A CORONATION in 2023 naturally raises the question: what’s the point of a monarch in a post-monarchical era?
To answer that, I return to a Moscow flat in 1998 where I was trying to write a political science dissertation, grappling with a highly fluid, transitional-historical moment, in a society where everything seemed at once intriguingly relevant and yet elusively in flux. When I was home, my television was always on. Everything was data.
The old Soviet political regime had flatlined nearly ten years before, along with its culture and economy. But the new forms of politics, culture and economy remained inchoate. Russians knew they were no longer Soviets. But during the 70-year brutalising Communist tyranny (imagine your own country run for a near-century by the Sopranos), the Soviets had so thoroughly pulverised ‘Russianness’ that people hardly knew what that meant either. Suicide, homicide, bank-failure scams and Ponzi schemes, prostitution and alcoholism soared. Robber barons (audacious scofflaws whose chutzpah had not yet mellowed into philanthropy, per the formula, viz Carnegies and Rockefellers) reigned.
Breaking the spell of totalitarian tyranny had meant international travel was no longer forbidden, but the cloud inside even that silver lining was that Russian brains, by their thousands, drained away to London’s City, Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, Wall Street.
My Western passport and stipend offered incomplete protection against disorientation. Moscow shops that I frequented disappeared; money I used changed in value or (at one point) lost all value overnight. Basic daily routines required continual revision. But at least I had a national identity. A late-night chat-show host posed the question to a middle-aged actress: did she feel ‘Russian’? It was a jokey gambit that fell flat, as the woman squirmed a bit before offering feebly that, well, she had begun to attend Russian Orthodox church (did that count?); the audience chuckled uncertainly.
Far worse than a dumbstruck actress was the collective cry for help which found a platform in televised popular culture. This was particularly evident in the flood of new music videos, offering in sound and imagery a fusion of extreme ‘cool’ with dismal self-obliteration (overdosing, jumping off high-rises). A peculiarly Russian go-for-broke nihilism was in evidence as the country veered from the rule-by-Sopranos through a New Normal of gangster-capitalism in the 1990s.
In July 1998, something else appeared on Russian television: the funeral ceremony and burial of the last tsar, members of his murdered family and four retainers. The bodies which 80 years previously had been pitched into a well with lashings of sulphuric acid and a hand-grenade, were now being honourably and respectfully laid to rest accompanied by the sonorous rites of an Orthodox service in St Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress, traditional burial place of the tsars. In attendance, with a sombre President Boris Yeltsin, his wife, various political figures and the public, were some two dozen from the Romanov diaspora flown in from abroad.
Approached by a television camera crew for his comment, one of the elderly Romanovs made some remarks of which I retain only an impression, but that impression is what drives this essay.
In calm, dignified language, the Romanov descendant reminded a floundering people of its inherent greatness. I do not recall whether he buttressed this with examples of the plentiful and profound philosophical, artistic, and scientific achievements of Russians through the centuries; he had merely to draw attention to the funeral itself which conveyed how history plays the long game, how the truth will out.
It struck me (a Jeffersonian republican, basically) as a great pity that this elderly Romanov could not be crowned tsar on the spot. Not to run things, but to stand for things. Russia at that moment badly needed moral ballast; she needed a respectful and, even more, a loving custodian of the national character. Someone who, like my impoverished artist neighbour, could see past the transitory, suicidal confusion and could remind people that all was far from lost. When I mentioned I had a ticket to the Moscow Conservatory one evening, he sighed, saying quietly, ‘I enjoy going to the Conservatory. I like to look at the audience.’
Which brings us back to our initial question: the purpose of a monarch now. A monarch is a living symbol, a human hieroglyph, ideally embodying the best version of who-we-are as a culturally distinct people. He or she does so by consistent, thoughtful – and proud – reference to key national artefacts and values. His or her advocacy of the national public interest serves as evidence of concern for those reigned over. In a modern, democratic state, public allegiance to a monarch makes sense if it is reciprocated. We’ll love you if you love us.
The late Queen managed the task creditably, her model of stalwart stoicism and constancy being good for her and good for us. And after a rocky start (stumbling nightly out of Mayfair’s Mahiki club and on to the front pages of tabloids, next to tattooed WAGs and winning Lotto numbers), the ‘Young Royals’, Wills and Harry, eventually developed a respectable capacity for projecting British virtues of gratitude, humility, sartorial modesty, have-a-go good-naturedness, as well as, critically, an apparent fondness for and connection with the public. The pre-Megan halcyon days of nice example-setting seem about as good a modern royal performance as there could be.
But what about the middle generation, specifically, the chap anointed King on Saturday? Does he either ‘proudly embody our national values’ or appear to be an advocate for the British people? As with Edward VII following long-reigning Victoria, few bet that Charles will surpass expectations. But beginning with the superficial, what mood and tone does Charles most consistently project? Not constancy and duty, like his mother, nor modesty and affection, like his children, but, strange to say, and perhaps I’ve missed something, but what I see largely is peevish disdain. Charles has moreover offered himself (and the values and history of his nation), in this era of strategic Maoist Youth-grade iconoclasm, as a punchbag in multi-culti struggle sessions against colonialism in the lead-up to Saturday.
If he doesn’t stand up for British values, what does Charles III stand for? He is ‘patron’ of the three top intelligence services, MI5, MI6, and GCHQ, a committed friend of the World Economic Forum, and an unambiguous and vocal proponent of using the coronavirus as a pretext to usher in a ‘Great Reset’ towards a ‘Green Future’ exactly when doing so looks like inaugurating a literally sickening dystopia of manufactured privation for the masses (aka: us).
Are we in the early stages of a global civil war? Have sides been chosen, and have ‘elites’ closed ranks against the little people? Bizarre to contemplate, and highly consequential to failto contemplate: could Charles be any clearer about whose side he is on?