Cholera hits St Petersburg in 1831


Nicholas 1 confronts rioters during the Cholera Epidemic of 1830-31

As seems appropriate in these times of pandemic, I am currently researching the cholera epidemic that hit Russia in 1830 to 1831.  The reason for my interest is that my new work in progress, The Legacy,  is set in these years, and therefore the impact of the disease can’t be ignored.

In the early 19th century  the causes of cholera were unknown and the manner of its transmission contested. This meant that many of the measures adopted by the authorities and remedies suggested by doctors were inconsistent and often useless.  The general populace viewed the activities of the authorities at best with suspicion and at worst with violence.  Often the rules and regulations that were introduced were seen as evidence of conspiracy on the part of bureaucrats or the police.  In the worst cases officials were said to be poisoning wells, using the epidemic as an excuse to settle old scores by getting rid of undesirables, and even to be encouraging the disease as a means of reducing overcrowded areas of the cities. Doctors were accused of wanting people to die so that they could get hold of their corpses for medical experimentation.

Intriguingly the rapid way in which cholera affected the afflicted bore many of the same symptoms of poisoning, a fact that led people to be suspicious that murderers were operating unobserved.

Russia was the first European country to be affected by cholera.  The disease spread up the rivers in the east of the country, reaching Moscow in the Autumn of 1830 and spreading north and east, finally arriving in St Petersburg in the summer of 1831.

In general the response of the Russian authorities to the epidemic was heavy handed.  The Tsar, Nicholas 1st ‘s first response on the arrival of the disease was to send the army out to defeat it.  Unsurprisingly the army had difficulty in finding the enemy!  Later responses were more effective but paid little attention to local needs and circumstances

In the face of cholera, few countries in Europe avoided civil disturbance and Russia was no exception, In June 1831 a riot broke out in St Petersburg on Sennaya Square.  Nicholas appeared on the streets in person in an attempt to restore order, an initiative which, in the event, proved successful.  There were also riots  in Sebastopol and in military settlements in the Novgorod area, where a number of army officers were massacred by their troops and local peasants.  These incidents were suppressed with brutality.

In the words of Christopher Hamlin , the author of Cholera, The Biography, the disease was ‘brash, bad and coming to get you’.  The panic caused by its arrival was, in part, due to the fact that the mortality rate was very high, falling between 40% to over 60% of those afflicted.  It was certainly an illness that was best avoided.

Many of the characters in The Legacy will find themselves in St Petersburg at the time in question, facing the threat of the disease, unable to get through the quarantine barriers to the relative safety of the countryside.  Some, I suspect, might succumb.


An epic story for today about fifteenth century Russia

A few weeks ago I read Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin.  Originally published in Russia in 2012, the book was translated into English in 2015 and has been reprinted three times since then.

    Vodolazkin is a scholar who specialises in mediaeval Russian history and folklore and his background is reflected in the book. It tells the story of a young man with healing skills, who, in fifteenth century Russia, leaves his home and wanders the world trying to assuage his guilt at his failure to save his woman’s life.  He has a number of adventures as he travels, and the reader is carried along in a slightly dreamlike way through the challenges that the man faces.

    It is a great read for those who want to get closer to the spiritual ideas and atmosphere of the Russian church. It also paints a convincing picture of the times.  The book is not however simply about the past. It contains has modernist overtones, occasionally bringing the reader into the present, and thus  embraces ideas of the meaning of time and timelessness, showing how compassion, faith, charitable works and healing are universal and eternal.   

    Inevitably the book contains its share of references to holy fools.  The concept of the holy fool, an individual who represents the truth while appearing to the world to be mad, reaches from the earliest years of the church, through Dostoevsky to the Russian literature of today.

My talk ‘Between Heaven and Earth’ gives an overview of some of the history and important features of the Russian Orthodox Church, and also introduces you to a number of holy fools.

Time for Turgenev

I have been reading The Europeans by Orlando Figes

    The book traces the story of the relationship between the writer, Ivan Turgenev, and the Spanish opera singer Pauline Viardot.  Turgenov wrote that she was the only love of his life, and their relationship fluctuated between the very close to the quite distant over the course of many years.Figes’s book is very wide ranging, and those seeking an in depth look at Turgenev would probably be well advised to seek a dedicated biography.  However reading it reminded me about the very strong reaction that Turgenev’s masterpiece, Fathers and Sons, attracted when it was published in the early 1860’s. Despite probably being his best known work and still a favourite of many today, at the time in Russia the novel pleased no-one.  Radicals thought that he had made the nihilist Bazarov a caricature of a revolutionary, and the more conservative sided with the ‘fathers’ in the book in deploring his revolutionary views.

The resulting  storm was instrumental in Turgenev’s decision to live largely outside Russia for twenty years.  He complained in a letter to a friend that ‘mud had been slung at him from all sides’ and that he had been called ‘a judas, a fool, and a donkey’ and also ‘a police spy’.

In my talk The Art of Resistance I discuss Turgenev’s work.   It is certainly the case that he writes objectively,  but his liberal sympathies are, I think, quite clear.  It has to be remembered that censorship was still alive and well in Russia at the time, and  extreme expressions of liberal opinion would never have been published at all.  It should also be borne in mind that Turgenev spent time in prison, and under house arrest on his country estate, due to police objections to an earlier work of the 1850’s.

Ivan Turgenev hunting (1879) by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky (private collection)

Lockdown ,,,,a result!

Sadly due the the present circumstances what was to have been one of my busiest ever years speaking to different groups about Russia, has turned into one of my emptiest for a long time.

All has not been a total disaster however.

I have used the extra time afforded by lock down to try my hand at writing a work of fiction.   I have been thinking about it for some time and had already started on some quite extensive research to support the effort.

I am able to report that I have finished a first draft.  This feels quite an achievement, but of course it is a long road from finishing the first draft and actually publishing!  A bit of a blow came the other day when I discovered that I have formatted it all wrong so will now spend some happy days and weeks working on that!

I do not want to say too much about the book, which, of course may never see the light of day. It is set in Russia in the early years of the 19th Century and my hero ‘develops’ against the background of the Napoleonic Wars and the Decembrist uprising of 1825 (sometimes called the First Russian Revolution.)  The book includes promising features such as handsome Guards Officers, secret policemen, a truly nasty villain and a rather damaged but beautiful heroine,  There is of course also one strong female character and a ‘loveable’ urchin.

I am sure you can’t wait!

The uprising on Senate Square, December 1825

New talk in progress

Faberge Egg (1913) commemorating 300 years
of Romanov rule 

I am developing a more general talk on Russia for groups who want to enjoy an introduction to the country through its history.

I shall look at six images of Russia, either objects or places, which will act as a ‘hook’ through which I shall discuss key moments in Russian history and well known personalities in Russian Life.

Once the talk is completed I shall post more details about it on the talks label above.

I have already decided on three of the images, one of which you can see here.

Researching the history of the Pushkin Museum

The Pushkin Museum

I have been busy this week researching the history of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury will close at the end of October to embark on its £8 million capital  project.

While it is closed some of its artworks will be travelling to Moscow to feature in an exhibition at the Pushkin Museum.

 I am giving a talk at Gainsborough’s House next week, and thought it would be a good idea to give the audience some information about where the pictures are headed.

The Pushkin Museum is the largest showcase for  Western art in the Russian Capital. Its name is misleading since the museum has little to do with the great early 19th Century Russian poet.  It was renamed in 1937 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Pushkin’s death.

The museum, which was built between 1898 and 1912 was originally conceived as a part of Moscow University.  It was the creation of the father of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, Ivan Tsvetaev who was a Professor at the University and an expert in ancient classical art.

The museum holds over 700,000 separate articles and has extensive collections of paintings, sculptures and other artifacts dating from centuries BCE to the present day.

Nick and I, along with some other intrepid travelers, will be visiting the museum in December to see the Gainsborough’s House pictures in a totally new context!

I hope to post more about the experience on this site in due course.

The imperial family at the opening of the Pushkin Museum in 1912

Repin Retrospective

This year is the 175th anniversary of the birth of the wonderful Russian artist Ilya Repin (1844 to 1930).  To celebrate this the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow is staging a retrospective exhibition but sadly it will be over before I plan to be in Moscow later this year.

Repin’s paintings are amazingly varied.  He produced wonderfully evocative portraits, paintings of historical scenes and also images of Russia as it appeared during his lifetime.  He was one of the ‘Peredvizhniki’ (or ‘Itinerants’ or ‘Wanderers’), a group of artists who broke away from the constraints imposed by the Russian Academy of Arts in order to produce work that was more relevant and accessible to the people.

The picture above is called ‘Procession of the Cross, Kursk’ and it was painted in 1881/2.  In addition to being a critical commentary on society at the time, it is also thought to be an environmental protest.  The countryside through which the procession is wending its way is bare and arid, and it is thought that this is Repin’s protest against the environmental damage caused in the region by excessive cutting down of trees.   The inhospitable landscape also perhaps says something about the spiritual state of many of the participants in the procession.

In my talk about Russian Roads I look at this picture in some detail, and also discuss the Peredvizhniki.

The Black Square

In my talk about the Art of Resistance (see talks tab above)  I devote some time to Malevich’s famous image from the beginning of the 20th Century, The Black Square.

There is now an excellent Heni Talk about this picture available on-line given by the Director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery Iwona Blazwick. 

She reflects the belief of  Constructivist artists like Malevich  that their work represented a real democritisation of art. It was a creative effort that was accessible by all people, everywhere. Unlike representational art it was not the property of ‘an elite’.  As such it could be seen as truly revolutionary and in tune with the mood of the time.

As I explain in my talk this view was not ultimately shared by contemporary political and cultural leaders, and pictures such as the Black Square were, within a few years, no longer deemed acceptable in the Soviet Union.

To access the on line talk, which is only around 15 minutes long, follow this link.

Russian Roads

V.G. Perov. The Last Inn (1868) Oil on Canvas 

One of my talks is on the subject of Russian roads.  Russia is a big place and even today many roads are not particularly easy to navigate outside the main cities.

In the talk I look at many aspects of the idea of rhe road.  I consider how roads manifest themselves in the Russian consiousness in a metaphorical way, and also look at how roads have been depicted in Russian art. 

The pictures include the wonderful image above by Vassily Perov (1834 – 1882) who was one of the founder members of the ‘Peredvishniki’ or ‘Wanderers’ , a group of artists who sought to escape the suffocating atmosphere of the Imperial Academy by literally taking to the road to ensure that their art was seen in provincial centres.

In Perov’s painting we see the route out of a provincial town.  It goes past the ‘last inn’ just inside the town gates.  The sunlight in the distance is misleading since a glance at the chimney of the inn shows that a bitter wind is blowing, and in the sledge in front of the inn some unfortunate person is waiting in the cold, presumably while the master of the house is having a drink inside!

I was reminded of the topic of Russian Roads  today because I have been alerted (via Twitter) to a fine collection of photographs of Russian Roads through the ages, one of which is shown below. More can be seen on  the website English Russia  available here.

A road in the depths of Russia.  The sign reads ‘Paradise’ in one direction and ‘Jerusalem’ in the other.