Monday, June 15, 2009

Three Michaels

Before the modern-day Russian Federation, there was the USSR - the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union ended on December 25, 1991. The last premier of the Soviet Union was a man named Mikhail Gorbachev.

Before the Soviet Union, the vast Russian Empire was ruled by kings or emperors, called “tsars.” The last family of tsars (sometimes spelled czar) was the House of Romanov. The Soviet Union was formed after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Shortly after that, in July of 1918, the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, were executed.

Thus ended the Romanov Dynasty which had lasted over 300 years. Of course, there is still a pretender to the now nonexistent Russian throne, but for all practical purposes, the royal line ended with the execution of Nicholas and his family.
[The above photo was taken several years before their execution. For example, Anastasia had just turned 17 at the time of their deaths, and the boy was almost 14.]

The early 1600s were known as the Time of Troubles for Russia. With the death of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) and his childless son Feodor, Russia was without a tsar. Civil wars and foreign intervention marked the Time of Troubles between 1606 and 1613.

But in February of 1613, the wars finally came to an end, and the Poles were driven from Moscow, and the Boyars (noblemen) from 50 major cities (and even some peasant-electors) elected a new tsar to be the ruler of Russia. It was not an easy task to find a candidate suitable to the noble families, many of whom had their own candidates in mind.

In the end, a young boy by the name of Michael Romanov was chosen to be tsar of all the Russias and the nobility swore allegiance to the boy, and the church blessed the new young ruler of the vast territory.

The Romanov dynasty would rule Russia until 1917 - over 300 years.

When, during the end stages of WWI, the March Revolution took control of the government, the tsar was forced to abdicate the throne. At first, he abdicated in favor of his young son Alexis. But, unable to part with his frail hemophiliac son, he scribbled out the name of his son and, instead, abdicated in favor of his [the tsar's] younger brother.

His younger brother was named Michael.

Although Michael declined the throne immediately (when the generals could not guarantee his safety), he was, technically, for a short time, the last tsar of Russia.

Thus the dynasty began with a boy named Michael Romanov, and it ended with a distant descendant named Michael Romanov. Not long after, he, too, would be executed by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution of 1917.

The first leader of the Soviet Union was one Vladimir Lenin. His mysteriously embalmed body is still on display in Red Square. He was followed by Josef Stalin, who ruled with an iron hand. After his death in 1953, a power struggle ensued. After a brief period of joint rule, a man named Nikita Kruschev emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union.

Throughout its history, the Soviet Union was marked by power struggles behind the scenes and struggles for leadership of the communist party. A powerful party favorite by the name of Leonid Brezhnev finally gained enough support to oust Kruschev in the fall of 1964.

Brezhnev died in 1985, and was followed briefly by two transitional figures (Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko) who died in rapid succession, and then the final leader of the Soviet Union emerged.

His name was Michael.

Michael in Russian is Mikhail, and Mikhail Gorbachev was nothing short of a visionary. He began unheard of reforms and a new openness in government. He became very popular in the West because of his willingness to talk candidly and negotiate. The times they were a-changin’.

Gorbachev was not so popular back at home as he was in the West. The sudden shock of price controls being lifted and other market changes led to great shortages, especially of food distribution, and long lines formed for bread. Not since WWII and even the revolution before that, had things been so hard and food in such short supply. For the first time, the Soviet Union began accepting food assistance from the West.

A new baby was being born, and the entire Russian population was experiencing wrenching labor pains.

Starting in 1989, the satellite countries under the influence of the Soviet Union began to drop away and declare independence. Poland. Hungary. czechoslovakia, Rumania, and, finally, East Germany. The Berlin wall was torn down by jubilant young protesters and celebrants through the night. Not long before, President Reagan had challenged Gorbachev to tear down the wall. And so it finally came to pass, though not directly by Gorbachev's hand. It was a heady time to be alive.

Then the actual countries that made up the Soviet Union began to declare independence. Even Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Union dropped away. The USSR was disintegrating. Finally, on December 21, 1991, The vast Russian Federation seceded from the Soviet Union and the Union was no more. It’s official date of death was December 25, Christmas Day in the West.

From a boy named Michael to a brother named Michael to a visionary named Michael.

Nobody loves poetry like a Russian. And next to poetry, they love ironic jokes. That’s how they face hard times. Here’s a joke about the terrible food shortages and long lines for food, supposedly told in a speech by Gorbachev himself:

Two Muscovites, Ivan and Piotr, are waiting in line on a Moscow street, waiting to buy bread. The line is blocks long and it hardly moves.

Finally, Piotr says to Ivan in exasperation, "I can’t take this anymore! This is so ridiculous - waiting in line every day for hours! I’m going to go shoot that bastard Gorbachev!"

The people in earshot in the line begin to cheer. “Yes! Yes! Go and shoot the bastard!

And so Piotr trots off with fire in his eye, to shoot the bastard Gorbachev.

But about 45 minutes later he returns, the fire gone out of his eyes.

“Did you shoot him? Did you shoot the bastard?” The people all gather around Piotr, eager for the news.

“I wanted to but I couldn’t. The line of people wanting to shoot him was too long.”

Mikhail Gorbachev at Reagan's funeral.

At the time of their execution, Nicholas had just turned 50; Alexandra was 46; Olga 22, Tatiana 21, Marie 19, Anastasia 17, Alexis 13. Also killed were two servants who had stayed with them throughout their captivity. (Actually one was not a servant, but rather the Tsarevich's doctor.) The Bolsheviks even shot the children's small dog. Screams of dying young girls, and air so thick with gun smoke the shooters could hardly breathe or see, that unspeakable July night in the cellar.

And blood. So much blood.

Lenin was at a meeting when the note was handed to him informing him that the Tsar and his family were dead. He read it, then put it in his pocket and didn't even mention the event to most of the others at the meeting.

Oddly, the family were still allowed to write in their journals during their 16 months of captivity. The family normally spoke English or French amongst themselves (because Russian was somewhat unnatural for the German-born Tsaritsa, a Hessian princess before her marriage to Nicholas), but were required to speak only Russian in captivity so that the guards could understand them. But they kept their journals in English, and didn't try to hide it. Their journals were preserved after their execution, and the following passage comes from Olga, shortly before her death. It has become famous:

"Remember that the evil that is now in the world will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil which conquers evil, but only love."

Click here to

learn more about the daughters of the last Russian tsar.


  1. I love the way you link that history all together by names! I'd love it even more if I didn't have quite such a clear recollection of a substantial part of this "history", the part I still categorise as current events, not quite breaking news, but seemingly so recent.

  2. I agree with Sheila, this is such a wonderful way to write about history.

    I read a lot of Russian history years ago, but am very rusty on it now. "Shadow of the Winter Palace," "To the Finland Station," that sort of thing.

  3. History = Angelika's crossed eyes.

    Anyway, I'm going to buy some Triskets. Just thought I'd let you know in case you were wondering where I was...

  4. Russian history is fascinating (Ivan the Terrible, not just a name), but then I find most history fascinating.

    Clever use of names to bring the story full circle.

  5. @Sheila - How quickly one man's current events become another's history studies. :(

    @Lidian - Well. You ARE still alive! I had heard rumors that the wolves had dragged you off. I am relieved. :) Russian history is a gloriously textured tapestry. You must revive your reading of it. It is good to see you here again.

    @Angelika - Hmmmm. Well, at least you showed your face. So that made me happy. Did you know Triskets were invented by the Russians? For their cosmonauts, I think. :)

    @Stephanie B - There is a theory, even a belief by some Russians, that the Russian people need an iron hand, or at least a firm hand; that they need to be told what to do or else they will be in constant confusion, turmoil and revolt. Ivan The Terrible was such a ruler. So was Peter the Great. So was Stalin. The last Tsar was weak and ineffective. He was not respected. He saw nothing but bloodshed and revolt.

    I am not saying the Russian people abused the freedoms brought on by the actions of Gorbechev, or that they couldn't handle them and so needed a Putin to rule. But if the shoe fits.

    I think Iraq is like that too and Bush didn't get it. Sorry to mix that in here.

  6. Ivan the Terrible was insane. I'm not saying Peter the Great really was, but Ivan the Terrible was insane - not as bad as say Vlad the Impaler but not good by any stretch of the imagination.

    Of course, the actions of almost anyone in the dark ages were more violent, ruthless and thoroughly unpleasant than most modern folks can appreciate. You get some points for being a product of the times.

    As for the theory/belief, there are always factions of people who require being led. It's rarely all of them.



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