Manny takes history lessons

Manny Macron tried to prepare properly for his meeting with Ukrainian president Poroshenko. I suppose he must have taken seriously Brigitte’s threat to send him to bed without supper if he didn’t.

But then Manny made the mistake of taking extracurricular history lessons from Poroshenko as he went along. That got the poor lad terribly confused.

Both the preparation and confusion were reflected in his concluding statement. Speaking of Putin’s theft of Crimea, Manny said he understood that Russia is the aggressor in that conflict. That rated an A.

As Brigitte was smiling with maternal pride in the background, Manny rephrased the same thought by saying that Ukraine isn’t an aggressor. France doesn’t recognise the illegal Crimea annexation and knows who started this war between the Ukraine and Russia.

Since he was saying the same thing over and over again, a maximum of a B was merited. However, Brigitte had taught Manny that repetition is the mother of learning.

But then she winced and made a mental note to mark Manny’s performance down. She realised that, against her explicit instructions, Manny had picked up some history from Poroshenko on the hop. That’s where things went awry.

“I must tell you,” Manny said to Poroshenko, “that our two countries have relations of very long standing, going deep into history. You’ve devoted some time today to paying tribute to Anne of Kiev. You’ve shown how important this very old eleventh-century history is, how deeply rooted our ancient relations are.”

In other words, Poroshenko taught Manny that Princess Anne of Kiev was a Ukrainian lass who married the French king Henri I and thereby cemented the budding friendship between the Ukraine and France.

Here Manny showed a bit of confusion and much inconsistency. For, meeting Vlad Putin a few days earlier, he had accepted with alacrity the latter’s assurance that friendship between France and Russia also goes back to that versatile (polyvalente) Kievan girl.

Manny must decide whether Anne was Ukrainian or Russian to avoid future confusion. Perhaps a few more history lessons wouldn’t go amiss. Above all, he should learn neither to play politics with history himself nor to let others get away with doing so.

It has to be said that the French themselves aren’t above a little sleight of hand when it comes to relating events of yore. Thus France won every battle she ever fought. Some victories were military but, when that couldn’t be claimed, they were moral. One way or the other, there were no defeats.

If the victory was merely moral, the absence of a military triumph has to be ascribed to treason. Thus the French never say “We were beaten”. They say “We were betrayed” (Nous sommes trahis).

In that spirit, the French won resounding moral victories against the English in such landmark battles as Crécy, Agincourt and Waterloo.

In the first two, merely half a century apart, perfide Albion employed treacherous, unsporting tactics of putting archers armed with longbows on high ground. As aristocratic, heavily armoured French cavalry trundled uphill, getting stuck in the mud, those perfidious English yeomen picked them off one by one, cutting down what French history books describe as the “fine flower of French nobility” (la fine fleur de la noblesse française).

And at Waterloo the French, led by that genius sans pareil Napoleon, won a resounding military victory over the English, only to have to settle for the moral kind when the Prussians arrived. A victory by any other name, in other words.

However, even though the French may play fast and loose with history, they don’t use such academic shenanigans to score political points. No doubt Manny thinks that, likewise, there’s no harm in the Russians and Ukrainians both claiming Anne for their own. So it’s back to school for him – and perhaps Brigitte ought to give him six of the best (actually, he might like that).

As I’ve written in the past, it’s easy to settle the argument about whether Anne was Ukrainian or Russian. She was neither.

Anne was a Scandinavian princess of the Rurik dynasty that founded and ruled Kievan Rus. The historical roots of both the Ukraine and Russia can be traced back to that principality, but to refer to it as either Ukrainian or Russian is like referring to Saxony as English.

In due course Kievan Rus was wiped out and the centre of eastern Slavic lands shifted to a newly founded Moscow. In 1240 Muscovy was conquered by the Golden Horde, while the territory west of it fell under the sway of Lithuania and eventually the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Following the Cossack Rebellion (1648–1657) led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, that territory was incorporated into the Russian Empire. In the process, Khmelnytsky’s men murdered 300,000 Jews, establishing a record of anti-Semitic atrocities that stood until Hitler.

The word ‘Ukraine’, meaning ‘outskirts’ in Slavic languages, was unknown until the seventeenth century, while the word ‘Russia’ in the geopolitical sense is only about a century older. Elizabethan maps identify the place as either Muscovy or even Tartary, and what is now the Ukraine was in English known as Ruthenia until 1804.

I hope next time Manny has to follow either Poroshenko or Putin on their forays into history, he’ll be able to catch them out in bastardising history for political purposes.

At least Poroshenko doesn’t use this ploy for aggressive purposes. Putin does, as he did when justifying the theft of Crimea by claiming it was originally Russian. That’s like saying that Bolivia was originally Spanish.

Crimea was traditionally the frontier between the civilised classical world and the savage steppe. As such, it was colonised by the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Goths, the Genoese and the Ottoman Empire.

It was from the latter that Russia claimed Crimea roughly at the same time as Britain conquered India. As a result of Khrushchev’s gerrymandering, Crimea was transferred to the Ukraine in 1954, again but a few years after India gained her independence.

Crimea is thus Russian in the same sense in which India is British, and Putin was no more justified in his geopolitical larceny than Britain would be in trying to occupy, say, Bengal. Hence what in the hands of the French is an innocent, if slightly silly, game of historical chicanery, in the hands of the Russians becomes an offensive weapon claiming human lives.

Bad boy, Manny. But not to worry, you’re still young enough to learn. Brigitte will see to that.


1 thought on “Manny takes history lessons”

  1. “cutting down what French history books describe as the “fine flower of French nobility” (la fine fleur de la noblesse française).”

    Include 1,000 men-at-arms who only the day before had been awarded the title of Sir Knight.

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