The eruption obliterated several Roman settlements, notably Pompeii, but the 18th-century excavations in Herculaneum uncovered the Villa of the Papyri, now the largest collection of ancient texts to survive into modern times, buried under volcanic ash and pumice.
There are hundreds of scrolls; they are intact but carbonised — rendering them impossible not only to read, but even to unroll, without causing fatal damage.
It was impossible until very recently, when advances in technology enabled scholars to read the texts inside the scrolls without physically unwrapping them. The Vesuvius Challenge, while not the first to employ advanced technology to decode the Herculaneum papyri, is arguably the most successful initiative yet.
It brings together scientists from computer science and engineering, classical studies and papyrology, physics and mathematics. It is a collective effort of human genius whose hope and promise is to return to the humankind hundreds, if not thousands, of long-lost pieces of classical literature and philosophy.
Today, on the poignant second anniversary of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it is perhaps by looking at the awe-inspiring efforts dedicated to the restoration of our lost ancient heritage that one feels special disgust towards senseless devastation of hundreds of thousands of human lives and futures wrought by the Russian war.
And it is by looking at the immense collective endeavour of Russian economists, propagandists, engineers, IT specialists, educators, industrialists, infrastructure experts, and many others — all tirelessly working to fuel the relentless machine of death and destruction, even amidst the suffocating embrace of Western sanctions — that one cannot help but wonder the following:
What if they used their abilities to find solutions to financial, manufacturing and logistical problems to make Russia a better place to live, and not just for the privileged few but also for the general population? What if their ingenuity to impress, convince and enchant were mobilised in a valiant crusade against poverty, underdevelopment and inequality plaguing Russia, and especially its regions — far removed from the gleaming spires of Moscow?
Yet it takes wise leadership to beat swords into ploughshares.
When Vladimir Putin assumed presidential office, he, in particular, swore to observe and protect the constitution, which states that Russian citizens strive “to ensure the well-being and prosperity of Russia, proceeding from the responsibility for [their] Fatherland before the present and future generations”.
By plunging Russia into his nefarious campaign against the neighbouring country, not only did Putin wreak havoc on the Ukrainian nation, he also inflicted a historical wound on Russia itself — a wound whose repercussions will echo through generations of Russians.
The current generation in Russia may not fully grasp the magnitude of the disaster that the war against Ukraine represents for them as well — a disaster, surely, of a different scale compared to the national catastrophe faced by the Ukrainians. Yet, the stark reality is that Putin has already robbed millions of Russian citizens of their potential for growth, happiness and peace.
By diverting the talent and creative energy of Russia from a future of innovation and prosperity into the abyss of war, Putin has profoundly failed both his country and its citizens.
Abundant evidence suggests that Putin himself thinks differently, and the key to understanding his self-perception is his frequent and apparently compulsive “historical lectures” delivered to various unsuspecting audiences ranging from the Russian public through European leaders to, more recently, American conservative journalist Tucker Carlson.
The key is not the utterly revisionist nature of his “historical lectures”, but rather Putin’s near-messianic identification of his fate with Russia and his impetuous aspiration to gain eternal fame.
In his quest for historical significance, Putin does not shy away even from performing psychological tricks that involve imposed comparisons of his actions to those of Adolf Hitler. This tactic was clearly demonstrated in his interview with Carlson, in which Putin said that, in 1939, the Poles “got carried away” and effectively “pushed Hitler to start World War II by attacking them”.
While it is instinctive for the audience to suspect that he attempted to justify the German invasion of Poland in a light similar to his own justification for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this is only one part of the trick. The other part is to tacitly implant in the audience’s mind the notion that Putin himself is a figure of monumental historical significance, comparable to those he discusses.
Putin should never be given this recognition. And it should be central for the EU’s strategic communication to assert, with unwavering clarity, that Putin — despite being presented with unparalleled opportunities — has ultimately failed Russia, and that his legacy is that of misery and squandered potential.