River of Empires: The Fate of the Danube 

Published by

Asbuka-Atticus, Moscow

Polirom, Romania

The Danube River’s three thousand kilometers constitute three millennia of human history. In the earliest times, Celtic and Germanic tribes dwelled on the Danube’s banks. This river defined the boundary of the Roman empire; later, the Danube’s lower reaches became the northern limit of Byzantium. In the Middle Ages and the modern era, here, on antiquity’s former periphery, the Germanic, Slavic, Hungarian, and Romanian states took shape. Fighting for dominion over these territories were German princes and Habsburgs, the Hungarian crown and the Ottoman empire. In the late seventeenth century, it was on the Danube that the united armies of the Christian kings halted the Turks’ expansion. The Danube was called the “river of the Habsburgs,” and their country was called the “Danube monarchy,” but Vienna’s influence over those vast territories—from the Black Sea to the Serbian border—was coming into increasingly insistent dispute from Petersburg. World War I ended up destroying the four warring empires—as if intentionally, so that soon after a clash could occur on the Danube’s banks between the two cruelest totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, Hitler’s and Stalin’s. Fifty years ago, the greater part of the Danube basin fell under the Soviet sphere of influence. The consequences of the Soviet Union’s breakup have fevered the great river’s lower reaches to this day. But the Danube is still flowing and it is still the same as it was a hundred, a thousand years ago. . . . Or is it, after all, different?

In all ages, the Danube has inspired poets and artists, composers and sculptors. Linked to it are hundreds of names of geniuses and villains, heroes and criminals, entrepreneurs and dreamers, revolutionaries and reactionaries. First to describe the river—two and a half thousand years ago—was Herodotus. Following in his wake have been a multitude of other investigators. Here are the names of just a few of them, some of the most painstaking perhaps: the Ottoman courtier Evliya Çelebi; the Italian adventurer Luigi Marsigli; the Austrian engineer Ernst Neweklowsky; the British globetrotter Patrick Fermor; and Claudio Magris, a professor from Trieste. The Danube, which now flows through the lands of ten countries (there is no other such multinational river in the world), is a critical European political and cultural arc, a zone of competition and cooperation among nations, a territory of interpenetration for their languages and customs, one of the melting pots for the new Europe of the future. This river has always been a path, a goal, a shore, a frontier, a dream.

Andrei Shary’s book is distinguished from all previous books written about Europe’s second longest river by its multifacetedness. At the author’s center of attention is the historical and mythical Danube: river of the empires of the past; zone of multiple points of contact for political, culturological, ethnic, and civilizational power lines. This is the first book to link knowledge of the extensive Western European Danube bibliography with the little-studied history of the Danube states of Central Europe. At the same time, it is unique in its inter-genre narration (part travelogue, part historical research, part culturological essay), in which an analysis of political processes and historical events alternates with biographical notes, sketches of daily life, and personal impressions from travels along the Danube’s banks.

Shary has constructed his saga about the Danube’s fate on several levels. More than half of the book’s fourteen chapters are devoted to the “Danube” experience of the countries whose history is inseparable from the river. In parallel, the author talks about the Danube’s hydrography and geography, its origin and development, the composition of its waters and the speeds of its current, about the fish living in its depths and the vegetation growing on its banks, about the metaphysics and poetics of the river. Gliding down the Danube—from Schwarzwald to the Black Sea—Shary reminds us of what can never be restored, the glory of fallen empires—Roman, Ottoman, and Russian—to which separate chapters are devoted. Actually, it isn’t history, or potamology, or geography or politics that is the focus of the author’s interest but rather the people whose names and biographies are linked to the Danube in one way or another. Two mini-chapters, “Danube Histories” and “People of the Danube,” which go beyond the framework of the basic narration but add significantly to it, are devoted to the conquerors of those boundless expanses, the brave researchers, bloody villains, brilliant kings, unprincipled adventurers, talented scholars, and writers and musicians. How did the Roman architect Apollodorus throw the first bridge we know of across the Danube? How was the Spanish conquistador Ulrich Schmidl connected with this river? How did Bavarian King Ludwig build pantheons to eternal German glory on the Danube’s banks? How did German colonists, Russian Old Believers, Zaporozhie Cossacks, and Circassian djigits end up on the Danube’s lower reaches? Why did the Red Army incur tremendous losses in taking Budapest in 1945? How and why did a Nazi death camp and a Stalinist metallurgists’ town appear on the Danube’s banks? Why was the last Turkish islet fated to sink under the Danube’s water? In what way did the Romanian perception of the Danube differ from the Slovak or Bulgarian?

In a number of inserted mini-chapters, the author also talks about the people whose fate was linked with the Danube and about the numerous Danube legends. There is the story of the martyr Agnes Bernauer, the fiancée of Duke Albert of Bavaria, who was declared a witch and drowned in the Danube. The conquistador and German adventurer Ulrich Schmidl, who participated in the conquest of South America. The Austrian official and inventor of graffiti Josef Kyselak, who attempted maniacally to perpetuate his name on the steep slopes along the Danube and the Alps, on the walls of buildings and caves, on bridge piers and fortress ruins. Pioneer of Slovak aviation and inventor of the steam traction tank Ján Bahýľ. And many others, including the origin story of the Balkan Danube vampire legends.

A light pen, an ironic interpretation of a serious topic, a precise knowledge of the issue’s history (the author speaks six European languages), attention to the smallest details unseen by the superficial gaze, and the ability to take a broader view of the problem and also study it from the inside—the combination of these very qualities makes the book unique and interesting for the most varied circle of readers. In Shary’s book, ancient authors, Medieval kings and bishops, and modern philosophers and generals speak on equal terms with our contemporaries: the politicians who run the Danube countries and the public figures who influence these countries’ development; the historians, archeologists, ecologists, and hydrographers who study this river, each after his own fashion; and the shipbuilders and musicians, sailors and artists, captains and fishermen who live on its banks. When the reader opens this book, he can taste the fresh water from the springs of the great European river and feel the fresh breeze from the Black Sea in the Danube delta. Shary is a theoretical scholar and a field reporter all rolled into one. He wore out more than one pair of hiking boots mastering the Danube and the seat of more than one pair of sturdy trousers in libraries.