Matrona’s Four Children, by F Bailey Norwood

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This book was based around the idea that the illegitimate son of (the future) Catherine the Great by Grigory Orlov was, in order to protect him, swapped with another child, and that Alexis Bobrinsky therefore wasn’t their son and a fictional character called Rolan Pechenkin was. Pechenkin is the name of the man suspected of blowing up the bus in Volgograd last week, but that’s rather beside the point. Rolan was placed in an orphanage for noble children, where a clandestine Old Believer priest converted him to the Old Belief with the idea of eventually placing him on the throne in a rebellion which would overthrow both the Romanov dynasty and the Orthodox church. It sounds mad, and obviously it’s completely fictitious but, given the frequency with which pretenders turned up in seventeenth and eighteenth century Russia, and the support given to both Stenka Razin and Pugachev by Old Believers, it could actually have happened.

However, most of the book was actually about economics – the author is a professor of economics – and showed Rolan Pechenkin making a great success of running an estate, on which all the serfs were Old Believers, by introducing a capitalist system. He even planned to open a linen mill there. I love to bore people by telling them about the connections between Old Believers and the Lancashire textile industry … but that wasn’t until the 19th century, so I forgive the author for not mentioning them in a book set in the time of Catherine the Great! It then rather bizarrely ended with the priest inciting a rebellion, Rolan killing the priest and then killing himself, and Rolan’s widow giving birth to triplets.

It was an interesting book, but it was marred by some poor grammar and punctuation and, fundamentally, the fact that the author didn’t seem to know some very basic facts about Russian culture. He apparently wasn’t familiar with either the use of the patronymic or the fact that feminine Russian surnames are different from masculine Russian surnames (Sharapov/Sharapova, Safin/Safina, etc); he seemed to think that Russian nobles used Yiddish slang words; and, most strangely of all, he insisted on referring to the Tsarina as “the Tsaress”, a word which doesn’t exist in either Russian or English (or indeed, as far as I know, in any other language)! It seems a shame that someone should have written a book without researching such basics of the culture in which it’s set, and that his editors presumably didn’t know any better than he did.

He described it as an “economic fiction”. It worked reasonably well as historical fiction too, but it could have been so much better had he made a little more effort to learn about Russia, and written a lot more about the “rebellion” and a lot less about economic theory and the effects of bat manure on grain production!

Overall verdict – not bad, but could have been far better.

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