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Bezumov’s Principal Objection
Voynich, Part IV
When I wrote, in a previous installment in this cycle, that I have been contacted out of the blue by more than one retired provincial Russian engineer regarding my research on the Voynich Manuscript, I was not exaggerating. I have already described in some detail the troubling correspondence I’ve maintained with V. I. Tatur, a software engineer formerly of Ryazan State University who knows a surprising amount about my personal past, has somehow acquired photographs of my childhood never uploaded to the internet, and believes, for admittedly fairly compelling reasons, that the author of the manuscript in question is Caecus Siculus, a minor Sicilian botanist and poet of the late fifteenth century. We will return to the “Tatur Hypothesis” on another occasion. In this concise note —at least as concise as its subject will permit us— I would like instead to introduce you to my other Russian engineer, Gleb Glebovich Bezumov, who is not alone among Voynichologists in maintaining that the author of the Voynich Manuscript is none other than the inveterate hoaxer, charlatan, and confidence-man Wilfrid Voynich himself (1865, Telšiai, Russian Empire — 1930, New York City).
Now, when I say Bezumov is a retired engineer, I concede this is only an inference from the limited information I am able to extract from online sources (since the war began my contacts inside Russia have gone troublingly quiet). Nonetheless, by a “consilience of inductions” (William Whewell) I am reasonably certain I have identified the relevant individual. The website of Ural State Technical University in Yekaterinburg lists a G. G. Bezumov as a professor emeritus of heat power engineering, and a Yandex chat forum for students at Ural State has turned up several references to a Professor Bezumov who, around 2012, according to a number of users, “с ума сошёл” [“went out of his mind”, evidently a play on Bezumov’s family name, which itself suggests someone who has lost their mind, or perhaps never had it to begin with].
This appears to be the same G. G. Bezumov who in 2009 published a book entitled Тунгусский феномен [The Tunguska Event, Arktika: Syktyvkar, 2009], in which he claims that the mysterious meteorite impact in the Yeniseysk Governorate in 1908 both introduced several new microscopic life forms into our terrestrial ecosystem and set in motion a series of events that would culminate nine years later in the Bolshevik Revolution. This might lead us a bit astray from our main concern, but allow me to share, before turning to that concern, a brief excerpt (translation mine) from the Tunguska book, which, I hope, will give the reader some appreciation of the sort of mind we are dealing with:
Most men on earth would have been alarmed to know that, deep in the fissures of the meteorite’s iron, were lodged countless animalcules, voyagers between worlds, too dumb and insensate to be called starry messengers [сидереи нунции], but bearing nonetheless news of some sort to any who would notice them. Yet none would notice them, for there were yet no microscopes in Yeniseysk, and it would have taken careful observation under magnifying lenses to detect their presence.
These animalcules were dumb, but not entirely without a point of view on their predicament. Some, we may suppose, harbored a dim awareness of similar transits in the distant past, by others of their kind, for in such species of animalcule, which reproduce by simple separation, to share in one and the same kind is to share in one and the same life, in one and the same memory.
It is not that they aimed for earth in particular, but there were enough such meteors, over enough eons, that they were bound to arrive upon the surface of the same world from time to time. It was thought, or felt, that upon arrival on this lush green planet they were meeting their far-removed relatives, all the bacteria and fungi and plants and animals, that it was by just such an impact that the earth was first transformed those billions of years ago from a dead stony place into one of the many heavenly bodies with soul [душой], first with animalcules giving life to the oceans, then casting out tendrils onto the land, and eventually throwing up forests of trees, and yielding up, too, the great animals to delight in these forests, and the mosquitoes and other lesser animals to prey on the great ones, without delight in living, but only pure angry hunger.
The animalcules of the meteor needed no air for the duration of their transit, for they lived off the iron itself. They were hardy creatures, and it barely registered for them when their host entered the aery zone around the earth, and began to burn red hot as the air wore it down to a much smaller core of itself than the robust mass that had made the voyage from other worlds. Some animalcules were cast off into the void as the meteor shrank, but they lived still, as did those that remained fixed to the iron body, now glowing red hot like a blade in a forge. Nor did it register for these remaining animalcules when their host collided with earth, and in every direction from the place of impact the trees lay down flat for kilometers around, and the birds that flapped upward from the trees that buckled underneath them were quickly brought down, too, by an invisible blast, not of fire or heat yet of something that shares in the nature of these.
And all around in this splayed circle the flattened forest smoked and crackled, and no animals stirred but the animalcules that had only just arrived. They were as much at home here as anywhere. From the point of view of the cosmos nothing much had happened at all. When, several decades later, the geothermal research expedition under my leadership visited the region, all my men and their horses too felt as if we were passing through a zone of great danger. The forest had begun to grow back, plants flourished among the flat dead trees, lowly animals scurried, but all were as if charged up with a foreboding that discouraged them from lingering to examine the vestiges of this past event.
The Evenki in the area said the place was heavy with evil. Some maintained that witches had fought there, and this is what knocked the trees down. And at the center of this haunted horizontal grove there lay, and lies to this day (though the officials will deny it), an iron stone two meters high and just as wide, only ever seen at a distance by men too fearful to approach, who, Evenki and Russian alike, attribute strange powers to it, perhaps magnetism or something like it, though all report a puzzling uncertainty as to whether it attracts or indeed repels the objects that come near it. Some say it hums and vibrates, and glows.
The animalcules that rode in on it, I conjecture, must have penetrated the soil long ago, unperceived. If they conceived anything with the earth, upon the earth, then it was a superfetation, life added to life, soul admixed to abundant soul of earth.
I could continue to expose Bezumov’s unique sensibility, providing in particular the further passages in which he explains how these animalcules eventually found a niche, one among several, as brain parasites particularly attracted to hot-headed young revolutionaries as their hosts, working their way in through the bloodstream and from there up the spinal cord, “like meningitis”, and then driving their human vehicles into frenzies of bloodthirsty rage. Bezumov seeks in this connection to revise the standard account of the murder of the Romanovs at Yekaterinburg in the summer of 1918, arguing that the horrible fusillade occurred not at all under the direct orders of Lenin or of Yakov Sverdlov, who would have preferred to keep the Tsar’s family alive as bargaining chips, but rather as a direct and unstoppable consequence of the “brain-fire” that had claimed most or perhaps all of the Cheka agents under thirty who had been assigned to guard the Imperial family at the ill-fated Ipatiev House. They were, Bezumov writes, “a pack [стая] of animalcule-brained berserkers”.
Research turns up only faint traces of Bezumov’s upbringing and family history, and little of what we find instills a great deal of confidence in his claims. In the preface to the Tunguska book he tells us that he comes from a distinguished family of Soviet scientists, and alludes passingly to his paternal great-grandfather’s stay in French Guinea. This is perhaps significant, as we have been able to locate records of a certain G. V. Bezumov in the research team headed up by V. I. Ivanov, who in the 1920s conducted several unsuccessful experiments in that African colony attempting to hybridize human beings with chimpanzees. The unfinished 1932 opera Orango, by Dmitri Shostakovich (discovered only in 2004), pokes fun at Ivanov’s efforts, and includes in the libretto a curious line from a character (a tenor) identified only as “Zoologist”: Я без ума от этих обезьян — “I’m mad about these apes”, or, perhaps, “These apes are driving me crazy”. Because this phrase practically contains the family name in question —again, без ума/bez uma means, literally, “without [a] mind”—, the musicologist Olga Digonskaya plausibly speculates that the zoologist in question is inspired by none other than G. V. Bezumov himself (“Well, it beats that Dr. Zaius rap,” Scott Simon would say in a special NPR segment on the opera’s LA Philharmonic debut in 2011, evidently referring to a well-known Simpsons episode satirizing the Planet of the Apes franchise. “What was it? ‘You finally made a monkey out of me’?”)
I would be tempted, in light of what we’ve seen, to call Bezumov an “unreliable narrator”. But he’s not the one narrating — I am, and I want nothing other than to deliver the truth.
It is largely because I am a truth-lover that as a rule I do not draw on other Voynich scholarship in my own efforts to understand this enigmatic text. But I believe Bezumov is best approached as an exception to this rule, to the extent that his explanations consistently provide a useful foil for my own, and as it were a mirror that, by staring unflinchingly into it, allows me to primp and perfect every last pore and pucker of my own self-presentation.
All of Bezumov’s comments on Voynich have been published online in successive installments of a single “work”, to which he has given the title, Расшифровка рукописи Войнича [A Decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript]. The first installment appeared on his personal website in October, 2014, and it was variously supplemented and revised roughly once every four months until March, 2018, at which point Bezumov’s online activities appear mostly, but not entirely, to have stopped.
Bezumov’s central contention, again, is that the manuscript is a hoax proliferated by Voynich himself, and therefore that it dates only to the early twentieth century, rather than to the late fifteenth century as is now most often, if not universally, supposed. His principal method of arguing for this conclusion is to highlight anachronisms in the text — references to ideas, authors, concepts, things, that Voynich inadvertently allowed to slip in, yet whose termini a quo could not possibly extend all the way back to the Italian Renaissance. But Voynich was sharp, as Bezumov admits, and his anachronistic slips are at most exceedingly slight and contestable.
Thus, for example, on page 14 of the manuscript (reproduced above) the narrator, whom we have identified as Caecus Siculus, describes a trip he took in his youth to Tuscany, and expresses the surprise he felt there upon discovering that even so far north in Italy one is still not safe from mosquitoes. He writes to his intended recipient (identified variously as “My Love” and “My Rose”): “I told you then that before I came north as a young man I thought all the little flies flew in from torrid Libya, loved the heat, and were found but little further up the boot.”
Now, scholars generally suppose that comparison of the Italian peninsula to the shape of a boot did not become a commonplace until Abraham Ortelius’s Thesaurus geographicus of 1587. It is possible nonetheless that the metaphor was circulating orally well before that, though we know that in antiquity the Romans did not conceive cartographic representations from a bird’s eye view at all, and so although they knew the shape of the peninsula fairly precisely they did not have the same opportunity to notice its resemblance to footwear of any sort (nor, it is worth adding, did the Romans have the sort of boots that Italy resembles). Bezumov (DVM, 12th edition, September, 2017) thus takes the reference to the boot as a rare and revealing anachronism that exposes what he takes to be Voynich’s singular hoax.
Let us consider a few other examples of purported anachronism. Already on page 4 (reproduced below), Caecus Siculus describes a giant lily-pad he has brought into being in his greenhouse, “so enormous that two lovers can lie in sweet embrace on it”. He adds that the pad is crowned by a flower,
from which there emanates a fine generative powder, wafting down onto the lovers like a dry mist that mixes with the moisture of their flesh, releasing an odor that, to any bystander, will give only a vague whiff of dankness, as from the inside of a cave, or as in experiments touching upon nitre, while to the enraptured lovers themselves it unlocks the secret smell of desire itself: the smell of the primordial androgyne recombining.
We know that after he was arrested for revolutionary activities in Tsarist Russia in 1885, Wilfrid Voynich was sent to the penal colony of Tunka near Lake Baikal. While he often exaggerated and distorted key biographical facts, it has been independently confirmed that for at least some months in 1890 Voynich worked as a druggist in a pharmacy in nearby Irkutsk. Shortly after obtaining this work, which must have been a relatively privileged position for a penal colonist, Voynich nonetheless went AWOL, and fled across Mongolia to the coast of China. From there, with falsified documents, he eventually sailed to Hamburg, and then made his way to London and to his new career as an antique book-dealer. We know from advertisements at the back of the Восточное Обозрение [The Eastern Review], an Irkutsk periodical of the Tsarist era, that pharmacies in the city often sold a tincture of horny goat weed (Epimedii herba), marketing it as a supplement useful for maintaining “virility” [мужественностъ]. Horny goat weed had been used as an aphrodisiac in China since antiquity, and while Chinese sources seldom make note of its odor, the advertisements in the Irkutsk press consistently warn of its “aromatic likeness to perspiration”. Could a memory of this entry in the Inner Asian pharmakon have been at the source of Voynich’s later image of the putrid yet seductive nenuphar? Bezumov thinks so.
Relatedly, on page 25 of the manuscript (reproduced below; ignore the numerals written in the upper right-hand corner of the page, which were added, confusingly, by the librarians), Caecus Siculus writes: “I only regret knowing no more than the barest rudiments of the names of the signs and their place in the night sky. Was there one who was an Archer? Was there another that was a Rat, perhaps?” The first example of a recollected star-sign is evidently Sagittarius. As for the second, Bezumov (DVM, Sixth Edition, May, 2017) interprets
somewhat implausibly as dubhe, which he takes to be a reference to the syncretistic Mongolian-Chinese astrological tradition, in which one of the stars of Ursa Major, called Dubhe in Mongolian, is correlated with 鼠 (shǔ), which signifies the Rat in the Chinese Zodiac.
Bezumov correctly recalls that, after his escape from penal servitude, Voynich fled straightaway into the punishing terrains of the Gobi Desert. He speculates that during this period of wandering, which lasted several months, Voynich must have taken the opportunity to learn the astrological doctrines of his fellow travelers in what appears to have been a caravan of amicable long-distance merchants traveling by Bactrian camel. We know with certainty that Voynich had taken advantage of his time in the region of Lake Baikal to study botany and pharmaceutics, and relied on native Buryat informants for much of what he learned. So indeed, as Bezumov reasons, on the presumption of Voynich’s authorship of the mysterious manuscript, it is reasonable to assume that he would continue to indulge his ravenous curiosity even after his status had shifted from prisoner to fugitive.
I could go on in this vein, summarizing several other suspected anachronisms that Bezumov has identified in the text. But let me turn now, for fear of losing my patient readers in all the details, to what is known in Russian-language online Voynich-sleuthing forums as the “ГВБ”, that is, the Главное Возражение Безумова, or, “Bezumov’s Principal Objection”.
The key bit of textual evidence for the “BPO”, as it were, comes on manuscript page 15 (reproduced below), when Caecus Siculus complains about Cocalus, the tyrannical leader of the glass-domed city:
When I arrived back home young Cocalus was already scheming — should I perhaps pronounce that name with sibilants instead?
Why sibilants? What could this phonological consideration be about?
According to Bezumov (DVM, 18th and final edition, March, 2018), the otherwise obscure reference to sibilants here in fact subtly suggests that the name “Cocalus” may be exchanged for “Soselo”. And this was the pseudonym under which a young Joseph Stalin wrote a series of columns for the Tbilisi newspaper Iveria [Georgia] in the 1890s. Bezumov believes in fact, or at least came to believe by the time of the final iterations of the DVM, that Voynich’s work is in fact a parable describing its author’s gradual disillusionment with the Russian Revolution and the subsequent failure of the Soviet state to bring about anything like the utopia its early supporters had envisioned.
One obvious difficulty with this account is simply chronological: Voynich is supposed to have acquired the manuscript in 1912, five years before the Bolsheviks came to power. But Bezumov holds that this supposed acquisition is part of the false back-story invented by the hoaxer in order to throw researchers off his trail, and that the very earliest evidence of any certain testimony of the existence of the manuscript, by someone other than Voynich or his wife Ethel (about whom we have already written in some detail), comes in March, 1926, when the Frankfurt bookseller Heinrich Biege pays a visit to Voynich’s bookshop at Picadilly and describes the work in a letter to his wife. There are reports of the manuscript being exhibited at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, already in December, 1915, and in 1917 the FBI investigated Voynich’s reported knowledge of what was thought to be a secret cipher devised by Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century and of potential interest for application in military cryptography.
Bezumov does not deny that Voynich was already displaying examples of pseudo-Baconian enciphered texts long before the Russian Revolution, but only insists that the manuscript in question, the one currently held in the Yale Beinecke collection, was first displayed in November, 1926, and that Voynich likely worked on it for two years or so before that. Upon its completion, Bezumov maintains, Voynich destroyed all the other earlier attempts at falsified Renaissance texts, which, he believes, were most likely about nothing at all, or were perhaps verbosely enciphered versions of Polish-language revolutionary tracts he had collected decades earlier, with no connection at all to the illustrations on the same pages (in Bezumov’s view, the Voynich Manuscript is written, as I’ve just hinted, in a so-called “verbose cipher”, in which individual letters are encoded by clusters of symbols rather than by a single symbol).
In maintaining that this cipher was invented, and that the manuscript was fabricated by Voynich himself, Bezumov is not entirely alone. But his company has dwindled dramatically ever since 2009, when the manuscript was radiocarbon-dated and shown definitively, from the organic substances it contains, to have been produced no later than the fifteenth century. Bezumov’s response to this discovery is simply to argue that Voynich very carefully curated all the carbon-based materials used in the manuscript, including the vellum, the ochre, and some of the other ink colorings, from supplies known to date from the Renaissance. The greatest obstacle to accepting this argument however is that there is no plausible explanation of how Voynich could have known such a precaution should be taken, as the relevant dating technology was only developed in the 1940s, more than a decade after Voynich’s death and more than three decades after he first claimed to possess the manuscript. Here Bezumov does not have any particularly compelling arguments, other than to suggest that the hoaxer could have anticipated future technologies, or may simply have known his craft well enough to know that period materials give a different “feel” than later ones.
I realize we are multiplying the question marks here, rather than picking them off one by one. But in the interest of concision I would like now, briefly, to conclude with an account of Bezumov’s most recent activities. I already mentioned that successive updatings of the DVM effectively ceased in March, 2018. But this is only so if we do not take into consideration, as DVM supplements or paratexts, the flurry of videos that Bezumov posted to YouTube beginning in June of that same year — all of which were suddenly and unexpectedly scraped from the internet in February, 2022, just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These “vlogs”, if we may call them that, display a gradually more evident frustration with the Putin regime, and a jarring habit of alternating between Bezumov’s own political dissent and the dissent against the Bolshevik regime that, as we have already seen, he creatively reads into the Voynich Manuscript. As time goes on, it is as if Bezumov finds it ever more difficult to distinguish between himself and the figure to whom he has attributed authorship of the enciphered work.
I cannot provide any links, since as I have said all of these videos were taken down more than a year ago. But one in particular remains in my mind as if I watched it yesterday. In it, Bezumov is sitting at what looks like the desk of a home office in a cramped khruschyovka-style apartment bloc. He is an elderly bald man, barrel-shaped, wearing an Adidas track-suit and a pair of blocky vintage Soviet eyeglasses. A plate with some crusts of rye bread and a few tomato slices sits to one side of him, and to the other a jar half-full with pickled herring. There is a shot glass, though no vodka in sight, and he seems at least a bit intoxicated. Rye crumbs and an unidentified brown liquid stain adorn his chest like medals from some parodical Soviet counter-war.
He begins the vlog by announcing that he has too many browser windows open, with too many videos played half-way through, and invites the viewer to be patient as he closes them one by one, giving us a series of context-free audio-only snippets, many but not all of which reveal a surprising familiarity with American popular culture:
He says, Do you want a divorce? And I’m like, No, I’m just tired of fighting. I’m fucking tired.
Or consider the following ten predicaments: Tree, six, brothers, with ardor, cools, burnt; in the future, in the country, I stand, nor will I be wearing a tunic.
Would it even be possible to be more of a Groomzilla?
With these tabs now closed, Bezumov says to his webcam, in accented English: “Now is only one video I wanted to show you left on desktop,” and then he hits play, and we hear a voice, I can’t say whose, but of an older man, educated, speaking a polished Russian with no distinguishing accent or sociolectal markers of any sort, almost like that of the devil in Master and Margarita, whose Russian, it was widely agreed by his interlocutors, was just too perfect to be spoken by any actual Russian person. And the voice says:
What you have to understand is that we’re dealing with warlords here, medieval Eurasian warlords, the remnants of Genghis Khan’s division of his empire into the four khanates of his grandsons. And when you’re a medieval warlord, you have to understand, your chef is not just a chef — he’s a member of the palace guard, specialized primarily in food-tasting and other measures to prevent the more convoluted varieties of assassination that loom wherever there is palace intrigue.
And so we know that Putin’s grandfather Spiridon Ivanovich Putin (1879-1965) long served as the personal “chef” both to Lenin and to Stalin. But anyone who imagines this meant he was cutting up radishes and slaving away in the kitchen has failed to understand the historical dynamics of power in Eurasia, where “chef” still preserves at least some of the potency of its original meaning, as “chief”. I will not relate again here the full multigenerational saga that made the grandson of the USSR’s top “chef” into the top “chief” of the Russian Federation. But let it suffice to note, first of all, that Spiridon’s métier is no mere detail in this saga, nor, to return to our present situation, is it mere trivia-mongering to dwell upon the potential significance of Prigozhin’s initial rise to wealth and prominence through securing an exclusive catering contract with the Kremlin. The food-tasting janissary, the elite palace guard charged with fending off poisoners, continues to accrue power to himself, brings forth around him an entire horde of his own, first to protect the man in charge, but ultimately, I predict, to challenge him. One fears that is simply the inevitable destiny of anyone who sets himself up as chef to the chief in this part of the world: sooner or later, he will revert to his true nature, and we will be left with two chiefs.
So, if I may be blunt, it is by now a commonplace among us that Cocalus is Seselo is Stalin, and in this picture it is Voynich himself who is the one, with his concoction of ochre and charcoal and calfskin, who dares to “come at the king”. In the sublimated autobiography that we now know as the Voynich Manuscript, it is Caecus Siculus who stands in for Voynich, and who is, likewise, if not a chef in the culinary sense, at least like a chef in his constant experimental combinations of pinches and dashes of this or that root or flower, in his labors as chief botanist of the domed city.
So it all just keeps repeating itself, and I am tempted to say that these are all really just avatars of the same eternal heroes and villains who have kept history cycling around in this part of the world, probably since the first Bronze Age horse-hunter of Central Asia got the idea to ride an equid rather than to eat it.
Bezumov abruptly stops the video there, perfunctorily dusts some rye crumbs off his chest, and says: “Well you get the idea. This is completely crazy bullshit. But more I think about it, it is kind of bullshit I like, you know?”
So much for Bezumov, for now. I will report without fail any further appearances he might make, though for the moment I have no idea whether he is alive or dead, in prison or free, inside Russia or in exile.
I have perhaps given too much away already — a “spoiler”, as they say. It is true enough: Caecus is indeed going to “come at” Cocalus. But if you have read your Chekhov, and you know anything about plot construction, I suspect —I hope, even— that you could see that coming already in the first three pages.
Speaking of using period materials to create more verisimilar impostures, I recently got my hands on a new leather-bound and exquisitely marbled edition of this glorious volume, with some fairly convincing book-historical adornments that really help to place our work somewhere deeper in the mythical past, and so help the reader to sink really deep into the trappings and delights of historiographical metafiction. Order your copy now!
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