Chronicle of the
Time of Troubles

    [The terrifying result of spending three successive nights
    watching film epics about Russia in the 1600s.]

As if operas weren't bad enough, there are also long, long, long, gory Russian film epics about the "Time of Troubles." You remember that period in Russian history. At the end of the 1500s, the dynasty of Ivan the Terrible died out when the last heir of the Terrible lineage, Dimitri Terrible, succumbed to assassination, his family's occupational hazard. Without an authentic Terrible as absolute ruler, Russia dissolved into chaos, anarchy, bestiality, and incomprehensible proverbs, such as: "One does not go to Tula with one's own samovar," or "Every vegetable has its time."

Factions led by rival boyars (Russian noblemen) immediately started contending for the imperial throne, and their armies laid waste to everything in sight. The Don Cossacks joined first one side, then another, plundering wherever they rode. A pretender called the False Dimitri managed to become tsar for one weekend, before he was summarily executed. Another pretender then pretended to be the False Dimitri (Russian history dubs him the False False Dimitri) and gained the support of the Hetman of Poland-Lithuania; while still another pretender (the False False False Dimitri) got the support of the Cossacks, or some of them. False Dimitris were popping up like mushrooms after rain, and now foreign invasions added to Russia's woes. The army of Poland-Lithuania invaded Russia from the west, the Swedes invaded from the northwest, the Tartars invaded from the south, and polar bears moved in from the northeast. As a Russian proverb puts it, "For a mad dog, seven versts is not a long detour."

In the countryside, the grain harvest failed, the potatoes rotted, the carp left the rivers, and the oxen called in sick. The peasants were reduced to eating birchbark and wooden model Easter eggs. The Zaporozhian Cossacks revolted, the Ukrainians were even more revolting, the priests cried that the end of the world was at hand (if it had not already come last Wednesday), and the Old Believers set themselves on fire on those rare occasions when they found a match that lit. The long-suffering Russian people suffered, in chorus, and the price of vodka went through the roof. The village simpleton stepped forward and sang a plaintive lament, "Do not plant a tree with its root upward."

The Polish army conquered Moscow, but then left when they couldn't find even a pickle up to Polish standards. In the west, at this time, the scientific revolution was beginning, with Galileo, Kepler, and John Napier's table of logarithms. In Russia, a serf suggested that wagons might move more easily if they had wheels, and he was sentenced to 20 lashes of the knout for speaking out of turn. In those days in Russia, wagons were carried along by serfs on their shoulders, and boats didn't have oars but instead were towed along the rivers by serfs hauling lines from shore. The peasants lived in hollowed-out turnips, and plowed the fields by dragging big rocks across them.

But, primitive as their lives were, the peasants were filled with love of Mother Russia: after a dozen years of the Time of Troubles, they rallied to the great patriotic rising led by Prince Pozharsky, a deeply religious boyar and amateur chef. The Prince, after spending six months praying before an icon of Our Lady of Kazan, addressed the assembled peasants in these deathless words: "Mince the chicken meat, add the bread that has been soaked in milk and lightly squeezed out, half of the butter, salt, pepper and again pass through a mincer. The meat should be fluffy." The vast peasant crowd burst into chorus in response: "Divide the meat into 100 - 120 gr portions and shape into oval cutlets," they sang. "Dip each cutlet in egg, roll in breadcrumbs, and fry in pan with butter." With that, the Prince knew that he had unified the narod, the long-suffering people of Russia, and, too, that he had invented Cutlets Pozharsky.

The Polish-Lithuanian army regrouped in order to perfect the formulas for pirogue and golabki, the Swedes emigrated to Minnesota, the Kuban Cossacks changed sides again, and the newly formed Russian Army entered Moscow in triumph. Prince Pozharsky modestly refused to accept any titles beyond "Saviour of Russia" and "Executive Chef," while an assembly of the boyars was held to elect a new supreme autocrat. The assembly chose Mikhail Romanoff, a pious young boyar who was a distant relative of the Terrible family, and who had the virtue of not belonging to any of the boyar factions. To the pealing of all the church bells in Moscow, Romanoff was crowned Tsar of All the Russias. The new Tsar celebrated the occasion by inventing Noodles Romanoff, and ordering a new round of summary executions. As his next official act, he treated the serfs to 20 lashes. The serfs thanked him fervently, and sang in chorus the old Russian proverb: "When it rains one doesn't roof the cottage, and at fair weather it doesn't drip anyway."

Many years later, the enlightenment reached Russia in the days of Tsar Peter the Great. Peter ordered the boyars to shave their beards and to use toilet paper at least once a month, while an edict forbade the use of the knout on Christmas Day. In the technical realm, oars were introduced for boats, and wagons at last began to be constructed with wheels. They were square wheels, of course, since the Patriarch of Moscow denounced round wheels as a western heresy and an affront to the Orthodox faith.

Round wheels were finally introduced in Russia in 1932, during the Second Five Year Plan, when Pravda announced that the round wheel was a triumphant new discovery of Proletarian Socialist science. In 1937, the engineers who had designed the carts with round wheels were all arrested, charged with being Zinovievite-Trotskyite-Bukharinite-Left-Deviationist wreckers, and spying for Britain, Japan, Finland, and Paraguay. They all confessed, in chorus, and were summarily executed. As the old Russian proverb puts it, "There will be trouble if the cobbler starts making pies."

--- Dr. Phage
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