The death of Grigori Rasputin, the infamous “Mad Monk” of Russia is the stuff of weird history legend. The story passed down by his assassin (and mentioned in the less accurate account given by Boney M in the mid 1970s) is as follows
Yusupov began to panic as Rasputin appeared to consume enough cyanide to kill scores of men. As Rasputin started to have some difficulty swallowing his wine, Yusupov feigned concern and asked Rasputin if he was feeling ill…
…Soon, however, Rasputin appeared to recover and become more energetic. Fearing that the poison had failed, Yusupov stood up and paced the room to work up the nerve to shoot Rasputin… Yusupov pulled out the revolver and firing one shot, hitting Rasputin in the chest. Rasputin cried out and collapsed onto the floor, where he laid in a growing pool of blood but did not move… The doctor checked for Rasputin’s pulse and found none, confirming that Rasputin was dead, shot close enough to his heart to be immediately fatal…
Rasputin’s body laid motionless exactly where they had left it, but Yusupov wanted to be sure. He shook the body and didn’t see any signs of life — at first. Then, Rasputin’s eyelids started to twitch, just before Rasputin opened them. “I then saw both eyes,” Yusupov wrote, “the green eyes of a viper – staring at me with an expression of diabolical hatred.” Rasputin lunged at Yusupov, snarling like an animal and digging his fingers into Yusupov’s neck…
Purishkevich was the first out the door, and he immediately fired two shots at the fleeing Rasputin. He missed, but then Purishkevich chased down the wounded Rasputin and from just feet away, fired two more shots. One of the shots struck Rasputin in the head, inflicting a killing blow, and Rasputin collapsed to the ground. Yusupov had two loyal servants wrap Rasputin’s body in heavy carpets and tied with heavy chains. The conspirators then brought the body to a bridge over the Neva River and dumped it into an unfrozen patch of water below.
This documentary has the standard telling of his final hours
With the hundredth anniversary of his death, however, questions have inevitably arisen. First this BBC documentary, which alleges that the assassination was the work of rogue British secret service agents:
Rasputin’s actual murder was probably far less dramatic. His daughter Maria, who fled Russia after the Revolution and became a circus lion tamer billed as “the daughter of the famous mad monk whose feats in Russia astonished the world,” wrote her own book in 1929 that condemned Yussupov’s actions and questioned the veracity of his account. She wrote that her father did not like sweets and never would have eaten a platter of cakes. The autopsy reports do not mention poison or drowning but instead conclude that he was shot in the head at close range. Yussupov transformed the murder into an epic struggle of good versus evil to sell books and bolster his own reputation.
The 1964 BBC TV Series The Great War may sometimes feel a bit hokey and outdated in its narrative style, but with the centenary over and done with, it looks like its position is still unchallenged as the definitive documentary of the conflict. Beyond anything else, it’s priceless in its collection of original accounts from men who were then barely of pensionable age, and therefore still are able to vividly recount their experiences. You can’t help but wonder what they made of the rest of the 60s.
The whole thing is available now on Youtube. Here is the first episode.
One of the most widely-known stories of the first world war is the Christmas truce. The British soldiers hear the Germans singing ‘Silent Night’, they venture out into no-man’s land, exchange gifts and have a game of football. Much of this story appears to be true, though it is important to remember that the front was long, and the truce only took place in certain sections. There is less in the record about games of football, but there is at least a little evidence for this too.
In my day job I sometimes take groups of kids to this place, the Scott Polar Museum in Cambridge.
Before we go on trips there we do an activity which involves making a list of what you would take with you on a trip to the Antarctic. This is an odd task to give them, because the big reveal (you wouldn’t take ponies instead of dogs or dress in tweed instead of furs, but guess who did!) is never made. Not a huge surprise as the Scott Polar Museum was founded in memoriam of Robert Falcon Scott, by one of his associates, using funds raised in response to his (heroically?) disastrous trip.
The “was Scott a tragic hero or a tragic idiot?” pendulum has swung forwards and backwards a few times in the last few decades, and it’s probably beyond the scope of this site to come down on one side or the other, except to say that flawed human beings are the kind interesting stories are written about, so we shouldn’t be surprised that more attention is paid to Scott’s doomed trip than to the success of Roald Amundsen, the supposedly cold, professional Norwegian polar explorer who soundly beat him to the South Pole and lived to tell the tale.
As with many old stories, the tale of the trip has acted as tea leaves, in which we see what we want to see. Was he a hero, showing the pluck and courage of boarding school and the army? Was he an egotist, refusing all intelligent input and taking his men to their doom? Was he a hero of science, losing his life to bring back 35lbs of geological specimens? Was he a typical man of the British Empire, brought up to believe that confidence in yourself and your country should be the be all and end all, with a legacy of encouraging the same type, these “heroes” whose blustering incompetence won short-term plaudits, but sowed the seeds of many of the problems of the modern world?
These debates are (IMO!) ultimately more interesting than the story of the expedition, but that’s what we’re here for anyway, so here are some resources on Robert Falcon Scott and the Terra Nova Expedition of 1910–1913
Today is the 107th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The story of the “unsinkable” liner hitting the iceberg is so famous it hardly seems worth retelling for the umpteenth time, except perhaps for the producers of Entertainment Tonight, who reported on the sinking of the Costa Concordia with this headline
So, here’s a pack of materials suitable for immersing yourself in Titanic lore for a day or so, if such a mood has taken you.
Thomas Hardy – The Convergence of The Twain
A contemporary poem by Thomas Hardy, expressing the fairly original idea that the ship and the iceberg were destined to meet each-other and foolish humans could do nothing to prevent it.
If a certain war had not begun in 1914, the 1910s would likely be best remembered as a decade of progressive social unrest. Movements for workers rights and against racial segregation were now getting into full swing, and, in the UK especially, the period from 1910 to 1914 saw the most militant action of all from the suffragette movement. Women having the vote was thought at the turn of the century to perhaps be a frivolous idea, or at best a distant goal, but then the suffragettes had done everything they could to draw attention to their cause, including chaining themselves to railings, refusing to pay taxes and fines, setting fire to letterboxes, graffiti, smashing shop windows, and even bombing the house of the Chancellor, David Lloyd George. In 1909 Marion Wallace Dunlop had begun the first hunger strike, and though she was released, the government would soon resort to force-feeding those who followed her lead.
Then in 1911 along came the national census, carried out in the UK every ten years. This was an ideal opportunity to demonstrate anger at “taxation without representation” and naturally one that was seized with both hands.
The story is taken up here by Jill Liddington, who has written a book about it, no less.
Vanishing for the vote recounts what happened on one night, Sunday 2 April, 1911, when the Liberal government demanded every household comply with its census requirements. Suffragette organisations urged women, all still voteless, to boycott this census. Many did. Some wrote ‘Votes for Women’ boldly across their schedules. Others hid in darkened houses or, in the case of Emily Wilding Davison, in a cupboard within the Houses of Parliament. Yet many did not. Even some suffragettes who might be expected to boycott decided to comply – and completed a perfectly accurate schedule.
Civic disasters in the pre-regulation days of the early 20th century are on a scale I find hard to comprehend, but the thing that shocks the most isn’t the loss of human life, it’s the careless way it was thrown away.
The 145 lives lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York were largely caused by nobody having taken the time to think about them. The factory, located in the top three floors of the Asch Building, was a real sweatshop, the employees mostly young non-English-speaking immigrant girls, their workplace cramped lines of sewing machines. From four elevators, only one was in working order, and it was at the other end of a long, narrow corridor. There were no sprinklers, because the factory owners wanted to keep open the possibility of burning down their building for the insurance money, something they had done twice in the previous decade.
The fire started in a rag bin. An attempt was made to put it out, but the hose was rotted and the valve was rusted shut. As the fire rapidly spread employees were crushed in the stampede, the one elevator stopped working, and those lucky enough to find their way down a fire escape found a locked door at the other end. The fire brigade, when they arrived, could not help the workers trapped on the roof, their ladders only reaching to a floor below, and their nets breaking when multiple girls tried jumping into them.
These horrors turned out to be enough to turn public opinion firmly toward the regulation which would have saved the girls’ lives. You could perhaps say that it’s necessary for these things to happen for things to really change, but it would be better if we could find a way as a society to act before rather than after for once.
Occasionally the CoS world will bump into the news, and so it was last week, when Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was asked whether Winston Churchill was a hero or a villain and replied, after a long pause. “Tonypandy – villain”
It wasn’t a surprise that the newspapers and political twitter made a big deal of this – the only surprise really is that anyone was surprised. Churchill has divided opinion since he first emerged as a political figure – the cartoon portrait of him as “The Greatest Briton” has never been universally agreed upon – the nation of India and the British electorate which put him out of power in 1945 can attest to this.
Naturally it is beyond the scope of this website to determine whether he was a hero or a villain, but we can at least talk briefly about Tonypandy.
Tonypandy is a mining town in South Wales. The 1910 conflict there started when a cartel of mining companies accused miners of working too slowly, leading to a lock-out, strikebreakers, picketing, and protracted, fruitless negotiations. Eventually skirmishes between strikers and police broke out, and Churchill (then the Liberal Home Secretary) sent in the army, and at least one striker was killed. This action may seem fairly unimportant next to Gallipoli or the carpet bombing of German cities, but it is how he is still remembered in much of South Wales – to the extent that, 109 years later, it is the first thing that comes to mind when John McDonnell thinks about Churchill.
As far as I’m concerned 20th Century British Monarchs go something like this:
Edward VII – Portly saucy man with big beard and elaborate clothing, had his own era.
George V – Had a funny moustache and looked very much like his royal cousins?
Edward VIII – Quit to get married to Wallace Simpson, bit too friendly with Hitler.
George VI – King during WW2, Queen’s dad, had a stutter, died youngish.
Elizabeth II – The Queen
* WW1 (of course) – did a lot of troop visits, was injured by falling off his horse.
* Refusing to have the Romanovs given asylum in the UK for fear of a revolution here, leading to their deaths.
* Also votes for women, the first Labour government, independence for Ireland happened.
* Being euthanized / murdered in order that the news be in the more respectable morning papers.
* The apocryphal-but-still-worth-mentioning last words “Bugger Bognor” and the real last words “God Damn You!”
The true pioneering heroes of the Edwardian Era were not The Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. This supposedly tranquil time was in truth the most turbulent age of social activism between the Civil War and the 1960s, and naturally the real drivers of this new “Progressive” age were less likely to be old, white or male than the usual famous names of the age.
Sophia Duleep Singh was born a princess, the daughter of Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last Indian prince in the Sikh Empire. Goddaughter to Queen Victoria, she was raised in luxury in England, but as an adult grew to realise that her sheltered upbringing had hidden from her a world of opression, and on a visit back to India she realised what had been done to her homeland. Returning to live in her own house in England in 1909, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) demonstration alongside Emmeline Pankhurst, where more than 150 women were assaulted. In 1911, on the day of the King’s Speech to Parliament, she launched herself in front of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith’s car and pulled out a ‘Give Votes to Women’ banner from her fur muff. In the 1910s she refused to pay her taxes, saying “If I am not a fit person for the purposes of representation, why should I be a fit person for taxation?” – but with her royal connections, the police were too scared to arrest her. Here she is pictured selling a suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace.
Ida B. Wells was a prominent journalist, activist, and researcher, born into slavery during the Civil War, then orphaned by a yellow fever outbreak at the age of 16, forcing her to become a teacher to support her siblings. In 1884, she filed a lawsuit against a train car company in Memphis after having been thrown off a first-class train, despite having a ticket. After the lynching of one of her friends, she started publishing anti-lynching pamphlets and writing for newspapers, until one exposé led to her office being burned down. Driven out of Memphis, Wells began traveling internationally to tell the world about lynching, and confronting women’s suffrage organisations who refused to take the issue seriously. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, and was there at the founding of the NAACP in 1909.