The gene that (probably) 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 looking at history is that it gives us the chance to let the 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.
Counterfactuals are an important tool for historians: our hindsight bias always makes it look like the way history went was necessary and foreseen, and that in the end things had to turn out the way they did. But this can stand in the way of learning important lessons from history, namely about what not to do, 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.

But randomness plays a crucial role in history. And perhaps nowhere is this as apparent as in the Great War, the War to end all Wars: World War One.
Much has been said about the assasination of crown prince Ferdinand by 19 year old Gavrile Princip that ended up causing the war, about the sheer coincidence of the unprotected Archduke driving right in front of the café where the frustrated Princip is eating a sandwich after the already failed assasination attempt earlier that day. Of the Archduke picking that one specific date for his visit where the insult to the Serbs is the greatest, and seemed unbearable for the minds of the adolescent nationalists.

The July crisis following the assasination is equally laden with situations that went the worst possible way, full of misunderstandings, bad timings, and of a Kaiser with the shitty idea of being out on vacation on a boat without a telephone at a time when they really shouldn’t be (I’m looking at you, Wilhelm).

Wilhelm II, Kaiser of Germany, compensating lack of competence with frightening looking headwear.

All of this has been much debated. Did the war really have to break out?
Maybe the powder ceg that was Europe at the turn of the century, with the precarious situation of young and powerful Germany right in the center of the continent combined with the omnipresent miltarism had to blow up at one point or another, and had the spark not come from the assasination of Ferdinand, there would have been something else.

After all, Bismarck saw it coming: 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 Wilhelm II of Germany and Nikolas II of Russia wouldn’t make it very far by today’s standards (or rather in a meritocracy, as today’s standards are somewhat questionable). But here they were, two men at the head of two of the mightiest nations on the planet.

And maybe the world needed to learn the lesson of how technology would transform warfare to come, how serious a business it would be: the Russo-Japanese war had given a first taste to the world about how brutal and costly war could be in the times of machine guns and artillery. But that had been far away, and Europe‘s picture of war was still defined by memories of the Napoleonic wars, in which relatively small professional armies fought each other by launching heroic cavallery attacks, and battles were decided after one or two days. Times had been different .Thirty years later, Goebbels would proclaim total war: the whole country would be literally fighting to death, and some of that can already be seen in the immense sacrifices whole countries had to make in the first world war.

But even if the war had to break out eventually, there were countless instances where it could have gone very differently.
And Russia is the place I want to focus on here: there is strange tale to be told surrounding the Tsarist court, a royal couple of questionable competence, a wandering, horny peasant with magical healing abilities, an a son with a gene mutation that changed history.

In the autumn of 1907, Alexej, son of the Tsar (carrying the title “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 really stop anymore, which can obviously become dangerous fairly quickly. The disease is genetic, and can be understood as being caused in 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 hemophilia. But generally speaking, it’s just the mutation in one tiny gene that causes hemophilia in the Zarewitsch, it’s just that on tiny microscopic sloppiness when putting together his DNA that brings on the disease (or rather, the DNA of one of his ancestors. Cases of hemophilia 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 they couldn’t help him anymore. But one of the duchesses recommended on the last minute to bring someone in of whom it was said that he had special healing abilities.
So that someone was called, came into the palace through a backdoor and in a pretty short time-span, the bleeding of the Zarewitsch stopped. No one knows how he did it. Important is that the Tsarist couple believed that he was actually responsible for the miraculous convalescence of their son, whom they loved very much, and thus came into the good graces of the most powerful people in all of Russia.
That man was called Rasputin, a name that has since become associated with the fate of the Empire, and Russia in general.

Rasputin, with his characteristic stare.

A pretty interesting thesis I read about this is that Aspirin was the latest thing in medicine at that time, and 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 that is 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 to give any more medicine to the kid. Rasputin 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.

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, so I will leave that up to the many biographies written about him and other online sources.
Suffice it to say that he was originally a peasant from Rural Russia, a wandering priest, and that this image made him a very controversial figure in the capitol of Russia. As the disease of the Zarewitsch was kept a secret, details on why Rasputin was held in such high esteem by the Tsarist couple weren’t known to the public, 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 Zarewitch sucessfully on multiple occasions.

When World War 1 came along in 1914, Russia was rather unprepared, and they suffered huge losses in the first battles against the powerful, well-equipped German army under the dual leadership of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who would come to play their own important role in the history of Germany.

Idealized depiction of Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

During the beginning of the war, Rasputin’s influence at the court was great, and he became outspoken politically both in public and in private correspondence with the Tsar: He became maybe 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 parlament), 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 believes that Rasputin was the only one that could still safe 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 Rasputins life. One in 1914, one in 1915, and one at the end of 1916, which was, finally, sucessful.

Rasputin after his assasination in 1916.

The way the assasins 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, which 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 aftermath of the Rasputin affair showed everyone crystal clear 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.

After three months, it is gone, and things are swept away by the Russian Revolution.

Lenin speaking to the crowd at the beginning of the Russian Revolution.

Can one argue that Rasputin really is responsible for the Russian Revolution? Of course there are always many factors involved.

One could ask what would have happened had the Germans not decided to ship in Lenin from Switzerland, thinking he would cause the collapse of the Russian state, and buy the Germans a very favorable peace agreement (which he did, and they really got).

One could claim that the way the war went for the Russians was bad enough on its own to have caused the end of the monarchy, as it did in many other countries as well (think Germany, think Austria-Hungary).

But 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. In what way, we don’t know. Would there have been a Soviet Union? Would there have been Lenin, Stalin, the Gulgags, 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.

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