Keep honking till it’s dinner time

The great Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov creatively retold La Fontaine and Aesop but The Geese seems to be original. Faced with the prospect of being sold in the market for food, a gaggle of geese protest that they are descended from the Capitoline Geese of Rome, who had saved it from the Gauls in 365 B.C., and deserve to be spared. The farmer wonders if the fowl have any achievements of their own, detects none and decrees them “only fit for the stew”.

In arguments over the Perugia murder case or the conviction of Italian seismologists, advocates of Italy’s legal system would sometimes remark that it is 2,000 years old and Cicero flourished when Anglo-Saxons still lived in caves. That gets me thinking of the geese at once, and of the anonymous Italian magistrate quoted by Piero Calamandrei in A Eulogy for Judges (1935):

It may be that half of the sentences handed down are unjust… and therefore half of those in prison are innocent; but by the same reasoning half of those acquitted and set free are in fact guilty and should be in prison… [I]t’s important to look at the bigger picture and understand that every error is compensated by another in the opposite direction. So the scales of justice are in balance and we judges can sleep easy at night.

Cicero would have recognized this Lottery-in-Babylon approach as an extension of his own, no doubt.

I don’t argue with Russians much online these days – I lose my cool too quickly in the face of insanity. But like some of the Italians, proponents of the Russian Universe (Russky mir) imagine themselves to be direct descendants of the greats. “Ours is the culture of Pushkin and Tolstoy,” they claim without understanding much of either, and tend to confuse their bastardized, Soviet idea of Russian culture with the real thing.

Their version of Eastern Christianity also tends to be a bastardization. In 2009 Putin visited the personal gallery of a Russian painter known for “spiritual” and “patriotic” kitsch. One painting depicted the saints Boris and Gleb, the Kievan princes who were murdered on the orders of their elder brother Svyatopolk (“the Accursed”) and declined to resist their killers. Putin remarked that Boris and Gleb were saints but “one must fight for oneself, for one’s country – they gave it up without a struggle… This cannot be an example for us – they lay down and waited to be killed.”

Heads of state do not have to endorse extreme non-violence, of course, but Putin either did not know much about Boris and Gleb or consciously denigrated the two young men who – as the legend goes – chose to die rather than perpetuate violence in a bloody feud. It’s remarkable considering that Boris and Gleb were widely venerated in old Russia, as evidenced by the large number of settlements and churches bearing their name (Borisoglebsky).

Boris and Gleb were the first native saints canonized by the Greek Church after the baptism of Kievan Rus. According to the chronicles and hagiographers, they did exactly as written, “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” That type of martyrdom was new to the Byzantines, who hesitated whether they should canonize the barbarian princes whose martyrdom did not conform to established patterns of sainthood. According to Georgy Fedotov, in the “passion bearer category of sainthood… we are in the very core of the Russian religious world. Many a Russian saint was canonized for the only obvious reason: his violent death.”

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