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.

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