Sunday, October 16, 2016

What If Czarevitch Alexei Had Not Had Hemophilia?

Like many other people who have been fascinated by the tragic story of Czar Nicolas II of Russia and his family, I first encountered it by reading the beautifully written book Nicolas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie (one of the best popular history writers in the business). The tale of the decline and fall of the Russian Empire infuses the pages of the book. It is a deep, rich, and fascinating story, one of those historical tales that seems more like a work of epic fiction than a telling of truth. I strongly recommend the book to everyone.

The tragedy of Czar Nicolas II lay not only in his own character flaws - his indecisiveness, his lack of confidence, his dependence on others - but also on the sad tale of his son, Alexei, who was supposed to have been his heir. Czarevitch Alexei suffered from hemophilia, the genetic disorder that prevents the normal clotting of blood and hence can cause a sufferer to bleed to death from injuries that might be trivial to most people. Alexei's hemophilia was the cause of a series of events that contributed to the fall of the Russian Empire, the outcome of the First World War, the rise of the Soviet Union, and much of the history of the world for the remainder of the 20th Century.

Let me briefly recount the sad story from the beginning. Czar Nicolas II took the Russian throne in 1896 upon the death of his father, Czar Alexander III. He was the head of the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled the vast Russian Empire since the enthronement of Czar Michael I in 1613. Among the Romanov rulers were Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, both of whom had massively expanded Russian territory and power, making it one of the great powers of the world. When Nicolas II became Czar, the Russian Empire was the largest nation on the planet and one of the most powerful. Of the great powers, it was the only one which essentially remained an absolute monarchy.

The reign of Czar Nicholas II did not begin well. At celebrations marking the coronation at Khodynka Field in Moscow, a stampede took place and, in the resulting panic, more than a thousand people were trampled to death. This was not an auspicious beginning and unfortunately things only got worse. In 1904-05 a disastrous war was fought against Japan in the east, culminating in the destruction of the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima Strait. Revolution broke out in 1905, with a general strike paralyzing the country and elements of the military mutinying. The Czar was forced to make concessions, resulting in the creation of a legislative assembly called the Duma, the issuance of the October Manifesto, and the appointment of Sergei Witte as Prime Minister. All of this ostensibly put Russia on the path towards being a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy.

Through all this turmoil, Nicolas II took comfort in his family. He was deeply in love with his wife Alexandra and was a devoted father to his four daughters and his one son, Czarevitch Alexei. All the hopes of the Romanov dynasty were placed in Alexei, who had been born in 1904. It soon became clear, however, that something was seriously wrong with the child and within a short time the Czar's doctors had diagnosed hemophilia. Alexei had inherited the genetic disorder from his mother, who had inherited it from her mother Princess Alice of the United Kingdom, who had in turn inherited it from her mother, Queen Victoria. Nicolas and Alexandra were horrified and put an extensive series of procedures in place to prevent Alexei from hurting himself, since even a minor injury might prove life-threatening. The hopes for the future of the Romanov dynasty and the Russian Empire now seemed to rest on the slender thread of a single boy who might be killed by something as minor as a bruise.

In the fall of 1912, Alexei bumped himself badly while jumping into a rowboat and the hemophilia flared up badly. The situation appeared so grave that the little young was given the last sacraments and his parents prepared themselves for his death. It was at this point that the cryptic, sinister, and thoroughly corrosive influence of Rasputin entered the royal family's life in a major way,

Rasputin is one of those historical figures who seems to step out of a work of fiction into reality. In his case, the fictional work would surely be a Gothic horror novel. Near as can be pieced together, he was born in the 1860s in a small Siberian town. He was known in his youth as a thief and a troublemaker, so much so that the local priests would pay him money to keep him from disturbing Sunday church services. Later on, he claimed to receive visions from God and made a name for himself as a wandering holy man and religious teacher, though he was never recognized as a monk of cleric by any legitimate religious authority. He spent years moving back and forth between various Russian villages, using his mastery of charlatanism to deceive the gullible and live off what he could swindle from them.

Strange holy men of this type were strangely popular in Russia during this period. Word of Rasputin's alleged powers eventually reached Anna Vyrubova, a personal friend of Czarina Alexandra, who in turn introduced her to the Czarina herself. A strange chain of events had brought the peasant charlatan into the company of the autocratic ruling family of Russia.

Rasputin settled in St. Petersburg, where he soon became a favorite among fashionable members of the noble elite, who trotted him out at parties as if he was some sort of mascot. He soon became far more than a joke, however, as his reputation as a mystic spread rapidly through the influential circles of high Russian society. Women, in particular, found Rasputin fascinating and he was said to have bedded numerous aristocratic ladies, despite his own repulsive physical appearance. Rasputin practiced a strange form of personal theology, which required him to sin intensively before he could be properly purged of sin. In particular, his sinful sexual nature required him to have sex with as many beautiful women as possible. An interesting theology, to say the least.

Rasputin soon developed a powerful influence over the Czar and Czarina, for it seemed that he was the only one who could calm Alexei during the Czarevitch's frequent painful battles with his condition and Czarina Alexandra in particular quickly became absolutely devoted to Rapustin, willing to defend him from all critics. When the 1912 accident happened and it seemed all but certain that Alexei was about to die, Rasputin sent the Imperial family a telegram simply saying that Alexei would not die and that the doctors should not bother him. The Czarevitch then began what seemed to be a miraculous recovery. It seems that this coincidence helped persuade both Nicholas and Alexandra that Rasputin was indeed a miracle worker and, moreover, the only person who could help Alexei.

Rasputin, an uneducated and illiterate man who was obviously half-crazed, now wielded enormous influence over the Imperial family that ruled Russia. At the same time, aristocratic society in St. Petersburg began to turn against Rasputin, tired of his antics and jealous of the power he now held. He continued to have some supporters, however, consisting mostly among people wishing to flatter him as a means of gaining the ear of the Czar. Rasputin began lobbying with Nicholas and Alexandra on behalf of his friends and against the interests of his enemies, to the detriment of the nation. The Russian people, from whom the Imperial family had been largely isolated since the 1905 Revolution, were mystified as to why the Czar and Czarina took counsel from a man like Rasputin while the country seemed to be careening from one crisis to the next. Critically, Alexandra was prompted by Rasputin to pressure her husband into resisting any and all moves in the direction of constitutional reform, for the mystic perhaps sensed that anything less than an absolute autocracy in Russia would mean the end of his own influence.

In the midst of all this, the diplomatic crisis over the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in the summer of 1914 exploded into the catastrophe of the First World War. The Russian Empire soon found itself at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, a conflict for which it was distinctly unprepared. Its armies, while enormous, were poorly armed and poorly equipped. A few generals demonstrated significant talent, such as Aleksei Brusilov and Nikolai Yudenich, but most Russian commanders were distinctly mediocre. The Russian soldiers fought with their traditional stubbornness and tenacity, but suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the Central Powers.

In this unprecedented crisis, Russia needed a leader the caliber of Peter the Great. Instead, it had Nicholas II, who might be properly known as Nicholas the Easily Manipulated. Rasputin began making suggestions about war policy and personnel, advice which Nicholas often heeded. It seems clear that Rasputin had a much stronger hold on the mind of Alexandra than he did on the mind of the Czar himself, but since Nicholas could never bear to go against the wishes of his wife, it amounted to the same thing.

The most critical, and disastrous, bit of advice that Rasputin gave the Imperial family was that Czar Nicholas himself should take direct command of the Russian armies. This he did in September of 1915. As far as military matters were concerned, this mattered scarcely as all, since Nicholas left actual operations to his chief-of-staff, General Michael Alexeiev, and limited his activities to the ceremonial activities expected of a monarch, such as grand inspections. But the Czar made his home at the front, away from St. Petersburg, placing the Czarina in effective control of the government. Since the Czarina was utterly under the spell of Rasputin, the illiterate charlatan was now, for all practical purposes, in control of the Russian government.

It was soon common knowledge that Rasputin was in charge, with predictable results. If a mother wanted a military exemption for her son, she went to Rasputin. If a contractor wanted a deal to sell the Russian army substandard artillery shells at twice the going rate, he went to Rasputin. If a civil servant wanted a promotion, he went to Rasputin. Because Rasputin's whispers into the ear of the Czarina helped advance the careers of whomever was willing to pay him the most, money from bribes flowed into Rasputin's pockets and financed his increasingly bizarre and wild lifestyle, which apparently included frequent sexual orgies and other associated debaucheries. He also began pestering the Czarina with military advice for her husband, which she dutifully sent on in letter after letter.

The Russian Orthodox Church and most members of the nobility were horrified by Rasputin's activities and repeatedly told the Czar that the man was dangerous and not to be trusted. Nicholas simply ignored their warnings, unwilling to go against the wishes of his wife and perhaps falling more under Rasputin's spell himself. The man seemed untouchable. During an excursion to a restaurant in 1915, Rasputin became extremely drunk and began to loudly brag about his sexual exploits, hinting that he was the lover of the Czarina herself. He then exposed himself and waved his genitals around at the other patrons of the restaurant, causing a massive panic and a dash for the exits. The police finally arrived and arrested Rasputin, whose insulting words about the Romanov family would have gotten anyone else packed off to prison, if not worse. But shortly after his arrest, a message from the Czar arrived, ordering his release.

Government ministers and military officers who cared about the future of the Russian nation were, unsurprisingly, appalled at the extent of Rasputin's influence and its disastrous consequences. They soon found themselves being removed from their positions and replaced with inept sycophants who got their posts through flattering the charlatan. The Russian government fell into chaos, as unqualified men with no interest in actually doing the job were placed in charge of a tottering empire just as it was fighting the most terrible war the world had ever known.

As 1916 wore on, things went from bad to worse for Russia. The success of the Brusilov Offensive in the summer proved only temporary. The competent Minister of War, Alexei Polivanov, under whose leadership the logistics and staff work of the Russian Army had begun to improve, was removed from his position at the insistence of Rasputin and replaced with one of the charlatan's flunkies. Government began to collapse within the country even as the army became increasingly unable to function. Morale among the troops fell sharply and people in the cities and on the farms began openly denouncing the Romanov family. It was even suggested the Czarina Alexandra was a German agent, bent on destroying the country from within.

In December of 1916, Rasputin was assassinated by a conspiracy of noblemen led by Felix Yusupov. It wasn't easy, for the man had to be poisoned, shot, stabbed, beaten, and then simultaneously frozen and drowned in the Neva River before he died. By then, sadly, it was too late. The Russian government had been inefficient and corrupt before the war; Rasputin's activities had damaged it beyond all possibility of repair. Nicholas II, confused and demoralized himself, utterly lacked the ability or confidence to restore the situation. He continued to refuse to appoint competent ministers to critical government positions. Throughout the country, food shortages increased. At the front, the soldiers were being asked to go into battle with pathetically little in terms of weapons or equipment.

In February, revolution broke out in the streets of St. Petersburg, the Russian people having finally become unwilling to endure further leadership by the Romanovs. True to form, the Czar showed no backbone and quickly abdicated the throne. Russia fell into complete and utter chaos and different factions vied with one another to fill the power vacuum. The Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky took control and attempted to continue the war against the Germans, but was itself overthrown a few months later by the Bolsheviks, who made a humiliating peace with them. The Imperial family was taken into custody by the Bolsheviks and later executed. The long-suffering Russian people had to endure a long and bloody civil war, which ended with the Bolsheviks in full control of the country. Ahead of Russia was the nightmarish experience of Stalinism.

It is worth asking whether anything like this would have happened had not little Alexei simply not inherited the gene that caused hemophilia. The son of a female carrying the gene causing hemophilia in the X-chromosome has a fifty percent chance of inheriting the gene in question, so when Alexei was conceived he was just as likely to avoid the condition as not. Had the boy not suffered from hemophilia, Rasputin would never have come to the attention of the Romanov family, since it was his apparent ability to relieve the Czarivitch's pain (which might have been entirely due to chance) that allowed the Siberian charlatan to enter the family's good graces in the first place. Take away the hemophilia of Alexei, which was due entirely to an unfortunate case of genetic chance, and Rasputin is essentially removed from the scene of history.

Russia entered the First World War with a number of problems that prevented it from fully developing its war economy or organizing a truly efficient military force. These problems would still have existed had Rasputin never entered the scene. But his corrosive influence exacerbated those problems enormously and played a crucial role in Russia's collapse in 1917. Had Rasputin never become more than a wandering mystic, the Russian government might have gone through the war with ministers who actually knew their jobs and wanted to perform them to the best of their ability, and an army whose commanders were confident in the civilian leadership and whose soldiers were properly armed and equipped.

It should be pointed out that, even facing the severe limitations and disadvantages caused largely by Rasputin's meddling, the Russian armies fought against the Central Powers for three long years. They did not fare well against the Germans, but they did well enough against the Austro-Hungarians and the Turks. Indeed, before the revolution of 1917 caused the Russian army to disintegrate, the Russians had all but knocked Austria-Hungary out of the war and had soundly trounced the Turks in on the Caucasus Front. Had they been properly led and equipped, confident that the country was behind them, they would have done considerably better. This does not necessarily mean that they would have defeated the Germans, which they probably lacked the ability to do even under the best circumstances, but had not done better than they actually did, the Germans would not have been able to deploy their forces so freely on the Western Front and the subsidiary fronts to the south.

If Russia had performed better in the war between 1915 and 1917, it's entirely possible that Germany and the rest of the Central Powers would have been defeated and forced to the peace table a year or more earlier than was the case historically. Aside from the millions of lives this would have saved, it would also have had enormous geopolitical ramifications, especially if it resulted in an Allied victory that did not involve intervene by the United States. There would have been no breaking of the American isolationist tradition and no League of Nations, with its false promise of a peaceful, internationalist world. The long-term impact on Trans-Atlantic relations can hardly be underestimated.

Germany actually won the First World War on the Eastern Front, then went on to loss it on the Western Front. This fact played into the sinister "stab in the back" conspiracy theory in postwar Germany, which blamed the German defeat on Jews and communists. Had Russia remained a full partner with the rest of the Allies and played a significant role in Germany's defeat, it would mean that the loss of war would have been crystal clear to every German and the "stab in the back" notion would have had much less traction. It is at least possible that the rise of fascism within Germany could have been prevented in such a scenario.

Within Russia itself, without Rasputin, the Romanov monarchy might have survived. Indeed, victory in the war against the Germans might have increased its prestige among the people. Throughout the reign of Nicholas II, political and social changes in the country were quickly accelerating, especially after the 1905 Revolution. Might the Duma have slowly increased its power over the course of the 20th Century, becoming to Russia what Parliament had slowly become in England, with Russia evolving into a genuine constitutional monarchy? Or would the Romanovs have insisted on staying true to the autocratic ways of their ancestors? It's impossible to know, but considering the frenetic nightmare of the Russian Civil War, the bloodstained rule of Stalin, the long shadow of Communism, and the present autocratic regime of Vladimir Putin, I think I'm on safe ground in saying that things would have been better than they actually turned out to be.

Whatever would have happened, without the hemophilia of Alexei, Rasputin would never have been able to inadvertently pave the way for the rise of the Soviet Union. This, in turn, means that communism would never have been a credible political and economic force in the 20th Century world but would have remained a fringe belief held only by extremists. Communism earned its place alongside fascism as one of the most sinister political ideologies to have ever plagued the world. When thinking of the terrible human cost exacted by communism in Russia, China and the rest of Asia, Africa, and Latin America during the course of the 20th Century, one cannot help but sigh at what might have been had that single gene in the embryo of Alexis Romanov been different.

To conclude, though, perhaps it's fitting to consider the little boy himself. Alexei Romanov was, by all accounts, a friendly and affectionate little fellow, who liked to play pranks on dinner guests and was very sensitive to the feelings of others. One wonders what he might have been like had he been able to grow to adulthood. In the end, it was the heartless Bolsheviks who killed Alexei, though the hemophilia would likely have done the poor boy in well before his time.

For just a moment, allow yourself to imagine a Russian Empire in the mid-20th Century, with Czar Alexander IV on the throne in St. Petersburg, the Duma debating new legislation and an independent court system passing judgement on the actions of the monarch and the legislature. Europe is at peace. No one in this world has ever heard of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, who died in obscurity. The words "fascism" and "communism" are greeted with uncomprehending frowns.

And it might have been, but for a single genetic trait in one very unfortunate boy.

No comments:

Post a Comment