Throwback Thursday: February 19

The events of the past that shape the world of today. 

The Serfs are Emancipated in Russia (1861)



Serfdom - effectively a system of slavery that bound half of the peasantry to work the fields of a small number of landowners - had been a cornerstone of the imperial Russian state for centuries.

By the mid-19th century, however, it was crumbling, threatening to take Tsar Alexander II’s reign down with it. Russia’s economy - dependent on this forced manual labor - could not compete with the technological progress that fueled the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe. And Russia’s countryside was constantly erupting as serfs violently revolted, fed up with their subjugation.

But the kicker came as Russia’s army - the pride of the empire - suffered a humiliating defeat in the Crimean War. From this, the Tsar drew the conclusion that his ranks - made up largely of malnourished serfs with little sympathy for the banner under which they fought - needed modernization along the lines of the West, who looked upon the institution of serfdom as nothing but “backwards.”

But to pass a measure as drastic as the abolition of serfdom, the Tsar would have to go through the landowners who benefited from the institution and supported the imperial regime largely to keep it in place. Instead, the Tsar handed responsibility right off, declaring the imperative for change but asking the landowners to design the law themselves. And many did - a great many - resulting in 360-pages of fine print that comprised the Imperial Proclamation.

It announced the end of serfdom in name, but landowners (who were compensated handsomely for their loss) effectively turned around and rented their worst land to the same peasants at a high price. Most peasants found themselves just as constrained as before by the crippling debt that amounted from expensive loans on bad land. Productivity remained stagnant and their situation remained deplorable.

This disappointment marks an important point in the history of the relationship between the inhabitants of the Russian countryside and their state. While their rage was hardly directed towards the Tsar at this point, the intensified dissatisfaction frequently flared, as it did in the tumult of 1905. And when it was finally targeted against the state amid the carnage of World War I, it proved revolutionary. Stalin sought to eradicate the repeat threat of this in his devastating war against the “kulaks,” a term that essentially came to mean any peasant slightly resistant to his rule. Today, much of the Russian countryside remains unmodernized and its ties to the Russian nation cursory - a more nuanced political picture than that painted by reports of Putin’s super-high approval ratings. Russia’s economic prosperity under Putin is indeed a large factor in their support, and it will be vital to watch - with this troubled history in mind - how things develop as the prosperity ebbs.

The Battle of Iwo Jima Begins (1945)



At 8:59 A.M., US Marines began the invasion of Japanese-controlled Iwo Jima. The ensuing battle, which ended in an Allied victory on March 26, 1945, has become to be seen as an iconic moment in the Pacific theater of World War II.

U.S. victory was neither unexpected nor strategically essential. U.S. forces vastly outnumbered Japanese, and casualties were disproportionately Japanese—in fact, only about 3,000 of 22,000 Japanese soldiers are believed to have survived. In contrast, U.S. forces suffered roughly 6,000 deaths and 17,000 wounded.

Though the battle did not mark nearly the strategic importance of other Pacific theater battles like the Battle of Okinawa, the events that took place in Iwo Jima have retained symbolic importance to this day. A staged picture of soldiers raising the American flag at the summit of Mount Suribachi taken by Joe Rosenthal became a powerful image to galvanize support for the later stages of the war with Japan.

For some the photo serves as a lasting image of American patriotism; for other it’s an example of the hollow and overly simplistic nature of propagandistic imagery. Either way, Rosenthal’s image, along with the battle it depicts, remains essential within American historic and cultural memory of World War II.

The Feminine Mystique is published (1963)

Friedan second from left,  Wikicommons

Friedan second from left, Wikicommons

Betty Friedan took her college education seriously, and in so doing saw what happened to the many women at the time who didn’t. Conducting a survey for the 15-year college reunion of her class at the all-female Smith College (where she majored in psychology), Friedan found a common strand in the results that led her to diagnose “the problem that has no name,” afflicting housewives everywhere.

A woman then was far more likely to attend college - with a course-load heavy in home economics - as a means of finding a husband, rather than as a stepping stone towards a career. At a young age, women were resigned to a life of household chores and child rearing, leaving most, as Friedan described, with a “strange stirring” borne from a lack of fulfilment. Only meaningful engagement with the world beyond the white picket fences, Friedan argued, could fill the void.

This was a radical notion in a society that was, in almost every facet, geared towards keeping women at home. Literature praised the valiant mother, psychologists warned of the encroaching female careerist and advertisements hailed new household appliances as essentially prosthetics to a woman’s body. But the book struck a common chord with the many women who thought they were alone in their suffering, seeing themselves as aberrations from the feminine ideal for wanting more than a new vacuum cleaner. The book grew incredibly popular and, with Friedan’s continued involvement, shaped what was to become the second wave of feminism.

The impact of this movement is in many ways obvious - especially with the U.S. closer than ever to electing its first female president. But the legacy remains very much a living, open question as feminists continue to push for equality between the genders through diverse means. Women are now pursuing careers with far less social stigmatization, but there is still much progress - in pay equality, in political representation, in the technological sector, for instance - to be made.