Sunday, September 16, 2018

Great Slovakia

A review of "Velkoslovenska Risa" by Tomas Veteska

This pamphlet, equally interesting and infuriating, was published in Canada in 1987 by Tomas Veteska, a Slovak nationalist and Greek Catholic. It was published under the auspices of a Greek Catholic monsignore, Frantisek Fuga, who was also the chair of the Matica Slovenska in exile. Matica is a Slovak cultural association with a nationalist orientation. The pamphlet argues that the early medieval realm of Great Moravia (Velka Morava) should really be called Great Slovakia, and that it was a specifically Slovak kingdom. Veteska is sympathetic to the pro-Nazi Slovak Republic during World War II and condemns “Czech paganism, heresy and imperialism”. I think it's safe to say that he is essentially a fascist. Despite that, I admit that I found his pamphlet relatively interesting and well written. Unsurprisingly, it's only available in Slovak.

The Greek Catholics (sometimes called Uniates) are a branch of the Catholic Church using the Byzantine rite. Slovak Greek Catholics use Old Church Slavonic as their liturgical language. During the Middle Ages, the territory today known as Slovakia was visited by Cyril and Methodius, two Byzantine missionaries (known as “The Apostles to the Slavs”), who introduced Old Church Slavonic in Church services and developed an alphabet for the language, making it the first Slav written language. Eventually, the Byzantines were driven out of Slovakia, which then became an integrated part of the Latin Catholic orbit. This has always been something of a problem for Slovak nationalists, who are usually Catholic while nevertheless considering Cyril and Methodius to be the near-founding fathers of Slovak nationhood. Adopting Greek Catholicism could be a solution to the dilemma, since it means combining loyalty to the Pope with Byzantine rites in a Slav language. (It should be noted that Rome and Constantinople were nominally still on good terms during the 9th century, when Cyril and Methodius visited the Slavs. The Byzantine apostles accepted papal authority in church matters. This presumably explains why Veteska and Fuga see them as precursors to the Greek Catholics.)

The contentious issue under debate in Veteska's booklet is the exact ethnic character of Great Moravia, the 9th century Slav kingdom visited by Cyril and Methodius. Since its core territory spanned Moravia (the eastern part of the modern Czech Republic), western Slovakia and western Hungary, both Czechs and Slovaks have been eager to claim it as a glorious part of their respective histories. It could also be claimed by Czechoslovakists, adherents of a united Czecho-Slovak state. Hungarians, while never claiming Great Moravia for themselves, have been equally eager denying that the state had anything to do with their Czech and Slovak adversaries (who might otherwise make territorial claims on Hungary). Other possible claimants include Slovenians, Serbs and Croats, while Cyril and Methodius could be claimed by Greeks, Bulgarians and Slav Macedonians! The liturgical language of Old Church Slavonic is generally regarded as based on the Slav dialect spoken around Thessalonica in Byzantine days, and is presumably therefore “Old Bulgarian” or “Old Slav Macedonian”.

Veteska argues that Great Moravia was really Great Slovakia, and that its inhabitants should rightfully be seen as Slovaks. Modern Moravia is part of the Czech Republic. However, the author regards the Moravians as “Moravian Slovaks” who were later de-nationalized by the vile Czechs from Bohemia. He points out that Bohemia was part of Great Moravia only during a shorter period. The author also argues at length that the center of Great Moravia wasn't situated in Moravia anyway, but on the territory today known as Slovakia. There is some truth in this. Cyril and Methodius arrived at Nitra, while several important battles between Great Moravia and the Franks seem to have been fought at Devín, both places being on modern Slovak territory. Veteska believes that Bratislava (the current national capital of Slovakia) was the capital of Great Moravia. Veteska further points out that many important meetings of Great Moravian kings and nobles took place at Blatnohrad, deep inside modern Hungarian territory and hence far away from anything “Czech”. As for Old Church Slavonic, the author argues that it's really Old Slovak, not Old Macedonian.

On one level, I can understand why this old fascist is upset about Hungarian oppression and Czech discrimination of Slovaks. For almost 1000 years, Slovakia was controlled by Hungary and was simply known as Upper Hungary. It was natural for 19th century Slovak patriots, protesting forced Hungarian assimilation attempts, to look back to Great Moravia, the only historical realm which in some sense could be considered ancestral to an independent modern Slovakia. Czechs from Bohemia can claim Great Moravia only with great difficulty, while Hungarian attempts to deny that Hungary was once controlled by the ancestors of modern Slovaks and Moravians are downright crackpot.

On the other hand, however, the author is obviously essentialist and anachronistic and in this resembles all other nationalists. The Slav tribes in 9th century Moravia, western Slovakia and western Hungary simply *must* have been Slovaks in the modern sense of that term. Their typically medieval/feudal conflicts with Bohemians, Franks and Magyars are reinterpreted to resemble later nationalist conflicts between Slovaks and Czechs, Germans or Hungarians. We are dramatically told how these three modern adversaries of the Slovak nation jointly besieged Bratislava (the modern name is used) and smashed Great Slovakia in AD 907. Cyril and Methodius are clearly seen as forebears of the Greek Catholics (and perhaps of Matica Slovenska). The Czechs of Bohemia are said to have been pagans much longer than the Slovaks, and this is a premonition of their later Hussite heresy and Bolshevism. Everyone born on Slovak territory is said to be a Slovak, including people like 18th century adventurer Maurice Benyovszky (a Hungarian nobleman and world citizen who fought in both the Polish and American revolutions and later became King of Madagascar). Naturally, everyone else Veteska wants to be a Slovak is also a Slovak, if only a “de-nationalized” one, making it possible to claim many Czechs, Hungarians and Ukrainians as Slovaks. This is all very familiar to students of nationalist discourse…

As for Old Church Slavonic, the differences between different Slav dialects during the 9th century must have been minor, so the idea of Cyril and Methodius basing “their” Slav language on Macedonian dialects and then introducing it in Nitra much further north, isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. Old Church Slavonic might indeed be Old Macedonian, or even Old Slav.

Despite its problematic political antecedents, I nevertheless regard “Velkoslovenská Rísa” as something of a guilty pleasure. If you believe that Great Moravia was the first united state of Czechs and Slovaks á la Masaryk and Benes, specifically Czech á la Havel, or really a Balkan kingdom (the Hungarian-nationalist position), this might straighten you out a bit. However, Veteska ultimately goes too far in the other direction, projecting 19th and 20th century conflicts and culture wars on a 9th century reality which, I think, is better understood on its own terms…

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