Years of studying television have taught me that there are two types of psychologists in the world. There are those who take their degree, settle into cardigans, and spend their careers on comfortable couches handing on xanax prescriptions to calm the raging ennui of the middle class. Then there are those who go into prisons to interview serial killers. If history could be broken into a similar classification, those who study Russia would be in the latter category. Not because they’re a sociopathic nation (though there is a classic line of thought that much of the behavior of states can be explained by the fact that states themselves are sociopaths by their nature) but because it’s a country made endlessly interesting by the long years of suffering.
So here are the seven (because it’s as good a number as any) Russian rulers who deserve a biographical picture. Some of them have already made films about them, but there’s always fantastic fresh ground to be tilled. In no particular order (because I’m whimsical):
Peter the Great
So what happens when your dad dies, and your half-sister becomes regent and decides that just because you’re technically tsar, the fact that you’re ten years old means she’ll just run things instead? Well, you get a classical education, build your own army of kids trained and commanded by German officers who took a shine to you, and train them in mock battles of tens of thousands with real cannon. And then you decide you like boats, so you build one on a lake and declare that even though you’re effectively landlocked now, you’re just going to kill Swedes and Turks until you get a chance to build a proper navy. And once you’re actually tsar, you take a several year “incognito” trip through European shipyards to learn how to personally build a navy. And seriously, we haven’t even gotten to the dwarf fetishes. Name irony aside, Peter was basically Ender Wiggin with a crown.
So what happens when your dad dies, and your ten year old half-brother becomes tsar, and you live in an age when women were expected to be born, live, and die uneducated, silent, and separate from male society? You tell the little shit to go play toy soldiers while you run the country, whether the sputtering nobles have a problem with the absence of your penis or not. Peter the Great’s older sister was a badass stateswoman in a time period where women simply didn’t do the things she did. It’s not like Western Europe was a land of gender equality at the time, but compared to Russian gender relations, it was practically Lilith Fair. After Peter grew up and seized the throne from his sister, she was under house arrest for the rest of her life, but every single time that there was a threat to his power for the rest of his life, he first assumed that she was behind it. Oh, to have heard their conversations.
Ivan the Terrible
His last name doesn’t really mean terrible, if you say “grozny” to describe a really lousy cup of coffee, a Russian will shake their head at you. That word is essentially only used to describe Ivan, and for no other purpose. See, “grozny” means a special type of terrible, like the unspeakable, unimaginable force of nature that cannot be resisted as it savages the world. Basically, a closer translation of his moniker would be Ivan the Cthulu.
Oleg of Novgorod
One of the old school Viking rulers of Russia. You knew the Vikings founded the Russian state, right? Of course you did. Well, he decided to sail down to Constantinople (before it was Istanbul). He knew he couldn’t sack it, but he did swear to nail his shield to the city gates on principle. Problem: remember the whole Game of Thrones thing with the harbor chains and alchemist’s fire? Well Constantinople had the same thing going on, so when Oleg got near the city, he landed, revealed that he’d installed wheels on the bottom of his ships, and rolled his fleet to the city gates. Your move, Tyrion.
Catherine the Great
She’s great, it’s right in her name. And no, the stuff about horses isn’t even remotely true. But what is true is that she wasn’t even Russian. She was a German princess who only learned Russian once her parents tried to marry her off to Russian nobility. She married the heir to the Russian throne, Peter III, and though she intensely disliked him from the moment they met, put up with him for seventeen years until his aunt died and he became tsar. Yeah, Catherine staged a coup and had her own husband killed six months after he was crowned. And the country went along with it because they kind of liked her better. She claimed in her memoirs that she’d never even consummated the marriage with Peter, and that all her kids were from the various lovers she’d taken. So much for that whole ancient royal blood line thing.
All the Dmitris
(Our good friend Woj wrote about this at length a couple of years ago, go read it too.)
So the only heir to the Russian throne is a nine year old boy who kind of dies by allegedly stabbing himself in the neck, a sickly kid named Dmitri. And then a third of the country starved to death. And then every country with a border and an army invades Russia and claims that some random propped up peasant is Dmitri, raised in exile and returned to save the Russian people. At one point, the first Dmitri’s wife is introduced to the second Dmitri (the only way to keep them straight is to number them) takes one long look, shrugs, and says “yep, that’s my husband”. A writer from the period noted that the only thing the two had in common was that they were human and male. By the time the dust settles, the peasants revolt, the Romanovs are crowned the new royal family, and for good measure they hang the infant son of the first fake Dmitri just to be really thorough.
So everyone knows the story of how the last tsar of Russia was Nicholas II, who the communist deposed and killed ingloriously in secret in a basement halfway to Siberia. What they don’t know is that Nicholas wasn’t technically the last emperor of Russia. His brother Michael was. See, the war with the Germans was lost, the Civil War had started, people were in full scale revolt, dogs and cats were living together, and Nicholas decided to abdicate. He cited needing to take care of his family, and instead of the throne passing to his son, who was deathly ill most of the time, Nicholas instead abdicated and gave the throne to his younger brother. Michael woke up one morning and was told he was emperor. He was emperor for only a single day though because he refused to accept the office, and instead wrote a manifesto ceding the power to choose a new government to the Duma and the people. They got communism instead of elections, but damn.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.