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


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.