September 14, 2014
It’s a shame that William Shakespeare didn’t live long enough to know the Romanovs. They would have made a great subject for one of his tragedies. I think of that every time I read about them, and the idea was reinforced by Helen Rappaport’s recent book, The Romanov Sisters. The title refers to the daughters of Nicholas II and Alexandra, the last emperor and empress of Russia. The girls — Olga, Maria, Tatiana, and Alexandra — their brother Alexei, their parents, and several retainers, were murdered by Bolshevik thugs in Siberia in 1918. Rappaport has written about that, but in this absorbing book she focuses on the years from the births of the five children to their deaths. Although the sisters are supposed to be the principal subjects of this book, Rappaport really provides a portrait of the whole family. And her portrait gives the impression, which I have drawn from other books on this subject, that these Romanovs were nice people who were unsuited for their position in life. One example of the character of these people is that Nicholas and Alexandra, unlike most royal couples in that era, married for love and remained deeply in love for the rest of their lives.
One of their overriding obligations was to produce a male heir for Nicholas, but the first four children were girls. One after another, these births sent reverberations throughout Russia where the question of an heir became a preoccupation the moment Nicholas succeeded to the throne. Although they were aware of the implications, Nicholas and Alexandra reveled in the arrival of each of their daughters. When the heir, Alexei, finally did arrive, the euphoria within the family was muted when he was diagnosed with hemophilia — the royal disease. Helping her son became an obsession for Alexandra. In itself that was natural and maybe even commendable, but it exacerbated existing problems with Alexandra’s public image. Among the Russians, she was suspect from the start, because her background was not Russian but English and German. She was a favored granddaughter of Victoria. She frustrated both common and privileged Russians, too, by living an insular life, preferring to hunker down with her immediate family rather than appear in public, even at state occasions where her presence would have been expected.
The Russian gossip circuits, and diplomatic circles, buzzed over the plain, almost homespun manner in which the four grand duchesses dressed, their casual demeanor among the few outsiders they spent time with — notably the sailors and officers on the royal yacht — and the infrequency of the girls’ public appearances. Alexandra’s isolation was a result both of her choice of a lifestyle and of her multitude of real and imagined illnesses, and it was aggravated by her exhausting focus on Alexei’s condition. Her tendency to keep her children close by deprived them of a full social life to the extent that the ostensibly future emperor of all the Russias would frequently shrink from strangers who visited the family’s home. Alexandra’s standing among the Russians, including the royal family, wasn’t improved any by her association with Grigori Rasputin, the enigmatic, unkempt “holy man” who, it seemed to the empress, was the only person capable of easing her son’s suffering. Rappaport is not judgmental in writing about Rasputin, and she provides what for me was new context by including input from Rasputin’s daughter. I also learned from Rappaport that it was not only Alexandra but also her daughters who felt a strong emotional and spiritual attachment to the strange man.
Russians suspected Alexandra’s loyalty because of her apparent aloofness and her British and German origins. And yet one of the most dramatic aspects of her life occurred during World War I when she and her two older daughters took formal training as nurses and worked in hospitals, some of which they themselves established. By Rappaport’s account, this was no publicity stunt, but a serious undertaking, often in gruesome circumstances, including the many amputations performed on soldiers carried back from the front.
Nicholas and Alexandra were complicit in their own undoing because of their firm belief in a divinely sanctioned monarchy, their stubborn adherence to a lifestyle that did not meet the expectations of either their subjects or the international community, and their failure in general to read the signs of the times. Still, it’s difficult to come away from their story without a deep sense of sadness over the waste of what might have been beautiful lives.
June 24, 2009
It was always the subject of some mirth, in the heyday of the Soviet Union, that the name of the most prominent newspaper there – Pravda – meant “truth.” The paper was shut down in 1991, but the name lives on in several forms, including another daily paper and an independent web site — pravda.ru.
I have never seen the newspaper, but the web site, if anything, is worth even more laughs than the old Soviet sheet. While it carries a lot of breaking news stories, much of the content would fit in well at the supermarket checkout line. Among the headlines on the site today, for example, are “Atlantis Found Under Antarctica,” “Russian Scientists Contact Nether World,” and “U.S. Scientists Unveil Secrets About Cities on the Moon.”
There was also a headline that I found especially compelling: “Greenland to Become 51st State of the United States.” The bulk of the story was about a law passed by the Danish parliament that expands Greenland’s autonomy in a couple of ways related to management of natural resources and foreign policy. The writer was tentative about some of the facts, remarking, for example, that Greenland is “presumably populated by the Eskimos” and that “the majority of Greenlanders are presumably employed in the fish-processing industry.”
One doesn’t have to read between the lines to get the impression that the writer has a low opinion of the native people in Greenland — who prefer to be called Inuit, not Eskimos. The story reported, for example, that “Many in Denmark believe that the Greenlanders are not ready for their independence. It’s not for the high level of social problems, alcoholism and suicide rate. The majority of Greenland’s qualified specialists come from Denmark. The gap between them and the culture of hunters and fishers is too large.” Well, excuse me for living!
The only thing in the story that supports the headline is the last paragraph:
“There is another relevant reason which puts Greenland’s independence into question. The island may quickly become the 51st state of the United States if it acquires sovereignty. The White House has been showing interest in the island since the 20s of the 19th century.”
Where is William Seward when you need him?
I’m not clear on this point: Was Rochelle of “Rochelle, Rochelle” a native of Milan who happened to have relatives in Minsk, or was she a native of Minsk who had emigrated to Milan? While we’re pondering that question, there is one native of Ulyanovsk – Simbirsk to you old timers – who may be making his own trek to the capital of Belarus that became a household word thanks to Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld.
Pravda is reporting that Vladimir Lenin’s mummified body may be removed from its tomb in Red Square and taken to Minsk, where it will be buried – perhaps no longer placed on public display in a crystal casket. As I mentioned here previously, Lenin – whom Pravda describes as the “leader of the world’s working class” – has already suffered the indignity of wearing the same suit for three years, and he’s not in line for a new one ITE – “in this economy.” Now, it appears from the Pravda report, the Russian government – which seems to only half-heartedly revere the old Bolshevik – may soon dispatch him to the republic from which he sprung – and the government of Belarus has said it would be glad to have him. In fact, a monument reminiscent of the tomb in Red Square is likely to be built to receive him.
The issue of actually burying the Hero of the Proletariat apparently is controversial: the Russian Orthodox Church, for instance, would like him out of sight and out of mind, but the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, says burying Lenin would be a crime. According to Pravda, there’s a strong nostalgia in Belarus for the glory days of the Soviet Union – no doubt among folks with medium-term memory disorder.
April 22, 2009
Lenin has been wearing the army type jacket for 17 years as his mummified body was resting in the Mausoleum on Red Square . His clothes need to be changed once in three years. Most recent change of Lenin’s suit took place in 2003.
The funding is hardly enough for embalming activities, specialists of Lenin’s Tomb complain. “The state has not been assigning anything since 1992. We live at the expense of the Lenin’s Tomb Fund. Then there is this crisis going on,” an embalmer said.
Lenin’s body is dressed in expensive custom-made suits made of Swiss lustrine – the fabric, which Vladimir Lenin preferred when he was alive. The suit has a modern cut, which is still popular nowadays in men’s fashion. If specialists do not change the suit during the prophylactic works, they steam-clean and press it thoroughly: a slight speck of dirt can ruin the embalming effect.
Lenin’s mummy has been exposed to biochemical treatment this year. It was placed in the bathtub filled with the solution of herbs that produce the embalming effect. “This is a unique technology. It will help the body keep up its shape for some 100 years,” an embalmer said.
Lenin’s Tomb opened its doors for the general public again on April 18. Russia will mark the 139th anniversary of Lenin’s birthday on April 22. A visitor is first shown to the check point in the Tomb, where they will have to leave photo and video cameras, cell phones, large metal items and any types of drinks. Visitors are not allowed to either eat or drink during the viewing. Men are supposed to remove hats. It is not allowed to keep one’s hands in their pockets during the viewing either.