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The subsequent history of Ruritania: a narrative meant to be taken seriously, but not too literally.

AMONG the many happy results of the political convulsions in Central and Eastern Europe from 1989 onwards has been the restoration to the map of the ancient name of Ruritania. Although the great popular demonstrations in what was then officially the Ruritanian People's Socialist Democratic Republic (RPSDR) were overshadowed by those in Prague and Leipzig, and less accessible to Western camera crews, they were no less fervent and decisive.

It remains uncertain whether some branch of the ancient Elphsberg dynasty will eventually be restored. There is already a monarchist party but the Cardinal-Archbishop is non-committal. However, the crowds which in those December days thronged Revolutionary Prospekt (which has since reverted to being Flavia Square) displayed an emotion unmatched in the country since the turbulent times of King Rudolf V in the 1890s.

By the time of the subsequent elections, at which the hurriedly constituted Democratic Hope movement won an overwhelming victory, Western attention was already distracted by the first signs of disintegration in the Soviet Union and civil war in Yugoslavia. So many old flags had already been unfurled again that few people in the West recognised the Ruritanian tricolour, one of several flags current after the dynasty reached its compromise with the rather half-hearted revolutionary gestures of 1848. The |Elphsberg yellow and red' was also much seen in the Ruritanian streets, and both in the country and abroad the old name of the country was again in universal usage long before the formal dissolution of the RPSDR.

Even by Communist standards Ruritania had for many years been isolated from the mainstream of history, almost forgotten in the West and best known through the various motion pictures based on the popular histories by Anthony Hope, The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau. Admirable though these histories are -- it has been justly said that they almost read like romantic novels -- and although they have recently been used in hard-pressed Ruritanian schools after the rejection of Communist text-books, they inevitably tell us nothing of twentieth-century history in this area of Central Europe.

There was no one cause of this isolation and neglect of a country which until the recent revolution seemed far more remote than at the turn of the century. It was possible then to reach it the same day by a morning train from Dresden. Suspicion of |capitalist romanticism' and the barriers to trade and personal contact even between |Socialist democracies' played a major part, with only Albania adopting a harder line. Certain freak atmospheric conditions in the Ruritanian frontier ranges also made instant TV and even radio contacts extremely difficult.

Indeed during the Communist era almost as little dependable news emerged from Ruritania as got in. Fleet Street lost interest after some problems with the Queen Flavia diaries marketed by emigres -- the authentication by an eminent Oxbridge historian proving premature, to say the least -- and the Ruritanians themselves made the best of matters with the help of the local schnapps, jokes, and ill-founded rumours. Perhaps one of the few occasions when the country's affairs were reported in the West followed the ill-concealed excitement and hope of imminent liberation which swept Ruritania in 1980 after the American Presidential elections. This stemmed from a misconception among a people notoriously confused in their comprehension of foreigners' names. They mistakenly believed that it was not Ronald Reagan who was moving into the White House, but Ronald Colman, so well remembered for his joint roles of Mr. Rudolf Rassendyll and the last Elphsberg king. The subsequent Stewart Granger version of Hope's history was not, of course, allowed to cross the Iron Curtain.

It may be that the abdication of the dynasty after Ruritania's nominal but wholly passive alignment with the Central Powers in the First World War was one reason for the loss of British interest. The |bourgeois Republic' which succeeded was indubitably dull. Even the brief interlude of the Regency under General von Tarlenbeim attracted little attention here compared to that of Hungary under Admiral Horthy. The even more landlocked Ruritanians had no citizen with naval experience except a ferryman from near Zenda who had run away from his wife and rose to the rank of leading stoker in the Imperial German Navy. In any event this Josef Tingl had been influenced by the Spartacists of 1919 and was one of the tiny group which formed the Ruritanian Communist Party. He went to Russia and was last heard of in the Siberian tundra about 1938. After the Communist takeover of 1947 the controlled Ruritanian press carried belated obituaries stating that he, and most of his fellow-exiles, had 'succumbed to the rigours of the climate during their devoted participation in a remarkable proletarian development experiment'. But another reason for the apparent estrangement of two countries once so warmly associated was British inability to understand the complexity of the situation in the new Republic which emerged after the Treaty of Montmartre, the equivalent for Ruritania of Versailles and Trianon. An assiduous attempt by President Woodrow Wilson to understand the country is also thought to have contributed both to his breakdown in health and the quarrel with Colonel House.

As is evident in Hope's histories, the Ruritania of his day was dominated by its Germanic dynasty and German-speaking minority, though the role of the Chancellor, Marshal Strakencz, testifies that even then the Slav majority played some part in public life. Hope, despite his Teutonic bias, indirectly alludes to the rise of Slav nationalism when he concedes that Duke |Black Michael' had a powerful following not only in the country. side but in the Ruritanian capital, among the old town's |hidden populous but wretched lanes and alleys' with their turbulent population. Modern historians insist that they were turbulent because they were already influenced by Slav nationalism. The fame of the celebrated Constable of Zenda, Colonel Sapt (a Germanised spelling of Szipad), is also a reminder that the small Magyar minority in South-East Ruritania was always part of |the political nation'.

By the standards of Central Europe the inter-war Republic of Ruritania was relatively tolerant, and even after 1945 far more Germans remained there than in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, or Yugoslavia. In the First Republic, President Karlov, previously a village teacher, brought the breadth of vision that might be expected in someone who had all but obtained a degree while studying under Thomas Masaryk in Prague. |Boris', said the great Czech scholar-statesman, |You very nearly passed'.

But inevitably the ritual changes were made, to the great joy of cartographers and painters of street and shop signs, and far fewer British tourists visited Strlzhava (as Strelsau was renamed) and Zenda, one of the few places with the same name in both German and Ruritanian. Naturally Ruritansky, which has been described as midway between Slovak and Slovene and in Hope's day was regarded as no more than a rural dialect, became the national language. Although ex-queen Flavia retained a place in the national affections comparable with that accorded to the memory of the Empress Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary, numerous streets in Strlzhava were renamed after heroes and poets of the Great Ruritanian Empire of the 12th century. This was when the country briefly stretched from the Vistula to the Adriatic, an area which an extreme nationalist faction -- The Golden Horde -- still claimed as within 'the natural and historic frontiers' of the country.

After 1945, and especially after the putsch arranged by the Soviet Embassy in 1947, those Golden Hordesmen who had survived the war and its immediate aftermath helped to eke out the very limited number of native Communists available. Ideological guidance came in a report drafted in Moscow under Stalin's auspices which pointed out that it would take some years to train sufficient careerists and opportunists to run the new system, (though they were called something else) and that with all their faults the Golden Hordesmen were totally uncorrupted by bourgeois democratic attitudes, as well as immune to cosmopolitanism. The latter phrase meant that none of them were Jews.

This was an important factor once the purge began in 1949 of the |Westerners' and |natives' among the Communists and their allies in the purged puppet parties of the National Ruritanian Front. All power went to the handful of |Muscovites' who had escaped Stalin's pre-war purges. Even the trial of the Cardinal-Archbishop, harshly interrogated in the Castle of Zenda before being charged with currency speculations involving a Morinon bank in Salt Lake City, had to be suspended while the new People's Judiciary conducted trials of deviationists or, to be more exact, heard fanciful confessions of Zionism and Titoism.

A former first secretary of the party admitted that he and Tito had plotted a coup under cover of a hunting weekend at which unlimited supplies of whisky had been supplied by the London merchant banking firm of Rassendyll Brothers. And apart from those condemned at the show trials there were others who simply disappeared into the notorious dungeons of Hrincacz, formerly Hentzau. Among them were several reputed natural children of a former owner of the castle.

Yet history must concede that even amid these convulsions the face of Ruritania was changed. Strlzhava was ringed with blocks of flats, most of them with adequate water and gas pressure only to about half-way up. Many streets, including the former Konigstrasse so prominent in Hope's chronicles, were razed to provide the vistas of the new Boulevard of Proletarian Unity. On the hill above the town which for a time had the fourth-largest statue of Stalin in the world, there also rose the Mausoleum of Socialist Heroes, whose first occupant was the most ruthless of the |Muscovites', Vladivar Plonk, a former Intourist guide who liked to be known as the Ruritanian Lenin. Steel mills were built, or so it seemed, at every country crossroads. During a period of relative harmony with other Communist States East German engineers built a vast chemical plant at the new town of Marx-Engels near Zenda. Later Chinese assistance helped to construct several arms plants for the export trade deep in the Ruritanian forests before these were appreciably thinned by the side-effects of the Marx-Engels complex. And at least one splinter group of the Provisional IRA enjoyed the hospitality of Hrincacz.

Not till the 1980s did signs appear of what, by Ruritanian standards, was known as |the thaw'. The eighth five-year plan even contemplated a major development of Western tourism, though hopes that Strlzhava would soon have a Hilton, Sheraton, Holiday Inn, and Hyatt proved absurdly over-ambitious. However two small private restaurants and an American hamburger parlour were opened in the capital and the police turned a blind eye to the increasing number of peasants who reported sick at the collective farms in order to try a day in town selling the produce of their private plots.

There was also a move towards greater intellectual freedom. Articles in literary and historical reviews risked mildly favourable mentions of the late President Karlov and the expression |the Ruritanian Masaryk' aquired a subtly different tone. The |Upstairs, Downstairs' exhibition in the People's National Museum, though ostensibly concerned with the exploitation of domestic servants under the Elphsbergs, owed its success to the display of Queen Flavia's ball-gowns and coronation robes. The freedom of religion guaranteed by the Socialist constitution became less circumscribed. The first new bishop for many years - the present Cardinal-Archbishop -- was consecrated. The Protestants were allowed to import 5,000 Bibles in Ruritanian and a smaller number in German. Even the Hungarian minority was allowed to send a few divinity students to study at Budapest and Debrecen.

Some Germans were also allowed to emigrate to the Federal Republic in return for cash-down payments in D-Marks. The Strakenczy March, originally supplied by post from Vienna by one of the obscurer Strausses, was again heard in public with thundering handclap accompaniment. In a sensational gesture (for the time) it was announced that the Workers' Medal was to be replaced by the revived Red Rose of Ruritania. The statue of Lenin was |temporarily removed for cleaning'.

However the Ruritanian Politburo was still debating its attitude to the Gorbachev reforms in the Soviet Union when street demonstrations, hesitant at first but gathering momentum, took the country down the same path as its nearer neighbours. The ruling party tried even more First Secretaries in even quicker succession than the Communists of East Berlin and Prague, but its collapse was rapid and complete. By Christmas 1989 faded portraits of Queen Flavia and President Karlov decorated the streets and Ottokar Stringcz had begun his astonishing movement from principal cellist in the Ruritanian National Orchestra to the presidency of the new democracy.

But as President Karlov had once written in his Memories and Reflections -- a work soon on sale again in every Ruritanian bookshop along with the translations of Anthony Hope -- history is never |stuck like the mail-coach to Zenda'. The Ruritanian florin has suffered from severe inflation and the privatisation programme has proceeded by more fits than starts. It has also been apparent that many of those seeking to buy out State enterprises are those who managed them indifferently but lived rather well under the Communist system. The new President had also to use all his personal influence to defuse the tensions in Nova Zenda (formerly Marx-Engels) after his government closed the chemical plant for ecological reasons and prohibited arms exports. He had also the delicate task of maintaining religious harmony when the Protestant minority objected to the Cardinal-Archbishop's announcement that Ruritania was henceforth under the immutable and perpetual patronage of the Blessed Virgin of Hrincacz.

President Stringcz, though his personal integrity is unchallenged, also suffered from the loss of four of his first Cabinet who were exposed as long-serving informers for the Communist secret police -- the Rustasi -- and the defection of others to the South Ruritanian separatist movement. This insists that plans for a |federative republic' do not go far enough and hankers after a new State of its own after the Croatian model. Even in Ruritania's national sport it has challenged central authority, unsuccessfully seeking to enter a separate team in the world fencing championships. Once again Hrincacz is a focal point for discontents and possibly for plots, as in the days of Rupert of Hentzau.

These troubles help to explain why relatively few foreigners have visited Ruritania and many Ruritanians still seem anxious to leave. Some embarrassment has been caused in Saxony (not without troubles of its own) by the arrival of many would-be immigrants claiming to be ethnic Germans but fluent only in Ruritanian, except for the smattering of German once again customary among the waiters and taxi-drivers of Strlzhava.

President Stringcz, however, remains confident and the presidential guard (with new uniforms designed by the Paris fashion house of de Mauban to replace the previous Red Army style) is more a matter of show than security. In any event, the President has made it known that he will be in the former royal palace only during office hours and for occasional evening receptions, normally returning home to his two-roomed flat by the river and to his wife Flavia, formerly principal viola in the orchestra.

Among those more permanently in the palace and believed to be the President's leading advisers are the new security consultant, Stanislas von Tarlenheim, a German of Ruritanian extraction who is now seeking renaturalisation, and a small delegation of economic consultants from Rassendyll Brothers, one of whom (it is said) bears a quite remarkable facial resemblance to the President himself. It is also said that the President has looked much more relaxed and alert in some recent public appearances.

By next year, it is hoped, the trains from Dresden will again reach Strlzhava within the day. And while the Hilton there never materialised (though there are other hotels, which now prefer payment in dollars) Rassendyll Brothers are thought to have proposed a variation of the scheme. A firm of architects have produced a plan by which the Castle of Zenda would be converted into a five-star hotel and a golf course would be developed at Nova Zenda on the site once occupied by the Lenin chemical complex.
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Author:Kernohan, R.D.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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