9 Fun Facts About The Russian Revolution

russian-flag-1168929_1920It’s impossible for me to go through November, 2017 without saying a few words about the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.  The problem is it’s so damn complicated and, quite frankly (aside from Che) dead communists are not all that fashionable anymore.  Plus, in a time when “history” means “last week,” it’s difficult to explain to people that our world wouldn’t be suckin’ up to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in the 21st century if a 19th century university student named Aleksandr Ulyanov had stuck to zoology.  (So be it!)  However, rather than kick myself forever for missing the opportunity, here are some fun facts about the Russian Revolution that most history books, historians and political pundits ignore.

1 – The Russians call it the “October Revolution” even though it happened in November because, in 1917, Russia was still using the calendar Julius Caesar created in 45 B.C. — which shows you just how backward Russia was at the time!
2 – The word “Tsar” is the Russian equivalent of the Latin term “Caesar” — which came to Russia from the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the 15th century.
3 – From the time of Ivan III of Muscovy (who kicked out the Mongols) the Russian double-headed eagle hasn’t been able to decide whether it wants liberal enlightenment or reactionary despotism.  For example, Peter and Catherine — both ruthless, brutal rulers — are designated “the Great” in Russian history; whereas the most progressive of all the tsars, Alexander II, has been largely forgotten.  Ironically, despite his many reforms, Tsar Alexander was actually assassinated by socialist revolutionaries.
4 – The definition of “revolution” is “one complete rotation.”  That means that if you’re on a wheel and have a revolution, you end up in exactly the same place you started from.  In fact, you can have dozens of revolutions and you’ll always end up in the same place!
5 – What Marx wrote and what Lenin did are two different things.  Marx was a German philosopher in the mold of Schopenhauer, Kant and Nietzsche.  Lenin was a slick, silver-tongued lawyer, lookin’ for the main chance.
6 – Items #2 and #3 explain why, in 100 years, Russia has “progressed” from an empire ruled by an absolute autocrat, Tsar Nicholas II, to whatever-the-hell it is now — where President Vladimir Putin’s word is absolute law.
7 – Aside from Lenin, most of the Soviet leaders who came after the Russian Revolution weren’t actually Russian.  Stalin was a Georgian, Brezhnev was Ukrainian and all the others — up until Gorbachev — had mixed ancestry including Don Cossack and Finnish.
8 – Unlike capitalism and socialism, communism is such a dumbass, discredited political system that the only people who still even pretend to believe in it are college sophomores and their bearded professors.

And finally

9 – Aleksandr Ulyanov was a natural science student who, in 1887, was part of  conspiracy to assassinate Tsar Alexander III.  He was arrested, tried, convicted and executed.  He was also Lenin’s older brother!  This goes a long way in explaining why Lenin had such a hate on for the Romanov dynasty that he spend his entire life trying to destroy it.  In 1917 he succeeded and set up a regime whose ideology dominated political thought (for and against) for most of the 20th century.

Easter Egg Hunt 2017

It’s time to talk about eggs.  No, not the ones the bunny’s going to leave or the ones that show up in your McMuffins, but real, honest-to-God Easter eggs that retail for 8 to 10 million dollars.  These are the Romanov Eggs, incredible treasures left over from the days of Imperial Russia.

Faberge-Eggs

Just a quick review.  The Romanovs were the boys (no girls allowed — except Catherine the Great) who ran the show in Imperial Russia a hundred years ago.  At the peak of their power, in the 19th century, their writ ran from the North Pole to the Himalayas and from the Vistula River to the Pacific Ocean.  It’s hard to understand these days, but as absolute autocrats, they literally owned everything within those borders — down to the last babushka, and, more importantly, the grandma who was wearing it.  When a Romanov said jump, you didn’t waste his time asking how high; you got your ass into the air.  It’s no accident that the Russian word czar is derived from the Latin Caesar and that’s how the Romanovs thought of themselves.  Unfortunately, that’s what eventually got them into trouble, but that story’s for a different time.

It was Czar Alexander III who came up with the idea of an Imperial Easter Egg.  Somewhere in the mid 1880s, he decided to give his wife, the Czarina Maria, a present for Easter.  (BTW, Easter is the highest holiday on the Russian Orthodox religious calendar.)  However, if you’re Czar of all the Russias, you can’t very well cruise down to Walmart and check out the sales; you have to come up with something special.  The Czar settled on an understated single egg, but one so elaborate it would thrill a woman who literally had everything.  He called on Pierre Faberge to make it so, and the result was beyond everybody’s wildest expectations.  The Hen, made of gold and enamel, looked like a real egg.  However, it opened up to reveal a yolk ,which, in turn, opened to reveal a chicken which also opened to reveal a diamond miniature of the Imperial crown and a ruby pendant that the Czarina could wear.  Everyone was so delighted with Faberge’s efforts that an Easter tradition was born.  From that Easter in 1885 — until Lenin and his pals put a stop to it in 1917 — Faberge made a number of Easter Eggs for the Imperial House of Romanov.

The Imperial Easter Eggs were exquisite examples of Romanov opulence; intricate toys encrusted with jewels.  For example, the Trans Siberian Egg had a small train inside that could be wound with a key so that it ran on a tiny track.  The Peter the Great Egg held a replica of his St. Petersburg statue which rose out of the egg when you turned a dial.  The Tercentenary Egg had hand-painted miniature portraits of all the Romanov czars and a globe made of coloured gold that showed Russian expansion.  Each of these “eggs” was flawless (the Trans Siberian train had windows made of crystal!) and cost millions of rubles.  Remember that the Faberge name was not always attached to the glitz we see today.  In the beginning, Faberge dealt exclusively in jewelry, objets d’art and unequaled elegant craftsmanship.  They were the greatest jewellers of the 19th century — no contest — by appointment to the Imperial House of the Romanovs and some of their wealthier friends.  Translation: Faberge made trinkets for the wealthy which were so expensive, even normal rich people couldn’t afford them. Only high-end nobility and their uber-wealthy compadres could meet the tariff.  The objets d’art Faberge made for the Russian aristocrats were practically obscene, especially when the average Russian of the time lived his entire life on black bread and cabbage — and not very much of that.  One Romanov egg could have set a Russian village up for life.  And by the time the Soviets confiscated them during the revolution in 1917, there were 50 or so of these baubles kicking around the Imperial palaces.

This is where it gets interesting because, like so many things that went through the Russian Revolution, there are strange circumstances surrounding the Romanov “Easter eggs.”

First, nobody is 100% certain how many were actually made.  Most sources have settled on 50, but some say 52, and some as high as 54.  Oddly enough, even though there are records, nobody seems to have kept track.  Granted, the Romanovs had been collecting art for three centuries; they had a bunch.  (Even today, The Hermitage in St. Petersburg has the largest single collection of art in the world, and most of it used to belong to the Romanovs.)  One piece here or there could go unnoticed.  However, when the ornaments are worth millions, somebody somewhere is supposed to know how many there are.  It’s pretty darn strange that even today, after 100 years of research, scholars can’t agree on what was there in the first place.

Secondly, some of the “Eggs” have been lost.  Again, nobody seems to know how many.  The general figure is eight, but that’s open to discussion.  Regardless, how does one lose even one table-sized Easter egg that’s gold, heavy and sparkling with jewels?  It’s not like you could forget it with your umbrella on the bus. Somebody would notice.  Certainly, in all the confusion of 1917, the Imperial household may have misplaced a few things.  Also, it’s entirely possible that, during the Revolution, some of the People’s Commissars may have helped themselves to an item or two — just in case the whole communist gig didn’t work out.  These are possible scenarios, but the real problem is that when the Soviets confiscated everything Romanov, they treated in all with cavalier disdain.  This was capitalist decadence at the high end, and no self respecting Bolshevik was going to sully his ideology with it.  For example, when the “eggs” were finally inventoried (over several years in the 20s) because Stalin had bankrupted the country, the records were woefully incomplete — plus no photographs were taken.  To make matters worse, when Stalin gave businessman Armand Hammer (nobody knows how many) “eggs” to sell in America for the hard currency he needed, he didn’t bother to get a receipt.  So there are no records of what Hammer had, sold, or gave to Value Village.  The Soviets didn’t care, as long as they got the cash, and Hammer conveniently burnt his books just in case the American Federales looked too closely at his communist connections.  Thus, somewhere between 1917 and now, at least eight — or maybe more — pieces of priceless Russian art have been lost.

As we all know, aside from socks in the dryer, “lost” is a relative term.  These “Easter Eggs” have to be somewhere.  Yet, one would think that after all these years, their enormous value would bring them back into the public eye.  It hasn’t.  Obviously, some connoisseurs are content to enjoy their collection in secret — and keep their mouths shut.  However, most experts believe that, in some cases, whoever has one of the “lost” eggs may not be aware of what they own.  For example, we now know that, back in the 60s, a genuine Faberge egg, not identified as such, sold at a New York auction, for less than $10,000. (Sotheby’s is still trying to track down both the buyer and the seller.)  To put things into perspective, in 2007, the Rothschild Egg (which is not a Romanov egg) sold for 13.5 million dollars.  (Big difference, huh?)

The bottom line is that somewhere out there, there’s a czar’s ransom in “lost” Romanov treasure.  So, if you’re going to Great Aunt Olga’s house for Easter dinner you might want to take a browse through her china cabinet.  Who knows?

Syria: You Can Pick Your Friends, But …

I think if I were a Syrian, I’d be looking around for some new friends.  This current crowd just isn’t measuring up in the amigo department.  After all, if your BFF is Iran, it doesn’t take a PHD in WTF to figure out you’re in trouble.  Meanwhile, when two superpowers (one past, one future) are playing nice with you and nasty with the UN, I’d be counting the silverware.  No accusations, but the last time the Russians went all warm and fuzzy in the Middle East, Gamal Nasser was building the Aswan dam.  And China’s newfound foreign muscle needs no introduction.  Something’s rotten in Damascus.  I’m not sure what it is, but I’ll bet Syrian pounds to a pile of camel poop it’s not going to go well for the average guy on that Arab street.

Despite what most second tier Western diplomats will tell you, Syria is not on the top of anybody’s talking list right now.  Even the big boys at the Tunis conference over the weekend didn’t have much to say.  Of course, they made all the right noises: condemning the killing, promising aid and other such vagueries, but I imagine the afterhours parties were long on nuclear Iran and short on dead dissidents.  It’s not that Syria isn’t sexy; what’s not to like about democracy going toe to toe with a ruthless dictator?  Besides, it might only be Homs, but even the French have heard of the Alamo.  The problem is deeper than that.

Just a little background.  Less than a year ago, Sarkozy and his buddies couldn’t gas up the F-18s fast enough to go and knock the snot out of Muammar Gaddafi.  They put on a textbook (limited) military campaign that surprised everybody, including me and Muammar.  Now, another flowering of Arab Spring is raising its lovely head north of Damascus, but the day before yesterday, those same eager beavers, forgot where they put the launch keys.  What gives?  I’ll grant you, some of the hurtin’ they put on Gaddafi was payback for being a forty-year-on pain in the ass, but, in general, Western motivations in Libya were honest.  Yeah, yeah, yeah; “Blood for Oil.”  But I’ll let you in on a little secret: that Mad Men slogan is just another clever way to sell bumper stickers.  I’m not naive enough to think Libyan oil wasn’t an issue, but for all those who still believe in Santa Claus and the Great Satan, they both get their oil from Canada and the Saudis.  The difference is Muammar didn’t have any friends left at the end, whereas Basher al-Assad still does — and they’re walking with a swagger these days.

Remember when you where in high school and there was that nasty kid most people avoided?   The one who thought it was funny to hold the washroom door closed or spray Coke™ on the back of your head?  The guy whose face still says, “Oh, yeah!  Him.” in the Yearbook.  Then there were those rowdy kids who had their lockers at the end of the hall, the ones the Glee Club and the cheerleader crowd stayed away from.  They weren’t really hardcore but nobody messed with them ‘cause they had a bad reputation, kinda like Kenickie and Rizzo from Grease.  Well, if the world were just a great big high school (and I’m not saying it isn’t) Syria is that nasty kid.   But instead of being a jerk all by himself, he decided to suck up to the rough bunch down the hall.  He doesn’t really belong to that group, but they don’t mind him hanging around.  In a nutshell, Syria thinks it can get away with all kinds of idiot antics because it has some tough friends.

Unfortunately, Bashar and his crew have forgotten the one essential element of friendship in the world of international relations: what do you bring to the table?  It’s obvious.  They don’t bring a lot.  In the great scheme of things, Syria is pretty much a backwater and has been — ever since the Mongols burned it down in the 13th century.  Its only claim to fame is the mess they’ve made of Lebanon and the always ill-tempered Hezbollah, both of whom are putting some distance between themselves and Damascus.  Right now, China and Russia don’t mind that Syria is a thorn in the foot of the Western world.  It suits them.  However, that’s going to change.  Eventually, Bashar’s going to be more trouble than he’s worth.  When that happens, Syria will have even less to offer a burgeoning Asian Superpower, and I doubt very much that Vladimir Putin ever got any awards for being a nice guy.  Bashar’s cling to power has a limited shelf life.  Regardless of who he thinks his friends are, he’s not going to last anywhere near the Presidential term yesterday’s farce referendum gave him.  When the proverbial ship hits the sand even his best buddy, Ahmadinejad, who has a few problems of his own, is going to make himself scarce.

The problem is, it isn’t Bashar who’s going to pay the price.  (Although a show trail a la Hosni Mubarak would be nice.)  It’ll be the ordinary Syrian, who doesn’t really know who his friends are anymore.