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January 29, 2007 (the date of publication in Russian)

THE CHRONICLE OF A CULTURAL DISASTER

Pressured by scientists, UNESCO changes its view on Kosovo

Recently the All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature (VGBIL) hosted the presentation of a unique album, entitled "Kosovo: The Orthodox Heritage and the Current Disaster", issued by Indrik Publishing House. The book contains a complete description of the relics of Serbian culture in Kosovo and Metohija which have already been ruined or are presently threatened by the actions of Albanian extremists. Many of the described relics have been completely destroyed, and in this regard, the presented collection is a memorial. Roman Bagdasarov, culture editor of RPMonitor, talks to Alexei M. Lidov, a prominent historian of Byzantine art, who was the driving force behind the project. Along with other experts, Dr. Lidov took part in the UNESCO special commission, which described the consequences of the pogroms of Orthodox art in details.

"THAT WAS A SYSTEMATIC EXTERMINATION"

Roman Bagdasarov: What is the idea of the book and who are the main contributors?

Alexei Lidov: As a matter of fact, I "produced and directed" this edition, both as a compiler and the author of its concept. The album is a result of an effort of a team of scholars. Actually, it is not one book but three bound by one cover. Their genres vary, but the themes are tightly interwoven.

The first part, entitled "The Heritage", is a monograph including a detailed article on the Byzantine heritage of Kosovo, and the great sanctuaries of the province. I decided notl to write this text, myself and instead asked Princeton University Professor Slobodan Ćurčić, who is one of the best specialists in the field and who happens to be a close friend and colleague. He has studied Kosovo for over forty years and has written numerous books on the subject. No other person in the world knows more about the Kosovo relics. Mr. Ćurčić prepared a completely new text with fresh ideas based on the latest materials. This makes the new album a landmark publication in the study of Byzantine art.

The second part is entitled "The Catastrophe". Here, I also consciously refrained from any personal approach, so as to avoid suspicions of bias. We chose a strict documentary principle: the catalogue includes a list of destroyed relics, one after another. Eventually, our fact sheet comprised 143 relics. Verifying that number was a task in itself, as various authors present different calculations.

– What year or period did you choose as a starting point? It is well known that some Orthodox relics were destroyed in the XIX century, and many were damaged during World War II…

– Actually, the first demolitions date back to medieval times. But we restricted our research to the last decade. Our starting point 1999, the time of NATO air raids. Since this year, a systematic extermination of the Serbian cultural heritage has taken place. Several waves of destruction have swept over the region. The longest one started in 1999. The Kosovo Albanians, regarding themselves "the winners of the war", actually waged by NATO, marked their triumph with a massacre of the culture and religious tradition of the Serbs. The campaign lasted for three years; in 2004, there was a period of calm, but in March 2004 a new explosion of desecration took place, when thirty-five Orthodox churches were demolished in the period between March 17 and 19.

We tried to give a complete picture of the situation. Therefore, we included not only photos of the ruined relics but also documents published by international organizations. First of all, UNESCO's report, in which I took part as an official member of the commission and an expert. This is the most important document which expresses the view of the global community.

A WARNING TO ALBANIAN EXTREMISTS

– How was the commission established? Who selected the pool of experts to determine the approximate extent of the damage? On what principle was the Commission's work based?

– Originally, UNESCO planned to establish a joint commission, involving both Serbs and Kosovars. The Serbian side rejected this option, as this would imply that the Kosovar side is officially regarded as a full-fledged participant of the project. Eventually, UNESCO decided to build up an independent international commission, including only four art scholars, two of which were to be selected by the Serbian side and two by UNESCO itself. I was one of the two persons invited by the Serbs, along with Dr. Biserka Penkova, a prominent Bulgarian cultural historian. The two other members were Mrs. Donatella Zari, one of Italy's leading restorers, who had experience working with the Kosovo relics before and after the 1999 bombings, and Tomas Stepan, professor of Byzantine arts from Innsbruck, Austria. The team was chaired by Marie Paul Roudil, UNESCO Director for Southern Europe. Each of us had to present a report of around fifty pages, characterizing the condition of the relics we examined.

– What to you think to be the most valuable result of this study?

– The most important result was our request to include at least four major relics in UNESCO's World Heritage List . This is the most prestigious list, which includes only outstanding works of art.

– Which of the Kosovo relics were on the List before your study?

– None. Originally, UNESCO planned to include only the Visoki Dečani Monastery in the List. But when I insisted that three other relics be added – Pećka Patrijaršija, the Our Lady Cathedral of Ljeviška, and the Gračanica Monastery, I was unanimously supported by all the other members of the commission. At first, we were told that our request went against UNESCO's policy of not including subsequently several relics from one region. Still, our position was unanimous, and we kept on promoting the list of four relics as one of the major recommendations. Although this procedure is usually complicated, in July – four months after our trip – all four relics were included in UNESCO's list.

– Will this guarantee better security for the relics?

– Yes, and it provides some other advantages as well. However the most important is the message to Kosovars who will now have to think long and hard before attempting a new assault on Serbian sanctuaries.

Previously in Europe, I encountered the following opinion: yes, somewhere Serbs demolish mosques, elsewhere Kosovars destroy Orthodox churches; no, we don't know what those monuments were and when they were built, and generally, those are Balkan affairs, not ours. It's a pity, but we can't do much to change the situation…

Now, when one of the relics from UNESCO's list was almost (thank God, not completely) destroyed – I mean the Church of Our Lady of Ljeviška in Prizren, the discussion has become different and involves another level of responsibility and international response.

Until recent times, the Kosovo catastrophe was really blacked out in Western media. By the way, this is emphasized in our report. We were facing a policy of double standards. When the Talibs shot off the heads of two statues of Buddha in remote Afghanistan, the mass media of the whole world discussed this atrocity for weeks, and everybody was informed that a terrible crime had occurred. However, when the same thing happened in Europe with relics comparable both in cultural and artistic merit to the Afghan Buddhas the event went by almost without notice.

– So, the third part of the book is entitled "The Relics"?

– This part is ostensibly simpler, but very precious. It is a catalogue of all the Orthodox relics of Kosovo which ever existed and some of which remain to this day. It is especially important that the book contains information about the churches of the XIX century, which had never been properly described. Their demolition had not been recognized as desecration at all, as they were considered of no importance. Actually, they were wiped out of the people's memory. We brought them back.

A POLICY OF MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

– There's something I've thought about for quite a while. As we know, the Russian Empire officially carried out the policy of a Christian state. During the entire time it existed, Orthodox relics were in danger in other countries, where believers had little or no control over matters of state. How did the Russian government react when such acts of desecration took place?

– Russia had closely watched the condition of Orthodox relics outside the country at least since the XVII century. Russian Tsars (later Emperors) hosted guests from all of Eastern Europe most embassies asked for help as their churches were being destroyed by Ottoman rulers; they were pressured with terrible taxes and driven to sell church property and liturgical implements etc. And the Russian Government used to provide assistance. In cases when it could influence Ottoman Porta it did so as well. Supporting Orthodox believers was one of the major missions of Russian Ambassadors.

– Can today's Russian diplomacy revive this tradition?

– Simple scenarios don't work today. First of all, today's Russia is a secular state. Second, today's Orthodox-dominated states are no longer oriented not towards Russia. For example, in the XIX century Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania looked up towards Russia as virtually their only support and protector. Today, in contrast, Romania and Bulgaria are EU members and dream of joining NATO. Still the historical memory lives on…

This is especially striking in Serbia and Montenegro, where the memory of the Russian-Turkish wars is still kept alive. To a certain extent, the split between Stalin and Tito played a positive role. Unlike other Slavonic peoples, the Serbs regard us as brothers in faith rather than former Soviet occupants. In this regard, Serbia and Montenegro are unique, and I've never encountered an attitude towards Russians similar to theirs.

– Are you saying that the Orthodox aspect of Russian foreign policy is a thing of the past?

– Of course not. However, Russia's cultural policy towards the Orthodox communities of the Balkans is quite passive and inarticulate and misses many opportunities provided by history.

Take Greece. The elder generation of the Greek intelligentsia was brought up when the Soviet Union existed. All those intellectuals studied and accepted as their own Russian literature, including Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, Akhmatova, Mandelstam. They read these books in the Greek translation not as something exotic but as something dear, interesting and important. However, the next generation- not to mention the other classes of Greek society – may drop out of the context of Russian culture, which may be irreversible. Today, this context of cultural tradition still comprises an essential element of Russia's potential in the region. However, less than 10% of this potential is actually used today. Those Russian cultural institutions which still function in Greece are mostly busy showing just how busy they are rather than actually doing something worthwhile. I'm not sure why; perhaps, they are short of money or competent staff.

A Russian cultural center in Greece, for instance, should be chaired not just by a functionary for whom this position is not more than a transitory step in his career path. Instead we need an educated culturally-conscious person, who can understand the long-time context of Greek-Russian connections; a person dedicated to this heritage. Today, such a selection of cadres does not take place. As a result, the Russian cultural influence in Greece is feeble.

The activity of the Greek Embassy in Moscow is an example of the opposite. For instance, cultural envoy Demetrios Yalamas, a historian by profession, has greatly contributed by organizing exhibitions, concerts, publishing books etc. Unfortunately, we do nothing comparable in Greece, as well as in other historically Orthodox countries.

WE NEED WORK, NOT IMITATION

– Imagine that you were responsible for all work in this direction. Where would you start?

– I would start with an initiative to establish a powerful foreign-based cultural center, similar to today's Goethe Institute (Germany), the British Council, or French institutions. The presence of such an organization serves as an index of a culturally developed nation. Certainly, the supposed Institute of Russian Culture should be well financed, and directed by a specialist in culture, not just an official. In this case, such centers would attract all those who sympathize with Russian culture abroad. Today, our potential is even less than that of the USSR.

First and foremost we need to realize that cultural policy is not an area where a standard bureaucrat can realize his career goals. Of course, an official layer exists even there, but it is the least significant of all performed tasks. While everything is run and done under the leadership and by pencil pushers there can no talk of efficiency or progress.

We need new people in the field of cultural policy. Therefore, before establishing a network of cultural centers, I would propose creating a council of intellectuals under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for the purpose of promoting Russian culture outside Russia. I am even sure that such specialists would agree to work for free!

– True! This could prevent parasitic people who are only interested in the financial aspect of such projects from taking part in the first place!

– Russia's cultural policy outside Russia should be developed as one of the key fields of our entire foreign policy. Unfortunately, we don't see any progress in this area today. Every businessman, every politician has to realize that Russian culture is a real gold mine, more precious than oil or gas. This is not a pure idealistic abstraction. The potential of our cultural heritage is something we used to preserve, and unlike oil or gas it does not erode from frequent use, but only gains in value.


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