March 04, 2020

The Epic, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Best of Russian History

The Epic, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Best of Russian History
Russian history contains dozens of characters even more colorful than this map. Alvin Jewett Johnson, Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Russian history is interesting. Not always beautiful, not always glorious, but almost always… interesting. There are countless overlooked (or, conversely, over-mythologized) stories in the millenium-plus of Russian history. Here are five of the best: the epic, the bad, and the ugly.

1. The Epic: The Battle on the Ice

1240s Russia was not a great place to be. Divided into numerous semi-autonomous principalities, the Rus’ cities were caught off-guard by Mongol incursions in the 1230s and 1240s. Almost all of these states fell under the Golden Horde. Only the Novgorod Republic in the northwest maintained some autonomy. Seeking to derive advantage from the situation, the Teutonic Knights, from what is now Germany, along with Baltic allies, headed East into the Novgorod lands.

Novgorodian Prince Alexander Nevsky, famed for his victories over the Swedes on the Neva delta (hence his sobriquet) gathered his forces and those from a couple of allied principalities and went out in April 1242, to meet the Teutonic troops on the frozen Lake Peipus (or some nearby lake on the Russian border with Estonia).

When the heavy Teutonic cavalry charged into Russian lines, Nevsky ordered his men to fall back, drawing the Germans further onto the lake. As the Germans became surrounded, the ice beneath them began to give way, drowning hundreds of the heavily-armored invaders but sparing the lightly-clad Russians. Defeated, the troops that remained returned to the West, never to return.

How much of this story is myth, and how much is fact? It’s hard to tell; there is scant archaeological evidence of the engagement. And the whole ice-breaking-and-knights-drowning cliche may be an invention of Sergei Eisenstein in his 1938 film (German invasions had gained a whole new meaning by then). But it’s badass nonetheless.

2. The Bad: Peter III

There are plenty of eccentricities among the 18th-century Romanovs: Catherine II’s supposed promiscuity, Anna’s Hermitage bird-hunting, and, a personal favorite, Peter the Great’s “All-Joking, All-Drunken Synod of Fools and Jesters.” However, Peter III takes the cake when it comes to bizarre monarchs of 1700s Russia.

Born in Germany in 1728 and heir of Russia via his sister’s diplomatic marriage, Peter never got around to learning Russian very well. While he was naturally intelligent and witty, he reveled in alcohol and practical jokes, which often bordered on the cruel. He was also enamored with all things military.

When, in 1745, a bright young princess from the German principality of Stettin named Sophie was chosen and sent to Russia as a suitable bride, she described her future husband as malevolent, immature, and rude. Once, she found a rat hanging from a wall. When she asked Peter what had happened, he said that the rat had bitten the head off of one of his toy soldiers, and so had to be hung according to the laws of war.

Young Sophie maintained that they never consummated the marriage, despite 16 years together at Oranienbaum Palace; both Peter and Sophie took adulterous lovers. When Peter ascended to the throne in 1762, Sophie was able to swiftly dispose of him and take the throne as Catherine II, who would later become “the Great.” Peter lived out the next two weeks of his life in prison before dying under mysterious circumstances.

A note: If Catherine’s claim of marital celibacy is true, then the Romanov line died with Peter. And if anyone should think that history is boring, there is scholarly debate regarding Peter and Catherine’s sex life.

3. The Ugly: Paul I

While perhaps not as unhinged as Peter III, Tsar Paul had a life that was perhaps more a comic tragedy with an ironic twist.

Catherine and Peter III’s son (officially), Paul I was a chip off the old block. Born in 1754 and ascending to the throne in 1796 on the death of his mother, Paul was, like his (possible) dad also enamored with martial displays, taking a keen interest in military affairs and personally overseeing the design of uniforms. And, like Peter, he was reportedly vindictive and malicious: when soldiers would make even a small misstep on the parade ground, they would be met with lashings and similarly brutal punishment.

The episode of history most fascinating in the life of Paul was the months leading up to his death. As a series of contradictory and arbitrary laws and reforms soured Paul’s relationship with the people, the tsar ordered the construction of Mikhailovsky Zamok, or St. Michael’s Castle. The palace, a veritable fortress in the center of St. Petersburg, was to protect Paul from potential assassins, while still providing ample viewing opportunities for parades and the changing of the guard.

Paul’s paranoia, it turns out, was not unfounded. Only 40 days after moving into the Castle in 1801, a palace coup, in which his son Alexander was complicit (and even present in the Castle at the time), was staged by members of his household guards, who killed him on the spot.

St. Michael’s Castle is today a tourist site in central Petersburg with rotating art exhibits. It’s near the Summer Garden and Russian Museum and its orange facade, gold spire, and strange juxtaposition among the parks, just off Nevsky Prospect, make it impossible to miss.

4. The Embarrassing: The Dogger Bank Incident

Russia had a rough go of it in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Attacked by the Japanese in their Far East and Manchurian outposts, the Russian military was caught off-guard and had to scramble to mobilize and defend its far-flung colonies.

The Japanese had rapidly modernized their military and political structure, and their foray into Asia would put their new army and navy to the test against a European power. The Russians quickly realized that the Japanese were well-equipped and a force to be reckoned with.

Amid these embarrassments, the Russian Baltic Fleet set sail from St. Petersburg to reinforce the fleet in the Pacific. Paranoid that the Japanese may have sent cruisers or torpedo boats to attack the reinforcements, the Russian admiral ordered his men to be vigilant.

As the ships steamed into the North Sea on the foggy night of October 21, 1904, some Russian officers sighted a fleet of British fishing boats and, mistaking them for Japanese vessels, despite being more than 20,000 miles from Japan, commenced firing. Some ships reported torpedo hits, and sailors grabbed life vests and cutlasses to prepare to stave off boarders. In the confusion, two Russian ships, including the famous Aurora, were also fired upon. After 20 minutes, the order to cease fire was given.

When the smoke cleared, two British fishermen had been killed and their trawler sunk, along with a Russian sailor and an Orthodox priest. Fortunately, casualties were minimized by lackluster Russian equipment: one ship fired 500 rounds without hitting anything. The incident only further humiliated the Russian Empire and drew Britain and Russia close to war.

While the Russo-Japanese War is often overshadowed by the Great War that followed close on its heels, at the time it was one of the largest armed conflicts in history. The 1904-1905 conflict exposed cracks in the Russian regime, fueling the Revolution of 1905. The peace deal of the war was presided over by President Teddy Roosevelt, whose leadership resulted in his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize: the first American to receive one.

5. The Juicy: Rasputin

The story of Grigory Rasputin has been retold so many times that, like the Battle on the Ice,  it’s difficult to parse truth from fiction. However, in this case, truth is certainly strange enough.

A mystic monk and tireless philanderer from Siberia with piercing eyes and endless charisma, Rasputin entered the last Romanov court as a healer for the young Tsarevich Alexei, whose haemophilia would cause debilitating pain. Beginning in 1906, Empress Alexandra employed Rasputin to soothe her son during his episodes, and he was apparently quite good at it. He became influential in the Russian court, by some accounts acting as a close advisor of the Empress while Tsar Nicholas II was on the war front in 1914-1915.

By that time, a group of St. Petersburg nobles, most notably Felix Yusupov, had had enough. Rasputin was deemed a threat to the Empire and had to be done away with. Yusupov and his associates invited Rasputin to Yusupov’s home late at night on December 30, 1916.

The following account has passed into legend, and, while it may be mythologized, is generally accepted as true. As Rasputin waited in the basement, Yusupov served him cyanide-laced tea. After waiting for a while, Yusupov noticed that Rasputin did not seem to be affected, and asked for wine instead. Yusupov left and returned with a revolver, shooting Rasputin in the chest before leaving.

When Yusupov returned to the basement a few hours later to ensure Rasputin’s death, the mystic suddenly rose, clawing his way out of the room. He made it into the courtyard before being shot and collapsing into a snowbank. Yusupov and his associates bundled Rasputin up and threw him into the River Neva.

Some accounts of the tale say that he was discovered the next day clinging to a bridge, dead from freezing rather than bullets and poison. Even stranger is the story that, when the body was cremated, it attempted to sit up. But then the corpus of myths surrounding Rasputin is massive: many of these stories are surely fabricated. Regardless, Rasputin was dead.

A final, and especially bizarre, point: according to some, Rasputin’s legendary (and prodigious) member is pickled and on display in St. Petersburg. Russia’s greatest love machine indeed.

Bonus: The Goofy: Did you know Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev starred in a Pizza Hut commercial? You do now.

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