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Jonathan's Coffeeblog: Nations & Empires

"The meaning of life and other trivia." Copyright ©2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 Jonathan David Leavitt. All rights reserved.

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Lenin - 1:16 PM Thursday, February 5, 2009
[The HOW of implementing the Marxian revolution.]

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

For a long time, I've been wanting to blog about V. I. Lenin, the Soviet revolutionary whose ideas and deeds virtually define what is now known as "left-wing." The problem with blogging about Lenin is keeping it short and to the point. I set myself the goal of finding a maximum of three points I could make about Lenin. I think I've done that, and will make those points, after a little background information:

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Jewish Christians and Christian Jews - 12:41 PM Thursday, December 25, 2008
[And on that note: Merry Christmas!]

Painting by Georges de La Tour

I've written before in the Coffeeblog about what it was like growing up as a Jewish boy, more or less, in a Christian country, more or less. As Christmas rolls around again (Hanukkah already started a few days ago), my thoughts turn to this theme once again. I began writing this on Christmas Eve, 2008. Although the terms are confusing, I want to write about Jews who consider themselves Christians, and about Christians who consider themselves Jewish. A good starting point is the life of one Jesus of Nazereth, born in the northern region of the land of Israel called Galilee, approximately 2,008 years ago (Wikipedia says the Jesus was probably born some time between 2 and 7 AD). It is in honor of the birth of Jesus that the holiday of Christmas is being celebrated today in Christian countries, but also in places like Japan. Even a self-designated atheist like the Jewish-born Ayn Rand enjoyed, supported, and celebrated Christmas.

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Don't Shrug Her Off - 2:10 PM Monday, December 15, 2008
[Movie Review: The Passion of Ayn Rand]

Atlas, Before He Shrugged

I have long been, and still am, a fan of the great Russian-born Hollywood screenwriter, novelist, philosopher, and radical advocate of capitalism, Ayn Rand. Her name surfaced again recently in a Newsweek article which blamed her for the current worldwide financial meltdown. This is not about that, however, but about a movie made about Miss Rand by Showtime, an adaptation of Barbara Branden's book, "The Passion of Ayn Rand," which I saw on a Netflix rental DVD. I loved the movie, which I had never seen though it came out in 1999.

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To the Shores of Tripoli - 11:23 AM Friday, November 21, 2008
[The Songs of War, Part 6]

Piracy Then and Now (Coffeeblog)

And so my multipart series on the songs of war continues. For the latest episode I had in mind a song related to the American Revolution, but events on the news during this past week influenced me to choose another song, the official hymn of the United States Marines, which is also the oldest official song of the United States military. The event that inspired this blogpost? The hijacking of a Saudi Arabian oil tanker with a petroleum cargo reportedly worth $100 million. Did the United States Marines intervene and rescue the crew and salvage the cargo? Well, no. Not this time (as of the date that I am writing this.) What, then is the connection? The connection is the second line of the first stanza of the Marines' hymn, "to the shores of Tripoli." [YouTube video] That second line refers to an important historical event known as the First Barbary War (1801-1805), important not only in US history but to the maritime history of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, to European and American relations with sovereign Islamic states, and to international policy on piracy on the high seas.

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The Third Rome - 10:49 PM Sunday, November 16, 2008
[Translatio Imperii, Part Two]

The Third Rome

I recently wrote in the Coffeeblog about a medieval political theory called, in Latin, translatio imperii, meaning transfer of power, promoting the idea that the Germanic kingdoms of Northern Europe were direct descendants of the Western Roman Empire. At this moment I am extending that idea to Russian history, beginning with a mysterious monk from Pskov, his Legend of the White Cowl, and his compelling idea that Russia was the Third Rome. The First Rome, of course, was the western empire ruled from Rome itself, which according to legend was founded by brothers Romulus and Remus. The Second Rome was the name for the Byzantine Empire, ruled from Constantinople, and created by Constantine the Great. According to the Pskov monk, whose name was Philotheus (Filofey in Russian), Constantine had given a white cowl to the pope, who sent it to Philotheus, who passed it on to the Archbishop of Novogorod, which was an important medieval Russian city. The Archbishop died in 1352. In 1453, 101 years after the Archbishop's death, Constantinople, the Second Rome, was taken by Ottoman forces and has been ever since a major Muslim capital, now called Istanbul. Russia, having received the white cowl, became the successor to the Byzantine Empire according to Filofey's doctrine of the Third Rome. This doctrine is not a mere historical footnote, but an idea to be taken quite seriously during our present era.

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Ukraine - 3:16 PM Saturday, October 25, 2008
[But Ukraine is no Disneyland]

Ukraine (Coffeeblog)

I must say that I have mixed feelings writing about Ukraine. It gives me butterflies in the stomach. More about that later, but I will start with a 2002 article by US ambassador to Ukraine, where he asserts that Ukraine is not "a political football between Russia and the United States." OK. Political, maybe not, but football? It seems to me that Ukraine's long history of being fought over by opposing "teams;" and of her inhabitants being kicked around for ages (as well as kicking each other around) justifies the football metaphor.

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The Hyas Muckamuck's Skookum Potlatch - 7:45 PM Sunday, September 28, 2008
[Chinook jargon has something to tell us]

Potlatch (Coffeeblog)

The past few days I've been distracted by major political/economic events, which have caused me great concern, worry, and frustration. As I write this the US Congress is supposedly closing a deal where hundreds of billions of dollars of bad debt will be purchased at a discount, purportedly by zhlubs like me, the American taxpayer. My mind boggles. I am no economist, but I am caught between the threat (the collapse of the world economy!) articulated by our Hyas Muckamuck, US President George W. Bush, and the knowledge, reinforced by plain common sense, that the same muckamucks who got us into the mess are now promising to get us out. Fortunately, I have found another way of understanding this whole mess. You see, I have just returned from a vacation in Alaska.

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Tengri, Lord of the Sky - 3:43 PM Saturday, August 23, 2008
[Heavenly peace indeed.]

Tengri (Coffeeblog)

A few weeks ago I saw Sergei Bodrov's movie about the life of young Temujin, the Mongol slave boy who grew up to become Genghis Khan, conqueror of Eurasia from China to Afghanistan in the early 1200's. Wow. It was quite a movie, somewhat long and detailed compared to a Hollywood flick. Some of the scenes were so fantastic that I thought they were fictionalized, so I looked up Temujin in Wikipedia and found that the same events were believed to be true. One recurring scene beguiled me, when Temujin, at various ages beginning in boyhood, climbs a mountain to commune with a sky god named Tengri, personified in the film as a mysterious wolf. That scene led me to more web searching only to discover that Tengri is/was the universal deity of the Turkic and Mongol peoples, and as such, an excellent point of departure for a Coffeeblog extravaganza about Eurasia, Turks, Mongols, and sky gods in general. There is actually a religion called Tengriism, labeled pagan or shamanistic, but the worship of Tengri brought me back to memories of my school days. You see, I am so old that I remember that, along with the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, at the beginning of every school day we recited a prayer.

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Russia and the Caucasus - 3:28 PM Monday, August 11, 2008
[More potently than chains or fortresses.]

Caucasus (Coffeeblog)

When I was in junior high school in 1957, I thought I knew all an American needed to know about Russia, and maybe I did, for that era of the Cold War. They had nukes, we had nukes. They could blow us up, and we could blow them up in retaliation if they tried it. We knew what Caucasians were too: white people. It was a polite way of saying it. Even today, if you ask an American what Caucasian means he will probably say it is a racial term. Mountain climbers might know about the Caucasus range, but even news junkies who know all about the Chechen wars with Russia probably don't think much about the mountains. Georgia, of course, is a southern state where Jimmy Carter once grew peanuts and they had the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, where a bombing took place. Well, bombing is still going on in Georgia: Not Jimmy's Georgia, the other Georgia, the independent nation on the southern slope of the Caucasus mountains. That Georgia, the Georgia which wants to join NATO, the Georgia who has the big oil pipeline. Oh yeah: the bombing. The Russians reportedly bombed Poti, the port from which the oil gets shipped to points west, like for instance the USA.

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Joe One and My New Geography - 6:32 PM Sunday, August 10, 2008
[Stuff happened there.]

Joe One (First Soviet Nuclear Test)

As a kid growing up on the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border in the northeastern USA, I learned geography in school and later by following world events. My idea of the world was that is was centered around the north Atlantic Ocean. I am still following world events, and on the day I wrote this Beijing, China is opening up the Olympic Games, and the nation of Georgia is fighting with a breakaway South Ossetia, into whose territory Russia has just sent tanks. Beijing and Georgia are far from the Atlantic Ocean, as are Tibet, Mongolia, and Iran, places I have written about elsewhere in the Coffeeblog. Over the past year or so I have come to believe that I need to revise my idea of world geography, moving the center away from the Atlantic to somewhere else. Last evening I found where that "somewhere else" is.

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Translatio Imperii (Part 1 of 3) - 10:41 PM Tuesday, June 24, 2008
[A "public thing," a res publica.]

Translatio Imperii

While putzing around the Internet I came across an obscure but interesting Wikipedia article which, I believe, has great relevance to the world of our time. The Wikipedia authors gave it the Latin title "Translatio Imperii," whose precise meaning is "transfer of command." A French historian of the Middle Ages, Jacques LeGoff, is credited with describing translatio imperii as a typically medieval idea. Undoubtedly some medieval political entities, such as the so-called Holy Roman Empire, founded by a German King named Otto, were based on that idea: as various empires have risen and fallen, the imperial names, ruling dynasties, geographic centers of power, and sometimes the official languages have changed, yet proceeded in a clearly traceable linear sequence. I am convinced that this is a useful and helpful theory of a process which applies far beyond the Middle ages and began long before, and makes it less difficult to make sense of the complex geopolitical events of our time, and of history. Here are two examples:

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Nations and Empires - 9:51 PM Saturday, May 3, 2008
[Can we all get along?]

Empires and Nations

I've added a new category to the Coffeeblog: Nations and Empires. Originally I had thought of adding a "history" category. Then I realized that everything I post to the Coffeeblog is some kind of history: the history of Bettie Page and the Kefauver Commission, or the history of Andres Serrano and his "Piss Christ" image with the resulting kerfuffle. Even a movie review is a history of sorts. Thinking it over, I realized that the kind of history that has begun to interest me lately is the history of empires and the nations, peoples, tribes, ethnic groups, language groups, and other societal entities engulfed, absorbed, or instrumental in the development of such empires. I would have never predicted such an interest as a college freshman who felt overwhelmed by the huge reading assignments of my required basic history course. But back then there was no hypertext, Internet, or Wikipedia. Why such a powerful interest now, so late in life? It has to do with the world events swirling around us about which the dead tree media and the idiot box generally keep us in abysmal ignorance. Why do Shia and Sunni Muslims attack each other in Mesopotamia (the dead tree pundits call it Iraq)? There are reasons for it. "Civil war" the treekillers call it. Sort of like Antietam or the Battle of Bull Run? Please. And then there's Central Asia, the route of the Silk Road, where the focus is not silk any more but petroleum., land of many fallen empires. To paraphrase George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to write for CNN."

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Denixonizing China - 1:55 PM Saturday, April 26, 2008
[Is there a double standard in Beijing?]

Slow Boat to China

Recently when the Olympic Torch passed through San Francisco, city officials engaged in well-intended skulduggery when they extinguished the original torch and successfully routed a second torch in another part of town. On the announced route, fans, onlookers, and angry demonstrators on both sides of the "Free Tibet" issue had gathered to show their enthusiasm and outrage. It turned out that the rerouting subterfuge prevented violence, but I was struck by the era-defining implications of this event, and other demonstrations which had begin on March 10 in China's Tibet Autonomous Region and soon after had become internationalized. I decided to write something about this in the Coffeeblog, and this is it. The more I learn about Tibet, however, the more complex the issue appears. Read on.

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The Imperial Eagle - 8:50 PM Tuesday, March 4, 2008
[Hail to the Chief?]

The Imperial Eagle (Coffeeblog)

Eagles are a family of birds knows as raptors, from a Latin word for "robber." The words rob, bereft, rapid, and maybe even the slang term "rip-off" are all related. Eagles have very good eyesight, the better to spot their prey from far off, with sloping brows to protect the eyes from the sun. They also have strong heads and necks, and huge sharp, curving beaks. Romans who had noses like eagle-beaks (aquiline) were associated with nobility. Eagles have a no-nonsense look which has given them iconic status throughout history. The mythological Native American thunderbird was like an eagle, but large enough to create thunder when it flapped its wings. The European gods Zeus, Odin, and Jupiter also were said to have the power of thunder and lightning, and eagles were associated with these gods in stories and as symbols. In military terms, the eagle, King of Birds, could be said to have "air superiority," although I doubt an eagle needs to waste energy fighting other birds. I find this all fascinating. Even more than fascination, however, my primary motivation for blogging about eagles is the fact than an extraordinary event is taking place as I write this, an event whose outcome is unknown, which I will address in the last few paragraphs of this blogpost.

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Milos Obilic and the First Battle of Kosovo - 9:27 PM Monday, February 25, 2008
[Never again? Please.]

Milos Obilic and the Blackbird Field

Later in life I'm becoming a history buff. In college I considered the study of history burdensome, with all those details to memorize for the exam, but now, whenever I hear a news headline about some world trouble spot, I want to go immediately to the Internet to get the background. This impulse has led to previous Coffeeblog posts such as The Right-Left Politics Meme, Anselm Kiefer's May-Beetle, and Ismail and the Safavids. Well, it's happened again. This past week or so, the new nation of Kosovo declared its independence, following which it was recognized by the US, following which there were huge demonstrations in Serbia against the US, plus riots by angry Serbs who set fire to a US Embassy office, a McDonalds restaurant, and multiple American Flags. "So what else is new?," you might be saying if you're a Christian, a Jew, or an atheist, who has not kept up-to-date on your Serbian history. "Of course the Muslims are burning the US Embassy. That's what Muslims do. The US must have been caught flushing another Koran or something." But guess what? The Serbs are not Muslims. They are Christians (Serbian Orthodox) or atheists too. So why are they angry? Well, the brand-new nation of Kosovo is populated primarily by ethnic Albanians (there is also an independent nation of Albania}, and most of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are Muslims. So the US supports a new Muslim nation and the Christians burn our flag? Well, yeah. For me, that means it's Google time again.

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Oil and Regime Change - 4:12 PM Saturday, December 8, 2007
[Jews confront a Syrian Nut-Job.]


It's Hanukkah again, 5 candles tonight. For Jewish children living in Christian lands, Hanukkah has become a substitute for Christmas. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. The Jewish holiday is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev, which is a Babylonian name for a month which occurs around the same time as the Roman month of December. The resemblance ends there. The first Hanukkah commemorates an event which took place in Jerusalem 164 years before Jesus was said to have been born nearby in Bethlehem. The event was the rededication of a temple rebuilt on the site of a previous temple built by King Solomon. The word Hanukkah, in fact means "dedication." There is a villain in the story: the king of Syria, Antiochus IV, whose admirers called Epiphanes, meaning "shining" in Greek. The Jews had another Greek name for him, Epimanes, which, translated into the contemporary American vernacular, means "Nut-Job." ...

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Are Christians an endangered species? - 4:23 PM Saturday, December 1, 2007
[From the Milvian Bridge to Lebanon]

Helen & Constantine

As a boy growing up in Pennsylvania I felt like a small Jewish fish swimming in a vast, boundless sea of Christians, while Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus were the stuff of storybooks. Now, however, I am repeatedly encountering the idea, on the Internet and in the mass media, that Christianity is running out of time. Today I Googled the phrase "demise of Christianity" and got 766,000 hits. The themes under that category included secularization of former Christians; the choice not to have children; a preference for personal spirituality over organized churches, and escalating geographic relocations due to competition from other, more assertive religions. Many believe that Christianity is not only vanishing from places like Lebanon and Iraq, but drastically losing numbers in Italy, the UK, and elsewhere. These dramatic current events described aroused my curiosity about where all of the Christians came from in the first place, and that led me to the story of the Roman emperor Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, and that of his mother Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta....

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Hulagu's Exit Strategy - 3:22 PM Thursday, September 13, 2007
[Ink and Blood]

Hulagu's Exit Strategy (Coffeeblog)

In the year 1258, the Mongol Il-Khan Hulagu ordered the sack of Baghdad, which for 508 years had been the capital of a Muslim empire, ruled by a Caliph, and called the Abbasids after `Abbas ibn `Abd al-Muttalib, paternal uncle and companion of the Prophet Mohammad. The Abbasids were staunch Sunni Muslims. Baghdad, prior to Hulagu's arrival, was renowned for its architecture and culture, including the House of Wisdom, a huge library and scholarly institution housing works in, and translated from Persian, Syriac, and Greek in the fields of astrology, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and philosophy....

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Titus Flavius Josephus - 7:38 PM Sunday, July 1, 2007
[Shedding light on contemporary tensions.]

Vespasian and the Jews

While working on a Coffeeblog post about theocracies I discovered that the word, Greek-derived (meaning dictatorship of a god) appeared in the writing of T. F. Josephus, a fascinating fellow who was born in the land of Israel around 37 years before the Christian era. Descended from priests of the Temple in Jerusalem, he wrote in Greek and became a citizen of Rome. Having written about Jesus, his writing has become part of the controversy among secular scholars and historians whether Jesus actually existed. I find Josephus fascinating for a variety of reasons, shedding light on contemporary tensions between religion vs. secularism, empires vs. "national liberation," and theocracy vs. liberalism. His life also makes vivid the nature of the Near East before Mohammad, and how those pre-Islamic cultures impact the region, and the world, today....

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Rocket Polemics - 6:52 PM Friday, April 6, 2007
[Then I remembered something called Greek Fire. ]

Greek Fire

Today is Good Friday, the Christian anniversary of the crucifixion of Jesus. This year, Greek Orthodox Christians as well as Roman Catholics and Protestants will be celebrating Easter on the same Sunday. Greeks call it Pascha, the name of the Jewish holiday Pesach, which is still going on as I write this, celebrating Jewish liberation from slavery in pharaonic Egypt. Both Easter and Pesach are descendants of pagan holidays celebrating the arrival of spring, the resurrection of dormant vegetation in the Northern Hemisphere, and the birth of many animals and birds. Both Pesach and Easter are celebrated with eggs; in the Greek tradition the eggs are colored red. I wrote about Easter eggs in Jonathan's Coffeeblog last year....

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300: The Book Review - 7:04 PM Sunday, March 25, 2007
[Testosterone-powered drama.]

Action! History! Rhetoric!

A fascinating cultural phenomenon is unfolding before us. A battle fought 2,486 years ago, chronicled by a Greek known as the Father of History, resurrected from the dusty basement of academia by a cartoonist who turned it into a 1990's comic book series, has now hit the movie theaters in a groundbreaking mash-up of cinematography and computer graphics, a blockbuster hit, which inspired an cry of outrage from the spokesmen for a Middle Eastern theocracy, who are blaming the whole thing on (that's right) the Jews....

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The Croissant - 3:34 PM Thursday, October 5, 2006
[She makes you think of a latte.]

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Purim - 4:38 PM Friday, March 10, 2006
[Thanks to a Jewish woman named Myrtle]

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Another Christmas Miracle - 6:30 PM Friday, December 23, 2005
[Sometimes the oil lasts longer than you might expect]

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Copyright ©2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 Jonathan David Leavitt. All rights reserved.