Saturday, October 27, 2007

See? History CAN be interesting!

Like most other cultures and places, Russia has its fair share of heroes, great personalities, and unlikeable faces left best forgotten. But - just like these other places - Russia has plenty of just plain weird people, whom legend and folklore have swirled around for centuries. While many of the really great stories are probably apocryphal, they're still pretty funny.

Everyone knows about the crazy mystic, Rasputin, who enjoyed an unusual amount of sway over the Russian imperial court for a peasant, and whose quackery earned him widespread admiration among the nobility. His 'ability' to heal the Tsar's ailing son meant anything he said was gold, and any 'vision' he had must be the true tellings of a dark future ahead. He held special control over the Tsarina, to whom he became a personal assistant during World War 1. He appointed his own officials and advisers, and expanded his control over the aristocracy by.. ahem.. well, one could say he was... in bed a lot. His nighttime escapades were the a relatively public affair, and sent waves of shock and anger through much of Russian high society. The (most likely embellished) popular tale of his death is well known - he was poisoned, shot, stabbed, beaten, and finally bound in a sheet and thrown into a frozen river nearby. Dispute remains about (of all subjects) whether or not Rasputin's... family jewels, were intact when his body was recovered from the frosty winter's night. Many claim to possess the preserved "artifact" (if you want to call it that), though testing has not been performed extensively to prove any of these theories.

Speaking of people with extensive.. 'appetites', Catherine II of Russia (known as 'the Great', usually) had a voracious appetite for young men which, due to her controversial nature among Europeans an the great changes she brought to her nation, bloomed into a series of rather unusual legends about her more, well, 'interesting' endeavors. All of these appear to be false, however - There is NO evidence that Catherine the Great died on the toilet, or that she was crushed by a horse with whom she was.. well, you get the idea. What actually went on in her private life was not without its own flair, however. One of the most interesting facts about Catherine the Great is that she was barely Russian at all, and was actually a German princess of a small region with little to no diplomatic power. The idea of such a small figure rising to become the great empress of Russia is quite astounding indeed.

Russia's rulers have had more than a few unusual policies. For example, in a move to promote social 'westernization' in Russian society, Tsar Peter I imposed a 'beard tax' - which, as its name implies, was exactly that - a tax on having a beard. Peter saw the beard as an antique of old, stale Russian culture and hoped that a tax would promote the removal of such awful things. Indeed, the idea seemed to succeed as over the years men arrived at the barber's in droves to get them cut off for fear of paying the ever-increasing tax. Legends about another ruler, Ivan IV (well-known as Ivan the Terrible) are numerous; legend says Ivan was so impressed by the beauty of St. Basil's Cathedral (the funny-looking onion-domed church that, to most people, is the symbol of Russia) that he blinded the architect who built it to prevent him from ever building something as beautiful again. Legend also holds that Ivan died, in true Russian fashion - while playing a game of chess.

No comments: