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.

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

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16 Facts About The Other Guys On Its 10th Anniversary, Courtesy of Adam McKay

Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell star in Adam McKay's The Other Guys (2010).
Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell star in Adam McKay's The Other Guys (2010).
Macall Polay/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.

August marks the 10th anniversary of The Other Guys, director Adam McKay’s send-up, and tribute, to the buddy cop movies that have been a Hollywood mainstay for decades. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg play Detectives Allen Gamble and Terry Hoitz, two disgraced and otherwise dismissed desk jockeys who inadvertently uncover a massive financial scandal at the exact moment when corporate malfeasance begins grabbing overdue newspaper headlines. The duo’s comic chemistry thrives on Ferrell’s bookish awkwardness juxtaposed with Wahlberg’s macho exasperation, while McKay (working with writer Chris Henchy) exercises a growing social consciousness against the backdrop of one of cinema’s most familiar and durable genres. Supporting performances by Eva Mendes, Michael Keaton, and Steve Coogan, plus cameos by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson (not to mention a murderer’s row of up-and-coming comedians and improvisers) breathe unforgettable life into an escalating series of side-splitting scenarios.

McKay’s most vivid memory of the shoot, he tells Mental Floss, was of the cinematic and gastronomic indulgence he enjoyed shooting a (for him) robustly-budgeted action movie in New York City. “I think I put on literally 25 pounds during that shoot,” he says. “At the end, my wife just looked at me and was like, 'You look as big as a house.' I mean, some days my body would hurt from laughing all day, and then I just ate like chicken parm sandwiches and pizza.

"That's the closest I've come to a full-on decadent Hollywood movie," McKay continues. "We had a really big budget. We were in New York City. We had cars blowing up. We had all these big actors everywhere. It's still, by the way, a budget that's probably half of a Marvel movie or a Michael Bay movie. But that's the closest I've ever come to feeling like Tony Scott and that kind of world."

Exclusive to Mental Floss, check out these behind-the-scenes tidbits and trivia from the making of The Other Guys, straight from McKay himself.

1. The Other Guys started with the unlikely pairing of Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell—as dinner companions.

"We went to a little Italian place off Santa Monica and the energy between the two of them was really funny," McKay recalled of what kicked off the idea for Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg's on-screen pairing. "Mark's a Boston guy, athlete, tough, boxer; Will's big—Will's 6-foot-3 and definitely an athlete and no pushover—but at the same time, at root, kind of a sweetheart. And they just had a funny dynamic between them. I kept laughing the whole night. And that was really what launched it."

2. Adam McKay didn’t set out to make The Other Guys a parody, but Hollywood quickly taught him not to edge too closely to familiar properties.

Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell are The Other Guys (2010).Macall Polay/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.

"There was some movie that came out about two 'star' cops. And I jokingly said, 'We should do the movie about the cops in the background of the star cops,'" McKay says. "Because they were doing an A-Team movie, I said, 'We should call ours The B-Team.' We may have even announced the movie as that, and someone back-channeled us, like, 'By the way, don't call your movie The B-Team. We're not going to sue you, but like, just don't do that.'"

3. As appealing as it was to send up buddy-cop movie conventions, then- (and still-) current events helped solidify The Other Guys's themes.

"The other big component was that the financial collapse was actively happening," McKay says of the timing of The Other Guys. "We kept talking about how you can't do a jeopardy plot that’s about drug smugglers—like we'll be looking back wistfully at the days of drug smugglers and safe crackers and bank robbers. And so a big part of it was: How do you do a modern cop buddy film when banks have disappeared trillions of dollars and millions of people have lost their homes through this kind of bureaucratic malfeasance? And that launched Ferrell’s character, a forensic accountant into paperwork—and the idea was that the new cop heroes are going to be bureaucrats who are into paperwork."

4. Michael Keaton’s repeated TLC references were written into The Other Guys script, though Adam McKay wasn't sure how well the running joke would translate.

A running joke in The Other Guys has Michael Keaton's Captain Gene continually quoting TLC songs. "We had done a couple readings of the script where it played really well, not that that means it's going to play funny in the final movie," McKay says. "We've had bits that killed in read-throughs, and then they go in the final cut and something about the rhythm just doesn't work. We were fairly confident in that joke. There are other times though where you do discover the bit and you're improvising, you're throwing out alternatives, the actors are playing around, and you discover a bit. Then I'll turn to Kate Hardman, our script supervisor and say, 'Alright, we’ve got to keep that one alive.' And then in future scenes, she would remind me, 'Remember, you had this joke you wanted to keep alive' and I'll get one take where we do it."

5. Dirty Mike and the Boys, on the other hand, were not in the original script.

"Rob Huebel improvised the line 'soup kitchen' and we kept joking about Dirty Mike and The Boys. The scene where I show up with our DP Oliver Wood, [our property master] Jimmy Mazzola, and our producer Pat Crowley, and we're Dirty Mike and the Boys, was not scripted," McKay explains. "That came out of us loving Huebel’s improv so much that we knew we had to put Dirty Mike and the Boys in the movie. That was a perfect example where improv spawned a bit that ended up running through the movie."

6. The scene involving Allen’s ex-girlfriend “Christinith” was inspired not just by the particular way some people spell or pronounce their names, but by their annoyance when it's mispronounced.

"Obviously it was a running joke that very beautiful women love Allen Gamble," McKay says. "And we were joking about people through the years who have names they want pronounced a certain way and they're oddly hostile about it. There was someone we'd known who was named Anna, but she wanted to be called 'Ana,' and if you called her Anna, she would get mad and I'd be like, 'Wait a minute, what? You can't get mad about that.' So that was where the Christinith joke came from."

7. Will Ferrell’s “Gator” alter ego in The Other Guys was created to further develop the film’s “paper-pushers as heroes” idea.

"The character [Allen] was a guy who appears very mousy and very beta and quiet and we just kept kicking around the idea of: What's power now? What's a hero now? And we had this idea that the reason that Allen Gamble was so conservative and buttoned-down was that he had kind of let his power out once before and it hadn't gone very well," McKay explained of the many dichotomies of Ferrell's character. "And then we just started laughing about the idea that he became a pimp and didn't realize it. So that was the joke—the idea that he’s like, 'No, no, no, I'm helping them run a dating service.' 'No, you were a pimp.' And the lifestyle pulling him down without him really realizing what he's become. The thing that makes me laugh the hardest is when he's first talking to the girl in college, she's just going, 'I could go on dates with guys.' 'Oh yeah. I can make sure to collect the money.' It’s so innocent."

8. Adam McKay and his collaborators refined a unique technical process leading up to The Other Guys to keep track of the many variations attempted, and often improvised, during production.

"Brent White, the editor on The Other Guys, has this great system where you can go to each line of the script and click it and all the alt versions of it will be underneath it," McKay explains. "That was really a breakthrough, and once he really got that system going, it changed a lot of things. Every version, every permutation of the joke is right in front of you, and it made the whole thing easier to sort."

9. The Other Guys composer Jon Brion is a musical chameleon, but Adam McKay didn’t direct him to draw on the sound of, say, Michael Kamen’s Lethal Weapon scores for Allen and Terry’s themes.

"A lot of movies I did with Will are always kind of in between an original story and a parody," McKay says. "We want them to be original, but they're clearly messing around with the tropes of the genre that you're used to. So the trick was I wanted it to sound like a cop score, but I also wanted it to be good. So we kept kind of batting that around."

10. The Oscar-worthy end credits song “Pimps Don’t Cry” emerged from a need for actress Eva Mendes to have a melody to sing, and Jon Brion’s chops corralling heavy hitters for a comedy-soul classic.

Will Ferrell and Eva Mendes in The Other Guys (2010).Macall Polay/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.

"We just wrote 'Pimps Don't Cry' for the scene," McKay explains. "When [Eva Mendes] sang it, we're like, wait a minute, can we record this? And, of course, Jon Brion knows everyone and has access to studios. So before you know it, we had CeeLo Green in there and it turned out Eva Mendes could sing. We recorded a whole track and I think even shot a video. But it came out of the scene. The actors were like, 'Well, what's the melody?' And we're like, 'Jon, you want to write something?' And then of course I was like, I gotta hear that song!"

11. Adam McKay explored the idea of Pop-Up Video-style detours in The Other Guys, but couldn’t figure out how to pull it off in the pre-streaming era.

"We had a thing that we were going to try and do in the movie where we would freeze-frame scenes and then a little box would pop out and show something from a couple months later. That was a style that was written into the script we had happening a bunch of times, and we could not get it to work. It's funny because now I know how I would do it, but at that time we just couldn't [make it work]."

12. The Other Guys's planned “flash-forward” scenes also included future President Donald Trump, whose Trump Tower gets blown up in the opening scene.

Future president Donald Trump filmed a cameo for The Other Guys, but it didn't make the final cut. "Donald Trump just basically wants to get paid," McKay says. "So if you show up and you write out a check for a certain amount of money, I can't remember what the amount was, $75,000 or $100,000 or something, he'll do it. Pretty much anyone could go to him and be like, 'Here's a check for $75,000,' and he will do it. Never in a trillion years imagining the guy would become president. He sort of was a New York joke for years, and Trump Tower was kind of known as being this cheeseball place, so it was a pure joke. But when we put it in the movie, we were like, 'Donald Trump’s so cheesy and cheap, let's not put this in the movie.' Even for the silly movie we were doing, it felt cheeseball, so we ended up cutting it out."

13. If there was a scene in The Other Guys that gave Adam McKay the “tingle in his balls” as a filmmaker that Allen and Terry feel while pursuing bad guys, it was the “Aim for the bushes” scene that sets up the whole film.

"I mean, that's one of my all-time favorite moments from anything I've ever been involved in," McKay says of his favorite scene. "I would say the family prayer scene in Talladega Nights, the Jenga tower scene in The Big Short, the other one was in Anchorman, when Jack Black kicks the dog off the bridge where the audience made this weird sound and were so stunned by it. And then Danson and Highsmith jumping off the building —oh my god, I had so much fun watching that with test audiences. No one saw it coming.

"[The Rock and Samuel L. Jackson] are such big stars that just in a million years, no one imagined it. When the guys were falling off the tower, they were so convinced they weren't going to die. You would hear people in the audience go, 'Yeah right, they would never survive that.' But when they hit, there was such a collective inhale from the whole audience, and then just explosion of laughter. But the other great moment for that was when I was in the edit with Erica Weis, our music editor and music supervisor, and we discovered the Foo Fighters song for that moment. It was just so perfectly over-the-top and a little cheesy, yet plausible. Of course the filmmakers would play this song! The entire puzzle clicked together perfectly when that song went in."

14. Adam McKay credits his executive producer for the coup of recruiting Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson as the “star cops” by whose police work Allen and Terry would be measured.

"I give [executive producer] Kevin Messick a lot of credit for that casting," McKay says. "We wanted two big action stars that you would never think would die in a movie, and boy, Kevin really helped us get them. He had some connection to Dwayne Johnson, and he worked the phones to really help us get Sam Jackson. I saw Sam Jackson years later and he's like, 'People keep asking me if we're going to do a spinoff movie with these guys.' I was like, oh man, that could be fun. And Dwayne Johnson told me too he had people come up to him and mention those characters all the time."

15. The original ending to The Other Guys was even more bleak than the statistics that play over the end credits.

"We had this whole ending where like they bust Steve Coogan's character Ershon and they pull the thing together and they take him in and it turns out Congress has changed the laws and what he's done is no longer illegal," McKay explains. "I wish we had ended with that. That would have been a better ending. And then we had this other ending with Derek Jeter, where he comes out and it turns out he's connected to this whole underground thing that's fighting against the big banks. That's in the TV version they air, but it didn't really work ... when I say work, I don't care if the audience loved it. It didn't work for me with the narrative when we a test screened it. So I didn't think we stuck the landing on the ending on it."

16. Adam McKay always worked culturally relevant themes into his films, but The Other Guys galvanized this approach going forward, reflected more prominently in The Big Short and Vice.

Adam McKay on the set of The Other Guys (2010).Macall Polay/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.

"Ferrell and I would do these comedies, and we would always have something [else] going on in them," McKay says of his desire to weave bigger themes into his films. "Even Step Brothers was kind of about how consumer culture turns us into big giant children. And the Iraq War was such a horrible tragedy and disaster that right around that time, and that’s when I started thinking, 'I just gotta do some stuff that's more overt.' When the financial collapse hit, it was just like, all bets are off. So yeah, we tried to craft the whole movie like a comedic allegory for the financial collapse. If you look at the movie, they keep ignoring their union. And then there’s a big financier covering losses by taking money from workers. Of course, when the movie came out, no one cared—the movie just played as a comedy. Except for the ending credits, people really didn't catch it at all. Which I don't blame them! I think it was a little bit of an experiment in that sense. And the good news is the movie’s funny and I really love how it turned out."