Ice on the Neva

Ice on the Neva

According to the Neva Delta Company website this winter the river Neva in St Petersburg  is likely to be frozen for longer than average. This is in marked contrast to recent years in which warmer temperatures have meant that sometimes the river remained ice free, and tourist boats have continued to ply their trade.

The frozen river almost becomes a character in its own right in my current work in progress, Fortune’s Price, which is set between 1830 and 1832.  Back in the early 19th century it seems that the river routinely froze every year. According to the physician, botanist and traveller, Robert Lyall, in ‘The Character of the Russians and a detailed history of Moscow’ published in Edinburgh in 1823: ‘From the experience of the last century, i.e. from 1718 to 1818, the ice of the Neva, at St. Petersburg, has never broken up sooner than the 22nd March (in 1723) and never later than he 30th April (in 1810).  During the same period the earliest time of its freezing was the 16th October (in 1805) and the latest the 12th December 9th (in 1772).’  

Thinking about the impact of the colder weather this year reminded me of a dramatic incident related by the artist, travel writer and conservative grandee Edward Tracy Turnerelli (1813 -1896) in his book ‘What I know of the late Emperor Nicholas’ (1855). While visiting the Russian capital during the thaw, Turnerelli inadvisedly risked crossing the Neva by boat while ice was still flowing down to the sea in great shards.  As a result his boat was trapped between two great blocks, and he thought that he was about to perish. He was not alone: ‘This the boatman seemed well aware of,’ he writes. ‘For he began calmly to make the sign of the cross, invoking all the saints in the Russian calendar, while with true Muscovite sang froid he said ‘Barinn! Niett nadejda! Nadobno militsa Bokh!’  (There is not hope master, let us pray to God to forgive our sins!)

A large crowd gathered on the bank to watch the incident. This attracted the attention of the Tsar, who was having his dinner.  He apparently flung his fork aside and immediately called out a company of military ‘pontoniers’ who ‘set to work with a marvellous activity. They cut with their hatchets a hole in the ice, placed a boat in it, then cut another, placing planks on these boats as they advanced and continuing this work, in less than a quarter of an hour, the bridge was finished.’

The emperor himself came down to the river bank to supervise the rescue and, on receiving the effusive thanks of the hapless Turnerelli, expressed himself delighted to have been able to help an Englishman.

Of course at that time relations between England and Russia were good, but by the time Turnerelli came to write his memoirs their deterioration had culminated in the Crimean War.  This meant that Turnerelli’s memoirs, which in many respects are a hagiography of Nicholas, are tinged with an element of regretful self-justification. The four or five personal encounters that he had with the autocrat had always been positive and he could not help but continue to admire him, despite the change in diplomatic circumstances.

Tram running on the ice, late 19th Century

Tram running on the ice. Late 19th Century postcard

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