A macabre coincidence of date links three historic tragedies, each very different, with the 17th of July.
The best known occurred in revolutionary Russia with the brutal murder of an entire family in the presence of each other, for base political ends. This was notoriously the fate of the Russian Romanov family: Czar Nicholas II, his wife the Empress Alexandra, their four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, their little son, Alexei, and four loyal retainers Eugene Botkin, Anna Demidova, Alexei Trupp and Ivan Kharitanov.
The eleven were shot and bayoneted by their Bolshevik captors, allegedly with the personal approval of Lenin, at 1 am on July 17, 1918, in the basement of the fortified Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, located east of the Ural Mountains and sometimes described as Russia’s gateway to Asia. The eleven bodies were stripped, despoiled and carried away for disposal in improvised grave sites.
The Bolshevik murders were for a long time denied and were only to be finally admitted during the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev with the site of some recently discovered gravesites disclosed in the Moscow News of April 10, 1989. The remains of the victims were later exhumed and reburied with honour: an Orthodox cathedral was built in the early 21st century on the site of the murders.
Despite a change of regime and the posthumous honouring of recovered remains of the victims, the massacre of the Romanov family had a brutal echo on another July 17 some 96 years later.
On July 17, 2014, Ukrainian surrogates of Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation shot down Malaysian Flight 17, a civilian airliner carrying 283 passengers, including 28 Australians, and 15 crew on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The marksmen used a Buk missile supplied the same day across the border with Russia by the 53 Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Federation, achieving a total loss of life which included some 20 family groups and an Australian Sacré Coeur Religious Sister.
But neither the Romanov murders of 1918 nor the destruction of Malaysian Flight 17 in 2014 were the first occasions that July 17 became a notable date in world history. On the late summer evening of July 17, 1794, there was another execution, this time in Paris at the high point of Robespierre’s Terror in the course of the French Revolution, claiming sixteen innocent lives.
The circumstances of their judicial execution by guillotine and the manner of their brave and very public death made the martyrdom of the 16 Carmelites of Compiegne a sacred event in theatre, opera and devotional life – notably in Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera – Dialogues of the Carmelites, George Bernanos 1949 stage-play of the same name and a sacred memory in the annals of Christian martyrs.
The sixteen Carmelites were beatified by Pope Pius X on May 27, 1906. For Christian believers, as for artists and aesthetes, there is something profoundly moving about the serenity and measured reflection with which these religious women went calmly to their deaths. The Sisters were of very diverse ages and temperaments, united in their lives as members of varying seniority in the Carmel of Compiegne under the Prioress Mother Teresa of St Augustine (Madame Lidonie), then 41 years of age.
The youngest, Sister Constance, aged 29, took her final vows immediately before mounting the steps of the scaffold. The profession of her vows had been delayed five years by revolutionary France’s anti-religious laws of October 1789.
All of the Sisters knelt before their Prioress and asked:
“Permission to die, Mother?”
“Go, my daughter”.
Each of the condemned kissed one by one a little clay statuette of the Virgin and Child cupped in the hand of the Prioress before rising in her turn to climb the steps to the guillotine. The large crowd usually bayed its hatred for the victims of the guillotine and joy at their executiona, but at the martyrdom of the Carmelites of Compiegne, the crowd fell silent – a phenomenon noted by all witnesses.
On this occasion the victims themselves were not silent.
In their two-hour journey in tumbrils from the Palais de Justice to the Place du Trone, the Carmelite Community had intoned Vespers and Compline and had sung the beautiful Gregorian hymn, the Salve Regina, almost a Carmelite anthem. Arriving at the place of execution the Carmelites with radiant faces, saluted it with a sung Te Deum, and the Veni Creator Spiritus.
Beginning with the youngest, the Sisters intoned the first line of the psalm sung by their Foundress St Teresa of Avila at the Foundation of a new Carmel in 1604:
Laudate Dominum omnes gentes … [Praise the Lord, all ye nations!]
Praise Him all ye people!
For his mercy is confirmed upon us,
And the truth of the Lord endureth forever!
Praise the Lord!
As one by one the Carmelites fell beneath the blade, those waiting sang the same Psalm, their singing interrupted only by the bump of the plank on which the latest victims, strapped face-down in place, the click of the neck-stall closing to fasten the victim’s neck in place, then the final repeated swish of the falling blade. As a modern biographer of the sixteen has noted:
The women’s implacable acceptance of everything happening to them, their simple joy as they sang awaiting certain death, pointed to a dimension beyond their expertise.
Normally masters on their own scaffold, this evening the executioners found themselves minor players in an unfamiliar drama where death had lost its dread.
The crowd of regulars gathered around the scaffold this evening had mysteriously sensed this. All watched in an unprecedented silence.
Is there a pattern of tragic events like these? It can only be perceived, if at all, from a distance and after a lapse of time.
It is a commonplace to date the French Revolution from the fall of the Bastille, the royalist armoury, which fell to an angry mob on July 14, 1789, and which made possible a reign of terror, at odds with the espoused notion of liberty, equality and fraternity.
From this distance, the events of the Revolution, whatever its positives, can be seen to have inaugurated ‘the dominance of The Lie’ in human affairs, a phase inaugurated at the Bastille and ending 200 years later, almost to the day, when the world in 1989 saw the collapse of the Soviet Empire borne away to oblivion, the detritus of a world empire built on lies.
The unforgettable televised image of members of the Politburo, hands trembling, struggling to read their scripts despite their realization that the prompter’s box was newly empty, is an epitaph to its passing.
But it certainly did not mark the end of the presence of evil in human affairs.
The devil, the Christian scriptures assert, wears two faces in human affairs – one is The Lie, the other is Murder, as laid out in John 8:44.
The dramatic dispossession of The Lie in 1989 won only a brief reprieve for humankind. Since then, there have been many instances where murder has reclaimed its accustomed place on the world stage — and there will no doubt be many more.
As a pandemic in 2020 claims helpless victims in the tens of thousands worldwide, human savagery may sometimes seem less threatening than it previously did.
The response called for in modern times, both to episodic savagery and to a faceless pandemic, may derive inspiration from the example of the sixteen Carmelites of Compiegne, who were serene in the face of terror and threat and whose courage, mutual kindness and luminous spirituality inspires many whenever darkness threatens the human family.
Tony Macken is an Australian lawyer and occasional historical writer.
 To Quell the Terror – The True Story of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne: William Bush, ICS Publications, Washington DC, 1999