Friday, September 29, 2006

Burying the Dreadful Past

The BBC has an article about the return of the body of the mother of the last Czar of Russia to that country for reburial. Born in Denmark and married off, as part of a standard European royal geopolitical marriage, to a man who would become Alexander III, she had left after the Russian Revolution had swallowed her family whole, poignantly refusing to believe until her dying day that all her descendants were really dead.

Americans, including many American conservatives, have no real sympathy for royalty. In this they differ historically from European conservatives, the difference being that what conservatives are trying to conserve in each society is different. Americans, and to some extent the rest of the Anglosphere, are trying to preserve the individual autonomy that is our distinct heritage, while European conservatives historically have tried to preserve their own social patrinomy, of which royal prerogatives were once a major part.

And yet for all that there is much for even the libertarian to mourn in the slaughter of Nicholas II, his family and servants, because it was the antechamber to the totalitarian horrors of the twentieth century. In his book The Russian Revolution, the Russian historian Richard Pipes recounts the last moments of the royal family:

Next came Nicholas with Alexis in his arms: both wore military shirts and caps. Then followed the Empress with her daughters, Anastasia and her pet King Charles spaniel, Jemmy, and Dr. Botkin. Demidova carried two pillows, concealed in one of which was a box with jewelry. Behind her came the valet, Trup, and the cook, Kharitonov. Unknown to the family, the execution squad of ten, six of them Hungarians, the rest Russians, was in an adjoining room. According to Medvedev, the family “appeared calm as if expecting no danger.”

Is known from eyewitnesses that the Empress and one of her daughters barely had time to cross themselves: they too died instantly. There was wild shouting as the guards emptied their revolvers: according to Iurovskii the bullets, ricocheting from the walls and floor, flew around the room like hail. The girls screamed. Struck by bullets, Alexis fell off the chair. Kharitonov “sat down and died.”

It was hard work. Iurovskii had assigned each executioner one victim, and they were to aim straight at the heart. Still, six of the victims – Alexis, three of the girls, Demidova and Botkin – were alive when the salvos stopped. Alexis lay in a pool of blood, moaning: Iurovskii finished him off with two shots to the head. Demidova offered furious defense with her pillows, one of which had a metal box, then she too went down, bayoneted to death.

Although Bartlett’s lists it as an old French adage of anonymous origin, Lenin is always quoted as saying that “to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.” And the broken eggs of the Royal corpses – whose deaths were to be camouflaged by a staged escape attempt, and which were ultimately received with equanimity at best, delight at worst by many strata of Russian society – foreshadowed what was to come. The new Soviet Union would become the first totalitarian society, complete with show trials, fake history, and the cultivation of intense class-based hatred by those like Lenin who invented and perfected what Stalin, Hitler and Mao would ultimately refine to the highest dark art.

After a blood-drenched century, the world is under less threat from such absolute totalitarianism than it has been since the shots were fired in Ekaterinburg. While Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian who is not shy about asserting the Russian national interest, he is not going to resurrect the show trials, the mass slaughter, etc. And while “Islamic fascism” shares some traits with his notorious (and purely Western) predecessor, it is mostly the enraged outburst of a failing civilization, incapable of seizing power in most of its own part of the world, let alone (unless excessively indulged by those who rule Western societies) threatening the rest of it to the extent that the Soviets and the Nazis once did. Conflict and wars will always be with us, but the reburial of Maria Fyodorovna is, one can hope, a symbolic end to our worst era.


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