Posts Tagged ‘Russian history’

The Tsar’s Shaving Grace

Posted in General, On This Day on September 5th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

September 5, 1698:  Peter the Great Imposes a Beard Tax

Peter tpeter greathe Great had inherited a medieval empire. Unfortunately, the 17th century really was an inopportune time to be medieval. Even Spain was only a century behind the times. The young Tsar was determined to modernize Russia, and he wanted to see western progress for himself. So, in 1697, he travelled “in cognito” through Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Britain. Peter was not as “in cognito” as he hoped, being 6’7″ and traveling with a large entourage. The King of England did not normally greet every tourist. And most tourists ask for fresh towels rather than an alliance against the Ottoman Empire. Nonetheless, Peter found the experience to be edifying and he returned home with plans to impose progress on Russia.

Peter would have a modern army and, for the first time in six centuries, a navy. (The last Russian fleet had been incinerated by the Byzantines.) However, modern armaments would be wasted as long as the Russian mind remained medieval. Peter was determined to modernize the society as well, starting with the aristocracy. The Russian nobility had been recycling Byzantine fashion for five centuries: retro is one thing but this was stagnation. Peter demanded that his nobles look like their peers in the west.

The ladies of the court found the new fashions immodest; in their traditional Muscovite garb, a neckline was literally a neckline. For the men of the court, the transistion was worse. In place of majestic enveloping robes, they now had to wear breeches, leaving no doubt as to the shape of their legs and anywhere else in the area. But Peter made those men feel truly naked by demanding that they shave. Russian men took great pride in their beards, but Peter regarded the look as an embarrassing anachronism. No, his subjects would be as clean-shaven as Western Europeans–or else. On this day in 1698, Peter imposed a beard tax of 100 rubles annually on every Russian male except peasants and priests. In fact, even payment was no definite protection. If Peter was in one of his zanier moods, he personally would shave his hirsute subject.

Peter’s policies and tantrums did transform the aristocracy. By the early 19th century, the nobles of St. Petersburg would have been indistinguishable from those of London. (The nobles of Paris generally could be distinguished by their lack of heads or their employment as tutors in London and St. Petersburg.) The Russian aristocracy only spoke Russian to their servants; among themselves, ils parliaent francais. Indeed, when Tsar Alexander I met Napoleon in 1807, it was noted that the Russian spoke the better French. The scholarship kid from Corsica had a thick accent and would have sounded like a French Tony Danza.

For the rest of Russian society, however, Peter’s reforms were either meaningless or just an added burden. The serfs probably had to work harder to pay for master’s western wardrobe. Peter had not addressed Russia’s injustices or brooding turbulence. He had merely transformed an isolated, backward nation into an aggressive, backward nation.


Caviar Preemptor

Posted in General, On This Day on August 25th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Russians don’t need an excuse to drink: their government, their climate and Dostoyevsky more than justify self-pity. However, they don’t have much of a chance to celebrate: just chess tournaments and sacking Berlin. But today the Russians can drink both for commiseration and celebration: it is the birthday of Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584).

For a murderous tyrant, Ivan the Terrible (the IV on his business cards) is far luckier than Richard III. First, Ivan was actually guilty, so he couldn’t be slandered. And his crimes apparently had an upside. He evidently was killing the right people. Even his critics acknowledged that he made a very effective tsar, expanding the Moscovite principality into the Russian state.

The Soviets made him into a hero, dismissing his victims as reactionaries and traitors. When Stalin commissioned Sergei Eisenstein to make a biographic series on the Tsar, it was intended to be a paean (as well as a thinly veiled tribute to the reigning Soviet tsar).  Eisenstein completed two of the three projected films. In the first film the young heroic Tsar must defend himself against the treacherous nobility. In the sequel, the now middle-aged Tsar is showing maniacal streaks in his wars and purges. If Stalin could see himself in the first film’s Ivan, everyone could see Stalin in the second film’s Ivan. There never was a third film. Eisenstein was denounced and apparently died of a heart attack soon after.

A third film would have shown Ivan killing his oldest son and heir. Like Ben Cartwright, Ivan had three sons. (Considering that the sire had eight wives, he was not an impressive sire.) In a fit of rage (Ivan’s normal temper), the Tsar smashed the skull of his oldest son Ivan(played by Pernell Roberts). After Prince Ivan’s death, the succession passed to Prince Feodor, who was retarded. (Dan Blocker obviously)

Now, however, our story has the Russian equivalent to Richard III: Boris Godunov. (Yes, he is the inspiration for Boris Badenov.) He was the son-in-law of Ivan the Terrible and chosen to be regent after Ivan’s death. Upon his father’s death, Feodor became Tsar but the country was governed by his brother-in-law Boris, who proved very competent and certainly enjoyed ruling. The third and youngest son of Ivan IV was Dmitri. (Michael Landon) He would have been the successor of his brother, but the youngster apparently died of an accident while playing with a knife. With Dmitri conveniently out of the way, Boris then became the heir apparent to Feodor. Upon Feodor’s death (a natural one), Boris ascended the throne.

However, Boris’ reign (1598-1605) was turbulent. His rule was undermined by plots and rebellions. An imposter claimed to be Prince Dmitri, and Boris’ enemies rallied around the fraud. The false Dmitri–as he is known in history–received substantial financial and military support from Poland and the Jesuits. Boris died while the rebellion was gathering strength. His son and successor Feodor II was murdered soon after, and the false Dmitri took the throne–although he couldn’t hold it for long.

After eight years of chaos and civil war, some more in-laws of Ivan the Terrible (his serial marriages creates a lot of in-laws) seized and actually held the throne. Their name was Romanov. (And they would give the Russians even more reason to drink.)


How To Lose a Battle in a Spectacular Way

Posted in General, On This Day on April 5th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

April 5th

NevskyFirst, invade Russia during the winter.  (Keep in mind that Russian winters last from October to May.)

Second, arrange for your army to be surrounded by a Russian horde that outnumbers you at least 2 to 1.  Since you and your comrades are German knights renowned for your policies of extermination and enslavement, expect the Russians to be somewhat vindictive.

Third, allow your beleaguered force to be pushed onto a frozen lake.  The date being April 5, 1242 (Happy Anniversary in medieval German to you.) the lake is just starting to thaw.  The ton of horse, armor and you could prove a strain on the ice.  Oops.  You are about to learn that your armor is not waterproof or particularly buoyant.  Neither are you.

Fourth, the site of your dramatic if humiliating demise is Lake Peipus.  Worse, in your own German, it is Peipussee.  You now will be sniggered at by generations of British public school boys (at least the heterosexual ones). You only avoid similar derision from American teenagers because they have never heard of the 13th century.

Finally, your defeat will be immortalized in the 1938 film named for the Russian victor.  Had your side won,  the film would have been called “Herman von Dorpat” instead of “Alexander Nevsky.”  If it is any consolation, your side definitely is more fashionably dressed and has better coiffures.  Of course, from the Soviet perspective, that only proves how decadent you are.  (Stalin had edited Pravda, not Vogue.)

And, for a belated introduction, the Germans belong to a crusading order known as the Teutonic Knights.  These knights felt that they had a sacred duty to conquer, convert and enslave the Baltic and Russian peoples.  If you are going to work your serfs to death, at least offer them the spiritual solace of Catholicism instead of paganism or that heretical Russian Orthodoxy.  In 1242, most of Russia had been overrun and devastated by the Mongols.  However, northwestern Russia was inconveniently located, so the Horde had spared it–in return for tribute.  The Teutonic Knights had already conquered the lands we’d recognize as Latvia and Estonia. (Lithuania proved too tough and remained pagan for another century!)  The German crusaders thought that the surviving Russian principalities would be a pushover.  They were wrong.

Creme de la Kremlin

Posted in On This Day on December 20th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Vladimir Putin is feeling sentimental today. It is the 91st anniversary of the founding of the Cheka, the first Soviet secret police. In honor of this special day, 91 journalists will be assassinated. (To make that quota, the corpse pile will have to include four movie critics and seven cooking columnists; Russia is running out of journalists.)

We tend to think of Lenin as a misunderstood old dear, just a badly tailored Edmund Gwenn. Of course, that is only because we are comparing him to Stalin. In fact, Lenin wasn’t that old, a mere 47 at the time of the November Revolution. (Now, don’t you feel like an under-achiever.) Nor was he remotely lovable. Although he was not a Stalinoid monster, Lenin was a certifiable creep. He was an obsessed, remorseless tyrant who actually read calculus books for fun. Would you be any less dead if Lenin shot you for the sake of dialectic materialism than if Stalin shot you because it was his hobby?

So, it was not surprising that Lenin would establish a secret police just six weeks after the November Revolution. (So much for the honeymoon.) The first head of the Cheka was Felix Dzerzhinsky who was unique among the Bolshevik aristocracy in that he really was an aristocrat. Anyone who slighted him at a soiree or beat him at tennis probably did not live to regret it. Dzerzhinsky may have betrayed his class but not his tastes. In the midst of revolution and civil war, Dzerzhinsky requisitioned a Rolls-Royce for his personal use. It should be noted that his timing was as impeccable as his style. He died of heart attack in 1926, and so avoided a less natural cause of death from Stalin.

In organizing the Cheka, Lenin was just observiing a hallowed Russian tradition. Since Ivan the Terrible, the Tsars had relied on secret police as well. Indeed, Ivan set the standard. His death squads, the Oprichniki, had a very distinctive insignia: the severed head of a dog on their saddles. The dog’s head presumably would sniff out treason. Ivan distrusted his nobles, and the Oprichniki eliminated the causes of his anxiety. Of course, even the Oprichniki found that Ivan could be a little too whimsical. There is a story of a father-and-son team who had risen high in the Oprichniki hierarchy. While at a feast, Ivan thought of a test of loyalty for entertainment. The son was ordered to strangle the father. Before the guests, the son did as he was ordered. Then Ivan ordered the son to be executed; after all, how could Ivan trust anyone who would kill his father?

At least, subsequent Tsars and their secret police refrained from decapitating dogs for decor. (However, Faberge could have made some wonderful facsimiles.) In the last decades of the Russian Empire, the secret police was known as the Okhrana. Their chief concern was suppressing the growing radical movement. They proved so successful at infiltrating revolutionaries groups that Okhrana agents actually were managing many of the revolutionary plots. In 1911, Okhrana oversaw the assassination of the Russian Prime Minister, Pyotr Stolypin. A political moderate, at least by Russian standards, Stolypin’s attempts at reforms outraged the conservatives. So, Okhrana manipulated a thoroughly infiltrated radical group to kill him. The actual assassin was a genuine revolutionary but his supervisor and his supervisor’s supervisor were all on the Okhrana payroll. It was a perfect Okhrana coup: the reactionaries kill the moderate and frame the radicals.

Yes, the Okhrana even infiltrated the Bolsheviks. One of their double agents was a young Georgian who called himself Stalin. We can surmise that Stalin only gave up the names of the people he didn’t like. Of course, that could have been enough to crowd Siberia.

Oprichniki, Okrana, Cheka, KGB…These are the happy memories that Vladimir Putin is enjoying today. And who says that you can’t bring back the good old days?