Monday, November 30, 2009

A Relative of the Czar Saves My Grandfather's Life

When I was in Russia this past summer, I asked people whether Czar Nicholas II (he of Nicholas & Alexandra fame, or infamy) had a cousin or relative named Mikhailoff and was told that he did. But for some reason, I can find no references to him in history, only in my grandfather's diaries (in which he plays an important role). And Prince Mikhailoff is the historical figure I'm most interested in learning about.

I recall hearing my father say that some names had been changed (from the original ones in the diaries) to protect the innocent (and in some cases, the guilty), and wondered whether this might one of those instances, though I can't imagine why. When you read how he saved my grandfather, below, you'll understand why I find him so intriguing:

“Captain Mikhailoff, it turned out, appeared genuinely glad of an opportunity to repay Mordechai's many favors” and assured him that “I had nothing to worry about, nor would I need to incur the expense of a lawyer, for he himself would defend me in person.”

“I naturally had no way of knowing whether he actually understood the nature of the crime with which I had been charged, or what kind of legal training qualified him to defend a soldier in a court-martial. But it did me no good whatever to suggest to Mordechai that, since it was my life, or at least my future for the next twenty or thirty years, which was going to be determined by this military court, perhaps I would be better off with a professional lawyer.

“After all, as my brother pointed out, who was I to say no to a blood relative of the Czar?

“But the day of the trial arrived and I still had not so much as set eyes upon my ‘defense attorney.’ The devil only knew how he intended to present my side of the case… Mordechai, in between biting his lips… conceded that there were some grounds for uneasiness only when the trial actually had begun and there was still no sign of Mikhailoff. All Mordechai could say to reassure me was that he'd probably been drunk the night before and overslept.

“The prosecutor painted our little brawl as an outrage committed by me alone, an act of unprovoked savagery and insubordination which, unless punished so severely as to set an example even for future generations, surely, would lead to a speedy and total breakdown of all military discipline and hence, inevitably, to the dreaded revolution - - a word which, in those days, was an almost automatic invitation to a death sentence.

“I could see right off that the judge was not exactly in my corner. Any minute now I would be called upon to speak in my own defense. And what could I talk about? “Jewish honor?”

“…I could already see myself blindfolded and tied to the stake, Especially since my aristocratic defender, who finally had strolled in and taken his seat, one hand vainly attempting to comfort a throbbing brow, listened to the prosecutor like a man who couldn't wait to put this tedious performance behind him and get back to bed…

“But first the aggrieved sergeant himself took the stand, bearing his scars as officiously as though they were battle wounds. He delivered a good strong recitation on how I had attacked him, totally without provocation, in what he could only assume to be a Polack Jew's typical frenzy of rebellion against good Russian discipline.

“With each minute he spent talking, I could almost see the judge adding another soldier to the firing squad. But what offended me above all was to hear no objection from the judge when my opponent referred to me once again as “Jewface.”

“At this point, Mikhailoff, who until now had maintained a morose, hung-over, rather self-pitying silence, rose to my defense. Once he had found his feet, he straightened his body with remarkable steadiness. But to my horror, he did not seem quite certain who in the room was the defendant. Nor, once he had found me, in belated response to Mordechai's frantic wagging of his chin, did he pay the slightest attention to any of the charges laid against me. Instead, he launched into an impassioned attack on those non­coms who, by their unrestrained brutality and total disrespect for the proud traditions of the Imperial Army, had already turned Heaven-only-knew how many innocent and patriotic recruits into embittered revolutionaries against his relative, the holy Czar.

“…There was simply no stopping the man and, to my surprise, although my defender was plainly the sort of man who had more growing under his nose than inside his head, I saw the judge repeatedly nodding his respectful agreement…

“Only when he had at last finished delivering himself of his heartfelt harangue and seemed almost ready to sit down again, did he briefly take note of what he labeled “the so-called defendant.” True, he conceded, perhaps a more experienced soldier might have tried to moderate his righteous anger. But what I had done was, after all, so patently an attempt only to defend the honor and security of his relative, the Czar, Captain Mikhailoff simply failed to comprehend why it was me and not the other man who was on trial here.

“Much as I wanted to agree with my defender, even I had to admit that his argument lacked logic, not to mention common sense.

“But the judge, to my astonishment, showed himself to be totally persuaded by this line of reasoning. While I was let off with only the most gentle of reprimands, Pyotr, my opponent, who hadn't been accused of anything, suddenly found himself reduced in rank…”

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