Thursday, July 17, 2008

Historically Speaking

The Romanovs are back in the news on this 90th anniversary of the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family by the Bolsheviks. Amateur investigators found the remains of the two missing children who will be interred with the other family members in Moscow. No more Anastasia wanna-be’s, I guess. Nicholas II is clearly history’s best example of sheer bad luck combined with incredible obtuseness. I’ve always regretted his execution simply because it shows the Bolsheviks to be very ruthless and murderous. Certainly as ruthless as any pre-Revolution institution in Russia, including the Tsar’s secret police and the very all-encompassing Russian state headed by an absolute monarch.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the Romanov’s rehabilitation is that Nicholas II is among the least of that line. Russia attained much wealth, prestige and power under the Romanov’s. Actually, the Romanov’s attained much wealth, prestige and power as absolute rulers of the Russian state, ordained by God to protect Holy Mother Russia. A few Romanovs attempted to liberalize Russian society in some small ways but Russia remained a society of vast wealth and great poverty, an industrial society trying to emerge from Feudal traditions. And Nicholas just happened to be sitting on the throne when it all blew up.

By all accounts Nicholas was a kind and gracious man, a doting father and loving husband. As Tsar he was not only head of his family but also father of all Russia. As Tsar, he also exercised Absolute and Divine Authority. As Nicholas, he was a weak and uncertain man, surrounded by a court of dubious capability and intent. He wanted to be a reformer, to bring Russia into the modern world but he was unable to challenge the vast inequalities in Russian society and institutions. Nicholas was particularly obtuse about his absolute authority and would neither look past it nor listen to any ideas that challenged it in even the smallest ways. He wanted to be the beneficent and wise leader her was ordained to be but he and his family perished in the deluge that resulted from Nicholas’ catastrophically inept leadership during World War I.

But Russians are looking to their history for lessons of greatness and the Romanov’s can certainly lay claim to their share of Russian power and prestige. They also get a share of the brutality and exploitation that created that greatness but that’s another story. Restoring Nicholas and his family to a place of honor after their brutal deaths offers a chance to regain some of that lost glory. I think it’s not so much Nicholas himself as the idea of Romanov glory; having Nicholas body around offers a handy focus. These days Nicholas II is running in first place in a television poll of significant Russian leaders, having pulled ahead of Josef Stalin who led early in the polling. Old Joe is clearly a significant figure, probably more so than Nicholas whose only claim to fame is losing the monarchy and accepting his fate nobly. Joe built the Russian Communist state. It had many of the trappings of the Tsarist order, including concentrated wealth, but Stalin’s Russia and its successor regimes counted for far more in the world than did Nicholas II’s Russia.

If Nicholas’ fate offers any lessons, it is that even the least competent leaders can be judged by far lower standards than during their time in office, especially if it helps the current rulers maintain their position. Maybe that’s why George W. is so confident about history’s judgment


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