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Tsar Vlad

If Vladimir Putin wants to be Russia’s next tsar, his invasion of Ukraine just might have doomed him to the eventual fate of the last tsar.

Before he attacked his smaller neighbor, wannabe Tsar Vladimir would have been wise to crack a Russian history book about Nicholas II. He lost his throne and his life at the hands of peeved former subjects.

It's way early in the invasion. But according to reports, Russian troops are meeting unexpectedly stiff resistance from the Ukrainian military. Back home, a lot of Russians are risking prison and even death sentences protesting the invasion.

Putin evidently figured that conquering little Ukraine would be easy. In 1904, Nicholas believed fighting Japan in the Far East would be a cakewalk. Ten years later, the czar was gung-ho for joining the Allies against Germany in World War I. Those two military misadventures ultimately led to the fall of imperial Russia.

Western military experts believe Russia can overwhelm outnumbered and outgunned Ukraine on the battlefield. But they warn that many Russian soldiers will go home in body bags.

Western military experts believe Russia can overwhelm outnumbered and outgunned Ukraine on the battlefield. But they warn that many Russian soldiers will go home in body bags. (Apparently, some already are.)

Experts also predict that Ukrainians will follow up the defeat of their army with a protracted guerrilla war against the invaders that will inevitably boost the Russian death toll and likely fuel more domestic opposition to the Putin regime.

Putin has surrounded himself with a small clique of corrupt, toadying billionaire oligarchs. They owe their fortunes to him. Likewise, Russia’s aristocracy, only a tiny fraction of Russia’s population, owed its wealth and power to Nicholas II, heir to the Romanov dynasty, which began in 1613.

While Putin and his sycophants live in splendor, so did the czar and his lickspittles. Both rulers isolated themselves from the ruled.

Try as he might, Nicholas II couldn’t stamp out unrest in Russia. He imprisoned, executed and banished to Siberia thousands of pro-democracy dissidents. Putin has jailed, tortured and put to death his share of pro-democracy citizens.

Partly to quell growing unrest at home and to boost his popularity among ordinary Russians, Nicholas II decided to expand Russia’s reach in Asia. He knew the Japanese would resist but was confident of a quick and easy victory.

The czar calculated that a short, successful foreign war with minimal losses would cause Russian workers and peasants to forget their misery. By humbling the Japanese, he'd become a hero at home, or so he thought.

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The best laid plans…

Japan humiliated Russia on land and sea, especially at sea. Japan’s navy paved the bottom of the briny with sunken Russian warships.

The czar’s popularity sank even lower after the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, which American President Teddy Roosevelt helped end in 1905 via a brokered peace treaty.

When Russians rose up against his misrule in 1905, Nicholas II brutally suppressed the revolution. Afterwards, he did nothing to improve the lives of most Russians. He ruthlessly continued to suppress pro-democracy and anti-monarchy elements.

In 1914, he took his country to war again, urging his people to fight anew for their God, czar and Mother Russia. The imperial German army demolished Nicholas II's army, beating the Russians in battle after battle and invading Russia.

With Russian casualties soaring on the Eastern Front, hundreds, then thousands, of soldiers deserted. On the home front, anger and desperation increased exponentially; so did hunger and starvation. Urban workers rioted and struck. Peasants rebelled in the countryside.

Even the nobles and the bourgeoisie finally turned against Nicholas, who, in 1915, had taken command of his hard-pressed troops in the field. His military incompetence matched his ineptness as ruler of Russia.

Nicholas II was forced to abdicate in March, 1917. It was only a reprieve. The final sentence came in November, when the Bolsheviks, led by Nikolai Lenin, seized power from the fledgling Provisional Government and turned Russia into the Soviet Union, the world’s first communist state. In 1918, Red Army soldiers, apparently acting on Lenin’s orders, killed the czar and his family. 

While many of the czar’s troops went over to the communist Red Army, Putin, the atheist and once loyal communist, has gone the other way. The former KGB guy has smoothly transitioned into an authoritarian, capitalist, Christian autocrat in the mold of Nicholas II.

Here's a third history lesson Putin should know without perusing a book: when he was a KGB officer, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, certain that the small, impoverished county was easy prey. In 1979, the Red Army roared in, but became mired in an insurgency that lasted until 1989 when the Soviets gave up and went home.

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Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, due in no small part, to its Afghanistan debacle. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” writer and philosopher George Santayana famously said. Substitute “willfully ignore” for “cannot remember,” and the immortal admonition is just as true.

Berry Craig