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Byzantium Made Me Do It

I once gave a presentation announced as “From Two Hills to Thessalonica.” My point was that I had come a long way from All of Baba’s Children, my first book, which I had researched in Two Hills, Alberta, still a predominantly Ukrainian-Canadian town in 1975, to tell the story of my parents’ generation of Canadians born of Ukrainian immigrants. It was published in 1978 and immediately people began asking me when I was going to write about Ukraine. I didn’t understand the logic of the question and dismissed the idea out of hand: what had Ukraine to do with me?

Fast forward a decade and I was busy travelling around most of Slavic Europe, including Ukraine, in search of the history, politics and culture that explained my generation of ’68 under Communism. I had already written a book about the Sixties in Canada and now was eager to find out how my counterparts in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and, sort of, in Ukraine experienced their 1960s. The book that resulted, Bloodlines: A Journey Into Eastern Europe (1993), my first real achievement of creative nonfiction, records the rather bruising reality check I experienced as a Western feminist and New Leftist. But the journey had taken me beyond social and political realities. I realized that, since my sojourn in Two Hills, I had been excavating successive layers of personal identity and now, far from having come to bedrock in the history of Eastern Europe, I had laid bare an unsuspected deeper layer, Byzantium.

In retrospect, I can see how it crept up. As mentioned in an earlier post, I had frequently sought peace and quiet of mind and spirit in Orthodox churches and monasteries as I moved around. But these were not yet “Byzantium” to me but simply sites of cultural familiarity. Then I picked up on the jokey contrasts made by local wits between the cultures of espresso vs Turkish coffee, wine vs vodka, Austro-Hungarian vs Ottoman Turkish streetscapes, Latin vs Cyrillic alphabets, right-bank vs left-bank Danube, and the barely-disguised desire of speakers to be associated with the “European” side of the equations. Most dramatically, in Warsaw, after interviewing a young historian of modern Polish history, I walked with him along the city walls above the Vistula River, and followed his gaze as he pointed eastward, across the river to the Praga district, and to the prominent silhouette of a Russian Orthodox church, and exclaimed, “There is Asia!”

I was stunned. “Wait a minute,” I wanted to protest. “My relatives live over there, way east, and they’re not Asians,” but I caught myself on the defensive: what was this anxiety that he and I shared not to be excluded from “Europe”? More to the point, why did an Orthodox church lie outside Europe in this historian’s mind?

In 1988 I was in Kyiv, capital of the fast-receding Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, during the commemorations of the 1000th anniversary of the Christianization – or Baptism – of Kyiv and the land of Rus’ in 988. Christianity was brought to what would become the Ukrainian people not from Rome but from Constantinople. It is an oft-told tale, of how emissaries of Prince Volodymyr of Rus’, still a pagan, had ventured into the great church of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople, stood under its immense dome and wondered whether they had been transported to Heaven. Their report convinced Volodymyr to establish Byzantine Christianity on his lands and it was this Baptism that we were celebrating in Kyiv with all the pomp and circumstance as could be mustered by clergy and politicos not to mention the faithful masses. It took me another decade to get started but I knew that I had to write a book about Byzantium, the matrix, the Mother Lode, the progenitrix of the spiritual and popular culture of the Ukrainians, including those emigrants 900 years later who built those onion-domed churches on the Canadian prairie and parkland.

But Byzantium is huge. A thousand years of imperial history: the Second Rome, after the fall of that other one, that endured until the Ottoman conquest in 1453. Immensely wealthy and powerful at its zenith, missionary to the southern and eastern Slavs, repository of Hellenic arts and sciences, interlocutor with neighbouring Islam, “The golden smithies of the Emperor! Marbles of the dancing floor,” as W. B. Yeats had it – what would be my subject?

I tell that story in Prodigal Daughter, how I stumbled on the iconographic representation of St Demetrius of Thessalonica, Great Martyr and Myrrh-streamer, martyred in 304 AD in the northern Greek city of Thessalonica, in the last of the Roman persecutions of Christians. He returned in the sixth century to defend his beloved city by performing miracles that saved it from marauding Slavic tribes. Perhaps the even greater miracle was that these same Slavs would in their turn come to venerate him as one of their own, a saint of Byzantine Christianity safeguarded for them in the Orthodox Church. I knew I had my subject: I would follow Demetrius around the Byzantine world and tell the tale of my people and his.

And so I went back to church. For purely research purposes, you understand – to immerse myself in the world of St Demetrius’s legacy as lived by Ukrainian Orthodox Christians of Canada. I started in Saskatoon (where I was writer-in-residence for a year) in Holy Trinity Cathedral, I bought my first Bible, the Orthodox Study Bible Revised King James Version, I memorized whole swatches of Liturgy, belted out the ancient hymns…and began to write my book. The book was published in 2010 and I’m still in church.

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