The problem of ideal government has bothered people for millennia. Perhaps until very recently, some people might have considered this problem to be resolved. Some honestly believed in the universal triumph of democracy as the perfect government. However, the current disaster of democracy both in the US and in other places may have shaken the faith of some. Others take heart in the defeats of such anti-establishment types as Marine le Pen, without seriously considering how much her defeat may have to do with the death of democracy and the rise of a new financial oligarchy.
My novels are not political or philosophical tracts. Far from it. But like any conscientious person, the problem of ideal government is one that concerns me as a human being. So naturally some of that spills into my fiction. In particular, my second novel can be read as an exploration of the traditionally Russian idea of “anointed monarchy” (not, I hurry to add, “absolute monarchy”).
One of my characters even gets physically anointed in a ceremony that’s meant to evoke as much a sense of religious majesty as political triumph.
The inspiration for that scene is the coronation of Nicholas II, which occurred on this day 121 years ago. It was a coronation remarkable both for its pomp and its tragedy. On the fourth day of the celebration, there was a mass hysteria in a crowd of 500,000, and almost 1,500 people were trampled to death. The responsibility for this tragedy on the “Khodynka” is one of the many accusations flung at “Bloody Nicholas” by shoddy historians.
The reality of the coronation, anointing, and subsequent tragedy is much more nuanced. Today I’ve translated an article from Taday.ru by Andrei Manovtsev. It goes into fascinating detail about this momentous event that in some ways foreshadowed the tragedy of the 20th century. (Most of the amazing photos I took from this website).
The Tsar’s Arrival
The Tsar arrived in Moscow on his birthday, May 6 (Old Calendar). Three days later, he triumphantly rode into the center of the city. On May 14, (May 26 by our reckoning) the Tsar and Tsaritsa approached the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Kremlin. The Metropolitan of Moscow blessed them before they entered. He spoke to them in a traditional exhortation, rather than a simple greeting. Here are some of his words:
You are entering this ancient holy place to crown yourself and accept holy chrismation…All Christians receive this sacrament, and it by nature cannot be repeated. If you must accept the imprint of this mystery a second time, then the reason is as follows. There is no more difficult or exalted power than a Tsar’s power. There is no heavier burden than the service of a Tsar. Through the visible sign, you receive invisible power, acting from Above. May it illumine your autocratic rule to the good and to the joy of your faithful subjects.”
All the hymns of the coronation were, of course, symbolic. For example, the Royal entrance was accompanied by the singing of Psalm 100:
I have set no unlawful thing before mine eyes…A froward heart hath not cleaved unto me; I did not know the crafty man that turned away from me.”
The reading from the Old Testament was from Isaiah:
Behold, I painted your walls on My hands, and you are continually before Me.”
The Gospel reading was about, fittingly, rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
The coronation prayer, uttered by the Tsar himself, is particularly interesting:
You, my Master and Lord, instruct me in every deed that You lay before me. Make me wise and direct me in this great service. Let the Wisdom that sits at the right hand of Your throne be with me. Let my heart be in Your hand, that I may turn everything to the benefit of the people You have given me, and to Your glory.”
What is especially notable about these and all the speeches and prayers on Coronation day is how little they flatter the person of the monarch. They are serious, full of warning, and constantly directed toward divine help for this most difficult of vocations.
The actual anointing occurred after the coronation, and the liturgy at which both Tsar and Tsaritsa communed. According to the historian Uspenskii, the repetition of an unrepeatable sacrament gave the Russian Tsar a special status. He was now on a kind of separate sphere of existence. His political power had effectively transformed into charismatic power.
According to Fr. Maxim Kozlov, a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy:
The meaning of this sacrament is that the Tsar was blessed by God not only as the head of state, but as a bearer of theocratic service, which is an ecclesiastical service, as we see in the Old Testament. He is a kind of representative of God on earth.” (link to Russian article)
Later in the same article, Fr. Maxim reminds his readers of Metropolitan Philaret’s teaching concerning monarchical power: “The people that respect their Tsar please God, for the kingship is a divine institution.” (This is another reference to the anointing of Saul in 1 Samuel)
After the Coronation
From the early morning of May 18 (May 30 by our reckoning), a huge crowd gathered in the Khodynka Field. There were more than half a million waiting for the traditional gifts given by the newly-crowned Tsar. The gifts included:
- A painted aluminum cup with the monogram of the new Tsar and Tsaritsa
- Half a pound of sausage
- A rolled fruitcake
- A specially stamped cake
- A bag of sweets and nuts
Everything was calm until six in the morning. Then, a rumor started to circulate: There were not enough gifts to go around, and the stewards of the feats were hoarding it up for themselves. Then, as an eyewitness recalled it:
The mob jumped up as a single man and threw itself forward with incredible speed, as though it were running away from fire. The rear rows pushed at the front. People fell and were trampled. Everyone lost the ability to feel that they were walking on living bodies as on stones or logs. It lasted only 10-15 minutes. By the time the mob woke up, it was too late.”
The Victims of the “Khodynka”
In the “canonical” list of accusations against Nicholas II, this tragedy is not quite at the top, but still has an important place. He is accused of heartlessness, because he decided not to refuse the invitation of the French ambassador to a ball. The problem is one of a lack of understanding of the rules governing behavior in the 19th century. The ambassador of France was, for all intents and purposes, of equal importance with the ruler of France. To refuse him would be to offend the French government, which, in the pre-WWI, nationalistic age of the late 19th century, was not merely rude, it was dangerous.
Here is the full truth of that terrible day. All triumphal events were canceled from that moment. As for the “heartless” Tsar, he personally gave 1000 rubles to every victim’s family. (This is a huge sum of money by our standards.) Together with his wife, he visited the hospitals that held the wounded victims of the catastrophe. The widowed empress, Nicholas’s mother, was there as well, and she had this to say:
I was very upset seeing all these innocent victims. Nearly every one of them lost someone dear to them. But at the same time, they were so significant and noble in their simplicity, that they all tried to get up and stand on their knees before the Tsar! They were so touching, not blaming anyone other than themselves. They even asked forgiveness for distressing the Tsar! You could be proud in the knowledge that you belonged to such a great and wonderful nation. Other social classes should have taken their example, not started to eat each other…”
It’s a fascinating eye-witness account. Unfortunately, the “eating of each other” only continued until the age-long love of the people for their Tsar, so vivid in this episode and in another episode I wrote about here, completely disappeared. In its place came the desire for “the right to dishonor,” as Dostoyevsky put it.
If you liked this post, and if you’d like to read more about Russian history and traditions, be sure to join my Readers’ Group. You’ll be the first to know when my first novel will be available for sale, and you’ll have a chance to win free copies and other gifts.