Monday, June 22, 2009

The Great Mystery

     A couple of days ago we talked about "The Tipping Point," that moment in time when major events begin like a snowball that rolls down a hill and becomes something big. Well, along those lines we are going to talk today about events and what happened at them. I sort of came to start thinking about this when I was watching a show on a beautiful but boring Saturday morning when there was nothing much on television.
     It was on The History Channel, which odds are that I would be watching at any given moment anyway, and it was about the disappearance of The Romanovs. Now, any of you who are history buffs probably already recognize the name and know a little bit about the story, but for those of you who are not allow me to explain a little bit of the back story.
     The Romanovs were the ruling family of Russia for a big chunk of history. Ever hear of the tsars? Well that was them. They were all powerful, extremely rich (some estimated their fortune at $30 billion, IN 1910 DOLLARS!, which would be roughly $660 billion in today's money, which I would have to say is a lot. Besides being rich and powerful the Romanovs were greatly revered throughout most of the country, except by the Communists. That being said, it's not terribly surprising that, when the Communists (aka the Reds) took over power in 1917 they executed all the members of the Royal family.
     Or did they? Many people, even to this day, harbor the belief that the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who was seventeen at the time, survived. A woman, who was later proved to be a Polish peasant girl, was the focus of a claim that she was really Anastasia for years. The search to the answer to this question led to a search for the bodies, which only raised more questions. Despite the use of the most modern of search methods and forensic testing, very few questions have been answered. There are even two grave sites that are celebrated outside Yekaterinburg in central Russia: one by Russian historians and one by the Russian Orthodox Church. I am not making this up people.
     Anyway, as I was watching the program, and it was getting into all the complexities of what exactly happened that night, what went down on July 17, 1918 in the 24x20 foot basement room of the Ipatiev House, I was struck by how many different theories there were and how fervently the believers of each stuck to their belief. The more I thought about it the more it sort of amazed and disheartened me, as a sort of historian, that we will never know exactly what happened that day.
     It's true. The only people who will know exactly what happened on that day in that place are those who were there. In this case, like in so many cases, half the witnesses are dead and the rest aren't talking. And when they are, since they are early Soviet officials and the subject is the ruthless murder of popular figures and the disposal of their remains, you can be sure it is a highly filtered version of events. They know exactly what happened that day, what was said and who did what, but the rest of us will never know. We can only speculate. We can never know exactly.
     Really. We can never know. We can dig up all the written accounts, and all the records that we want, even all the photos we can find, but we will never ever know. There have been more examples than I care to count of events where there have been multiple varying accounts of the same thing. Think about it. Pretend that a tent falls down at a beer tasting festival, and you are the police and you go out and start interviewing people about what happened. Every person you talk to is going to have a different version. Maybe this guy saw someone kicking the main pole in the middle of the tent. Maybe this woman saw a kid trip on one of the little guy wires that holds the place up. Maybe that guy over there felt a strong gust of wind. Everyone is going to have a similar story but there will always be details that never line up. And that bugs me.
     Let's look at another example. Let's talk about The Battle of Thermopylae, the one on which the movie 300 was based, in which a force of about 1400 Greek soldiers (including about 300 Spartan glory hogs, just kidding) forming the rear guard of a 7000 man army were overrun by a Persian force that modern estimates put at about 300,000. Wow. That's long odds, so of course they were killed. But they held out long enough to let the bulk of the army escape. The point here though, is that before that heroic last stand the full army held off the best that the Persians could throw at the Greek defenders FOR SEVEN DAYS! Yeah, that's right. A whole week. Wednesday to Wednesday. Included in this seven days of defiance were three days of actual fighting, and included in this three days of actual fighting was an attack by the Immortals, one of the most feared fighting sources in all of antiquity. And yet the Greeks withstood the assault. The thing is, that while we have pretty good records of the event, we can't know exactly what happened. In the first assault of the Persian infantry on the Greek phalanx only two or three Spartans (a.k.a. Greek army soldiers) were killed, according to the Greek historian Ctesias, which I would highly doubt was true. While the Greeks had the more favorable position, and the Persians were armed with wicker shields and shorter spears (bold strategy on their part, but it worked out for them because they ended up winning the battle) I still think that their overwhelming numbers would have taken down a few more Greek people. And no matter how good the CGI and reenactments are on TV these days, the only people who really know what went down, who were really the heroes and who cried and ran home to mommy, are those people who were there. The soldiers rotating through the battle. The Persian Kind Xerxes. They know. We can only guess, and only they know.
     And so on and so forth. Only Lee Harvey Oswald knows exactly what his roll in the JFK assassination was. And he's dead. Only the people on that Air France flight that crashed into the Atlantic off Brazil will ever know exactly what happened. Only the guy on the phone who I talked to this afternoon and I will know exactly what happened during that phone call. The advent of film and digital camera has made this problem a whole lot better in recent times, but even then the events that we see on tape are open to interpretation. And those tapes can still be altered.  And often there is no video camera around anyway.  So I guess the mystery will continue, which I suppose is part of the fun.  But I'd really like to know exactly what happened at exactly that time in exactly that place.  I want to know the answer to the great mystery.  Is that so much to ask?

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