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Pride Russia

There have been shocking reports of detention and extra-judicial killings of gay men by Chechnya’s security forces this month.

Dan Healey, Professor of Modern Russian History at Oxford University, studies the history of sexualities and gender in modernising Russia. In an interview, he explains the difficult plight faced by gay people in Chechnya and in Russia more widely.

‘I would say that the big difficulty for gay people or lesbians in a place like Chechnya is that you have to be straight on the outside and you ‘can only be gay or lesbian on the inside,’ he says.

‘In other words, there’s no tolerance of any kind of openness about same-sex love in the Chechnya Republic and much more widely in Russia.’

He says the allegations fit a pattern of behaviour from the Chechen government. ‘This is a fairly peculiar government,’ he says.

‘It’s in the process of trying to pacify a wartorn region that has endured two wars in the last 20 years to try and separate from Russia, and it uses violence against its own people in that pacification process.

‘So we shouldn’t be too surprised to see this kind of lashing out at a particular community.’

Prof Healey says that taboo around homosexuality in Chechnya means that gay people are also at risk from their own families.

‘Honour killings are a particular danger in this kind of society,’ he explains. ‘Most honour killings we know about are directed against women but here they would be meted out by other family members and that is because they would find it hard to stand up in their own communities having a visibly or known gay person in their family circle and family counts for a great deal in that society.

‘So there is a kind of vicious circle with no easy way out for LGBT people in a place like Chechnya.’

Prof Healey hopes the attention of the world’s media will put pressure on Russia to improve the position of gay people in Chechnya and Russia.

‘I think this attention is really necessary because Chechnya does not exist in a vacuum,’ he says. ‘It’s part of the Russian Federation which pretends to be a democracy which respects human rights and cares about the welfare of its citizens, and I think this kind of attention can prod the Russians to do the right thing and stop this kind of violence happening in a particular region of the country.’

He says that although male homosexuality is now legal in Russia, a law in 2013 which banned propaganda for LGBT lifestyles in Russia has been used to silence the voices of gay people.

‘The 2013 law has been used hundreds of times against Russian citizens across the Russian Federation to shut down gay websites and to silence people who speak out about injustices or abuses or the persecution of LGBT people.’

Professor Healey was interviewed on the BBC World News Channel on Friday 21 April. 


'Let’s hear ancient Greek music!'

Anna Stanisz | 18 Apr 2017

Prof Armand D’Angour tells Arts Blog about the power, excitement, and drama of ancient Greek music

Thinking about ancient Greek poetry and drama, we tend to overlook a very important aspect. 'All the great poetry, from Homer through to the lyric age, and the great Greek tragedians – most of that was music,' says Professor Armand D'Angour. It was sung, played, and even danced.

Armand D’Angour is a Professor in Classical Languages and Literature (Faculty of Classics) at Jesus College. Formerly a professional cellist, he is currently engaged on a project to reconstruct ancient Greek music.

'I try to bring together all the different elements,' he says. 'My particular expertise is in ancient metre and rhythm. The rhythms are quite complicated and their names are quite off-putting, so my approach is to say "Let’s just hear what we’re talking about".'

Experts on ancient music theory have long understood the general principles of Greek melody. 'Ancient Greek has a natural melody - there was a pitch change on different syllables of words,' says Prof D'Angour. Ancient documents confirm that song melodies generally imitated the natural rising and falling pitch of words.

Prof D’Angour is working on scores and literary texts preserved on papyri and stone with musical notation above the words. 'When you have an ancient text, very often it’s got bits missing, but because we know the rhythms, we can conjecture what was in the gaps,' he explains. 'So also with the music.'

The ultimate goal is not an ‘accurate’ reconstruction, which is not only impossible but would misrepresent what ancient Greek music was like. 'Music was mostly orally transmitted. It wasn’t written down, it wasn’t recorded,' says Prof D'Angour. 'You cannot ‘recapture’ any single performance, and they were all different. Music was variable, but within the framework of an idiom.'

'What I'm trying to do is understand the musical idiom of ancient Greece – the general melodic and rhythmic principles of music. I want to say: Look, this isn’t the way it was sung, but this accords with the prevalent melodic idiom. If ancient Greeks heard it now, they would understand it to be their kind of music.'

It is not that an understanding of ancient Greek music and musical notation has ever really been lacking. Thanks to treatises like that of Alypius (5th century AD), following on the Elements of Harmony by Aristoxenus of Tarentum (4th century BC) and Harmonics by Ptolemy (2nd century AD), we know what the signs mean and how the modal systems worked. What Prof D’Angour is doing is trying to make coherent musical sense of what we have.

Now that there is music to play, Prof D’Angour’s reconstructions can be performed with a whole chorus and the two main instruments that were used in ancient Greece: lyre (or kithara) and double pipes (aulos). 'We don’t have any archaeological records of lyres, because they were made from wood and animal gut which perished,' he says.

But from ancient vase painting and descriptions in texts we can tell more or less what the size, shape, and look they would have had. 'We can then make them and play them.'

We tend to talk as if there was just one kind of Greek music, but in fact 'there were hundreds of different kinds of music'. And it was as ubiquitous as it is now: you could hear it in the home, in the temple, in the theatre. 'And of course ancient authors tell us what effect it had: it was moving, it sounded tragic, it was joyful or triumphant,' says Prof D'Angour.

Ancient Greek conservatives like the philosopher Plato thought that the kind of music you listened to affected your character. “Popular” music wasn’t beautiful, therefore it was bad. However, it could be effective, exciting, sublime. 'It wasn’t beautiful according to traditional canons of beauty.'

Looking at contemporary times, Prof D'Angour notes that 'the same aesthetic debate was going on: is beauty the criterion of goodness in art and music? Music is also about power, excitement, drama, which may be no less important.'

Cartoon by Chris Jarvis

The discovery of a new species of pistol shrimp off the coast of Panama by a team of researchers including Dr Sammy De Grave of Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History was announced yesterday.

The news made headlines across the world – partly because of the shrimp’s bright pink claw, but also because Dr De Grave and his colleagues decided to name the shrimp Synalpheus pinkfloydi after the band Pink Floyd.

This gave journalists the chance to flex their headline-writing muscles. ‘Shrimp found on the Dark Side of the Lagoon,’ said the Oxford Times. Many went for the less imaginative ‘Shrimp Floyd’.

In trying to think of a headline for this article, Arts Blog came up with Brine On You Crazy Diamond, Goodbye Krill World, Fish You Were Here, Dark Side Of The Tuna and Another Shrimp In The Wall. All ended up in the bin.

Although this all seems like a lot of fun, naming the shrimp after Pink Floyd actually helped Dr De Grave and his team to get across the shrimp’s features: by closing its enlarged claw at rapid speed, the shrimp creates a high-pressure cavitation bubble.

When this bubble implodes, it creates one of the loudest sounds in the ocean, which is strong enough to stun or even kill a small fish.

That never happened to any of Pink Floyd’s fans who stood next to the amps during a gig.


100 years ago this week, the poet Edward Thomas died at the Battle of Arras in World War One.

Although he is celebrated as a war poet, Thomas’ poems rarely dealt directly with the conflict.

Dr Stuart Lee of the Faculty of English Language and Literature and IT Services started the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, which crowdsourced over 7,000 items of text, images, audio and video related to the First World War for teaching, learning and research. 

Dr Lee says Thomas is a significant poet from the war era because, unlike the war-focused poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, his poetry represents what so many people back in the UK felt during the war.

'I think he’s a wonderful poet and he certainly deserves recognition because from that period he points us to another side of the war, the people who were at home who could just see the effects and playing on their mind,' he says. 

'In poems like Rain and Owl he clearly is at home but his mind is going to those men on the front who are suffering for him and suffering for his country. 

'He also presents probably what many people felt in terms of the attitudes of the war – he is not jingoistic and at the same time he’s not a pacifist, he’s right in the middle saying I don’t hate Germans and I don’t love England in the way the newspapers want me to, but I need to fight.

'It focuses us on the discussion of what we mean by a war poet and war poetry. We tend to think of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and the likes because they were competent poets and they write about their experience in the trenches, but of course the war like all wars affected people who never actually served, who were on the home service, or who just experienced the war. 

'Thomas was one of those men who was tackling a great problem which many people had to face up to, of what involvement he should have in the war.'

Dr Lee was interviewed about Edward Thomas on the BBC World Service this week. The full interview can be found at 48 minutes 30 seconds.

Walls War

The seminar series exploring violence

Katie Holmes | 6 Apr 2017

A new seminar series at Oxford explores different perspectives on violence.

It was set up by Rachel Kowalski at the beginning of this academic year, just a few weeks after beginning her doctorate in Irish history as a Wolfson Scholar.

‘I spoke to The Regius Professor of History, Lyndal Roper, about wanting to bring people from different disciplines together to talk about violence,’ she says. ‘She suggested that I start a reading group but I decided to take it a step further and launch a seminar series.

‘I enjoy the discursive element of a seminar, as opposed to that of a reading group or a lecture series. Each academic who featured spoke for an hour and then lead thirty minutes of discussion, a format that proved to be successful.’

The purpose of the series is to study violence in its own right.

‘It is important to study 'violence' as a separate phenomenon to 'war', 'terrorism' or 'genocide', in order to understand why and how it happens,’ says Rachel. ‘The external factors and personal idiosyncrasies which drive and individual to commit violence can become lost in the greater narrative of a war or conflict.

'And the dynamics which shape the nature of any violent attack can only be surmised from understanding violence at a local or individual level. Why, for instance, are some attacks especially brutal, exceed what would be clinically required to take the life of an individual, and venture into what can only be perceived as cruelty?'

The series began with Dr Kieran Mitton from King's College London talking about ‘Irrational Actors in the Theatre of War’ focusing on Sierra Leone and the psychology behind violence. Many of Dr Mitton’s ideas about violence are found to be at the core of Rachel’s series as he argues that ‘normally when we delve into seemingly senseless acts of violence we can find a logic to them’.

The series has been varied in its content. It has covered Irish history, with Rachel’s own seminar on ‘Ethical Guerrilla Warfare, Terrorism, and the Provisional IRA’, Latin American topics, and other more general themes such as genocide.

A key feature of the series is that it is interdisciplinary. Many of the seminars were led by historians, but a number were conducted by political scientists and sociologists. A particular highlight for Rachel was managing to involve a literature specialist in the project.

'Matthew Voice, a Wolfson Scholar and PhD Candidate at Sheffield University, came to speak about ‘Contemporary attitudes towards marital violence in twentieth-century Ireland’ focusing on its depiction in memoirs,' she says.

'I wanted to take a step away from specific conflicts and look at violence generally. This meant I was able to look for speakers from different disciplines, as violence is relevant in many spheres.

'My only regret is that the series focuses solely on modern topics. I would have liked to have involved medievalists and classicists as violence is in no way a product of modernity.

'In the future I would like to collaborate with someone from another field to create an even broader series. This would hopefully allow me to advertise the series in a number of departments, which proved difficult this time round.'

It is rare for a DPhil candidate to launch a whole series of seminars that covers a multitude of disciplines and features a range of speakers from all over the country. With the attendees being a mixture of academics, postgraduates, undergraduates and members of the general public, Rachel’s audience has proven to be just as varied as her content.

Find out about the remaining four seminars here.

Rachel has previously been interviewed for our 'student focus' series.

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