So Fourth of July is here and we all will be hearing both the Capitol Fourth celebration and the Boston Pops play the final themes of the 1812 Overture on national television just prior to the fireworks.
Why the 1812?
Well it’s got cannon blasts – great for outdoors!
Hearing this particular piece on the 4th of July and, knowing the current state of our educational system, just makes me wonder how many of those millenials celebrating realize that the Overture has nothing to do with the War of 1812. Yes we fought the Brits in 1812 but the Overture does not lionize Dolly Madison fleeing the White House with George Washington’s portrait. You knew that, right?
Come on – tell me you knew that.
The Overture written by Tchaikovsky is as thoroughly a Russian piece of music as there is – written by a Russian, commemorating the Russian victory over Napoleon’s Grand Armee commencing at the Battle of Borodino in 1812, first performed in Moscow and finishing up with “God Save the Tsar”, the Tsarist anthem to the Romanovs.
Now don’t get me wrong. I like the 1812 and my cranky objection to playing it at our July 4 celebrations is not based on the fact that it was written by a Russian. We’re Americans here and will happily play anyone’s music.
The Overture however commemorates a Russian historical event and more importantly is a kiss-up to Tsarism – a fault I find decidedly undemocratic for July 4 celebrations. Tchaikovsky was a notorious kiss-up to royalty. It’s how he made his living.
In 1812, Russia was ruled by Tsar Alexander I, Autocrat of all the Russians.
Serfs, the landless peasants, were not free – they belonged to the estate on which they were born. Flight was a criminal offense. Russian landowners eventually gained almost unlimited ownership over Russian serfs. The landowner could transfer the serf without land to another landowner while keeping the serf’s personal property and family; however the landowner had no right to kill the serf. Yippee.
About four-fifths of Russian peasants were serfs.
“As a whole, serfdom both came and remained in Russia much later than in other European countries. Slavery remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter the Great converted the household slaves into house serfs. Russian agricultural slaves were formally converted into serfs in 1679. So theoretically it was possible to maintain the fiction that there was no slavery in Russia. Only serfdom.
Formal conversion to serf status did not stop the trade in household slaves. In fact, this trade in landless serfs, regarded as a mere chattel, flourished all the way up until the total abolition of serfdom, although the loose framework of the Russian legal system and a lack of law enforcement meant that slave trade in some remote Russian provinces survived until much later.
The official estimate is that 10.5 millions Russians were privately owned, 9.5 million were in state ownership and another 900 thousand serfs were under the Tsar’s “patronage” before the Great Emancipation of 1861.
Russian private serfdom was regarded by the European contemporaries as a far worse form of slavery than the American one only because because the Russian slaves were white Orthodox Christians as well as their landowners. The ownership, abuse and trade of white Christians by other white Christians was viewed as particularly barbaric and wicked. Secondly, the vast expanses of Russian land and poor communications with the capital meant the private landowners were the true masters of their domains and dealt pretty much as they pleased with their privately owned serfs.
There were many cases of horrendous physical, emotional and sexual abuse of serfs by landowners. As a result, the whole Russian Empire was regarded as backward, bigoted and a cruel backwater of Europe.
Famously, the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, being himself a great grandson of an African slave fathered an illegitimate child with his own serf girl and then sent her and her child off to his friend’s estate together with an apologetic letter.”
Alexander I did little to alleviate the suffering of serfs at the hands of the nobility due to the political reaction to French Republicanism. Napoleon may have called himself an Emperor but he brought with him the Napoleonic Code where ever his armies triumphed against European kings and princes. He abolished the ghetto for Jews in Italy for example – which was reinstated after his defeats. The princes of Europe were terrified at the thought of the spread of republicanism.
European philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment criticized serfdom and compared it to medieval labor practices which were almost non-existent in the rest of continent. Most Russian nobles were not interested in change toward western labor practices. Instead they preferred to mortgage serfs for profit. In 1820, 20% of all serfs were mortgaged to state credit institutions by their owners. This was increased to 66% in 1859. Mortgaged – like your house!
The bourgeois were also allowed to own serfs to encourage industrialization.
Alexander’s primary objective in the defeat of Napoleon was saving Russia and the rest of Europe from republicanism and re-establishing the French monarchy.
So why do we play the “God Save the Tsar” portion of the 1812 Overture on July 4th? Because it has cannons!
Next time you hear the cannons and see the fireworks go off and you hear that theme you love so much don’t think about Independence Day – think of the Tsar: I’m sure he would be laughing his ass off to hear his “Hail to the Chief” at our July 4 celebration!
Yes I know. I’m an old crank.