Sacher-Masoch's birthplace stays true to his 'ism'

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The Independent Online

Who were the original masochists? Ukraine and Russia have their differences, but few as bizarre as the dispute over which country has the better claim to be the true homeland of masochism.

Who were the original masochists? Ukraine and Russia have their differences, but few as bizarre as the dispute over which country has the better claim to be the true homeland of masochism.

The argument revolves around the national and cultural background of the 19th-century writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, after whom the Freudians named the psychological condition of masochism. Characters in his novels liked to be abused and humiliated or to otherwise suffer pain.

The Ukrainian claim is strong. Sacher-Masoch, born in 1836, grew up in Lviv, a city then belonging to the Austro-Hungarian empire but now in western Ukraine. Its city fathers are planning to name a street after him. On the other hand, he wrote in German, lived part of his life in Vienna, and his works were only translated into Ukrainian in 1994.

But Russians also have some grounds for regarding Sacher-Masoch as their own. A recent Russian study suggests that the writer may have learnt about the pleasures of self-flagellation from a Russian religious sect whose members liked to beat themselves. Vitaliy Chernetsky, a professor of Slavonic languages at Colombia University in New York, said the Russians point out that it is a character with the wholly Russian name of Severin, in a novel by Sacher-Masoch published in 1869, which led Freudians to develop the concept of masochism.

The dispute highlights the difficulty Ukrainians and Russians have in finding satisfactory symbols for their separate identities since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The 51 million Ukrainians have a better claim to be victims than masochists. On the borderlands between Russia and central Europe, Ukraine, with no defensible frontiers, has historically been one of the continent's chief battlegrounds.Ukrainians complain that, despite the size of their country, the rest of Europe hardly knows they exist. This is unlikely to change even if Ukraine establishes itself as the fatherland of masochism. But, just when Ukrainians might despair of establishing their identity, help is on the way - though not in a shape that most people here welcome.

Over the past three months, Ukraine has produced a political scandal which surpasses anything seen in the rest of the continent for years. Foreign journalists, whose visits over the past decade were almost invariably to do with the demise of the Chernobyl nuclear power station, are pouring into the city to write about Ukrainian politics.

The scandal began with the disappearance of Georgy Gongadze, a journalist, last September. It gathered pace when a headless body, believed to be his, was discovered in a wood six weeks later. But it only exploded when Alexander Moroz, a Socialist politician, stood up in the Ukrainian parliament and revealed that he had tape recordings implicating President Leonid Kuchma in the disappearance.

Mr Kuchma and his senior officials say a tape recorder could not have been placed under the presidential sofa - as is claimed - and, if it was, the tape has been doctored. The problem with this defence is that there appear to be 300 hours of tapes and almost every one contains evidence of wrongdoing that would lead to a president being forced to resign in most European countries.

Mr Kuchma has thrown his former deputy prime minister, a rallying point for the opposition, into jail. If parliament tries to impeach him, diplomats in Kiev suspect he will simply dissolve it and fix the subsequent election. It is nasty but riveting stuff. In its own masochistic way Ukraine is at last asserting its position on the European map.