A long love affair with a foreign country

MOSCOW – One morning in Leningrad, in 1986, the dean of the city’s university decided to found a School of Modern Greek Studies, a daring decision at that time. To head the department, he appointed Fatima Geloeva, then aged just 27. Of Ossetian origin, Geloeva already spoke six languages and had vast reserves of the patience and courage required, as well as the charm, to inspire 18-year-olds to learn about the culture of another people. The fact that she spoke no Greek did not discourage her. She began to listen in to Greek radio stations, illegal in the old Soviet Union, or posed as an American at the Europe Hotel where she could find Greek newspapers. The first five years she literally held the fort in the Greek department, fighting off threats from the regime that made it clear she would never be allowed to visit Greece. Eventually, after the regime fell, Geloeva did visit Greece for the first time in 1990. Since then, along with the other excellent members of the faculty, each year she welcomes some 10 students who want to learn about Greece. During the little free time she has, she teaches Ancient Greek at the city’s Classical High School for Europe’s gifted children. At home in what is now St Petersburg once more, Geloeva explained to Kathimerini why Russian students are competing to enter her courses. She also talked about ancient Greece, C.P. Cavafy, Vassilis Tsitsanis and her favorite pastimes in Athens. What was your connection with Greece before the department was founded? In Russia, the first fairy tales we read are the Greek myths. Before I became interested in modern Greece, the world of the ancients was always very much alive for me. What fascinated me was what is known as the «Greek miracle.» In the 5th century BC, the Greeks succeeded in creating all the structures that now constitute European civilization – democracy, theater, science. So by learning about modern Greece I hoped to decode my own civilization, going on a journey in the sense that Cavafy uses. In the 20 years you have headed the department, have you discovered why 18-year-olds chose Modern Greek over the many hundreds of other subjects open to them? The department is very popular and competition for a place is tough – 10 candidates for each place. There are various reasons for this. Some become interested in modern Greece at school; they want to know if the ancient tradition continues. And Greece is undoubtedly a fascinating country. Finally, there is a category of students who have visited your country and come back enchanted. On your trips to Greece with your students, has there been any disappointment with modern Greece? No, never. That is a question I am often asked by Greeks who visit our university and see that I choose to teach the language exclusively through literary texts. It could be prose by Odysseas Elytis, or Nikos Kazantzakis, the elegant katharevousa of Emmanouil Roidis or the poems of Constantine Cavafy. They sometimes accuse me of creating an idealized image of Greece. I say that I do so deliberately, referring them to a Zen myth according to which a wise man, in attempting to describe a beautiful black horse, said it was a white mare. To discover the truth, you have to use a metaphor, which is what I do to a certain extent in order to show them the real Greece. It is like reading Cavafy, who always gives you what you can take. The more you know, the more educated you are, the more you have cultivated your senses, the more you get out of a literary work. The same applies to Greece. If you know what rebetiko music is, or the quiet voice of Cavafy, the wonderful musicality of Solomos, the language of the street, or of Vassilis Tsitsanis, all that transports you into the atmosphere. Still, none of the students who return from their first trip to Greece have complained. So you think Greeks who complain about their country’s image are exaggerating? There have always been complaints, in every age. People always grumble about a decline in morality, a lack of real education and that young people don’t know anything about life. We find the first complaints of this kind in the earliest written texts found, in Sumerian tablets of the third millennium before Christ. I think that it was a tragic mistake to drop the teaching of Ancient Greek when Demotic Greek was introduced to schools, because it not only restricts possibilities for expression, but people’s relationship with their own culture and past. Obviously, people who learnt Ancient Greek at high school had the opportunity to read Plato and the ancients. On the other hand, it is absurd that young people can’t read Alexandros Papadiamantis or Emmanouil Roidis or Giorgos Vizyinos – the texts that are still masterpieces of Greek prose. I am certain that these difficulties have more to do with psychological obstacles, because in reality a Greek could understand Papadiamantis. After a year of studying Ancient Greek, my students begin speaking Modern Greek after just three weeks and in the second year, they easily read Papadiamantis. Are Greeks and Russians alike in any way? If we are talking about the emotional and mental level, I think our cultures are alike. According to legend, Vladimir chose Christianity because he was enchanted by the beauty of the liturgy. The idea of beauty that fascinates people is a pre-Christian idea, but for me it is no coincidence that Russian idolaters chose Orthodoxy as their religion. But there is a difference. When we talk about the Greek character, we say that you are independent and liberal, but what is typical of Russians is their patience. Is it possible to have a revolution without bloodshed? No, it isn’t. The idea of sacrifice is an original idea in human mythology. All legends, like the Greek myths, developed around the idea that the gods wanted sacrifices. However, there have always been people, including myself, who do not accept that, even though the way the world has developed shows otherwise. Is there true democracy? I think that in practice, no idea is carried out ideally. The idea exists but the way it develops is relative. The same applies to democracy. We know the tragic outcome of Pericles’ life. The most brilliant period in ancient Greece and Greek democracy ended tragically. However, it is important that the idea was put forward, that it exists as an experience and that we saw that the human spirit can have that freedom. That is very important in itself. Which living Greek writers do you like? When I think of Greece, what first comes to mind are its writers. Zyrana Zateli has succeeded in reviving the wonderful world of northern Greece, its snow-covered mountains, a magical and slightly crazy family. Rea Galanaki brings us the world of Crete, and my favorite novel, «The Life of Ismail Ferik Pasha.» Manos Eleftheriou, whose work I admire, opens up the melody of Syros. Vasia Xanthaki’s short stories tell me about the manor houses of Ambelakia. It is a journey through Greece that I almost never interrupt. Another key to Greece is the poetry set to music. We all know that «poetry is exorcism» – it always has been – and exorcisms are sung, they have a rhythm. In that sense, Greece has an unbroken relationship with the ancient tradition. When Theodorakis writes music for «Axion Esti» and the whole country sings «A swallow,» that is magnificent, as it is difficult poetry. I am absolutely certain that even a shepherd singing that song in Arcadia knows just what it is about. This is what we mean by the spirituality of the Greeks, and how to distinguish the poetry of Nikos Gatsos from the music of Manos Hadjidakis. That tradition is being continued today by Michalis Ganas. What do you like to do in Athens? What I love every time I arrive in your country is the warm air that hits me as soon as I come out of the plane. I even like the kafeneia that serve coffee in thick cups, Diporto in Athinas Street that recalls the atmosphere in Papadiamantis’s novels, and I am nostalgic for Zonar’s. Of course my favorite places are what you would call «ugly» Athens. For example, the corner of Panepistimiou and Ippocratous streets. The first thing I usually do in Athens is to go to Mourouzi Street and greet the house of Giorgos Savvidis. In a small space between two houses, you suddenly see a neoclassical house like the magic garden in «Alice in Wonderland.» That is when Athens smiles at me.

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