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?

Travellers’ Tales

Sir Robert Ker Porter (1777- 1842) The inside of a Russian Post House. (1813)

Two weeks ago, I was very pleased to be invited to speak at the CamRuSS Russian/Ukrainian summer school held at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.   I devoted part of my talk to looking at the sources I used when researching my novel, Small Acts of Kindness, A Tale of the First Russian Revolution.

Being students of Russian or Ukrainian language, or both, the audience was understandably receptive and, despite the heat, most stayed awake, asked a number of good questions, and made some useful comments.  I know that some have pre-ordered the book.

The aim of a historical story-teller must be to transport the reader to a different time and place.  When creating this sense of place, I find the memoirs of non-Russians who travelled in Russia at the appropriate time particularly useful.  Memoirs by Russians are, of course, invaluable but they don’t often focus on visual matters. They might not, for example, describe the characteristic costumes worn by the drivers of droshkies, since they would assume that their Russian audience would regard such description as superfluous.  When writing Small Acts of Kindness, which is set in the 1820’s, I therefore mined the works of English travellers of the time, such as the Doctors, William Rae Wilson,  Augustus Bozzi Granville and the Scottish diplomat and artist Sir Robert Ker Porter.

One picture which the audience seemed to find of particular interest was this illustration of the inside of a Russia Post House of Ker Porter’s Travelling Sketches in Russia and Sweden during the years 1805–1808, published in 1813.  The book concerns a period a little earlier than that of the novel, but this is a scene which, I feel, would not have been much changed twenty years later.

What is probably the family of the owner of the post house sits on top of a large stove. One of their number is nursing a baby.  The warmth of the stove provides a contrast to the cold weather outside as evidenced by the heavy fur- lined coat of the arriving traveller.

The figure in uniform who is inspecting the traveller’s papers particularly intrigued me. The papers are obviously official since a double headed eagle is discernible.  They are probably some sort of passport, without which it was difficult to travel anywhere in Russia.  I am not sure if the officer is a soldier, policeman, or some sort of civil servant.  The green uniform, both jacket and trousers, suggest that he is probably the latter, although his helmet looks rather military. We do know that at this time the uniforms of civil servants, although generally green, were not standardised. That came later in the 1830’s when Nicholas 1st, a great enthusiast for uniforms, regularised the design for every rank and occasion.

Small Acts of Kindness will be published by Unicorn Publications in early November.

Count chickens in the autumn

Award for the taking of Kiev

It has been reported  that at the time of the invasion of Ukraine, Russia had already issued a medal to reward soldiers participating in the anticipated fall of Kiev. The shiny badge is illustrated here.  Moreover, some troops, presumably elite regiments, involved in the ill-fated expedition, were ordered to pack parade uniforms for anticipated victory celebrations as the Russian army entered the city.

We now know, of course, that thankfully these preparations turned out to have been pointless. I hope that the medals will eventually be recycled for a more worthy purpose.  One might say that Putin was rashly counting his chickens before they hatched, or ignoring the wisdom of the equivalent Russian saying that chickens are counted in the autumn: Цыплат по осени считают. Presumably autumn is the season when the birds are herded into the safety of the henhouse for the winter.

The premature medals and fancy uniforms are, of course, evidence of Putin’s misplaced confidence in claims from his acolytes that absorbing Ukraine would be a push over, and that Kiev would swiftly capitulate.  It is a reminder also of the Russian autocracy’s longstanding tendency to value military show over operational efficiency which was remarked as far back as the 18th century and which possibly reached its peak under Emperor Nicholas 1st (1825-1855).

I was reminded that, following the valiantly defended campaign against rebel Poland in 1830/31, when General Paskevich finally made his hesitant and bloody assault on Warsaw, he ordered that parade uniforms should be worn for the attack.  We read how the citizens of the Polish capital emerged onto the city walls in the early morning of August 25th 1831 (Old Style) and were amazed to see row after row of colourful uniforms, gold braid and sparkling weaponry surrounding the hastily constructed fortifications.

On that occasion the festive accoutrements proved justified. On the following day after fierce fighting the city of Warsaw fell, and the day after that Grand Duke Mikhail rode into the city with the Imperial Guard, suitably attired.

This time round, however, in Kiev, parade uniforms are unlikely to get an airing.

Don’t kill the Horse!

Juliusz Kossak (1824- 1899) – Collection of National Museum, Warsaw,

Animals can be a writer’s best friend.  There are many occasions on which they serve a really useful purpose: they can move the plot along; throw light on the inner nature of a character; add a touch of poignancy to a scene.   However I have found that their appearance is often the forerunner of tragedy, to the extent that often now when I am watching a television programme and an animal appears my heart sinks.

‘That’s probably toast,’ I invariably remark, expecting to see the fluffy ball of joy destroyed before the end of the series, or even the episode.  The fate of the unfortunate Yorkshire terriers in A Fish Called Wanda usually then flashes unbidden before my eyes.

The most ingenious and sadly hilarious death of an animal that I have recently encountered was the murder through  stupid carelessness of a hundred year old tortoise in John Boyne’s very funny satire of the way we live now,  The Echo Chamber.   I won’t give details, as I really recommendthat you read the book, but suffice it to say that the beast’s death well illustrates the solipsism and ignorance of the character entrusted with the animal’s care

In my forthcoming book, Small Acts of Kindness, I kill off two animals:  a horse and a dog.  Their deaths are not pointless or gratuitous.  The demise of the horse in a fight between the authorities and rebel serfs adds much needed flavour of brutality and horror to a scene that needed to be brutal and horrid.   The dog dies to emphasise, with a touch of poignancy,  the nastiness of the regime in Russia in 1825.  The latter incident was actually based on a true story that involved bad behaviour on the part of Alexander 1st,  although it has to be said that the dog was an addition of my own.

The danger that lies in bumping off our furry friends is that it often offends the reader.  I have found that it’s fine to do away with innumerable characters, but the death of an animal invariably results in cries of protest: ‘Did you have to kill the horse…?’

So now I’m into the sequel and am writing about a desperate battle around the walls of Warsaw. I imagine that the Uhlans are on their way, lances outstretched, pennants flying.   They’re going to attack, there will be death and destruction.

But what should I do about the horses?