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?

Misfortunes of War

Tanks stuck in the mud. 2022. (picture from

‘After a few marches to Minsk and Kalushin, our division took up a position near Zhukov in a lovely oak grove, which of course quickly disappeared as campfires were built for boiling up food.  It was the end of April, the days were hot, the nights quite cold and towards morning there was frost.  There was cholera among the troops.’   From the memoirs of Gregory Ivanovich Philipson, Russian Archive 1883. Volume 5. p. 126.

These words come from the amusing and colourful reminiscences of Grigory Ivanovich Philipson, later General Philipson, who as a young man served as a Lieutenant in the Duke of Wurttemberg Regiment of Grenadiers during the Polish Uprising (1830-31).  Philipson’s writings, the memoirs of other soldiers, and regimental histories often present vivid pictures of military life on campaign.  As in Ukraine today,  ecological devastation, disease, bad weather, procurement difficulties and plunder featured regularly and combined to frustrate the intentions of those in command.

Unseasonal weather was a constant problem.  The Polish campaign started in December 1830, when it was expected to be cold and the countryside frozen.   Nature however did not oblige and, in addition to the expected frost and snow storms,  the troops marching into Poland were often hindered by thaws, melting the rivers along which they hoped to travel, making the roads and impassable and seriously slowing progress.   As late as May, inclement weather was a problem.  Major General Berg of the General Staff wrote to Field Marshall Diebitsch: ‘The men are moving well, but not the horses. It’s hardly possible to drag the guns and carts along the terrible roads.’  Even in June Philipson notes: ‘The next march… was notable due to our state of exhaustion.  We did not walk, but crawled through sticky mud and forests, only travelling 10 versts (a little less than 10 kilometres) in one day.’

Feeding the troops was also a problem.  The Russians entered Poland from a number of locations and rapidly ran into supply issues.  This led to forced requisition, looting and theft which turned the initially passive Polish peasantry into enemies.  Philipson describes how he saw ‘whole villages completely plundered and the inhabitants ejected. In some a few half-starved people remained, and with a hopeless indifference they looked on as their last crust of bread was taken.’  Later he comments: ‘Those amongst us who thought that it would be an easy war had to think again….the Polish forces defended to the last man, forcing us everywhere to think differently about the Pole, forgetting about them being nephews and eternal brothers.’

Stark parallels can clearly be drawn between that Russian adventure and the current tragic and pointless war in Ukraine.  Of course, contemporary warfare is a very different thing from that waged in the early 19th Century, but some features never change.

I am currently researching the Polish Uprising of 1830/31 to support the creation of my current work in progress (working title: The Prince’s Legacy.) The prequel, ‘Small Acts of Kindness, a tale of the first Russian Revolution) is currently enduring its final edit and will be published by Unicorn later in 2022

War games

The Russian army is rightly preoccupying people at present. 

When preparing for the first live talk I have given for quite a long time, I was trying to find a better image to illustrate Peter the Great’s ‘play regiments’.

I came across this bright 17th century woodcut, the illustration from a book.  I think the figure in red in the foreground, among the green jacketed troops, must be Peter.  The scene perhaps shows one of the mock battles that he fought with his ‘troops‘ at the real fort that was constructed for their use outside Moscow in 1685 when Peter was just twelve years old.  I particularly like the pot-bellied mortar that Peter seems to be about to ignite.

Peter became joint Tsar with his older brother Ivan in 1782, at the age of ten. Soon after this his older sister, Sophia, seized power helped by her lover Golytsin. Despite this  Peter, it seems, was allowed plenty of freedom and, extraordinarily, Sophia did not seem to notice how to the north of Moscow he occupied himself playing soldiers.  Initially Peter engaged his young friends from the nobility, but later boys and men from other parts of society were co-opted.  In time proper officers from abroad were recruited to train the troops, and ultimately in 1689/70  Peter was able to use them to overthrow his sister and take back the throne.

Peter formed his troops into two regiments, the Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky,  named after two villages close to Moscow where their manoeuvres took place. In time these regiments came to form elite life guard regiments with close personal links to all later Emperors. Unsurprisingly, they were disbanded after the Revolution of 1917.

 It was only in 2013, coincidentally just before Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula, that the elite regiments returned.  By presidential decree an existing regiment was given the name Preobrazhensky.  The Semenovsky Regiment was in the same year recreated as a rifle regiment with responsibility for securing at the Moscow Kremlin.  The narrative surrounding these changes emphasized the historic continuity intended in resurrecting the names of ‘famous legendary units’.

It seems clear that, like Catherine the Great before him, Vladimir Putin is keen to underscore his legitimacy by associating himself with Peter, his autocratic and ambiguous predecessor, although sadly the contemporary photographs of the revived regiments rather lack the romance of the pre-revolutionary guards.

A week of Royal Secrets

 Did Alexander the First of Russia really die at Taganrog in 1825?

This week there has been new evidence suggesting that Richard the Third may not after all have murdered his nephews, Edward and Richard, in order to cement his position as King of England. This is not the first time that people have attempted to exonerate Richard from the crime. Josephine Tey in her novel, The Daughter of Time, made a good case that the perpetrator was not Richard, but Henry Tudor, later Henry the Seventh, who had an equally good, if not better, motive.

Coincidentally this week, in the interests of my own ‘research’, I have been considering the facts surrounding the death of  the Russian Emperor, Alexander the First, the man who received the keys of Paris after victory over Napoleon.

            Officially, in mid November 1825 (Old Style), almost 200 years ago, Alexander died far from St Petersburg, in Taganrog, a port on the sea of Azov. His death, which sparked a constitutional crisis and failed rebellion, raised uncertainties and questions that have led some historians to believe that he staged his own death.  It is argued that he wanted to escape the responsibilities of a role which was becoming increasingly onerous to him. Moreover, he might have felt continued guilt about the assassination of his father, Paul the First in 1801,  in which he was very probably complicit.

The story goes that the body that was transported back to St Petersburg for burial was not Alexander’s, but that of an imperial courier.  The 47 year old Emperor was spirited away to Siberia while very much alive. It is speculated that he left Taganrog on a yacht owned by the Earl of Cathcart, former British Ambassador to the Court of St Petersburg, and  reappeared some years later as a holy man known as  Fedor Kuzmich.

 The evidence presented to support this tale relies on the fact that eye witness accounts of the death of Alexander are so contradictory that they cannot be true. It is also the case that when the Soviets opened Alexander’s coffin during the Revolution it was found to be empty (no one knows what happened to the courier.) Those who met Kuzmich in Siberia said he had knowledge of court life in St Petersburg that suggested first hand experience.  In addition it was said that he was visited  by Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich, Alexander’s younger brother.

If this last story were true, the Russian Royal Family were well aware of the deception and played along with it.  I don’t find this improbable, since prior to 1825 they kept the secret of Alexander’s brother Constantine’s renunciation of the right to become Tsar for several years.

The whole story was set out in detail in an article of 1945 by Leonid Stakhovsky an academic, at that time working at Harvard University.  It can be read in the American Slavic and East European Review. (Vol 4, no ½, August 1945, pp.33 to 50).  I am not sure whether Professor Stakhovsky’s assertions have since been disproved, but, true or not,  his  article is certainly thought provoking and entertaining.

(Picture:  Equestrian Statue of Alexander the First by Franz Kruger. Hermitage Museum)

The Moscow Foundling Home


The Moscow Foundling Home in the early 19th Century. Fyodor Alekseyev (c.1755 -1824)

Many good stories include among their characters a foundling or an orphan.  Including a foundling in the mix gives the storyteller the chance to raise plenty of interesting questions about the past.

In my book, The Legacy, for which I am currently doing research, one of the characters is a foundling. I have therefore been looking hard at the history of the Moscow Foundling Home, which was established in the second half of the eighteenth century by Catherine the Great.  At the time, all over Europe,  infanticide and abandonment of children was a huge problem. The Empress was just one of many monarchs who established orphanages to try to resolve it.

The aims of the Moscow Home, like many others, were only partially successful. The level of child mortality was horrendous, although apparently comparable with similar institutions elsewhere.  In some years of the Home’s long history, particularly in the early years, more children died than were taken in.  The death rate was exceptional among newly born babies, who represented the majority of the intake. Older children had a better chance of survival, and for them the support of the Foundlings Home was often a life-line.  If they were serfs they were automatically freed, they received a good education, and once in their teens they were trained for a trade. Some of the girls were sent to the Imperial Theatre School, and some of the more talented boys managed to enter university.

This system changed in the 1830’s when Nicholas 1stdecided that this opportunity for advancement encouraged mothers to abandon their children. Thereafter the prospects for the foundlings became much less rosy, although the number of children taken in continued to climb.

Remarkably, during the French occupation of Moscow in 1812 the Home was preserved despite the fact that most of the buildings surrounding the vast compound were razed to the ground. The presence of fire-fighting equipment, which was absent in other parts of the city,  enabled the staff to fight and avert the flames.  Napoleon himself, at the request of the Director at the time, General Ivan Tutolmin, protected the children, sending twelve gendarmes to guard the orphanage gates from looters.

Buildings that were part of the Foundling Home can still be seen today. Some can only be glimpsed from the embankment of the Moscow River, but the administrative building built by the dowager empress Maria Fedorovna in 1826 can still be seen in all its classical glory.

Will my Moscow foundling live happily ever after?  Will she like Tom Jones, or indeed Ralph Rackstraw, find that the muddles and mysteries of their childhood masked noble birth and illustrious parentage?  Readers will have to wait and see.

Shifting Stones

 I often marvel at how many buildings in the past were constructed without the help of machinery, and the same applies to moving large rocks across the countryside.

We recently watched a programme about how the great bluestones that form part of the stone circles at Stonehenge actually came from a quarry in Wales some 180 miles distant.

It has long been known that the stones were not ‘local’ to their current site in Wiltshire, and there have been various theories proposed over the years as to how the stones made the journey!  One theory was that they were carried by geological forces during the ice age.  More recently it was thought that they must have been transported by sea.  However the fact that it is now known that  the quarries from which the stones were sourced were on the north side of the Preseli Hills have led archaeologists to conclude that they may well have been hauled overland on wooden sledges.

There is a good article about the bluestones  HERE.

This story reminded me about another, more recent, feat of engineering.

The Transportation of the Thunder-stone in the Presence of Catherine II; Engraving by I. F. Schley of the drawing by Yury Felten, 1770

In 1768 a huge stone was found in the forests some 6 kilometres from St Petersburg.  The peasants called it the Thunder Rock, because according to legend the split that cleaved it had been caused during a thunder storm. The rock is thought to weigh 1500 metric tons. 

Once discovered, it was decided that this was an ideal base on which to mount Falconet’s great statue of Peter the Great, which was unveiled to the public in 1782 and which stands to this day in Senate Square in St Petersburg.  When I visited as a student we had great fun sliding down it!

Like the bluestones the rock was transported manually, without the help of machinery to a barge and then taken on by water to St Petersburg as can be seen from the picture above.

Returning to the Great Solovetsky Monastery

Over Christmas I read the novel The Monastery by Zakhar Prilepin, translated from the Russian by Nicholas Kotar.  The book was written in 2014 and published in English last year.

    It is a long read, and at 750 pages, probably overlong.  It is also rather a harrowing story since the book deals with a particularly unhappy chapter in the history of The Great Solovetsky Monastery and the islands that surround it  

    The monastery was established in the 15th Century on an archipelago in the White Sea, some 100 miles from the arctic circle.   Probably because of its remoteness from early times it was also often used as a prison and fortress.   Prilepin’s book, which is set in the 1920’s, is set in the period when the monastery and the islands became a ‘camp of special designation,’ a forerunner of the Soviet Gulag system.  The transformation that takes place during the book from being a place aimed at re-education to a mass labour camp is unedifying, but the book is redeemed by the engaging character and activities of its hero, Artium, a character based on the author’s great-grandfather.   Many of the individuals who appear in the book are based on real people.  It is, as I have said, very long at 750 pages, and rather uneven in quality. I have only read it in English, so do not know if this reflects the original book, or the translation. Nonetheless for those interested in Russia and its history, it is an interesting read.

    In the 1990’s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the monks returned to the Solovetsky islands and the monastery is now fully operational once again. I have been lucky enough to visit the islands twice; they are now a UNECSO world heritage site.  It is well worth reading about them here. Despite its bleak history the islands are a  particularly magical place. In addition to the huge monastery on the largest island, some of the churches on the archipelago are wonderfully atmospheric.


Hare Island


I have plans to return to Solovky when we are free to travel once again.

I talk about the history of the monastery and in particular about its part in the Great Schism in the orthodox church in the seventeenth century in my talk ‘Between Heaven and Earth.’

The dining hall of the Monastery