In Czarist Russia, centuries ago, conditions for the serfs could get truly appalling. Living in an agricultural society in a cold, dry land, famine was a frequent visitor; living in an autocratic society, taxation was basically armed theft by the lords, the boyars. The serfs were therefore caught between the climate and the hierarchy. But they held out hope for rescue: their perpetual refrain was, “If only the czar knew!”
The czar was the agent of Jesus, you see — the sainted ruler, Christ’s agent on earth. Since he was so holy, he would rein in the boyars and protect the people (and who knows, he might ask Christ for a mild winter, too). Since he obviously wasn’t doing this, however, it must be because he had no idea how his people were suffering. So the serfs reasoned, or so goes the story. In 1905, therefore, a group of serfs and low-ranking priests took a petition for a relief of sufferings to the czar at the Winter Palace, relying on his goodness, and were massacred for their trouble. There were probably quite a few serfs who had guessed the truth before that, but afterward it was blindingly obvious.
For the czars were mortal — some good, some bad, some totally ineffectual, not a few insane — and they were bound up in the system the serfs bemoaned. Rather than being above and apart from the outright robbery of the boyars, rather being a potential intercessor, the czars benefited enormously from the system as it was. To intercede would have been to cut off the branch they were sitting on. So for nearly a thousand years, it was “If only the czar knew!” while the czar knew all along. Continue reading