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(1 April 1918 – 23 December 2001)

  • The Byzantine Impact on Eastern Europe

    Biographical Note
    (written by Simon Franklin, Professor of Russian Studies, Univ. of Cambridge)

    From: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, v. 148, No1,
    March 2004.

    OVER THE COURSE of his eighty-three years Dimitri Obolensky accumulated an intimidating range of titles, which posed potentially awkward choices for anybody who had to introduce him socially, or to address a letter to him. Prince Dimitri Obolensky, Professor Dimitri Obolensky, Sir Dimitri Obolensky—here in one man was the full Shakespearean paradigm for greatness: born a Russian prince, he achieved his Oxford chair, and eventually had a knighthood thrust upon him. Happily, though each of these distinctions was important to him, and though he was sensitive to the decorum of each when the occasion demanded, for most people most of the time he was content to be plain Dimitri (he was, however, quite fussy about that first “i,” which he added to his name shortly after arriving at Oxford—strictly an incorrect transliteration from normal Russian, but reminiscent of the Greek and Church Slavonic forms).

    Prince Dimitri Obolensky’s blood was the bluest of the blue. The Romanov tsars were mere upstarts by comparison, for he could trace his lineage to the ancient princely house of Chernigov and thence, via St. Vladimir of Kiev, right back to the famed Riurik himself, the Viking progenitor of the dynasty of the Rus in the ninth century (though he was a sober enough scholar to know that Riurik may not actually have existed). Dimitri took an unostentatious pride in his aristocratic background, never mistaking it for a badge of personal merit, yet well aware of how it had affected his fate. Displacing him at the beginning, intriguing him towards the end, it framed his life.

    Had Dimitri not been born a Russian aristocrat in revolutionary times, he would probably not have become an English academic. He left Russia on 9 April 1919, shortly after his first birthday (he was born in Petrograd on 1 April 1918). The previous autumn his family had fled south from Moscow, via Kiev, to the Crimea, which was still under the control of the “White” army of General Denikin. He initially stayed at one of the family homes, the 150-room palace at Alupka, near Yalta, with his great-grandmother Elizaveta Vorontsova-Dashkova, whose husband Ilarion had been viceroy of the Caucasus. Elizaveta’s daughter Sandra, Dimitri’s maternal grandmother, had been given away in marriage by Alexander III himself, apparently to the disappointment of one of her admirers, the future Tsar Nicholas II. However, as the Bolsheviks advanced southwards, past privilege turned into a source of imminent threat, and on 9 April Dimitri and his mother were evacuated on a British transport ship, via Constantinople and Malta, to Southborough in Kent. This was the most dramatic journey in Dimitri’s peripatetic childhood, which included periods at a Russian school in Nice, a boarding school in Sussex, and a Paris lycée before he finally settled in England after entering Trinity College, Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1937.

    Dimitri returned to his family roots in his retirement, editing the diaries of his parents, his grandmother, his great-aunt, and his stepfather, and combining them with a chapter of his own reminiscences to make his last book, Bread of Exile. A Russian Family, published in 1999. The project clearly meant a great deal to him, but this most personal of his books was also his most restrained and unrevealing. For example, his entire account of his marriage consists of just four sentences: “On 1 October 1947 I married Elisabeth Lopukhin, a Russian whose parents had emigrated to Paris via Manchuria and the United States. We had met in London, where she was working as a translator at some international conference. My father and grandfather attended the wedding in Clamart, a suburb of Paris. Our marriage survived for 42 years: we divorced in 1989.” Such reticence here has its own eloquence, but this was not a man temperamentally at ease with the genre of autobiography.

    Dimitri’s real distinction was not, of course, his lineage. Prince Obolensky is comfortably outranked by Professor Obolensky, who is and will doubtless continue to be most widely remembered for his magnificent history of medieval Eastern Europe, The Byzantine Commonwealth, published in 1971. This is a very remarkable work, which rightly became an instant “classic.” No such large-scale synthesis of East European history existed, but Dimitri did much more than “fill a gap.” There was no gap to be filled, because there was no concept of a subject. Dimitri had the vision, created the subject, told the story, and gave it a name. Moreover, he presented his theme in a way that could engage the professional and the amateur alike: erudition without obscurity, accessibility without condescension or oversimplification, professional history and popular history in harmony.

    Oversimplifications tended to come from others, whether from admirers or from some critics. Dimitri’s vision of a coherent “Byzantine Commonwealth” spanning a thousand years is both alluring and— like all large-scale narratives of historical coherence—flawed; but it is also more subtle, reflective, and innovative than has sometimes been recognized. The apparent ease of presentation could disguise the sharpness of inquiry. Besides the formidable task of integrating the vast spread of political and cultural history, Dimitri was prepared to look beyond conventional narrative history to generate fresh insights. He became fascinated by historical geography, for example; and he was ahead of his time, as a mainstream historian, in looking seriously at the discourses offered by cultural anthropology, particularly with regard to processes of “cultural diffusion” and “acculturation.”

    The Byzantine Commonwealth was a summation, not an opening statement. Dimitri’s work on the cultural history of Eastern Europe had begun some thirty years earlier, as he was writing his Cambridge dissertation on a Bulgarian dualist sect. The dissertation was substantially completed by 1942 and (with a pause for war) was published in 1946 by Cambridge University Press as The Bogomils. A Study in Balkan Neo-Manichaeism (by Dmitri Obolensky, still without the first“i”). Though focused on one particular movement, this already foreshadowed Commonwealth in its Byzantino-Slavic scope spanning the Balkans and Constantinople and with forays into Rus (or Russia, as Dimitri continued to call the early medieval entity until the last few years of his life).

    The Bogomils gave adequate notice of Dimitri’s credentials, and he was recruited to a readership in Russian and Balkan history at Oxford, where he moved in 1948. Here, at last, was stability.

    In 1961 the readership became a chair. Oxford remained his home for over half a century, until the last few months before his death on 23 December 2001. Between Bogomils and Commonwealth Dimitri published a series of studies on Byzantino-Slav (or, as he occasionally put it, Slavo-Byzantine) relations, as viewed from both sides. These range from broad surveys such as his 1950 reflections of “Russia’s Byzantine Heritage” through to the dense forest of small-print footnotes and bibliographical references that constitute his masterly commentary on chapter 9 (on the Rus) of the De Administrando Imperio by the tenth-century Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. For some this latter, in which Dimitri explores the key controversies of early Rus history, represents his most impressive single contribution to scholarship.

    In The Byzantine Commonwealth Dimitri had said essentially what he wanted to say. In his later work he trod the same paths but stopped to gaze in different places. He became more interested in the lives of individuals who, in his view, exemplified and sustained the cultural community he had identified: men such as Theophylact of Ohrid, Byzantine archbishop of Bulgaria in the eleventh century; or the monk and scholar Maximos “the Greek,” formerly Michael Trivolis, who spent the last forty of his eighty-five years in Muscovy; or the Serbian Rastko, also known as Sava—son and brother of kings, provincial governor, diplomat, monk, pilgrim, and eventually saint. These studies were assembled to form Dimitri’s last academic book, Six Byzantine Portraits , published at the Clarendon Press in 1988.

    Dimitri’s own “commonwealth” was the international community of Byzantinists. “Byzantine Studies” is to some extent a useful fiction that purports to bring together in mutual support and interest such diverse specialties as, say, late antique archaeology, medieval Greek palaeography, Serbian dialectology, patristic theology, and early Russian chronography. Dimitri’s vision of the profession matched his vision of the subject. He valued its lack of boundaries, its cosmopolitanism, its multilingual dialogue of traditions, its freedom (almost) from the corruption of modern nationalisms in history. Byzantine Studies “belongs” to nobody, and is at home wherever it is valued, be it in Washington or Munich or Vienna or Paris or Athens or Oxford or Moscow. Dimitri was in constant demand as a speaker at international gatherings. He spoke beautifully, in whatever language: in “real” prose, with properly constructed sentences fully and clearly enunciated. He appreciated that speech is not just the translation of data or opinion into sound, but an act of communication, and that effective communication has an aesthetic dimension. His particular talent was as a closing summarizer. No matter how animated and ostensibly acrimonious had been the debates, Dimitri had a genius for benevolent and generous-spirited précis, for persuading everybody—without appearing too bland—that all their endeavors fitted harmoniously together as collectively they advanced the interests of the commonwealth.

    Byzantium engaged Dimitri’s intellect, and his faith, but Russia was embedded in his soul: partly his Orthodox Russia of the Byzantine Commonwealth; partly also the Russia of the Obolensky family tree; but, perhaps most powerful of all, the Russia that lived in him through its very sounds, through its language, literature, and music. Although Dimitri’s undergraduate degree had been in modern languages (French and Russian), he had not set out to be a Russianist, and his later reengagement with Russian rather took him by surprise. I once asked him which of his books had given him the greatest satisfaction. Without a flicker of hesitation he said that it was The Penguin Book of Russian Verse —his own substantial selection of poetry from the twelfth century to the twentieth, together with discreet but elegant prose translations, published in 1962, and later reissued as The Heritage of Russian Verse.

    Byzantine studies animated him; Russian poetry and song moved him. In 1966 he was proud of his part in hosting the International Congress of Byzantine Studies in Oxford, but he derived more profound gratification from his part in hosting the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova when she had come to Oxford the previous year to receive an honorary degree. It is characteristic that his autobiographical sketch in Bread of Exile makes no mention of the congress, but closes with a quotation from Akhmatova (though, typically, with reference not to Dimitri himself but to Isaiah Berlin).

    Besides The Penguin Book of Russian Verse, Dimitri went on to compile and contribute to (in collaboration with his Oxford colleague Robert Auty) a three-volume Companion to Russian Studies. Published by Cambridge University Press in 1976–80, this remains on the undergraduate reading lists after a quarter of a century. Dimitri would not have claimed to have made an original scholarly contribution to the study of Russian literature, but his service to the subject and to his readers was no less valuable for that. He did not need to “contribute,” for here he was simply at ease, sharing his enjoyment. Russian literature and song were the closest Dimitri came to the public confessional, albeit through the words of others. Throughout his journey of multiple displacements, from the Alupka palace to the heart of the British Establishment (Christ Church, the British Academy, a knighthood . . . ), he nurtured his inner citizenship of the realm of Russian letters. And if this sounds sentimental, it is because here he himself could become so.

    Here was where this most correct and restrained of men allowed himself to relax.