On the Kaiser’s Generosity

Ulya and his friends wanted to travel from Switzerland to Russia, desperately. World War 1 was raging, and they deeply desired to go home and work to make their nation better, to solve the issues of the war, and fight–and die, if necessary–for their fellow Russians. And, so, the group of friends boarded a train in Zurich in April of 1917 and headed east.

Now, Ulya is short for Ulyanov, the man’s last name, and it’s what his pals called him. Some friends called him Nicky, but that was a nickname that had nothing to do with his real name and more to do with his larger-than-life personality that came across as a leader like Machiavelli wrote about or like an emperor, a czar–like Russia’s Nicholas II was. Born to an upper middle class family in a large city a few hundred miles east of Moscow, Ulya gave the impression that he felt he was somewhat better than others. His classmates in school agreed with this assessment, as had received the normal private education for a boy from a well-to-do family.

Before the war started, however, Ulya had been studying and writing in London and Munich and other places around Europe. He was, in fact, in Eastern Europe when the war broke out, and circumstances prohibited him from making his way back to Russia to offer his help in the war. He ended up finding a safe haven in neutral Switzerland; it was a place from which he could study and work in relative comfort and also plan to make his way back to Russia.

That was the trick, right? How could he cross the territories of Russia’s enemies, Germany and Austria Hungary, and reach Mother Russia? Even trying to reach water to attempt to reach his homeland by sea would require Ulya to attempt to traverse enemy-controlled land. So, for the first almost three years of the war, Ulya was unable to find a way to Russia.

Then, a miracle happened.

In what seemed like an incredible act of generosity and largesse, the Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, a man who was a cousin of Czar Nicholas, offered to provide a train that would take all Russians who wished to go home back to Russia. That meant that Ulya and several of his fellow Russian citizens and friends could safely cross the enemy territory and return to Russia. A naturally suspicious man, Ulya and some of his buddies talked about the offer. Was this a trap? Could they trust the Kaiser to keep his word?

The desire to reach home finally proved stronger than any possible fear of being captured or imprisoned. And the Kaiser proved to be true to his word. The train was sent to Zurich, and Ulya and his fellow Russians boarded; they couldn’t believe their good fortune and the Kaiser’s miraculous provision. The route proved to be long and arduous, having to travel north into Scandinavia and come into Russia by the north, but it was worth it, Ulya believed. And, before you think that the Kaiser did this out the kindness of his heart, well, think again.

You see, the Kaiser had an ulterior motive. Within a few weeks, Ulya–Vladimir Ulyanov, known to the world as Lenin–and his fellow communists helped to overthrow the Czar and take Russia out of World War 1.

On a Family Wedding

Weddings are usually joyful occasions for families. Large families especially mark weddings and funerals as major events in family lore. Those major life events are times of reconnecting with cousins and distant relations that you don’t normally get to see. That was definitely the case of a large family wedding that took place in 1913 in Berlin.

The bride, Vicky, was marrying a guy she’s gotten acquainted with the year before at, of all places, a family funeral. He was even a distant cousin, and his name was Ernie. Vicky’s dad, from the wealthy class, wanted everyone to come to the nuptials of his only daughter (and favorite child), so he sent word to all the family to make their way to Berlin in May 1913 for the wedding of the decade. He also wanted to use the event to bring the family closer. It’s difficult to keep so many people in touch, especially when there are as spread out as Vicky’s family was. So, the extended family began making their way to the city to witness what surely would be a grand time.

Since this family was from the land-owning class, many of the men in this large group were attached to the military, so the wedding party was resplendent with fancy dress uniforms and gleaming medals and swords. The women wore their best expensive gowns to not only the ceremony but also to the various balls and dinners held to celebrate the happy couple’s wedding. Tens of thousands of German marks were spent on the catering, the bands, the alcohol, the gifts, the decorations, and the cake (the height of which reached almost one story, according to one report).

And, so, it proved to be exactly what Vicky and Vicky’s dad wanted. It was indeed an affair that brought this large, wealthy family together in celebration. Yes, it proved to be an amazing time that was reported in all the papers, an event that people were destined to talk about for the rest of the decade.

Except they didn’t talk about it.

The wedding was forgotten in a little over a year, lost in the disaster that was to follow over the next five years.

You see, Vicky, the bride, was named after her great-grandmother, a woman named Queen Victoria of Britain. Her dad was Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, and the cousins that came to the wedding–the crown heads of Europe, including King George of Britain and Czar Nicholas II of Russia, and all those other men who wore their uniforms to the event–they went back to their homes and their armies and navies.

And, within 16 months, they would start World War I against each other, in August of 1914 to be exact.

And Vicky’s wedding would be the last time all those royal cousins saw each other alive.

On an Influential Minister

Greg took his role seriously. His country’s power brokers listened to him, hung on his every word, made major decisions based on his wise advice and sage counsel. Greg’s time in the halls of power saw his nation suffer the agony of political, economic, and even military upheaval. So, his inputs and opinions about the major issues of the day were invaluable to those who ruled his land.

Today, Americans do not think it odd that religious leaders such as Greg would be considered as an important advisor to those who hold political power. We are used to such things as a National Day of Prayer and presidents speaking before religious groups. Often, minsters, rabbis, and pastors are called to the Oval Office to discuss the issues of the day and how morality applies to them.

That’s the type of role Greg filled for his nation. The major difference was that Greg’s voice became the only one the leaders listened to. His influence was seen in some circles of government as being too large, his power over the decisions of government too great. Yet, Greg continued to have the ear of those who held the reins of power.

Those who knew Greg marveled at his rise to such a position. Born to a poor farming family in a rural part of the country, his mother had seven other children, but only Greg lived to adulthood. His youth was misspent and saw him get in trouble with the local constabulary for such misdemeanors as petty thefts and drunkenness. His schooling was spotty at best. He finally settled down somewhat and married a farmer’s daughter and began a family, taking on the farmer life for himself.

Stories about his entry into the ministry vary. For whatever reason, he decided to become a pastor. After some training in a seminary, Greg returned from his training a changed man. He had sworn off alcohol, became strict in a vegetarian diet, and began preaching a message of personal responsibility and strict abstinence from all worldly passions. The message resonated in part because of Greg’s personality.

Those who heard him speak became taken with his passion, his drive. It was said that Greg could cast a spell over his church audience. His local congregation of followers grew and grew. He began to be someone people (and many rich people) came to for advice and counsel. And Greg’s sessions proved to be fruitful to those who came to him. It was only a matter of time before those holding  political power sought him out for not only his advice but also for the reputation he had garnered in his growing ministerial work.

One day, the leader of the government asked Greg for a favor. Would the minister please pray for his youngest child, his son, who had a congenital disease? Absolutely, Greg said. The prayer seemed to provide the young man some relief. The family, especially the young man’s mother, ever so grateful, brought Greg into their inner circle as a healer, a holy person, and someone in whom the powerful family placed their entire—and, it turns out, misplaced—trust.  

You know how this story ends. That powerful family—the family of Russian Czar Nicholas II—relied on the peasant preacher Gregori Rasputin more than any other advisor. And they did so as their empire and eventually their own lives crumbled around them.