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The Anaconda Project, Episode Two

Written by Eric Flint


Chapter 2

"You look tired, Melissa," said Judith Roth sympathetically. She gestured to a luxurious divan in the great salon of the Roth mansion. "Please, have a seat."

Melissa Mailey went over to the divan, hobbling a little from the effects of the ten-day journey from Grantville, and plopped herself down. Her companion James Nichols remained standing, after giving the couch no more than a quick glance. Instead, his hands on his hips, he swiveled slowly and considered the entire room.

Then, whistled admiringly. "Well, you've certainly come up in the world, folks."

Judith smiled. Her husband Morris looked somewhat embarrassed. "Hey, look," he said, "it wasn't really my idea."

"That's it," scoffed his wife. "Blame the woman."

The defensive expression on Morris' face deepened. "I didn't mean it that way. It's just . . ."

The gesture that accompanied the last two words was about as feeble as the words themselves.

"The situation," he concluded lamely.

Nichols grinned at him. "Jeez, Morris, relax. I understand the realities. What with you being not only one of the King of Bohemia's closest advisers but also what amounts to the informal secular prince of Prague's Jewry. Half the Jews in eastern Europe, actually, from what Balthazar Abrabanel told us."

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Looking a bit less exhausted, Melissa finally took the time to appraise the room herself. And some more time, appraising Morris' very fancy-looking seventeenth-century apparel.

Then, she whistled herself.

"Et tu, Brutus?" Morris grumbled.

"Quit complaining," Melissa said. "That is why you asked us to come here, isn't it? With 'Urgent!' and 'Desp'rate Need!' oozing from every line of your letter."

"Asked you," qualified Nichols. "Me, he just wanted to come here to give some advice to his fledgling medical faculty at his fancy new university. I'm just a country doctor."

"From Chicago," Melissa jeered. "South side, to boot—which has about as much open land as Manhattan."

James grinned again. "Oh, you'd be surprised how much open land there is in Chicago's south side. Vacant lots, I'll grant you. Nary a crop to be seen anywhere except the stuff handed out by drug dealers, none of which was actually grown there. My point remains. I'm here in Prague as a modest medical adviser. I'm not the one who just landed a prestigious position at Jena University as their new—and only—'professor of political science.' I'm not the one Morris asked to come here to explain to him how to haul eastern Europe kicking and screaming into the modern world, which is one hell of neat trick seeing as how that half of the continent didn't manage to do it in our old timeline."

"They got there eventually," Judith pointed out mildly.

Melissa's expression got very severe. "Yup, sure did. In most places, because Stalin forced them to, after World War II."

James looked surprised. "Since when did you become a Stalin fan?"

"Not hardly," said Melissa. "He was a monster. But I'm not blind to historical realities."

She leaned forward a little. "Poland's the center of the problem—and the opportunities—here just as it was in the world we came from. A brilliant nation, in lots of ways, but one that was completely crippled by three factors."

Now she began counting off on fingers that looked far too elegant for a former sixties radical. "First, they were dominated by the szlachta, a huge class of noblemen that, for my money, ranks as the sorriest and most worthless aristocracy in the historical record. They paralyzed Poland politically for centuries with their petty self-interest, greed and pretensions. In the real world, their so-called 'Golden Freedom'—which some people even have the nerve to claim was a form of democracy which it only was in the same sense that South African apartheid was 'democratic' provided you belonged to the master race—"

James and Morris were frowning, trying to follow the convoluted presentation, but Melissa continued blithely onward. "—simply made them patsies for every nation surrounding them. All a Russian tsar or Prussian king or Austrian emperor had to do was keep a few szlachta on the payroll to guarantee that their absolute right of individual veto meant that Poland couldn't do anything effective politically. Secondly, and largely as a result, Poland was locked into a form of serfdom that was every bit as bad as anything that ever existed in western Europe in medieval times. In the sixteenth century—less than a hundred years ago, in the here and now—Poland was one of the centers of the Renaissance. Two centuries later, it was one of the few countries in Europe that managed to wind up poorer and with fewer and smaller cities that it had when it entered the so-called 'early modern era.' And with its industries in decline, to boot. That's because the nobility, especially the great magnates, locked the whole nation's fortunes to the Vistula grain trade. They believed in 'King Grain' just as vehemently as the slaveowners in the American south believed in 'King Cotton'—or those stupid rich bastards in Argentina believed in 'King Beef.'"

Now, Judith was looking a little cross-eyed. "How does Argentina figure into this?"

Melissa flashed her a smile. "History's a comparative science, insofar as it's a 'science' at all. It's like a lot of biological study, or even some aspects of astronomy. You can hardly do 'controlled experiments' on history, anymore than you can on the evolution of dinosaurs and trilobites—or stars on the main sequence. Right? So, what you do instead is study the material by comparing it with similar phenomena."

She shrugged. "Of course, that's a lot easier to do with astronomy and even biology than it is with history. Stars are simple things, compared to human societies, and there are trillions of them to compare to each other and against a vastly longer time frame. Still, the principle's the same."

Again, she flashed that quick smile. "So, that's what Poland and the antebellum South and Argentina have in common. In all three cases, societies that started out with lots and lots of potential got crippled by the greed of their elite, and their fixation on a single crop. Most people don't realize it—Americans, anyway—because they think of Argentina as a 'third world' country. But in the late nineteenth century, it wasn't. Measured by almost any important social or economic indices, Argentina was more advanced than most countries in southern Europe. Then, especially during World War I when the price of beef went through the roof, Argentina's upper crust locked the country into monoculture—just like the Poles did with grain in this century and the American slaveowners would do with cotton in the nineteenth. The specifics varied a lot, naturally, but they all resulted in stagnation—and a political structure where an elite of not more than ten percent of the population lorded it over everybody else."

She leaned back in the couch. "So that's it. In our timeline, Poland was hamstrung for centuries, and since it's the center of gravity in eastern Europe it more or less pulled half the continent down with it. Not without lots of help from the Austrian Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns in Prussia, of course, who were no prizes themselves."

Morris had never stopped frowning. "I'd think Russia was more in the way of eastern Europe's 'center of gravity.'"

"Actually, no. Not yet, I should say. There's a misconception among Americans, mostly because of the Cold War, that Russia was always the aggressor against Poland. But here in the early seventeenth century—and for at least two centuries earlier—it's actually the Poles and Lithuanians who've been seizing their neighbors' lands. Besides, it's something of a moot point anyway. I don't see where there's much you or me or anyone could do in October of 1634 to start turning around that mess called 'Russia.'"

Morris grimaced. "Well, thank God for small favors. I've got enough to deal with as it is. Especially since you seem bound and determined to plop Poland into my lap too, right after Wallenstein and Pappenheim dropped everything south of there."

"Sorry, Morris, but there's no way around it. In the long run, nothing you accomplish here or in the Ruthenian lands will be stable if you—or somebody—doesn't transform Poland. Poland and Lithuania, I should say."

Morris finally took a seat himself, looking very tired. "Talk about the labors of Hercules," he muttered.

Melissa started to say something, but Judith interrupted. "You said there were three factors. What's the third one?"

"Huh? Oh. It's implicit in what I just said. Their protestations of always being the victim of history notwithstanding, the fact is that in this time period it's usually the Poles who are aggressing against their neighbors. So, on top of their existing problems, they added the third one that so-called 'Poland' was never coterminous with where Poles actually lived—until Stalin came along. To get back to the monster I started with."

Again, she started counting off her fingers. "First, he destroyed the szlachta. They'd officially been abolished after World War II, but they still had a lot of power. He destroyed them literally, in some cases. A big percentage of the fifteen thousand Polish officers he had massacred in Katyn Forest were noblemen. Mostly, though, he simply destroyed them as a class by expropriating their property. Secondly, he ended serfdom. Brutally, of course, the way he did everything. And stupidly too, in the long run. But, say whatever else you will about his forced collectivization of agriculture, one of the products was the elimination of serfdom. And, finally, for the first time in centuries, he made Poland's boundaries coincide with the actual lands of the Poles. The Poland we knew in the post-World War II period was something like ninety-seven percent ethnically homogenous, which it had certainly never been prior to that. That's the reason that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, nobody actually proposed to change any of the national boundaries Stalin created. Not Poland's, anyway."

Morris wiped his face. "Wonderful. Stalin as my role model."

"Oh, cut it out, Morris," said Melissa impatiently. "I was simply pointing to what Stalin did, not how he did it. Creating a modern Poland—forestalling its decline, I should say, which has only started—can be done by other means, too. It certainly should be. But the prerequisite is that you stop thinking of 'role models' in the first place."

"Meaning . . . ?"

"Forget Hercules and his labors. Meaning no offense, Morris Roth, but you bear as much resemblance to Hercules—or Stalin—as I do to the man in the moon."

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"Just what I tried to explain to Wallenstein and Pappenheim!"

"So quit thinking in those terms altogether. The one thing eastern Europe does not need is another damn overlord. Instead, approach the problem like a political organizer. You don't really do anything. You just organize other people to do it."

"Like who? And to do what?" He looked a bit sullen, and more than a bit like a twelve-year-old.

"Stop pouting, Morris," said his wife. "I can figure that much out, and so can you."

She started emulating Melissa's finger-counting. "First, get some people who know something about military affairs, which you don't. Whatever else, you'll need a real army, and you can't call on Pappenheim. He's tied up facing the Austrians to the south and the Saxons to the north, which is the reason Wallenstein handed you the assignment in the first place. Failing anything else, hire somebody. You're rich enough, these days. Europe's got plenty of mercenary officers, many of whom are quite good and some of whom are even loyal to their employer."

Another finger got wiggled. "Second, the Jewish so-called problem runs all through the area. That, you can handle directly insofar as politics goes. But you really need to get a lot of rabbis on your side to handle the rest of it."

She gave him a cool smile. "You do know some rabbis, right? I'd recommend starting with Mordecai Levi and Isaac Gans. And Jason, for that matter, and his fellow students."

She went back to finger-counting. "Third, get the Brethren involved. Fourth—whatever else you do—make sure Red Sybolt's involved."

The thumb got wiggled now. "Fifth—maybe this should actually be first—establish contact with some Polish radicals."

She gave Melissa a querying glance. "I assume there are some in the here and now, yes?"

Melissa made a face. "Hell, my knowledge of Polish history is only general, it doesn't run to details like that. But . . . I'd say there pretty much have to be. Poland produced almost as many radicals and revolutionaries over the centuries as it did grain and layabout noblemen. For that matter, the nobility itself produced a fair number of them. Remember Count Casimir Pulaski, in the American revolution?"

James looked startled. "Is that who Pulaski Boulevard in Chicago is named after?"

"Doctors," scoffed Melissa. "Talk about a self-absorbed class of people. Yes, dear, that is who one of your home town's main streets is named after. But don't get a swelled head about it. There must be a thousand Pulaski streets or avenues or boulevards in the United States, in just about as many towns."

She looked back at Judith. "So, at a guess, I'd say you're right. Keep going, girl, you're doing fine."

Judith switched hands and started counting the fingers of the right. "Sixth—"

"How the hell am I supposed to find Polish revolutionaries?" demanded Morris. "I'm a damn jeweler. Fine, my family came from Krakow. That's ancient history."

"Stop whining, husband. We're in ancient history." As deftly as you could ask for, Judith switch her hands back and wiggled the ring finger of the left. "Red Sybolt, remember? He's been a labor agitator for years. By now, if he hasn't run across some wild-eyed Polish rebels, I'll be surprised. Plant Red in a desert island in the middle of the Pacific, and he'd somehow manage to rouse a rabble."

Morris chuckled. "Well, that's true. Of course, first I'd have to track him down. He hasn't been in Prague for months."

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"That's a manageable problem. Somebody will know where he is. Moving right along"—she switched hands again and wiggled a forefinger—"you need to get Uriel Abrabanel—remember him? he works for you already—to start investigating the chances of cutting a deal with the Austrians. Now that that bigoted bastard Ferdinand II died, we're dealing with a new emperor in Vienna. And his son's a lot more capable than his father, by all accounts."

"Certainly is," said Melissa. "He's not narrow-minded, the way his father was—and his sister Maria Anna just turned half of Europe upside down thinking for herself." She gave James a smile that bordered on being lascivious. "I was in such a hurry to get back to my squeeze after we got out of England that I didn't stick around in Holland long enough for the wedding between Maria Anna and Don Fernando. But I got plenty of details from Rebecca, while I was there. The sister is smart as a whip—and she thinks very highly of her brother the new Austrian emperor. So does her sidekick who pretends to be a feeble old lady, Doña Mencia, and let me tell you that no moss ever grew on that woman's brain."

Morris scratched his jaw. "'More capable' could be bad as well as good, y'know. Still, it's worth looking into. In fact, if I know Uriel, he's already started." He eyed his wife skeptically. "And how many more rabbits are you going to pull out of your fingers for me?"

She took a deep breath. "One. See if you can make an accommodation with the Cossacks. You'd have to find a suitable emissary, of course."

Morris' eyes widened. "Cossacks? For God's sake, Judith! They're the same murderous bastards who led the Chmielnicki Pogrom—which is named after their leader—in the first place! Not to mention such minor accomplishments as the pogroms at Kiev and Kishinev." His face grew hard. "Or the massacres carried out in the Ukraine during the Russian civil war by the counter-revolutionary armies, half of which were made up of Cossacks or their hangers-on. The stinking swine murdered something like a hundred thousand Jews before the Red Army put a stop to it. Fuck the Cossacks. Every one of them can rot in hell, as far as I'm concerned."

"I'm with Morris," said Nichols stoutly.

"Stick to doctoring," sniffed Melissa. "See if you can come up with a cure for excess testosterone, while you're at it." To Morris she said: "You're being childish, to be blunt. How is dealing with Cossacks in the here and now any different from what Mike Stearns has been doing dealing with Germans? Compared to what they did to Jews in the Holocaust, the Cossacks are nothing."

"Well, yeah, but . . ."

"But what? Since when did you start believing in racial destiny, Morris? Nazi Germany was the product of centuries of history. Change the history, like Mike is doing, and you eliminate them before they even appear. So why can't you do the same with the Cossacks?"

"Because they're nothing but a bunch of—"

"Mounted hooligans? Thugs? For Pete's sake, Morris, in this day and age—early seventeenth century, remember?—the 'Cossacks' are barely even 'Cossacks' yet. They're just getting started. A lot of them are former serfs, in fact, who ran away from their masters. We're at least a century away from the time they started serving the Russian tsars as their mailed fist. This is the best time I can think of to stop that in its tracks, too."

Morris looked mulish. Melissa looked exasperated. "Dammit, you asked. At my age, I'd hardly have come racing to Prague on horseback of my own volition."

"You rode all the way?" asked Judith.

James grinned. "She rode on a horse for exactly one day. After that, she put her foot down and insisted we hire a carriage. One of those litter-type carriages, of course, not a wheeled one. Going over the mountains on a wheeled vehicle is best left to mad dogs and Englishmen."

It was Melissa's turn to look defensive. "I spent my youth waving a placard at demonstrations. I did not attend the kind of ladies' finishing school where Mary Simpson learned to ride."

"How's she doing, by the way?" asked Morris.

"Given her recent hair-raising adventures, quite well. It helped a lot, of course, that when she got back to Magdeburg her son was waiting for her along with her husband. It was quite a family reunion, after their long estrangement. I know, because I was there."

Judith peered at her. "You were there? I thought you detested the Simpsons. Well, except Tom."

"I did, sure, when John Simpson ran that godawful campaign against Mike three years ago." Melissa waved her hand airily. "But three years is ancient history, as fast as things have been changing since the Ring of Fire. I think quite well of them, these days."

She pointed an accusatory finger at Morris. "And there's a lesson for you. If I can make friends with Mary Simpson, why can't you do it with Cossacks?"

He threw up his hands. "They're barbarians, for the love of God!"

"Again, so what? Yes, they're not far removed from barbarism. What do you expect, from a society being forged out of runaway serfs and bandits on the borderlands? Nobody is simply one thing or another, Morris. It's always more complicated. To go back to Mary Simpson, she's still haughty as all hell—can be, anyway—and I don't think she'll ever really be able to see the world except through her own very upper crust perspective. But that's not all there is to the woman, not by a long shot. The trick is finding a way—which is exactly what Mike did—to match her and her husband properly to the right circumstances. Bring out their best, instead of their worst. So do the same with the Cossacks."

"They don't have a 'best side,' that I can see," Morris groused.

"Oh, that's silly," said his wife. "Of course they do, even if it's only courage. If they hadn't been tough bastards, the tsars couldn't have used them in the first place."

A young servant entered the salon. "Dinner is ready, Lady Judith."

Judith rose. "Thank you, Rifka. Come along, folks. You must be starving by now."

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To be continued in Grantville Gazette, Volume 14, available from Webscriptions on Nov 1, 2007

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