BRIGANTINE — One of the functions of the Brigantine Beach Cultural Arts Commission is hosting a series of educational programs on art, culture and history from places around the world. The series — dubbed Brunch-and-Learn — is structured similarly to a presentation the BBCAC hosts each summer called A Trip Down Memory Lane, which is specific to Brigantine history. The events are open to the public, and followed by a buffet-style brunch and Q&A session.
The latest BBCAC Brunch-and-Learn event was called Russia: A Short Survey of History, Art and Culture. It was held Sunday afternoon, Nov. 3, at Laguna Grill & Rum Bar, and the special-guest speaker was Deborah Notto Carchidi, a retired 38-year American and European history teacher at Washington Township High School.
Carchidi, whose family has owned a home in Brigantine since 1950, specialized in Russian history as a college undergraduate. As a young high-school teacher in the 1980s, she was invited to travel to Russia as part of an exchange program, where she taught students for three weeks at the University of Magnitogorsk, a Russian city renowned for its iron and steel production.
All of the Russian students she instructed spoke beautiful English, she said on Sunday, adding, “And then they got a young girl from South Philly with my accent.”
Carchidi had several Russian artifacts from her teaching stint and subsequent visits to the country on display during the presentation. Easily the largest country in the world by area, Russia, she said, was still part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics during first her visit, and Magnitogorsk had been a city closed to foreigners by dictator Joseph Stalin since 1937.
In the mid-1980s, Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a “glasnost” or openness policy of political and economic reform, which lifted Magnitogorsk's closed-city status and allowed foreigners such as Carchidi to visit the city again. Not long thereafter, in 1991, the USSR dissolved.
Carchidi's hour-long presentation focused largely on many of the key people and events that overlapped Russia's Imperial Period, which ran from 1689 to 1917, and represented just a fraction of the nation's past, she said.
“Russia is vast, its history is deep, and there's a lot to it,” she said. “Their alphabet is derived from the Byzantine Empire, and is called the Cyrillic alphabet.”
The Cyrillic alphabet dates back to the 9th century. It is significantly different from the English alphabet, which is derived from the Latin or Roman alphabet that dates back to about 700 BC.
Occasionally Carchidi would throw out questions to the roughly 50 people in attendance Sunday. One such question was why Russia was virtually excluded from a period in history called the Renaissance — when European cultural, artistic, political and economic growth expanded rapidly from roughly the 14th through the 17th centuries. Much of that rapid progress could be traced to Johannes Gutenberg's 1439 invention of the printing press, which allowed more rapid transfer of information and ideology.
Many of the greatest authors, scientists and artists in world history thrived during the Renaissance, but Russia, noted Carchidi, was still under control of the Mongols, who cut the nation off from any of the Western European influences that hastened artistic and cultural growth.
“That all ended with Ivan III (1440-1505),” said Carchidi, “who helped Russia gain a state of independence from the Mongols, and also helped make Moscow the center of the Russian world.”
Ivan III is better known in historical context as Ivan the Great, and was the first Russian ruler to use the title of Grand Prince, a title later to become Tsar. His son was Vasili III and his grandson was Ivan IV, who became known historically as Ivan the Terrible.
“St. Basil's Cathedral (a spectacular cathedral in Moscow's Red Square) was built under Ivan the Terrible, and after it was completed, he asked the building's architect, Postnik Yakovlev, 'Can you build me another cathedral like St. Basil's?'" Carchidi said.
“Of course (Yakovlev) answered yes, so Ivan the Terrible had his eyes plucked out so that he could never again build a cathedral so beautiful. Ivan the Terrible is also infamous for killing his own son by beating him to death with a cane.”
Three Russian rulers with far more favorable reputations, whom Carchidi mentioned during her presentation, were Peter Alexeyevich, who ruled from 1682 to 1725; Catherine II, who ruled from 1762 to 1796, and is the nation's longest-tenured female leader; and Alexander I, who ruled from 1801 to 1825.
Alexeyevich, who became known as Peter the Great, repelled King Charles XII and his Swedish Empire army when they invaded Russia in 1709, and is responsible for vastly increasing Russia's world power. Peter the Great is also responsible for establishing the Russian Navy, and placing Russia on a path to military supremacy. Alexander I's greatest documented achievement was defeating Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte when his French army invaded Russia in 1812, playing into the hand's of Russia's “scorched earth” tactic that severely depleted the French troops and forced the rest to surrender.
Charles XII and Napoleon were among the greatest military leaders of their time, noted Carchidi. During World War II, Germany, under Nazi dictator Adoph Hitler, dishonored a non-aggression pact with Russia and invaded the nation with disastrous consequences to its army — a move that was the biggest turning point in swaying European control to the Allied Forces and ending WWII.
“The history lesson to be learned here is, don't invade Russia,” Carchidi said.
Catherine II, who became known as Catherine the Great, was married to the grandson of Peter the Great, and helped perpetuate many of his policies. Russia grew larger and stronger under her reign, and bolstered its reputation as a world power.
Carchidi touched on many of the great artists, poets and authors of Russia during her presentation, among them poet and playwright Alexander Pushkin, who lived from 1799-1837, and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), who is regarded worldwide as one of the greatest authors in history. Tolstoy's best-known novels were “War and Peace” in 1869, and “Anna Karenina” in 1877.
Other Russian notables mentioned during the presentation were Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), who was an artist, painter and costume designer best known for designing several stage sets for the Ballets Russes, a famous touring ballet organization based in Paris; internationally known composer/conductor Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893); and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), one of the most influential music composers of the 20th century.
The next BBCAC Brunch-and-Learn series event is scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 26, and is titled One Person Can Make a Difference: Rescue and Resistance During the Holocaust.