Chris Douglas

Lessons from Alexander II

Filed By Chris Douglas | May 08, 2006 8:06 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement

It is contrary to our community interest to discuss strategy in a public forum accessible, as this one is, to the conservative extremists who target us.

The following may not be for everyone to read. I commend to anyone wishing to understand the dynamics of politics in Indiana the recent biography of Alexander II., Last Great Russian Tsar, by Radzinsky. It was under Alexander in 1860 that the serfs were freed. It is only with the release of the Tzarist papers in 1990s from Soviet archives that a full picture of Alexander has emerged.

The picture of Alexander that has emerged is starkly different from the popular understanding of him at the time. Surrounded by a conservative court and nobility, Alexander and his brother and sister were clearly concerned that Russia liberalize. But Alexander and his siblings, all of whom were aware that various of their ancestors had been killed by the conservative palace guard, were deeply worried, knowing what they needed to do, but also what the conservatives would try to do to them once their intentions became clear.

The radicals in Russia, on the other hand, viewed liberalization from Tzar Alexander as nothing but a ploy, and considered that by assassinating Alexander, they would bring the monarchy down.

So what ever Alexander did to make life better for common people constituted a threat to the conservatives, who viewed it as the slippery slope to an end to nobility privilege, and an inadequate step, even a threatening step to the radicals, who viewed anything short of revolution as unacceptable. Indeed, the radicals assassinated even reform-minded ministers, because their reforms, the radical view, would only delay revolution. Alexander could please neither group. The conservatives succeeded in staging various confrontations the result of which made Alexander and his reform-minded ministers look like villains.

Alexander freed the serfs, but the conservatives realized that Alexander was about to announce Constitutional government. Alexander survived no fewer than 7 or 8 assassination attempts. These assassination attempts, while conducted by radicals, were monitored and facilitated by the conservatives. Alexander knew that he was in a race between the conservatives and radicals to achieve change before either group succeeded in killing him. He was not fast enough, dying in a pool of his own blood.

But here's where the story is tragic. The radicals through their assassination, facilitiated unbeknownst to them by the conservatives, did not achieve progress, nor did they contribute to improved times for decades to come. Instead, it was the conservative backlash that prevailed, for the conservatives succeeded in portraying to Alexander's successor that reasonable steps of liberalization would produce revolution, and therefore no steps of liberalization should emerge. Darkness of another 45 years ensued before the revolution, which revolution only replaced one set of tyrants with another.

All in all, it would have been better for the Russian people to see the reformists succeed incrementally, rather than to see them assassinated and no progress of any sort for decades.

This is the plight of the moderate. I fear that in this polarized environment, the conservatives by eliminating moderates, who have no help from radicals, will prevail, for Indiana is not a radical state.

I have no easy answer for this dilemma now, except to say that for all the problems ahead, we must navigate, strengthen moderates, (and liberals, of course), and not shoot ourselves in the foot by allowing conservatives to succeed always in eliminating moderates. This means engaging in both Republican and Democratic politics to ensure that moderates are nominated, occupy BOTH of the opposing slots on November ballots, and that conservatives are denied those slots. This will be long and hard, and as Marla Stevens observes, will require a degree of sophistication and political engagement on the part of the gay community that as hitherto been unprepared to engage seriously. Both Stonewall Democrats and Log Cabin Republicans should be supported and encouraged in their tasks, working collaboratively to ensure that both ballots are filled with candidates who respect the Constitution and the rights of glbt citizens.

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True enough. In this climate, it's easy for conservative and liberal extremes to grab headlines and score points, but the real progress is being made in the middle ground who, to one extent or another, dissapoint both extremes. However, it's happened before and hopefully it'll happen again.

Chris is exactly right. I would add only one thing: all of us, whatever our politics and whatever the immediate calculus about local partisan advantage, need to work hard to eliminate gerrymandering. It is the single most significant cause of the polarization between extremes on both sides. For an in-depth exploration of why that is, see

Chris Douglas | May 9, 2006 9:34 AM

I will caveat what I said above. In addition to the long hard slog ahead, there should be no question that Democratic control of the House of Representatives in Indiana would improve the picture.

It might be contrary to our interests to discuss strategy here, but it isn't to actually sit and discuss strategy in some forum where the players are present and known, but the forum is more inclusive than it has been in the past.

Unfortunately some of our organizations have the effect of (intentionally or accidentally) leaving out new faces and dissenting voices that have both much to contribute to a discussion and to learn from it.

Id love to sit at a strategy meeting of the Stonewall Democrats and Log Cabin Republicans together knocking around ideas for advancing GLBT causes.