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Jacobs: Look Beyond Beauty to Truth of Czars' Reign in Russia

Jacobs, Frank. "Jacobs: Look Beyond Beauty to Truth of Czars' Reign in Russia." Topeka Capital-Journal, 15 October 2002.


Topeka will have a grand display of artistic beauty for the next several months with the treasures of the Romanov family.

While I will pay to see the display, and heartily encourage others to do so, I will resist the temptation to gush romantically at what I am viewing. I will attempt to view the artifacts through a prism of history, which will remind me of the grandeur (for a privileged minority) of the pre-Civil War American South and pre-Revolutionary France, where Marie Antoinette was in mythology told that the masses had no bread.

Both groups had wonderful artistic endeavors. Yet the Russian Revolution (and its later brutalities), as with these other revolutions, didn't happen because of the wonderfulness of the times. The majority of Russians were not invited to participate in the revelries of Court in St Petersburg or Moscow, except as servants, grooms, cooks and laborers. This included the Volga Germans, even though they were of a higher economic status than serfs.

W. Bruce Lincoln, in his book "War's Dark Shadow," attempted to look at standard indicators of humanity: housing, employment, child and maternal health, life expectancy, crime and general morality in Russia of the late 19th century.

The abolishment of serfdom in 1861 led to major dislocation of the Russian population to urban centers, which was in no way addressed adequately by the government, which was collecting these fine trinkets on display before us. Emancipation made little effort to provide peasants with land and largely left them to their own devices. Their rural counterparts lived in one-room izbies, rarely saw meat, and existed from day to day on black bread, pickled cabbage and a bit of onion. Before winter was over most would have to buy grain to survive, although Russia exported grain -- grain that was paid to the regime as taxes, assuring affluence at the top (more money for fine art).

The vast majority of Russia's proletarians in the 1860s lived on the edge of destitution in wretched barracks or tenements. By the 1870s, the czars were ready to make certain the relatively prosperous German colonists could live by the same rules as the average Russian, and they reneged on the benefits offered our German ancestors in return for their colonizing the czar's frontiers.

Disease flourished. By the 1870s, St. Petersburg had the highest mortality rate of any major city in Europe. By 1909, of the 25,000 workers registered in the Moscow labor exchange, fewer than one in four found work. And those who found work were retained only as needed.

Women, children and infant health was abysmal. Pregnant women continued to work at their looms and spindles even after their labor pains began. Fearful that they would lose their jobs for being absent, these mothers usually returned to the factory in no more than two or three days, carrying their newborn infants, because there was no other way to feed them.

It wasn't uncommon for mothers to work 18-hour days. Although the government had limited work at night, on Sundays, and on holidays for women, it rescinded those restrictions in April 1890 when factory owners complained, and then left such decisions to the owners.

Almost half the workers in 1,500 mills of the 1880s were children, reported one government factory inspector in charge of child labor laws. One factory had almost a 70 percent accident rate among children, many who had grown too tired or too weak to escape injury from the machines they tended. It was not unusual for these children to work more than 12 hours a day, including Sundays. Even after child labor was prohibited in 1882, factory owners continued to exploit children.

The lowest depth of existence was St Petersburg's Iama, the deepest most vicious of slums, a putrid wasteland peopled by men, women and children; the Iama, Dostoevskii's Haymarket, where people killed their fellows for a glass of raw vodka and stripped bodies of their clothing when dead, where bastard infants were rented out to beggars by whores, and police would collect the corpses to be sent to the morgue or the university laboratories, for medical students to cut up their bodies for anatomical studies.

Overstating conditions? I think not. The Revolution didn't occur because times were good. Our ancestors didn't spend two to three weeks in the steerage belly of a ship crossing the Atlantic because times were good.

We should gain little comfort in thinking our rural ancestors had higher status and privilege. Those privileges granted by Czarina Catherine were evaporating, and people like Bishop Kessler and others alleged that Czar Nicholas had plans to deal with these German foreigners (our ancestors) who refused to Russianize, only to have the plans pre-empted by the Revolution.

While I will view the czarist artifacts as fine artistic and historical displays, I will not romanticize their owners' reign while they acquired their fine treasures. I would rather harken back to my grandfather's declaration of naturalization intent, stating, "I renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, particularly Nicholas II Emperor of Russia, of which I am now a subject."

Frank Jacobs lives in Topeka.

Reprinted with permission of Topeka Capital-Journal.

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