Friday, October 26, 2018

The Romanoffs--Episode One (Spoiler Alert)

The new Amazon Prime series, The Romanoffs, doesn't have a whole lot to do with Russian history, but its episodes all theoretically revolve around the shared family legacy of its characters.  Having only seen the first two episodes, it's perhaps too early to see how much influence Russian history will really have on any of its discrete plots.  However, the first episode--and here I insert a spoiler alert--does at least demonstrate the fact that the memory of the martyred royal family continues to reverberate on some level through the generations. 

In episode one, an aging Franco-German Romanoff maintains a level of aristocratic pretension seldom seen in the modern world.  She's rude, overly racist, wealthy, multilingual, devoutly Christian, and utterly isolated from ordinary life.  Additionally, it seems that she has never worked, and always maintained at least one personal servant.  Indeed, her arrogance is so refined, that she seems able to both dish out haughty insults, and ignore any efforts by others to parry them, or respond with counterattacks. 

The old Romanoff also maintains the royal family's general contempt for non-Christian civilization. To her, European Civilization is Christian Civilization, and both are superior to, and at war with, Muslim Civilization.  To an extent, her survival, and the survival of a grand French apartment that once belonged to the Russian Romanovs, represents a remarkable triumph of the Romanov dynastic principle.  After all, Paris was also an imperial outpost of the Russian autocracy and aristocracy.

While there's something sad about the woman's isolation, the episode makes the point that the assassination of Nicholas II's immediate family did not end the family or its remarkable traditions.  The matriarch of this branch of the Romanov/Romanoff family, however isolated, is still rich, pretentious, and surrounded by luxury.  Moreover, she's still independent enough to make decisions about the family's possessions, or that which can still be passed down between generations. 

Notwithstanding the fact that matriarch seems impervious to change, the fact that she decides at one point to give her apartment to a Muslim Parisian indicates that even the Romanovs/Romanoffs are not immune to modernity.  Indeed, the episode closes with the woman's nephew, an American-raised Romanoff, declaring his love for this Muslim servant. 

The new alliance between an American of Russian decent and a Parisian of Tunisian decent means that on some level Romanoff continuity is a myth or a facade.  The Romanoff matriarch's Faberge egg is the physical expression of this abstract point.  As the episode begins, the finely crafted, bejeweled egg seems to represent the fact this family has somehow managed to preserve unbroken links to the past. But later, the Romanoff matriarch admits that the original was stolen, and that the one on display is a fake. 

The point, both from the standpoint of Russian history, and the standpoint of general human history, is that we "invent" traditions, as Benedict Anderson would have said in his book, Imagined Communities.  However, whether these traditions are imagined  or not, the privileged matriarch remains deeply bound to her past.  The most poignant moment of the episode occurs when this immensely privileged woman expresses her deep and abiding longing for Russia.  When asked by her Muslim helper when she had last visited Russia, she replies, "never," without any hint of irony, and the viewer knows that she had not contradicted herself.

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