Giuseppe Maiello - passionate for a lost Slavonic past

For this week's One on One Jan Velinger talked to Giuseppe Maiello, a professor at Charles University's Department for Slavic and Eastern European studies. From Naples, Italy, Giuseppe Maiello took a curious step by moving to Czechoslovakia in 1985, four years before the fall of Communism. In the interview he discusses his impressions on that period, and his passion for Slavic studies. He also tells how he formed a small native faith group to try and re-forge a personal link with the forgotten Slavonic past.

What made you come to Prague - as a Neapolitan after all, four years before the fall of Communism?

"I wanted to, I wanted to let's say emigrate. I mean, my town was quite hard, to live there, and I wanted to go far from my town. Not geographically far but culturally far from my town. And Czechoslovakia at that time was culturally very far from Naples, surely. At 1,600 km I could come back home quite easily at that time and I didn't care, didn't care about the political system here."

What were some of the cultural aspects of Czech life that you found intriguing?

"You mean at that time? For example, some strange things. That you could go to the theatre with jeans. Or, the pubs were closed at half past nine and let's say the girls looked at you in a very provocative way. {smiles}It was very strange."

When you came to Czechoslovakia you also had in mind continuing your studies. You're a specialist in East European political science with an emphasis on history. How did that go?

"I didn't have any problems here concerning my studies then. I could say that I have more problems now, because I am moving into cultural anthropology, to an integrative way of seeing the social sciences. Now I'm afraid that a generation of people is coming back that have this Soviet model that everything is supposed to be divided, you are not supposed to have other interests than your specific field. But, at that time I was just a young student, so for me it was enough to have a very, very good Slavonic library at the Klementinum here in Prague, so I was very, very happy here at that time."

Of course in just a few moments we'll be discussing your passion for Slavonic history... But, I'd still like to ask you: how did you perceive the period that followed shortly after the fall of Communism, the euphoria that lasted for several years here?

"I was not here in November, December 1989, and the first months of 1990. In that period I was teaching at Naples University, it was quite funny because I was teaching East European contemporary history, so for me it was very easy because I had just to go to Prague and ask 'What's happening today?' and that was my lesson! So, uh, I didn't feel this euphoria, this first euphoria, though I felt it through the first years. But, I was also very critical. I was critical coming from the West and we know how hard it is to live in the West! At first the Czechs thought that the moment you are in the West you are a so-called free country you are really "free", and of course we know that's not true, you know?" {laughs}

Tell me this: you teach courses today at the Philosophical Faculty on the history of culture?

"It's difficult to say, because I am in the Slavic and East European studies department. In Prague there is maybe the best tradition in the world about Slavic studies: it was my dream to be here, to be in this department. Of course, my conception of Slavic studies is a little bit different than the Soviet conception. Officially I teach the history of Slavic people, Slavic reality, or some seminars. I'm not happy about this, I'm interested in the history of culture but that's a field that at our faculty, especially at this moment, is not quite in fashion. It's too modern, it's too Western."

Nevertheless, even under those circumstances, what are some of the main points about Slavonic history, culture, that you try and hammer home, or interest your students in?

"Hm. You know, Slavonic history, Slavonic history... that's the problem with my academy, Slavonic history doesn't exist! I mean, Slavonic history finished in the 10th century. In the moment these people became Christians, they started to lose their original ethnic identity. They became Czechs, they became Russians, they became Serbian, Croatian, and so on. So, my point is to explain that Slavic history doesn't exist anymore! Because usually people say 'Oh, Slavic people, they fight each other, they have a bad reputation! Slavic history has a bad reputation, but it's no longer Slavic history: it's a history of Czechs, Poles, Russians and so on. Slavic history finished in the 10th century: they lost their unity, they gradually lost their cultural identity."

All because of the arrival of Christianity you say, at least to a large extent...

"It was another cultural model. But, in the countryside you could still find Neolithic elements in the 19th century, for example. But, of course, the culture in the town was like in the rest of Europe, and in the rest of Europe the culture was very strongly-influenced by the Middle East, by the Christian ideology. Of course, we had roots in Greek culture, in Latin culture, especially here in the Czech lands the Latin culture had a big influence. But, we lost the link with this Slavic culture, with this Neolithic culture. I can say that that's the culture that I love still today."

For you I know your Slavic sympathies go very deep: in a sense you've 'adopted' these roots as very important for you spiritually. You're the founder of Rodna Vira, a group practicing native religion. Could you tell me about that?

"Yes. Our activity - the main point of our activities - are festivals, ceremonies we have four times a year. We try to find this 'lost link' with the Slavic ancestors. It's not rational, you can say it's very irrational... But, you know, there are a lot of people that believe in God on this Earth... we believe in Gods! If we say 'Slava Peruna' - glory to Perun - we feel the glory of Perun... he answers us with thunder and it rains after a while... {laughs, shrugs shoulders}. I know, I know, I know... it's that... it's clear. But, when you are inside of that - you feel it. And you know that's that. We... we believe in that and there is no reason to not believe."

From what you've told me there are four important dates to get together throughout the year, for instance the Summer Solstice which recently passed... Could you take me, briefly, through one such event, some of the rites that one could see?

"One of the most important elements I the 'ulitba'. We drink mead. One other moment, quite important, we are specialists in "ritual fighting", we fight each other. But, it's just a game, we know Mother Earth likes that. Another element is dance, for example, or music. And, of course it depends on you, how you can, in this situation, find this 'door', that it's open to you. It doesn't happen always, it is only when you are in a sacral moment that you find this door and you, you forget that you live in this rational world. And you feel yourself in another dimension. I don't know if it's right to say 'religion' or if it's right to say 'irrational'. It's a question of experience."

This return to pagan rites and pagan beliefs is something which has gained in momentum over the last twenty years... Would you say that people need a sense of spirituality to live happier lives, fuller lives?

"We don't like to say about ourselves that we are 'pagans'. It is quite hard to believe. For example, there are members in my group, Rodna Vira, who say, that they are atheists. About your question: why now? People are looking for their roots. I am a foreigner here, but I feel I am a Slav, I can say. I have absolutely no problem that my ancestors are not Czech, are not Slavic, I am a foreigner. I am a foreigner like Samo! Like other people who came here and found their own land here in the Czech lands and were happy! And, I would like to, in this situation, say thank you to all my friends who accept me as a foreigner here."