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Violence in the Urals

The Norman Transcript

September 24, 2005 12:15 am

— For The Transcript


Where Europe ends and Asia begins is not always clear. One tradition is that the Ural Mountains divide the
continents. These unusual mountains begin in the bitter cold north extending from the Arctic south for some
1,500 miles to the steppes ? the hot grassy plains ? of Kazakhstan.
Down through the years the Urals have played an interesting role in Russian history. In earlier times traders
used their mountain passes and way stations and armies fought over strategic positions. During World War II
children were evacuated from western Russia to the Urals as a haven from the Nazi armies. Perhaps the most
famous of these youthful refugees was 4-year-old Boris Spassky, later chess champion of the world who lost
his title to Bobby Fisher. In recent history the most important characteristic of the Urals has been its industrial
development. The oblast ? the provincial capital ? of this industrial center is Yekaterinburg.
It was here at Yekaterinburg that one of the most repelling and gruesome crimes of modern political history
took place.
The background and causes of this tragedy were complicated. Their history can be traced back hundreds of
years involving social class conflict, the influence of aristocracy, the imperious nature of monarchy and
insensitivity to humane needs that blocked reflection and civilized reform. When all these forces are mixed
with ambition, frustration, contempt, hate, poverty and abuse the conditions exist for a violent social
upheaval. The distress was real; the psychological explosion was set; and when it came the world was
permanently redirected.
For centuries Russia was a vast disorganized battlefield ? hot, cold, inhospitable and brutal. Surprisingly there
were Greek colonies in that land long before Christ. The Greek historian Herodotus is said to have lived in
one at the mouth of what we now call the Bug River. Many tribes and many different people settled Russia.
Who came "first" is lost in the haze of ancient time. The Cimmerians frequently get the credit for laying the
cultural foundations for Russia. They are cited by the Greek poet Homer, although they appear to be partly
mythological.
Self-government with its emphasis upon human values is largely alien to Russian history. We know that
political-social-military autocracy is a consistent theme of their story. For sure absolutism dominated from the
reign of Ivan the Terrible, who can be dated a generation younger than Martin Luther. Although generous as a
young ruler Ivan's later years turned into brutal ones. He plundered, killed and would tolerate no opposition.
That pattern of ruthless authoritarianism largely dominated Russian history all the way to Joseph Stalin.
Where there is manipulative monarchy, autocracy, exploitation of workers and indifference to the poverty of
peasants the conditions for violent social-political change exist. That pressure was building in Russia for
generations. One shrouded reason for neglect of these conditions is the cultural-psychological isolation of
rulers; they are conditioned by their social class. Sometimes they come to power in countries where they were
not born, where the language was not their native tongue, and where station in the hierarchy of the nobility is
more important than concern for the people. Catherine the Great is an example. She was born in Germany and
married the Grand Duke of Russia. The chaotic foundations of Russia were revealed when she came to power.
She negated early kindness by literally giving away thousands of peasants to friends in the nobility. Foreign
affairs were equally callous. She helped obliterate Poland and used the army to gain territory from Turkey.
The tragedy of these wars like most others is that those who initiate them arrange for someone else to fight
them.
The history of Russian aristocracy came to an abrupt and violent end with Nicholas II. He grew up in an
artificial world ? uniforms, parades, religious ceremonies, vacations and life in regal palaces. His intentions
were honorable, but his background detached him from reality. His "education" emphasized the right of
absolute authority. This was reinforced by family, for his cousin was George V of England and his wife the
granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She was a German Protestant aristocrat, who after marriage had two
interests in life ? her husband and the Greek Orthodox Church. The difficulty was her husband did not
understand the forces shaping the world, and the Church was self-contained, an institution whose principal
objective was self-perpetuation assured by identification with the nobility.
In the second decade of the 20th century the Russian Army was smashed by the Germans at Tannenberg. The
peasants were rebelling; the workers were seditious; the soldiers were insurgent; and the navy was mutinous.
Anarchism and revolution permeated the country; the secret police and provocateurs were everywhere. The
February Revolution of 1917 saw Kerensky in power; in the October Revolution he was overthrown by the
Bolsheviks and Lenin. With subterfuge, prevarication, murder and violence the communist years of
authoritarian government began.
Drastic change was inevitable. The Czar abdicated on March 16, 1917. He and his family were imprisoned in
the royal palace near St. Petersburg. The local soviet (council), to prevent their escape, sent them to western
Siberia, and then imprisoned them in Yekaterinburg. On the night of July 16, the entire royal family was
herded into the basement ? the Czar, The Czarina, four lovely daughters and an ill son ? where they were
mercilessly shot dead. This liquidated the Romanoff Dynasty and opened the door to decades of continuing
ruthless government.
There is a powerful lesson in this tragedy. As with the Nazis it shows how tragic ruthless human beings can
be. It illustrates the tragic consequences that can result from inattention to justice just as it shows the futility
of preoccupation with wealth, power and privilege. One purpose of education is to understand and to use that
understanding to modify behavior. We would do well to remember the causes as well as the consequences of
the Yekaterinburg massacre.
Lloyd Williams is a retired educator. His column runs in The Transcript every other Saturday.

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