The guillotine is a more personal death

I’m reading a few pages of Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval every morning at breakfast. It’s about the interconnectedness of America, France, and Russia in the years around the French Revolution. This morning, I read the following passage about the Russian Catherine the Great:

“[Upon hearing of the beheading of King Louis XVI,] for three weeks she was in mourning and wore black; when Marie Antoinette was beheaded, the despair cut even deeper to the quick: she wore black for six weeks.”

This is the same woman who was overjoyed at such atrocities of war as:

A battle with a Turkish battle fleet where fire from Molotov cocktails spread to multiple ships and left a sea of carnage afterwards. “For two weeks, the bloated, burned corpses, more than two thousand, were found floating in the Liman. The river eventually turned green.”

The storming of Ismail, “it was one of the most horrific massacres of the century, and, really of any modern century. By day’s end, nearly 55,000–a staggering figure–were dead: at least 12,000 Russians, which paled in comparison to the Turkish toll: about 40,000. By contrast, at Yorktown, there were just 80 American casualties and 500 British…. Though pained by the heavy loss of men (for her part, the empress, with her typical singleness of purpose, was not), Potemkin was ecstatic….”

What’s my point? I’m not sure I have one, but I find the contrast fascinating. Thoughts:

1. My first thought was that this was the surest condemnation of aristocracy that I had ever read. Any system of class which can make one set of people out to be more human than another is corrupt and, dare I say it, evil. I normally don’t even believe in the concept of evil, but maybe that’s what it is, a system that can blind us to the humanity of other people.

2. What is there about our own “modern” systems of government that will seem hopelessly and self-evidently wrong in a more progressive future? (Which is not guaranteed by any means. And even if history bends in that direction, it may not take a straight course. After all, the mess of the French Revolution did not bring freedom immediately, but Napoleon.) I recall the hair-pulling and bombastic rhetoric about socialism these last few years: once the emotion of the Red Scare has passed from that word, how will it be viewed in two hundred years? How about capitalism? Will it be the savior that certain parties preach or will we look back after the next big financial crash (in a few years?) and wonder what we ever saw in such a corrupt concept?

3. The battle between the “Turks” and the “West” (can one really call Russia the West? Probably under Catherine.) has been going on for a long time. And we still have disproportional responses. About 3,000 dead on September 11; anywhere from 150,000 to half a million Iraqis dead in the Iraq War. When will it end? Supposedly the West is Christian. Turn the other cheek already. Turn the other cheek.

As you can see, this makes for cheerful breakfast reading. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The good thing about reading even such grim history from this distance is that I know it all turns out for the best. Now to keep our current generations from fucking it up.

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