Anniversaries and Milestones in Russian History and Culture
Contribution by Ludmila Selinsky

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Liberation of the Serfs: In 2011 Russia commemorates one of the most important events in its history, the 150th anniversary the Manifesto to Free the Serfs signed by Tsar Alexander II – “The Liberator” on March 3, 1861, almost five years earlier than slavery was abolished in the United States on December 6, 1865. In celebrating this landmark, a number of prominent politicians, historians and religious leaders took the opportunity to restore the historic truth about the benefit and scope of Alexander II’s reforms as well as about the true nature and history of serfdom in Russia, perverted by decades of Soviet propaganda and often misunderstood in the West.

In Russia, as in many other parts of Europe, debt-indentured servitude, captured combatants during internecine conflicts and feudal wars, or punishment for certain crimes resulted in various forms of serfdom. Western Europe received the legacy of Ancient Rome, where slaves, mostly acquired through conquest, formed a significant part of the economy, and even some city-states of Ancient Greece subjugated fellow countrymen, such as Helots in Sparta, into harsh servility. However, slavery, as an institution or an economic system was not in evidence in ancient Rus, nor in the Russian state. Russia’s vast territory and agricultural economy was Europe’s breadbasket since antiquity, with a strong, largely independent, land-owning and mobile agrarian class which paid levies to princes for defense and other administrative needs. Ironically, just as Western Europe was gradually freeing its populations from the harshest forms of serfdom during the 16th – 18th centuries, historic events in Russia, such as cumulative wartime devastation and depopulation, necessitated a gradual curtailment of the rights of a certain class of peasants to freely move about and chose landlords every year on “Yuriev Day”:

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Landowners, usually nobles, were still obliged to go into battle with a full retinue,

which included peasants, but the poorer ones lost many to wealthier competitors, so in 1649 the Council Code of Tsar Alexis “attached” tenant farmer-peasants who were on a landowner’s land to that particular landowner. However, it was only as a result of the reforms of Peter the Great, who strove to westernize Russia, but needed support from the landowning classes, that these peasants were completely “tied” to their landlords in 1721, and by the end of the 18th century, they were no longer allowed to sue their landlords, allowing for various abuses. An often overlooked fact is that serfdom did not include a large segment of the peasant populace, including in northern Russia, in most of the Ural Region, Siberia and southern Russia where there were large Cossack settlements. Many of these free peasants were successful landowners and entrepreneurs.

It is also worth noting that the “Droit de seigneur” – “right of the Lord” for a serf bride’s first night was never a tradition in Russia, while in Western Europe it was pervasive, as evidenced in such cultural classics as Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro” after the play by Beaumarchais and many other works, including by Voltaire.

In America, in addition to indentured servitude and chattel slavery, the Dutch Patroons in New York State continued to exercise rights of feudal lords over their tenants until violent revolts put an end to the era less than a decade before Tsar Alexander emancipated the Russian serfs.

The classic 1946 film with Vincent Price, Dragonwyk, is based on these historical facts. Sadly, serfdom in Europe continued into the 20th century in Austro-Hungarian-ruled Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Muslim landlords still owned Christian Serb serfs until the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, when these serfs were bought and finally freed by King Peter I. It is against this background that the 150th Anniversary of the Liberation of the Russian Serfs should be properly viewed and evaluated.

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Alexander II instituted many other economic, administrative and political reforms, including the establishment of the Zemstvo, a form of local representative government which included all classes of society, issuing of passports to the former serfs (later taken away by the Bolsheviks), military reform which shortened military service from 12 to 4 years, and establishment of a national, rather than selective conscription. The liberal Tsar was assassinated in 1881on the day he signed a constitution to create a representative government body by a socialist terrorist organization, which understood that his reforms would eliminate any chance for radical regime change. Hated and slandered by the Bolsheviks, who destroyed countless monuments to the martyred Tsar, Alexander II is once again an honored and beloved national hero. An internet opinion poll in May, 2011, showed that 39% of Russians would welcome a return of the Tsar, preferring a constitutional monarchy to other forms of government.

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100 Years of the Russian Olympic Committee: The first Russian sports organizations began to form shortly after the Liberation of the Serfs, during rapid economic development which put Russia in fifth place as a major economic power by 1913 after England, France, Germany and the United States. A small group of 6 Russian athletes first participated in the 1908 Olympic Games in London winning one gold and two silver medals. The Russian Olympic Committee was created in 1911 and received support from Tsar Nicholas II. As Russian sports programs developed, national competitions began to take place, and the 1914 All-Russian Olympiad attracted 900 participants from 29 cities… regrettably, the closing ceremonies on August 1st were cancelled due to the outbreak of WW I.

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50 Year Anniversary of Man’s First Flight in Space: The historic flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, on April 12, 1961, was a result of Russian scientific innovation and achievement dating back to 19th century experiments by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, known as the “Father of the Rocket”, and continued by such rocket engineers as Sergey Korolev.

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This momentous event for all mankind was widely celebrated throughout the world with special tributes, including in Moscow, where the Russian Space Agency invited heads of 49 space agencies, including NASA, and astronauts who took part in space expeditions on Soviet and Russian spacecraft to attend the 50th anniversary gala celebration on Apr 12, 2011. A special aspect of this anniversary was highlighted in an interview with Father Job, the priest of the Church of Transfiguration in Star City, where Russian astronauts and their international partners are trained: both cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and scientist Sergey Korolev, who was repressed under the Soviet regime, were Orthodox Christian believers. Yuri had baptized his daughter shortly before his flight and later lobbied for the restoration of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

 

Dostoevsky Anniversary

In 2010 anniversaries of Russian literary giants Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy were commemorated throughout the world, and in 2011 the world celebrates yet another landmark anniversary – 190 years since the birth and 130 years since the death of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. This controversial literary genius hailed by many as a prophet, stirred passionate debate and made an indelible mark in the fields of philosophy, psychology and religious thought. The often quoted “If there is no God, then all is permitted”, “To love someone means to see him as God intended him” and “Beauty will save the world” are among the eternal questions left by Fyodor Mikhailovich for mankind to ponder.

The Dostoevsky noble family is descended from the ancient Moscow Rtischev line, which became known as Dostoevsky after being granted the town of Dostoevo near Pinsk (now Belarus) in 1506. In 2006, when 500 years of “The Dostoevsky family in Russian History” was being internationally commemorated, special memorial services were held in the Peter and Paul church of the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow, founded by Empress Maria Fedorovna, where Dostoevsky’s father, a devout Christian, was a doctor. It was here that the future writer was born on November 11, 1821, was baptized, received communion and prayed.

The Dostoevsky family was not wealthy and lived on hospital grounds, where the young Fyodor observed the patients and enjoyed socializing with them. He also suffered from epilepsy and developed an acute gambling obsession which haunted him throughout his life, all of which became incorporated into his fictional works. He began writing during his studies at the St. Petersburg Institute of Military Engineering, and after leaving the army in the rank of lieutenant in late 1844 embarked on a writing career. His first serious work, “Poor Folk” in 1846 brought him acclaim and comparisons with Gogol, but he often wrote in haste so as to receive his honorarium as quickly as possible.

Dostoevsky’ s involvement with a liberal underground group, the Petrashevsky Circle, considered to be part of a brewing revolutionary movement, resulted in imprisonment in 1849 and exile to Siberia until 1854, followed by 5 years of military service. However, these experiences produced a profound effect on his philosophy, religious and political views, as well as a great source of inspiration and material for his future writing. Disillusioned with “Western” ideas, including Nihilist and Socialist movements, Dostoevsky turned to traditional Russian values, espoused by the Slavophiles, and wholly embraced the teachings of his Orthodox Christian faith. This year marks anniversaries of some of his greatest works: the 150th anniversary of his novel “The Insulted and Humiliated”, the 145th anniversary of “Crime and Punishment”, the 150th anniversary of “The Possessed”, and the 130th anniversary of “The Brothers Karamazov”.

A writer who deals with the universal human condition, Dostoevsky and his literature is the subject of hundreds, if not thousands of published works every year in Europe, Asia and the USA, which try to unravel the mysteries hidden in each of Dostoevsky’s works. Many scholars consider Dostoevsky to be the first existential writer, others think that he has established a superior form of Humanism, American Philosopher George Steiner called Dostoevsky a “Christian dramatic poet”, A. Boyce Gibson is a philosopher who learned Russian just to read Dostoyevsky in the original before publishing “The Religion of Dostoevsky”, Stewart R. Sutherland wrote Atheism and the Rejection of God: Contemporary Philosophy and “The Brothers Karamazov”… In popular culture, Dostoevsky’s characters, such as Raskolnikov, from “Crime and Punishment”, and the “Karamazov Brothers” have taken on a life of their own. A multitude of theatrical productions and films have been produced, including the 1958 Hollywood movie “The Brothers Karamazov” with Yul Brynner, Lee J Cobb and a young William Shatner, and the 2008 Italian film “Demons of St. Petersburg”, an original work dedicated to Dostoevsky about the evils of terrorism.

One work in particular is specifically tied to Russian history, and many see it as prophetic. “The Possessed” – otherwise known as “The Demons”, written in 1872, appears to be a clear vision of the future events and characters behind the 1917 Bolshevik coup, which is why the work was suppressed by the Soviet Regime, and the genius author reviled. In Russia today, where Fyodor Mikhailovich is perhaps the most widely read author, many see his works as way back to God after the fall of communism. As journalist Irina Akhundova put it: “In a situation when a person is in an environment without one single believer, one can come to God by reading and studying Dostoevsky’s books”.

2010

Several important anniversaries which share a common historic and cultural thread are being celebrated this year in Russia and internationally: the 200th anniversary of the birth of the world-famous writer, Nikolai Gogol, the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great’s epic victory at Poltava, the 355th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslavl, reuniting Great Russia with Malorossia-Ukraine, and the 245th anniversary of the birth of Nicolai Rezanov, a Russian statesman and major figure in the history of Russian America. Today, the commemoration of some of these events and milestones is not without controversy.

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Nikolai Gogol was born in the Poltava province, not far from where the famous battle took place, but claim to his legacy as a Russian writer is disputed by some in the Ukraine for political reasons, even though the writer, himself, made his views and allegiance to Russia quite clear. While lovingly depicting the local Malorussian folklore, Gogol presented it as regional, rather than national tradition. His Taras Bulba, a story of the heroic Cossack fighter against Polish occupation and Turkish incursions underscores a common fight for Rus’, and other works, such as “A Terrible Vengeance”, vividly depict the Orthodox struggle in Ukraine against Polish imposition of the Unia (so-called Byzantine Rite, or Greek Catholicism), a subjugation of the Orthodox to Rome. Read more

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The Treaty of Pereyaslavl, concluded in 1654 during the reign of the Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, son of the first Romanoff, with the Zaporozhye Cossack Council fighting for liberation from Polish rule, was a milestone in Russian history, marking the reunification of a nation separated by centuries of foreign occupation. Cultural flowering and economic prosperity of the first Russian state – stretching from northern Pskov and Novgorod to its southern capital, Kiev, was cut short by a 250-year long catastrophe, the Mongol-Tartar yoke. The rich grasslands and ancient settlements of Southern Russia between the Don, Volga and Dniper rivers, devastated and depopulated, became known as the “Wild Field”. After the destruction of Kiev by the Mongols, the surviving population fled north and the densely forested lands of the Vladimir-Suzdal principalities became the new Russian center – Moscovy. The Epic poems and songs about St. Vladimir, ancient Kiev, its Golden Age and heroes, fabled prosperity and vibrant international trade lived on in the central and northern parts of Russia and survived to this day, but disappeared from the South forever. During this dark period, significant parts of a weakened Russia were occupied by neighboring countries, including Poland, Lithuania, Sweden and Hungary, while the surviving northwestern city-states of Novgorod and Pskov, largely spared Mongol-Tartar devastation, fought off waves of Germanic invaders.

The vast territories subjugated by Lithuania and then the Polish-Lithuanian Union, formed in 1569, included about 80 Russian cities, mostly in today’s Belarus and Ukraine, and what remained of the first capital, Kiev, “Mother of all Russian Cities”. Oppression of the Russian population in these occupied territories included virtual slavery for the majority, suppression of national identity, and religious coercion. Desperation forced many to flee their oppressors and re-settle the “Wild Fields”, bordering the Mongol Golden Horde, the Crimean Tartars and Turks, thus forming the free Cossack caste of fearless frontier warriors and defenders of the Orthodox faith.

These borderlands became known as Ukraine – literally “at the border” or Malorussia – “Little Russia”. This vast region would only be reunited with “Greater Russia” in 1654 when the National Assembly of the Ukraine under Cossack Hetman-Chief Bogdan Khmelnitsky declared “Let God confirm! Let God strengthen, that we would be United for all eternity!”.

To commemorate the 300th anniversary of this great event, Nikita Khrushchev “gifted” the Crimea to the Ukrainian republic of the USSR in 1954. This year this milestone was celebrated in Russia and Ukraine by organizations that proclaim “We shall defend the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox peoples of the Ukraine, Russia and Byelorussia”.


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The Victory at the Battle of Poltava in 1709 was a turning point in the long struggle to reclaim Russian lands. After the Golden Horde began to disintegrate in the mid-fifteenth century, into the Kazan, Astrakhan, Crimean and Siberian Khanates, Russian Princes and First Tsars began a long struggle to liberate and re-unite lands under foreign occupation. Independent Hordes survived in Russia for three centuries, and the Crimean Tartars, supported by the Turks, were able to raid southern Russian lands for booty and their huge slave trade, block access to the sea and prey on commerce for two more. After a victory in 1667 in the war with Poland and their Tartar allies following the Treaty of Pereyaslavl, the next Russian Tsar, Peter The Great, won a milestone victory in the North War. After centuries of territorial conquest, Sweden, under King Charles XII invaded Russia. After initial victories, Charles turned south, and supported by Poland and the Ottoman Turks, invited defections among the Cossack leaders as he planned his siege of Poltava. Instead of the thousands he expected, only a handful, under the leadership of Ivan Mazepa, a Jesuit-educated ethnic Pole, went over to the enemy and were branded as traitors. Defended by 6,900 Russian-Ukrainian troops, Poltava held out against far greater odds until Tsar Peter arrived with reinforcements and routed the Swedes. Charles XII and Mazepa fled with their bodyguards and Charles found refuge with the Turks, where he remained in exile for 5 years before returning to Sweden. The result of this battle is of great historical significance in that it reclaimed Russian territories and cleared the way for the return of Russia as a dominant power in eastern and northern Europe. Alexander Pushkin wrote the famous Poltava narrative poem based on these historic events and Peter Tchaikovsky wrote “Mazepa”, an opera based on the Pushkin classic.

Accomplishments of Peter the Great’s era included the founding of the Russian Fleet, whose victories returned the ancient Baltic-Black Sea trade route “from the Vikings to the Greeks,” back to Russia, and voyages of exploration that included discoveries in the Bering Straits and Alaska, the Russian foothold in America, which was sold in to the United States 1867 (this sale was earlier known as Seward’s Folly in honor of Secretary of State William Seward). Peter’s new capital, St. Petersburg, became the cultural and political capital of the Russian Empire and an important focal point in the life of its nobility. Tsar Peter generously bestowed nobility for outstanding service to inpiduals of all rank, including Cossacks who distinguished themselves in the famous Battle of Poltava.

 

RECEPTION AND BALL AT THE ACADEMY OF MUSIC
IN HONOR OF THE GRAND DUKE ALEXIS

As we celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Russian Nobility Association in America, it seems quite appropriate to look back at some of the history of the relations between these two countries. The State Visit to the U.S. in 1871-72 by Grand Duke Alexis, son of Czar Alexander II, one evening of which in New York is beautifully described in the piece below, was a culmination of a period during which relations between the U.S. and Russia were at their most cordial. During the American Civil War Czar Alexander II had been a strong supporter of the Union and of President Lincoln’s determination to keep the Union together. He proclaimed in what can be considered one of the most critically important documents in American and world history, that any intervention in the American Civil War by any European power in support of the Confederacy would be regarded as causus belli by Russia. To emphasize the seriousness of this policy, the Czar dispatched his Pacific fleet to San Francisco and on September 24, 1863 the Russian Atlantic fleet dropped anchor in New York harbor (as pictured on the opposite page) where it was enthusiastically welcomed by the local populace. The fleet remained for seven months, leaving only after both the U.S. and Russia had satisfied themselves that any danger of interference in our Civil War by any European power had passed. After the conclusion of the war, Russian-American relations remained cordial, culminating in the State Visit of Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovitch in 1871.

The ball at the Academy of Music, last night in honor of the grand Duke Alexis, was a complete success. The attendance was large and brilliant, the decorations were unusually fine, the music was excellent. The tent at the head of the dancing floor was a marvel of splendor and oriental magnificence. Five calcium lights placed at the top of the tent illuminated a fountain in the background, and made the ball appear like a fairy palace. The sides of the inclosure were painted in imitation of lustrous silk, and figured in colors to harmonize with the ceiling, which was hung with festoons of roses, radiating from a central point, with very pleasing effect. Gilded pillars added to the richness of the scene. Under the tent was an artistic terrace, in front of which were numerous pots containing natural flowers. Back of the terrace was a scene representing moonlit clouds visible through an opening among trees. One of the striking features of the decorations was the large allegorical painting over the tent, showing the genius of America and the genius of Russia clasping hands. The genius of America was represented by a female figure clad in national colors and costumed like a Goddess of Liberty, while the Russian genius was a male figure in regal apparel. At the right of the painting was a banner bearing an allegorical picture of President Lincoln freeing the slaves, while at the left of the large painting was another banner upon which was depicted the Emperor of Russia (Alexander II) liberating the serfs. The American and Russian national colors were, of course, prominently displayed in the decorations.


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The Russian Squadron in the Harbor of New York, October 1863, on a Supposed Secret Mission,
by Special Arrangement with the Federal Government
(Artwork from Frank Leslie’s THE SOLDIER IN OUR CIVIL WAR, 1893)

At nine o’clock, the guests began to arrive, and during the next hour carriages were continually driving up in front of the Academy. At ten o’clock the interior of the building presented on of the most magnificent scenes that has ever been witnessed in the city. The brilliantly illuminated decorations and elegantly dressed ladies combined to entrance and bewilder the spectator.

The Grand Duke opened the ball at eleven o’clock with Mrs. Hoffman, wife of Governor Hoffman. The Grand Duke’s table occupied the place of honor at the head of the room, and the other tables filled all the remaining available space in the supper hall. The table was tastefully arranged with a profusion of choice and natural flowers. The ornamental confectionery and other designs on the table included two temples of the Czar Alexander; two monuments of Washington, with cupids and American flags on top; two imperial meringues, with American eagles and flags of both nations, and two ships of war, made of nougat and spun sugar. The bill of fare was printed in French and English, in gold letters, on white satin, and included every choice of tempting luxury which the ingenuity of the caterer could supply.

After supper, dancing was resumed with spirit, and it was a late hour before the last of the revelers left the Academy, carrying with them the pleasantest memories of the Grand Ducal ball.

Excerpts from Leslie’s Illustrated Paper • November 30, 1871 • New York City
For some of the content of the introductory paragraph, we acknowledge with thanks
the contribution of Mr. Kostantin George

 

The Holy Alliance Treaty
September 26, 1815


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The Holy Alliance dominated Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until the revolutionary wave of 1848. Formed in 1815 by the monarchs of Austria, Prussia and Russia, it eventually grew to include every monarchy on the Continent with the exception of England and Turkey.

This treaty, drawn up by Tsar Alexander, reflects the return to conservative politics in Europe after the long struggle against Revolutionary and Imperial France. It was subsequently acceded to by all the monarchs of Europe except the King of Great Britain, who declined to sign on constitutional grounds, Pope Pius VII, who refused to treat with Protestant monarchs, and the Sultan of Turkey. Liberals and nationalists hated the Alliance as a symbol of the “reactionary Restoration”.

The Alliance emphasized political goals like “the precepts of Justice, Christian Charity and Peace”, defining these terms in a manner consonant with its interests. Read more

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