Archive | November, 2013

Steve Mitchell depiction of my father in law Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky

22 Nov


Nov. 22, 1963, as taught by a Russian prince

History is a great teacher. As Republicans and Democrats bludgeon each other on almost every issue, I often think back to the day of an American tragedy when I learned a lesson about our country’s resiliency from a Russian prince.

It was Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 and I napped from about 1 until almost 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I woke up in time to go to my History of Western Civilization class, a freshman requirement at Northern Michigan University.

While hurrying to class, I overheard people saying the president had been shot. Only when I walked into the classroom did I hear that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas while I was sleeping.

We wondered if classes would be canceled. Then, in came our professor, Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky, a Russian prince who renounced his title when he became an American citizen. Forced into retirement by the University of Michigan, Lobanov wanted to continue teaching, so he picked NMU because the weather and scenery reminded him of St. Petersburg where he was born and raised.

Only 5 feet 5 inches tall, thin and bald with some wispy white hair and a moustache, wearing a gray double-breasted suit, smelling of the cigarette he smoked just before class, he walked into the room as though it was any other day.

It wasn’t. Our president had been shot dead. Immediately, someone asked him if the class was canceled. Lobanov said very calmly, “no, I have heard nothing from the administration. Therefore, this class will go on just as this great country will go on.” And they both did.

He referenced that theme again during his lecture saying because of our greatness, our country would survive problems far greater than this one. It was a lesson I have remembered through all of the crises our country has gone through ever since then.

Even at 18, I was perceptive enough to know that Lobanov’s statements were based on an understanding of history gained from studying, writing, teaching and living it. His extraordinary life was more like a movie script than the happenings of a real person.

Born to one of the wealthiest families in czarist Russia, his family could retrace its roots 1,100 years to 862 as direct descendants of Prince Rurik, the founder of the Russian dynasty that would last until 1917. He was born in Japan where his father was a diplomat. His grand-uncle had been foreign minister. He was raised in a palace in St. Petersburg so huge and luxurious that it is now the Four Seasons Hotel.

In his World War I memoir, The Grinding Mill, he starts out by saying he could have become either a concert pianist or a diplomat. The war would allow him to be neither.

Instead, he was an army officer from 1914 until 1917 when Czar Nicholas II was overthrown. From 1917 until 1920 he fought against the Communists in the Russian Revolution. He escaped Russia by ship from Sebastopol hours ahead of Vladimir Lenin’s forces.

From Russia, he went to Malta where he was personal secretary to Alexander Kerensky, head of the provisional government between the czar and Lenin.

Lobanov is the most brilliant man I ever met. He spoke 11 languages, but he would say modestly, “only” seven of them fluently. At different times, the chairs of the foreign language, music and psychology departments told me that Lobanov knew more about their subjects than anyone they ever met.

When a man with this towering intellect, who had seen and lived seen so much history in his own 72 years told us that “this class and this great country will go on,” I believed him.

So, when I heard my Democratic friends say the country could not survive George W. Bush or when I hear my Republican friends say the same about Barack Obama, I remain confident that America will continue to go on, just as my professor said it would a half century ago when I learned about American resiliency from a Russian prince.

Steve Mitchell is a pollster.

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