This article is part of a series ‘Russian Christian Military Heroes’, which illustrates the close interrelationship of the church, state, and military in Russian history. In contrast to the uniquely American idea that it is best to keep church and state separate, Russians believe the opposite – that this is, in fact, harmful, and that society is best served by a close cooperation, poetically described as a ‘symphony.’
THANK YOU to everyone who voted in our poll! By popular request, the next article in this series will be about Saint Dmitri of the Don. This article, however, was planned to coincide with the Saint Alexander’s feast day, and it is perhaps providential that you all choose Saint Dmitri, as I always considered him related in many ways to Saint Alexander Nevsky. Thank you to my friend who inspired me to write this article – Будь здорова
Hail and take heed, this is the tale one of the most famous Russian Heroes in history, second only to perhaps Vladimir of Kiev, the Baptizer of All Rus’. Few leaders have captured the hearts and minds of the Russians like Alexander Nevsky, who was voted Russia’s greatest leader of all time in 2008.
His name inspires awe and reverence even amongst the non-religious. He was a Champion Victorious against the Swedish hosts and the Teutonic Knights. He is the Shining Prince of Vladimir, and the Unsetting Sun of the Suzdalian lands. His story is one of the earliest examples of Russian military resistance against impossible odds. He is also the subject of one of the greatest Russian films in history. (Posted at the bottom of the article with English subtitles)
Alexander Nevsky was a man who chose his faith over his power and freedom, therefore winning high favor before the Throne of God.
Read these words of the Second Pskovian Chronicle (an ancient Slavic manuscript) to get an idea of what a colossus we are speaking of:
“By the will of God, Prince Alexander was born from the charitable, people-loving, and meek the Great Prince Yaroslav, and his mother was Theodosia. As it was told by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Thus sayeth the Lord: I appoint the princes because they are sacred and I direct them.’ “…
He was taller than others, and his voice reached the people as a trumpet, and his face was like the face of Joseph, whom the Egyptian Pharaoh placed as next to the king after him of Egypt.
His power was a part of the power of Samson and God gave him the wisdom of Solomon … this Prince Alexander: he would defeat but was never defeated …”
Alexander was born on the 13th of May, 1221, in the years after the direct unity of Kievan Rus’ was broken, and Rus’ lands lived up to their Norse name “Kingdom of Cities.”
Each Prince ruled his city-state, not unlike ancient Greece, though to be fair, Russia was so vast, many cities could extend their rule over territories comparable to the size of England. After the death of Yaroslav the Wise, Kievan Rus’ was consumed by constant infighting for the thrones of the major cities, principally for Kiev, but also for Vladimir-Suzdal, and Novgorod, among others.
Alexander was the grandson of Vsevolod the Big Nest, High King of Vladimir, under whose reign the city reached its height of power and influence.
Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir was the prototype for the one in Moscow.
This is important, as Vladimir-Suzdal and the legacy of Alexander, is the source from which Moscow, and by extension, the modern Russian State, had its origin.
Dormition Cathedral in Moscow
Alexander was the Great, Great, Great, Great, Great Grandson of Saint Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles, and Baptizer of All Rus’ and the 7th Great Grandson of Saint Olga. That’s a lot of greats for this Saint!
He was born shortly before the first Mongol attacks on the Russian lands, the Battle of the Kalka River in 1223, and he lived through the full-scale Mongol invasion of 1237, which changed everything for Rus’.
Rus’ suffered from the typical struggle of human history. It was the inability of our Princes to unite, and their pride, which were among the key factors that made the Mongol invasion successful, and resulted in our downfall in those days. Alexander taught us to conquer pride with the Russian Faith, putting it above all else.
No one expected this younger son of the Ruler of Vladimir-Suzdal to gain the throne of one of the major city-states, let alone Vladimir; however, the young Alexander was elected to the Throne of “Lord” Novgorod. No, I don’t mean his title was Lord Novgorod, Novgorod is a city with a mind and title of its own.
Great Novgorod Kremlin – the monument to 1000 years of Russian History can be barely seen just above the Cathedral’s farthest right dome, as a black orb with statues. Alexander has his own carving on the monument. The Cathedral is considered one of the oldest Churches in all Rus’.
Lord Novgorod the Great was a unique Russian city-state, and the site where Rurik landed, beginning recorded Russian history. The city was allegedly a merchant’s paradise, a “free” city ruled by merchant lords who elected their sovereign from amongst the Rurikids. It was also a member of the international Hanseatic trade league.
Novgorod chose Alexander to rule them in their time of need, to battle against the Swedes; this would be the first, but not the last time he saved the city.
His Majesty, The Republic of Novgorod the Great and Powerful
At age 19, he repelled the invading army on the River Neva where the city of Saint Petersburg currently stands (then a barren swamp).
Before the battle, he reminded his men, “The power of God is not in numbers, but in truth.”
A soldier of Alexander’s called Philip later saw an omen, a vision of Saints Boris and Gleb, sons of Vladimir the Great and Protomartyrs of Russia. Boris said: “Brother Gleb, let us help our kinsman Alexander.”
Alexander led the army to an incredible victory there on the Neva, and for this, he was called Nevsky – of the river Neva. The Battle of the Neva was featured in a recent Russian film:
And how did the Novgorod Republic repay their Hero? By deposing him and sending him away, when greedy Boyars grew jealous.
With humility, he departed, though it wouldn’t be long until he was recalled. In the hour of their need, they called for the man they slandered and cast away, and he returned to their aid.
Teutonic Knights and other Catholic crusaders were emerging in the western marches of northern Rus’, a looming threat perhaps more sinister than even the Mongols.
To understand the context of Prince Alexander’s struggle against the Teutonic Knights, one must realize this was happening during the “Northern Crusades.”
The Catholic church was expanding its power northward into the territory of the modern Baltic states, originally, to fight pagans. The Vatican saw the internal strife in Rus’, and just as they had done in the Crusades in the Middle East, they changed their mission from fighting heathens, be they Muslims or pagans, to murdering Orthodox Christians and plundering our lands.
This map shows the extent of Catholic expansionism in the North. Lake Peipus, the site of Alexander’s greatest battle, is located in the North West in the Novgorod Republic.
This is one of the earliest examples of the West (for lack of a better term), interfering with Russia, in a most cynical and insidious way.
This occurred when the Roman Curia (the Pope and his cardinals) offered to Alexander an alliance against the Mongol Empire, under whose yoke Russia had been suffering in captivity. The alliance would carry with it the intolerable condition that Russia convert to Roman Catholicism.
At first, this sounds like a great offer, especially to those who are not religious and/or have no understanding of Geopolitics; however, these events set the precedent for Russia’s mistrust of the west. [See this article for more on that mistrust]
Non-Religious people will say, “what does it matter which religion you practice,” and the Geopolitically illiterate are unable to read the writing on the wall: It’s a setup!
Divide and Conquer.
Malbork Castle, the largest castle in the world, built by the Teutonic Order in Poland. The Moscow Kremlin, though larger, is a Citadel, not a castle. The size of this fortress, dwarfing Windsor Castle, is a testimony to how dedicated the Vatican was to occupying Slavic lands.
To be fair, the Vatican had no love for the Mongols; they had reasonable concerns Mongols would invade Catholic lands, however, they also had no love for the Orthodox. Make no mistake, the Pope agreed to fight the Mongol horde to the death…of the last Russian.
Even if Russia won, are we to believe the Vatican would just walk away, and leave us to govern our now Roman Catholic converted lands in peace?
These are the same people who embarked on the crusades to lend military aid to the Eastern Roman Empire and then sacked Constantinople – the largest city in Christendom – four crusades later.
Don’t believe me? Still think the Catholics would have lived at peace with Russia? Simply look to history, in these same Northern Crusades, years later, the Teutonic Knights would wage war against their fellow Catholics, and Russia’s fellow Slavs – the Poles.
The Battle of Grunwald in the 15th century, when Poland finally defeated the Teutonic Order. Some of their best troops were Russian soldiers from Smolensk whose fathers fought with Alexander. The Battle was considered such a great Slavic victory over the Germans that in WW1, the Germans would take revenge for it at the “Second” Battle of Tannenberg, as they called Grunwald centuries later.
And what if Russia lost, even with Catholic aid? Which country would the Mongols rape and pillage before moving on to Rome?
Saint Alexander was wise and foresighted; he understood all of this. Moreover, there is a theory that the Pope’s envoys later arranged for Alexander’s father to be poisoned at the Horde, to provoke a conflict.
All those interested in Russia should pay close attention to what Alexander did, as it set the standard and precedent for how Russia would react to such situations even in the present day. Russia will make any sacrifice to protect it’s core values, the individuals will sacrifice their lives to protect the community, it is not the community which exists to protect the individual.
He not only resisted their provocations, but Alexander also did something controversial: he paid tribute to the Mongols. He accepted their rule over him humbly, and without protest, though he would not worship their Gods or break the Orthodox Faith. Some historians regard this as a political or diplomatic move, a choice of a lesser evil, and from a political point of view his actions were incredibly wise, however, in Orthodoxy, we have another view.
The great Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski had some wise words to this effect in his The Witcher series, popular in Poland and Russia, and world famous for the video game franchise. The Protagonist, Gerald of Rivia famously said these words which in my vision, captures perfectly the Orthodox mindset:
“Evil is evil. Lesser, greater, middling… makes no difference. The degree is arbitrary. The definition’s blurred. If I’m to choose between one evil and another, I’d rather not choose at all.
Likewise in Orthodoxy, we do not choose between Satan and Beelzebub, evil is always evil. What Alexander did, in my opinion, was choose the only option to save Russia.
In a way, this makes him no different than all the other great Russian Heroes, yet Alexander would be remembered as the Archetype for all Russian Heroes in the great work “The Life of Alexander Nevsky.” His self-sacrificing nature, yet unbreakable in his will and resolve to preserve the Russian faith and his worldview makes him characteristic of the values we admire most.
So it was that he entered the horde as a lamb to the slaughter, but he returned as a Lion of Rus’.
Nevsky before the Horde
He understood that, realistically, Russia could not fight the Mongols at this time. The disunion in his lands was too great. His actions saved Russia to fight another day. He couldn’t stop the Mongols yet, but he could stop the Catholics from destroying Orthodoxy and Russia until his sons would overcome the horde someday.
His choice to ally, or at least make peace with, the Mongols, and fight the West is often touted by both Pro-Russian Eurasianists and Russophobic racial supremacists who consider Russia an Asian culture, as an example of Russia definitively aligning itself with Asia against Europe – against Western Civilization.
A new Church of Alexander Nevsky in Moscow near MGIMO, the most prestigious university for international relations of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Ironic how Alexander Nevsky was a trailblazer and pathfinder for Russian diplomacy. If you want to study international relations there is no better place.
But this conclusion about Russian eastern alignment is untrue. Saint Alexander was faithful to the classical vision of Western Civilization, a civilization supposedly built on Greco-Roman political foundations, and Christian Faith.
And what does the Christian Faith teach us – to humble ourselves even unto death: if an enemy strikes us, turn the other cheek, do not resist him, give him whatever he wants, even your life. These are the words Saint Sergius of Radonezh, wonderworker of all Russia would say to Saint Dmitri of the Don, Alexander’s descendent, before his own battle with the Mongols:
“Scripture teaches us that if enemies want honor, gold, or glory, we give it, and God will lift them up to see your humility, and will suppress their unyielding pride.”
But Christianity has another value, give them whatever they want – except for your Faith. Never surrender your faith for any reason. Do not give your faith for your life, but rather your life for your faith. And so it was that Alexander’s choice was obvious.
The Mongols did not want his faith; they cared not for what God he worshipped. It was clear what they wanted, money, and a guarantee he would not wage war on them. The easiest thing a Christian can give. What was this worthless gold and silver to the Russian Orthodox Faith?
But what did the West want? Money and a chance to meddle in the affairs of a people not their own.
The Mongols wanted money and peace – Pax Mongolica. The Vatican wanted money for a war against the Mongols and that alone, maybe…maybe Russia could have won.
But the West wanted something we could not give – something priceless. They wanted to take away our Orthodox Faith.
Alexander braved the road to the Horde in order to make peace. All Russian rulers under the Tatar Yoke had to have the permission of the Horde to rule, and if the Horde did not like them for the smallest reasons, they would often kill them without warning when they arrived.
There, he was expected to perform any matter of pagan signs before the Khan, but he refused, prepared to die in the way of Saint Michael of Chernigov if need be:
“O King,” he said, bowing before the Khan, “I bow before you because God has favored you with authority, but I shall not bow before any created thing. I serve the One God. Him alone do I honor, and Him alone do I worship.”
Batu Khan was so impressed by the courage and handsome demeanor of the young prince that to everyone’s amazement he accepted his refusal and received him with due honor. Source: Pravoslavie.ru
Ensuring that the Mongols would not trouble Russia, Alexander was ready to defend the Faith.
Nevsky at Novgorod
The German Knights bragged about enslaving the entire Slavic nation, but if only they knew God himself arrayed his armies against them to liberate the oppressed peoples, they would have fled rather than face the slaughter coming for them.
Alexander soon recaptured the city of Pskov, where the knights had massacred the inhabitants, and turned his eyes to end their tyranny. He prayed, asking God to help him “in his strife against a boastful nation as [God] helped Moses against Amalek, and my forefather Yaroslav the Wise against Svyatopolk the Accursed.”
His great battle against the knights took place on April 5, 1242, on the frozen shores of Lake Peipus, and was the subject of a famous movie with a phenomenal musical score written by the great Russian composer Prokofiev.
The Battle on the Ice was the bite of white-fanged winter to the throat of the German army. Like a millstone smashed upon the ground, their bones were shattered beneath Russian axes and their bodies sunk beneath the frozen waters.
Alexander was victorious and spoke his famous words
“Those who come to us with a sword will die by that sword”.
The Vatican then offered him that aforementioned deal against the Mongols, which he refused, ever guarding his faith as well as his lands.
The Battle on the Ice as depicted in the “Life of Alexander Nevsky”
He traveled with his Father to the Horde where the latter died, but Alexander lived on to defend the Russian land and the uneasy peace with the Horde. He resisted every attempt of the Vatican to provoke that war between Russia and the Horde. For his actions, he would be considered the ideal model of a Russian Ruler.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria, was created in honor of Russian soldiers fallen during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, as a result of which Russia won Bulgaria her freedom from Ottoman occupation.
By 1259, Alexander became the dominant Russian ruler, Sovereign of Kiev, Vladimir, and Novgorod, and at his death, the sun set upon the Russian lands as the chronicles tell:
“Returning from the Golden Horde, the Great Prince Alexander, reached the city of Nizhny Novgorod, and remained there for several days in good health, but when he reached the city of Gorodets he fell ill …
Great Prince Alexander, who was always firm in his faith in God, gave up this worldly kingdom … And then he gave up his soul to God and died in peace on 12 November , on the day when the Holy Apostle Philip is remembered …
Silver Sarcophagus of Alexander Nevsky
At this burial, Metropolitan Archbishop Cyril said, ‘My children, you should know that the sun of the Suzdalian land has set. There will never be another prince like him in the Suzdalian land.’
And the priests and deacons and monks, the poor and the wealthy, and all the people said: ‘It is our end.’
Prior to his death, the Saint took monastic vows, though this was not the final march of Alexander Nevsky. The Saint undertook one final journey in the 18th century, when Peter the Great transferred his relics and silver sarcophagus form Vladimir-Suzdal to his new capital in Saint Petersburg.
Saint Petersburg was built upon the Neva river, where hundreds of years before, he fought the Swedes and earned his title “Nevsky – Of the Neva.”
His relics were processed through the new capital and laid in the great Alexander Nevsky Lavra, one of the Five Lavras (Great Monasteries) of the Russian Church.
Nevsky Lavra, the resting place of Nevsky and Dostoevsky
The Lavra is the holiest place in Saint Petersburg, being the second Lavra in modern Russia proper, after Trinity Sergius Lavra. The other three Lavras, from oldest to youngest: Kiev Caves, Pochaev, and Svyatogorsk are located in modern Ukraine.
Now Saint Alexander keeps perpetual vigil at Nevsky Lavra, over Russia’s Northern Capitol, on the same river where he defended her in the Bygone Years.
The Great Silver Sarcophagus of Alexander Nevsky
And so, the life of Alexander Nevsky passed into song and legend. His legacy was long and far-reaching, his son Daniel of Moscow would become the father of all Moscow’s rulers.
Alexander never lived to see Russia free of Tatar-Mongol rule, but amongst those descendants in Moscow would arise Dmitri of the Don who would finally begin the fight to free Russia. The Labors of Saint Alexander paved the way for Russia to fight another day, and so that someday, another Hero arose to cast off the Mongol Yoke.
Dmitri Donskoi finished his ancestor’s work and liberated Russia from the Tatar Yoke
The Mongols and all the world believe the western sun fell hard on the Russian lands and darkness overshadowed them, but through the labors of Saint Alexander, little sparks of national awakening would begin to dance across the vast steppes, gathering up into a flame of the Russian Faith. Under Dmitri of the Don, Alexander’s Great Great Grandson, Russia would rise again like the Firebird.
The Famous Film with English Subtitles
Hymns to Saint Alexander Nevsky:
Christ revealed you, O Blessed Alexander / As a new and glorious worker of wonders; / A man and a prince well pleasing to God / And a divine treasure of the Russian Land. / Today we assemble in faith and love / To glorify the Lord by joyously remembering you. / He granted you the grace of healing, / Therefore entreat Him to strengthen your suffering spiritual children, / And to save all Orthodox Christians.
We honor you as a most radiant, spiritual star, / Rising up from the east; going down in the west! / As you enriched the Russian people with good works and miracles, / So now enlighten us who remember you in faith, O Blessed Alexander. / Today as we celebrate your falling asleep, we ask you to beseech the Lord / That He may strengthen his suffering servants and save all Orthodox Christians!
A video introducing Russian Faith
Time is running out for Holocaust survivors | Society
Shimon Redlich, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor and author of the book Together and Apart in Brzezany, said: “As long as the survivors are alive and can remember, their testimonies must be recorded. Every story is unique.”
Edith Bruck is a 90-year-old Auschwitz survivor. Hungarian-born, she writes in Italian, and is the author of classics such as Who Loves You Like This? In a recent interview, she said: “Our lives do not belong to us. They belong to history.”
The survivors of the Shoah have allowed us to look into the abyss of the incomprehensible. They have brought generations of readers closer to an experience that can be transmitted, but not shared. However, as the years go by, the era of the witnesses is coming to an end. With their passing, something irreplaceable will disappear.
Boris Pahor passed away last May at the age of 108. A Slovenian born in Trieste, Italy, Pahor was deported as an anti-fascist resistance fighter during World War II. He is the author of one of the most prominent books on the Nazi camps, Necropolis. “My every word [was] driven by the fear of slipping into banality,” he writes.
The fear of banality and the impossibility of transmitting what was suffered has been a constant in Holocaust literature since the publication of the first great literary testimony of the camps, If This Is a Man by Primo Levi.
Another fear that many witnesses have conveyed is the empty space they will leave behind when the last of them disappears… the incommunicable experience they will take with them.
In an interview with EL PAÍS in 2000, the now-deceased Buchenwald survivor, Spanish writer and politician Jorge Semprún, reflected on the disappearance of those who witnessed the Holocaust: “Do you know what is the most important thing that happened in a concentration camp? Do you know the most terrible thing, the only thing that cannot be explained? The smell of burning meat. What do you do with the memory of the smell of burning meat? For those circumstances, there is, precisely, literature. But how do you talk about it? Do you compare? And what about the obscenity of the comparison? Do you say, for example, that it smells like burnt chicken? Or do you try to reconstruct the general circumstances of the memory, going around the smell, round and round, without facing it? I have inside my head, alive, the most important smell of a concentration camp. And I can’t explain it. And that smell is going to go away with me, as it has already gone with others.”
“We have been talking about the end of the survivors for almost three decades,” says Alejandro Baer, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. “That concern has spurred memory in the form of the creation of archives of oral and audiovisual history of survivors, documentaries, even virtual reality projects. But whoever has had the opportunity to meet the witnesses knows that nothing will make up for their absence. Because it is not just about the information they provide, but about the nature of the encounter and the transformation it produces: becoming a witness of the witness. If we look for something that approaches that experience, we will not find it in technology, but in testimonial literature.”
If This Is a Man was published in 1947. Levi himself explained that the publisher went bankrupt and that the book remained forgotten for more than a decade: the first printing of 2,500 copies went unnoticed. Society was not yet ready to read about those horrors, not only because the stories about the extermination confront us with the idea that anyone can be a victim, but because they force us to consider that we too could have been executioners. That same year, 75 years ago, The Diary of Anne Frank was published in the Netherlands under the title The secret annex. Its translation was rejected by various American publishers until Judith Jones of Knopf insisted on publishing it. The diary became an international success in the 1950s.
In the Federal Republic of Germany, Auschwitz did not become a household name for most of the population until the late-1970s, when the series Holocaust was released. That five-episode telefilm sparked a heated debate between those who saw it as a product of popular culture that trivialized the Holocaust by turning it into a family melodrama, and those who thought it did more than any eyewitness account to make Germans stand up to their dark past.
“It is an insult to those who survived. What appears on the screen has nothing to do with what happened,” wrote Nobel Peace Prize winner and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, the author of Night. However, a survey published after its broadcast revealed that 70% of German young people between the ages of 14 and 19 said that they had learned more about Nazism from the series than at school.
This debate revealed another dimension to the horror of the camps: Is it legitimate to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has suffered something that cannot be explained? Is it possible to use the Holocaust to write fiction?
John Hersey wrote the first American Holocaust novel, The wall, between the 1940s and 1950s. It took place in the Warsaw ghetto; Hersey had met with survivors and visited the ruins of the Polish capital. However, his biographer, Jeremy Treglown, wrote that Hersey was faced with similar questions about authenticity: “Who owns the narrative? Can a young privileged white Anglo-Saxon from New England put himself in the shoes of the suffering of European Jewry under Nazism?”
Since the success of The boy in the striped pajamas, this debate has only grown. Novels with “Auschwitz” in the title have multiplied. The latest one is titled The dressmakers of Auschwitz. Some, such as The librarian of Auschwitz, by Antonio Iturbe, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and received critical praise. Others, like The tattooist of Auschwitz, have been scrutinized by experts. The Auschwitz Memorial made a resounding statement about this best-seller by Heather Morris: “Because of the number of factual errors, it cannot be recommended as a valuable work for those who wish to understand the history of the camps.”
“This popular literature, which is so successful, simplifies the history and reality that is so difficult for us to understand,” says Yessica San Román, director of the Education and Holocaust department at Madrid’s Centro Sefarad-Israel. “The result is a trivialization of the facts. What should concern us when we read books like these about the Holocaust is that they resort too much to stereotypes, both for the Jews and for the perpetrators. The perpetrators were not all monsters or psychopaths. They were much more normal than we like to admit. The Holocaust was committed by men and women.”
“I haven’t read The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” explains Shimon Redlich. “I don’t like kitsch books about the Holocaust. However, I believe that films like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah or Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List have had a significant effect on the dissemination and understanding of the Holocaust.” Asked by email about the books he considers essential, the survivor and author cites four: the works of historian and survivor Saul Friedländer, The years of persecution (1933 -1939) and The years of the extermination (1939-1945); An interrupted life, the diaries of Etty Hillesum, who was murdered at Auschwitz; and Anatomy of a genocide: the life and death of a town called Buczacz, by Israeli historian Omer Bartov.
Bartov’s book is part of a series of recent essays that are helping to deepen knowledge of the genocide. They mix detective-like investigations with the handling of thousands of documents. In the face of all-encompassing books like Raul Hilberg’s The destruction of the European Jews, a new generation of authors is focusing on smaller-scale stories.
“Most of the witnesses have disappeared and the investigators must become indirect witnesses, with the material they handle,” Dr. Wendy Lower, Director of the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights in Claremont, California, explains by phone. “We work with the material we have access to… [over] the last decades, we have been compiling documents, testimonies…. such massive archives have been amassed and so many testimonies have been recorded that no historian would be able to listen to them all. When there are no more witnesses, there will be a lot of material to work on: archaeology, forensics, documents, recordings…”
Eyewitness testimonies were not always considered such important material. “In the beginning, when researchers strove to establish the history of the Nazi genocide, they did not always welcome the voices of the survivors,” says Dr. Sara R. Horowitz, a professor of literature at York University in Toronto and the author and editor of numerous books on the memory of the Holocaust, including Voicing the void: muteness and memory in Holocaust fiction and Shadows in the city of light. “Historians preferred to rely on documentary evidence and were reluctant to base historical accounts on memory: they saw it as unreliable, fallible, and limited in scope. But relying on documents also has its limitations. In the decades immediately following the war, many survivors expressed frustration that they had not been heard. And the historical record was impoverished by this exclusion.”
“More than ever, it will be the power of literature– novels, poems, memoirs– that will preserve and continue to shape the memory of the Holocaust, in the different languages and the memory of each country. Writers like Aharon Appelfeld, Ida Fink, Elie Wiesel, Charlotte Delbo, Jorge Semprún, Sarah Kofman, Imre Kertesz and others,” Horowitz notes.
“Literature is essential,” advocates Marina Sanfilippo, a professor at Spain’s National University of Distance Education. She specializes in female testimonies of the Shoah. “It has never been possible to understand the reason for the Holocaust, as Primo Levi narrated in that famous phrase in which a German guard at Auschwitz blurts out: here there is no why. It is something that only literature can answer.”
Sanfilippo maintains that she has studied the literature written by surviving women “because the canon of the Shoah is above all masculine”– Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Kertesz, Elie Wiesel, Victor Klemperer, Viktor Frankl, and so on. She cites authors and works such as Liana Millu’s Smoke over Birkenau, Ruth Klüger’s Still alive, Charlotte Delbo’s None of us will return, or Daniela Padoan’s Like a frog in winter.
Padoan’s book is a journalistic investigation that collects the testimony of three women – Liliana Segre, Goti Bauer and Giuliana Tedeschi – who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau. “The experience was very different for men and women, because in the camps, people suffered from the body and bodies are different. What did it mean to have your period in the camp? Or to stop having it, or to think that you would never be able to have children? What did it mean to be the subject of medical experiments? The survival strategies were also different,” says Sanfilippo.
The survivors’ voices are also kept alive through the stories of their relatives. The most famous of these cases remains the comic book Maus, now a classic, in which Art Spiegelman tells the story of his father, an Auschwitz survivor, and at the same time describes the relationship – not always an easy one – between the two. The librarian and author Javier Fernández Aparicio maintained a Holocaust literature reading club in Madrid for eight years with fellow librarian Javier Quevedo Arcos, from which the book The culture of the abyss arose. They assure their readers that no book was as interesting as Maus, perhaps because of its dialogue between the past and the present.
In the house where Primo Levi died in 1987 on a wide avenue in Turin – it will never be known whether he committed suicide or fell down the stairs – no plaque remembers the writer. However, his last name still appears on the intercom, as if he could be called and his voice could emerge from the past to remind us of some of the many lessons contained in his books.
Levi deeply mistrusted charismatic leaders– those who ask us to renounce reason: “Since it is difficult to distinguish true prophets from false, it is as well to regard all prophets with suspicion. It is better to renounce revealed truths, even if they exalt us by their splendor.”
The voices of those survivors that are slowly dying out remain essential to understanding what happened… but also to warn us about what may happen.
The Rise and Fall of Victoria’s Secret: A dictatorship of perfection and misogyny: a look into Victoria’s Secret’s angels and demons | Society
For the lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret, once the head of an empire, the past decade has been turbulent. Gone are the golden days when the world stood still to watch the brand’s annual show. Its carefully chosen models, the so-called angels, represented a beauty standard unattainable to most women, and they paraded the runway in glittering wings and minuscule diamond-cut lingerie.
The shows, which lasted for 23 years, were considered the Super Bowl of fashion. They featured performances by pop singers including Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, The Weeknd, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. Until its last edition, held in Paris in 2018, the event represented the fantasy that Victoria’s Secret marketed. It launched the careers of models Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima, Heidi Klum and Alessandra Ambrossio, among others.
The women showed off almost superhuman physiques, sculpted through rigorous training and starved in the days leading up to the parade. But the brand’s image no longer has a place in a #MeToo-era society, now more willing to champion body positive, diversity and inclusivity and to denounce sexual harassment and the hypersexualization of women’s bodies.
The new three-part documentary series The Rise and Fall of Victoria’s Secret explores the brand’s shadows. The production, which premiered on June 18 at the Tribeca Film Festival, combines first-hand accounts with deep investigation to reveal the brand’s inner workings. “Truth is not what it seems, as the underworld of fashion, the billionaire class, and Jeffrey Epstein are revealed to all be inextricably intertwined with the fall of this legendary brand,” reads the summary of the miniseries, directed by Peter Berg and Matt Tyrnauer. It will be available to stream on Hulu starting July 14.
A culture of misogyny and the descent to hell
The film promises to uncover the lingerie empire’s links with sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein. A 2019 New York Times investigation revealed that in the 1990s, a financial adviser close to Leslie H. Wexner, executive director of the company L Brands—Victoria’s Secret parent company—worked as a model recruiter for the brand in exchange for sexual favors. This adviser would later be found to be Epstein, a millionaire accused of sex trafficking who later commited suicide in jail while awaiting trial. Subsequently, Wexner has repeatedly claimed to feel “ashamed” by his friendly relationship with the pedophile.
But Victoria’s Secret’s fall in popularity came before this scandal. In 2018, the company lost almost 50% of its value. That same year, which marked the last parade, the show reached the lowest audience in its history since its start in 1995: 3.3 million viewers compared to the usual 10 million.
That year, the company’s marketing director, Ed Razek, made clear his opposition to gender diversity in an interview with Vogue. “Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is. It is the only one of its kind in the world,” said the 71-year-old manager, who resigned from his position in 2019.
The rampant misogyny and harassment from company higher-ups was the final straw for the brand. In 2021, the New York Times published an extensive investigation entitled “‘Angels’ in Hell: The Culture of Misogyny Inside Victoria’s Secret,” in which more than 30 executives, employees, contractors and models denounced the company’s practices.
Rebel Angels and a change of direction
The Victoria’s Secret bubble ended up bursting with the resignation of several of its most iconic figures: Adriana Lima hung up her wings in 2018, claiming to be fed up with the dictatorship of perfection and the pressures on her physique. “I will not take of [sic] my clothes again for an empty cause,” she wrote in an Instagram post.
Gisele Bündchen, who signed her contract with the brand at the age of 19, confessed in her autobiography that after years parading in her underwear, she began to feel uncomfortable. She wrote that she felt “less and less relaxed” when photographed on the catwalk in just a bikini or a thong. In the same book, she wrote of suffering from panic attacks and suicidal thoughts during one of the most successful periods of her career.
Victoria’s Secret changed directions in 2020, when L Brands sold the company to the Sycamore Partners fund for just over $1 billion (€953 million), in a last-ditch effort to save the brand.
After Raezk resigned, in a last attempt to save its reputation, the company hired the transgender model Valentina Sampaio. It also included Winnie Harlow, a Canadian model with vitiligo, as an angel, and Lorena Durán became the brand’s first plus-size model.
Seeking to adapt to changing social norms, in 2021, the company announced partnerships with influential figures in culture and sports: American soccer player Megan Rapinoe, Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, Chinese skier Eileen Gu and plus-size model Paloma Elsesser. It also announced that it would no longer refer to its models as “angels.” With that once-unthinkable gesture, Victoria’s Secret finally returned to earth.
Sex education: The creator of CLIMAX: ‘Good sex is like cooking, but there aren’t recipes for female pleasure on the internet’ | Society
Our ways of watching television have changed. No longer do we sit down to see what’s on TV, instead subscribing to platforms where we can watch our favorite content. But can that formula translate to content beside series, documentaries and movies? Can it be used to change the way we experience sex education? CLIMAX, a platform of sex education videos, is trying it out.
The platform started as an explicit educational series dedicated to female pleasure. Far from pornography, it was particularly directed towards women and sought to give advice and ideas for greater self-knowledge and sexual enjoyment. But that was just the beginning. As Camille Mariau, CLIMAX’s director of projects, explains, they are currently working on “a monthly membership platform dedicated to sexual wellbeing. The users will ahve access to periodic new content, ordered by topic (pleasrue for people with vulvas, for those with penises, tantric sex, oral sex, post-partum sex, etc.). We really want to create the perfect guide to help our users deconstruct their ideas about sexuality.” Currently, the platform has partnerships with educational and healthcare institutions, in order to bring education about female sexuality to all parts of society.
Laurène Dorléac is an expert in the technology market and co-creator of CLIMAX. “Not only is female pleasure little understood, but I also realized that taboos around the subject are still very present.” That’s why, despite her lack of experience in the area, she decided to venture into the topic. “Good sex is like cooking: it’s a creative process that requires practice, experimentation and care to have a good flavor. There are plenty of recipes and cooking classes, but we can’t find anything satisfactory about female pleasure on the Internet! That’s what led me to create the platform, so that we can all have access to better sexual education.”
The project brought together international studies, advice from psychologists and sexologists and over 100,000 testimonies. “Pleasure is a very serious thing, and it deserves a very rigorous approach,” she says.
CLIMAX comes to Spain
While the project was founded in France, currently, 40 percent of its subscribers are outside of the country, largely in the United States and United Kingdom. The team is optimistic about the Spanish market. “The market seems to be ready for a project like this. More than talking about pleasure, we really want people to have easy access to safe information about sexual education,” says Camille Mariau. Since the project launched in Spain just a few months ago, most of its users are between 28 and 45 years old, and, surprisingly, they are divided 50/50 between men and women.
To spread the news about the project, they have the help of Teresa Riott, known for her role as Nerea in the Netflix series Valeria, who narrates the videos. “It seems to me like a new idea in education, and it’s very necessary in order to better understand all the possibilities of our pleasure. CLIMAX has also had success in other countries. I’ve learned a lot about female sexuality in the process,” the actress explains.
She emphasizes that “they are videos that you can watch alone, in private, and you can experiment,” which “gives people confidence to explore their bodies without concerns.”
The platform’s content is explicit, but tasteful; obvious, but well-presented. It repeats explanations we have read in plenty of books, but which acquire a new dimension when we can see them on a screen: without drawings, diagrams or taboos, simply showing how to stimulate a vulva. The videos are meant to educate, not to excite, and they have no resemblance to porn. The images are accompanied by Riott’s voice, which explains each step in a clear and simple way, adding touches of scientific information. It explains not only how to stimulate the vulva, but also how and why the stimulation works.
We’ve learned that it’s much easier to exercise at home, or even to do home improvement projects, with the help of a Youtube tutorial video that shows us each step. So it makes all the sense in the world that we can use tutorials to learn how to excite our bodies, moving step-by-step over each part of our anatomy.
The platform is also notable for its diversity, not only in the appearances of the vulvas on screen, but also in the techniques proposed. It includes videos of 19 different masturbation techniques. In Spain, female masturbation has experienced a revolution in recent years. The brand Lelo, specialized in clitoral suction toys, increased its sales by 440% in 2019. The Satisfyer toy was even more popular: it registered an increase in sales of 1,300% in 2020, to the point that it had to resort to European countries to restock the toys during one of the busiest months of the year. Those toys finally normalized female masturbation. Vibrators themselves have also experienced their own revolution. Their technology and shapes have become more sophisticated, and they have become more effective and discreet. And Gwyneth Paltrow’s website Goop now features Viva la Vulva, an “extra-silent” vibrator model that can be used at any time without making any noise. Such devices are proof that manufacturers have taken pains to innovate their products for female pleasure, until recently a forgotten sector. Gone are the old dildos and penis replicas.
Beyond masturbation, with or without the help of toys, the content of CLIMAX “is like an encyclopedia of ideas that you can choose and use to enrich your sexual life. It can help you be more creative, learn moves that women with vulvas might like, etc. It can also be used as a basis to start a conversation with your partner about what you like, what you want to try or not. We want to give people the opportunity to get to know their own body or the body of their partner better,” explains Mariau.
To that end, the first two seasons are entirely scientifically based. To develop the content, 74 international scientific studies, widely referenced and accepted by the scientific community, were consulted. “There is one study that I find special: Shere Hite’s ‘The New Hite Report,’ a bestseller that has sold tens of millions of copies, which describes how women feel during different sexual activities and when they orgasm with greater frequency,” Mariau says.
In addition to a surge in vibrator sales, women have been consuming more porn than ever in recent years. According to a study by Pornhub on porn consumption in the pandemic, women increased the amount of porn they consumed by 17.5%. Audio porn, one of the latest developments in the industry, is particularly popular among women. And websites for pornographic content aimed at women, taking into account the tastes and aesthetics that female arousal requires, have proliferated in recent years.
Mission: equality in pleasure
The work of Shere Hite is one of the great sources of inspiration for CLIMAX. The late writer and sexologist was especially interested in the female orgasm. She interviewed some 3,500 American women, from prostitutes to former nuns, to create ‘The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality’ in 1976. Among her conclusions stood out two ideas: first, that few women reached orgasm through intercourse (only 30%), although they did through masturbation. Secondly, the clitoris was the key to climax.
CLIMAX is organized into several themes, which are available in different subscription packs: external pleasure (10 episodes), internal pleasure (11 episodes) and tantra exercises (7 episodes).
“Our mission is to equalize pleasure in a world where women report being less satisfied than men in their sexual activities, feeling less pleasure and having fewer orgasms. Education will make it possible,” the expert concludes.
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