23 June 2011

The Alphabet of Religion

Serbia and Poland are Slavic Eastern European countries. On opposite ends of Eastern Europe, Serbia is relatively close to Italy while Poland is nearby Russia. Yet, despite their geographical position, Polish and Serbian alphabets are juxtaposed in that Polish writing is more Italian-like while Serbian writing is more Russian like.  The Polish language uses Latin letters (like these) while the Serbian alphabet uses Cyrillic letters (Кириллица). One wonders why that is.

Latin and Cyrillic alphabets are both Greek alphabet derivatives.  Latin alphabet was borrowed and modified from yet another Greek alphabet derivative, called Euboean alphabet, by Etruscans, rulers of the early Rome.   From there, it took its hold and became the most widely-used alphabet in the world today, in great part thanks to Rome's expansive multi-century dominance.

Cyrillic alphabet, whose origin is attributed to two 9th Century Byzantine Greek brothers, Saints Cyril and Methodius, was first developed in Bulgaria in 10th century AD.  From there, it traveled, mostly eastwards, with those who were motivated to educate, namely Christian monks.

Serbia was Christianized by the Byzantine Papacy, which adhered to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  Over the years, Serbian Orthodoxy survived the Muslim Ottoman Empire, Croatian domination, World War II, and a suspicious socialist regime led by Tito.  Throughout this time, Serbia maintained its character and culture, propagating the Cyrillic alphabet to today.

Poland was Christianized by Mieszko I, Poland's first ruler.  Perhaps opportunistically, Mieszko chose to be baptized in Rome to strengthen his hold on the relatively new state of Poland.  With that Roman Catholic Christendom, Mieszko also brought Latin letters, propagated by church's teachings, to Poland.

Take a look at the maps below.  The first shows the distribution of Cyrillic alphabet in the world.  The second shows how Latin alphabet is distributed.  Areas in lighter shade of green show countries where multiple alphabet systems are used.

The World of Cyrillic Alphabet

The World of Latin Alphabet

Now, exclude the non-Western portions* from the Latin alphabet map.  You basically have North America, Western Europe, and Australia.  Compare that with the Cyrillic alphabet map.  You have the Soviet Union and a good chunk of the "Iron Curtain."  In other words, you have a nice proxy for the 20th century East-West conflict.

My hypothesis is that the 20th Century Cold war ("East-West Conflict") was part of a longer historical arc that started with the East-West Schism of 1054.  This topic shall be discussed in more detail in the next blog.


*  The alphabet map just shows how each church, the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church, spread throughout the world.  Latin America, by virtue of Catholic Spanish and Portuguese conquests, adopted the Latin alphabet.  North America got its alphabet from England, France, and Spain, all of which were under the influence of the Roman Catholic church at some point in their history.  Australia, thanks to British prisoners, became Christianized and Anglicized.  India, Africa, and Southeaster Asia all have the Latin alphabet system thanks to aggressive colonization efforts by Western European powers.

21 June 2011

Church in Russia

Moscow is sometimes referred to as 40x40, in reference to the 1,600 or so churches located in the city.  While Russia's official religion -  Russian Orthodox Christianity - plays a prominent role in Moscow and St. Petersburg, its influence in the city is minuscule compare to its reach and influence outside of major cities.  Russia mirrors the US, in that the larger cities play a more secular role while smaller, more provincial cities reflect deeper religious beliefs and faiths of the people.

Per Wikipedia, the Golden Ring, or a group of smaller cities to the north and east of Moscow, are a group of ancient towns that "played a significant role in the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church."  Sergiyev Posad, the closest of the Golden Ring cities to Moscow, is only 75 km (45 miles) away.  Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius is "the most important Russian monastery and the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church."  This beautiful city has a palpable sense of holiness, especially around the main church complex, and its role in Russian history and modern-day politics cannot be understated.

Trinity of Lavra of St. Sergius, As It Was Then, Pretty Much As It Is Now

The Russian Orthodox Church, officially recognized by the state, played (except during the Soviet era) and plays a central role in governing Russians.  Its role is to preserve the memory of the most important and significant events in Russian history, legitimize governments (of tzars or presidents - if you can tell the difference), and provide a cultural foundation upon which most Russians build their lives and create their identities.  In this sense, its role is the same as roles of Anglican Church in England (mostly before WW II), Church of Sweden in Sweden, or the Catholic Church in Poland.

I have written previously that Russia "continues to define itself in opposition to the West, damn be the consequences."   Having a better sense of the Russian Orthodox Church, I may have a better insight into this "non-Western" Russian phenomenon.  In this context, the Cold War of the Twentieth Century was a continuation in the arc of history that began with set of events that culminated in the Eleventh Century with the East-West Schism of 1054, when the Eastern Orthodox Church, based in Constantinople, and the Catholic Church, based in Rome, formally and mutually excommunicated each other.

More on this later.

05 June 2011

What is Latvia?

National identities can be thorny issues.  In "new" countries like the US and Canada,  national boundaries are well defined, and ethnicity is typically not a question of defining nationality.  In post-colonial countries, like some of those in the Arab World, national boundaries exist, but they are generally meaningless.  This is because national borders were drawn by foreign powers in places where group allegiance is defined by tribal or religious bonds [the creation of these artificial countries partially explains this region's perennial instability].

Hint:  Straight Lines Point to Fake Borers

In Europe, national boundaries are mostly well-defined, suggesting years of precedent and history that have cemented frontiers for generations.  Europe also has an additional layer of identify that does not exist in any appreciable force in the US:  Ethnicity is also a "nationality" identifier.  As such, it is common to hear about ethnic Germans living in Poland; while these ethnic Germans are officially Polish citizens, they have the possibility of claiming German citizenship if they can prove that their ancestors, generally at most two generations back, were also German citizens.

Lots of National Precedent, Few Straight Boundary Lines

I had the occasion of spending a long weekend in and around Riga, Latvia.  Latvia, a nation of 2.4 million, is now a member of the European Union and NATO.  Latvia was introduced to Americans in the early 1990s as a liberated, sovereign Baltic state that was overrun by the Soviet Army in the 1940s in Stallin's efforts to expand the Iron Curtain into Eastern Europe.

Visiting Latvia and doing a quick study of this country's history made me wonder what, precisely, Latvia was.  Present-day Latvia seems to define itself as anti-Russia while heavily depending on Russian teat to feed it.  There are several interesting factors that jump out after this short visit to this Baltic nation:

Identifying Sign:  The Museum of Occupation of Latvia 1940 - 1991

  • Everyone speaks Russian.
  • The Latvian man on the street says that 50% of the population is Russian; official census numbers put the Russian population at 25-30% of the total Latvia population.  As Latvians put it, there are only 1.2 million of them; according to more official records, there are up to 1.8 million Latvians.
  • Latvia is a tourist destination for Russians; Russian dialects on the street have regional Russian flavors, like those of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
  • Despite having (and still going) through a massive financial crisis, Latvian real estate prices are Moscow-high.  One finds Moscow real estate prices in a relatively provincial part of the world.  This suggest that many buyers of Latvian real estates are from major Russian cities and pay prices with which they are familiar.
  • Latvia has a deal for you:  Buy real estate, and Latvia will extend EU residency to you.  If you are a Russian that needs to launder money while getting access to a Western-leaning safe haven in case things go south on you at home, there is no place better than Latvia.
  • According to the Latvian president, about 80% of Latvia's tourism and commerce is generated from Russian sources.  Despite this, Latvia does not make life easy for visiting Russians that bring precious liquid currency to the country:
    • No one accepts Russian rubles
    • There are no state-installed (traffic, tourism, etc.) signs that are in Russian 

So, what precisely is Latvia, a country that defines itself as fighting against years of Russian occupation while so heavily depending on Russia for its economy?  A quick look back at Latvian history shows a region that was occupied by Polish, German, and Russian forces successively with brief periods of independence only in the Twentieth Century, the longer of which started in 1991.  So, there is actually surprisingly little national precedence for Latvia, although there has been a long precedence of the Latvian ethnicity (that were once Polish, then German, then Soviet, and now seemingly Russian).

As it happens, if you are the United State and the arch enemy of the Soviet Union, it is to your interest to fan the flames of independence in a land that has very little history of it, but whose independence (and eventual accession into EU and NATO) serves to weaken your erstwhile mortal enemy, a former enemy that may once again find its old ways for various reasons.

So, what is Latvia, if it is not a crossroad for the confluence powerful foreign forces?  Perhaps, it is just a people who find independence nice in concept, but difficult in implementation because they are just too small.