Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Screwups as a National Mythology

I know: stuff happens anywhere. But is any nation more defined than Russia by mistakes, screwups, instances of vain foolishness?

Take for example St. Isaac's Cathedral, the showcase of Orthdoxy just a grenade's throw from the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. There was a competition for the design. There was a competition for the design. Apparently everyone agreed that the winner was not remotely competent to the job. But he pleased Tsar Alexander I and that was the end of it. The Cathedral was 40 years in the building, not least because the architect had to keep hollering for help.

More serious, perhaps, is the doom of the impulse to political liberalism in the failed Dekabrist Revolution of 1825. The rebels--actually a clique of well-connected young army officers--hoped to force the Senate to mandate constitutional republic. The uprising degenerated into a Ruritanian farce, comical except that the leaders were hanged and many others exiled to Siberia (common soldiers, who probably had no idea why they were called to duty, were forced to run the gauntlet).

Perhaps the most grotesquely comic of all is the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. The first bomb fizzled; Alexander's protectors attempted to vacate the area but the Tsar insisted to stop to berate the failed assassin; a second bomb blew him to kingdom come.

There is also story about the killing of Rasputin, the evil genius of the tsarist court, in 1916. According to the assassins, Rasputin was an unconscionable time a-dying; first they poisoned him, then they shot him, then they shoved him under the ice. Apparently more careful research has discredited the standard version; I wonder how many ordinary Russians cling to the old view.

Oh, and did I mention that they buried Gogol alive, i.e., by mistake? Or maybe they didn't; either way, there is a mistake in the story and my point holds.

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