The Russian Mile Post, or Finland, the Åland Islands, and the Russian Empire in the Baltic

The Russian Imperial mile post at Vargata, Vårdö,
the Åland Islands. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

Outside the general store in the village where my grandmother was born stands a wooden post painted red with seven white signs nailed to it. At the top of the pole is the sign with the name of the village, Vargata, spelled the old way with a W. Below it is a sign that gives the distance from Vargata to the city of Turku, Finland. To the left of the Turku sign are three signs pointing east to St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and the island of Kumlinge. To the right of the Turku sign, two signs point west, to the island of Eckerö and the village of Mångsteckta.

There are several peculiarities with this wooden post and its signs, the most obvious being that the distances given are in versts, the Russian Imperial unit of length, equaling 1.1 kilometers or 0.66 miles. The second peculiarity is that this Russian Imperial post stands in the middle of a village in the Åland Islands, a Swedish speaking autonomous region of Finland, located in the Baltic, equidistant to Stockholm in Sweden and Turku in Finland.

The post is a remnant of a once vast postal system that connected this village to the wide reaches of the Russian Empire, the very same empire that Vladimir Putin says he intends to resurrect, starting with Belarus and Ukraine.

Between 1809 and 1917, after having been conquered from Sweden as part of the larger military conflicts of the time collectively known as the Napoleonic Wars, Finland with the Åland Islands were part of the Russian Empire. As part of the Russian Empire, Finland with the Åland Islands became a grand duchy placed directly under the Czar but with its own Senate and citizenship.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution left a temporary power vacuum before the Bolsheviks took a proper hold of political power. As a result, the Russian Empire disintegrated. Several imperial regions took the opportunity to declare independence, among them Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland. Of these newly born nations, only Finland escaped becoming part of the Soviet Union.

But the Soviet Union never forgot about Finland. In November 1939, two months after Nazi-Germany invaded Poland and sparked World War II, the Soviet Union launched an attack war on Finland with the intention of bringing the country into the Soviet fold. Two wars were fought at great human and territorial cost for Finland, but in the end, Finland prevailed and remained independent.

Still, the Soviet Union continued to pressure Finland, and Finland was forced to contend with that pressure, which gave rise to the term “Finlandization.” Finlandization is when a country is forced to adapt its foreign policy and practice self-censorship to navigate the relationship with a more powerful geopolitical neighbor. A pejorative term for a policy created out of necessity to survive, Finland shed the yoke of Finlandization when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union, in turn, fell apart. Since then, Finland has come into its own with a strong military and as a member of the EU and EMU.

Now, Vladimir Putin’s statements about wanting to rebuild the Russian Empire, of which the infiltration of Belarus and the invasion of Ukraine are two important parts, is forcing Finland to once again deal with its unpredictable neighbor. For example, already in 2017, the Finnish military adopted the policy of not hiring personnel with dual Finnish-Russian citizenship.

Ruins of the Russian fortress at Bomarsund. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

As for the Åland Islands, there is no immediate threat because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the islands’ government will be following the instructions of the Finnish government, if any were to be issued. Meanwhile, the islands still bear witness to the time when they were part of the Russian Empire. Ruins of the Russian fortress at Bomarsund, blown to smithereens as a result of the battle fought there in 1854 as part of the Crimean War, still dot the landscape, surrounded by the cemeteries with the soldiers who died, divided by religious creed–Catholics, Protestants, Russian Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims.

And at Vargata, the Russian mile post stands as a testament to the time when the vast machinery of the Russian Empire reached all the way to even the smallest village in the Baltic.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Book Review Round Up Part 3: More from Foreword Reviews

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a round up of some of the books I have reviewed for Foreword Reviews since October 2020. This week, I am posting yet another selection of books I have reviewed for them lately. Here you will find Latinx speculative fiction, travel through Greece in the Age of Covid-19, the absurdities of life in Communist Albania, and the origins of the conspiracy theories of the American far right, among other things.

I had a great time reading and reviewing these books. Hopefully you will be able to find something enjoyable to read among them.

The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews.

Jan Brokken, David McKay (transl.). The Just. How Six Unlikely Heroes Saved Thousands of Jews from the Holocaust (Scribe Publications, 2021).

“Jan Brokken’s history text The Just documents a rescue operation to save Jews from the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. In telling the life story of Jan Zwartendijk, The Just adds one more piece to the memory of the Holocaust.”

Literature about the Holocaust is a massive genre and it continues to grow as research on this genocide continues. This book was very interesting to read because it focuses on one of the many people who, at great peril for themselves and their loved ones, stood up for humanity and what is right.

Hernandez, García, and Goodwin (eds.), Speculative Fiction for Dreamers. A Latinx Anthology (Mad Creek Books, 2021).

“The anthology Speculative Fiction for Dreamers is an exciting and mind-expanding collection of short stories by contemporary Latinx authors. Speculative Fiction for Dreamers uses as its inspiration the lived experiences of the American Latinx community of today, expressed through speculative fiction. Rooted in the theoretical framework established by Gloria Anzaldúa’s ideas about la frontera, the anthology’s stories grew out of the participating authors’ lives, located at the cultural, political, sexual, and ethnic borderlands of American society. Speculative Fiction for Dreamers is a fun, subversive anthology of Latinx short stories.”

Another book I really enjoyed. I would say that SFF is one of the most vibrant and dynamic literary genres today. New voices are being added to the choir at a steady pace, which expands our ideas of what this and other worlds could become, now and in the future.

Margo Reijmer, Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Zosia Krasodomska-Jones (translators). Mud Sweeter than Honey. Voices of Communist Albania (Restless Books, 2021).

“Personal testimonials reveal the lived truths of communist Albania in Margo Rejmer’s oral history book Mud Sweeter than Honey. The book is written like a fairy tale. Its introduction sets up the testimonials, which reveal a repressive society based on contradictions bordering on the absurd. From the survivors of the regime, Mud Sweeter than Honey collects important testimonies about life in communist Albania.”

Mud Sweeter than Honey is an important book for two reasons. One, it is an inside view of the least known former Communist state of Eastern Europe, Albania. Two, it demonstrates the importance of literature in translation. Originally written in German, without the work of publishers who believe in translated literature, this book would never have reached us.

Peter Fiennes, A Thing of Beauty. Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece (Oneworld Publications, 2021).

“Musings on the myths of ancient Greece are intertwined with contemplations on climate change and Covid-19 in Peter Fiennes’s travelogue A Thing of Beauty. As climate change set the world on fire and Covid-19 emerged, Fiennes traveled through Greece with ancient Greek travel writer Pausanias and Lord Byron as his guides. The purpose of the trip was to find hope and to search for beauty; these elusive terms are explored in depth, but the book provides no definite answers about them. In the end, it is the journey that matters. A Thing of Beauty is an entertaining, erudite travelogue through Greece, both ancient and modern.”

When Covid-19 shut down the world in early 2020, tourism ground to a halt and communities whose survival depend on money coming from outside suffered. Greece was one of them. Slowly as we learn how to live with the virus, tourism and travel in general is returning, but for those months when the world stood still, those who dared venture out walked in solitude.

Edward H. Miller, A Conspiratorial Life. Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism (University of Chicago Press, 2021)

“The origins of the conspiracy theories that permeate modern American politics are revealed in Edward H. Miller’s biography of Robert Welch, A Conspiratorial Life. Born into a family of North Carolina farmers who fought in the American Revolution, owned slaves, believed in white supremacy, supported the confederacy, disliked Yankees, and distrusted the federal government, Robert Welch made his fortune as a candy manufacturer with the purpose of supporting himself as a political writer. Hypervigilant to conspiracy theories, he found a personal outlet in the death of John Birch, an American military intelligence officer who died during World War II. He founded an anticommunist organization, The John Birch Society, to peddle his theories among American conservatives. A Conspiratorial Life is the first comprehensive biography of Robert Welch. It is revelatory about his role in the development of modern American conservatism.”

This book is quite the chilling read because it shows the origins of some of the conspiracy theories that we are living with on a daily basis, how they developed, and were allowed to spread and sprout very deep roots.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Pro-Wrestling Is Art. Or, Aristotle, Socrates, and the F-Word.

I love pro-wrestling. Every Thursday night I sit down in front of the TV and watch IMPACT Wrestling, a Canadian-based wrestling promotion with a quirky sense of humor and a strong women’s division, operating out of Nashville. During the two hours that the broadcast lasts, I am completely engulfed in the pro-wrestling universe with its over-the-top characters, engaging feuds, unpredictable story arcs, antics, and acrobatics. All that matters is what is in front of me on the TV screen.

Pro-wrestling gives me an emotional release and a way to escape what is happening in the world. That feeling of emotional release and escape is what the Ancient Greeks called catharsis.

The authority on catharsis in the arts is Aristotle, who calls the experience of a Greek tragedy a catharsis of pity and fear. The Greek word “catharsis” has several different meanings. It can mean a purge of pity and fear. Or a clarification. Or a purification.

Regardless of what the word means exactly, we can all agree that catharsis is the emotional climax experienced by an audience that watches characters on a stage go through a crisis.

To me, that is the experience of watching pro-wrestling.

Here you might say what is the point of having this discussion, pro-wrestling is fake anyway.

Well, first of all, we don’t use the F-word in polite society.

Second, what do you mean by “fake”?

In an episode of Young Rock, the NBC sit-com inspired by the life of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, 10-year old Dwayne says the F-word in front of a group of pro-wrestlers, screeching the conversation to a halt. 7-foot-4-inches tall André the Giant lifts Dwayne up by the arm pits until the two are face-to-face and lets him hang there for a moment. Then André asks him, “Does this feel fake to you?” The answer, of course, is no.

Aristotle’s idea of catharsis can be read as a response to his philosopher predecessor, Socrates, who opposed art in his ideal city because art is imitation, that is to say, art is fake.

In The Republic of Plato, Socrates lays out his reasons for considering art as fake.

Socrates starts his discussion talking about poets, but soon we find that he takes issue with all kinds of artistic expressions. He talks about painters, playwrights, and actors. None of these professions can be trusted because they do not express the truth. They are all imitators.

To illustrate his point, Socrates states that nature is the producer of all originals. The carpenter who builds something manifests the idea of that original. The painter creates an imitation of the idea of the original. That is to say, art is third removed from the original.

How can we trust that the image we see is accurate unless the painter is a carpenter also? asks Socrates. How can we trust a writer writing about war if they have never fought a war themselves? he continues. And, says Socrates, how can we trust the actor playing a part talking about things they know nothing about?

Socrates’s point here is that we can’t trust the imitators because the imitators appear to be something that they are not in a way that makes them seem better than they are.

Conclusion: Art is imitation. Imitation is not serious. Therefore, art is not serious.  

Art is fake.

In fact, art, according to Socrates, is detrimental to the soul. A healthy soul is the soul where the calculating part is strong. An unhealthy soul is where imitation is strong. He even goes as far as to say that art corrupts the soul by creating phantoms that gratify the soul’s foolish part.

What he is referring to here is “catharsis.” Catharsis, according to Socrates, is an artificial emotion because it is caused by a scene that is staged; it’s not something acting out in reality. And because of that Socrates finds it to be corrupting. 

But if we take a step back and ask: would we rather blow off steam and suffer for a moment when an actor playing Oedipus the King pretends to gouge his own eyes out, or would we actually want to watch a man in agony actually gouge his eyes out? Would we rather see W Morrissey slam Brian Meyers into the floor of the squared circle in a choreographed Power Bomb, or would we actually want to watch an enraged man slam another man into the ground at full force?

Which of these scenarios would be corrupting? 

If we were to compare pro-wrestling, which is considered “fake” because it is scripted and choreographed and therefore a lesser form of entertainment, with pro-football, which is considered “real” because of the unpredictable nature of the game and therefore a higher form of entertainment, and we place these two within the framework of catharsis vs corruption, what would be the result?

I would argue that pro-wrestling comes out on top.

When a pro-wrestler is carried out of the arena, unconscious on a stretcher, we know he will be fine. When the same thing happens with a football player, we know he most likely won’t be.

The difference between pro-football and pro-wrestling is that pro-football creates moments of actual emotional terror, while the purpose pro-wrestling is catharsis.

The difference between the two is that pro-wrestling is art. And art is real.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Book Review Round Up Part 2: Foreword Reviews

As some of you might know, I review books for Foreword Reviews, a magazine and review service that reviews books published by independent presses, university presses, and self-published authors for independent bookstores, libraries, and literary agents, as well as the general reading public. This week I would like to share with you some of the books that I have reviewed for them over the past year and a half. In addition to being featured on Foreword Review’s website, these reviews have also been published in the print edition of the magazine Foreword Reviews.

Last time I did a Foreword Review book review round up was in October 2020 and you can read that round up by clicking on this link.

Hopefully you will find a book that interests you. Enjoy!

The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews.

Norris Hundley, Jr. and Donald C. Jackson. Heavy Ground. William Mulholland and the St Francis Dam Disaster (University of Nevada Press, 2020).

“On March 12th, 1928, the St. Francis Dam collapsed, and twelve billion gallons of silted water crashed through the California countryside. By the time the flood reached the coast and spilled into the Pacific, an estimated 400 people had lost their lives, making this one of the greatest disasters of its kind in US history.”

I really enjoyed this book and its discussions on how the city of Los Angeles wouldn’t exist the way we know it, if it hadn’t been for the massive infrastructure projects that were undertaken to secure the city’s water supply. Also, I will never think of Mulholland Drive the same again.

Amy Nathan. Together. An Inspiring Response to the “Separate-but-Equal” Supreme Court Decision that Split America (Paul Dry Books, 2021).

“On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a Black shoemaker from New Orleans, bought a first class train ticket to Covington, Louisiana. When the train arrived, Plessy took his seat. Less than three blocks away from the station, the trip came to an end, and Plessy found himself arrested for being a Black man traveling in a train car for white people. Plessy found himself in court, and Judge John Ferguson found him guilty of breaking the law. What seemed like a minor occurrence was, in fact, part of a bigger plan to challenge The Separate Car Act of 1890, which introduced segregated train seating in Louisiana.”

This book is a great introduction to the actions that led to the Supreme Court ruling known as Plessy v. Ferguson, which came to be used as the legal precendent for introducing Jim Crow laws in the South. The story focuses on how the descendants of Homer Plessy and Judge John H. Ferguson work together to bridge the racial divide caused by this case.

Jen Gunter. The Menopause Manifesto (Kensington Books, 2021).

“Jen Gunter’s The Menopause Manifesto is a self-help guide through menopause for all women of a certain age. The Menopause Manifesto is practical as it reclaims menopause from myths, educating and empowering its audience in equal measure.”

In addition to reviewing The Menopause Manifesto, I interviewed its author, Dr. Jen Gunter. You can read my interview with Dr. Gunter here. An excerpt from this interview was also included in Foreword Review’s round up of the best conversations between reviewers and authors in 2021.

Mario Levrero, Annie McDermott (transl.). The Luminous Novel (And Other Stories, 2021).

“An author’s dream of financial independence comes true when he receives a generous stipend with no strings attached. Suddenly he has the means to dedicate all of his time to the novel that has eluded him for so many years. But the dream turns into a nightmare. Even with no time restrictions, he finds himself without the time to write. The novel slips further away from him, and with it, his life.”

This book was an unusual reading experience. The only way I can describe it is “meta.” This is a book written about the inability to write. But if you are unable to write, then how did you write this book?

Ellen Prentiss Campbell. Frieda’s Song (Apprentice House Press, 2021).

“In 1935, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a Jewish psychoanalyst, leaves Nazi Germany for the United States, where she builds a new life in Rockville, Maryland. In 2009, Eliza, also a psychoanalyst and the single mother of a troubled teenage son, moves into the house Frieda built. By accident, she discovers Frieda’s diary. Thereafter unfolds a story of how, for one summer, the women’s lives mirrored each other, despite a difference of decades.”

I enjoyed this book because it taught me about the real-life person of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a pioneer in psychoanalysis and the treatment of schizophrenia.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.