Belarus: A Conflict of Histories

The summer of 2020 marked the beginning of the largest anti-government protests in Belarusian history. Fuelled by the clear rigging of the 2020 presidential election, these protests have rocked Alexander Lukashenko’s regime and terrified him with the possibility of his overthrow . And so, the President has cracked down heavily on these protestors, leading to numerous arrests, violence, extraditions and deaths. At the same time, Russian influence within the country has been ramped up, as reports of Russian government personnel clashing with protestors have emerged, and recently, Russia and Belarus have participated in continuous, joint military exercises that have effectively established a permanent Russian military presence in the country.

This increased Russian presence could be said to have been somewhat of an inevitability. The 1999 Union State Treaty was signed between Russia and Belarus with the final aim of integrating both countries into a political union. Or, more realistically, to integrate Belarus into Russia. Alexander Lukashenko, one of the original signatories, has remained in power ever since then. Lukashenko and Russia have sought to achieve this union in the past two decades through creeping economic integration. Russian businesses operate extensively within Belarus, Russia is the biggest buyer of Belarusian goods and Belarus can purchase essentials, such as Russian oil, at a lower price than the rest of the world. Such privileges are threatened to be revoked by the Kremlin should Belarus ever dare to step out of line. 

An interesting aspect of Russian integration efforts however, is the cultural part Russia aims not only to integrate Belarus economically and politically, but also culturally. Russian propaganda outlets espouse a narrative of Belarusian history which suggests that integration is natural. According to this narrative, Belarusians are simply Russians who have been artificially separated from the motherland. Any differences in culture and language are simply aberrations brought about by the subjugation of the Belarusians by foreign powers while  the Belarusian state itself is seen as an artificial creation from the Soviet era. However, messages to promote integration are mingled with Soviet nostalgia; they tap into some of the older generations’ desire to once again be part of a superpower and their general longing for things to be as they were before. 

Lukashenko has naturally been complicit in promoting this narrative. During his presidency, he has suppressed the Belarusian language to the extent that reportedly only 4% of Belarusians use Belarusian in everyday speech. He has also reinstated the old Byelorussian SSR’s flag and anthem. The whole tone of Lukashenko’s administration has been one of Soviet nostalgia and close ties to Russia. In erasing distinctive Belarusian identity, Lukashenko and Russia are slowly eroding  any arguments against integration.

Nonetheless, only 7.7% of Belarusians support a full union with Russia, and 77% have a positive or neutral image of the European Union. It is clear that the propaganda campaign of Lukashenko and Russia has failed to have a significant effect on the Belarusian people. In fact, a contrary narrative of Belarusian history has emerged among the opponents of Lukashenko and the younger generation as a whole.

This narrative sees the formative years of the Belarusian nation when it was part of the medieval Duchy of Polotsk and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Polotsk was a Rus (not to be confused with Russian) realm that was somewhat distinct from Kievan Rus (the medieval Rus confederation centred in Ukraine from which Eastern Slavic groups claim cultural descent). Polotsk later became a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, under which Belarusian language, culture, and literature developed and flourished. This continued under the relatively tolerant Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. At the same time, Muscovy, which would become the Russian heartland, fell under the control of the Mongols. And so, the Rus of Belarus and Muscovy further diverged culturally and politically.

The ongoing Belarusian national revival began in the nineteenth century while Belarus was ruled by the Russian Empire. Nationalists harnessed the heritage of medieval and early modern Belarusians and the distinctiveness their culture had from Russian culture. This growing nationalism influenced the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) in 1918, which many opposition members view as an inspiration for an alternate Belarusian state.

Historical view of Karl Marx street in Belarus’ capital, Minsk. (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

The opponents to Lukashenko’s regime harness this narrative of Belarusian history to create an attractive ideology behind their movement and a counter-narrative to resist integration and reject Russian and state propaganda. Symbols of Belarusian history are ubiquitous among the protestors. The emblem of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Vytis or the Pahonia) is regularly flown along with the red-striped flag of the BPR. Patriotic songs written in the 1910, such as Pahonia and the BPR national anthem Vajacki marš are sung at demonstrations, the former of which to the tune of revolutionary anthem La Marseillaise. The protestors feel pride at their nation’s distinctiveness from Russia, and see their time under Lithuanian and Polish rule as a time for the emergence of a distinct and unique culture, rather than a tragic separation from a ‘greater Slavic people’.

Regimes are often upheld by the confidence of their people. The government is therefore required to maintain a popular and believable ideology to justify their rule and prevent their overthrow. The ideological basis for Lukashenko’s government and Russian integration, espoused by propaganda networks, is not in tune with  most Belarusians, and which contrasts starkly with the dynamic and distinct national identity many derive from their history and which the opposition promotes. 

As in Russia itself, the old Soviet tropes of longing for empire, and a fear of the West, have little effect on younger generations who have never experienced life under the USSR. While brutal crackdowns and Russian intervention may stymie the demise of Europe’s last dictator, popular support for it has crumbled, and thus the only way it can be maintained is through fear.

Jonas Balkus, Summer Writer

Is Russia’s Foreign Agent Law Destroying Russian Journalism?

Life as a journalist or within the media in Russia has historically been far from easy. With Putin’s highly centralised authoritarian regime, any formation of media outlets are strictly limited. Over 20 journalists are estimated to have been murdered since 2000 for reporting on events or topics that in any way cross the blurred line of what Putin’s government sees fit to be circulated. Within the past month, however, the government has chosen to elevate this media crackdown further. Some of Russia’s pre-eminent media outlets have now either been banned outright or have been pinned as ‘foreign agents’, detaching them from the country and coining them to the likes of being the ‘enemy’.

Restrictions and hostility towards journalists and the media can be traced back across the last ten years and beyond. The Russian government has been after the independent media for a while, with many independent journalists critical of the regime being eradicated by state owners. Journalists such as these had no choice but to find new jobs and try to continue their careers under ever tightening policing.

Vladimir Putin. (Credit: theglobalpanorama via Creative Commons.)

Recent hostility towards the media, however, has only continued from this, with a recent crackdown across the past year making lives for journalists even more of a struggle. Particularly significant is Russia’s law on foreign agents, of which was adopted in 2012 and has been frequently modified since , repeatedly broadening the scope of who should be defined as a foreign agent. It has been looming as an indefinite threat over Russian journalists since. When it was initially introduced in 2012, it was targeted at suppressing human rights work, or those involved in sharing details of civic information. However, this changed in 2017 when the legislation was amended to include the phrase ‘foreign agent media’, alongside creating a blacklist of foreign agents. It requires non-profit organisations that partake in ‘political activity’ to both register and declare themselves as foreign agents. Essentially, the Ministry of Justice assumes journalists are engaged with some form of political activity within their journalism, be it foreign intelligence or other. This means that every small action and move made under this law is closely monitored, even including spending. Roman Anin, a veteran investigative journalist and founder of a Russian media outlet expressed how “this is a law that basically bans the profession. It’s not a law about foreign agents, it’s a ban on independent journalism”.

The consequences of this law become most evident, however, when considered alongside its penalties of non-compliance, and these are what have amplified alongside changes made to the law this year. As of March 2021, journalists who fail to submit their reports to the Ministry of Justice can look to face five years imprisonment.

However, Russia’s authoritarian regime has not prevented media outlets from using their platforms to protest against these restrictions, and the recent crackdowns in particular. Over twelve independent media platforms have recently signed an open letter, demanding a demise to the designating of journalists and outlets as ‘foreign agents’. The letter read that the outlets are collectively “convinced that these events are part of a coordinated campaign to destroy independent Russian media”. Equally, Radio Liberty, one of the media outlets which has been faced with 520 violations and over $2 million in fines, has also argued against the crackdowns. The company appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in April this year, arguing that Russia’s actions violate freedom of speech highlighted in Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Nothing, however, has come from this protest in terms of the law changing in any way.

Subsequently, it can be questioned what the future holds for Russia’s independent media. Despite urges fired at Putin to stop these crackdowns, the nature and reputation of his government does not make the ceasing of these measures likely. Only time will tell if freedom of press and speech will ever truly be allowed for journalists in Russia.

Miriam Shelley, Summer Writer

When Bad History Leads to Bad Politics: ‘The Graveyard of Empires’

When a major political event happens, politicians and scholars usually cram desperately to fit the event into a simple framework: ideological, historical, or another type. Sometimes this is done to explain the events in a general pattern. Alternatively, it is done to fit the event into a set worldview (something often done by politicians). ‘The Graveyard of Empires’ is one such example of a thesis used to explain political events. This theory has been an essential part of the Western understanding of Afghanistan since its conception in 2001 by Milton Bearden. Bearden, reflecting mainly on the experiences of the British and Soviet Empires, asserted that the unruly geography and peoples of the country made any imperial project in Afghanistan doomed to fail. Contextually, he wrote this thesis around the start of the US invasion as a warning for the dangers of US intervention in the country, a warning that has formed a crucial part of the Western understanding of Afghanistan. President Biden, for instance, directly used the thesis to explain why his withdrawal of US troops was necessary. In his speech recently he echoed Bearden and attributed the clear failure of US statecraft in Afghanistan to the ungovernable nature of the land itself.

There are multiple issues here, all stemming from one major problem that is often overlooked: the thesis is not true. Afghanistan, over its history, has not been a ‘Graveyard of Empires’, indeed it has been far from it. Professor Alexander Hainy-Khaleeli has shown how the country was the heartland of many great empires across history, including even empires often used as supporting evidence for proponents of Bearden’s thesis. Alexander the Great’s empire, used by Bearden as an example in favour of his argument, successfully ruled Afghanistan for over one hundred years, and the often-cited British experience ignores the broad success of British policy after the Third Afghan War. When imperial missions did fail, it was not due to the overriding lawlessness of the Afghan terrain or peoples but instead a variety of case-specific factors.

Thus, Bearden’s thesis is a case of bad history, with Afghanistan’s past stuffed into an overly simplistic historical framework. Its usage by politicians is therefore problematic, as it means public policy and discourse is based on incorrect perceptions and knowledge. For example, by describing Afghanistan as ‘the Graveyard of Empires’, Biden oversimplifies the complex failure of the American project in Afghanistan. It assumes that the failure of American statecraft is not a failure of Washington but a result of Afghanistan’s unique nature. By imposing Bearden’s framework, it assumes no imperial policy in Afghanistan could ever be successful regardless of what the imperial power does. Biden’s speech was overwhelmingly centred around this idea – an inevitability of failure that no policy of his could ever rectify. 

US and UK troops leaving Afghanistan. (Credit: U.S. Department of Defence)

This has three significant implications, demonstrating the danger of basing politics on flawed historical theory. Firstly, it stifles the development of effective policy. When addressing an issue that you deem impossible to benefit from, policy becomes solely about mitigation. Biden’s long-held belief that the US was doomed to fail in Afghanistan in line with Bearden’s thesis means that he has approached Afghanistan from a position that the US needed to leave the ‘graveyard’ irrespective of the consequences, explaining, for instance, the unnecessary withdrawal of American contractors that led to the complete collapse of the Afghan army. It also explains the frantic nature of the evacuation effort because the clear urge to withdraw as soon as possible meant that there was little planning for, say, the evacuation of the Afghans who had helped US personnel. 

Further, through basing politics on a largely flawed historical framework, there is a real possibility that we will not learn the correct lessons from the Afghan war. By attributing blame for the operation’s failures on the nature of Afghanistan and not bad policy, the US risks failing to understand the reasons for the failures in the country over the last twenty years, and thus fail to make the necessary changes. In an era where the American Empire is under threat from another would-be hegemony China, failing to learn the correct lessons could be costly. As such, it is more important than ever that the US takes a nuanced look at its role and activity in the global system, which will be significantly hindered by viewing its largest single project over the last two decades through an overly simplified and ignorant framework.

Finally, the oversimplification of Afghanistan and the blaming of it for the West’s failures is deeply immoral. The graveyard thesis crams Afghan history into how it relates to predominantly European Empires, denying it credit outside the framework of imperial history. In reality, Afghanistan has had a fascinating and proud history outside of its relations with the European powers, and thus the promulgation of this thesis risks making discourse around Afghanistan incredibly demeaning. Moreover, calling it the ‘Graveyard of Empires’ suggests that the primary victims of imperial projects in the country are the Empires – British, Soviet, and now American – and not the people of Afghanistan. The country’s people have faced endless war and persecution due to Imperial ends and are the actual victims of the country’s recent past. By framing Afghan history as a one of imperial failure, political discourse is prejudiced in favour of the West at the expense of the true victims of imperial policy. 

These are, unfortunately, inevitable consequences of applying a single and incorrect historical framework to contemporary politics: it can be profoundly immoral but also practically ruinous. Further, it can cloud the judgement of policy makers looking to draw lessons from past failures. As such, while there are good reasons to base politics on history, when that history is incorrect, the results can be ruinous.

Julius Balchin, Summer Writer

Let the Games Begin: Olympics, Sports and Supremacy in the Prewar World

This summer’s Olympic Games were for many a much-needed respite from a pandemic of which we have  all grown weary. Tuning in to watch our athletes fighting it out has for many revived the sense of national pride  that had taken something of a battering from the political whirlwind of the last few years. For most of us, this is harmless fun, but it can be all too easy to forget that beneath the cultural posturing and showmanship that Ben Carter has explored in the article he has written for this blog, there lies the prerequisite competitive nationalism that inspired the fascist preoccupation with the Olympics throughout the 1930s and ‘40s. As David Goldblatt, author of The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, has pointed out, the very spectacle of the Olympic Games as we know them today has its roots in Leni Riefenstahl’s, a German film producer active in the production of Nazi propaganda, Olympia. This film featured now outdated anthropological concepts about race as central themes. It is a heritage that can be hard for us to reconcile, and which is often hidden from view as a result.

(Credit: France 1976, via Creative Commons)

Demonstratively, Hitler’s 1936 Games began a new phase in Olympic history, one stemmed only by the outbreak of the Second World War and the aversion to nationalism that arose from it. A phase in which the gentlemanly, largely aristocratic sporting values envisaged by the modern Games’ founder, Baron de Coubertin, were replaced by the nationalist application of social Darwinism that so characterised early twentieth century thought. The school of thought which bred, and was intensified by, the worldwide rise of fascism; most notably in Germany, Spain, Italy and Japan. It is no coincidence that the ‘Phantom Olympics’ of 1940 were due to be held in Tokyo, capital of the increasingly authoritarian and supremacist Japanese Empire, or that their fellow fascists, the Italians, had a gentleman’s agreement with the Japanese to refrain from proposing Rome as a host – Mussolini was subsequently thanked by the Japanese for the ‘generous understanding’ he had shown them. Rome was in fact later put forward as a candidate for the 1944 Games which again never went ahead – losing out in the end to, somewhat prophetically, London.

Contemporaries were well aware of the potential the Olympics held as a political battleground. Barcelona’s Popular Olympics of 1936 were set up in direct opposition to the Berlin Olympics, the rejection of fascism its founding purpose. This wasn’t a fringe movement either – over 20,000 fans and athletes attended the Games. Funding came in from all over Europe, from as far afield as Scandinavia – they were funded by idealogues, not bureaucrats. The Popular Games were ended before they ever began by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil ar, but their anti-fascist legacy didn’t peter out with them. Two hundred of the athletes would later fight alongside the Popular Front against Franco’s government during the Civil War. The Games were ideologically charged at their birth and remained so after their death. These Games were more than a protest. They were a response to the allegations of impotence and antiquity levelled by the fascists against the forces of democracy. They were a demonstration of the virility and youth of the anti-fascist movement. In the 1930s, physical force and political power were inseparable – the Popular Olympians were fighting fire with fire.

Samuel Lake

Peace Lines, Borders, and Brexit: Northern Ireland’s Dilemma

The Shankill is one of the main roads leading through Belfast and home to the city’s predominantly Protestant and Loyalist supporters– citizens who are in favour of the country remaining under British control. On the other side is Falls Road– the Republican Catholic community who are in favour of a United Ireland out of British control. 

Whilst fundamentally different and opposed– what unites these communities is their segregation– in the 25 ft high physical peace walls dividing them, manned by police– some have gates where the passage between the areas at night-time is blocked in an attempt to lower inter-communal violence. 

This border is one of many on the island: between the Republic and the region of Ulster, but also, between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland due to the Brexit border crisis. 

The 1921 Partition of Ireland separated the island to create two devolved governments both under British control, in hope that this would then lead to reunification. Violence ensued as Southern Ireland refused to create a government, therefore, defying British rule– declaring an Irish Republic independent from the UK. This resistance led to the Irish War of Independence. The outcome of this guerilla war was the Anglo-Irish treaty that recognised the Republic of Ireland as independent from Britain. 

Supposed peace was futile. Borders created discrimination and differences in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, with the latter oppressed. In response to housing and employment prejudice, as well as issues with the Electoral Representation of Catholic towns, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association led a campaign in favour of equality. Met with opposition, violence ensued– most notably in the Battle of Bogside– leading to the thirty-year conflict known as The Troubles.

Whilst most of this violence ceased with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the borders and peace walls are representative of a conflict still unsettled.

The 2016 Brexit referendum has proved many complexities. Most British citizens did not know what the European Union was upon voting. For Northern Irish citizens, the vote complexified their relationships with both the Republic and Westminster. 

Self-imposed apartheid has characterised the communities in Belfast, Derry, Portadown and Lurgan. Decisions to not mingle with those different to them has contributed to the growing tensions– the Orange Order walk on July 12th celebrating the Protestant William of Orange’s invasion and subsequent oppression of Catholics in the 17th century, and in the 2021 Northern Ireland riots. These recent riots were incited by the border and goods crisis as a result of Brexit– where a fifth of businesses surveyed said that suppliers were ‘unwilling to engage with the new requirements of shipping– and in some cases, businesses from Great Britain are no longer supplying Northern Ireland. 

Loyal Orange Order March, Edinburgh. (Credit: Des Mooney, via Flickr)

Unionist or Nationalist self-identification was the most important determinant of referendum choice on Brexit. For many, voting Leave became part of a British identity– much like how in England, voting Leave became a point of taking back control. For Unionists in Northern Ireland, this was felt strongly. Even those who wished to stay in the EU– but were Unionists– voted leave, mainly out of principle. Due to the religious and political separation in the country, there’s a separation in politics manifesting itself in the nationalist party of Sinn Fein and the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party.

This is furthermore complicated by the fact that Sinn Fein MPs do not take up their seats in Westminster, as in doing so, it would give legitimacy to an institution they do not recognise . But this meant that the party could not argue against Britain’s withdrawal from the EU nor fight to remain there.

For a history marked by separation, the departure of the UK from the EU was just another chapter in a long story. The Lanark Peace Gates are not only divided by religion and ethno-nationalist beliefs but also the difference between Remain and Leave voters. These are some of the most deprived areas in the whole of Northern Ireland– their deprivation and poverty levels are what unites them, but their perceived solutions mark the difference and creates conflict. 

Northern Ireland has the lowest poverty rate of any UK region. Its unemployment rate is small also, but its educational attainment and health and disability are where the country draws short. More than two-thirds of students on the Shankhill– the Protestant area– and Falls Road– the Catholic area– perform below Belfast’s average. The poverty in these areas is most likely incited by the Unionist andRepublican division– balancing the demands of the integrated educational system has led to many falling behind in their exams. Brexit has only worsened this.

For a generation that was promised peace in 1998, 23 years later– the situation remains in conflict.

Under Sinn Fein and the opinion of Republicans was that Northern Ireland needed to stay in the EU as an important way of working towards a united Ireland, eventually, especially as it was EU integration that ceased the patrolling of British soldiers in Northern Ireland. 

In contrast, UK sovereignty is the most important thing for British Unionists, given that the Unionist working-class was the likely sector to vote for Brexit, with the Democratic Unionist Party encouraging those to vote to Leave. 

Due to Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic could be stronger due to EU laws– that an EU country must have a hard border with a non-EU country. At the same time, a new border has emerged between Northern Ireland and the UK– one that was separated by water is now in conflict due to Brexit– a complication many were not prepared for.

Northern Ireland has not known peace in its entire existence. Whilst most of its citizens still favour remaining a part of the UK, due to Brexit and heightening tensions– this could change. Ireland could become unified sooner than many realise.

Aoifke Madeleine, Summer Writer

The European Union— A Modern Idea?

Is the European Union simply the modern rendition of the age-old concept of a united Europe?  Comparisons are often drawn between the modern EU and historical examples of entities which united or attempted to unite Europe, such as the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and Napoleonic France. While it is true that many of the leaders and ideologues of the EU share the same desire for European unity as their predecessors, it is more unclear whether their concept of European unity is related to their historical predecessors’ conceptions of it. After all, it is often said that the ideology driving the EU was mostly born out of the aftermath of WW2; Winston Churchill’s call for a ‘United States of Europe’ became one of the most well-known verbalisations of this drive for unity. It seems necessary then, to examine the history of ideas of European unity to see whether the European Union truly is a modern idea or not. 

European unity was first conceptualised in the millennium following the deposition of the last Western Roman emperor in 476. It was characterised by attempts to reclaim and preserve the legacy of the Roman Empire. Culturally, Latin remained as a lingua franca throughout Europe which facilitated scholarly exchange and communication across borders. Roman titles such as comes (Count) and dux (Duke) continued to be used, and Roman Catholicism remained the dominant religion. 

The European Parliament in Brussels. (Credit: Jordiferrer, via Wikimedia Commons)

Actual attempts at political union were most thoroughly pursued by the Holy Roman Emperors— beginning with Charlemagne, who was crowned ‘Emperor of the Romans’ in 800, and claimed the universal authority of the old Western emperors. Eventually, however, lands such as France and Italy drifted away from the Empire, and its imperial ambitions stopped at its German borders.

Attempts to reclaim the Roman legacy were not exclusive to the Holy Roman Emperors nor the Middle Ages; other rulers such as Alfonso X of Castile issued law codes in the style of Roman imperial edicts. Later rulers invoked imperial imagery—in particular, Napoleon introduced Roman eagle standards into his armies and established the Legion d’Honneur which had a structure loosely based on Roman legions. He also alluded to Charlemagne in his coronation and issued a ‘Napoleonic Code’, no doubtl building on the legacy of imperial edicts.

A related unifying force to the Roman imperial legacy in medieval Europe was Roman Catholicism. Unity along ‘Latin Christian’ lines was spearheaded by the clergy and the papacy. Most notably, during the Crusades, the papacy focused on uniting Latin Christendom against Islam. This, along with increased exposure to Muslims and Orthodox Greeks, helped create a pan-European identity in contrast to these other religious groups. The role of the papacy, as a supranational body often cooperating or in conflict with the governments of Latin Christian territories, could be compared to the role of modern EU institutions such as the Commission and the Court of Justice in their goal to promote liberal democracy among EU member states, seen most clearly in recent action against Hungary and Poland for anti-LGBT legislation. However, these comparisons are only superficial given the huge ideological differences between the medieval papacy and the modern EU.

As the Early Modern Era progressed, papal power diminished and the Crusades were seen as a thing of the past. The concept of Europe united by one faith was shattered by the Reformation and subsequent wars between Catholics and Protestants. In this period, European unity became something to be feared, as it often meant domination by a nearby hegemonic power attempting to create a ‘universal monarchy’. For instance, Protestant states such as England feared that Catholic Spain could become a universal monarchy, especially under Charles V.

New ideas on European unity developed from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Whereas before, European unity meant the restoration of the Roman Empire by a hegemonic imperial power, these centuries saw some thinkers developing the idea of a union of European states, created in order to prevent conflict— which had become increasingly more bloody and devastating as military technology advanced. On one end, some, like Quaker William Penn, argued for a European Parliament where disputes could be settled rather than on the battlefield, while on the other end,  Victor Hugo and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin among others called for a fully-fledged ‘United States of Europe’.

Avoiding the carnage of warfare became imperative following the two World Wars, and thus the Treaties of Paris and Rome following the Second World War set Europe on course for the creation of the European Union. The ideology behind the European Union was born against the backdrop of the Enlightenment and the devastating conflicts of the Modern Era. However, avoiding war is not the only uniting factor of Europe. Shared values developed from the Enlightenment (namely, liberal democracy), unite modern Europe culturally and ideologically. The ideas that united Europe before the modern era, such as Latin Christendom and the legacy of Rome, may not be those that justify the existence of the modern European Union, but they still form an important part of shared European history and culture. They also show that, while the European Union may be a modern idea, the concept of a united Europe is thousands of years old.

Jonas Balkus, Summer Writer

Sport as Conflict

Sport fulfils a number of roles in society: it unifies people and nations behind a team, it provides children with role models, and often brings the international community together through tournaments. It could be said that it has another role— a less violent alternative to war. Nuclear deterrents, increased globalisation, effective international organisations, and a desire not repeat the horrors of the World Wars have made nations unprecedentedly reluctant to engage in warfare. So much so that a border skirmish or an invasion of national airspace causes anxiety. And so, nations have to find a new way to obtain the ends traditionally achieved by large scale war. Proxy wars, economic sanctions, and cyberwarfare do generally fill this void, but a more peaceful alternative is sport. Usually, international competitions are played in good spirit between friendly nations, but often they are politicised by nations seeking to dominate or get back at their rivals, demonstrate supposed superiority, or boost national pride. Ends traditionally achieved by warfare.

The Olympics have repeatedly been used as an outlet for nations to demonstrate supposed superiority. Infamously, Nazi Germany tried and failed to use the 1936 Munich Olympics to showcase ‘Aryan dominance’ only for African American Jesse Owens to win four gold medals. More recently, Communist China has seemingly viewed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as an outlet to demonstrate national and ideological superiority. The ideological aspect was plain to see in the furore caused by two Chinese cyclists wearing pins of Mao Zedong after winning gold. In wearing those pins, the cyclists made clear for what and for whom they were winning their medals.

The Olympics have also been used by major powers in conflict. During the Cold War, the US and its allies famously boycotted Moscow 1980, to which the USSR and its allies retaliated by not attending Los Angeles 1984. In organising boycotts, the two superpowers both voiced their opposition to their rival and also showcased their global influence through the amount of countries they got on board with the boycott. With the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics approaching, worsening relations between China and the West have led to some figures in the US, UK, and Australia to call for a boycott of those games. Once again, conflict between major powers is accompanied by Olympic boycotts.

The 1980 Moscow Olympics. (Credit)

Fortunes on the battlefield were historically tied to national pride. Trafalgar made Nelson a national hero in Britain; Ataturk’s victories mean he is still revered in Turkey. Nowadays, sport has a similar, if not quite as strong, link. Italy’s Euro increases perceptions of 2021 being a good year for them. They have also won Eurovision and are having a political and economic turnaround under new Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Likewise, England reaching the Euros final for the first time coincided with the end of lockdown. The UK was seen as being on an uptick— a reversal of fortunes after a devastating pandemic and sporting failure for the last few decades. The unifying effect the football tournament had, and how many commentators argued that the England team came to ‘embody Englishness’, is testimony to the powerful effect of sport. England’s national pride was inexorably tied to football.

On the flip side, losing competitions to major rivals can wound national pride. The Tokyo Olympics once again provide an example of this when the Taiwanese badminton team beat the reigning Chinese champions. This provoked outrage among Chinese nationalists at the thought of being beaten by a country which they perceive as a breakaway province.

On that note, sporting competitions provide an opportunity for revanchism and to ‘get back’ at countries which players’ nations have been in conflict with. Famously this occurred in the 1956 Olympics during a water polo match between Hungary and the USSR. Hungary had recently been invaded by Soviet forces, something the Hungarian water polo team witnessed. When the competition went ahead, the match turned violent and a Hungarian player left with a bloody gash on his head, leading to it being dubbed the ‘Blood in the Water’ match. Recent controversy was abound in the Euros when Serbian-Austrian striker Marko Arnautovic made derogatory comments to the North Macedonian football team. The Balkan country has recently had tense relations with Serbia over its decision to support Kosovo.

And so, there are clearly ways in which nations use sport to fulfil the traditional role of conflict. Sports allow nations to best their rivals in a way that they cannot with other alternatives to conflict (such as proxy wars, cyberwarfare or sanctions). Likewise, sporting dominance is an alternate way to boost national pride in a similar way that military dominance did so in previous centuries. Nonetheless, sports between actual rival nations does not negate conflict, but rather creates another outlet for it. Taiwan may have beaten the PRC in a badminton match, but this does not mean actual war between the two countries may not break out. The US and USSR did boycott each other’s Olympics, but this did not negate that they were always at the brink of war. International tournaments, in many scenarios, are simply the modern, peaceful rendition of the age-old desire for nations to best each other.

Jonas Balkus, Summer Writer

Temporal over Spiritual Power in the Medieval Church? Part II: The Avignon Papacy and the Great Papal Schism

Although the Catholic Church had asserted its dominance over Christian Europe in both spiritual and temporal matters during the thirteenth century, this was not a state that would last. Not all nations were content with papal supremacy in temporal affairs, with France in particular having long had a tempestuous relationship with the papacy, resenting its attempts to assert temporal authority over secular rulers and disdainful of the exemption of the clergy to royal taxation. This came to a head at the beginning of the fourteenth century, with Pope Boniface VIII’s papal bull ‘Unam sanctam’. His assertion that submission to the Pope was the only way to achieve salvation, which, while a departure from the traditional belief that the Pope was only supreme in spiritual concerns, and was not to involve himself overmuch in temporal affairs, did not come as a surprise to those who had seen the papacy claim more and more temporal power, especially over the previous century. This resulted an escalation of tensions between the French Crown and the papacy, which culminated in the death of Boniface VIII at the hands of supporters of the French Crown, and led to the period known as the Avignon Papacy – a sixty-seven year period in which the papacy resided in Avignon. During this period, seven successive French popes ruled from the papal enclave of Avignon, all of whom were largely under the control of the French Crown. Such a level of influence from the Kingdom of France resulted in the papacy becoming even more entwined in the secular world, and as a result of this, the Church began to gain notoriety for its growing opulence, increasingly concerned with expanding its coffers through a variety of means.

Even after the papacy removed itself from the orbit of the French Crown, returning to Rome in 1377 under the leadership of Pope Gregory XI, this was not the end of  either this tension or the papacy’s increasing concern with temporal matters. An elderly man, Gregory XI died less than a year after his return to Rome, ironically shortly after announcing his intention to return once again to Avignon with his court. The people of Rome, having not had a Pope in the Vatican for almost three quarters of a century, were determined to prevent the return of the papacy to Avignon, forcibly ensuring the election of a Roman pope, which culminated in the election of Bartolomeo Prignano as Urban VI in 1378. Although seemingly a fitting candidate, he swiftly alienated many of those amongst the Church who had initially backed him, and the college of cardinals, who now regretted their papal candidate, soon backtracked on their decision. It was not long before they elected Robert of Geneva as Clement VII, returning to Avignon with their new figurehead and restoring the line of popes in Avignon. With two popes having now been elected by the cardinals, neither of whom was willing to relinquish the position, this put Christian Europe in a delicate position, as both secular and spiritual leaders were forced to choose between the two rival claimants. 

This dispute sent fractures throughout Europe, as a number of conflicts, especially in the Iberian Peninsula, erupted over who they believed was the rightful pope. However, these were vastly overshadowed by the Hundred Years War, which had been raging in Europe for decades before the schism had even begun. The English and their allies typically supported Urban and the papacy in Rome, whilst the French and their allies tended to support Clement and the Avignon papacy. However, it was not always as clear-cut as this and, even amongst religious leaders, the politics of the secular conflict outweighed their religious obligations to the schism. This was notably evident in the cataclysmic failure that was Despenser’s Crusade of 1383. Although the initial objective of the English crusading forces of Bishop Despenser was to relieve the city of Ghent in Flanders, the crusade swiftly floundered, turning its attention to the city of Ypres, which, despite its alliance to France in the wider war, was actually a supporter of Urban in the papal schism. Abandoning all pretences of being an expedition driven by religion, the crusaders laid siege to a city on the same side of the schism in order to gain an advantage in a secular conflict. This shows how the Church was riven at all levels by this conflict on both a temporal and spiritual level, and how ultimately the former outweighed the latter .

Even the deaths of both rival popes who had initiated the conflict did not serve to end the schism, as their factions refused to reconcile, instead choosing to elect successors and prolong the dispute. Neither did the loss of secular allies sway them, with the Avignon papacy notably losing the support of France, once its most staunch ally, in 1398. This refusal to back down despite such notable setbacks emphasises the growing temporal concerns at the heart of the role, with the power that maintaining their claims brought them. Concerted attempts at resolution in 1409 at the Council of Pisa failed to resolve the schism, with the council instead electing a third Pope to rival those of Rome and Avignon. However, this was not to say that it was a wholly unsuccessful endeavour, as many nations who had previously backed the other two popes threw their weight behind this new pope. Finally, at the council of Constance, after three years of deliberation, the dispute was finally resolved, with the abdication of the Roman and Pisan popes, the excommunication of the Avignon pope and the election of Oddonne Colonna as Martin V in their stead as the one, undisputed pope, ruling from the Holy See in 1417. Although this brought an end to the Great Papal Schism, the papacy had been weakened by its decades of infighting. The corruption of the Church had been laid plain for all to see, and this revelation would soon pave the way towards future discontent and dissent.

Henry G. Miller, Summer Writer

Bauhaus: Redefining Modern Art and Design in Weimar Germany 

The Bauhaus art movement can be seen as defining not just a generation, but an entire century of modern art and design, influential since its formation and still pre-eminent today. Bauhaus style, of which has defining political roots, stemmed from the German art school of the same name, created in 1925 as a reactionary force amidst the stifling contemporary Weimar landscape. The school is known for having produced some of the most notable modern artists of the century, such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. However, what is most notable is the way in which Bauhaus has impacted modern society. It was a revolutionary idea, one of which transformed modern art and design into commercial success, and its ethos created the philosophy that the purpose of art should be to serve the people around it. 

The Bauhaus school designed by Walter Gropius. (Credit: The Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, Dessau)

Contemporary traditional art schools were elitist and conservative. Founder of the Bauhaus school, Prussian architect Walter Gropius, wanted to create something entirely challenging this consensus. Rather than teaching how to sketch nudes or paint with oils, the school focused on the practicality of design and how it can translate across society, aiming to unite all branches of art in one location. In essence, it completely abandoned the education of traditional fine arts, and thus creating a major political statement for the era. 

Looking at the movement from a twenty-first century perspective, the word Bauhaus may simply conjure up a certain style of modern architecture and design, one of geometry and abstract nature. For contemporaries, however, connotations were far deeper. The Bauhaus represented an entirely new way of thinking, its ideas controversial and laying the foundations for practical modern design in a way the world had never seen before. The signature style was far harsher than anything that defined the contemporary art world and society. Reactionary to art of the time, Bauhaus artists removed emotion and historicity from art, reducing it to visually simplistic geometrics and primary colours. The political intentions in these decisions of style and design, however, were irrefutable, with the school’s continuation becoming increasingly under threat during the interwar period under the increasing power of the country’s national socialist party. 

The font chosen to represent the Bauhaus was a bold political act in itself, using curved letters in contrast to the harsh Fraktur branding of the Nazi Party. These modern typographers of the twenties were aiming to make their style of graphic design revolutionary and international, and lead to a form of universal socialism, of which ironically ended up becoming international capitalism.

Herbert Bayer, BAUHAUS, 1968 (Credit: Omnibus Gallery)

The school itself was extremely short lived, making its long-lasting legacy all the more pre-eminent. Originally opening in Weimar in 1925, it was then forced to close its doors due to political motivations and relocate to Dessau in 1932. It made one further relocation to Berlin in the final few months of existence before it could no longer continue in Weimar society, due to increased pressure from the Nazi Party for the school’s closure and the demise of this style of ‘revolutionary’ design. However, following the end of the Second World War, the legacy and influence of the Bauhaus’ design only continues to spread globally alongside capitalism and democracy. 

There is no doubt that Gropius’ rejection of tradition and Weimar consensus in the school’s creation led to a movement defined by a philosophy of how art should be in place to serve people rather than the designs themselves. However, the overwhelming influence of Bauhaus on modern design must be attributed to the political pressure of the time, as it was only this that led to the creation of such reactionary design, the subsequent emigration of these designers and the spread of their ideas globally. Therefore, Bauhaus was not born as a single style, but an insurgent idea, and a necessity of modernity, creating the aesthetic for what essentially became the foundations of modernist style.

Miriam Shelley, Summer Writer

Olga Romanov – the One Who Could Have Saved Russia’s Royal Family?

On 17 July 1918, the Royal Family of Russia: Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Tsarevich Alexei were rounded up, led downstairs to the basement and brutally murdered one by one by members of the Bolshevik Party. Their death was tragic, brutal and unnecessary. 

The Tsar’s abdication on 1 March 1917 and eventual murder was preceded by a series of events leading to a general distrust in the monarch. While the Tsar seemed unaware of his citizens’ wants as he continued to make disastrous decisions, one royal family member could have saved them from their fate: Olga.

Olga Romanov Alexandrovna was the first-born of the last Tsar of Russia. One of four sisters and a brother – Alexei – the heir, life for Olga was remarkably different to her sisters. Unlike them, she was the eldest and came close to the chance of becoming the next reigning monarch.

As the Tsarina struggled to produce a healthy male heir, in 1912 Tsar Nicholas began to put a motion for the line of succession to be changed. The solution was for Olga to be co-regent with her mother until Alexei was of age to rule by himself. He ordered this manifesto to be publicised throughout the country following the 1913 tercentennial celebrations, placing Olga in a position traditionally occupied by the male heir,thus announcing her political significance. American newspapers reported that ‘it is now considered that the law of succession may be changed in Russia to make it possible for Grand Duchess Olga to succeed the imperial family.’

Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna and her brother Tsarevich Alexei of Russia. (Credit)

Due to opposition from the Duma, these plans failed to materialise. Nicholas’ actions contravened the 1906 version of the Fundamental Laws, which the Tsar had, reluctantly, made in the Duma’s Fourth Assembly. The laws stated that no new law could take effect without the State Duma’s approval . The Duma blocked the change in succession, and it is speculated that the Amended Regency Act caused public opinion of the Tsar to deter, with many believing the act meant that the Tsar did not trust his male heir to rule Russia. It exposed an instability in the crown. 

Olga appeared to be a born leader. Throughout her childhood she showed a keen interest in national affairs in comparison to her siblings; this was ignited in 1905 with the Russo-Japanese war. She told staff Mrs Eager that ‘I hope the Russian soldiers will kill all the Japanese; not leave even one alive’. Her opinion changed though, as Mrs Eager told her of the innocent women and children who were unable to fight. According to historians, Olga asked a few more questions, concluding that the Japanese were not very different from Russians. It is said that she then ‘never made another comment about being pleased about the Japanese dying’.

But it was during World War One that Olga became increasingly concerned for the country and their opinion of the monarchy. As she and her sisters volunteered on hospital wards, the friendships made opened her eyes to the general opinion of her father. She asked her lady-in-waiting ‘Why has the feeling in the country changed against my father?’, wondering if there were more ominous reasons for the ‘unrest and ferment that she sensed rather than knew about, which filled her with a growing anxiety’.

One of these friendships was with a young soldier named Mitya. Olga spent a lot of time with him, taking photographs of him and friends, having long conversations and eventually falling in love with him. Mitya claimed he would ‘slay Rasputin’ to save her family from embarrassment – an opinion remarkably different to that of her family. 

But the war, nursing and her anxiety wore on Olga over time. Prone to depression throughout her life, it became clinical, leading to her discharging from the healthcare service. Her heartbreak over Mitya didn’t help – he left the hospital after healing to go and fight in the war again. Olga became reserved, shy, and slept often. 

It’s this kind of compassion that many historians mark Olga with. Gleb Botkin – son of the family’s physician – remarked that Olga was ‘by nature, a thinker’ and ‘as it later seemed to me, understood the general situation better than any member of her family, including even her parents’. Much to the dismay and hurt of her German mother, Olga understood the country’s dislike of the Tsarina due to her German ancestry. When talking with another nurse about a wedding of friends and the ancestry of a groom’s German grandmother being kept hidden, she remarked, ‘of course he has to conceal it. I quite understand him, she may perhaps be a real bloodthirsty German’. 

Perhaps if the line of succession did change in 1912, Olga would have become the Grand Empress. With no need for a male heir, and therefore no need for the mystic Rasputin to heal Alexei’s haemophilia, the fall of the Russian crown could have been delayed – or not as aggravated by these conditions. In fact, with Rasputin, Olga remarked that whilst his murder was ‘necessary’ it should never have been done ‘so terribly’ and was ashamed that it was done by her relatives. Again, Olga understood the political ramifications of Rasputin’s influence, but also, that his murder could bring more shame to a family already losing support, showing that she was sensitive to ideas and understanding of the political situation her family were in. 

It will never be clear as to what future Russia could have had- there were so many components that led to the downfall of the monarchy after 300 years;serfdom, World War One, Rasputin, Nicholas’ strategy, socio-economic reasons. Whilst Olga was intensely sensitive and was far more aware of the issues and situation at hand at the time,it doesn’t mean that her reign could have saved Russia. That would be purely speculative. 

What’s sure is that the line of succession, made in sexism, reproduced sexism. Russia’s greatest leaders under the monarchy have often been women: Empress Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. Olga could have been a name among them, but her fate was otherwise due to this sexist law. While monarchy is feudal, if Olga had been in control or next in line, perhaps the outcome of the Russian royal family would have been different, and less bloody, than the one that they got.

Aoifke Madeleine, History in Politics Summer Writer