Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Guest Post from Today in Alternate History: What if Ivan the Terrible's son Dmitry didn't die?


In 1591,on May 15 in the courtyard of the Uglich Fortress, Maria Nagaya frustrated a brutal assassination attempt by Boris Godunov's agents to kill her ten year son Dmitry Ivanovich, the Tsarevich of Russia. 

Following the death of her husband Ivan the Terrible, the Regency Council had moved them to safety one hundred miles north of Moscow in the fortress on the on the Volga River. Uglich was a backwater of the new Imperium, a border town of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, it was burned several times by Lithuanians, Tatars, and the grand prince of Tver.

But now, seven years later, Godunov was making a powerplay to establish himself as the first non-Rurikid tsar. This involved a bloodthirsty plot to remove the Ivanovich dynasty who were vulnerable because Ivan the Terrible had killed his eldest son in a fit of rage, and his two surviving sons the intellectually disabled Feodor and the infant Ivan of Uglich (to distinguish him from another child called Ivan who died in infancy in 1553)).Instead, a new Regent was appointed and Dmitry later succeeded to the throne upon his maturity [1].

Viewed in retrospective over the following centuries, the assumption of a strongman might well have benefited the Empire which now began to exhibit many of the ill-fated characteristics of the history of Uglich. Of course it is impossible to determine with certainty whether Godunov was a destructive character of pure evil or rather a potential savour willing to get his hands dirty for the good of Russia. Perhaps such a "knight in rusty armour" - or even a dynastic handover say to the Romanovs - might well have been a blessing because what happened next was that Ivan the Terrible's line set about destroying the patriarch's legacy. Nevertheless the preservation of his line was understandable, after all, he had reorganized the Russian hierarchy during his development from Grand Prince of Moscow to Tsar of all the Russias. But what was left being was a vassal state easily manipulated by Lithuanian, Polish, and Swedish interests with the Orthodox Church rising the fill the vacuum of authority.

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In reality the 10-year old boy was found dead with his throat cut in the palace courtyard. [1] in reality his death passed the line to his younger brother Ivan; he died in 1583, Gordunov became Tsar.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Guest Post from Today in Alternate History: Voynich Manuscript Decoded

In 1941, quite by chance Her Majesty's Government discovered that the secret collection of occult artifacts of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II had fallen into the hands of the Nazis.

Using techniques developed by their counter-parts in Poland, expert decoders at the Bletchley Park Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) had unraveled the mysteries of the German Enigma Programme. This enabled HMG to study traffic between Nazi High Command and in particular, present the keys to victory in the Battle of the Atlantic where U-Boats were travelling in packs and threatening to starve the country in submission by sinking British shipping.

By way of entertainment, the team had attempted to decode the undecipherable Voynich Manuscript. Not only had this defeated all previous such attempts, but it was widely considered to be gibberish created by medieval forgers who sought to separate the foolish monarch Rudolf II from his money. This was mainly because there was no character repetition that would permit a one-to-one translation. Some members of GC&CS believed that the manuscript was actually legimate and that rogue characters had been introduced to obscure the translation. Perhaps, they speculated, a overlaying decoding device might be placed on top of the manuscript, blocking certain characters and thereby permitting non-gibberish translation. Or so they speculated.

In the most insidious development of the war, Military Intelligence intercepted a document sent by Heinrich Himmler to Adolf Hitler .. written in the Voynich Dialect. The implication was that Himmler must have obtained a overlaying decoding device. Or worse, because John Dee and his assistant Edward Kelley had claimed to have using a scrying glass to communicate with angels using the so-called Enochian Code. It appeared that such a device might enable the conversion Enochian Code into Voynich Dialect. Impulsive war-lead Winston Churchill demanded a series of options ranging from a commando assault on Himmler's headquarters through to the counter-forgery of a message that might expose the underlying decyphering mechanism. Accordingly, master spy Ian Fleming was recalled from Washington, and a project team quickly assembled with the orders to "expect the unexpected".  

To be continued. (originally posted on Today in Alternate History)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

April 10, 1815 - Mount Tambora Merely Burps


Over the course of the 1810s, a string of volcanic eruptions spewed layer upon layer of debris into the atmosphere. In 1812, volcanoes in the Caribbean and Indonesia began the darkening of the skies. They were joined by a volcano in Japan in 1813 and another in the Phillipines in 1814. After rumblings in Indonesia around Mount Tambora, locals were worried about another major eruption. Fortunately, the volcano merely spat out a small cloud and then settled back to dormancy.

The world took little notice as beautiful weather settled in that summer. Following years of poor crops, the harvest was good. The next summer, 1816, was even more glorious, and record crops prompted it to be dubbed "The Year of Summer." It was believed to be a gift from God following the end of untold human destruction that plagued Europe and North America in the Napoleonic Wars. The skies were noted as being delightfully blue, a color that later played great importance in the landscape paintings of J.M.W. Turner.

The Golden Summer was noted by the Romantic writers, particularly Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and the Shelleys, who vacationed in Switzerland that summer.  They spent weeks hiking in the mountains, swimming in streams, and exploring valleys.  The inspiration from nature caused them to promote English literature leaving behind the dark tales of the Gothic and focus on bright exploits. Lord Byron suggested they write the most adventurous stories they could.  While Byron and Percy Shelley produced a number of exciting poetry, Polidori and Mary Shelley became famous for their works. Influenced by Byron’s reference to a great explorer in fantastical lands like those out of Sinbad and the Thousand and One Nights, Polidori reinvigorated the fantasy hero as had been seen in Baron Munchausen and Cyrano de Bergerac. Later authors such as Bram Stoker would add their own swashbuckling agents of fortune in foreign lands to the popular genre. Mary Shelley, meanwhile, produced a vision of science reinvigorating the dead, making for a world populated by men and women hundreds of years old. Her science fiction inspired other authors, and later inventors, to follow suit in imagining and creating better worlds.

On a more widespread level, with plentiful oats and a sudden burst of the horse population, the cost of owning horses drastically fell. Families that had never before been able to own horses during the thin years of the wars could now afford several. Horse-riding and travel expanded throughout Europe and the rest of the world, prompting German inventor Karl Drais to perfect road designs created by Scot John Loudon Macadam by combining drainage with the French ideals of smaller surface stones and the Arabian use of oil tar to bind materials together. Within decades, the roads in Europe cut travel time to days rather than weeks.

The warm weather also contributed to the growth of northern populations, particularly the American Northeast. Following the Hartford Convention and the embarrassment of suggesting separate peace after the War of 1812 had ended, the Federalist Party struggled to recreate its identity. Rufus King narrowly lost his bid in New York against Democratic-Republican Daniel D. Tompkins in April of 1816, and Federalist leaders determined to create a platform that would win over New Yorkers as a battleground. When Tompkins began running for Vice-President of the United States that fall, the Federalists successfully spun the Democratic-Republicans as ignoring home in place of nationalistic fervor. Their calls for stronger home-rule moderated them, and the party reaffirmed itself in the North on national economic investment policies with libertarian local law. Home-rule on social issues such as slavery later broke the Democratic-Republican party into two, creating the three main political forces in the United States. Each was largely regional with the Democrats in the South, Republicans in the middle, and the Federalists in the Northeast.  National politics suddenly required a cross-party coalition to perform any political action.

Federalist leader and Governor of Vermont Joseph Smith helped maintain the unity of the party in the North and successfully expanded it with pro-Westward expansion politics.  He found allies among the Republicans who were eager for settlement of land without slavery.  The Democrats fought to expand slavery but ultimately were squelched by national ideals.  Some Democrats called for secession to defend self-rule, but the Civil War of 1856-58 brought them back into the fold.


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In reality, Mount Tambora's eruption was massive, ejecting more than one hundred thousand cubic kilometers of tephra (volcanic debris), four times the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallaj√∂kull that grounded European air travel for several days. So much ash went into the atmosphere that it is estimated the average global land temperature dropped by nearly 1 degree C. Nearly three hundred thousand people died in the resulting famine due to August frosts, disease due to migrating population, and flooding. Combined with years of low solar activity known as the Dalton Minimum, Tambora enabled 1816 to be called the "Year Without Summer." The famine did have other effects, such as depopulating Joseph Smith’s home state of Vermont, Drais’s creation of a precursor to the bicycle, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s “The Vampyre.”

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