For those with an interest in fashion history, springtime in New York City heralds the opening of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual summer Costume Institute exhibition. The Costume Institute show (this year’s is “Camp: Notes on Fashion”) and its glittery opening gala in early May inevitably attract a huge amount of press and public attention – so much that they threaten to overshadow other fashion exhibitions. But any museum visitor who wishes to understand more about how these exhibitions developed as a scholarly practice will be rewarded by a trip to the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT). MFIT – originally called the Design Laboratory and Galleries at FIT – opened in 1969. Since then, it has played host to over two hundred exhibitions, most organized by MFIT’s dedicated team of in-house curators. In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the museum’s founding, earlier this year MFIT opened “Exhibitionism: 50 Years of the Museum at FIT.” This show is a reminder of how fashion scholarship has developed over the past few decades, and the potential for even the most eye-catching garments to be pedagogical tools.
A little less than a year ago, a prestigious American university hosted a conference about French-Algerian history, gathering the leading specialists of the topic.
A prominent French scholar closed his presentation by opening the debate to the audience. Immediately, one of his North American fellows asked “Since you do not speak Arabic, do you feel somewhat limited in your work on French Algeria?”
“I see what you mean,” he replied, “but fortunately, we have the archives of the colonial administration, so French is enough.”
Suddenly, a man, sitting on the first row of the audience, stood up, and, speaking in French, replied “I am Algerian. I was born before the Independence. You taught us French and nothing else. We had to learn Arabic after the War of Liberation. Arabic must come back to Algeria.”
And then, another man, sitting next to him, added “Arabic … and Berber. Nobody talks about Berber. Historians have forgotten that North Africa is the land of the Berbers.”
Who are the Berbers?
The indigenous population of North Africa, the Berbers call themselves i-Mazigh-en, “free-men” or “noble” in Tamazight. If over the centuries, the Berbers have split into smaller communities, the Chleus in Morocco, the Touaregs in Libya and the Kabyles in Algeria, they have remained faithful to a clear sense of unity. The history of the Berbers is that of an identity constantly reshaped by internal and external mutations, of cultural blending and ongoing intellectual developments and innovations. Invaded by the Phoenicians around 800 BC, the Berbers were incorporated into the Roman Empire in 200 BC and their land constituted the cradle of European Christianity. The Arab Conquest of the seventh century led to the merging of Berber and Arab culture, the conversion to Islam and the fall of the Christian Church. Between the eighth and ninth centuries, a series of Muslim-Berbers dynasties ruled over the Maghreb (the Arabic name for North Africa) achieving its territorial and political unity. Most of the region, except for Morocco, passed under Ottoman domination in 1553 and remained part of the empire until the nineteenth century. During this period, the three political entities composing modern North Africa emerged. While Tunisia and Morocco were to become protectorates of France, in 1881 and 1912 respectively, Algeria was to be French for over a century.
To fuel this narrative, the French progressively constructed the “Kabyle Myth.” In 1826, the Abbé Raynal claimed that the Kabyles were of “Nordic descent, directly related to the Vandals, they are handsome with blues eyes and blond hair, their Islam is mild.” Tocqueville wrote in 1837 that the “Kabyle soul” was opened to the French (182). Ten years later, the politician Eugène Daumas claimed that the “Kabyle people, of German descent […] had accepted the Coran but had not embraced it [and that on many aspects] the Kabyles still lived accordingly to Christian principles” (423). This the reason why French colonial officer Henri Aucapitaine concluded that: “in one hundred years, the Kabyles will be French” (142).
The situation shifted in 1871 when two hundred and fifty Kabyle tribes, or a third of the Algerian population, revolted against the colonial authorities. The magnitude of the uprising was such that the French decided to “fight the Berber identity […] which in the [long-run] empowered the Arabs.”
From then on, the differences between the Berbers and the Arabs became irrelevant to France’s main priority: to maintain its control over the local populations by fighting Islam. The idea emerged that to be assimilated to the French Republic, Algerian subjects needed to be “purified” from their religious beliefs.
By the Senatus-Consulte of July 14th, 1865, the French had ruled that “Muslim Algerians were granted the right to apply for French citizenship […] once they had renounced their personal status as Muslims”(444). This law, which had established a direct link between religion on the one hand and political rights on the other, now further reflected the general sense of disregard towards the diversity of cultural groups in Algeria, all falling into the same overarching category of Muslim. After the 1880s, the French gave up on the Kabyle myth, marginalizing the Berbers who had become a source of agitation.
As the independent Republic of Algeria triumphed in the Fall of 1962, the newly funded regime identified the Berbers as posing an “existential threat to the Arabo-Muslim identity of the country” (103).
Repeating the French practice of destroying those regional identities allegedly challenging the legitimacy of an aggressively centralized and centralizing state, the leaders of Algeria denounced the political claims of the Berbers as a “separatist conspiracy,” and after 1965 the Arabization policy became systematic throughout the country.
To assess the respective impact of colonization, nineteenth and twentieth century nationalist pan-Arab ideologies and the role of post-independence Algerian leaders upon the persecution of the Kabyles after 1962 constitutes a somewhat limited debate.
It is, however, critical to acknowledge the responsibility of the French state in the marginalization of the Berbers after the 1871 Kabyle riot. Progressively, the colonial administration changed a model of mixed and complex identities strongly rooted the Maghreb tradition into a binary model (235). Within this two-term model, people could only define themselves on one side or the other of a rigid frontier separating authentic French culture from supposedly authentic colonized culture. As Franco Tunisian Historian Jocelyn Dakhlia argues inRemembering Africa, “the consequence of such a dualistic opposition of colonial identities was [… ] that the anticolonial movement stuck to this idea of an authentic native Muslim Arabic identity, excluding the Berbers” (235).
The very existence of the Berbers thwarts any attempt to analyze Algerian society in a way that resorts to a rigid griddle, whether in racial, cultural or religious terms.
This is probably the reason why the French, and after them the independent Algerian state, have utterly repressed the legacy of Berber culture in the country: for the Berbers could not exist in the dualistic narrative underlying both colonial and anti-colonial. As historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, would argue, they became unthinkable, and were silenced and excluded from History.
Yet, the most curious factor in this non-history is the paucity of French scholarship on the issue. (50). While some academics do focus on creating conversations and producing literature on the question of Berber identity, the most renowned French scholars systematically fail at doing so. As a direct consequence, most French academic discourses reproduce and maintain the somewhat convenient imperial division opposing the “Arabs” in the North to the “Blacks” in the South of Africa, thereby forgetting that the Sahara is not a rigid racial frontier, and that for centuries the Berbers have been circulated throughout the region.
Ultimately, the Berbers blurry the lines between colonial and post-independent notions of identity in North Africa. To acknowledge the Berbers would require scholars to accept their fluidity – a direct threat to the Western appeal for systemic and pseudo-universalist thinking, still prevalent in French academia despite the emergence post-colonial studies in the 1960s.
Recognizing the Berbers necessitates first, as claimed by Algerian scholar Daho Djerbal, to ask: who is the subject of History? This is the only way in which one can hope to put an end to the overly simplistic politics of identity imposed by the political power—on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea, on both shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
Rosalie Calvet is a paralegal working in New York City, freelance journalist and Columbia class of 2017 graduate. As a history major, Rosalie specialized on the historiography of French imperial history. Her senior thesis, “Thwarting the Other: a Critical approach to the Historiography of French Algeria” was awarded the Charles A. Beard History Prize. In the future, Rosalie wishes to continue reflecting on otherness in the West—both through legal and academic lenses. More about Rosalie and her work is available on her website.
In June 1938, editor Jack Leibowitz found himself in a time crunch. Needing to get something to the presses, Leibowitz approved a recent submission for a one-off round of prints. The next morning, Action Comics #1 appeared on newsstands. On the cover, a strongman in bright blue circus tights and a red cape was holding a green car above his head while people ran in fear. Other than the dynamic title “ACTION COMICS”, there was no text explaining the scene. In an amusing combination of hubris and prophecy, the last panel of Action Comics #1 proclaimed: “And so begins the startling adventures of the most sensational strip character of all time!” Superman was born.
Comics are potentially incomparable resources given the cultural turn in the social sciences (a shift in the humanities and social sciences in the late 20th century toward a more robust study of culture and meaning and away from positivism). The sheer volume of narrative—somewhere in the realm of 10,000 sequential Harry Potter books– and social saturation—approximately 91-95% of people between the ages of six and eleven in 1944 read comics regularly according to a 1944 psychological study—remain singular today (Lawrence 2002, Parsons 1991).
Cultural sociology has shown us that “myth and narrative are elemental meaning-making structures that form the bases of social life” (Woodward, 671). In a lecture on Giacometti’s Standing Woman, Jeffrey Alexander pushes forward a way of seeing iconic experiences as central, salient components of social life. He argues:
Iconographic experience explains how we feel part of our social and physical surroundings, how we experience the reality of the ties that bind us to people we know and people we don’t know, and how we develop a sense of place, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, our vocation, indeed our very selves (Alexander, 2008, 7).
He further suggests these experiences informally establish social values (Alexander, 2008, 9). Relevant to our purposes, Alexander stresses Danto’s work on “disgusting” and “offensive” as aesthetic categories (Danto, 2003) and Simmel’s argument that “our sensations are tied to differences” with higher and lower values (Simmel, 1968).
This suggests that theoretically the comic book is a window into pre-existing, powerful, and often layered morals and values held by the American people that also in turn helped build cultural moral codes (Brod, 2012; Parsons, 1991).
The comic book superhero, as invented and defined by the appearance of Superman, is a highly culturally contextualized medium that expresses particular subgroups’ anxieties, hopes, and values and their relationship to broader American society.
But this isn’t a history of comics, accidental publications, or even the most famous hero of all time. As Ursula LeGuin says, “to light a candle is to cast a shadow.” It was likely inevitable that the superhero—brightest of all the lights—would necessarily cast a very long shadow. Who after all could pose a challenge to Superman? Or what could occupy the world’s greatest detective? The world needed supervillains. The emergence of the supervillain offers a unique slice of moral history and a potentially powerful way to investigate the implicit cultural codes that shape society.
I want to briefly trace the appearance of recurring villains in comic books and note what their characteristics suggest about latent concepts of evil in society at the time. Given our limited space, I’m here only considering the earliest runs of the two most iconic heroes in comics: Superman (Action Comics #1-36) and Batman (Detective Comics #27-; Batman #1-4).
Initially, Superman’s enemies were almost exclusively one-off problems tied to socioeconomic situations. It wasn’t until June 1939 that readers met the first recurring comic book villain: the Ultrahumanite. Pursuing a lead on some run-of-the-mill racketeers, Superman comes across a bald man in a wheel chair: “The fiery eyes of the paralyzed cripple burn with terrible hatred and sinister intelligence.” His “crippled” status is mentioned regularly. The new villain wastes no time explaining that he is “the head of a vast ring of evil enterprises—men like Reynolds are but my henchmen” (Reynolds is a criminal racketeer introduced earlier in the issue), immediately signaling something new in comics. The man then formally introduces himself, not bothering with subtlety.
I am known as the ‘Ultra-humanite’. Why? Because a scientific experiment resulted in my possessing the most agile and learned brain on earth! Unfortunately for mankind, I prefer to use this great intellect for crime. My goal? Domination of the world!!
In issue 20, Superman discovers that, somehow, Ultra has become a woman. He explains to the Man of Steel: “Following my instructions, they kidnapped Dolores Winters yesterday and placed my mighty brain in her young vital body!” (Action Comics 20).
Superman found his first recurring foil in unfettered intellect divorced from physicality. It’s hard not to wonder if this reflected a general distrust of the ever-increasing destructive power of science as World War II dawned. It’s also fascinating to note how consistently the physical status of the Ultrahumanite is emphasized, suggesting a deep social desire for physical strength, confidence, and respect.
After Ultra’s death, our hero would not be without a domineering, brilliant opponent for long. Action Comics 23 saw the advent of Lex Luthor. First appearing as an “incredibly ugly vision” of a floating face and lights, Luthor’s identity unfolds as a mystery. Superman pursues a variety of avenues, finding only a plot to draw countries into war and thugs unwilling to talk for fear of death. Lois actually encounters Luthor first, describing him as a “horrible creature”. When Luthor does introduce himself, it nearly induces déjà vu: “Just an ordinary man—but with the brain of a super-genius! With scientific miracles at my fingertips, I’m preparing to make myself supreme master of th’ world!”
The Batman develops his first supervillain at nearly the same time as Superman. In July 1939, one month after the Ultrahumanite appeared, readers are introduced to Dr. Death. Dr. Death first appears in a lavish study speaking with a Cossack servant (subtly implying Dr. Death is anti-democratic) about the threat Batman poses to their operations. Death is much like what we would now consider a cliché of a villain—he wears a suit, has a curled mustache and goatee, a monocle, and smokes a long cigarette while he plots. His goal: “To extract my tribute from the wealthy of the world. They will either pay tribute to me or die.” Much like Superman’s villains, he uses science—chemical weapons in particular—to advance these sinister goals. In their second encounter, Batman prevails and Dr. Death appears to burn to death. Of course, in comics the dead rarely stay that way; Dr. Death reappears the very next issue, his face horribly scarred.
The next regularly recurring villain to confront Batman appears in February 1940. Batman himself introduces the character to the reader: “Professor Hugo Strange. The most dangerous man in the world! Scientist, philosopher, and a criminal genius… little is known of him, yet this man is undoubtedly the greatest organizer of crime in the world.” Elsewhere, Strange is described as having a “brilliant but distorted brain” and a “malignant smile”. While he naturally is eventually captured, Strange becomes one of Batman’s most enduring antagonists.
The very next month, in Batman #1, another iconic villain appears: none other than the Joker himself.
Once again a master criminal stalks the city streets—a criminal weaving a web of death about him… leaving stricken victims behind wearing a ghastly clown’s grin. The sign of death from the Joker!
Also utilizing chemicals for his plots, the Joker is portrayed as a brilliant, conniving plotter who leads the police and Batman on a wild hunt. Unique to the Joker among the villains discussed is his characterization as a “crazed killer” with no aims of world power. The Joker wants money and murder. He’s simply insane.
Some striking commonalities appear across our two early heroes’ comics. First, physical “flaws” are a critical feature. These deformities are regularly referenced, whether disability, scarring, or just a ghastly smile. Second, virtually all of these villains are genius-level intellects who use science to pursue selfish goals. And finally, among the villains, superpowers are at best a secondary feature, suggesting a close tie between physical health, desirability, and moral superiority. Danto’s aesthetic categories of “disgusting” and “offensive” certainly ring true here.
This is remarkably revealing and likely connected to deep cultural moral codes of the era. If Superman represents the “ideal type,” supervillains such as the Ultrahumanite, Lex Luthor, and the Joker are necessary and equally important iconic representations of those deep cultural moral codes. Such a brief overview cannot definitively draw out the moral world as revealed through comics and confirmed in history. Rather, my aims have been more modest: (1) to trace the history of the birth of the supervillain, (2) to draw a connective line between the strong cultural program, materiality, and comic books, and (3) to suggest the utility of comics for understanding the deep moral codes that shape a society. Cultural sociology allows us to see comics in a new light: as an iconic representation of culture that both reveals preexisting moral codes and in turn contributes to the ongoing development of said moral codes that impact social life. Social perspectives on evil are an actively negotiated social construct and comics represent a hyper-stylized, exceedingly influential, and unfortunately neglected force in this negotiation.
Albert Hawks, Jr. is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he is a fellow with the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies. He holds an M.Div. and S.T.M. from Yale University. His research concerns comparative Islamic social movements in Southeast and East Asia in countries where Islam is a minority religion, as well as in the American civil sphere.
The souvenir is a relatively recent concept. The word only began to refer to an “object, rather than a notion” in the late eighteenth century (Kwint, Material Memories 10). Of course, the practice of carrying a small token away from an important location is ancient. In Europe, souvenirs evolved from religious relics. Pilgrims in the late Roman and Byzantine eras removed stones, dirt, water, and other organic materials from pilgrimage sites, believing that “the sanctity of holy people, holy objects and holy places was, in some manner, transferable through physical contact” (Evans, Souvenirs 1). We might call this logic synecdochic: the sacred power of the holy site is thought to remain immanent in pieces of it, chips from a temple or vials of water from a well.
As leisure travel became more common, souvenir commodities evolved from relics. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tourist-consumers had access to a large market of souvenir merchandise. Thad Logan describes china mugs, novelty needle cases, “sand pictures, seaweed albums,” tartan ware, and a wide range of other souvenir trinkets commonly found in Victorian sitting rooms (The Victorian Parlour, 186). Modern souvenirs are not very different. T-shirts from Hawaii and needle cases from Brighton both rely on the logic of metonymic association, as Logan (186) and Susan Stewart (On Longing,136) point out. In order to memorialize a tourist’s experiences, the shapes and decorations of these souvenir trinkets evoke the site where those experiences took place.
How did synecdoche become metonymy? What changed? To begin to answer these questions, we can consider a test case: wooden souvenir trinkets from Victorian Scotland. These artifacts draw on both synecdochic and metonymic logic. Therefore, they provide evidence about a transitional phase in the history of the souvenir, and in the history of the way we derive meaning from objects. They do not represent a single moment of transition—this evolution was gradual and piecemeal, taking place over decades if not centuries. Instead, these souvenirs provide a useful case study, a point from which to consider a broader history.
These souvenirs were known as Mauchline ware—named for Mauchline, a town in Ayrshire (Trachtenberg, Mauchline Ware22-23). Mauchline ware objects were made of wood, decorated in distinctive styles, and heavily varnished for durability. The earliest Mauchline ware pieces were snuffboxes. By mid-century, tourists could buy Mauchline ware pen knives, sewing kits, eyeglass cases, and many other miscellaneous objects. (The examples discussed in this blogpost all happen to be book bindings.) Some of Mauchline ware objects were decorated with a tartan pattern, immediately recognizable as emblems of Scotland. Equally popular were Mauchline ware objects decorated with transfer images of tourist sites. These trinkets functioned with metonymic logic, as modern souvenirs. For example, the binding below bears an iconic representation of Fingall’s Cave.
But sometimes, manufacturers of Mauchline ware took lumber from tourist sites to construct these souvenirs. Captions on the items would indicate the source of the material. Examples abound: a copy of The Dunkeld Souvenir was bound in wood “From the Athole Plantations Dunkeld” (Burns). The photograph below shows a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion bound in Mauchline ware, using wood “From [the] Banks of Tweed, Abbotsford.” More gruesomely, the boards on a copy of a Guide to Doune Castle were “made from the wood of Old Gallows Tree at Doune Castle” (Dunbar). These captions present the souvenirs as synecdochic artifacts—not religious, but geographical relics. Their purchasers could, quite literally, take home a piece of Scotland.
These objects were part relic, part commodity. There was a commercial rationale for this combination: the publishers of these books leveraged the appeal of the wood as a relic, but they also transformed the raw material into a distinctively modern, distinctively Scottish consumer product. Contemporary accounts in a souvenir of Queen Victoria’s visit to the Scottish Borders expose some of the commercial logic behind the production process. Publisher’s advertisements in this 1867 book list the “fancy wood work” items its publishers sold in addition to books, and the original source of the wood used in the souvenirs (The Scottish Border 1-2). The binding on this copy states that the wood was “grown within the precincts of Melrose Abbey.” The advertisement provides more detail:
‘Several years ago, when the town drain was being taken through the ‘Dowcot’ Park, […] a fine beam of black oak was discovered about six feet below the surface of the ground. It is now being taken up […] by Mr. Rutherfurd, stationer, Kelso, for the purpose of being turned into souvenirs. […].’ –Scotsman. Messrs. R may state that most of the “fine beam of black oak” […] split into fibres when exposed to the air and dried. Of the portions remaining good they have had the honour of preparing a box for Her Majesty in which to hold the Photographs of the district specially taken at the time of her visit. (2)
The wood was found on ground between Melrose Abbey and the Tweed, exhumed, and transformed into souvenirs. The publisher’s ad actually refers to these souvenirs as “Melrose Abbey Relics” (2). But they do not adhere to the logic of the early relic: these publishers describe the original wood as quasi-waste material that disintegrated into useless “fibres” when exposed to air. By using the wood for Mauchline ware, the publishers not only preserved the wood against further disintegration: they transformed organic waste into a valuable luxury product, rare and fine enough to present to the Queen. The organic source material lends some authenticity, but it was the process of commodification that added value and intellectual interest.
In short, the relic was not wholly abandoned: the relic and the souvenir co-existed, and some souvenir commodities borrowed ancient synecdochic logic. The gradual, piecemeal evolution from relic to commodity was part of the development of modern consumer culture. The publishers behind these Mauchline ware book bindings were scrambling to reach a new market. Their commercial innovations drew on both ancient and contemporary ideas about the relationships between object, place, and memory. Their publications allow us to consider the changing ideas that allow us to derive meaning from these souvenirs, and from objects like them. Of course, the ultimate meanings of these souvenirs were the personal memories they preserved for their owners. Those meanings remain mysterious, and always will.
Tess Goodman is a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh. Her research explores book history and literary tourism, focusing on books sold as souvenirs in Victorian Scotland. Previously, she was Assistant Curator of Collections at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.
At first, Russian TV surprises and disappoints with its conventional appearance. A mixture of entertainment and news competes for viewers’ attention, logos flash across the screen, and pundits shuffle their notes, ready to pounce on any topic. However, the tightly controlled news cycle, the flattering coverage of President Vladimir Putin, and a steady indignation over Ukrainian politics serve as reminders that not all is well. Reporters without Borders, an international watchdog that annually ranks 180 states according to its freedom of press index, this year assigned Russia to a dismal 148th position. While a number of independent print and digital outlets persevere, television has been largely brought under state control. And precisely because of these circumstances, television programming tends to reflect priorities and concerns of the current administration. When an ankle sprain turned me into a reluctant consumer of state programming for nearly three weeks, I realized that despite various social and economic challenges, the Russian government remains preoccupied with the Soviet victory in WWII.
Celebrated on May 9th, Victory Day—or Den Pobedy (День Победы) as it is known in
Russia—marks the official capitulation of Nazi Germany in 1945 and is traditionally celebrated with a military parade on the Red Square. During the few weeks preceding the holiday, parade rehearsals regularly shut down parts of Moscow while normal programming gives way to a tapestry of war-related films. The former adds another challenge to navigating the already traffic-heavy city; the latter, however, provides a welcome opportunity to experience some of the most distinguished works of Soviet cinematography. Soviet directors, many veterans themselves, resisted simplistic war narratives and instead focused on capturing human stories against the historical background of violence. Films like Mikhail Kalatozov’s Cranes are Flying (1957), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) or Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) are widely recognized for their emotional depth, maturity and an uncompromising depiction of the consequences of war. Unfortunately, these Soviet classics share the silver screen with newer Russian productions in the form of Hollywood-style action flicks or heavy-handed propaganda pieces that barely graze the surface of the historical events they claim to depict.
The 2016 adaptation of the iconic Panfilovtsy story exemplifies the problematic handling of historical material. The movie is based on an article published in a war-time Soviet newspaper, which describes how a division of 28 soldiers under the command of Ivan Panfilov distinguished itself during the defense of Moscow in late 1941. The poorly armed soldiers who came from various Soviet Republics managed to disable eighteen German tanks but were all killed in the process. The 1948 investigation, prompted by an unexpected appearance by some of these allegedly dead heroes, exposed the story as a journalist exaggeration, designed to reassure and inspire the country with tales of bravery and an ultimate sacrifice. Classified, the report remained unknown until 2015 when Sergei Mironenko, at the time director of state archives, used its findings to push against the mythologization of Panfilov and his men, which he saw as a sign of increasing politicization of the past. His action provoked severe, public scolding from the Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky that eventually cost Mironenko his job, while Panfilov’s 28(2016) was shown during this year’s Victory Day celebration.
Many western commentators have already noted the significance of Victory Day, including Neil MacFarquhar, who believes that President Putin intentionally turned it into the “most important holiday of the year.” The scale of celebration seems commensurate with this rhetorical status and provides an impressive background for a presidential address. The most recent parade consisted of approximately ten thousand soldiers and over a hundred military vehicles—from the T-34, the venerable Soviet tank to the recently-developed Tor missile system, which can perform in arctic conditions. Predictably the Russian coverage differs from that presented in the western media. The stress does not fall on the parade or President Putin’s speech alone but extends to the subsequent march of veterans and their descendants, emphasizing the continuation between past and present. The broadcast of the celebration, which can be watched anywhere between the adjacent to Poland Kaliningrad Oblast and Cape Dezhnev only fifty miles east of Alaska, draws a connection between Russia’s current might and the Soviet victory in the war. Yet May 9th did not always hold its current status and only gradually became the cornerstone of modern Russian identity.
While in 1945 Joseph Stalin insisted on celebrating the victory with a parade on the Red Square, the holiday itself failed to take root in the Soviet calendar as the country strived for normalcy. The new leader Nikita Khrushchev discontinued some of the most punitive policies associated with Stalinism and promised his people peace, progress, and prosperity. The war receded into the background as the Soviet Union put a man into space while attempting to put every family into its own apartment. Only after twenty years was the Victory Day officially reinstated by Leonid Brezhnev and observed with a moment of silence on state TV. Brezhnev also approved the creation of a new Moscow memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in the war—a sign that Soviet history had taken a more
solemn turn. Known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Могила Неизвестного Солдата), a bronze sculpture of a soldier’s helmet resting on a war banner with a hammer and sickle finial pointing towards the viewer symbolizes the massive casualties of the Soviet Union, many of whom were never identified. Keeping an exact list of the dead was not always feasible as the Red Army fought the Wehrmacht forces for four years before taking Berlin in April of 1945. Historians estimate that the Soviet Union lost approximately twenty million citizens—the largest absolute (if not proportional) human loss of any state involved in WWII. For this reason, in Russia and many former Soviet republics the 1941-1945 war is properly known as the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная Война).
The victory over Nazi Germany, earned with a remarkable national sacrifice, was a shining moment in otherwise troubled Soviet history and a logical choice for the Russian Federation, a successor state of the Soviet Union, to anchor its post-ideological identity. Yet the current Russian government, which carefully manages the celebration, cannot claim credit for the popularity that the day enjoys among regular people. Many Russian veterans welcome an opportunity to remember the victory and their descendants come out on their own volition to celebrate their grandparents’ generation. This popular participation has underpinned the holiday since 1945. Before Brezhnev’s intervention, veterans would congregate informally and quietly to celebrate the victory and commemorate their fallen comrades. Today, as this war-time generation is leaving the historical stage, their children and grandchildren march across Moscow carrying portraits of their loved ones who fought in the war, forming what is known as the Immortal Regiment (Бессмертный полк). And the marches are increasingly spilling into other locations—both in Russia and worldwide. This year these processions took place in over fifty countries with a significant Russian diaspora, including Western Europe and North America.
This very personal, emotional dimension of the Victory Day has been often overlooked in western coverage, which reduces the event to a sinister political theater and a manifestation of military strength. The holiday is used to generate a new brand of modern Russian patriotism precisely because it already resonates with the Russian public. People march to uphold the memory of their relatives regardless of their feelings towards the current administration, views on the annexation of Crimea, or attitude towards NATO. Although this level of filial piety can be manipulated, my Russian friends seem to understand when the government tries to capitalize on these feelings. Mikhail, my Airbnb host, who belongs to the new Russian middle class, and who few years ago carried a portrait of his grandfather during the Victory Day celebration, remarked that the government attached itself like a “parasite” to the Immortal Regiment phenomenon because of its popularity. The recent clash over the veracity of the Panfilovtsy story also given many Russians a more nuanced understanding of their history even as some enjoyed the movie’s action sequences. Additionally, the 1948 investigative report that Mironenko had posted online, remains accessible on the website of the archive.
At the same time, many Russians are genuinely frustrated with what they perceive as the western ignorance of their elders’ sacrifices or what seems to them like the Ukrainian attempt to rewrite the script of the Victory Day. In this respect, they are inadvertently playing to their government’s line. This interaction between the political and the personal, family history and national narrative occurs in every society but in Russia seems particularly explicit because the fall of the Soviet Union shattered Soviet identity, creating an urgent need for a new one. While the current administration is eager to supply the new formula, based on my recent experience in Moscow, Russian citizens are still negotiating.
Agnieszka Smelkowska is a Ph.D candidate in the History Department at UC Berkeley, where she is completing a dissertation about the German minority in Poland and the Soviet Union while attempting to execute a perfect Passata Sotto in her spare time.
It is late March and the weather is still cold. The sounds of Arabic music and exuberant conversation emanate from an elegant ballroom in Brooklyn New York. No, it’s not a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah. A Torah Scroll is unfurled and the cantor begins to read from Exodus 12: 1, “And God spoke to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, ‘This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.’” The reading is followed by the chanting of liturgical poetry based on this Torah portion, “Rishon Hu Lakhem L’khodshei Hashanah”… Yom Nisan Mevorakh….” “The first month shall it be for you for the months of the year… the month of Nisan is blessed.”As they leave the event, men and women wish each other “Shana tova,” happy new year.
Something seems off. It is a Monday night and Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Jewish new year, is still six months away. Why the celebration and talk of a new year? This ritual is very familiar, however, to the members of Congregation Ahaba Veahva, a Synagogue that follows the Egyptian-Jewish rite. It is a vestige of a very ancient, almost extinct Jewish custom called Seder Al-Tawhid (Arabic, Seder Ha-Yikhud in Hebrew, the ritual of the unity). This ritual takes place annually on the first of Nisan. The name denotes a celebration of the unity of God and the miracles that he wrought during this month surrounding the Exodus from Egypt. The way the congregation celebrates it and how this custom survived illuminates important dynamics of how Jewish ritual has been standardized over time.
Ahba Veahva’s members celebrate Rosh Hashanah in September like other rabbinic Jews. The Seder al-Tahwid, however, is a remnant of an ancient custom of the Jews of the near East (variably referred to as Mustaribun or Shamim) to commemorate the first day of the Jewish month of Nisan as a minor Rosh Hashanah as per Exodus 12:1. On their website, Congregation Ahaba Veahva explains the celebration as follows:
The Great Exodus of Egypt: On Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month of Nisan), beni Yisrael (the children of Israel) heard the nes (miracle) that they were going to be redeemed on the night of the 15th, later in that very month. We hold this evening to remember the miracles and the hesed (kindness) that Hashem (God) does for His nation. “In Nisan we were redeemed in the past, and in Nisan we are destined to be redeemed again.” (a midrashic quote (Exodus Rabbah 15:2) asserting that just as the Exodus from Egypt took place in Nisan so too will the ultimate messianic redemption) We hold this evening to put everyone in the correct spiritual mindset- to realize with all their might that this could be the month of the Geulah (messianic redemption).
The only printed version of the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy is found in an anonymous 10 page pamphlet printed in Alexandria. The prayers focus on many themes found in the Rosh Hashana prayers such as blessing, sustenance and messianic redemption in the year to come. The liturgy is found in a somewhat longer form in a tenth century manuscript fragmentfrom the Cairo Geniza, the repository of documents found in the late nineteenth century in the synagogue in old Fustat.
The celebration of al-Tahwid begins with special liturgy on the Sabbath closest to the day and on the day itself the community refrains from unnecessary labor similar to intermediate days of Jewish holidays. They also recite a Kiddush (a prayer that sanctifies a day, recited over a cup of wine) followed by a festive meal and the recitation of liturgical poetry. One such poem presents a debate among the twelve months to determine which one will have primacy. In one stanza, for example, Nisan argues that the following month of Iyyar cannot be chosen since its zodiacal sign is Taurus, the same species as the golden calf that Israel made in the wilderness. The concluding stanza is a triumphal declaration from Nisan: שליט אנא וריש על כול”ן” literally, I am the ruler and the head of all of you. תקיפה עבדי פרוק לעמיה ובי הוא עתיד למפרוק יתהון or, “A deliverance of slavery did I [Nisan] impart upon the nation and in me [Nisan] is he [God] destined to deliver them [again]” (as per BT Rosh Hashanah 10B). Other prayers more explicitly cast the day as the beginning of the new year. One liturgical poem begins: יהי רצון מלפניך ה אלוהינו ואלוהי אבותינו…שתהיה השנה הזאת הבאה עלינו לשלום, translated as, “May it be your will lord our god and the god of our fathers…that this coming year should come upon us in peace.”
The celebration of the first of Nisan as the beginning of the new year is rooted both in Biblical and Talmudic sources. Exodus 12:1-2 states that Nisan is the first month in the intercalation of the new year and the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1 describes the First of Nisan as one of the four beginnings of the Jewish New Year:
There are four new years. On the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. On the first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of cattle. … On the first of Tishrei is the new year for years, for release and jubilee years, for plantation and for [tithe of] vegetables…. On the first of Shevat is the new year for trees…
In an articleon the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy, liturgical scholar Ezra Fleischer postulates that the Kiddush ceremony on the holiday was based on an earlier Mishanic-era institution. The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah 2:7 describes how the Sanhedrin, the high religious court of Talmudic-era Israel, consecrated the new month by declaring “it is sanctified”, at which point the entire assemblage would respond in kind, “it is sanctified, it is sanctified”. This declaration was performed with pomp and publicity in order to make it clear that the final word in the intercalation of the Jewish calendar belonged to the rabbis of Eretz Yisrael and no one else. In the context of the Seder al-Tahwid this ritual serves to highlight Nisan’s role as the first month of the Jewish lunar year, the beginning of this process of sanctifying the new moon.
If the first of Nisan is such an important date to both the Bible and Talmud then, why is the day celebrated today only by this small Jewish community? To answer this question we must look to the Geonic period of jewish history, corresponding roughly to the second half of the first millennium. Over the past decade, historians increasingly see this period as one in which a number of variations of Judaism were vying for supremacy. These included several schools of Jewish jurisprudence based in different geographic constituencies across the Mediterranean Diaspora. Two of the most prominent were the Babylonian (Minhag Babhel, based in Baghdad) and Palestinian (Minhag Eretz Yisrael) rites, as well as Karaite Jews who did not follow the Rabbis at all but formed their own, non rabbinic madhab or creed.
The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was abolished in the 5th century by Byzantine decree. Its various successors could not recapture its prestige and the Rabbis of Eretz Yisrael gradually lost their power to sanction the new moon. The Karaites developed their own system of intercalation but within the rabbinic tradition, in the absence of the Sanhedrin, the Babylonians and Palestinians often found themselves at odds.
The most notorious controversy between the two schools involved the often-confrontational Saadiah ben Joseph Al-Faumi, the head of the Babylonian Academy better known as Saadiah Gaon, and Aharon ben Meir, the head of the Palestinian Academy. In 921-923, the two engaged in an extended and very public argument regarding the sanctification of the Hebrew year 4682 (921/22). While the core of this debate surrounded the complicated methods of calculating the Jewish calendar, it became a referendum on which academy and by extension rite would become authoritative in the diaspora. Saadiah emerged victorious (historians Marina Rustow and Sacha Stern argue that his authority on these matters may have resulted from his mastery of Abbasid advances in astronomy).
In Palestine, however, the Jewish community, based in Jerusalem, continued to follow the Minhag Eretz Yisrael, which also exerted influence on other Near Eastern Jewish communities such as Egypt. The heads of the Jerusalem academy still often insisted that the right to intercalate the year rested solely with them. As late as the 11th century, Rabbi Evyatar Ha-Kohen, the head of the Palestinian Academy (partially in exile in Cairo) would declare:
The land of Israel is not part of the exile such that it would be subject to an Exilarch (a title often applied to the head of the babylonian academy) and furthermore one may not contradict the authority of the Prince (a title at times applied to the head of the palestinian academy), on the word of whom [alone] may leap years be declared and the holiday dates set according to the order imposed by God before the creation of the world. For this is what we are taught in the secrets of intercalation.
ארץ ישראל אינה קרואה גולה שיהא ראש גולה נסמך בה, ועוד שאין עוקרין נשיא שבארץ ישראל, שעל פיו מעברין את השנה וקובעין את המועדות הסדורים לפני הקב”ה קודם יצירת העולם, דהכי גמרי בסוד העיבור
In a continuation of this post, I will elaborate as to how the Seder al-Tahwid was likely maintained as well as suppressed during the geonic period, similar practices that are preserved among non rabbinic communities and the ritual’s reception today.
Joel S. Davidi is an independent ethnographer and historian. His research focuses on Eastern and Sephardic Jewry and the Karaite communities of Crimea, Egypt, California and Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming book Exiles of Sepharad That Are In Ashkenaz, which explores the Iberian Diaspora in Eastern Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He blogs on Jewish history at toldotyisrael.wordpress.com.