than you are. His father drank, his cottage was falling down, and the other kids were good-for-nothings. But he was hardworking, thanks to which years later he ruled the entire country. If you study, you can achieve a lot too.’”

Anna Tkabladze: we boycott the carve-up of Poland

“Here we have his favorite cigarettes. Here’s the watch he was given by his mother. He was a good son. An affectionate husband. A loving father. He cared for his staff as if they were his own children.

“Nowadays they say he was a bad man. But in the archive we have pictures of him planting apple trees in the summer. I think a bad man would have been beating someone up or killing them, not planting trees. You have your views. That he murdered millions. But there’s no proof of that. All the documents were faked by Beria. Stalin only made one mistake—he was too good. He put too much trust in others.

“I can’t say all that to the tourists. The management writes scripts for the guided tours. What’s in them? Just like I said: he was a good son and an affectionate husband. We can also mention that he defeated fascism. But not much more. Murders? I’ve just about had enough of you. Here we have a sort of unwritten agreement that if a tourist really gets under our skin, we can go outside the museum to argue with him. But right now we are inside the museum, and I have to stick to the script.

“They’ve even posted a sign about the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Of course, it was wrong from the start. Because for Poland it certainly wasn’t a good pact at all. But it gave the USSR a few years to arm itself, thanks to which fascism was defeated. But we’re supposed to give the impression that the carve-up of Poland was a myth. So we leave that sign out of our tours. It’s our silent boycott.

“I’ll tell you frankly, I don’t know what to think about the Poles. On the one hand, when we had the war with Russia here, you people helped us a lot. Trucks full of clothes and food kept arriving every day.

“But nobody harps on us as much as you people. Everyone else comes through here and listens with interest, but the Poles shout at me as if I were Stalin himself and had carved up Poland in person. And now they’re saying Poland is going to help rebuild the Stalin Museum as the Museum of the Fight against Communism. If that’s true, all Gori will come to a standstill. Because we have nothing here except for our Stalin.”

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The introductory motto of the exhibition is: “Man does not live forever. I also die. What will be the judgment of the people and of history about me? There were a lot of mistakes, but were there were no achievements as well? The mistakes will of course be attributed to me. A large pile of garbage will be collected on my tomb, but the day will come, when the wind of history will implacably blow it away.”

Dissolving: Private code

Many years ago, I drove a car with automatic gear shift for the first time in Tbilisi. To avoid practicing the new technology in urban traffic, first Lloyd came to the wheel. He had long been driving at home, in the States, but never in Europe. At the first intersection, he asked: “What does that red board mean with the white line? Should we stop?” “No, Lloyd. You should not enter.” And then: “And that yellow diamond?” “Highway, we have the precedent to cross.” “How silly. They should rather put a STOP board in the crossing street.” After a couple of questions I asked, suspiciously: “Lloyd, how many pages is your Highway Code Book?” “Well, twenty or so. We do not have such silly boards. Everyone is expected to drive with a sober mind, and in doubtful cases they write it with text.”

In my experience, the drivers in Tbilisi are also led by Lloyd’s wise principles. They do not care much with traffic signs, they rather use private codes: beeps, blinking, hand signals, overshouting. And unique markings on their cars, which are not included in any Code Book, but provide more information about the owner and his intentions than any road sign.

Tbilisi, Jewish quarter. Either he had no money for the last seven, or that perfect license plate is reserved to the Messiah.

The enemy of my enemy

Property protection, Georgian style


Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918): A train from the Kakhetian wine region to Tbilisi

Goran Bregović’s music to Nana Dzhordzhadze’s შეყვარებული კულინარის 1001 რეცეპტი / Shekvarebuli kulinaris ataserti retsepti (A Chef in Love, 1996). The film, showing the cuisine and life of Tbilisi in the 1910s, can be seen with Russian dubbing here.

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The day of victory

In Noratus, next to the medieval Armenian cemetery, a small booth, where a cheerful old woman is selling thin coffee, knitted socks, T-shirts with the letters of the Armenian alphabet. Among the dolls in Armenian national costume, the national flag is stretched, with a T-shirt on it, displaying the photo of Nikol Pashinyan. I kneel down to take a picture of it. The woman smiles. “Dear little Nikol”, she caresses the photo with love.

“What are the expectations?” I ask our host at the Odzun church. “Ninety-nine percent that he’d be elected.” “And is it not possible that then the oligarchs will call on their followers to block the roads?” He just spats. “The oligarchs, they have long since fled with their money.”

After Karahunj, the Armenian Stonehenge, a car wash with a small eating house, a modern caravanserai, where both man and herd are cared for. A television on the wall, Nikol Pashinyan is holding his introductory speech in the parliament. He’s an unusual sight in suit, after the military outfit of the past weeks. “What is he saying?” I ask the barist. “That everything will be good”, he says enthusiastically.

We arrive to the rock monastery of Noravank around two o’clock in the afternoon. At the monastery’s gate, taxi drivers are squatting, families standing, nobody is moving, everyone is listening to the car radio. The applause just blows out when we get out of the bus. “Victory?” I ask them. “Victory”, they say with shining face. “What proportion?” “Fifty-three against forty-two.” We shake hands. From the radio arises the cheering of the crowd in Yerevan’s main square.

Noruz with kings

Nou Ruz, New Light, the spring equinox, the twenty-first of March, or the first day of the month of Farvardin archangel, New Year’s Day in the Persian calendar. For weeks before it, three kings, singers dressed as Zoroastrian priests or painted as black men go about the bazaars, and wish good luck with New Year’s songs to the merchants and to everyone who rewards it with a few coins. They also brought good luck to me, because although the camera was not set to autofocus, nevertheless the gloom does not destroy the video, but rather makes it mystical. Near the middle, when they get closer, the picture will be sharper, and as they move away, the view gets gradually blurred, as if they were absorbed in the vibrant lights of the bazaar.

Two thousand five hundred years ago on this morning, King Darius and his descendants, surrounded by their nobility and priests, stood in the eastern gate of the Apadana, the royal reception hall of Persepolis, to greet the first ray of the rising sun, and then receive the envoys of the twenty-one provinces. The envoys are still lined up, carved in stone, on the eastern stairway, where they walked up, and on the northern stairway, where they left the royal hall. We go up to the palace at the best time, at five in the afternoon, to see, how the sunset paints them, how it calls them to life for an hour, every day, since two thousand five hundred years.

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The gift-bearing of Persepolis became so emblematic in Persian culture, that even Marcell Mauss’ classical anthropological work, The Gift is illustrated by a Persepolis envoy in the Persian translation.

Just like the visit paid to the king on this day. There is no king in Persepolis now, since Alexander the Great and his chief commanders set fire to Xerxes’ palace on that drunken night. On this day, the people of Iran proceeds to the tomb of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the country. A colorful crowd is waving around the simple and majestic tomb that emerges alone in the plain of Pasargade. Medes from Hamadan, Kurds and Bakhtiari nomads from the Zagros mountains, Azeris and Khuzestanis, Armenians and Baludzhis, taking photos of each other and with each other, marveling at each other and at the greatness of the Persian empire. They also receive with self-evidence and joy the envoys of Europe, the heirs of Athens, who, after so many centuries, have finally come to a better understanding, and came to pay their tribute to the great king of Persia.

Franz Ferdinand’s three deaths

In the previous post about Sarajevo’s syagogues, a cuckoo’s egg slipped in about the Yugoslav memorial plaque of Gavrilo Princip, unscrewed from the wall by the German army marching into the city in April 1941, and sent to Hitler for his birthday. Now the cuckoo hatches from the egg and spreads its wings.

In fact, the removal of the plaque was considered so important by the German official newsreel Deutsche Wochenschau, that they dedicated an entire half minute to it out of the twenty-four-minute broadcast of the truly glamorous events of the week. By clicking on it, the video starts right at 11:38, at the beginning of the scene.

“In Sarajewo. Hier wurde am 28en Juni 1914 der österreichische Tronfolger Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand durch das feige Attentat eines serbischen Studenten niedergestreckt. Diese Schüsse waren das Signal zum Weltkrieg. – Die Marmortafel, die diesem Ort von Volksdeutschen entfernt, und dem deutschem Wehrmacht übergeben. Sie trägt die Inschrift: »An dieser historischen Stätte erkämpfte Gavrilo Princip Serbien die Freiheit.« Der Führer überwiest die Tafel der Berliner Zeughaus.”

“Sarajevo. On June 28, 1914, the infamous terror attack of a Serbian student killed Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand. This gunshot gave the signal to the Great War. – This marble plaque was removed by the Volksdeutsche and handed over to the German army. Its inscription: «In this historic place, Gavrilo Princip achieved freedom for Serbia.» The Führer forwarded the plaque to the Zeughaus in Berlin.”

The newsreel emphasizes that the plaque was removed not by the army, but by the Volksdeutsche, the local ethnic Germans, and it was they who then handed it to the army. However, the spontaneity of the dozen of young people, dressed in flawless white shirts and ties, and performing a well-choreographed little march, is quite questionable. Not to mention that the field musicians and officers of the Wehrmacht are assisting in this action, obviously just as spontaneously. And if we also know that the pictures were taken by Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s personal photographer, who then immediately boarded Hitler’s private train Sonderzug Amerika, especially sent for the plaque, to photograph the next day the Führer, celebrating his fifty-second birthday in Mönichkirchen, as he is intensely looking at the plaque, then it will be clear that it was a well-planned and prepared symbolic event.

Hitler is also beholding extremely spontaneously the plaque surrounded by two and half zombies. We know that only Hoffmann was allowed to take photos of him, and only while posing, in poses worthy of a great statesman. These poses were borrowed from the topos repository created by classical and romantic painting and sculpture, which also offer us a clue to understanding them. The one we see here is “the great general contemplating the ruins of Rome” pose. Which also suggests that this plaque meant more to him than merely spoils of war from an unnatural state created by Versailles.

Hitler agreed with Franz Ferdinand’s removal from the throne, even though he condemned the assassins. The Slavic-friendly crown prince, who had a Czech consort, meant to him and to his associates the danger of a compromise with the Slavs and the diminution of the weight of the German element. It is no wonder that he celebrated with relief on Munich’s Odeonplatz the war that settles accounts with Serbia and Russia threatening the German Lebensraum. By accident, this moment was photographed by Hoffmann, who, twenty years later, found the future Führer it in, at his request. No matter whether the figure is really the young Adolf, or, as some say, some retouching by Hoffmann was also necessary to make the identification. The point is that Hitler wanted be in that picture, he wanted to be at the starting point of the glorious German Sturm. It was the zero point of the Sarajevo pistol shot that launched him and the German people on the right track, and now that this track – despite the humiliation of Versailles and through its obliteration – would soon reach its zenith with the overcoming of Russia, the Führer looks back at this starting point when contemplating the Princip plaque.

In 1930 the Yugoslav state, by placing a plaque on the spot of the Princip attempt – albeit setting it as a private initiative – with the inscription “На овом историјском мјесту Гаврило Принцип навијести слободу на Видов-дан 15. јуна 1914” – “From this historical place Gavrilo Princip brought us freedom on St. Vitus’ Day, 15 June 1914” (that is, on the 28th of the Gregorian calendar), managed to achieve the outbreaks of not only its former World War enemies, but also of its own allies. That Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung calls it a “monstrous and intolerable provocation”, is just natural from the German side. But also London Times wrote, that the plaque immortalizes “an act which was the immediate cause of the Great War, of its attendant horrors, and of the general suffering which has been its sequel”. Churchill, in his contemporary The Unknown War calls it the monument of infamy, which, erected by Princip’s fellow countrymen, “records his infamy and their own”. And according to the contemporary British historian Robert William Seton-Watson, the plaque “was an affront to all right-thinking people”.

The Sarajevo Volksdeutsche handing the Princip plaque to the German Army

However, we cannot understand the real cause of the establishing of the plaque if we do not know the myth that it fits within. The clue is offered by the seemingly unnecessary archaism of Vidovdan, St. Vitus’ day, in the text. On this day, 15 June 1318, the whole Serb nation, led by Prince Lazar, was martyred on the plane of Kosovo, confronting the Ottoman army to the last warrior. This is the zero point of Serbian history. One has to get back here, and here one has to restart history, which at that point took a regrettably wrong turn. This is the so-called Kosovo Myth, which was coined by 19th-c. Serbian romanticism, and to which we can lead back all the 20th-century Balkan wars that started from Belgrade. To kill a tyrant on St. Vitus’ Day is an archetypal act, as was done by the legendary Serbian warrior Miloš Obilić, who struck the Sultan after his victory. And vice versa: if a Serbian warrior kills someone on Vidovdan, it symbolically attests that he was a tyrant. Princip’s Vidovdan bullet in one moment produced the archetypal constellation required by the Serbian military leadership to represent the fight for the re-devision of the Balkans as a sacred national war. From then on, the struggle for Bosnia was not just a dog-fight over the territories left by the Turks, but a necessary historical act leading to the correction of national history, which had taken a wrong turn in 1389. This zero point and this myth was faced with the myth and zero point of the Führer contemplating it in the railway wagon in Mönchkirchen.

Princip and his fellow conspirators as Vinovdan heroes. Below: The “chapel of the Vinovdan hroes”, erected upon Princip’s ashes, in Sarajevo’s old Orthodox cemetery

The plaque was then moved to the Zeughaus in Berlin, which was then a military museum called Arsenal. Here, a huge exhibition of the symbolic booty was organized, with Princip’s plaque in the middle. They also brought here the French rail car, in which in 1918 the German capitulation was signed, thus washing away the shame of Versailles. The building is today Deutsches Historisches Museum, where similar objects still often pop up, now of course as exhibition objects. Like the Zagreb bronze plaque, which attempted to give a new consciousness to the young South Slavic state by stamping the Hungarian coat of arm under its figures’ feet.

The Gravrilo Princip plaque on the booty exhibition in the Zeughaus

During the siege of Berlin, the plaque was destroyed together with the German myth. In Sarajevo, the Yugoslav partisans replaced it on 7 May 1945, a day before the German capitulation, with this inscription: “With eternal thanks to Gavrilo Princip and his comrades fighting against the German invasion.” For now, the Serbian myth gained the upper hand, in a new, popular tuning. In 1953, when the building was converted into a museum of the Young Bosnia movement, which had organized the assassination, a new plaque was set up with a new text: “On June 28, 1914, from this place Gavrilo Princip expressed with his pistol shot the people’s protest and centuries-old aspirations for freedom.” This plaque disappeared between 1992 and 1996, when the people of Sarajevo also expressed with machine gun shots from this place their aspirations for freedom and protest against the tyranny of Serbian nationalism, keeping the city under a bloody siege. Today it only says in Bosnian and English: “From this place on 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia.”

On 28 June 2014, when this  plaque was inaugurated, another monument was also solemnly set up in Sarajevo. The small square is located at the westernmost end of Sarajevo, which is nevertheless called East Sarajevo. This is the part of the town where the Serbs moved out during the siege, and where, after the war, new housing estates were built for them from international aid. There are no physical boundaries between the two parts of the city, yet there is virtually no contact and no public transport between them. Here, a new, heroic statue of Gavrilo Princip was set up, and at the same time one of the first public spaces of the new district in formation was also named Gavrilo Princip Park. The myth lives on.

The new Princip monument in Google Street View, and its inauguration at the centenary

However, the first souvenirs of the assassination were much earlier than the 1930 memorial plaque. Already a hundred years ago, the local paper shops entered into the service of catastrophe tourism, and immediately started publishing picture postcards, which do not merely represent the Latin Bridge and its environs as a city view, but rather as the scene of the assassination, sometimes marking the exact spot with a small cross.

The souvenir postcards were usually provided with the Franz Ferdinand memorial stamps, which represented, besides the princely consorts, the Sarajevo Basilica, planned but never realized in their memory (see below).

And in 1917, on the third anniversary of the attempt, the first plaque appeared on the spot, marking the location for all subsequent plaques. This plaque was set up by the Austro-Hungarian government on Moritz Schiller’s deli, from which Princip stepped out to shoot the crown prince. The only Bosnian-language plaque with cross and imperial crown said: “In this place, Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and his consort, Duchess Sophie Hohenberg suffered a martyr’s death at an assassin’s hand.”

The plaque in front view, and seen from the quay and from Franz Josef street.
Last photo: the scaffolding used to affix the plaque.

Already in 1916, the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina announced a competition for a grand martyr’s monument of the princely couple. It had a Hungarian winner, the excellent Art Nouveau sculptor and architect Jenő Bory (1879-1959), later rector of the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, who in January 1915 was commissioned to Sarajevo as a military engineer. Here Pater Puntigam, the director of the archbishop’s seminary, and the chief promoter of the Archduke’s cult, showed him the Archduke’s bloody shirt, and introduced him to the conception of the story which was to be visualized in the memorial.

Since there was no room for a monument in the narrow Franz Josef Street, only a 2×1-meter cast steel plate was sunk into the pavement, with the Latin inscription: “Hoc loco die 28. Junie 1914. vitam et sanquinem fuderunt pro Deo et patria Franciscus Ferdinandus archidux eiusque uxor ducissa Sophia de Hohenberg.” (“In this place Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Duchess Sophie Hohenberg gave their lives and blood for God and the homeland.”) Probably this sunken panel gave the idea of that much later, post-1953 monument, which sank the assassin’s footprints into the pavement of the walkway.

No legible photo of the sunken panel has survived, and different sources remember slightly different texts. This one is from Belgischer Kurier, a local version of Deutsche Kurier published in occupied Belgium.

The actual monument was set up on the opposite side of the quay, at the head of the Latin Bridge opposite the house. Two tall columns held the bronze relief of the princely couple, with a small Pietà statue and an eternal flame under it. For the sake of symmetry, a semicircular marble bench was also built at the other bridgehead, where it was possible to meditate on the historical scene.

The memorial column with the relief, and with different mourning groups

The model of Jenő Bory’s relief. Tolnai Világlapja, Aug. 10, 1916

The three units of the monument at inauguration

And this was just the beginning. Pater Puntigam began collecting more tribute to erect even larger memorial buildings to the princely couple: a huge Neo-Romanesque church in memory of Franz Ferdinand, and a youth home named for Duchess Sophie. Both were designed by Jenő Bory. The first three million golden crowns were collected, and Bory was already involved in the execution, when the Monarchy was forced to armistice, and then to retire from Sarajevo. The church was never realized. However, Jenő Bory recalled to have been inspired by it for his own home and studio in Székesfehérvár, the famous Bory Castle. The Serbian troops marching in Sarajevo removed both memorial plaques and the monument. Only the arched bench remained in the site, as an apparently innocent abbreviation of the story, which, however, spoke volumes to the initiates.

The model of the Franz Ferdinand memorial church, and a summary of Jenő Bory’s other monumental designs in Sarajevo. Új Idők, 1916/2, 21-22.

But the story is not over yet. It turned out that the original bronze relief of the monument also survived the stormy century in the cellar of the museum. In 2001, it was proposed in the City Council to restore the columns, and set it up in its original location. For the time being, they erected a plexi plate at the memorial site, with a small drawing of the original sculpture, and a historical explanation.

All this fits well with the new conception of Bosnian history outlined in recent decades, the three pillars of which are the independent medieval Bosnian kingdom, the rich culture and tolerance of Ottoman Sarajevo, and the Austro-Hungarian era of economic and intellectual revival. The public buildings and achievements of Austrian times are emphasized throughout the city. The former Young Bosnia Museum has been converted into a museum presenting the Austro-Hungarian Golden Age in Bosnia. At the centenary ceremony in Sarajevo, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra played Haydn’s Imperial Hymn. The epoch of Austria Felix has become a new zero point for Bosnian history. The monument of the assassination stood in the service of a new myth.