fifty hospital beds -- 5/19/14

Today's selection -- from Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale. Nations routinely underestimate the length, cost and carnage of the wars they enter. Of particular note were the grotesque miscalculations made by royal families across Europe on the eve of World War I. The absurdity was particularly evident in the preparations of the naive Empress Alexandra of Russia, wife of the even duller Nicholas II, both of whom were famously murdered only four years later in a basement in Ekaterinburg:

"And then, without a thought for art or bread, Russia entered Europe's war. 'Let the unity of the Tsar and His people become yet stronger,' Nicholas II declared in his manifesto. 'Let Russia rise as one person.' Like those of every other European nation, his subjects drank deep on such rhetoric, forgetting other troubles for one final, fervent season. Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot on 28 June 1914. On 23 July, Serbia received an Austrian ultimatum threatening punitive war. The Serbs appealed for Russian help, and St Petersburg, dreaming of Slavic brotherhood and Balkan influence, responded. Russia's general mobilization began on 30 July. In August, Moscow put out its national flags, began collections for the war effort, and cheered each new batch of recruits as they marched past the Kremlin walls. ...

"The Kremlin's status as an imperial palace, the property of the tsars, allowed the Romanovs to put it to a novel use. In 1914, the empress Alexandra ordered that a hospital for officers should be created somewhere on the Kremlin hill. The concession to mere citizens was a serious one, implying profanation of the consecrated [Kremlin] ground, but the idea was to emphasize the sacred nature of this war. There was also something intimate, a direct personal link, in a hospital that bore the empress's name. Fifty beds were envisaged, though a contingency was proposed 'should all of these be occupied'. As the first casualties arrived, the empress requested that she be informed of each officer's name and the details of his wounds. The impression that these men were almost family could only have been reinforced at Easter 1915 (and again in 1916) when each of the patients in the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna hospital received a personal gift, a small china egg, hand-decorated with the imperial coat of arms.

"What started as a noble act, however, soon became absurd. Russia's war was a disaster. The troops were brave -- their courage in the face of death was legendary -- but they were not prepared to fight this bitter war. In the first year alone, their losses were about four million men. The soldiers fell to better-equipped and better-led opponents, to poor port networks on their own side, and to the ebbing of morale. If the empress had taken the time to read the reports on 'her' officers, she would have been alarmed at the details of shell-wounds, head injuries amputations. The Kremlin hospital began its life in the spirit of Marie Antoinette's toy farm in eighteenth-century Versailles, complete snowy palace linen on the beds, but it ended in chaos and squalor. The plight of the casualties was desperate, their numbers overwhelming. Distracted by problems at court, the empress lost interest, leaving the enterprise to Moscow's city government."


Catherine Merridale


Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin


Metropolitan Books a Henry Holt and Company, LLC


Copyright 2013 by Catherine Merridale


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