Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Today's Episode of 'You Can't Win'

On May 14, 1896, Nicholas II was crowned the tsar of Russia; as it would turn out, he'd be the last tsar. We're not interested today in the end of his reign. We're interested in his coronation.

A celebration of his coronation was held at Khodynka Field in northwest Moscow (now the site of an airport) four days later, to be attended by anyone that wanted to show up. It was to be followed by a ball at the French embassy; that was for the diplomats and aristocracy. The people attending the celebration at Khodynka were informed that there would be free stuff at this celebration. And there was. Everyone was to get a sausage, some gingerbread, some pretzels, a bread roll, and a beer mug. For free. What a deal. Estimates are that half a million people showed up. (To compare, remember that Obama's inauguration drew about half that.)

During the celebration, though, a rumor began to make its way through the crowd. A shocking rumor. A rumor that would rock the Russian people to their core.

There might not be enough free beer or pretzels for everybody. (There is also the account that the people were simply told of 'expensive gifts' and they thought 'the gifts' would soon run out. We're going here with the version that contends they knew what the gifts were.)

Now, let us reiterate, in case it hasn't drilled into your head yet, that this beer, these pretzels that the people MIGHT not get- that there's a CHANCE they won't get- is free. A normal person might respond 'Aw, man, that sucks. But it is a huge crowd, and hey, I'm still getting free sausage and gingerbread and a bread roll and perhaps still the mug even if there isn't any beer in it. So I'm still making out pretty well.' And even in the 'expensive gifts' version of the story, and they worried they might not get anything at all... free. That's the worry no matter what the story is. That there might- MIGHT- not be enough free stuff to accommodate half a million people.

But that is why you were not a Russian on May 18, 1896. The correct response to this rumor of a minor inconvenience is as follows:


There were about 1,800 policemen on hand. But there were 500,000 people to corral. 500,000 people rushing to the free beer are too many for 1,800 to handle. The exact number of dead varies, but seems to settle at 1,389, with 1,300 more injured.

Nicholas was shocked at the news. And not just because he had learned how nuts his people would go to make sure they got every single bit of the free stuff that was offered. He wanted to forget the rest of the ceremonies and head to the hospital to meet with some of the victims. He certainly didn't feel like attending the ball at the French embassy. However, the younger brothers of the previous tsar, Alexander III, basically forced him to go, because they figured not going would be an insult to France, and that would be even worse than ignoring the death of nearly 1,400 people.

Ultimately, Nicholas went to the ball. Wrong move. Even though he made sure to follow it up with plenty of aid to the victims and their families, not only did Nicholas catch harsh criticism for attending the ball, the disaster itself was enough to cripple Nicholas' approval rating right out of the gate. Some mystics took Khodynka as a bad omen for the rest of his reign. (Mystics were a thing back then; remember that Rasputin arrived later in Nicholas' reign.) It wouldn't have mattered if he had attended or not, but Nicholas didn't improve his image any.

All for having the audacity to maybe not provide enough free stuff.

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