I own a porcelain cup made in Russia in 1896. It is about four inches tall, white porcelain interior with blue and red markings. On the side is the seal of Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra, and “1896,” the date of his coronation. A friend of mine in St. Petersburg gave it to me. The “coronation cups” were made for the occasion to be filled with beer and passed out to the masses of people outside the Kremlin walls so the peasants could celebrate along with the aristocracy. The military training field where half a million people gathered for the souvenirs of cups and various food and clothing items was already a dangerous place to walk for all the trenches and mud pits. But things quickly went south when a rumor spread that each cup had gold in it and there were not nearly enough of them to go around. The stampede left over 1700 people trampled to death. The cup became known as the “cup of sorrow,” so called by Alexandra herself, but it is more often referred to as the “cup of blood,” and the tragedy seemed a bad sign for things to come during the reign of the last Czar. I own one of only five hundred or so made.
As the Raiders of the Lost Arc character, French archeologist Renee Belloch, notes, “We are simply passing through history; this is history.” When I hold the cup in my hands and turn it over I wonder which guard, swarmed by people, handed it out, which peasant held it in her hands. I turn it over and realize the likelihood it was stepped on in the mud, or smuggled away quickly by some young worker who managed to escape the tragedy. It is one thing to listen to a history lecture about the event, and something else entirely to go to the Kremlin and hear the tour guide explain the events as you look out over the parking lots and office buildings on the once barren land, and imagine the droves of Russians pushing for the gates, their comrades crushed just for the cup, this cup.
I am not a history buff by any means, though I have toured many historical sites around the world. My own sister earned a doctorate in history from Notre Dame. Her husband, too, received his Ph.D. from there and is a leading historian at Temple University, author of countless award-winning works about military history, and it isn’t unusual to see his familiar face pop up on the history channel as commentator. Even my father knew so much about history he could have taught it in college, and in school he won a history award.
Me, not so much.
But I am a hands on guy fascinated by items that survived time and war and neglect. I need an object, a talisman of sorts, to bring history to life. When I hold the cup, my mind wonders what they were talking about before the stampede, what music were they listening to, was it an exciting time or, because of the conflicts already underway throughout the empire, was it subdued and the cup distribution simply a brief diversion. Who made the cups? For me, owning one is a way to reach through a rabbit hole and pull out some 19th century reality. Though I suppose it might also be considered moronic to have it in my possession and I should probably sell the damn thing on Ebay.
The irony is I have made so many trips to Russia for the purpose of experiencing culture that I became heavily steeped in history by virtue of immersion. Russians are deeply rooted in their tragic and beautiful past. In Prague it is the same. There, I stay in a building built almost 700 years ago and dine in former bomb shelters as well as a wine cellar used by Charles the IV in the 1300’s. I have no interest in reading about those times. I like to be in the present, walk the same hallways with someone like my brother-in-law to tell me what happened while I half listen and half focus on the immaculate trajectory of time, like an arrow, like a beam of light, like a falling star. Time remains relentless, and I like to hold the cup in Russia or lean against a wall in Prague, or sit in a pew in a Spanish chapel prayed in by Charlemagne and contemplate the immediate reality that we are on the same line, standing between them and what’s next, isolating this moment. I am nobody, to be sure, but I am here, part of the conspiracy to keep those ages alive. Time can be like a relay that way. Observers grab the events of the past and pass them along to whoever’s next, and on. But while my sister and her husband are direct descendants of Herodotus, I like to consider myself the descendant of the barkeep who served up some honey mead for the evening gatherers who stood around and told stories and tried to pick up eunuchs.
History would be well served to have a bartender’s version as well as a scholar’s. We could bypass the normal reference material like dates and plans and titles and influences, and keep track of what they really thought, their insecurities, their ambitions. Who wouldn’t want to pour another hekteus of wine and listen to Aristotle rattle on about which Sophocles play bored him to death and which sent him reeling to his corner table after intermission to contemplate the center of the universe? What tender stood by with the bottle of chianti that got Galileo hammered, relegating him to the courtyard at three am on his drunk ass with a dizzy head, and as he lay on his back he looked up at the stars and thought, “Whoa, hang on here.”
I think I’ll let the others write history. Instead, I’m heading to this small oyster shack I know and have a dozen Old Salts and sit in the same place oystermen sat while Teddy Roosevelt was pounding up San Juan Hill, and I’ll talk to some fisherman about changes in the tides, and how some Bay islands used to be so much larger, before the storm of ’33, and before the one in ’03, and if you paddle out to them at low tide and work your way through the mud, you can still find hundred-year-old hand crafted beams, and abandoned hand-made traps. When I was a child on Long Island, we would find arrowheads. The Native American culture on the Island wasn’t solely history lessons in school books; it was lying around in the sand and marshes of the south shore.
If I drink enough at the oyster shack, I might stumble out to the patch of grass on the river and fall on my back and stare up at the stars and think about Galileo and Copernicus and who else lay still in the quiet of night, the faint sound of water lapping the shore nearby, and watched Orion’s belt loosen, or the Pleiades spread out like buck shot. Then I might go back inside and sit a few stools down from the cook sitting alone on the corner stool, and lean toward the tender and ask, “So what’s his story?”