In the words of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, "Summertime, and the livin' is easy." Easier still as Esther and I went on a cruise through the Baltic Sea, from Stockholm to Copenhagen, with three fabulous tourist days in St. Petersburg, Russia; land of the czars.
Needless to say, touring any part of Europe is a trip back through history followed by speculative implications for the future — a perfect backdrop for this monthly post.
The essence of the trip was St. Petersburg, which defined almost all the other countries in the area. St. Petersburg is home to The Hermitage, once a play palace of the czars and now the most fabulous museum in the world. I simply do not have the writing skills to do justice to the opulence, wealth, and grandeur of The Hermitage and the nearby Faberge and Peterhof museums. Try the internet. Otherwise it’s unimaginable.
As one tours these museums eventually you can’t avoid thinking about the context of the construction of these palaces. Remember, we’re talking about czarist Russia, a serf society.
For those who think of concepts such as income inequality it is very hard to grasp the dirt poor lives of millions of serfs living side by side with enormous and ostentatious displays of wealth of the ruling families. Indeed remembering the insularity of economies centuries ago one realizes that the building of these palaces and the stocking of them with three million artifacts was literally paid for by the sweat of the brow of Russian serfs. In other words, a country with many of the world’s poorest people was going to make them poorer so that a handful of ruling families could have even more.
It’s amazing it lasted as long as it did.
And that led me to ask my tour guide, "What year is considered the construction and opening of The Hermitage?" Her answer, "1764!"
Wow, there’s a show-stopper. At the exact time that the czars were sucking all the wealth out of the serfs into their own palaces something else was going on. On the other side of midnight a fledgling country in the Western Hemisphere was making noises about ending history’s nonstop transfer of wealth from the ruled to the rulers. The new thinking was a form of government where ruling was temporary and the rulers could only govern with the consent of the governed.
A concept as far from the czar/ serf relationship as New York was from Moscow.
With The Hermitage as one symbol and the shot heard round the world at Bunker Hill as the other, the planet embarked on a long term tale of two countries. It took the Russians another 150 years to get rid of the czars. Meanwhile, during that same period (leading up to the 1914-1918 cataclysmic window) the United States had grown from ocean to ocean, with economic and military might equal to almost any country. The 1914-1918 period saw the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the end of the Ottoman Empire, and the start and finish of the Great War (World War I) with the U.S. (beginning in 1917) making a military difference for all the world to see.
Pity the Russians. Once they overthrew the czars they wound up with the Communists. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Venezuela are you listening?
Indeed, Russia's revolution finally crashed and burned in 1990 due to the military and economic strength of that 1764 fledgling country and its President, Ronald Reagan. Consent of the governed triumphed over the strong military/weak economy that the czars and the Communists never abandoned.
Which brings me to the other stops on the cruise. Tallinn (capital of Estonia) and Gdansk (Poland) were behind the Iron Curtain. Today both are free, prospering, and optimistic.
Tallinn has a museum commemorating the (Soviet) occupation and Gdansk has a museum dedicated to the Solidarity movement which helped end Poland’s (Soviet) Occupation. St. Petersburg (and everywhere else in Russia) still requires a visa for tourists to travel alone in their city — even to shop at expensive Western boutiques.
My takeaway from this trip? Would-be 21st century empires can never survive on muscle alone. The Estonians and the Poles were never Soviets, no matter how many Russian soldiers occupied their countries. If threats and missiles are all Putin has to offer, his empire will shrink before it grows.
Sid Dinerstein is a former chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party. He founded JBS Associates, a 600-person financial service company, and currently combines politics and business with Niger Innis in Inclusive Elections LLC, a firm that brings urban electorate voters to the GOP. He is the author of "Adults Only: For Those Who Love Their Country More Than Their Party." For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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