The royal couple, the wandering peasant, and the son with a gene mutation that changed history.


The royal couple, the wandering peasant, and the son with a gene mutation that changed history.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

—Wilfred Owen (1917)

One of the most enjoyable things about history is, it gives us the chance to let our imagination soar freely; to dream about worlds different from ours. History invites us to think through all the what-if’s, to think of all the things that could have been, to ponder the chance of fate that made the world turn out the way it did.

Counterfactuals are an important tool for historians. Our “hindsight bias” makes it look like the way history went was necessary and foreseeable, and that in the end things had to turn out the way they did. But this can stand in the way of learning some very important lessons from history, namely what not to do, and how not to act.

We see things leading to one another and we sense the hand of destiny. We explain things after them having passed: it is always so much easier to be smart about the past than it is to be smart about the future. Take something like the First World War, which was said to be brewing for some time. Even if war had to break out eventually, there were countless instances where it could have gone very differently.

In Russia especially, there is a strange tale to be told surrounding the Tsarist court, a royal couple of questionable competence, a wandering, horny peasant with magical healing abilities, and a son with a gene mutation that changed history.

In the autumn of 1907, Alexej — son of the Tsar, and carrying the title of “Zarewitsch”— was injured.

It was a mild injury, but the Zarewitsch was not a normal kid. He was suffering from a disease called hemophilia, which impairs the body’s ability to make blood clot: once you start bleeding, you don’t stop anymore. This can obviously become dangerous fairly quickly.

The disease is genetic and is caused by mutations in the genes that code for the protein that makes blood clot.

Different mutations are possible that change functionalities in different ways, leading to different degrees of severity of haemophilia. But generally speaking, it’s just the mutation in one tiny gene that causes haemophilia in the Zarewitsch: just one tiny microscopic sloppiness when putting together his DNA that brings on the disease. (Or rather, one microscopic error in the DNA of one of his ancestors, since cases of haemophilia and other genetic diseases were common in the royal families. Maybe that’s why you should keep your hands off your relatives).

The bleeding of the Zarewitsch got worse and worse, and the doctors pretty much gave up on him and said there was nothing to be done. But one of the duchesses recommended, at the last minute, to bring someone in of whom it was said that he had special healing abilities.

So, that someone was called. He came into the palace through a backdoor. And in a pretty short time-span, the bleeding of the Zarewitsch stopped.

Randomness can play a crucial role in history. And perhaps nowhere is this as apparent as in the Great War, the War to end all Wars, or what is known in the West as the First World War.

It all began on a summer day in 1914 with the assassination of crown prince Archduke Ferdinand by nineteen-year-old Gavrile Princip. Much has been said about how this unlikely event ended up causing a war. First, there was the coincidence of the Archduke unintentionally picking exactly the wrong date for his visit to Serbia.

June 28th was Vidovdan, the anniversary of the Serbian forces’ defeat in Kosovo. This was commemorated as a Black Day, and the visit of the Archduke, a man that represented the foreigner’s rule over the Serbian nation, was perceived as an insult to Serbs: an insult that proved unbearable in the minds of adolescent nationalists.

So while Archduke Ferdinand was visiting Sarajevo, Serbian nationalists struggling with Austrian rule tried to assassinate him with a bombing. But they failed, and the Archduke went through with his visit. All well and good, except that his driver accidentally took a wrong turn on the way back from a reception, and drove the unprotected Archduke right in front of a café.

And in this café sat one of the conspirators, the frustrated Gavrile Princip, eating a sandwich after a failed assassination attempt.

After the driver’s initial wrong turn, many more wrong turns were taken. The July crisis following the assassination is laden with situations that went the worst possible way, full of misunderstandings, bad timings, and of a Kaiser with the terrible idea of being out on vacation on a boat without a telephone at a time when he really shouldn’t be.

Misfortune followed misfortune, and soon Europe found itself amidst a war that would leave millions killed and no on any better for it. So it is only natural to ask: did war really have to break out?

Meanwhile in Russia, a mysterious man had stopped the Zareswitch’s bleeding. No one knows how he did it. Important is that the Tsarist couple believed he was truly responsible for the miraculous convalescence of their son, whom they loved very much. Thus, this man came into the good graces of the most powerful people in all of Russia.

The man had been in contact with the Tsarist couple before, but now he earned their trust in a more profound way, and became progressively more associated with the court.

That man was Rasputin, a name that has since become associated with the fate of the Empire — and Russia in general.

Some people call the war inevitable. Europe at the turn of the century was a powder keg, with the precarious situation of young and powerful Germany right in the centre of the continent.

Nationalistic militarism was rampant all over the continent, with the British Empire — the largest Empire in the history of mankind — at the height of its power. Other European countries wanted their fair share; wanted their “place close to the sun”, as German secretary of state von Bülow famously said.

Maybe this powder keg had to blow up at one point or another, and had the spark not come from the assassination of Ferdinand, there would have been something else.

Maybe the world needed to learn the lesson of how technology would transform warfare to come; how serious a business it would be. The conflict between Russia and Japan of 1904 had given the world a taste of how brutal and costly a war could be, in the age of machine-guns and artillery. But that had been far away, and Europe‘s picture of war was still defined by memories from the days of Napoleon: wars in which relatively small professional armies fought each other by launching heroic cavalry attacks, and battles were decided after one or two days.

Times had changed, and with it the way nations thought about war. (Thirty years later, at the peak of World War Two, Goebbels would proclaim total war: in the Nazi ideology, the war between races was at the core of human existence, with whole countries literally fighting to their death).

Former Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had seen it coming long ago. When he united Germany back in 1872, which had previously been split in dozens of small nation-states, he was well aware of the fact that young, restless and powerful Germany would pose a constant threat to its neighbours. But he managed to consolidate peace impressively well with an intricate net of alliances and treaties. He was a brilliant politician, and maybe his brilliance was indispensable in keeping Europe at peace.

Too many monarchs of questionable competence were up there with way too much power at their hands. Both the German Kaiser and the Russian Tsar wouldn’t make it very far in a meritocracy, but here they were: two men at the head of two of the mightiest nations on the planet.

And, sitting close to one of the two men, was Rasputin.

Why Rasputin had the effect he had is unclear. One thesis I find rather intriguing has to do with Aspirin.

Aspirin was the latest thing in medicine at the time. It was handed out for pretty much every ailment imaginable. From our perspective, you don’t need to be a doctor to know that giving Aspirin to a person who’s bleeding internally is the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. So, maybe the “healing talent” of Rasputin was connected to him stopping the doctors from giving any more medicine to the kid.

But who was Rasputin? That is a profoundly difficult question to answer, and I can’t even begin to give an exhaustive introduction to him and his character. I will leave that up to the many biographies written about him and other online sources.

Suffice it to say he was originally a peasant from rural Russia; a wandering priest; and that this made him a controversial figure in the capitol of Russia. As the Zarewitsch’s disease was kept secret, the public didn’t know why exactly Rasputin was held in such high esteem by the Tsarist couple — and rumours ran wild. One of the most persistent rumours was that Rasputin was having an affair with the Tsarina; hence his ongoing presence in the palace during late hours of the day.

Adding to the rumours, and this rumour in particular, were Rasputin’s legendary sexual prowess, his affairs with many women both “lowly” and aristocratic, and, in his later days, his public drinking and inappropriate behaviour. Rasputin ended up moving from St. Petersburg back to the countryside after public pressure. But then, in 1912, the Zarewitsch was bleeding again, and his healing powers were desperately in need: he came to aid and ended up “healing” the Zarewitsch successfully on multiple occasions.

When World War One came along in 1914, after the taxi driver's unfortunate turn, Russia was rather unprepared. They suffered huge losses in the first battles against the powerful, well-equipped German army.

In the beginning of the war, Rasputin’s influence at the court was great, and he became politically outspoken both in public and in private correspondence with the Tsar. He was perhaps the closest and most trusted advisor at the palace, and his counsel was sought on affairs of state of the largest magnitude. This greatly annoyed many people, especially the Duma (the Russian parliament), whose members did not enjoy the influence the unelected peasant Rasputin was exerting on politics.

And when the war escalated and things started looking worse and worse for the Russians in 1916, the public needed someone to blame for the impending disaster — and who would be better suited than the scandalous, omnipresent Rasputin, the devil who was controlling the Royal couple?

At the same time, the Tsarina believed that Rasputin was the only one that could still save Russia, so his influence ever increased while the hate for him increased proportionally.

Rasputin turned into the scapegoat for all that was going wrong in Russia, and for all that was wrong with the Tsarist couple. Many people developed an interest in getting rid of him, and the Duma talked about nothing else but him.

Long story short: there were several attempts on Rasputin’s life. One in 1914, one in 1915, and one at the end of 1916, which was, finally, successful. The way the successful assassins were dealt with made things even worse: the conspirators were quickly found, but they went largely unpunished. One of them even kept his seat in the Duma.

This infuriated many peasants, who made up the largest part of Russia’s population, and which suffered most from the calamities of the war. Rasputin was one of them, and he was murdered by the aristocracy.

The way the Tsar acted during the aftermath of the Rasputin affair made it crystal clear, in their eyes, that he did not deserve the respect his position demanded and was most definitely not qualified to lead the country. It was the last straw, the straw that sealed the fate of the Russian Empire.

Germany, meanwhile, was well aware of the impending collapse of the Russian state. They decide to ship in an exiled revolutionary from Switzerland to spread communism, cause a revolution, and buy the Germans a very favorable peace agreement. Lenin ended up succeeding. After three months, the Russian Empire was swept away by the Russian Revolution, and the Germans got the peace agreement they were hoping for.

Can one argue that Rasputin really was responsible for the Russian Revolution? Of course, he’s not solely responsible for its fate. The “great man/great woman” approach to history, that lays the fate of nations at the feet of the Alexanders, the Caesars, and the Napoleons, tends to be more appealing than understanding the slow transformations brought on by technological and cultural changes and the subtle movements of history.

It definitely writes better stories. But it also tends to oversimplify complex answers to complex questions.

What would have happened had the Germans not decided to ship in Lenin from Switzerland? One could claim the way the war went for the Russians was so bad, it would have caused the end of the monarchy anyway (as it did in many other countries as well — think Germany or Austria-Hungary).

Nevertheless, it’s clear that Rasputin had an enormous influence on the fate of Russia and the timing of the revolution. In these matters, timing is very important. Things would have turned out differently: that is safe to say. What we don’t know is the way they’d have been different. Would there have been the Soviet Union? Would there have been Lenin, Stalin, the Gulags, the Cold War? Would there be Putin today? Maybe yes, but very possibly, no.

And it is very unlikely that Rasputin would have gotten anywhere had it not been for a small mutation in the DNA of the Zarewitsch.

Talk about a butterfly causing a tornado.