I enjoy history. Sadly, it seems the more you learn about a particular historical period, the more you realize how much more there is to learn. It can make you crazy. I imagine that’s the reason history buffs tend to specialize. But that’s not really the point of this post.
One of the books I’m reading is The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore. It’s a fast paced romp through three hundred years of Russian tsarist history (which, incidentally, is a fairly unexplored topic for me). What I’ve learned thus far is that seventeenth century Russia was a violent place. With each new tsar, with every battle for succession, during even the long years of a fruitful reign, murders abound. Death lurks on every page, and one demise after another is quickly dismissed by the relentless momentum of time.
As far as outcomes are concerned, many of these are insignificant deaths. They affect only supporting cast members and occupy no more than a sentence. If anything notable is to be said about the person dying, it’s often relegated to a footnote. Yet behind every footnote is an entire life.
It’s too easy to overlook the fact that these lives, remembered only as visceral illustrations of power or brutality, hide entire human experiences. We skim past yet another courtier introduced in one sentence as the unfortunate pawn of a scheming nobleman, often innocent of any significant wrongdoing, only to be tortured and quartered alive in the next sentence. These deaths are written off as political maneuvering or retribution, the inevitable acts of a despot, the insecurities of a tyrant. Occasionally they’re the result of punishments imposed by otherwise just rulers protecting their realm without any semblance of due process, but those are rare, especially in seventeenth century Russia.
Nevertheless, each innocent courtier, each unlucky peasant, each plotting nobleman later caught and killed, each criminal rightfully punished, each was a human being. They had childhoods, dreams, hopes, loves. At some point, they were toddlers. They learned to walk and to speak. They endured puberty. Some were bullied. Some fought in wars. They had crushes and fears and doubts and ambitions. They experienced all the things a human being experiences.
This is what intrigues me most about footnote deaths, especially those brought about by the random whim of a dictator. All those years of life. All those experiences. All those human moments, insecurities, aspirations snuffed out in a sentence. When we see a tyrant murdering his political enemies or innocent subjects, it’s easy to feel bad for those who die, but it’s hard to comprehend all the moments and effort that went into those lost lives. All the hours of parenting or nannying or tutoring or working to put food on the table to help a human survive to adulthood. All those dreams squashed in a heartbeat, often without reason.
Few of us grow up expecting to become a footnote, and I think that’s generally true throughout history. Those courtiers had their own ambitions. They wanted a good life for themselves and their families. They navigated the politics of court the way we do our workplaces. Their deaths were often unexpected, sometimes after years of loyalty, all because a monarch has a temper.
Imagine showing up to work one day, thinking you were in your boss’ good graces, when five men appear from a neighboring cube to restrain you. One of your coworkers claims the boss is no longer happy with your performance. You’re informed of your guilt without being made aware of a crime, and you’re brought to the office break room. You won’t see your boss again. You can’t ask questions. You are ceremoniously bled with a paperclip to remove evil spirits. Then it gets brutal.
They cut off your fingers to prevent you from typing. They cut off your toes, too, because why not? You’re partially drowned at the water cooler, and as you struggle for breath your coworker begs you to confess. When you fail to confess, they hold your head beneath a coffee maker as scalding water drips down your face and neck and chest. And when all that is done, they strap you to the break room table. They slowly saw off your limbs with a plastic cake knife. You die listening to the sound of coworkers playing ping pong in another room.
It sounds absurd, but so too were tsarist whims.
And they’re not just one-offs. Footnote deaths can sometimes encompass mass murder. An example:
TWO HUNDRED MUSKETEERS WERE HANGED FROM THE WALLS IN MOSCOW, SIX AT EACH GATE, 144 IN RED SQUARE. BEHEADING HUNDREDS MORE AT PREOBRAZHENSKOE, PETER [THE GREAT] ORDERED HIS MAGNATES TO WIELD THE AXES THEMSELVES… PETER WAS TRANSFIXED BY DECAPITATION AS BIOLOGICAL EXPERIMENT AND REGULARLY RECOUNTED HOW ONE OF THE VICTIMS REMAINED SITTING UP FOR SOME TIME AFTER HIS HEAD HAD BEEN REMOVED.
At least those deaths represent soldiers fighting in rebellion. These people were simply unlucky:
CHARLES [THE KING OF SWEDEN] AND PETER [ THE TZAR OF RUSSIA ] REALIZED SIMULTANEOUSLY THAT THE HETMAN’S CAPITAL BATURIN WAS THE KEY TO UKRAINE. SWEDISH KING AND RUSSIAN FAVOURITE RACED TOWARDS THE COSSACK CAPITAL. MENSHIKOV [A RUSSIAN GENERAL ] WON. HE STORMED BATURIN BUT, UNABLE TO FORTIFY IT , BURNED IT AND SLAUGHTERED ITS 10,000 INHABITANTS. EVEN TODAY, ARCHAEOLOGISTS IN BATURIN CONTINUE TO UNEARTH SKELETONS.
Ten thousand people killed in a sentence. Ten thousand. Imagine all the human hours encompassed by that sentence. All those struggles, those torments and joys and hopes. Imagine how many broken hearts, how many lost teeth, how many giggles and pimples, how many quiet, intimate moments were sacrificed simply to delay an enemy army.
Spend a weekend with your partner. Or your children. Count how many little moments of intimacy you share, those indelible snapshots of your relationship. Then multiply that number by a lifetime. Now multiply it by 10,000 lifetimes. Seemingly infinite intimacies, countless moments of pure unadulterated humanity, wiped out in a sentence, with details of those lives relegated to a footnote we probably won’t read.
In reality, every human life is equal. Despite widely varied circumstances, each human being experiences life in a similar way, because our brains and bodies are alike. Histories teach us of the major events and the figures whose fame and power and decisions dominated a period, but for every emperor or tsar, every pharoah or monarch, there are millions of footnotes, and those footnotes experienced life as vividly and emotionally as any powerful ruler.
I guess my point here is that when we study history, just as when we examine world events in our own present, we may focus on certain characters who wield the greatest influence, but we must always reflect on the sheer mass of human emotion that lived behind every seemingly inconsequential death. Without that humanity, what value would we find in peace and justice?
Also published on Medium.