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Ukrainian Nationalism Is Real and Legitimate, But Needn’t Be Anti-Russian

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The author is a well-known academic historian of Russia and Ukraine, which he approaches from a Christian (Russian Orthodox) and nationalist perspective, arguing that nationalism and Christian Orthodoxy are inseparable. He also writes widely on current affairs. Rare for contemporary Western historians of Russia, he sources original materials in Russian, pulling back the veil on much misunderstanding, ranging from modern history back to Russia’s very beginnings in the Middle Ages.

His personal site has a prodigious number of academic articles on this subject, and he is the author of 8 academic books. His articles on Russia Insider have been very popular because of their solid supporting research and unique perspective. You can find a full archive of them here. Please support him on Patreon, as we do, where he describes his work as ‘An electronic Molotov cocktail thrown into the faculty meeting of the tenured American professor.’ Hear, hear!

His latest book, Ukrainian Nationalism (2019), (Amazon), is the definitive treatment of this topic and is essential reading to understand the current political turmoil in Ukraine. It argues that Ukrainian nationalism is real and legitimate, but needn’t be Anti-Russian, and that Russia and Ukraine are in fact natural allies. Here is his article on Russia Insider explaining some of the ideas in the book. There is no other scholar writing today about Russia and the Ukraine with this extraordinary command of historical detail and meaning. Johnson is a national treasure, and his works are highly recommended. For a fascinating audio podcast discussion of the book by Johnson and Andrew Carrington Hitchcock, see here

If you are so inclined, please rate the book on Amazon, as this increases sales greatly. It is a great way to support the author and help spread the ideas in the book. If Amazon blocks you from leaving a review, please let us know in the comments section below, and/or send an email to [email protected]


For a fascinating audio podcast discussion of the book by Johnson and Andrew Carrington Hitchcock, see here:  


My latest book, Ukrainian Nationalism, (Amazonwas written over several years from 2014 to 2018. It is a defense of the Ukrainian national ideal, an ideal today unpopular among Russians. Part of the purpose is that Ukrainian nationalism need not be anti-Russian. Since the first Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukrainian nationalism has taken an exclusively anti-Russian turn, making it unacceptable to Russians in general.

Gogol, in his “A Look at the Construction of Little Russia” (1835), his unfinished work on Ukrainian history, argued that Ukraine is a separate nation with a separate history from Russia, but her destiny is to remain allied to Moscow. No one denies Gogol’s Russian nationalism and royalism, but this didn’t prevent him from taking a very different view of Ukrainian history. He refused to accept that Ukraine is just an appendage of the old Muscovite empire, as most of Ukraine’s history has been outside its influence. In addition to Russia, Ukraine’s main influences have been Polish, Greek, German and Lithuanian. Gogol makes the case that “southern” and “western” Russia are historically Lithuanian territories and cannot be said to be part of “Great Russia” in any meaningful sense. The solution to the Ukrainian debacle doesn’t lie in denying her very existence and most certainly, doesn’t lie in allying with the decadent, postmodern western morass.

Ukraine undoubtedly is far more westernized than Russia. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. “Western” in this context means medieval and Catholic, taking much from her unpleasant relationship with Poland. This westernization doesn’t prevent Ukraine from retaining her Baroque Orthodox tradition. Her absorption of western thought through the Kiev Academy is an important contribution to Slavic Orthodox theology. 

The Ukrainian national idea has its origin in the Kievan period as well as the Galician state that followed, but it reached its defining moments in the late 16th  and early 17th century struggle against the Uniats and the Polish empire. How strange it is that Catholics have tried to take over the “national” movement in Ukraine when its national culture was forged in the war against the Unia? These are the distorting elements that take a legitimate national idea and make it an excuse to heap scorn on Russia.  

Ukraine’s modern experience with the Russian empire is a mixed blessing at best. It was Catherine II that destroyed the Zaporozhian Sich on the Dniper. It was the Russian empire in the 18th   century that decimated the Orthodox church there. It was Empress Catherine that sided with the Polish slave drivers against the Cossacks during the Koliyivshchyna rebellion of 1768. Under Russian control, parts of eastern Ukraine suffered under heavy taxes, the destruction of Cossack autonomy and the imposition of a feudal oligarchy.  This is what the Sich fought and why it was destroyed.

Worst of all, it was Russia that destroyed Hetman Ivan Sirko as he was about to inflict the death blow on the Turkish empire in the 1670s. Sirko had exterminated no fewer than three large Turkish armies and was headed to Istanbul to destroy it once and for all. Rather than assist him, the Russian empire sent him to prison and crippled his effort. 

The war against the Uniats helped forge the Ukrainian identity as an Orthodox nation. Prior to the destruction of the Hetman state and the Sich, the Kievan church was made up of 22 dioceses, 20 male monasteries and 12 convents. However, by 1799, the Kievan metropolitan had eight titular dioceses and a handful of clergy. Catherine eliminated the Hetmanate, introduced serfdom upon a free people and shut down hundreds of Orthodox churches. In her ignorance, she believed that, since the Sich had few parishes, the Cossacks were “secular.” It merely meant that Cossacks had very few institutions. Few institutions are normal for a nomadic people.

St. Petersburg destroyed the sacred tradition of the Ukrainian Orthodox church. Under the empire, Ukraine’s literacy rate fell drastically, as did its population. Few clergy remained. It was similar to the Soviet destruction of the church and a host of new-martyrs were created. Peter I removed, if not killed, every single major bishop in Russia, replacing them with his friends. He tortured many bishops to death on the rack. Upon taking office in Rostov later under Catherine, St. Arseny (Matseyevich) stated that there were only a handful of priests in Ukraine. In protesting the state’s secularization of church property, St. Arseny was killed in the worst possible way: he was locked in a closet for the rest of his life, unable to move. He spoke of a hierarchy that lived in terror of the Petersburg state. 

In 1797, the Masonic, Enlightened regime in St. Petersburg claimed the title “Supreme Guardian of Doctrine.” The attack on the Kievan church led to the growth of the Unia such that they had, according to the 1771 census, 12 million people. Given the massive purging and institutional instability of the Orthodox church at the time, relations between clergy and people were declining, and anti-clerical groups formed. The clergy were increasingly seen as functionaries, which served as yet another blow to the church in the region. These men were appointed from Petrograd, not elected, and were often Russian speakers.  Petrograd essentially destroyed the church and its relations with the population. 

Zachariah Kopystensky (d. 1627), abbot of the Caves Lavra, was one of the more educated polemicists against the Unia. His Against the Union and Book of Apologetics together are called the Palinodia, written and compiled between 1617 and 1630. Many of these articles are responses to the pro-Uniat work Krevzy’s A Defense of the Church Union.

Firstly, these works are strongly ethnic in tone and again, use a very modern vocabulary to describe the rights of the Ukrainian and Rusyn ethnos. He describes Ukrainians as a freedom-loving people. This derives from the historical experience of the Galician and Volhynian state to which neither the Poles nor the Russians have a claim. This Galician polity is the successor of Kievan-Rus, and, later,  the Cossack Host served as the elite needed to build an independent nation. 

His historical schema is that Galicia and Volhynia are the successors of St. Vladimir’s government in Kiev, and they in turn, along with the very Russian Grand Duchy of Lithuania, lead to the Ukrainian role in the Polish empire. For better or worse, this is the scheme that makes Ukraine quite foreign to Moscow and was essential to the Ukrainian Orthodox at the time. Russia, while an ally, was foreign to the Ukrainian church in many ways. 

Secondly, he uses the term “Ukraine” almost exclusively. Relative to the cultural damage of the Union, he states that the Ukrainian identity will be diluted because the Union will introduce hostile and alien Catholic ideas into the Ukrainian mind. Third, Kopystensky argued that there was a possibility of a Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian federation.

What this means is that the idea of Orthodox Ukraine was a clear ideological and philosophical conception in the early 17th century. Russia played only a fairly minor role. There is much evidence that it was common earlier as well. The school at Ostrog, the Kievan Academy and the monasteries of Pochyaev and Manjava all used a very modern conception of national and ethnic sovereignty in their religious arguments and all saw Ukraine as quite distinct from Moscow. The new hierarchy that came out of the anti-Uniat struggles came from Patriarch Theophanes III of Jerusalem and owed nothing to the Russian state. 

Kopstensky strongly suggested that the Cossacks are both an ethnic and religious phenomenon who have their mission to primarily defend the folk from the elites of both domestic and foreign extraction. Moscow was hardly mentioned here at all. While he sees the Russian Orthodox tradition of Old Lithuania as the main protector of the Orthodox ethnos, this doesn’t justify Ukraine being colonized by the Russian empire, or any empire.

I also argue that Hetman Petro Skoropadsky was one of the best examples of Ukrainian nationalism that fiercely sought independence, but wasn’t anti-Russian in the least. A former imperial officer,  and a graduate of the Page Corps cadet school in Saint Petersburg, the Hetman, during the Russian Civil War, brought Ukraine a level of prosperity she hadn’t experienced in decades. In fact, he reformed the economy to such an extent that he was able to loan General Denikin 10 million rubles. Spurring domestic demand was critical for economic recovery. Grain prices were fixed as an emergency measure and he generally followed a distributivist scheme in land allotments. State revenues increased drastically. He limited the amount of land a single family can own and took measures to eliminate landlessness. He died in Germany in 1945, and was the last hope for Ukraine. He was successful, but was overthrown by the Masonic Directory soon thereafter, bring their motives into question. 

This is the sort of nationalism Gogol was referring to. This is the nationalism that seeks an independent Ukraine with close relations with Russia. The two nations are very different from one another and Russia has no claim on Ukraine, but this doesn’t mean they’re enemies. The shame of the Orange Revolutions is that this has been the message out of Kiev. 

The disturbing events in the first two months of 2014 show the severity of the Ukrainian issue and its significance for the west. To argue that the violent and unopposed protests were arranged and protected by US intelligence is to argue the obvious: no one risks their life for abstract issues such as EU membership. Still, its forced Russian nationalists to completely reject any ethnic claims for Ukraine in general. Ironically, the governments since 2014 have been entirely cosmopolitan and liberal. 

Few deny that the western-imposed “capitalist shock” of the early 1990s was a total disaster, outstripping even the German invasion of 1941 in terms of economic destruction. To think Ukrainians want more of the same is to stretch credulity. Whether Russian nationalist or Ukrainian Banderite, nationalists have no illusions concerning the nature of the postmodern west. To the extent that the west is atomized, alienated and a laboratory of psychological pathologies, Ukrainian “nationalists” reject it. Its laughable to argue that such a group would jettison their entire agenda and lose state independence for the bankrupt and imperial European Union. 

Ukrainian nationalism has a legitimate place in Orthodox thought. Russia has no inherent right to exploit Ukraine’s wealth, but the imperial side of the Russian empire occurred after the distortions of Peter and Catherine in the dark 18th century. Petrograd is more western than Ukraine every was. From Peter onward, Ukraine was a source of wealth for the Petrograd state. So much of the Russian empire was built on capital taken from Ukraine and this is what spurred post-revolutionary nationalism in the first place. She gave far more than she received. Even the most pro-Russian Hetman didn’t trust the Petrograd bureaucracy and they all, including Ivan Briukhovetsky and Damien Mnohohrishny, turned on it. 

Ukraine, from a Russian Orthodox nationalist like myself, has been hijacked by westerners and Uniats who loathe all forms of national assertiveness. Faux-nationalist groups were used in the violent coup of 2014 and then cast aside as embarrassments later. The fact is that the Ukrainian pantheon of nationalist writers, including Bandera himself, were philosophically no different than nationalists anywhere else, seeking to protect a national tradition from imperial states that sought to destroy and exploit it. Unfortunately, they had a good case both under the Petrine state and the USSR. 

Like Belarus, Ukraine should have a strong alliance with Russia. Her goods are wanted there, but the west can barely absorb what it produces as it is. What does Ukraine offer the west? Had Kiev signed the Union Treaty in 2003, she would be far more prosperous than she is now. Ukrainian nationalism, like Georgian or Lithuanian, isn’t inherently anti-Russian. However, the rhetoric from the American-financed coup seemed to suggest otherwise. My book lays out, in detail, the historical justification for that view. 


CHAPTERS AND TITLES

Preface

Chapter 1- Introduction: Ukraine and the “Nation”

Chapter 2- The Hetmanate as the Central Element in Ukrainian Political Ideas: The Background to Ukrainian Social Thought

Chapter 3- From Pereslav to Andrusovo: The Horror of the 17th Century

Chapter 4- Ivan Vyshenskii, Hyhorii Skovoroda and the Philosophy of the Ukrainian Baroque

Chapter 5- Taras Shevchenko: The Prophet of Ukrainian Nationalism

Chapter 6- Shevchenko’s Pupils: National-Anarchism in the Social Theories of Mykailo Kostamarov, Mikhail Drahomanov and Ukrainian National Idea

Chapter 7- The Synthesis of Drahomanov, Shevchenko and Suffering Ukraine: The Political Philosophy of Ivan Franko

Chapter 8- Two Autocephalous Orthodox Churches in the 20th Century: Vasyl Lypkivsky and the Kharkiv and Poltava Movement

Chapter 9- The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church under Patriarchs Volodymyr (Romanyuk) and Dmitri (Jarema)

Chapter 10- What Hrushevsky Wrought: An Overview of Ukrainian Nationalism in Second Half of the 20th Century

Chapter 11- The Failure of Independence: From the Second World to the Void, 1990 to 2015

Conclusion

Bibliography

Footnotes

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Sonny Barger, founder of Hells Angels, dies at 83 | USA

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Hells Angels founding member Sonny Barger in 1979.
Hells Angels founding member Sonny Barger in 1979.Janet Fries (Getty Images)

Sonny Barger, the founding member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, died on Thursday in California at the age of 83. Barger was the face of the biker gang that became one of the main counterculture movements in the United States in the 1960s. Barger’s family confirmed his death in a message on Facebook. “Please know that I passed peacefully after a brief battle with cancer,” the message stated.

Sonny Barger – whose real name was Ralph Hubert Barger – was born in northern California, and taught himself to ride a motorcycle when he was 11 years old. It was an American-made Cushman scooter. From that moment on, he tried to only assemble motorbikes with parts made in the US, a task that became increasingly difficult as the world became more open to international trade.

In 1957, he founded the Hells Angels chapter in Oakland, California. This chapter was founded nine years after the first one opened in Fontana, in the same state. Barger was the national president of the Hells Angels, a group that became notorious for its links to violent and organized crime. Barger was arrested more than 20 times and spent 13 years of his life in prison for different crimes. In November 1992, for example, he was released from federal prison after spending four years behind bars for organizing to kill members of the rival Outlaws Motorcycle Club. When his parole came to an end in 1994, 700 bikers came out to celebrate the news.

Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969.
Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969.

But the darkest chapter of the Hells Angels took place on December 6, 1969. That night, the biker members were hired as security guards at the Altamont Free Concert in California, where the Rolling Stones performed. Representatives of the band reportedly offered the Hells Angels $500 worth of beer in exchange for providing security. Members of the biker gang had worked without incident as security at concerts for bands such as The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. But at the Altamont Free Concert, which brought together 300,000 people, the situation became violent. During the Rolling Stones’ performance, fights broke out in the audience. Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old concertgoer, was stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels after approaching the stage. The incident was caught on camera and became a central scene in the Maysles Brothers documentary Gimme Shelter, in which Barger admitted the bikers did not have the training to do security work. A few days after the concert, in a call to a local radio station, he said: “I ain’t no cop. I ain’t never gonna police nothin.’”

The incident stained the image of the Hells Angels and Barger – who had the name Hell’s Angels Oakland tattooed on his right shoulder – struggled for several years to change the gang’s violent reputation. “Catholics probably commit more crimes than we ever thought of,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994 after being released from prison on parole. “Probably politicians commit more crimes.”

Writer Hunter S. Thompson compared the biker gang to the student protesters of the 1960s, who paved the way for civil rights in America. “The difference between the student radicals and the Hells Angels is that the students are rebelling against the past, while the Angels are fighting the future. Their only common ground is their disdain for the present, or the status quo,” he wrote in his book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

The Hells Angels were one of America’s most striking subcultures, and their influence can be seen in many areas of society. In one of his books, Barger claims that Harley-Davidson – the motorcycle brand favored by the group – adopted the gang’s ideas into its models. Barger played himself in the 1967 film Hells Angels on Wheels, where he appeared alongside Jack Nicholson. He also had a small role in the TV show Sons of Anarchy.

Barger was a difficult character to define. He got up at 4.30am to feed his dogs and horses, then worked out for three hours, doing weights and going jogging. By 8am, he was on his motorcycle and driving down an off-beaten track. Unlike the stereotypical biker, he wore a helmet that covered his entire face. This was due to the fact that he had his vocal cords removed in 1982 after suffering from throat cancer.

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Art fakes: Disputed ‘Basquiats’ seized by FBI shake the US art world | Culture

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While New York surrenders once again to the genius of Jean-Michel Basquiat with an exhibition of unpublished work curated by his family, in Orlando (Florida), there is considerably more controversy over the work of the artist who died at the age of 27. An exhibition at the Orlando Museum of Art dedicated to the former close friend of Andy Warhol, entitled Heroes & Monsters, has cost the head of that gallery his job, while the FBI investigates the authenticity of 25 of the works, not to mention the threats made by the director against an expert who had been commissioned to evaluate the authorship.

Although the scandal began to take shape in February, when the exhibition opened, the FBI raid took place last Friday with the seizure of the paintings with a contested attribution to Basquiat. Aaron De Groft, director and chief executive of the museum, has relentlessly defended that these are genuine works, while emphasizing that it is not a museum’s role to certify the authenticity of the works it exhibits. “[The paintings] came to us authenticated by the best Basquiat specialists,” he told the local NBC television station in February.

De Groft had for months championed the importance of the paintings, asserting that they are worth millions of dollars, until an expert showed up who’d been hired by the owners of the paintings and she began to question his version of events. The director was fired on Tuesday, just two business days after agents seized the 25 suspicious works. The museum’s board of trustees met for hours that day, but not before warning employees that anyone who dared to discuss the matter with journalists would suffer the same fate as De Groft. Hence, it is impossible to know the version not only of the former director, but of any worker at the center. Nor can any information be gleaned at the New York exhibition, a mixture of unpublished work and memorabilia, where organizers are fearful of the devaluation caused by the Orlando scandal.

FBI agents during the seizure of the dubious Basquiat paintings at the Orlando Museum of Art on June 24.
FBI agents during the seizure of the dubious Basquiat paintings at the Orlando Museum of Art on June 24.Willie J. Allen Jr. (AP)

“It is important to note that there is still nothing that makes us think that the museum has been or is the subject of an investigation,” Emilia Bourmas-Free told the local chain on behalf of the art gallery. Cynthia Brumback, chairwoman of the museum’s board of trustees, expressed itself in similar terms in a statement, saying that the board of trustees is “extremely concerned about several issues related to the exhibition Heroes & Monsters,” including “the recent revelation of an inappropriate e-mail correspondence sent to academia concerning the authentication of some of the artwork in the exhibition,” as reported by The New York Times.

The statement refers to a disparaging message sent by De Groft to the specialist hired for the expert opinion, cited in the FBI investigation as “Expert 2″ but who the New York Times has confirmed is Jordana Moore Saggese, an associate professor of art at the University of Maryland. This expert, who received $60,000 for a written report, asked the museum not to have her name associated with the exhibition, according to the FBI affidavit. Angry, De Groft threatened to reveal the amount of the payment and share the details with her employer, the university.

“You want us to put out there you got $60,000 to write this?” wrote De Groft, according to the affidavit. “Ok then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou. Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.” The board said it has launched an official process to address the matter. The scandal was precipitated a few hours after the closing of the exhibition, which had originally been meant to travel to Italy.

Facade of the Orlando Museum of Art, with the promotional poster of the exhibition dedicated to Basquiat, on June 2.
Facade of the Orlando Museum of Art, with the promotional poster of the exhibition dedicated to Basquiat, on June 2.John Raoux (AP)

The mystery of the cardboard box

But how did the paintings get to the Orlando Museum? The museum and its owners maintain that the paintings were found in a Los Angeles storage unit in 2012. The New York Times reported that questions arose over one of the paintings, made on the back of a cardboard shipping box with FedEx lettering in a typeface that was not used until 1994, six years after Basquiat’s death, according to a designer who worked for the company.

Both De Groft and the owners of the paintings maintain that they were made in 1982 and that Basquiat sold them for $5,000 to a famous television screenwriter, now deceased, who deposited them in a storage unit and forgot about them.

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Ramón Estévez regrets his name change to Martin Sheen | Culture

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At the beginning of the sixties, Ramón Estévez was desperate. His first steps as a television actor had gone well, but he felt stuck in that medium and wanted to get into theater and film. However, at the time, his name held him back: there were few successful Latinos in the United States. “Whenever I called for a position, whether for work or for an apartment, they answered me hesitantly when I gave my name, and when I arrived, I found the position already filled.” He said in 2003. And so, Ramón decided to create an artistic name by merging the name of Robert Dale Martin, the CBS network’s casting director, who had helped him in those essential appearances on the small screen, and that of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who, as Estévez’s little sister Carmen recalls, “regularly appeared on TV.”

This is how Martin Sheen came about, and owing to his great talent, he triumphed first in theater and, later as an actor in the movies, notably: Badlands, Apocalypse Now, The Departed, and Wall Street. However, the identity of Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez did not disappear: this name remains in all of Sheen’s official documents (passport, driver’s license and marriage license)… and in the actor’s soul. Last week, in an interview with Closer magazine, he confessed that one of the great regrets of his life was his change of name. He speaks with pride of the obstinacy of his son Emilio, who kept it despite “his agent’s advice to change it”. In relation to his own decision, he reflects: “Sometimes they convince you, when you don’t have enough insight or even enough courage to stand up for what you believe in, and you pay for it later.”

Martin Sheen in 'The West Wing' reunion, last October.
Martin Sheen in ‘The West Wing’ reunion, last October.

Over time, Sheen recovered his Galician roots, the land where his father, Francisco Estévez Martínez, was born. His father was an immigrant who left Parderrubias, in Salceda de Caselas (Pontevedra), for Cuba at the age of 18 in 1916. He left with no Spanish, a language he learned on the Caribbean Island. In the early 1930s, he emigrated to the United States to a modest Irish neighborhood in Dayton (Ohio), where he married another immigrant, Mary-Ann Phelan.

Martin Sheen’s life has been profoundly marked by his childhood. His father worked at NCR Corporation, an industrial conglomerate that began manufacturing cash registers. Shortly after his marriage, the company sent him to the Bermuda Islands where his first children were born. Sheen was the seventh of ten children (nine boys and one girl), and the first to be born in Dayton, in 1940, after the family moved to the US. His left arm was clasped by forceps during birth, leaving it three inches shorter than his right arm. As a result of this, the character that Sheen interprets in the series The West Wing of the White House, President Josiah Bartlet, puts on his jacket with a strange twist of the body. As a child, he suffered from polio which kept him bedridden for a year, and at the age of 11 his mother died. Thanks to the support of a catholic charity and his own father’s efforts, the family remained united against the distribition of children to orphanages or foster homes, a common practice at the time.

Martin Sheen abd Francis Ford Coppola during the recording of 'Apocalypse Now'.
Martin Sheen abd Francis Ford Coppola during the recording of ‘Apocalypse Now’.

He was the eccentric of the family: he decided to go into acting. Against his father’s objections, Ramón, the most reserved son only enjoyed the theater and decided to study acting. “You don’t know how to sing or dance!”, his father told him, to which his son replied: “You love westerns and in those nobody sings or dances”. “But you don’t ride a horse either!” was his father’s comeback. Despite this discouragement, he moved to New York, following in the footsteps of his idol, James Dean.

In the mythical episode Two Cathedrals of The West Wing, he explains how the character President Bartlet reflects the experiences of his own childhood and adolescence. Estévez/Sheen: a practicing Catholic and relentless campaigner against global warming, a man in favor of civil and immigrant rights, he was arrested several times during demonstrations outside the White House. His activism began when he was just 14 years old in a golf club where he worked. He led a strike of caddies, protesting against the club members’ use of bad language in front of children.

Actor Martin Sheen takes part in a "Fire Drill Fridays" protest calling attention to climate change at the U.S. Capitol in Washington
Actor Martin Sheen takes part in a “Fire Drill Fridays” protest calling attention to climate change at the U.S. Capitol in WashingtonJOSHUA ROBERTS (Reuters)

And then there’s the Spanish context. Francisco Estévez did not teach his children Spanish, but the Estévez family went back to their roots. Francisco was able to return to his hometown in Galicia in 1967 (just as Sheen landed his first big role in In the Custody of Strangers), where he began building a house, while making regular trips back to Dayton. He would never see this house finished. He died in Dayton in 1974, and was buried with his wife and son Manuel, who had died in 1968. His only daughter, Carmen, ended up working as an English teacher at a school in Madrid, where she married. For years people in Madrid have bumped into Sheen during his visits to his sister. Carmen finished building her father’s house and inaugurated a river promenade dedicated to his memory. Indeed, she has kept the memory of the Estévez alive in Salceda de Caselas.

The Camino de Santiago, a dream come true

In the early years of the 2000s, Sheen, his son Emilio Estévez and his grandson, Taylor, walked the Camino de Santiago. In Burgos, the grandson met a girl, and at the end of the walk he decided not to return to Los Angeles, but to remain in the Castilian city, where he got married. Influenced by that experience, Sheen and Estévez made the film El camino (2010), in which both co-starred and the latter directed. A few months ago, Sheen spoke proudly of El camino, a great success, and a faithful portrayal of his spirituality. During filming, at a lunch under huge pergolas at the back of Burgos cathedral, Sheen explained: “I am a Catholic, and a lot of that spirituality is in this movie. I have had an extremely happy life, with the normal highs and lows of a career. I have survived disease and my family is wonderful [his four children, including Charlie Sheen, are actors]… I believe in a church that does incredible work in the Third World. Other things, like some of the pronouncements from the Pope [at that time, Benedict XVI], are more difficult for me. I live my faith, and it is between God and I.” A few meters from Sheen and the journalist, at the long tables, was a strange group that didn’t not look like actors: “That’s my wife, that’s my sister and her husband, that my best childhood friend… I’ve invited them to come and have a good time with Emilio, Taylor [who worked as an assistant] and me”. Taylor Estévez currently works as a stunt coordinator in California.

Martin Sheen at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral with his sister Carmen, 2009.
Martin Sheen at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral with his sister Carmen, 2009. Andres Fraga

Carmen Estévez says that for decades the family did not understand their father’s deeply Galician sense of humor, until they realized that for much of the time he was not being serious. This sarcasm was inherited by his son Ramón/Martin, and he made a display of this in Burgos. In response to a question about his career, he said: “With my resume full of bad movie titles, what can I say. I’m an actor and that’s how I’ve supported my family. But I’ve been in about 10 films that I can be proud of…” at which point he dropped his cup of coffee and blurted out: “See? For gloating over my career. Divine punishment”.

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