One does not go to Tula with one's own samovar

workingsamovarGet it?  No, okay.  A samovar is the traditional Russian contraption for making tea.  Very few Russians actually use one anymore because the electric kettle has made them obsolete.*  Tula was the famed home of Russia’s best samovars.  Ergo, it’s rather stupid to bring a samovar on a trip to Tula.  Or, don’t take what you don’t need.  There’s a lesson here for President Elect Obama and the American people.  The Tsar is about as contemporary as the samovar, whichs begs the question: why does Obama seem intent on turning Washington D.C. into a second Tula?  That city is already full of people who think themselves all powerful, yet tsars are proliferating like rabbits in springtime.

In old Russia, the Tsar was sometimes called “little father” to distinguish him from the big father who art in heaven.  For the most part, God was too high and the Tsar was too far away to be much help to the average Russian serf.  But in a wonderful bit of public relations genius, a tradition of writing letters to the Tsar developed.  The beleaguered Russian peasant would write a letter to the Tsar explaining his troubles.  Every great once in a while the Tsar would ride off and answer the letter in person.  The answer generally involved settling a village dispute or chastising the offending nobleman for his mistreatment of the lucky peasant.  If nothing else, the Tsar was a bit nearer than God and perhaps slightly more helpful.

Keep that tradition in mind as it may become more and more useful in tsarist America.

Between 1721 and 1917 the word Tsar in Russia only referred to the Emperor’s sovereignty over formerly independent states.  That is, Nikolai II was not Tsar of Russia but he was Tsar of Poland…at least until the Bolsheviks reduced him to nothing more than Tsar of Ipatiev House.  At least Obama has the usage right.  The climate is no longer an independent state, but a fiefdom ruled from DC.  The same will go for Detroit.  Iraq and Afghanistan already have a tsar, courtesy of Mr. Bush.

But how could in imperial title worm its way into republican America to the extent that it resembles an infestation of those terrible brain worms that one might get from eating raw seafood?

Nicholas Biddle was the Second Bank of the United States president and the first American to earn the moniker “czar”, though it was not an appointed position in 1832…only a nickname used to illustrate his personality and how he used his position.  He served concurrently with Nikolai I, who skipped ahead of his brother to claim the throne and prompted the Decembrist Revolt in the process.  After successfully suppressing the revolt, Nikolai I established the Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery: the forerunner of the dreaded Okhrana.  In other words, Biddle was a feared autocrat with a penchant for abusing his power and others.

The precedents set by Nikolai I and his imitator Biddle would not reach full flowering in America until 1982, when the United States Congress voted to give overall responsibility for drug policy to an individual.  The UPI coined the term “drug czar” when reporting the bill.  The Reagan administration liked the coinage enough to officially institute the position, and William Bennet became the first, official tsar in the United States.  He might as well have renamed the DEA the Okhrana and tied the story up neatly, because no program could be more fitting for our first real tsar than the War on Drugs.

From this illustrious beginning we have descended into a tsar fetish. Why tsars have proliferated in the United States is open to debate, though they seem to be the solution of choice when presidents don’t have an actual solution.  If all else fails, appoint a tsar.  It is a catchier title than “minister without portfolio”.  I’ve had a difficult time finding out exactly what a tsar does, besides comfort a populace that longs for a tyrant to solve its problems.  Perhaps i’ll write a letter to a tsar and be lucky enough to find him near enough to answer my question.

A car tsar.  A drug tsar.  A climate tsar.  A war tsar.  An education tsar.  A technology tsar.  A cyberspace tsar.  A  copyright tsar.  Here a tsar, there a tsar, everywhere a tsar tsar.  Yet other than the expansion and contraction of bureaucratic fiefdoms, nothing much changes.  But at this rate we’ll be lucky to escape someone proclaiming himself “Tsar of all the Americas…the red Americas and the blue Americas, etc.”

You may be wondering why i haven’t been using the normal, American translitaration of the Russian. Well, it’s because it is a terrible transliteration that has only one saving grace, which is overlooked by the many who throw the word around with abandon.  In Old Slavonic the word “ts’sar” means Caesar and modern Russian uses a similar form to denote the Roman tyrant, as opposed to “tsar” (царь) which refers to the Russian monarch/emperor.  “Ts” is the logical transliteration of “ц”, but like our obtuse refusal to adopt the metric system, Americans are stuck in their “cz” ways.  At the very least, czar should be more suggestive of Caesar, and one would think that appointing Caesars would be frowned upon in a nation designed to replicate the Roman Republic that Caesar ended.  But i suppose that we crossed the Rubicon a some time ago and we’re now simply stretching our legs to fit our clothes.  Or, our Presidentialism leads to tsarlets because one fisherman sees another from afar.

Are we a land of democracy or a land of emperorlets?  As the Russians say, one cannot ride two horses with one ass.

They also say that even the greatest Tsar must be put to bed with the shovel at last, and that is one Russian proverb we’d be well served to take, metaphorically, to heart.

*Electric samovars blend nostalgia and technology and are somewhat more common than traditional samovars, but they’re basically a fancy electric kettle.  The traditional way of making tea in Russia is to brew a pot of undrinkable strength tea in the morning and add hot water to a shot of it to make a cup, similar to an Americano.  The samovar kept the water hot throughout the day.  The process, if not the coal fired technology is still in regular use.

Image credit: http://www.albanytula.org

3 replies »

  1. An excellent point made in an interesting way… but all I can hear in my head now is: Here a tsar, there a tsar, everywhere a tsar tsar.

    Thanks a lot.

  2. Thanks to both of you.

    Last night i stumbled across a new fact that relates to the piece: Joe Biden led the charge to create the office of drug tsar, though it still seems as though the UPI coined the phrase. Worse, he’s proud of it. So i wonder if he’s sitting with Obama saying, “You know, buddy, this would be a great place for another tsar.”