Russian History

Matsumae Daimyos of Japan’s North Hinterlands

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When I was researching my book, The Secret Life of Concubines, I was interested in setting the story in a portion of Japan not as well known. I had seen the movie Silk, and my imagination was immediately captured by snow on pine. Hokkaido was that outpost that I chose to set my series. When I was looking around for inspiration for my daimyo-antagonist character, Matsumae couldn’t have been more perfect.


Though the character of Matsumae Yoshinobu is fictional, his backstory is one of rebellion and going it alone. The Matsumae ruled a portion of the island of Hokkaido, “Ezo” as it was known in the 1600s, and were given a unique fiefdom from the shogun. Most of the territory was wild, impenetrable forest. The native peoples called Ainu had settled it for years and were down as far as the Kuril Islands. The Ainu were tribesmen, completely different to the Japanese. They lived off the land, hunted and were considered unkempt and inferior. In exchange for protection of the northern borders against Russian and Ainu incursions, the daimyo were given a free hand. This was huge. It meant that the Matsumae didn’t have to travel every other year in a costly tribute journey like most other daimyo. They were left alone and they developed a thick skin.


The life was hard. Rice didn’t grow, they had to import their rice because winters were long, and the Matsumae relied on trade with the Ainu, of which they ran several taikin outposts as they began to subject the native peoples. Historians have noted that Matsumae daimyo are weak, inconsequential and occupied an anomaly in Edo’s otherwise centralized system of daimyo management. The shogun needed them. He was across the Straits on another island, Honshu, and that made administration of the hinterlands difficult. The northern borders were extremely important especially when Russia began to make more trips into Japan, and by the 18h century, there was real fear that they meant something more sinister.


In 1792, a seminal voyage from the Russians convinced the Edo government that the Russians were up to no good, that they had reason to suspect conquest. A Russian ship led by an officer of Finnish-descent, Adam Laxman landed in Hakodate and wintered at Matsumae castle. They demanded trade, and needed supplies. They pulled out papers signed by their Empress giving them authority to offer trade with the shogun. They had Japanese castaways with them that had washed up on Russian shores. They wanted to return them as a sign of goodwill. Europe was in flux. The French Revoltion infected the Russian Empress with paranoia who suspected the castaways as spies, but that was beside the point. The Russians meant to leverage them. It was all for naught. What started as a “friendship mission” was viewed with disdain and hostility. The daimyo met with the Russian ship, but told them they were unwelcome to trade. He gave them a paper that said they should go to Nagasaki if they wished to return and one ship a year would be recognized. This paper has been debated for centuries. The truth is, the Japanese were really calling the Russians bluff, and didn’t expect they would return.


The trip was considered a disaster. The Russians lingered through a never-ending winter with meager supplies and no trade treaty, but as the first Russian voyage to step foot in Northern Japan, they were treated somewhat decently. They didn’t help themselves to the women of Matsumae, and they behaved when they were told to leave in spring. But the threat was there. It was real and the Matsumae daimyo performed a valuable service in keeping the Russian bear from marching on Edo.

Lermontov A Hero in His Time and Ours

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He lived nearly two hundred years ago. The novel Mikhail Lermontov left us sparkles as a portrait of the Byronic hero. Pechorin is bored, he’s sharp-tongued, calculating and a little desperate, nay impulsive. He’s sensitive, but self destructive too. A contradiction, the supreme anti-hero.


So what is this superfluous man? In Russia, it’s more than dandyism. The archetype was made popular by Turgenev in his novella, Diary of a Superfluous Man. He disregards societal norms, he’s cynical, unempathetic and enjoys rubbing others with his pursuits, the big three: gambling, dueling and romantic escapades. He’s not just a one-dimensional fop. He’s a symbol. An exponent of the Tsar Nicholas I’s reactionary policies. These men refused a useful life they didn’t believe in so they gave themselves over to a rakish passivity. The superfluous man is lost, he’s not riding the character arch to win the game. He’s thrown his hand in before he ever started. Much of this literary type can be traced to the peculiar socio-political climate of 19th century Russia. Russia didn’t have a renaissance or a reformation. Thus the history of it’s literature has always been a vehicle for social change before entertainment. Lermontov does both.


Hero for Our Time is set against the beauty of the Caucuses Mountains. The structure consists of five novellas with differing points of view. The most compelling scene depicts a duel. Dueling in Russia at this time was rife and deadly. Pushkin himself was killed in a duel. The government outlawed the practice but duelers always found a secret place and a way to carry on the duel, little caring they could face arrest if they were discovered.


What makes Hero so vivid is the duel is set on a cliff. The idea is almost ridiculous, so over the top that it couldn’t be real. But that’s the point. Lermontov wanted to set his duel in a way that would be memorable.

Anastasia The Lost Grand Duchess Still Grabs Us

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It’s the kick off of Blogging A-Z yeah! It’s a few minutes past midnight-officially April 1st.


The Last Russian Imperial Family. One of the most enduring mysteries of the 20th Century. Following the turbulence of the Russian Revolution Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. Following house arrest, after a lengthy imprisonment in Siberia, sometime during the night of July the 17/18, 1918, the family was ushered into a dark cellar to await their fate: death by firing squad. And as the Bolshevik guard who took part in the carnage boasted, “The world will never know what we did with them.” We didn’t until the remains were found in a remote forest, near an abandoned mine shaft in the 1990’s.


They were an appealing family in so many ways; the four sisters, The Big Pair, The Little Pair went by a variation of their first names when signing autographs-OTMA for Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia. But it was the youngest Anastasia who was destined to grab hold of history.


In the 1920’s a woman was pulled out of a canal in Germany claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia-she was vague, didn’t want to talk about it and had an uncanny memory or certain details only the real Anastasia could know. Her supporters pushed her claim but still her grandmother the Dowager Empress of Russia refused to receive her. This woman was the infamous Anna Anderson.


In the late 1980’s, I became absolutely mesmerized by the story of Anna Anderson when I read Peter Kurth’s book that was adapted into a mini-series. That show ignited my love of Russian History. I read everything I could get my hands on. I felt like I knew each member of the Imperial Family. I wanted so badly to solve the mystery.


Though I wanted to believe, fantastic as it was, this young girl survived a hail of bullets and bayonets by hardened revolutionaries. So I compared photos of the real Anastasia to Anna Anderson. No one changes that much. I saw NO resemblance whatsoever to the Romanov women or the Grand Duchess Anastasia. I knew I should see a glimmer, a shred. I looked at my own photos through the years, and I saw a lot of changes as a young woman from a child. But I saw something that made me see I was the same person, and I’ve read the German court cases, seen the plaster casts of Anderson’s ears and feet. People saw what they wanted to see. She was a fraud. Ten years before the DNA evidence unmasked her as a Polish factory worker. I knew through my study of Russian History that one sees pretenders over and over that this was nothing new; Tsar Peter III, Pugachev and a host of others. People have also popped up through the years pretending to be the other sisters, there was a Grand Duchess Olga of Lake Como who recognized a false Grand Duchess Marie.


One thing we know, the real Grand Duchess Anastasia who loved to pull gags on people and was a quick study, will continue to capture our imagination long into the future.