Two people in one

Alexander Mikhailovich Murav’ev (1802-1853) Lithograph. (1822) Piotr Feodorovich Sokolov (1791- 1848)

There can be problems when a writer tries to combine an engaging plot with historical truth. This can be particularly true when it comes to depicting characters who are ‘real’ people.

Historical novels vary widely in their historical accuracy, ranging from books that are openly counter factual and those with plots that are almost as fantastic as that of Game of Thrones, to those that, as far as possible, approximate to what ‘really’ happened.

I  try to make my books both lifelike and as ‘truthful’ as possible. Sound research throws up a good deal of inspiration in itself and certainly repays the effort involved.  Moreover,  when describing real people, I feel it traduces them to invent too much about them. To do so seems insulting to their memory.  A novel in which Catherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII, and a pillar of protestant rectitude, is involved in a scene of gratuitous sadomasochism comes vividly to mind. I really do not want to go there, although I can see that the scene might be entertaining for some.

When I write about real characters, therefore, I try to find out as much as I can about them. It helps if they have written memoirs, since this really can bring them to life.  But what the research reveals, and what they reveal about themselves, does sometimes get in the way of the story I had hoped to write.

For example, having read his memoirs, I wanted to include the real Decembrist Alexander Mikhailovich Murav’ev, pictured above, as the close friend of my fictional hero, Vasily. But my plot demanded that Vasily’s friend have a love interest, indeed a fiancé. When I read his biography on Russian Wikipedia, I learned that Muravev didn’t marry until well after his release from prison in Siberia, and I didn’t feel I could ignore this fact  What to do?  In the end I decided to merge Murav’ev’s story with that of his fellow officer in the Chevalier Guards, Count Ivan Annenkov, pictured below, who was much the same age. He was engaged to be married on the day of the uprising, and his fiancé, Pauline, travelled to be with him in exile.

This meant that I was obliged to write Vasily’s friend as a fictional character, Mikhail, but at least what happened to him, really did happen to someone!  It could be said that Mikhail has the top half of Muravev and the bottom half of Annenkov.

Ivan Alexandrovich Annenkov (1802-1878) Lithograph (1823) Orest Kiprensky

(1782 -1836)

Kossoff and Soutine at the Seaside.


Le valet de chambre, Chaim Soutine, c. 1927. © The Lewis Collection 

There are a couple of months still left for art enthusiasts to get down to Hastings Contemporary to spend quality time with two 20th Century artists of note, one originally from Belarus, the other from Ukraine.

The current exhibition,  ‘Soutine/Kossoff’, juxtaposes the work of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) with that of  Leo Kossoff (1926 – 2017). 

Soutine left his home for Paris in 1913, where he studied at the Ecole de Beaux Arts, rapidly developing a distinctive Expressionist style.  In addition to landscapes depicting the South of France, the exhibition features several of his characteristic, and often unsettling, portraits of French hospitality workers and other individuals.

Kossoff, a first generation English artist, lived in the City Road, Islington, his parents having fled persecution in Ukraine. He is probably best known for his extraordinarily thickly painted London townscapes, several of which can be seen in Hastings, including Christchurch Spitalfields (1989) and Between Kilburn and Willesden Green, Winter Evening (1991).  Kossoff also produced portraits, including the monumental  Nude on a Red Bed (1972), which is on show in Hastings.  He is known to have discovered Soutine’s work in the 1950’s and to have been much influenced by his direct expressive approach.

Both artists share an Eastern European Jewish background; a heritage that had  produced a number of remarkable creators in exile including the artist, Chagall, and novelist, Isaac Bashevis Singer.  In her outstanding biography of Chagall, (Chagall, Love and Exile,  London, 2008)  Jackie Wullschlager writes of ‘the grinding unchanging poverty of the area from which nearly a million jews emigrated between 1891 and 1910’, bringing with them the influence of its ‘hallucinatory enchantment and age old melancholy.’

This is an absorbing exhibition which is full of interest and intriguing connections. It is likely to delay any art lover for some hours.

Soutine/Kossoff runs at Hastings Contemporary until 24th September.

Sphinxes on the Neva

Sphinxes on the Quay in front of the Academy of Arts. Maxim Voroblev. (1835)

Standing on University Embankment on  the right bank of the Great Neva river,  among some of the oldest buildings of Saint Petersburg, tourists, particularly those passing on the river in boats, are often surprised to encounter two large Egyptian sphinxes. 

Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign at the turn of the Nineteenth century stimulated an interest in all things Egyptian in Europe, from which the Romanov Emperors were not immune.  The sphinxes from Thebes were originally acquired from the Egyptian Government by the French, but the revolution of 1830 put paid to the deal, and in 1832 the colossal structures were purchased by Nicholas the First.  They were erected on the riverside spot adjacent to the Royal Academy in 1834, and they remain there to this day.

I was reminded of the statues when I recently rediscovered a poem by the symbolist poet, philosopher and writer, Vacheslav Ivanov. I have made an attempt at a translation:

Sphinxes on the Neva

Was it the magic of the white nights that lured you,

 a mirage, into the bondage of arctic wonders?

Two marvelous creatures from hundred-gated Thebes.

Did pale Isis take you prisoner?

What secret turned you to stone

Spoken through the laughing lips of a cruel mouth?

Does the never darkening expanse of midnight waves

Delight you more than the stars of the holy Nile?

At the hour when twilight torments us,

And, whispering with its rays, weaves spells,

and changes the heavens to amber  –

So like two crescent moons, uplifting two tiaras,

You, virgins or tsars, gaze into one another’s eyes,

Smiling and ardent.


Child abduction by Russia in wartime is nothing new

Children being snatched by Russian Soldiers during the Polish Uprising of 1830/31 (unattributed print)

Russian abduction of children in a time of war is nothing new!

One of the more disturbing features of the current war in Ukraine has been Russia’s abduction of Ukrainian children, ostensibly in order to give them ‘better lives’ in Russia. In some cases the children have been sent to so called ‘Summer Camps’ from which they never returned home. Others taken have been described as ‘orphans’ despite the fact that they have easily identifiable relatives.  In March this year, Vladimir Putin was personally indicted as a war criminal by the ICC for the crime of child abduction.

Of course this sinister practice is a reprehensible attempt to brainwash these children, to ‘Russify’ them.  It is a convenient way to compensate in a small way, for the steady demographic fall in population being experienced by Russia, which has now been exacerbated by the emigration of thousands of people, often young and talented, who are unwilling to serve in the army, or countenance the current aggression.

Like so many features of the war, the practice of child abduction by Russia in time of war is not new.  When researching the Polish Uprising of 1830/31 for my current work in progress, Fortune’s Price, I was unsurprised to read how boys as young as seven were deported by an order made in March 1831 by the Russian Emperor Nicholas 1. These children were incorporated into special battalions of the Russian Army as so called ‘cantonists’, or child soldiers. This practice was immortalized in the unattributed print shown above. Several thousand of these children were apparently seized, and many ended up in the brutalized environment of Military Settlements.  After a series of bloody revolts in these settlements that occurred at the same time as the Polish revolt, even Nicholas came to realise that they should be abolished, but this did not mean the return of the children who had been seized.

Fortunately, this time around there are stories of Ukrainian parents recovering their children, whether through their own efforts, or by clandestine Russian organisations speeding their release. Nonetheless, it is feared that many may never return to their rightful homes.


Rasputitsa (Sea of Mud), 1894, Alexei Savrasov

Etymologically the Russian word Razputitsa deconstructs as ‘separation parting or tearing of a road or route’. It is conventionally used to describe periods of the year when the roads turn into an impassable sea of mud, whether on account of rain turning the summer dust into a quagmire in the autumn, or as a result of the thaw of ice and snow in the spring.

The word is now being routinely used in the press to describe the conditions on the battlefield in Ukraine and we have seen pictures showing people and armaments wallowing in mud. Of course these difficult conditions make life more difficult in particular for those who are attacking and moving forward.  The supply of provisions and manpower become much more challenging, and Russia is apparently at an added disadvantage due to the fact its tanks are lower on the ground than western models.

Razputitsy have a distinguished past in military history.  Napoleon complained of the ‘Polish mud’ while crossing Europe, and it is thought that mud slowed Hitler’s advance on Moscow to such a degree that it prevented him from occupying the city. It seems Putin may have learned from these examples from the past; U.S intelligence has claimed that he held back his invasion in February 2022 to allow the ground to freeze.

The same caution was not exercised by the Emperor Nicholas 1, although of course he was not blessed with modern day weather forecasting.  As I learned when researching my current work in progress, Fortune’s Price (working title), when Russian troops marched into Poland in the winter of 1830-31 the expected winter freeze failed to materialize and what was intended to be a rapid advance on Warsaw were literally ‘bogged down.’  As  Lieutenant (later General) Filipson, then serving in  the Duke of Wurttemberg Grenadiers, writes in his memoirs:

‘Diebitsch’s* plan was brave and promised a quick victory but was upset by unexpected circumstances. It was assumed that there would be ice but spring came early.  The wagons and artillery got stuck in the mud. The army moved in three columns into Poland but there was little communication between them and it was hard for each to know what the other was doing as they converged on Warsaw.’

*Hans Karl von Diebitsch, the Russian Commander in Chief.

Mud also features in my talk about Russian Roads, an illustration from which can be seen below!

‘I dreamed I dwelt in marble halls’*

Recently, ‘Peterskaya Uslada’ (Petersburg Delight) posted pictures on Twitter of the extraordinary marble hall that can be found in the Palace that was owned from 1830 onward by the Kushelev-Bezborodko family (see image above). Although the interior was remodelled in the middle of the 19th century by the son of the first owner, Count Nikolay Kushelev-Bezborodko, its style is eclectic, incorporating Louis XlV and 18th century rococo features that take their cue from an earlier age.  We also of course have marble halls here in England; the great carved space in Stowe House in Buckinghamshire is just one example.

Marble halls feature twice in my novel, Small Acts of Kindness, and both are inspired by pictures such as the one above. In the first chapter my hero arrives home from a trip abroad. At his benefactor’s palace in Saint Petersburg he runs ‘up the flight of stone stairs that rose in a great sweep to the entrance hall on the first floor’. Later in the book the imaginary estate house of my hero’s cousins benefits from an imposing entrance where ‘caryatids lifted the arches of the grey marbled hall; great porphyry urns were twinned along the flanks of the stone stairway’.

I find  the icy magnificence of these great carved marble caverns evocative.  Perhaps that was why I was so taken by the novel recently chosen by my book group, Susanna Clark’s ‘Piranesi’, published in 2020 by Bloomsbury.  In this extraordinary book, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the author creates an imaginary world in which infinite great halls, of many different architectural styles, stretch away in every direction, populated by a plethora of statues. The title of the novel implies that Clark was inspired by the extraordinary architectural drawings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), which in turn must have informed the architects of these wonderful places that can still be seen today.

*The song ‘I dreamt I walked in marble halls’ features in the opera The Bohemian Girl, written in 1843 by the Irish composer, William Balfe

Russia in North America

At least one scene in my novel, Small Acts of Kindness, a tale of the first Russian revolution, takes place in the offices of the Russian American Company.  One of the principle characters, the radical Kondraty Ryleev, was office manager at the company in the months before the Decembrist uprising in 1825.  The large building, situated on the banks of the Moika River, can still be seen today.

Looking though old photographs on my computer over Christmas I recalled that a few years ago we had visited Fort Ross, a remnant of what were once quite extensive interests owned by Russia on the Pacific coast of America.

It was Peter the Great who, attracted by the plentiful supplies of furs and skins, asked the explorer Vitus Bering to look at the potential for Russian settlement.  However this was towards the very end of his reign, and Bering’s initial voyage was frustrated by snow and fog.  It was only under Catherine 2nd (the Great) that a settlement was finally established in Alaska. The Russian American company was founded during the short reign of her son, Paul 1st, to manage Russian interests.  Later Russian settlements spread south into North California, where Fort Ross was founded in 1812.

Russia’s activities in North America were by no means trouble free, with opposition coming not just from Native Americans, but also competitors such as the Hudson’s Bay Company.  Problems were exacerbated by the inability to resist over exploitation of the once copious supplies of animals hunted for their skins and fur. Fort Ross was sold to a local landowner in 1842, and the sale of Alaska by Alexander 2nd in 1867 marked the end of the Russian presence in North America.

Today Fort Ross, which lies not far to the north of San Francisco, has become the Fort Ross Historic State Park, and it is a fascinating place to visit when travelling up the beautiful North Californian coast. Just a look at the website shows what a lovely spot it is.

Russian bell at Fort Ross

Dusk approaches…

The troops scattered onto the ice…

We are now moving deeper into December, and it is dark a little after 4 p.m.

It was a little earlier, just after 3 p.m. in St Petersburg on December 14th  1825(Old Style) when Nicholas Pavlovich, newly created Emperor of Russia, ordered guns to be fired to scatter 3000 rebel troops. The soldiers had stood in Senate Square for hours refusing to swear the oath of allegiance.  The men, assisted by a few radical civilians, were purporting to support his older brother, Grand Duke Constantine, who had formally renounced the throne.   However this was just a pretext;  following the death of their older brother, the Emperor Alexander the First, some three weeks earlier many of the troops were not really interested in supporting either brother. Their  true aim was to bring an end to the autocratic system, to create a republic or a limited monarchy, and to free the millions of serfs owned by the nobility at the time.

Nicholas decided to act as night fell, apparently afraid that supporters of the uprising among ostensibly loyal regiments would take advantage of approaching  darkness to join the rebels.  He first tried to scatter the men by using blanks, but then, when this failed, used real ordnance.  The ranks of soldiers scattered, some fleeing to form up on the frozen Neva, where they were pounded with cannon until the ice broke.  And so ended the rebellion that was subsequently known as the Decembrist uprising, an event that many have also designated the first Russian revolution.

The events that took place in December  one hundred and ninety seven years ago, in Saint Petersburg, form the pivot of my novel, Small Acts of Kindness, a tale of the first Russian revolution.  The book was published two weeks ago by Unicorn Publishing, under their Universe imprint. It has been described by one critic as an accessible way into a little known period of Russian History, and if you want to learn more about the incident, and its aftermath, while enjoying a tale of romance, adventure and redemption, you could do worse than purchase a copy, preferably from your local bookshop.  Alternatively a Kindle version is available on Amazon.

From izbas to the Seven Sisters

Model of the Monument to the Third International (1919-20) Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) Reconstruction (2011) by Jeremy Dixon and Chris Milan. Sainsbury Centre, Sculpture Park, UEA, Norwich.

Some months ago I rashly promised to lead a session on Russian secular architecture for the Architecture Group at Sudbury U3A. As the day approached, I started to wonder why I had agreed to do it.  My knowledge of architecture, while quite extensive, is strictly that of an amateur; I have little clue about the appropriate terminology, or, indeed, what makes buildings stand up.

As I began to assemble a lot of pictures (useful to hide absence of technical knowledge), I realised that the task would be easier than I thought.  Over the years I have created talks about the founding of Saint Petersburg,  Russian country estates and dachas, and have collected many well annotated images, which largely served my current purpose.  I was able to deal with izbas, carved and plain, boyars houses, the baroque and the neo-classical with little problem.

It was the Twentieth Century that proved more daunting, but with the help of the internet, plus William Brumfield’s ‘magisterial’, ‘A History of Russian Architecture, in the end my survey from pre-revolutionary eclecticism, through rationalism and constructivism, to Stalinist Empire style convinced even myself. 

I was assisted by the fact that, in September, the Arts Society Stour Valley organized a brilliant trip to the Sainsbury  Centre at the University of East Anglia.  Having dutifully paraded around the current exhibition, we wandered outdoors. The students had just returned, and the atmosphere was vibrant with the sense of new beginnings. The park like campus was bathed in bright autumn sunshine. 

My feeling of optimism was further enhanced when, as part of UEA’s notable sculpture collection, the structure pictured above came into view and I was able to photograph a scale model of Tatlin’s iconic constructivist work, Monument to the Third International (1919/20).

The building, planned to be 400 meters high, was supposed to accommodate party workers  within the red spirals in revolving cubes.  Not surprisingly the project was deemed to be unworkable at the time, but nonetheless, even in diminished form, the structure stands as an icon to the avant guard dreams of the 1920’s.

The recently caught image certainly enhanced the session which, in the end, seemed to be very well received.  In fact I have courageously decided to add  ‘A survey of Russian Secular Architecture from Izbas to the Seven Sisters’, to my list of talks, and am thinking now of moving on to churches…

Prisoners at War

Fighting in the Caucasus.

Prisoners are being used to replenish Russia’s depleted forces in Ukraine.  A week or so ago prison wagons were seen approaching the border, and on Twitter a film showed prisoners being promised freedom if they fought at the front for six months.

This is nothing new.  In World War Two, prisoners from the Gulag were moved into penal regiments and the practice has older roots.  Several of the Decembrist exiles in the first half of the Nineteenth Century chose to cut their sentences short by volunteering to fight in the Caucasus.

 In the words of Mikhail Zetlin:  ‘The Caucasus was thus to serve…as a sort of purgatory.  Although to be permitted to fight the ferocious Turks or the rugged Moslem mountain clans as an ordinary soldier, amidst constant danger and hardship, without much hope of ever regaining their lost commissions, constituted a doubtful favour, many of them welcomed it, …for it offered them some hope…of regaining their cherished freedom.’

One of the first to be allowed to take this step was the writer, journalist and lady-killer, Alexander Bestuzhev (Marlinsky). He transferred to the Caucasus as early as 1829 from his place of exile in Yakutsk.  A former staff captain in the Dragoons, he was a brave and talented soldier who, against the odds, moved up through the ranks, winning a St. George medal on the way, but he died during a battle in 1837.

In that same year, the Tsarevich, the future Alexander ll, visited Siberia as part of his extensive tour of Russia.  Although not encouraged to do so by his father, who was implacably hostile to the exiles, he expressed the desire to see some of them, and, having done so, petitioned Nicholas l to show them clemency.   This request fell on stony ground, the Emperor replying that any way back to civilization would have to be ‘via the Caucasus’.  Several men however did choose this hazardous road to freedom.  Some, like Alexander Bestuzhev, died fighting; others, like the poet Prince Alexander Odoevsky, succumbed to disease; but others, like Andrey Rosen, who lived well into his 80’s, made it safely back to the West.

I wonder how many of the present prisoner recruits will make it home?