History Wednesday: The Unpronounceable Country

In the minds of many Utah is almost synonymous with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While it’s true the Mormon Church did more to establish and build present-day Utah than any other single entity, it’s also important to keep in mind they were never the only game in town.

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Just by far the largest.

Yes, even the relatively homogenous history of Utah isn’t without its bumps.

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History Wednesday: Frequency Manipulation

Today I took my daughter swimming at the condo association pool next to the Command Center. Being an exceptionally nice day in Boise, some of the neighborhood kids were already there. One of them had her iPhone or whatever plugged into a speaker, playing her list of jammin’ MP3s. This experience proved to be exactly as excruciating as it sounds.

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You’d better “Beliebe” it.

Replace Justin Bieber with, say, Wham! and the iPhone with that noted paragon of past 2T culture, Z-103, and you’d have a scene very reminiscent of the Putt n’ Plunge during the mid-80s. Of course, my mind working the way it does I thought to myself, “Hey, it could have been Z-43.”

No, I’m not making an obscure Ed Wood reference here.

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Fighting the Bogeyman, With Science!

Before I continue, a programming note. Effective immediately the sobriquet of “Beachy” as it refers to my daughter is retired on SB. She’s never been a big fan of it, and earlier today requested its immediate and permanent discontinuance. We’re talking in the strongest possible terms here. I’m left with no alternative but to honor her request.

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It remains to be seen how I handle this from here. Stay tuned.
Image credit: Wolfram Burner

Right, now on with today’s narrative.

As is the case with most eight-year-olds, bedtime can be an ongoing battle. In the case of my daughter, this is especially true when she’s with me, as well as especially true on the eve of a major event such as the last day of school. That’s tonight’s double whammy.

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History Wednesday: The Pussycats of Pelusium

Everybody loves kitty cats, right? Of course we do! Well, if you’re even remotely familiar with ancient history, you know ancient Egypt took it a whole lot further. You see, the cat – being the sacred animal of the goddess Bastet – was held in the highest regard. Killing a cat in ancient Egypt, even accidentally, was a capital crime.

Ironically, this may have been a primary cause of Egypt’s downfall during classical antiquity.

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“Wait, what? Oh, this should be good.”

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History Wednesday: Calamity and Conceit

When I was in Riverton, Wyoming, this past weekend I had a chance encounter with a descendant of Martha “Calamity Jane” Canarie, an iconic figure of the Old West. His wife even does portrayals of her. Now there’s a History Wednesday topic if there ever was one!

It should be an easy blog entry too, right? Well, the historical Calamity Jane is so intertwined with legend, tall tales and flat out bullshit there’s not much to go on. People can’t even agree on how her real name was spelled.

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And we can’t even blame sloppy Arabic translations for that.
Image credit: Jim Gordon

According to Calamity Jane’s autobiography – which itself is called into question as most historians believe Jane was illiterate – she was born in 1852. Or was it 1850? Or 1847? Or earlier? In any event, in the mid 1860s Jane and her family moved in quick succession from Missouri to Montana to Salt Lake City. Along the way both of her parents died, leaving the (apparently) teenage Jane in charge of her younger brothers and sisters. After several more years of bouncing from place to place, by 1874 Jane settled more or less in the Fort Laramie, Wyoming, area.

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I’ll go out on a limb and say she wasn’t involved with the cold fusion hoax while in Salt Lake City.

Calamity Jane earned her nickname after ostensibly fighting in the Indian Wars alongside Generals George Custer and George Crook. This is disputed in contemporary sources. After moving to Deadwood, South Dakota, Jane then met and claimed to have married Wild Bill Hickok. While it’s accepted she and Hickok were acquainted, there’s no evidence to suggest the two were ever an item, much less married.

Note the pattern here.

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“Tell me about it. Hey, two pair!”

Despite all that’s written about her, there’s not much we can say for sure about Calamity Jane. Sources agree that she was a woman who lived in the late 19th Century American West who dressed as a man, told stories and drank too much. That’s about it. The historical provenance of just about everything else is dubious at best.

Much like this fine period piece.

Yes, Jane was clearly a master storyteller. In her later years she appeared as herself in shows throughout the country, notably Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Despite often being destitute herself, Jane was also universally recognized for her generosity. While in Deadwood, at great risk to her own health Jane often cared for seriously ill adults and children.

Jane died in 1903 after years of whiskey and hard living finally caught up to her. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok per her request. Yet even in death Calamity Jane’s penchant for embellishment continued to make the rounds. In 1941 and again in 1996, people publicly claimed to be Calamity Jane’s long-lost daughter or granddaughter. However, to date no evidence has surfaced that Jane ever had children.

As for my acquaintance in Riverton, he claimed descent from one of Jane’s siblings. That’s much more plausible.

History Wednesday: The Instant Presidency

It might not seem like it if one listens to American mainstream culture, but Mexico has come a long way in the last 25 years or so. While the country continues to face some very serious issues, it has also become a fairly stable multiparty democracy. Indeed, in my humble opinion one which has outpaced most of the former Soviet Bloc nations over the same time period.

This is in spite of being the scene of the shortest tenure of any head of state in recorded history. More on that in a moment.

After declaring independence from Spain in 1810, Mexico endured two absolute monarchies (one of which came courtesy of the Hapsburgs), several disastrous wars and enough outright corruption to make Silvio Berlusconi look like a paragon of honesty.

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This guy lost over half of the country yet still managed to become president … 11 TIMES.

By the turn of the 20th Century Mexico was well into a period known as the Porfiriato, an era of repression dominated by the virtual dictatorship of President Porfirio Diaz, who had effectively been in power since 1876. Although the Porfiriato represented by far Mexico’s longest period of stability to date, it was anything but democratic.

Finally tired of decades of stagnation, the Mexicans overthrew Diaz in 1911 after a ham-handed attempt to hand the aging strongman yet another re-election “victory.” This event sparked what became known as the Mexican Revolution.

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“Wait, did somebody say, ‘stagnation?'”

Anyway, unfortunately for Mexico Diaz’s overthrow soon degenerated into an all-out civil war with multiple competing factions. This is the era which produced Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who effectively became warlords in the north and south respectively. By the time the dust settled in late 1920 Mexico went through 11 presidents in the space of less than 10 years.

Francisco Madero was the main figure during the early stages of the Mexican Revolution. A liberal reformer strongly influenced by Benito Juarez, Madero became president in late 1911. In the hopes of establishing national unity Madero included pro-Diaz and other conservative figures in his government, who then proceeded to bring reform efforts to a standstill.

In February 1913 forces led by Generals Victoriano Huerta and Felix Diaz (the former president’s nephew) staged a coup d’etat against the Madero government with support from Henry Lane Wilson, the American ambassador. On 19 February Madero was forced to resign and was executed a few days later.

The idea, of course, was to make Huerta the new president. There was just one problem. Huerta wanted everything to be “legal,” but he wasn’t in the presidential line of succession. Well, that’s where our friend Pedro Lascurain comes into the picture.

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“Pedro, we have a little job for you ….”

Under the constitution of the day, as foreign minister Lascurain was fourth in the presidential line of succession. Since Huerta had already forced out the first three – Madero, the vice president and the attorney general – Lascurain was legally entitled to become president, which he did with Huerta’s blessing.

President Lascurain had two items on his agenda: (1) appoint Huerta as interior minister (and therefore next in the line of succession) and, (2) resign. He dutifully accomplished both. Huerta then called a late-night session of the Mexican Congress to validate the move, which they did with Huerta’s soldiers training their guns on them so they didn’t miss the point.

Sources disagree exactly how long Lascurain served as President of the United Mexican States, but it was certainly less than an hour. Perhaps quite wisely, Lascurain left politics immediately afterward.

Huerta then took it upon himself to establish a military dictatorship which made the Diaz regime look like an anarcho-syndicalist commune. Meanwhile in Washington, President Woodrow Wilson – aghast that Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson (no relation) took such a leading role in this mess – recalled the rogue diplomat and demanded Huerta schedule elections. The diplomatic situation quickly deteriorated from there, leading directly to the occupation of Veracruz the following year.

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“Yeah. Thanks a lot.”

Although the Huerta regime lasted less than 18 months before it succumbed to rebel forces, the general – often called El Chacal (“The Jackal”) – remains one of the most vilified figures in Mexican history. As for Lascurain, he quietly spent the rest of his life as an attorney and law school director.

History Wednesday: A South American Cautionary Tale

You’d be hard-pressed to find a nation with a more bizarre history than Paraguay. I could easily write about it for the next month’s worth of History Wednesday installments. That would get tedious though, and we don’t want that.

Some years ago noted satirist P. J. O’Rourke infamously commented Paraguay is “nowhere and famous for nothing.” O’Rourke eventually recanted his remark. Paraguay may be remote, but it’s definitely not boring.

Today’s journey takes us to 1860s. By this point Paraguay had been independent of Spain for a little over 50 years. Those years were dominated by the dictatorships of Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia – a guy commonly known by the modest title of El Supremo – and Carlos Antonio Lopez, who was primarily interested in beefing up the country’s military. Both Francia and Lopez pursued extremely isolationist foreign policies, which would prove to be very detrimental in the coming years.

In 1862 Lopez died and power passed to his son, Francisco Solano Lopez. Clearly groomed for leadership, without any noteworthy talent or training the younger Lopez became a general when he was 18 and was the country’s vice president by the time he was 30.

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He was also a big Bonaparte fan.

Within a few years of taking power Lopez became embroiled in a dispute with neighboring Brazil over Uruguay. Lopez was an ally of Uruguay’s government at the time, while Brazil’s Emperor Pedro II supported an ongoing revolution there. This came to a head in October 1864, when Brazil invaded Uruguay to support its revolutionary allies.

Two months later, Paraguay retaliated by declaring war on Brazil. A short time later Lopez asked Argentina to allow him to cross their territory to get to Brazil. The Argentinians refused, but Lopez went and did it anyway. Meanwhile, the Brazilians and Uruguayan rebels succeeded in bringing down the pro-Lopez government and set up a Brazilian puppet state there. The result was the Triple Alliance between Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. How … original. The alliance vowed to not only defeat Paraguay, but to crush it so it couldn’t cause problems again.

In other words, a country which endured many years of a repressive, isolationist cult of personality and a massive military buildup found itself ruled by the relatively inexperienced son of the previous leader, who then proceeded to go out of his way to pick fights with much larger powers.

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Sound familiar?
Image credit: petersnoopy

At first things went well for the Paraguayans. They started out with the largest military in Latin America at the time. They also caught all three of their enemies by surprise. Lopez invaded the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Rio Grande do Sul, as well as Argentina’s Corrientes Province. However by summer 1865 the tide began to turn against Lopez after the Brazilians decisively defeated the Paraguayan Navy.

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Seriously. To this day landlocked Paraguay has a navy.

Unfortunately for Paraguay, Lopez didn’t understand the concept of “quit while you’re ahead.” As the war dragged on through the rest of the 1860s, Paraguay’s military might was gradually sapped away by the Triple Alliance’s war of attrition. Both sides employed weapons and tactics similar to those used in the recently-concluded American Civil War, and experienced the same sort of horrific casualties. However unlike the alliance, isolated Paraguay was unable to replenish its resources and munitions.

On New Year’s Day 1869 the alliance captured the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion. Even that didn’t convince Lopez to throw in the towel, who by then was conducing a guerrilla campaign in the mountains northeast of the city. By this point resources were so scarce among the Paraguayans that the few soldiers remaining were occasionally forced to fight unarmed – in the hopes of picking up a firearm from a fallen comrade – as well eat their horses.

Finally on 1 March 1870 Lopez was killed in battle, effectively ending the Paraguayan War. It’s estimated Paraguay lost anywhere between 50 to 90 percent of its population due to war and disease, including the vast majority of the country’s adult males. To put that in perspective, even the grimmest estimates place Cambodia’s national death toll at “only” around 40 percent during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

In addition to the human cost, Paraguay permanently lost a significant amount of its territory. The war also affected the victorious Triple Alliance in unintended ways. Notably, it’s widely believed it helped end slavery in Brazil, as the country was forced to free many to fight.

If Lopez had a redeeming quality, it was his tenacity. Because of this and despite the massive losses inflicted upon Paraguay during his rule, many Paraguayans today consider him a national hero.

Yeah, things have been brutal in the Corazon de America, but they’ve never been boring.

History Wednesday: How to Drive the Family Business Into the Ground

If you’ve been paying attention at all, you’ve noticed that most old-timey nation-states in Europe and elsewhere were ruled by dynastic kingdoms, with a son (or sometimes daughter) succeeding the parent. As History Wednesday has pointed out before, successions such as these can lead to giving absolute power to complete incompetents. Today we travel to the 14th Century to examine another one of these yutzes.

The Plantagenet Dynasty came to power in England in 1154. Except during a period in the 1210s when King John had his ass handed to him by both the French and his own nobility, resulting in the Magna Carta, the Plantagenets provided decent leadership in England for the next 150 years or so. In 1272 the English crown passed to Edward I, an imposing figure and a very capable military leader.

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Who could have been England’s starting center had James Naismith lived a few centuries earlier.
Image credit: Steve Lipofsky, Basketballphoto.com

Edward was all about conquest. After a series of successful campaigns, by 1285 he had effectively assimilated Wales into his domain. During the latter years of his reign, Edward often faced off against the Scots and their fabled military leader Mel Gibson William Wallace. Although Wallace and his cohorts proved to be excellent fighters, Edward had the last laugh by defeating Wallace at Falkirk and executing him a few years later.

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“Mad Max? Never heard of him.”

Edward died in 1307 and was succeeded by his son, Edward II. Unlike his all-business father, Edward II was all about the lifestyle and bling, caring little for annoyances such as, you know, government. More importantly, he “had so little confidence in himself that he was always in the hands of some favorite who possessed a stronger will than his own.”

While Edward II was heir apparent he became close to a knight from present-day southwestern France named Piers Gaveston. Real, REAL close according to some contemporary chroniclers, if you know what I mean. Edward went out of his way to please him, regardless of how ridiculous or extravagant the request. Gaveston proved to be such a nuisance that shortly before Edward I died he was sent into exile. However, once Edward II became king he immediately recalled Gaveston, made him Earl of Cornwall and arranged a sweet marriage package deal for him.

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And there was much rejoicing.

Unfortunately for Gaveston, none of this sat well with the rest of the English nobility. His earldom was especially resented as it was traditionally reserved for members of the immediate royal family. In addition, Gaveston continued to be an arrogant pain in the ass around just about everyone except Edward. Political maneuvering forced Edward to exile Gaveston in 1308 and again in 1311. Shortly after he returned from his third exile, nobles took matters into their own hands and flat out killed him.

Meanwhile the Scots, who were clearly on the ropes when Edward II became king in 1307, slowly but surely began to bounce back. By 1314, the Scots under their king Robert the Bruce had erased almost all of Edward I’s territorial gains against them. Eager to keep a strategic castle under English control, in June 1314 Edward II slapped together a poorly-trained army and marched north. The resulting Battle of Bannockburn was one of the most epic ass-kickings of the Middle Ages, guaranteeing an independent Scotland for the next 400 years.

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“Haggis and single malts for all!”

Surrounded by suspicious nobility and with his father’s Scottish ambitions in total ruins, Edward II was not in the best of positions to say the least. Even so, towards the end of his reign he took on another favorite who irritated the hell out of everyone, a guy named Hugh Despenser. Depesnser became royal chamberlain in 1318 and with his father (also named Hugh Despenser) proceeded to wreak havoc on the country for the next eight years. While Gaveston was little more than an arrogant ass, the Despensers were straight up tyrants. They engaged in land seizures, torture, corruption and even high seas piracy. As for the king, he simply let them do what they pleased.

Finally even Edward’s wife was done with this crap. In September 1326 Queen Isabella, joined forces with the noble Roger Mortimer, raised an army in France and proceeded to invade England. Edward, who by this time had alienated just about everyone in the country, was unable to recruit an army in response. By January 1327 Mortimer and Isabella had de facto control of England. Edward was forced to abdicate and the Despensers were executed. Hugh Despenser the Younger’s demise was particularly gruesome, making a standard draw and quartering look like a deep tissue massage.

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Gibson Wallace got off easy.

Sadly, the truly badass story (pun intended) of Edward’s execution via hot poker up his rectum is likely apocryphal. Even so, he disappears from history after 1327. Mortimer and Isabella ran the country for the next three years until they were removed from power by a young Edward III, who proved to be a far more competent ruler. Contrary to what’s implied in Braveheart, Edward III is not Mel Gibson’s William Wallace’s son.

History Wednesday: Changing the Alphabet

I’m generally against capital punishment except in cases of dumbasses willfully using “alot” as a word. That said, I fully recognize English spelling rules do no one any favors. For example, the words “sail” and “sale” are pronounced exactly the same but have entirely different meanings. So are “scent,” “sent” and “cent.” And don’t even get me started on that “i before e” crap.

Over time many have noted the problem lies in the fact that we use an alphabet which essentially hasn’t changed in 1,000 years. The English of Chaucer’s time only bears a passing resemblance to the English of today. So why are we still using the same damn letters? My guess is a combination of force of habit and general laziness.

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The Georgian alphabet never caught on here, not even in Atlanta.
Image credit: GeorgianJorjadze

𐐢𐐲𐐻’𐑅 𐐕𐐪𐑌𐐾 𐐜 𐐈𐑊𐑁𐐩𐐺𐐯𐐻!

Today History Wednesday focuses less on a leader’s personal shortcomings and more on ideas which just never took off. Despite a shaky start, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints succeeded in attracting many converts, building many temples and strongly influencing the histories of several areas in the Western United States, particularly Utah. However, not all of their grand plans came to fruition. Take their original 1849 proposal for a “State of Deseret” as an example:

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It’s said during quiet nights on the Metro, you can still hear Congress laughing.
Image source: Mangoman88

Still, you have to hand it to the early Mormons. They were bound and determined to do things differently than their 19th Century contemporaries. Different religious texts, different marriage rules, different ecclesiastical organizations …

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… Eh, same facial hair.

Yup, ending up in Utah after being unceremoniously thrown out of every place else they’d been, the Saints wanted to do everything their way. They even created a new alphabet to communicate amongst themselves. Attempts to change the alphabet were nothing new, not even in the 19th Century. No less than Benjamin Franklin himself made such a proposal in the 1760s. However unlike Franklin, who apparently lost interest in his proposal soon after he made it, the Mormon Church made a serious effort to implement their alphabet for daily use. Thus, the Deseret alphabet was formulated.

LDS Church President Brigham Young, noting many of the same problems with English spelling rules that Franklin observed decades earlier, formed a committee at the recently-established University of Deseret (now the University of Utah) and charged them with creating a more phonetically friendly alphabet. In January 1854, the university announced it had succeeded.

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“Qapla’!”

𐐝𐐹𐑊𐑊𐐮𐑍 𐐣𐐪𐐼 𐐁𐑆

Having between 38 and 40 letters in its various incarnations each corresponding to a different English phoneme, the Deseret alphabet was touted by Young as a solution to those silly spelling rules and that “the years that are now required to learn to read and spell can be devoted to other studies.” Young didn’t elaborate on what those other studies should be, but I’m willing to bet they didn’t involve 8 Ball.

Being a religion, the LDS Church set out to publish its scriptures in the alphabet, including the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. For a time the Deseret News published a section in the alphabet as well. A couple of textbooks were thrown in for good measure. There’s even an extant headstone and coin utilizing the alphabet.

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“And you should see how it looks on gold plates, man!”

𐐜 𐐇𐑌𐐼

Unlike fry sauce and Jell-O molds, the Deseret alphabet never caught on in despite Young’s enthusiasm. Public indifference and the prohibitive costs of transcription and printing combined to doom the alphabet. After Young died in 1877, the project was quietly abandoned.

Still, the Deseret alphabet isn’t quite dead. It’s been part of the Unicode standard since 2001. It’s also the official alphabet of the Republic of Molossia.

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Such as it is.
Image credit: Kevin Baugh

Technical note: Today’s sub-headers are written in an attempt to use the Deseret alphabet. If you can’t see them you may need to download and install a Deseret font. I’m sure you’ll find it very useful in the coming years, or something ….

History Wednesday: Time to Ring the Bells

As we learned a few weeks ago, immediately after founding a major empire it’s generally not a good idea to kill the heir apparent, because his younger brother is likely to be a total dumbass. You’d think after a few centuries people would figure this out. You’d be incorrect.

So today History Wednesday visits the happiest place on earth, 16th Century Russia. In 1533 a three-year-old became Grand Prince of Moscow as Ivan IV. As Ivan approached adulthood he had himself crowned with a new title: Tsar of all the Russias. Eventually he became known as Ivan the Terrible.

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Pictured: Autocrat of all the Metalheads.

Over the next 27 years Ivan’s rule produced mixed results. He added some mad acreage to the Russian Empire, conquering Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia, the latter providing him and his successors a convenient place to exile undesirables. However, prolonged war, oppressive domestic policy, periodic famine and proto-Yakov Smirnoff jokes dogged the tsar throughout his reign.

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“In Rurik Muscovy, Cossack horse rides you!”
Image credit: Buchoamerica/en.wikipedia

In spite of it all, Russia transformed itself from a minor feudal state to an emerging regional power in eastern Europe. Still, whoever succeeded Ivan the Terrible faced many daunting military and political realities.

Ivan had two major problems with providing an heir to the throne. The first was of his eight kids, only two survived childhood. The other was his unpredictable temper, resulting in the accidental death of his chosen heir Ivan Ivanovich in 1581. By 1583 his only surviving children were an infant named Dmitry and Ivan Ivanovich’s younger brother Feodor. The Russian Orthodox Church did not recognize Ivan’s marriage to Dmitry’s mother, officially rendering the boy illegitimate and ineligible for succession. Ivan had no choice but to name Feodor as his heir apparent.

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I think you see where this is going.

This may have been all fine and good, but Feodor was in poor health, possibly mentally disabled and completely uninterested in politics, exactly what Russia didn’t need in a ruler. Recognizing this, Ivan appointed a group of advisers led by Feodor’s brother-in-law, a boyar named Boris Godunov, to assist Feodor once he became tsar.

Sure enough, after Ivan’s death in 1584, as tsar Feodor proved to be about as qualified as drunk, one-armed neurosurgeon. Instead of addressing the increasingly unstable situation in Russia and abroad, Feodor busied himself doing such things as visiting various churches in his realm to ring the bells. Meanwhile, Russia was fighting tooth and nail with several of its neighbors, notably the Poles and the Swedes.

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Those aren’t IKEA representatives, y’all.

So while the extremely religious Feodor spent his days ringing bells and praying, the task of actual governing fell to Godunov, who unsurprisingly took full advantage of the situation.

In 1591 Feodor’s ten-year-old half-brother Dmitry died under questionable circumstances, possibly on Godunov’s orders. Meanwhile in one of the great dick moves of the early modern period, Godunov issued the decree which effectively solidified Russia’s brutal policy of serfdom for the next 250 years.

With Dmitry gone and Feodor unable to produce an heir to the throne, the 700-year-old Rurik Dynasty came to an end upon Feodor’s death in 1598. This allowed Godunov, who by that time had already run the country for around 15 years anyway, to take the throne for his own damn self. Although Godunov managed to keep a lid on simmering tensions until he died in 1605, a quick succession of weak tsars who followed him – including some random dude who actually managed to rule the country for nearly a year posing as the dead Dmitry – threw the country into a state of chaos known as the Time of Troubles. The situation would not stabilize until 1613, when the Romanov Dynasty under Michael I came to power. Thanks to the Romanovs, Russia would never have a problem with its leadership ever again.

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“EVER!”
Image credit: Kremlin.ru