If you need any additional proof that the world is completely upside down right now, look no further than Netflix, where the most-watched show for two weeks running revolves around a flamboyant, tattoo-covered, mullet-sporting 56-year-old inmate at the Grady, Oklahoma County Jail who gained notoriety as an exotic animal zookeeper slash reality TV star slash country singer slash 2016 presidential candidate. (He’s the one who memorably gave out condoms with his picture on them.)
I’m talking of course about Joe Schreibvogel aka Joe Maldonado-Passage, aka “Joe Exotic,” star of the addictively trainwreck-ish seven-part documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.
If you’ve been whiling away the hours in self-isolation bingeing on Tiger King, I have news for you. No, I cannot tell you for sure if Joe’s nemesis Carole Baskin actually fed her missing husband to the tigers, although Lord knows it’s an intriguing possibility. But I can tell you that Joe Exotic’s family actually played a fascinating and historic role in the story of American immigration. So if you’ve been laying awake at night wondering, “What exactly is Joe Exotic’s connection to Catherine the Great of Russia and the Seven Years War?” get comfortable. Because I have answers.
In 1763, at the close of the Seven Years’ War, Catherine the Great, the German-born Empress of Russia, issued a proclamation inviting foreigners to resettle the fallow lands along the Volga river. Attracted by the promise of tax-free land, economic opportunity, religious freedom, and exemption from military service, more than 25,000 Germans, among them Joe Exotic’s ancestors, heeded the call and moved to Russia.
These German immigrants lived happily in the Russian empire for over a century, until a new regime began to revoke the privileges they had been promised, most notably the exemption from military service. Realizing it was once again time to move on, in 1874, five scouts were sent to America’s…