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We have Theocharis Detorakis to thank for today’s blog (and one more that will follow soon). It was in his book History of Crete that I discovered what I had thought was undiscoverable – a direct link between Russian literature and the gorgeous old Cretan town of Chania. It so happens that the well-known 19th-century Russian writer, critic and conservative philosopher Konstantin Leontyev (1831-1891) lived in the Chalepa district of the then-capitol city of Crete, Chania, for several months in the 1860s. The first photo above and the first below show the Chalepa part of Chania, looking east from the eastern wall of Chania’s Old Town. Don’t get too excited by the baby blue cupola of the Russian Orthodox Church in the middle of Chalepa: Like most everything else in the district, it was not there when Leontyev was a resident. Chalepa was a kind of high-rent and diplomatic ghetto in the 19th century and when, after 700 years of servitude to the Venetians and the Turks it received independence in the late 19th century, it underwent major reconstruction. In my research, I found that the vast majority of “famous, old” buildings now standing in Chalepa were constructed between the 1880s and the first decade of the 20th century. Unlike Old Town Chania, where every street has some relic dating back 300, 600, 1,000 or even 5,000 years, Chalepa is a relatively modern place. As such, I had to put in some footwork in order to find a few shots and angles that at least suggest views Leontyev might have seen himself when he wandered around the city. My choices may not be 100% on target, but I suspect Leontyev would find familiar the images I have gathered here today.
Crete, then called Candia, was a strategic location for Russia in the 19th century in large part because of the Russo-Turkish Wars. The Turks were then in charge of Crete/Candia, having wrested it from the Venetians in the second half of the 17th century. But under the Turks, the fiercely independent Cretans mounted no fewer revolts and rebellions than they had against the Venetians. As such, Russia was one of the nations that would try to lend Candia a hand now and then. Leontyev probably arrived on the island shortly after the New Year of 1864 (he was appointed a translator and liaison at the Russian consulate on Oct. 25, 1863 – but reported himself in his writings that he spent only seven months in Chalepa, thus my suggestion of the later arrival). Whenever he may have arrived, his Candian career came to an abrupt end in August 1864 after he, infuriated by an insulting comment made about Russia by the French consul, took it upon himself to give the offending Gaul a lash of the whip. The Russians, to avoid any more scandal than had already accrued, quickly moved Leontyev to their diplomatic office in Adrianopolis, Turkey, on August 27.
Leontyev at the time was going through a major reconsideration of his beliefs. Like so many Russians before and after him, he started out his adult life with so-called “liberal” leanings, but at the very time that he was appointed to work in Candia, he made a radical switch to Slavophile views, colored deeply by a newly-found faith in Russian Orthodoxy. This would have made the local population all the more attractive to him, since it – through all the tribulations of Catholic and Muslim occupation – had clung to its Greek Orthodox roots.
Leontyev appeared to be quite happy in Candia. (His Russian biographer Olga Volkogonova called these Leontyev’s “happy years” in her book Konstantin Leontyev.) He wrote several stories and/or essays about his brief time there, displaying a tangible affinity with the people about whom he wrote. Here is how Volkokgonova described his Cretan life:
“There were few pressing affairs at the consulate. Leontyev, who came to the post of Secretary, had almost nothing to do, but he was never bored. He often went for walks, rode on horseback, or made the acquaintance of the locals, all the while reading and writing … Cretan life provided him material […] for “Sketches of Crete” (1866), as well as a charming epistolary story of romantic love between a Greek and a Turk named “Chryso” (1868), the story “Hamid and Manoli” (1869), and the story “Sfakiot” (1877). The days stretched out lazily, but were not tedious. Through the words of the hero of the story “Chryso,” Leontyev says to an imaginary friend: “… If only you knew how pleasant laziness is here <…> What a marvelous place! What name shall I give my heavenly island? A corner of paradise? A garden of gardens? The ornament of the seas?”
In fact, let’s add what Leontyev writes immediately after that (from “Chryso“):
“No! I call it a basket of flowers on the menacing waves of the sea. You must see the local Greek! How clean is his house, how joyful is our Chalepa! The seaside houses are all white and clean. Instead of roofs they have terraces, all covered in green. Here lemons and oranges bloom like fallen snow; and to let you know that this is not theater but real life, someone’s simple, poor laundry hangs drying on the branches…
Ah, my native land! Oh, my precious Crete!”
Volkogonova continues the tale of Leontyev’s Cretan sojourn:
“The Leontyevs lived in the village of Chalepa, in the consular house. Nearby were the consulates of England and France, but rather than communicating with foreign diplomats, Konstantin preferred ethnographical ‘sorties’ out into the traditional villages and towns.
The island was mountainous, and the people cultivated oranges and grapes, made wonderful olive oil and wine, and bred sheep and goats. Leontyev admired the Greeks: Cretan men were almost all tall, wearing bright clothes – with long socks squeezing their tight, strong calves, their broad trousers tied with ribbons, and their unusual fez and jackets – all this lent them poetry and originality in Leontyev’s eyes . The women were dark-eyed, slender and maintained themselves modestly, but with dignity. ‘In my seven months in Chalepa I saw no drunkenness, no dirty, riotous behavior, no fights. When family feuds do take place, they are ashamed of them and they hide them. Husbands do not chase disheveled wives through the streets of the village with whips and sticks. Here you see no smashed faces, and no drunken women. The ideal family is strict, but strict for everyone, not just for the younger ones or for women,’ – he wrote about Cretan life.”
Here is still another of Leontyev’s remarks about Chalepa drawn from the story “Chryzo”:
“You ask what is Chalepa, Chalepa, Chalepa? You don’t know where it is. That’s true, I apologize. It seemed to me that the entire world should know my priceless Chalepa!”
Most of the photos here show street scenes or landscapes similar to something that Leontyev might have encountered on his walks around Chalepa. Three of them – the second in the first block, and the second and fourth below – show the Old Town of Chania (known as Canea in Leontyev’s time), with its prominent fortress walls and lighthouse. I took shots from angles that would approximate something that Leontyev could have seen from the Chalepa heights, looking westward toward Canea/Chania.