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.

12 Good Ol' Facts About The Dukes of Hazzard

Getty Images
Getty Images

When The Dukes of Hazzard premiered on January 26, 1979, it was intended to be a temporary patch in CBS’s primetime schedule until The Incredible Hulk returned. Only nine episodes were ordered, and few executives at the network had any expectation that the series—about two amiable brothers at odds with the corrupt law enforcement of Hazzard County—would become both a ratings powerhouse and a merchandising bonanza. Check out some of these lesser-known facts about the Duke boys, their extended family, and the gravity-defying General Lee.

1. CBS's chairman hated The Dukes of Hazzard.

CBS chairman William Paley never quite bought into the idea of spinning his opinion to match the company line. Having built CBS from a radio station to one of the “Big Three” television networks, he had harvested talent as diverse as Norman Lear and Lucille Ball, a marked contrast to the Southern-fried humor of The Dukes of Hazzard. In his 80s when it became a top 10 series and seeing no reason to censor himself, Paley repeatedly and publicly described the show as “lousy.”

2. The Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee got 35,000 fan letters a month.


Getty Images

While John Schneider and Tom Wopat were the ostensible stars of the show, both the actors and the show's producers quickly found out that the main attraction was the 1969 Dodge Charger—dubbed the General Lee—that trafficked brothers Bo and Luke Duke from one caper to another. Of the 60,000 letters the series was receiving every month in 1981, 35,000 wanted more information on or pictures of the car.

3. Dennis Quaid wanted to be The Dukes of Hazzard's Luke Duke—on one condition.

When the show began casting in 1978, producers threw out a wide net searching for the leads. Dennis Quaid was among those interested in the role of Luke Duke—which eventually went to Wopat—but he had a condition: he would only agree to the show if his then-wife, P.J. Soles, was cast at the Dukes’ cousin, Daisy. Soles wasn’t a proper fit for the supporting part, which put Quaid off; Catherine Bach was eventually cast as Daisy.

4. John Schneider pretended to be a redneck for his Dukes of Hazzard audition.

New York native Schneider was only 18 years old when he went in to read for the role of Bo Duke. The problem: producers wanted someone 24 to 30 years old. Schneider lied about his age and passed himself off as a Southern archetype, strutting in wearing a cowboy hat, drinking a beer, and spitting tobacco. He also told them he could do stunt driving. It was a good enough performance to land him the show.

5. The Dukes of Hazzard co-stars John Schneider and Tom Wopat met while taking a poop.

After Schneider was cast, the show needed to locate an actor who could complement Bo. Stage actor Wopat was flown in for a screen test; Schneider happened to be in the bathroom when Wopat walked in after him. The two began talking about music—Schneider had seen a guitar under the stall door—and found they had an easy camaraderie. After flushing, the two did a scene. Wopat was hired immediately.

6. Daisy's Dukes needed a tweak on The Dukes of Hazzard.

Bach’s omnipresent jean shorts were such a hit that any kind of cutoffs quickly became known as “Daisy Dukes,” after her character. But they were so skimpy that the network was concerned censors wouldn’t allow them. A negotiation began, and it was eventually decided that Bach would wear some extremely sheer pantyhose to make sure there were no clothing malfunctions.

7. Nancy Reagan was fan of The Dukes of Hazzard's Daisy.

Shirley Moore, Bach’s former grade school teacher, went on to work in the White House. After Bach sent her a poster, she was surprised to hear back that then-First Lady Nancy Reagan was enamored with it. “I’m the envy of the White House and I’m having your poster framed,” Moore wrote in a letter. “Mrs. Reagan saw the picture and fell in love with it.” Bach sent more posters, which presumably became part of the decor during the Reagan administration.

8. The Dukes of Hazzard's stars had some very bizarre contract demands.

Wopat and Schneider famously walked off the series in 1982 after demanding a cut of the show’s massive merchandising revenue—which was, by one estimate, more than $190 million in 1981 alone. They were replaced with Byron Cherry and Christopher Mayer, “cousins” of the Duke boys, who were reviled by fans for being scabs. The two leads eventually came back, but it wasn’t the only time Warner Bros. had to deal with irate actors. James Best, who portrayed crooked sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, refused to film five episodes because he had no private dressing room in which to change his clothes; the production just hosed him down when he got dirty. Ben Jones, who played “Cooter” the mechanic, briefly left because he wanted his character to sport a beard and producers preferred he be clean-shaven.

9. A miniature car was used for some stunts in The Dukes of Hazzard.

As established, the General Lee was a primary attraction for viewers of the series. For years, the show wrecked dozens of Chargers by jumping, crashing, and otherwise abusing them, which created some terrific footage. For its seventh and final season in 1985, the show turned to a miniature effects team in an effort to save on production costs: it was cheaper to mangle a Hot Wheels-sized model than the real thing. “It was a source of embarrassment to all of us on the show,” Wopat told E!.

10. The Dukes of Hazzard's famous "hood slide" was an accident.

A staple—and, eventually, cliché—of action films everywhere, the slide over the hood was popularized by Tom Wopat. While it may have been tempting to take credit, Wopat said it was unintentional and that the first time he tried clearing the hood, the car’s antenna wound up injuring him.

11. The Dukes of Hazzard cartoon went international.


YouTube

Warner Bros. capitalized on the show’s phenomenal popularity with an animated series, The Dukes, which was produced by Hanna-Barbera and aired in 1983. Taking advantage of the form, the Duke boys traveled internationally, racing Boss Hogg through Greece or Hong Kong. Perhaps owing to the fact that the live-action series was already considered enough of a cartoon, the animated series only lasted 20 episodes.

12. In 2015, Warner Bros. banned the Confederate flag from The Dukes of Hazzard merchandising.

At the time the series originally aired, little was made of the General Lee sporting a Confederate flag on its hood. In 2015, after then-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley spoke out against the depiction of the flag in popular culture, Warner Bros. elected to stop licensing products with the original roof. The company announced that all future Dukes merchandise would drop the design element. Schneider disagreed with the decision, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “Is the flag used as such in other applications? Yes, but certainly not on the Dukes ... Labeling anyone who has the flag a ‘racist’ seems unfair to those who are clearly ‘never meanin’ no harm.'”

8 Surprising Facts About Paul Newman

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With roles as varied as pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson in 1961’s The Hustler (and 1986's The Color of Money) and alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin in 1982’s The Verdict, Paul Newman never conformed to type. The versatile actor spent decades as a movie star, auto racer, and part-time salad dressing pitchman. In honor of what would have been Newman’s 95th birthday on January 26, 2020, take a look at some lesser-known details of the performer’s life and career.

1. Paul Newman originally wanted to be a football player.

Born in Cleveland and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Paul Newman was the offspring of Arthur, a sporting goods store owner, and Teresa, whose love of theater eventually proved contagious. But Newman originally had his sights set on a sports career. He played football in high school and college before enlisting in the U.S. Navy Air Corps, where he served as a radio operator (as he was ineligible to be a pilot due to being colorblind).

When Newman returned home in 1946, he attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio on a football scholarship. After getting arrested for fighting and being kicked off the team, Newman decided to shift his major to theater. He eventually wound up in summer stock and then the Yale School of Drama before heading off to be a full-time actor in New York.

2. Paul Newman thought his first film was the worst movie ever made.

After stints on stage and in television, including roles in Playhouse 90, Newman was offered the starring role in 1954’s The Silver Chalice, about a Greek slave who crafts the cup used during the Last Supper. While the $1000 weekly salary was welcome, the film was not. Newman later asked friends to sit through it while drubbing it as the worst film ever made. He had better luck two years later when he played boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). In 1958, Newman earned his first of 10 Academy Award nominations for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

3. Paul Newman was often mistaken for Marlon Brando.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward standing outdoors, circa 1962
Paul Newman and wife Joanne Woodward, circa 1962.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Early in their respective careers, Newman was regularly approached by people who thought he was Marlon Brando. Rather than correct them, he would oblige their request for an autograph by signing, “Best Wishes, Marlon Brando.”

4. Paul Newman frequently enjoyed faking his own death.

Newman, who was described by most who knew him as an affable man, had a mischievous streak that often manifested in practical jokes on his directors. A frequent target was George Roy Hill, who directed Newman in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1973’s The Sting, and 1977’s Slap Shot. Newman cut Hill’s desk and car in half during filming of the first two films. While making Slap Shot, he crawled behind the wheel of a wrecked car and pretended he had been in an accident, much to Hill’s horror.

While making 1960’s Exodus, Newman pranked director Otto Preminger by tossing a dummy off a building knowing Preminger would think it was him: Preminger collapsed in shock. He repeated the joke during shooting of 1973’s The MacKintosh Man, tossing another dummy off a 60-foot building in front of director John Huston.

5. A movie introduced Paul Newman to racing.

It was starring in the 1969 racing film Winning that led Newman down a path of competitive racing in his private life. In 1972, Newman started driving on an amateur level before winning his first professional race in 1982. At age 70, he was part of the winning team in the 1995 Daytona 24-Hours sports car endurance race and continued to drive through 2005. The hobby was one of the few things that could get Newman, who was notoriously press-shy, to open up to media. “I’ll always talk about racing because the people are interesting and fun, the sport is a lot more exciting than anything else I do, and nobody cares that I’m an actor,” Newman said. “I wish I could spend all my time at the racetrack.”

6. Richard Nixon considered Paul Newman an enemy.

Actor Paul Newman is pictured in Venice, Italy in 1963
Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images

President Richard Nixon, who was no stranger to controversy, liked to keep tabs on people he considered volatile and in opposition to his politics. While that normally included political figures, his “enemies list” also included Newman. The actor earned the honor by supporting 1968 presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey and being an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. Oddly, Newman and Nixon had some personal history: Both men shared use of a Jaguar on loan from an automobile dealer. When Newman learned that Nixon was driving the car during part of the week, he left a note saying Nixon should find no trouble operating a car with a “tricky clutch,” a nod to Nixon’s “Tricky Dick” nickname. When Nixon gathered his list of rivals in 1971, Newman’s name was on it. The actor later got a copy and had it framed.

7. Martha Stewart helped put Paul Newman’s salad dressing on the map.

Today it's not uncommon for major actors to lend their images to food and alcoholic beverages. In the early 1980s, it was unusual, though Newman wasn’t looking to make history—only salad dressing. The actor enjoyed mixing an oil and vinegar blend and giving it out to friends and family around the holidays. With friend A.E. Hotchner, Newman bottled a batch and dispensed it over the 1980 Christmas season. Martha Stewart, who was then a caterer, was living in Newman's neighborhood at the time and reported a blind taste test was in favor of the dressing. Newman agreed to put his face on the bottle and call it Newman’s Own. The dressing and the foods to come—including spaghetti sauce—generated profits that Newman donated entirely to charity. As of 2015, the company has delivered an estimated $430 million to charitable causes.

8. Paul Newman once offered part of his salary to a co-star.

While making the 1998 film Twilight with Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon, Newman was surprised to discover that both he and Hackman were making considerably more than Sarandon, despite all three receiving equal billing. Sarandon told the BBC in 2018 that Newman then offered to give up a portion of his salary to make things equitable.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER