A Sinister Influence

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 197th installment in the series.  

August 12, 1915: A Sinister Influence

The Austro-German offensive unleashed in May 1915 drove forward relentlessly with new campaigns in June and July, before reaching its climax with the collapse of the Russian frontline and the occupation of Poland in August. Warsaw fell on August 4, followed by three key fortress towns – Ivangorod, Kovno (Kaunas), and Novogeorgievsk – on August 5, August 19, and August 20, respectively. Describing the final days of the siege of Kovno one observer, the Polish Princess Catherine Radziwill, wrote that “the cannonade surpassed in intensity anything ever experienced before. The firing was heard farther than Vilna, and carried terror into the hearts of the unfortunate inhabitants of the country surrounding the besieged town.” 

The Russian losses in the first year of war were breathtaking: according to some estimates, by the end of August 1915 the Russians had suffered over 3.7 million total casualties, including 733,000 men killed and up to 1.8 million taken prisoner. Meanwhile the empire’s territorial losses included all of “Congress Poland,” with an area of 49,000 square miles and a population of 13 million, equal to 10% of the empire’s total population, as well as most of the Baltic provinces of Courland and Livonia, now known as Lithuania and Latvia. And still the armies of the Central Powers pressed on, into what is now Belorussia and western Ukraine. 


As the Russian Army continued its “Great Retreat,” the blame game was heating up on the home front, and as always in Russia conspiracy theories abounded, accusing key figures of incompetence and even treason. Radziwill quoted a letter from a friend in Petrograd: “I do not know what impression the fall of Kovno may have produced abroad. Here the consternation surpasses everything I have ever seen before… The impression that lies have been told is possessing the mind of the public, which begins to say definitely that somebody has been guilty of systematic deceit.”

At the end of June War Minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov resigned amid insinuations of disloyalty, after totally failing to address critical shortages of artillery shells and rifles. Of course these shortages couldn’t be remedied right away; on August 4, Foreign Minister Sazonov summed up the disastrous situation for the French ambassador, Maurice Paleologue: “What on earth shall we do? We need 1,500,000 rifles merely to arm the regiments at the front. We’re producing only 50,000 a month. And how can we instruct our depots and recruits?” A day later, Paleologue described mounting fury in the Russian Duma, or parliament: 

Whether in public or secret session there is a constant and implacable diatribe against the conduct of the war. All the faults of the bureaucracy are being denounced and all the vices of Tsarism forced into the limelight. The same conclusion recurs like a refrain: “Enough of lies! Enough of crimes! Reforms! Retribution! We must transform the system from top to bottom!”

On August 12, 1915, Ruth Pierce, a young American woman in Kiev, noted the rumors of treachery circulating alongside news of incredible losses from the front: 

They say there was no ammunition at the front. No shells for the soldiers. They had nothing to do but retreat. And now? They are still retreating, fighting with empty guns and clubs and even their naked hands. And still, trainloads of soldiers go out of Kiev every day without a gun in their hands. What a butchery!... How can the soldiers give their lives so patiently and bravely for a Government whose villainy and corruption take no account of the significance of their sacrifices. The German influence is still strong. They say German money bribes the Ministers at home and the generals at the front. 

Indeed, more political casualties would soon follow. Unsurprisingly many critics singled out Russia’s top general, the Grand Duke Nicholas, prompting the Tsar’s momentous, ill-fated decision to relieve his uncle of command and personally direct Russia’s war efforts from now on. However many Russians – aristocrats and ordinary folk alike – blamed a dark, malign presence in the royal court: the mysterious monk named Rasputin. 

The Dark Monk

Born in 1869 into a Siberian peasant family, Grigori Rasputin was just one of two out of nine siblings to survive into adulthood. A loner marked by his strange manner and unusual appearance, Rasputin soon became known for his mystic beliefs and supposed miraculous abilities, his charismatic personality amplified by his captivating voice and intense, “penetrating” gaze. After marrying at the age of 18, Rasputin had several children but then suddenly abandoned his family in 1892 and retreated to a monastery, where he embraced his own unusual vision of Orthodox Christianity.

Although often called the “mad monk” or a “holy fool,” Rasputin was actually an itinerant holy man, part of a long Russian tradition of religious wanderers who crisscrossed the empire’s vast expanses, seeking enlightenment through visits to renowned teachers, holy places, and sacred relics. Rasputin soon gained a reputation for his intriguing interpretations of Scripture, expostulated in long sermons delivered, apparently extemporaneously, in his strange Siberian dialect.

Introduced to high society, Rasputin soon gained followers among Russian aristocrats, especially women, who seemed especially entranced by the rough-hewn mystic from the east. In fact “entranced” may be the best word to describe his effect on them: many contemporaries claimed that Rasputin could hypnotize people simply by looking into their eyes. When he was finally introduced to the Tsarina Alexandra in November 1905, he found another willing acolyte – rendered particularly vulnerable to mystic suggestion by her troubled family life. 

Most notably, Alexandra’s son Alexei – the heir to the throne – suffered from hemophilia, probably due to centuries of royal inbreeding by the crowned heads of Europe. In 1907 Rasputin supposedly saved the Tsarevich’s life during a bout of uncontrollable bleeding through prayer. In subsequent years the Tsarina would turn to Rasputin again and again for his healing power and holy wisdom, urging her husband Tsar Nicholas II to do the same (below, Alexandra and her children with Rasputin in 1908). 


As always in court life, an outsider with special access to the sovereign soon attracted hostile attention from other courtiers, who felt excluded. Rumors began to circulate about the unkempt holy man’s depravity: supposedly he engaged in orgies with his many female followers, taking the virtue of aristocratic women unhinged by religious ecstasy. Some even suggested he was Alexandra’s lover.  Whatever the truth of these allegations (no evidence has ever been presented either way) they reflected both Rasputin’s psychological hold on the unstable empress, and the growing hatred and distrust of him in the rest of Russian society. However his opponents were powerless, for now at least, because of Alexandra’s protection; in May 1914 a failed assassination attempt against Rasputin only served to convince the Tsarina of his holiness. 

After war broke out in August 1914, Rasputin wielded more and more power over the empress, who now spent long periods away from her beloved husband, leaving her in the company of the persuasive holy man and his other followers. Members of the court who tried to warn Tsar Nicholas II against Rasputin’s growing influence, including the Grand Duke Nicholas, found themselves the object of whispered accusations, as Alexandra (at Rasputin’s behest) gradually undermined the Tsar’s trust in them. 


By the summer of 1915, the disastrous military situation gave the Tsarina and Rasputin the perfect opportunity to finally remove the hated Grand Duke Nicholas from power. Almost certainly at Rasputin’s suggestion, the Tsarina urged her husband to remove his uncle from command and take his place as the commander-in-chief of the Russian armies. In one typical note she encouraged his autocratic tendencies and implied that the Grand Duke was out of favor with God himself because of his dislike of Rasputin: “Sweetheart needs pushing always & to be reminded that he is the Emperor & can do whatsoever pleases him… I have absolutely no faith in N – know him to be far from clever and, having gone against a Man of God, his word can’t be blessed.”

By mid-August it would appear Tsar Nicholas II finally succumbed to his wife’s endless campaign against the Grand Duke, despite the advice of literally everyone else in his own inner circle. In a diary entry on August 12, 1915 the tsar’s mother, the dowager empress Maria, wrote of her own shock: “He started to talk about assuming supreme command instead of Nikolai. I was so horrified I almost had a stroke… I added that if he did it, everyone would think it was at Rasputin’s bidding…” 

The tsar’s mother was right to be horrified. By taking personal command of the Russian armies, the monarch would be absent from Petrograd, where only he could direct the affairs of government and manage political relations with an increasingly obstreperous Duma; disastrously he planned to put his German-born wife, already widely distrusted because of her supposed German sympathies, in charge of day-to-day administration. He also left her even more under the influence of Rasputin, who was soon rumored to be the third most powerful person in the empire, after the royal couple themselves. Finally, as commander-in-chief Nicholas II would now be directly responsible for any future military reverses. It was with good reason that Sazonov noted, “The Tsar's sudden decision to remove the Grand Duke Nicholas from the Supreme Command and to take his place at the head of the Army caused a great outburst of public anxiety.” 

Tragically, last-ditch attempts to counter Rasputin’s influence came to naught: on August 19, 1915 two of his most determined political opponents, chief of the royal chancery Prince Vladimir Orlov and the former governor of Moscow, Vladimir Dzhunkovsky, were relieved of duty after publishing a newspaper article exposing Rasputin’s relationship with the Tsarina. Meanwhile the Tsar’s own Council of Ministers sent a letter to the Tsar, protesting: “We venture once more to tell you that to the best of our judgment your decision threatens with serious consequences Russia, your dynasty and your person.” The ministers repeated their protest in person at a meeting with Tsar Nicholas II at the royal retreat in Tsarskoe Selo on August 21, where the powerful agriculture minister, Krivoshein, warned that the empire was “rolling down the hill not only towards a military but towards an internal catastrophe.” 

But the monarch brushed these objections aside, once again at the urging of the Tsarina Alexandra, who argued that it would set a terrible precedent to bend to the will of his cabinet or the Duma: “The Tsar cannot yield. He will only be asked to surrender something more. Where will it end? What power will be left the Tsar?” On August 23 Nicholas II officially dismissed Grand Duke Nicholas, who was sent to take command of the Russian forces facing the Turks in the Caucasus (still a very important position, but a demotion nonetheless). From now on the Tsar would spend almost all his time isolated at the supreme military command headquarters, or Stavka, located at the provincial town of Mogilev – while the situation in the Russian capital slid towards chaos. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

The Most Successful Entertainment Production in History Might Just Surprise You

Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images
Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images

Last year, Marvel Studios capped off an unprecedented run of success with Avengers: Endgame, a movie promoted as the culmination of over 10 years of storytelling. The film made $2.8 billion, unseating 2009’s Avatar and knocking 1997’s Titanic down to third place. With nearly $3 billion in ticket sales, you would think Endgame would count as the most successful entertainment production of all time—be it a single movie, book, album, or video game.

It isn’t.

While it earned a staggering amount of money, Endgame is hobbled by the fact that theatrical runs last just a few weeks or months. To really roll in the dough, it helps to have a combination of high ticket prices and a show that runs almost in perpetuity. That’s why it’s another Disney production, the Broadway adaption of The Lion King, that can make a credible claim to being the most financially rewarding entertainment effort of all time. Since debuting in 1997, the stage show has grossed $9.1 billion. (The 1994 film, 2019 live action remake, and merchandising aren’t included in that total. If they were, the number rises to $11.6 billion.)

A theater sign for 'The Lion King' is pictured in New York City in March 2003
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The musical, adapted by Julie Taymor, follows the story of the animated original, with lion cub Simba learning to accept his role as king of the Serengeti Plains. It’s estimated the show has been mounted 25 times globally in nine different languages, with more than 100 million people purchasing a ticket to see it.

Does that make Endgame a distant second? Not quite. Another long-running musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, has grossed more than $6 billion since its 1988 debut. The 2013 video game Grand Theft Auto 5 cleared $6 billion in 2018. And if one were to account for inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind made $3.44 billion.

The Lion King does have one asterisk, however. If inflation is taken into consideration, then 1978’s arcade classic Space Invaders comes out the winner. The popular coin-op game—which was later ported over to the Atari 2600—was a smash hit. By 1983, it had made $3.8 billion. Accounting for inflation, it earned $13.9 billion. What’s even more impressive is that unlike big-ticket movies and stage shows, Space Invaders did it one quarter at a time.

20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now

A still from Netflix's The Devil Next Door (2019).
A still from Netflix's The Devil Next Door (2019).
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. Making a Murderer (2015-)

One of the major true crime phenomenons of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling. Three years after the docuseries became a surprise hit for Netflix, it returned for a second season in 2018.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. The Staircase (2004-2018)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife, Kathleen, had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was The StaircaseJean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. And Netflix's addition of new episodes in 2018 led to a resurgence in interest in this mind-boggling case (with armchair detectives even positing that an owl was the real killer).

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Flint Town (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. The Jinx (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. The first was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO Now and Hulu

5. Wild Wild Country (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. Wormwood (2017)

Documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Five Came Back (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. The Devil Next Door (2019)

In 1980s Cleveland, John Demjanjuk was living a quiet life as a grandfather and auto worker. Suddenly, he was being extradited to Israel over accusations he was once notorious Nazi concentration camp monster Ivan the Terrible. As Demjanjuk mounts a defense, the trial captivates a country—but was he really the monster? This riveting series will have you guessing until the very end.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Ugly Delicious (2018-)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. Evil Genius (2018)

At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck detonated as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight. The bizarre incident was just the beginning of Evil Genius, which documents the peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. The Confession Tapes (2019)

A spare room. One or two detectives. A weary suspect. That's the set-up for this series that lets archival footage of police interrogations tell its own arresting stories.

Where to watch it: Netflix

12. Our Planet (2019)

Be amazed at the sensational vistas and eclectic wildlife with this beautifully-photographed trek through some of nature's most astounding sights—and the environmental perils that affect them. David Attenborough narrates.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Theodore Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. The Innocent Man (2018)

After two brutal murders in 1980s Oklahoma, four men are convicted of the crimes. All of them maintain their innocence, causing observers to question whether they were guilty or themselves victims of police coercion. This drama is based on John Grisham's 2006 book of the same name; Grisham executive produces.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. Last Chance U (2016-)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. Later seasons switch focus to a team out of Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. Vice (2013-)

The series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens. The first six seasons are available on HBO, with a seventh airing on Showtime in 2020.

Where to watch it: HBO Go

17. Chef's Table (2015-)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. There's no shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. The Toys That Made Us (2017-)

Who knew the origin of classic toy lines could be so dramatic? This series puts the spotlight on the creative friction that led to some of the most iconic playthings of the 20th century, from Transformers to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Where to watch it: Netflix

19. The Eighties (2016)

CNN's series highlighting the pop culture of the neon-colored decade boasts familiar talking heads like Tom Hanks and enough nostalgia to keep you afloat for weeks. The network's The Seventies and The Nineties are also available.

Where to watch it: Netflix

20. Bobby Kennedy for President (2018)

This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

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