A Sweeping Historical Saga on Netflix

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Dear Readers,

This is shaping up to be a busy semester. I’m teaching six classes (five in person and one online). In addition to classroom and office time, I have my faculty council responsibilities and also, this semester, I’m on a faculty hiring committee which means more meetings and interviews. We are only two weeks in and I already feel like I’ve been beaten with a baseball bat whilst getting run over by a bus. (Most of that is due to the fall I had a few weeks back which greatly aggravated my existing back injuries.) Hopefully I’ll be able to come up for air once Spring Break gets here.

Busy though I am, I do keep my evenings free. It is a nightly tradition. I get in bed at 7pm and read while watching TV with my cat, Anastasia. (I can multi-task and so reading while watching TV isn’t a problem for me.) I am a huge fan of the period drama, British, Russian, German, you name it, I’ll watch it. I can now add Turkish to the list. I recently discovered Kurt Seyit ve Sura on Netflix and decided to give it a watch. Coming in at 46 episodes of around 45 minutes each, I probably won’t finish it before the Second Coming, but it is a binge worthy series. I don’t speak Turkish, but as it is on Netflix, it has subtitles.

I did some background reading on the series. It is based on a novel, which I am also reading. The story is actually true and is the story of the author’s grandparents who fled Russia for Istanbul following the Russian Revolution. Though the main characters are Russian, they are played by Turkish actors/actresses. I keep expecting them to speak Russian, but alas, they do not. Oddly enough, this is the first time I’ve actually ever heard spoken Turkish. It is a very pretty language.

There is something about the Russian Revolution that lends itself to drama on a massive scale. Consider Doctor Zhivago, one of the finest movies ever made. (Though the twelve part Russian mini-series version was more faithful to the book.) There is another Russian Revolution epic on Netflix right now too, The Road to Calvary. It’s excellent too. And in Russian (English subs) which lends to the ambiance. But for the full epic experience, you have to watch the 2015 Russian television adaption of Тихий Дон. I’ve sang its praises on a few occasions, and you can watch it for free here. But be warned that it isn’t subtitled.

I’m not sure what it is about the Russian past that lends itself so well to stories painted upon a massive canvas. Whether it be in print, or on screens big or small, there’s something about the county and her history that demand to be told. Perhaps it is the sheer vastness of the steppes, or the haunting beauty of Saint Petersburg. Not to mention the tragedy. There’s something about Russian and Irish authors. They seem to instinctively understand human suffering. And that translates well to film as well. For example, consider this scene where Aksinia is sitting outside the house where her lover Grishka is marrying someone else. It’ll draw a tear for sure.

I wish more sweeping epics of the American past would make their way to the screen. Back in the days of weekly television mini-series offerings, we seemed to have more of them. But it’s almost as if historical epics aren’t that popular with movie audiences in the United States anymore, despite the fact that historical fiction enjoys a steady following. Oh well, thankfully the rest of the world fills the void. I’ll keep watching Seyit ve Sura and maybe I’ll pick up a word or two of Turkish while I’m at it.

L.H.

Murder in Ekaterinburg

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Dear Readers,

My interest in Russian History really began with the announcement of the discovery of the remains of the Romanov Family (and four attendants), minus two of the children whose remains were discovered years later. Prior to that, it being the Cold War and all, I remember being taught in school that the Russians wanted to invade the United States, send our parents to Siberia, and force us to be communists. I maintained a healthy interest over the years and read as widely as I could, even going so far as to learn the Russian language, which, I might add, is extremely difficult.

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Unlike some who study the Romanov dynasty and its downfall, I am not a monarchist. I emphatically reject the notion that any person is superior to me based simply on their status at birth. I cannot, for the life of me, fathom the Royal Family worship exhibited by many Americans, but I digress. Nor do I look on Nicholas II as a benevolent, kindly man. Sure, he was a devoted father and husband and by all accounts, a great one. Too many people, however, gloss over or ignore his anti-Semitism, his use of a secret police force to target dissidents, and the fact that he was an autocratic ruler who answered to no one. I do not feel sorry for him, nor do I really feel any sympathy for his wife, though she never really got a fair chance from the first time she set foot in Russia. My sympathies do lie with the children, who did not deserve to die because of who their father was. No matter the sins of the Tsar, they should not have been placed upon the children as well. (In the interest of full disclosure, and as I previously noted here, I have a history crush on Maria Nikolaevna, the third of the four daughters.)

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My history crush. (Well, one of them anyway.)

Obscene and vile are the only words that come to mind if I am asked to describe what happened in the Ipatiev Basement in the early morning hours of 17 July 1918. Movies made about the final days of the Romanov Family often depict the murder as being a relatively simple affair. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps it is best that the big screen doesn’t depict what really happened to spare the viewer from the horrific spectacle, but that also does a disservice to history. We like our history neat and tidy, and though we acknowledge that terrible things happen, we don’t necessarily want to know all of the gory details. If that is how you like your history, then do not read any further. But if the truth interests you, then proceed.

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Yakov Yurovsky

I will give you one caveat. None of the accounts match exactly as to what happened or what didn’t happen. I’m going off of the most probably course of events when all sources are pooled together to create a likely timeline. At the end, I’ll give you the sources I’ve utilized. We’ll never know the exact truth, and I am not saying that what follows is exactly what happened, merely what is likely to have happened. Allow me to repeat: I’m not saying this is the precise order of events with historical certainty, only historical probability. Okay, we’ve gotten the historical caveat out of the way, let us now proceed to basement of the Ipatiev House. The size of the room is somewhere around 23X21 feet, so rather small, though exactly how large or small again varies from account to account.

A single light bulb casts shadows along the walls. Alexei, 13, is seated in a small wooded chair with a pillow behind him. His mother Alexandra, the Tsarina, is likewise seated in a second chair. There were no chairs in the basement when they arrived just a few minutes ago, but Alexei was suffering from a crippling bout of hemophilia and could not walk (his father carried him down the stairs) and Alexandra has been dealing with sciatica for many years and was often confined to a wheelchair. The daughters, Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19), and Anastasia (17) are gathered behind their mother. Nicholas, former Tsar, stands in between and slightly ahead of the chairs where his wife and son are seated. The family physician, Dr. Botkin, stands behind Alexei. Two others, the cook and the valet, Trupp and Kharitonov, stand along the black wall as does Anna Demidova, Alexandra’s maid, who clutches a pillow with jewels sewed inside. In fact, the daughters too have jewels sewed into their corsets and even Alexei wears an undershirt likewise armored.

The room is cramped and dark. Did they believe they would die? Earlier, Yurovsky who was to be their chief executioner, told them they had to wait for a truck to arrive to take them to a safer place as White forces were getting close to the town. He may or may not have told them they had to take a picture before they left. (Accounts differ on this point.) Finally, the sound of a truck entering the courtyard penetrates the walls of the basement. Surely this means they are about to leave. They family faces the door expectantly and finally it opens. Yurovsky walks in holding a sheet of paper in his left hand. His right is shoved into his pocket. But behind him? Ten other men enter clutching pistols. They look young and even scared. Several of them sport bloodshot eyes and stagger a bit from the alcohol they’ve spent the past several hours drinking. Earlier that night, two young men refused to take part in the execution and said they could not shoot the daughters. Yurovsky excused them from the duty and replaced them with two others. Six, including Yurovsky, are Russian. The other five are Latvians. Each has been assigned a specific person to shoot and told to aim straight for the heart to kill quickly and avoid excess bleeding that they’d have to clean up later. They close the door behind them. At this point, I think the Romanovs and their servants must have known, or guessed, what was about to happen.

Yurovsky orders everyone to stand. Alexandra rises from her chair but Alexei cannot. He begins to read the order sentencing them to death. As soon as he finishes, Nicholas looks at him in shock and asks “What? What?” Yurovsky reads the order again. Alexandra begins to cross herself. Yurovsky yanks a pistol out of his pocket and fires a round straight into Nicholas’ chest. The others open fire but rather than shoot at their assigned victims, they too riddle the Tsar’s body with bullets as he slumps onto the floor. Everyone wanted to be able to claim they killed the Tsar, but gunning down the Tsarina or her beautiful daughters? There is no honor in that. The men begin to fire wildly as the women scream in terror. The men in the back are firing over the shoulders of the men in front of them, so close that some suffer permanent hearing loss while others are burned by the muzzle flashes.

The air quickly becomes dense with smoke. Bullets ricochet off the plaster walls and rattle around the room. Some of the bullets intended for the Nicholas instead strike Trupp and Botkin, who goes down with wounds to the abdomen and shattered kneecaps, none fatal. Trupp dies quickly from a wound to the head, as does Kharitonov. Alexandra turns her head away and tries to cross herself as Ermakov, one of the executioners, raises his pistol from very close range and pulls the trigger. The bullet strikes her in the head. Blood and brain matter spray into the air. Through it all, Alexei still sits in the chair, unhurt, as his father’s blood slowly runs down his face.

There is a door in the back of the basement. Perhaps it offers a chance of escape? Maria desperately tries to claw the door open until a bullet to the thigh crumples her to the floor. A leg wound likewise drops Anna Demidova to the floor where she passes out from shock, fear, and pain. Olga, Anastasia, and Tatiana cower in a corner. The air is so thick with the choking fumes from the pistols that the executioners can’t see or breathe. Yurovsky orders them to stop. He opens the doors and the men step outside into the cool night air. Some vomit. But there is still a job to be done. What should have been quick was anything but. A few men grab rifles with bayonets from another room and return to the basement.

The floor is slick with blood. The room stinks of gunpowder, blood, urine, and feces from bowels loosened in death or fear. Alexei still sits in the chair in a terrified state of paralysis. Yurovksy empties his Mauser revolver into Alexei’s chest with seemingly little effect. Finally he slumps to the floor where he lies moaning, still alive. Attempts to stab him with a bayonet prove useless as it cannot penetrate his “armor”. Finally, Alexei is dispatched with two rounds through his ear and into his brain. In the far corner, Olga and Tatiana are shielding Anastasia with their own bodies. The men approach, feet slipping on the bodily fluids pooled on the floor.

The older to girls try to stand up. Tatiana makes it to her feet and is cut down by a bullet through her head which exits her face and covers her sisters with blood as they shriek hysterically in terror. Olga is shoved back onto the floor and shot in the head. Botkin is likewise shot through the head as he lays wounded on the ground. Anastasia crawls over to where her sister Maria lies wounded. She is dragged away and, like her sister, is finished off with numerous bayonet thrusts, blows from rifle butts, and a bullet to the head. What should have taken seconds has taken twenty terrifying minutes.

Suddenly, Anna Demidova regains consciousness! She sits up and exclaims “God has saved me!” The men turn on her with bayonets. Anna fends them off by using her jeweled pillow as a shield. Finally, the shield is knocked away. As Ermakov lunges with a bayonet aimed for her stomach, she grabs it with her hands. Blood runs from her hands as it is forced into her stomach. She is finished off with numerous bayonet thrusts and rifle butts. Later, as the bodies are loaded into the back of the truck, one of the daughters, either Maria or Anastasia suddenly sits up and screams. She is dragged from the truck and finished off with bayonets and rifle butts. Finally, finally, it is all over.

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One of the last group photos of the daughters, taken while in captivity.

I will not go into detail about the burial of the remains other than to say they were first placed in one location, then removed the next day to a different site. There, an attempt was made to burn the two smallest bodies (Maria/Anastasia and Alexei). Those two bodies were buried in a separate grave than the rest. Thus, when the official exhumation of the remains took place, two bodies were missing. This poured fuel on the fire of those who desperately hoped Anastasia survived. Scientists all agree Alexei was missing, but some stated the missing body belonged to Maria and others to Anastasia. It wasn’t until 2007 that the second grave was discovered.  Though it isn’t know for sure if Anastasia or Maria was in the grave with Alexei, DNA has proven that ALL the members of the family died in the basement. There were no survivors, which isn’t surprising given the brutality of what took place. Despite the DNA though, there are still people out there who hold desperately onto the belief that Anastasia survived. I’m not sure why, really. But it is what it is.

As I stated at the beginning, I have no sympathy for Nicholas or Alexandra. My sympathies lie with the children, especially Maria whom I’ve had a history crush on for a long, long time. Perhaps when I die, my spirit will float back through time and I will have the chance to dance just one waltz with her in Saint Petersburg.

Hutch

The Fate of the Romanovs King & Wilson

The Last Days of the Romanovs: Rappaport

Nicholas and Alexandra: Massie

The Romanovs: The Final Chapter: Massie

Also, the best online resource out there: The Alexander Palace here.

The Forgotten Great War: World War One in Africa

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German colonial troops in East Africa

Friends,

I often say that in some ways, World War One is a largely forgotten war here in the United States. Our troops were only in combat for the final nine moths or so of the war and our casualties, though high for such a short time, were nowhere near as high as the European powers. However, it was a world war and as such there were other theaters. Imagine: cavalry riding zebras instead of horses, columns of men marching through the jungles or plains, gunboats steaming up and down the great African lakes. That sounds like something from a Tarzan movie! But it all really happened. I wish I could dive into the subject and tell you all sorts of tales of midnight raids and pitched gunboat battles while soldiers and sailors dodge crocodiles, snakes, and hippopotami, but time and space prevent me from hitting this subject with anything more than a glancing blow. I can’t fully tackle this subject, but I can give it a flesh wound.

World War One was in many ways a colonial war. Competition for overseas colonies was a big contributing factor to the growing antagonism between Germany and England. When Germany unified in 1871, they set out to become an overseas power since they equated, just like the United States would do, colonies with economic and military power. The problem for the Germans is that much of the world was already spoken for. The British got into the game early and established themselves as the dominant colonial power. Remember the old adage: “The sun never sets on the British empire”. (It is, of course, because God doesn’t trust the British in the dark.) The resulting “Scramble for Africa” in the late 19th Century resulted in Germany carving out a piece of the only real continent with any territory up for grabs. When it came to imperialism, native peoples were never consulted as to their wishes, of course. The Europeans came to Africa to “civilize” them and to “Christianize (ie: Protestantize) them. This was done without regard to existing tribal cultures. But that’s always been the dark side of imperialism.

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Sengalese troops in the Sudan.

In his masterful work (seriously…..it is history that reads like an adventure novel), Byron Farwell notes that though Irishman Earnest Thomas is credited as firing the first British shots of World War One, that is, in fact, incorrect. The first shot was fired by an unknown black soldier in a British uniform in Togoland a week earlier. While a marker notes the spot where Thomas fired his shot, no marker commemorates the actual spot where the first British shot of the war was fired. In other words, Africa was in the war from the beginning. Both sides used African troops and the British also used other colonial troops from India during their campaigns. There were several full scale military operations that took place. The warring powers considered this theater important enough to devote substantial resources to it. There are some really great pictures out there of black soldiers wearing German uniforms, Indian troops marching through the jungles, men on zebras, etc. I was always a fan of the old Tarzan movies (mainly because Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane) was not only hot but she had a great Irish name.

The main German commander in East Africa was General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. He was, quite possibly, Germany’s most able commander of the entire war. With his invasion of British territory, he was the only German commander to invade sovereign British soil. The thing is, he never really lost! He only surrendered upon being informed of the armistice. His operations are considered one of the best (and most successful) examples of guerrilla warfare in history. After the war, he returned to Germany to a hero’s welcome. In the 1930s, Hitler offered him an ambassadorship. The General’s response was fairly blunt. He is alleged to have said “Go f—k yourself.” In the 1960s, a reporter asked his nephew if he really said that to Hitler. The nephew replied “Yes, but I don’t think he put it quite so nicely.”

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Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: The Lion of Africa

The human cost of the Great War in Africa is difficult to gauge. Since both sides used colonial troops and also civilian carriers, their record keeping was not up to the same standards as elsewhere. It is estimated that over a million Africans died, not just from the war itself, but from starvation and disease that often accompanies large scale conflict. The war laid waste to large parts of German East Africa and also some of the British territories as well, just as it did in France and Belgium. In our current centennial celebrations relating to World War One, we must remember to think of the brave African troops who fought on both sides in far away and forgotten campaigns.

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German troops hanging out with executed “thieves”.

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Beware the Zebra Cavalry! (Actually a horse disguised as a zebra.)

And friends, if you will allow me a moment to editorialize, I would like to point out that there is still a war raging in Africa. The Great Congo War (also known as the African World War) has been ongoing (off and on) since 1998. MILLIONS have died in the Eastern Congo and the world has paid no attention to it. If this had been happening in a country full of white people……well, it would never have been allowed to happen in the first place. Though Africa was far from peaceful before the Europeans showed up (tribes fought tribes on a regular basis), the decolonization process in Africa has been very rough in some areas, though it has gone well in others. Remember, it was in the same Congo which sees so much violence today that the Belgians waged what can only be called a genocidal campaign in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Our government cares so much about ISIS yet pays no attention to Boko Haram in Nigeria other than passing references. We stepped in to stop ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, but cared little about the slaughter that took place in Rwanda. Africa and all her people matter, regardless of what the Western Governments might think.

Here are some GREAT books on World War One in Africa.

The Great War in Africa by Byron Farwell

World War One: The African Front by Edward Paice

Hell, CNN even wrote an article here.

Check out the World War 1 in Africa Project here. (It has a great story about a WW1 German gunboat that is now being used as a ferry!)

And last but not least, if you want to raise your awareness of colonialism in Africa in general, take a look at The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham. For a great look at the current “world war” in Africa, read Africa’s World War by Gerard Prunier.