Tuesday, May 11, 2010

War and the World

The title of WAR & PEACE in Russian (which I do not speak or read) is Война и мир (the title of this blog). Romanized, that's "Voyná i mir". So I figured "voyná" was war and "mir" was peace. "Mir", you may recall, was also the name of the Soviet/Russian space station, which was the first continuously inhabited space station, and which everyone was freaked out about in early 2001, as we worried it would come crashing down on our heads as it fell out of orbit.

So I figured "peace" was a fine name for a space station. But looking into the word "mir", one quickly learns that it has multiple meanings:
The word mir in Russian has several meanings. In addition to "community" and "assembly," it also means "world" and "peace." These seemingly diverse meanings had a common historical origin. The village community formed the world for the peasants, where they tried to keep a peaceful society. Thus mir was, in all probability, a peasant-given name for a spontaneously generated peasant organization in early Kievan or pre-Kievan times. It was mentioned in the eleventh century in the first codification of Russian law, Pravda Russkaya, as a body of liability in cases of criminal offense.

Over time, the meaning of mir changed, depending on the political structure of the empire, and came to mean different things to different people. For peasants and others, mir presumably was always a generic term for peasant village-type communities with a variety of structures and functions. The term also denoted those members of a peasant community who were eligible to discuss and decide on communal affairs. At the top of a mir stood an elected elder.
Russian History Encyclopedia.

Of course, some people dispute the potential multiple meanings of the title. I'll leave it to those of you who may have a bit more Russian than I currently do to sort this out. But as I'm getting into the book, which moves from a high society party in St. Petersburg, to Moscow, to the battlefield, I can see already how one could apply the multiple readings of the title: in an ironic way to the incestuous aristocratic circles of St. Petersburg as a form of village community, in the world impinging on Russia, in the threat posed by Napoleon and the French Revolution, and by the pervasive influence of French culture and language, and in the peace that the Russians currently cling to, but sense they won't have for long, with threats of social upheaval and change at the borders and in the streets.

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