>I Saw Three Girls Come Sailing In

>Before the reader assumes that The Courtier is beginning a post somewhere along the lines of Harold Robbins, allow me to recount a small incident which made me pause and reflect:

On the hunt for Christmas gifts, I headed out from Georgetown to Friendship Heights via Metrobus early Saturday, to try to get ahead of the teeming masses breaking free all over the place to finish their shopping. This particular route leads from the village up to the National Cathedral and then on to Friendship Heights, which is probably THE major retail district in the city. Along the way, the bus stops in front of the main gates of the mammoth Russian Embassy compound, which looms like a giant white fortress on a hill overlooking NW Washington.

Just before we came to a stop across the street from the embassy, three girls – or I should say, young women – ran across Wisconsin Avenue from the gates and boarded the bus. They were casually but respectably and fashionably dressed, and were laughing and chattering in Russian (of which I understand a few words.) At one point, the middle girl reached into her bag to dig around for something, and was handing the contents to the other girls to hold. Among the items removed from her purse was a small, leatherbound book – probably a prayer book – with a gilt clasp and a Russian Orthodox cross stamped in gold on the cover. They later alighted at Friendship Heights as well, and made their way into one of the shopping malls.

The incident with the prayer book, as small as it was, was a little reminder of how much the world can change to our surprise, over time, and with the power of prayer to ask for God’s grace. I am an old enough resident of Washington to remember when the Communist symbols came down from the gates of the Russian Embassy, and the Romanov double eagle took its place. Currently, the twin bronze plaques with the ancient symbol of the Tsars of Muscovy are decorated with pine boughs and ribbon; the symbolic importance of this was not lost on me, as a student of history.

Now here, we were, some twenty years on, and young ladies from the Russian Embassy are not only going Christmas shopping, but at least one of them is to some degree practicing the faith of her ancestors. This is an extraordinary turn of events which our parents, and theirs, simply could not have foreseen at the height of the Cold War. Indeed, many people shut their eyes and deliberately chose not to see.

At the beginning of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Moscow was filled with many hundreds of churches, monasteries, and chapels in active use; primarily Russian Orthodox, of course, but also other Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. There is a huge debate over exactly how many there were; some Russian Orthodox claim there were over 1600, but that seems unlikely. A more reasonable survey suggests something less than half that figure – which is still an enormous amount.

Take a look at this table and you will see that, according to a recent four-volume historical data survey, more accurate estimates are that there were 848 active, operating churches in all denominations known to exist at the end of the reign Tsar Nicholas II. By 1990, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, 433 churches had been completely destroyed, 263 were still standing but had been put to other uses, and there were only 171 operating churches. As usual, hell hath no fury like a Leftist bent on destroying religious liberty.

And of course, one of the great tragedies of the Russian Revolution was the murder of the Royal Family. As someone who became hooked on Russian history, literature, architecture, music, and so on at a very young age – having for example inhaled Robert K. Massie’s extraordinary “Nicholas and Alexandra” when I was about ten years old – I have always had a very soft spot for the last of the Romanovs. One can debate whether Nicholas himself should have been prosecuted by the Communist government, but there was absolutely no reason to slaughter his wife and children.

Now, nearly 100 years after their death, the great-grandchildren of their subjects work in a building which, though built by those who murdered them, has at least been rehabilitated to reflect Russia’s history and traditions. Christmas is once again officially celebrated, a Russian girl working at the embassy can carry her prayer book and not be reprimanded or turned over to the police, and churches are being built all over Moscow; indeed, 200 churches are slated to be completed by the end of next year. What an extraordinary turn of events, in our own lifetime, and what a thing to be grateful for this Christmas: that the Birth of Our Lord is not only being openly and joyfully celebrated by the Russian people, but that they are returning to Christianity in such numbers that they cannot build churches fast enough to hold them all.

Nicholas II and Alexandra with their five children

>Bring Me the Head of J.S. Bach

>I had considered posting this interesting story yesterday, but given the propensity on April Fools’ Day for posting fake stories (or even fake applications, such as Google Mail’s hilarious AutoPilot which completely took me in) I thought it better to wait until today:

Although I am not as particularly fascinated by forensic science television programs as others may be, given their proliferation in recent years, there is something to be said for these researchers giving us a better look at the visages of those who came before us. Using both scientific methods and the sculptor’s art, they are able to give us startlingly tangible facsimiles of what the deceased may have looked like. Often the subjects of these studies are victims of crimes, or anthropological discoveries from long-gone civilizations.

Because of the unusual choice of subject, this article by David Yearsley on the archaeological-forensic investigation into the remains of Johann Sebastian Bach really caught my attention. I think you will agree that the end result of the facial reconstruction is astonishing, particularly given how comparatively early this work was completed. The whereabouts of Bach’s remains were more easily ascertained than have been those of Mozart to date. (Perhaps my readers know of some research team, seeking out the remains of the great Austrian composer from among the myriad of bodies in Vienna’s cemeteries and pauper’s graves.)

What the reconstruction does give us, apart from the satisfaction of a somewhat morbid curiosity, is the ability to more easily authenticate portraits claimed to represent Bach during his lifetime. Composers, writers, and other artists, unlike reigning monarchs, usually do not have their portraits painted from life with any frequency, making identification difficult and speculation rife, such as has been occurring of late with the controversy surrounding the speculative Shakespeare portrait. Even among royals, of course, forensic testing allows us to put certain historical mysteries to rest, such as whether the last two children of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra survived assassination by the communists. Ultimately though, it is the reconstruction from these remains that allows us, across the centuries, to look into something very near the face of a great figure like Bach, whose music continues to provoke awe and inspiration among his listeners particularly during this season of Lent.