Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Reflections on a Reign

"Reflections on a Reign"

by Jordan S. Bassior
(c) 2009, 2011

Sitting in the place of honor among his court, Tsar Nicholas II, Autocrat of All the Russias, reflected on his long inglorious life.  Following giants like his father and grandfather, was it inevitable that he was dwarfed in comparison?

The war with Japan in 1904, had been a disaster.  He might have gained glory defending Serbia in 1914, but he decided upon peace instead.  After that, the chance for valor had never come.

He’d lost all his old rights, slowly whittled away by the Duma, forced to accept constitutional limitations on the monarchy.  Granted, the people were richer than ever before, and he was greatly loved, which served him as some consolation.

He was 74 years old, and knew he had not much time left on Earth.  At least young Nicholas, his grandson by poor short-lived Alexis, would succeed him.  His daughters had made good matches: they were half the queens of Eastern Europe.

Family had always meant much to him.  He might not have been much of a Tsar, but as a father, at least, he had not failed.

The rocket ignited. And the last true autocrat watched, as Russia launched the first man into orbit.

(c) 2009, 2011

Comments:  This short-short (current version:  197 words) originally appeared on Ficly and subsequently in a post on Livejournal in a shorter form.  The story takes place in 1942 (deducible from the age given), and is obviously alternate history:  the point being that this Nicholas II has been far more successful than the last Tsar of OTL, and by implication has saved the lives of something like a hundred million human beings -- and will never know what horrors he avoided. 

It came from a speculation on my part that the worst disasters are often those that would have been unimaginable had they been averted, and the subsequent thought that the worst disaster of the last 250 years was the First World War, which led to Communism, Fascism, and both World War II and the Cold War.  The events of the last decade have only firmed my conclusion.


  1. Nice snippet. I've read this before on your LiveJournal page, and thought I'd chime in here. By the way, do you know of any lengthier scenarios where World War I was avoided? Do you have any plans to expand this into a more detailed timeline?

  2. This is the main one I've done where WWI was avoided entirely. I've always thought that Nicholas II was the key -- had he not intervened, the war would have been purely Austro-Serbian and would have seen Austria-Hunger (justly) smack down Serbia for its backing of the murder of the Archduke. No Great Powers would have been threatened, Germany would have remained neutral, and consequently it would have been just one more little Balkan War.

    Europe was headed toward a poltical crisis independently of anything that happened in the Balkans -- this is why Britain nearly slipped into a civil war over Ireland and the stress of the war caused all four of the great Central and Eastern European empires (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia and Turkey) and one democracy (Italy) to collapse. Absent the harsh conditions imposed by the war, much of this collapse would have taken the form of successful democratic reform movements, rather than the dictatorships of various sorts which emerged in OTL.

    This was originally a one-time short-short, but I wouldn't mind expanding it.

    As to its plausibility, late Tsarist Russia was actually a successful polity in every way save democratic reform. Russia was rapidly industrializing and talent was bursting out in every field of endeavor, from art and literature to science and engineering. Absent the horrors and human and material losses of World War One, the Russian Civil War, Lenin, Stalin, World War Two and then MORE Stalin, Russia would almost certainly have progressed faster than in OTL.

    All I've done, in fact, is to have Russia achieve what she actually did DESPITE her suffering, 17 years earlier. This is far from impossible, if even a fraction of the scientific, engineering and financial effort which in OTL was devoted to constant warfare against enemies foreign and domestic, real and imaginary -- not to mention that which was WASTED by Stalin's evil paranoia -- had been available for constructive enterprises.

    Um, Keith Laumer's Worlds of the Imperium takes place in an AH where Britain and Germany allied around 1900, dominating Europe and preventing World War One. They wind up developing crosstime travel.

  3. I just looked up "Worlds of the Imperium". Considering that AH in question diverged in not having an American Revolution, it isn't really what I'm talking about.

    Anyway, it would be interesting to see a more complete timeline where WWI was avoided. The 20th Century wouldn't have been free of war, of course, but the wars might very well have been smaller affairs. In addition, without the shock of two World Wars less than 25 years apart from each other, the colonial empires in general might well have lasted longer- perhaps to the present day. (Personally, I think a lot of those countries were better off as colonies. Yes, there were abuses, but can it really be claimed that the people there are better off now?)

    P.S. Speaking of my earlier comment about timelines without an American Revolution, have you heard of Look To The West?

  4. Actually, Serbia defeated the Austro-Hungarian invasion fairly comprehensively. Even if Russia had not mobilised, it is unlikely that Austria-Hungary would have committed many more troops to the initial attack. Of course, if it was just Serbia v Austria-Hungary, Serbia must have lost in the long run. But it makes the Russian decision to mobilise even more ironic in a way. Though, the problem was, if Russia did not mobilise, it was vulnerable to an Austria-Hungarian invasion, at least initially.

  5. I probably should do a complete timeline for the "Reflections on a Reign" AH. The explicit POD would be sometime between 28 July and 6 August 1914, when Russia would have indicated that she wanted to stay neutral in an Austro-Serbian War; there would logically have been an earlier implicit POD when something happened to Nicholas II causing him to make a different decision than in OTL.

    Nicholas II is good for this sort of thing because he was a truly chaotic decision-maker: he had (sometimes contradictory) prejudices, about which he was stubborn, and consequently tended to go with the first adviser who made an argument to him which appealed to one of his prejudices. This makes him fun for generating AH's, but also made him a terrible national leader under whom to live.

    The relevant prejudices here were Pan-Slavism, anti-radicalism and pacifism. Nicholas II was a Pan-Slavist who felt that all Slavic peoples should be united, under the leadership of Russia as the most prominent Slavic nation; this gave Russia a responsibility to protect Slavic nations in trouble, such as Serbia was in 1914. This impelled him to war in OTL's 1914.

    However, Nicholas II also hated radicalism -- Russia was of course menaced by radicals, and assassins had claimed the life of his grandfather Alexander II (the "Tsar-Liberator"); and was a pacifist who tried to end European wars through the mechanism of international congresses. These would both have given him good reasons to cut Serbia loose -- Serbia had encouraged radicals to murder Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and going to war with Austria would obviously drag in Germany, at a minimum, starting a general European war.

    Really, all it would have taken would have been for a different advisor to have spoken to him at a different time.

  6. As for your point, Lorenzo -- yes, Serbia put up a dogged defense, and would have been no pushover. But, absent a general war, Serbia would have had no chance of winning in the long run, and probably would have accepted a peace with concessions to Austria-Hungary, at least after the first months of fighting. Ironically, this would have been better for the Serbs than what actually happened -- four years of war, and the death of 725 thousand out of a population of only 4.5 million -- when one reflects how many more Serbs must have been seriously wounded, this was a literally-crippling price for Serbia to pay for victory.

    Most of all the Great Powers in 1914, Russia could have taken the risk of a purely defensive deployment. Russia, after all, had space to spare -- any one-season Central Powers invasion campaign would have rapidly petered-out before reaching anything vital. This would have left the invading army doing about as well as Napoleon in late 1812. And, absent a Russian attack on Austria, would Germany have even chosen to risk meeting the famous (and mostly illusory) Russian "steamroller?"

  7. Somehow, I don't think things would work out the way they did in this story.

  8. Ah, lost most of my comment and just wanted to see if things worked.

    Some points:

    So, what of the Sino-Japanese War?
    At the turn of the century, most Russians were peasants using outdated farming techniques, and the Czars didn't trust the ministers' efforts to drag Russia into the twentieth century.
    By WWI, the Czar was eating away at the Duma's power.
    Pogroms didn't help him much. I doubt very much he'd be loved.
    The reason there were rockets was because Germany wanted to bomb Britain into the stone age from a distance.

  9. Things might or might not turn out that way: what I picked was close to an optimum path both for Russia and for Nicholas II, that still enabled him to remain Tsar. Certainly, short of Nazi Germany conquering Russia (and remember, there is no Nazi Germany in this ATL -- no Great War, so Germany remains a monarchy) things could hardly have turned out worse for Russian than they did in our timeline.

    I would imagine that there were still various Great Power wars. One likely war would be some version of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) of OTL; another would be some version of the Japanese-American Pacific War (1941-45). Either or both would actually help Russia's position, though, as long as Russia either stayed neutral or picked the right moment to get involved. Tough on China and/or Japan, to be sure, as it was in OTL.

    It's quite true that in 1900 Russia was in many ways still very backward. But she was industrializing very rapidly, a process that absent the Great War and the Russian Civil War would have continued. Russia was in OTL just catching up to her 1914 industrialization and standard of living in the 1930's, and then was knocked back down again by World War II. It wasn't until the reign of Krushchev that the Russians finally caught up to where they had been before the start of the disasters.

    Among those disasters were manifestly the reigns of Lenin and Stalin, two of the worst leaders in Russian history (which is saying a lot!). Lenin wrecked the economy and international trade: Stalin followed up on this by slaughtering many of the trained professionals he needed for production and war.

    Yes, it's true that Stalin achieved some very impressive specific production goals, particularly in certain aspects of heavy industry. But a tyrant can always get one or two things done that he really wants to do. What isn't as obvious is that he achieved these goals by means of what amounted to sacrificing the rest of the economy -- and a good deal of the participants in this economy -- to them.

    The result was an unbalanced and unsustainable economic development, which left negative echoes in the Russian production system and society which are still resounding. Russia is today almost a dying culture -- it has a severely negative population growth -- and the first two Communist tyrants bear much of the blame for sabotaging their own country.

  10. As explicitly stated in the story, the Tsar has been forced to yield much of his power to the Duma -- he is now a constitutional monarch. He views this as part of his failure.

    It is obvious, though I don't go into detail in an under-200-word story, that at various points in the last three decades, Nicholas had to back down under pressure because the solution to this or that problem required the general cooperation of the upper and middle classes, which meant appeasing the Duma. Given that, in OTL, Tsar Nicholas II in fact abdicated (in 1917) having him yield some (rather than all) of his power (because he was under less pressure, there being no Great War) is hardly too much of a stretch.

    Indeed, pogroms hurt the Tsar, and Russia. The Russians lost many talented and useful Jewish people to other countries, principally Germany (which murdered them) and America (which didn't, and hence wound up the leader of the whole world). Of course, Nicholas II's pogroms were small-scale compared to those of Lenin and Stalin, which were carried out against many ethnic groups and killed far more many people. One of the reasons that the ATL's Russia is stronger than was the Russia of OTL is that most of those people Lenin and Stalin would kill are still alive, and working productively to the glory and wealth of the Russian Empire.

    Historically, most Tsars who didn't totally screw up and wind up overthrown were "loved." The Russian people generally blamed local officials for their sufferings, assuming that the Tsar didn't know about it and would do something to stop it if he did. "It is very far to the Tsar," went the traditional formulation.

    You may regard this as an unattractive aspect of human nature, if you will.

    Now, the Nicholas II of the ATL has been, from the popular point of view, a pretty good Tsar. They were probably happy with the pogroms against the Jews: the Russians still are and back then were even more anti-Semitic. They blamed him for losing the Russo-Japanese War and for his handling of the 1905 Revolution, but by the 1940's that would be fairly old history.

    For almost four decades now, Russia has enjoyed extensive economic and industrial growth (no Great War also means that the "Great Depression" becomes the "Panic of (whenever)," a matter of a few bad years). She's still authoritarian by (say) American or British standards, but from the Russian POV they are enjoying an unprecedentedly mild rule and free society.

    Heck, why shouldn't they love this Tsar?

  11. The reason there were rockets was because Germany wanted to bomb Britain into the stone age from a distance.

    That was indeed why the first relatively long-ranged ballistic missiles were built in OTL. The reason there were, and are, chemical rockets, is that they are the easiest way to launch payloads across distances through sub-orbital and into orbital space.

    The concept of building chemical rockets, both for war and for exploration, long antedates Nazi Germany's World War II V-weapon program. To make matters perfect for my story, the first person to work out the details of spaceflight (including rocketships, satellites, space stations, and even space elevators and generation ships) was a Russian, Konstantin Tsiolovsky.


    who first formulated and published his theories decades before the Great War.

    Russia's reasons in the OTL for launching a manned spaceship in 1942 are, in the story, conjectural. I imagine that among the points which would have occurred to the Russian leadership are:

    (1) If we can launch an orbital rocketship, we have the capability to photograph or bomb any point on Earth, making us militarily more powerful and

    (since at least the scientists have probably read Tsiolovsky)

    (2) If we maintain a lead in spaceflight technology, Russia will be the Power to lead human colonization of the Solar System, plus

    (3) Because of (1) and (2), being the first nation to do this will gain Russia much international prestige: no one will call us "backward" any more!

    In short, much the same reasons as in OTL.