The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits


This award-winning book has been described as “Quentin Tarantino meets Fiddler on the Roof”.  It’s not quite like that, but it’s certainly different.  Marks for setting a book in the Russian Empire in the late 19th century without it being centred on St Petersburg (I love St Petersburg dearly, but most people didn’t actually live there) and marks for writing a Jewish historical novel which isn’t about the Holocaust.  But it’s a bit weird, and there isn’t really much of a plot.

The theme, if there is one, is running away from it all.  If you go back a few generations, a lot of families have got a story of Uncle A who ran off (as opposed to emigrating in an orderly, planned kind of way) to America, or Cousin B who ran off to Australia, or someone who mysteriously disappeared from the records and was never spoken about, often leaving a spouse and children behind.  And it’s practically always a man.  In this book, it’s a woman.

Rather than St Petersburg, we’re in Motal, which (thank you, Wikipedia) was a “shtetl”, a small village with a mainly Jewish population (like Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof), in Belarus.  Well, it was in Russian Poland at that time, then in Poland between the wars, then Belarus.  And we have a Manchester link here 😉 , because it was the birthplace of Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, who spent three decades living in Manchester.  I know that people needed to know that.  All books should have Manchester links.  Obviously.

Motal has a problem with husbands running off.  This is a double problem, partly because it leaves families without their breadwinners, and partly because, under Jewish law, deserted wives are unable to remarry, even after many years, unless their husbands are either definitely known to be dead or else provide a written document of divorce.  There are a lot of minor characters, and all the men, for some reason, have double-barrelled first names, so it’s all rather confusing; but the main point is that the husband of one Mende does a runner, and Mende’s sister, one Fanny, decides to run off to find him.

Fanny is regarded as a bit strange anyway, because, as the title of the book indicates, she’s the daughter of a ritual slaughterer (i.e. someone who slaughters animals for food in accordance with the laws about kosher meat), and, unusually for a woman, she learnt the slaughtering trade too. And she gets involved in various adventures with men who’ve all left their villages due to being conscripted into the army.  The Russian Empire, like the Ottoman Empire, required different demographic groups to provide a certain number of boys for military service, where, if they weren’t members of the state religion, they’d be put under pressure to convert.   Fairly early on, she gets attacked by bandits, and kills them with the ritual slaughter knife which she carries around.  Then she gets chased by members of the secret police, who seem to have come out of a Carry On film.

It’s a very strange book, and, as someone who prefers “ordinary” historical fiction, I wouldn’t normally read something like this.  However, as I said, it’s very difficult to find books that are set in the Russian Empire but aren’t about aristocrats or revolutionaries in St Petersburg.  And it did make some interesting points about wanting to escape life in a small village, especially under the many legal restrictions that the population’s under.

The main problem with it is that anyone who’s not familiar with the background is going to find it incredibly difficult to follow.  I do actually like it when books assume that the reader knows the background and don’t patronise me by explaining it.  However, I do accept that not everyone has studied Eastern European history and culture, and that the average Anglophone reader may not be familiar with the Pale of Settlement, the Polish partitions, the Khmelnytsky Massacres (big gold star for using the transliterated Ukrainian version of the evil Khmelnytsky’s name, because people sometimes use the Polish version and that really annoys me) or the use of the nickname “Iron Tsar” for Nicholas I.  There are also a lot of Yiddish and Hebrew words, and references to some religious practices which are now only followed by ultra-Orthodox communities and which most people will not have come across.

A glossary would have been useful.  Give people a chance, eh?   Especially in the light of the Black Lives Matter protests, a lot of people are trying to broaden their reading horizons by choosing some books about different cultures, but I can imagine some readers being rather put off by the use of a lot of terms with which they aren’t familiar, without any explanatory notes.  Yes, I know there’s Google, but even so!

Anyway, if you fancy something different, this is certainly different!  But it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste.  If you read it and don’t get something, please let me know, because I absolutely love giving people lectures on 19th century Eastern European history, but I have terrible trouble getting anyone to listen 😁!



Russia Vs The World – Channel 5


What on earth was this rubbish?  I’d been looking forward to it, seeing as it promised to tell “the epic story of Russia and how a millennia [sic] of explosive drama ….” but it was just awful.

It started by jumping from Grand Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus to Ivan The Terrible, and ignoring the five centuries in between.  Hey, let’s make a programme about “the epic story of England”, and jump from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth I.   And that was just the start.  A small sample of things which it totally failed to mention – the Mongol invasions, the Battle on the Neva, the Time of Troubles, the Schism, the Table of Ranks, the Pugachev Rebellion, the Napoleonic Wars, the Decembrists, the Crimean War, the liberation of the serfs.  It did however mention James Bond, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Rasputin, Vladimir Putin going scuba diving, Boris Yeltsin’s drinking habits and Roman Abramovich.

Then it concluded by saying that Russia had come full circle from Grand Prince Vladimir to Vladimir Putin.  Presumably apart from Vladimir Putin not being a Russian Orthodox saint, and Grand Prince Vladimir neither being interested in scuba diving nor having spies who went to watch Arsenal.

Seriously, Channel 5?  I thought you’d got your act together with history programmes, but what on earth was this?

I think it was just meant to be Cold War-esque propaganda making out that Russia is the Big Baddie.  I don’t want to see stuff like that.  We’re supposed to have moved on from those days, and I don’t want to see any sort of propaganda on British TV.  Out of two hours, about twenty minutes was spent on pre-revolutionary Russia.  Then even the Civil War was pretty much skipped over, and it was on to Stalin, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, the fall of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin sitting on a tank, and then loads and loads about Vladimir Putin.

The argument seemed to be that Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (apart from Vladimir and Nicholas II, every other monarch was completely ignored) were dictators (Catherine would not be impressed with that at all) who paved the way for Putin.  Well, that’s logical, isn’t it?  Three monarchs in 500 years.  You might as well say that Henry VIII, George IV and Victoria are the reason that Boris Johnson could do with losing a few pounds (on which score I sympathise with them).  You could look at any country’s history and pick three monarchs in 500 years, and claim that they somehow typify the country’s leadership.  Then it completely contradicted itself, by saying that it was actually the KGB in charge, not Putin.

Not impressed.  We don’t need this sort of programme on TV.  And, if you say you’re going to talk about a millennium of Russian history, even if you don’t seem to know that the correct word is “millennium” rather than “millennia”, then please, er, do so.

The Romanov Empress by C W Gortner


This book, about Minnie, Dagmar of Denmark, Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, wife of Alexander III and mother of Nicholas II, is a very entertaining read; and, for people unfamiliar with this period of Russian history, it’s probably quite informative.  Unfortunately, it contained a number of very basic factual errors, which, given the generally high quality of the writing, were disappointing.  OK, they didn’t really affect the story, but I’m very picky about Romanov history and they grated on me!   Annoying errors aside, it was an enjoyable book.  So much attention is paid to Nicholas and Alexandra that Minnie is usually just seen in terms of her son’s reign: it was good to read a book in which she was the central figure.

It wasn’t a long book, and it didn’t say much about her childhood.  That was a shame, really, because her birth family are fascinating: her father, a fairly obscure prince, became King of Denmark through a claim on his wife’s side, and the “Grandfather of Europe” through his descendants’ marriages and his second son becoming King of Greece.  But, OK, it wasn’t meant to be about her early life.  Most of her five siblings didn’t feature much, but there was a lot about her close relationship with her sister Alix, Queen Alexandra of Great Britain and Ireland.  The book actually started with Alix’s marriage to the Prince of Wales.  We then saw Minnie’s engagement to the Tsarevich Nicholas, and, after his death, her marriage – with some reluctance on both sides – to his brother Sasha, the future Alexander III.

“Sasha” is a very difficult figure to write about.  He and Minnie were happy together, he seems to have had a reasonably good relationship with his children – less so with his siblings, but that was because he was an early advocate of what Prince Charles would call “a slimmed-down monarchy” –  and he was often described by royals from Britain and elsewhere as genial “Uncle Sasha”, the gentle giant.  And he managed to avoid getting involved in any major wars, despite the tensions of the time.  It’s also a little unfair how he’s seen as the great repressor in contrast to his father, the “Tsar Liberator”.  Alexander II was certainly far more liberal than his son, but he moved away from that after the 1863-4 Polish Uprising.

But Alexander III was repressive.  Much of that was a reaction to his father’s assassination, in 1881, but his refusal to agree to a constitution set Russia a lot further along the road to revolution.  And there’s the huge issue of the May Laws and the pogroms.  They weren’t the big international news then that they were in Nicholas II’s reign, but what went on was horrific.  There was also repression against … well, pretty much anyone else who didn’t tick all three boxes of being Russian, Orthodox, and Russian-speaking.  This was a book about a woman’s life, not a textbook, so I didn’t expect too much detail about political issues, and the issues were raised, not ignored, but I thought there should have been more about them.  That’s just my opinion.  And the famine of the early 1890s was pretty much ignored.

The book was much better on family matters, though.  And it’s pretty difficult to keep up with all those Romanovs, and all the British, Danish, Greek and German relations abroad, and the marriages and divorces and children – the author did well there!   We also got a good picture of Minnie’s charity work, and her popularity with the Russian people.

Alexander III died in his 40s.  The events of Nicholas II’s reign are very well-known, but still tend to be sensationalised: I was pleased to find that the author stuck to the facts and resisted the temptation to include some of the stranger stories.  We did not see any claims that Minnie was plotting to depose her eldest son.  What we did see was a lot about her difficult relationship with her daughter-in-law Alix and, increasingly, with Nicholas.  Again, it’s difficult – you have to sympathise with Alix over her anxiety about her son Alexei’s haemophilia, and her desperation to do anything to help him; but Minnie and everyone else could see the damage that was being done to the monarchy by its association with Rasputin.

This was a book about Minnie, so we saw it from her viewpoint – but I think most of us see it from her viewpoint anyway.  Nicholas should have agreed to far wider and deeper political reforms than he did.  “Our Friend” should have been given his marching orders.  The young Grand Duchesses should have been brought out into society.  The First World War was badly mismanaged.  But she could have shown Alix a bit more sympathy, and their difficult relationship did come across well here, as well as the fast-moving political and social events of the time.

We were also shown all the issues within the wider Romanov family – Minnie’s other children, and Sasha’s brothers and their families.  I love all this stuff, so I know all about who married and divorced whom!  If you don’t, you will hopefully enjoy finding out – it was all going on!

It was disappointing, though, that the book pretty much ended with the October Revolution, and did end with the famous evacuation of Minnie and numerous others from the Crimea (sorry, “Crimea”.  But no, I will not say “Krym”!) on a British warship.  Having thought throughout how nice it was to read a book that was about Minnie as Minnie, not just as Nicholas II’s mother, it was rather annoying that we didn’t hear anything, apart from a brief afterword, about the remaining ten yeas of her life.  Her story did not end when she left Russia.

Again, it’s difficult … there’s this image of her as a rather tragic and rather batty old woman, refusing to face up to the fact that her sons, Alix, the young Grand Duchesses, Alix and so many others had been murdered.  I don’t know how you’d write about that, because she wasn’t a batty old woman.  C W Gortner handled it well, as far as he went, saying that she felt she’d be betraying them if she acknowledged that they were dead … but then her cut her story short.

So that was a shame.  And, as I said, there were some very annoying errors.  Minnie’s name was usually spelt “Minny”, not “Minnie” as it as in this, but, OK, that could be excused.  I prefer “Minnie” as well: “Minny” looks wrong to me.   Her nephew George, our King George V, was called “George” by his relatives in this, when he was always known as “Georgie”.  Pobedonostsev’s name was repeatedly spelt as “Pobedononstsev”.  Minnie’s son Michael got married in Vienna: this said that he got married in Paris.  OK, these weren’t major errors, but they were annoying.  More seriously, Minnie’s daughter-in-law, Alix of Hesse, was referred to as “Alexandra” before her conversion and marriage.  That’s a common error, but her given name was Alix.  It wasn’t short for Alexandra: it was her full first name, an alternative spelling of Alice.  Using the masculine version of Russian surnames for women is inexcusable.  As for saying that Prussia occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Russo-Turkish War … how can you mix up Prussia and Austria-Hungary?!  Especially given the significance of Sarajevo coming under Austro-Hungarian control.  That sort of carelessness is just annoying.

OK, I’m being picky!  Moaning aside, I really enjoyed this.  It was exactly what I needed – Russian history and royal gossip are very good for me!   Recommended!

The Silver Crest by Kornei Chukovsky (Facebook group reading challenge)


In English language school stories, a common trope is for a character to be accused of something they haven’t done, and for the culprit then either to be found out or be shamed into owning up, and Our Hero/Heroine to be vindicated and the dishonourable baddie, hanging their head in shame, to be punished, preferably expelled.   (Well, except in What Katy Did At School, where Katy sanctimoniously decides to “live it down”, and Bella gets away with it all.)   In this book, a true story written by a Soviet era children’s author about his boyhood in late Tsarist era Odessa, that doesn’t happen – because he’s the illegitimate son of a peasant washerwoman mother and a Jewish father, and the wrongful accusation is just an excuse to kick him out of a good school that’s being purged of perceived undesirables.  However, he eventually triumphs over the system by completing his secondary and university education via correspondence courses.   It’s very different from the sort of school story that Anglophone readers are used to.  And it makes no mention of the alternative version of events, which is that Chukovsky and his mate, the future Zionist leader Vladimir/Ze’ev Jabotinsky, were both expelled from school for their political activities … which might have been more interesting, if rather less appealing to readers in Soviet times.   Odessa is a fascinating place: I’m not sure I’ll ever get the chance to go there again (I went in 2008), but I’d certainly like to.

It’s only a short book, and doesn’t go into much detail. The reading group challenge for February was to read a children’s book originally written in another language.  I wanted something Russian that wasn’t going to cost me a fortune, and this was recommended.  Yes, I do know that Odessa is now in Ukraine, and also that the transliteration from Ukrainian is Odesa.  I’ve been there!   But it’s still mainly Russian-speaking, so I’m sticking with “Odessa”, and the book is actually subtitled “A Russian boyhood”.  There are tantalising glimpses into the fascinating multicultural society of Odessa in the 1890s: several characters have Greek names or German names, and there’s a reference to the main character’s mother, a Ukrainian peasant woman, having hidden a Jewish neighbour during a pogrom; but it is a fairly short and simplistic book, although it would probably be difficult to follow without some prior knowledge of the history of the Russian Empire.

The author, Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky, was born Nikolai Vasilyevich Korneychukov. I don’t know where the patronymic came from: it wasn’t from the name of his natural father.  In this book, which is the story of his own youth, he says that he didn’t at that time know who his father was.  I don’t know whether that’s true or not.  He spent some time working in London as a correspondent for an Odessa newspaper, and then, back in the Russian Empire, was imprisoned for allegedly insulting the Romanovs.  In Soviet times, he was based near Moscow, became a very well-known children’s author, and used his position to help other authors, including Anna Akhmatova for whom his daughter worked as a secretary, who were being persecuted by the regime.

His mother had been a maid for his father’s wealthy family in St Petersburg. Due to the differences in class and religion, they never officially married, and she eventually moved, with Nikolai/Kornei and his older sister, to Odessa.   The book, as I keep saying, is quite short, but it does give us an idea of what life was like for poor people in the Odessa of the 1890s.  It doesn’t go on about evil-oppressive-capitalist/imperialist systems, and in some ways is reminiscent of the kind of memoirs you often get about British working-class life – we never had two ha’pennies to rub together but everyone pulled together and kids could play out in the streets kind of thing.  What’s never mentioned is how Kornei came to be attending the gymnasium, i.e. the top level of secondary schools, from which pupils would generally go on to university.  The only likely explanation is that his father was paying, which does make it rather unlikely that he didn’t even know who his father was.  I suppose it would have spoilt the whole mood of the book if we’d been told that this poor family were getting financial support from a wealthy middle-class source!  I may have this all wrong, but I doubt there’d have been free places, and I can’t see that his mother could have made enough for the school fees by taking in washing.

His mother’s extremely proud of the fact that he’s at this school – and has the silver crest of the school on his cap. She’s desperate for him to get on in life.  This doesn’t happen in British school stories (I know I’m putting a very British interpretation on this, but the idea of the reading group challenge was that we’ve all read loads of British children’s books, and are looking at something different!)  In those, it’s very rare for someone from a working-class background to attend a top school, or to be shown aiming to get on in life – which is incredibly annoying, because pulling yourself up by the bootstraps was a big idea in the 19th century, but never made its way into school stories, which were generally written between around 1900 and 1960.  And it’s interesting that they’re working within the system of Imperial Russia: there’s no sense of wanting to change the system, only of wanting to work with it.

The book starts with young Kornei, who reckons that he’s always near the top of his class – boasting is a definite no-no in English language school stories, so there’s another cultural difference – trying to help his friends cheat in a test. There’s no suggestion that cheating is wrong: he’s just being a good friend by trying to stop his mates from getting bad marks and consequently getting into trouble.  It backfires.  So he’s got a bad reputation with the teachers, and he does actually deserve it.  But then he’s blamed for egging on another boy to try to hide his bad marks from his parents.  It doesn’t actually seem like that much of a big deal, but apparently it was.   And he’s expelled.  A teacher symbolically rips the silver crest off his cap.

He naively assumes that the truth will out and he will be vindicated. He initially expects that the real culprit will own up.  But there’s no way.  This boy is from an influential family who are very ambitious for him.  There’s no way he’s going to chance getting into trouble at school – and it’s his mum who explains this to Korney.  Then he assumes that his friends, who know the truth, will speak up for him.  They don’t.  Then, eventually, someone tells him that it wouldn’t achieve anything even if they did – he and several other boys from “undesirable” backgrounds are being kicked out because the authorities want to purge top schools of unsuitable elements, and the incident with the other boy hiding his bad marks is just an excuse.

There were certainly moves in late Imperial Russia to make sure that the gymnasia were turning out boys who’d promote … the phrase “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” belongs to the reign of Nicholas I rather than that of Nicholas II, but that sort of idea. As the book points out, it was part of the very reactionary attitude taken by the government during the reign of Alexander III.  After the assassination of the “Tsar-Liberator” Alexander II in 1881, and, really, before that, going back to the Polish-Lithuanian Uprising of 1863-4.  I’m resisting the temptation to write a long essay on Imperial Russia, because this isn’t really a history book!   So I don’t find it hard to believe that boys would have been expelled for reasons that had nothing to do with their actual schooling or with bad behaviour.

Was it a class war thing? The authorities were paranoid about any hint of revolutionary activity.  So I wouldn’t be surprised if the real truth of it was the alternative version of events, which is never even hinted at this book – that Chukovsky was running a satirical student magazine with his friend Vladimir Yevgenyevich Zhabotinsky, later better known as the militant Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and that that was the reason he was expelled.  But, then again, the decree of 1887, referred to in the book, did say that working-class children should be kicked out of top schools because they should be encouraged to stay within their milieu rather than thinking about university.

Could it have been partly a religious/cultural thing, as well?  This was the era of the May Laws.  His father isn’t mentioned in the book, and there’s no suggestion that the authorities, or even Kornei himself, knew anything about him, and it’s made clear that Kornei and his mother and sister are Orthodox Christians, insofar as they bother with religion at all – but could the Jewish connection have been a factor too?

Whatever the exact truth of it, he was expelled from school for socio-political reasons. And, whilst this honestly doesn’t come across as being propaganda, in the end we are left feeling that our hero has been the victim of an unfair and oppressive system.   But he doesn’t go off and join a revolutionary movement.  Instead, he beats the system – and, yes, he does beat the system! – by gaining his secondary school and university qualifications via a correspondence course.  And the book ends with a note saying that he hopes the reader will love all his friends and family, but also that he hopes they’ll hate all the baddies – the headmaster, the school inspector, etc, and, interestingly, that there are still people like them around.

As a story, and it is meant as a children’s book, this isn’t bad.  There’s plenty of stuff about japes he gets up to with his mates, nasty teachers, girls he fancies, and so on.  As a history book, it doesn’t tell us that much, but it does give us some glimpses into a time in which the author had grown up but which is now gone, and into the absolutely fascinating culture of late 19th century Odessa and its very diverse population.  It really is a very, very interesting city, and I’m glad to have had the chance to visit it in 2008.

It doesn’t tell us much of the politics of Odessa … once I realised when and where the book was set, I was expecting more about politics and revolutionary activities, especially as the book was written in the 1930s. The original, 1938, edition, apparently opened by quoting the part of Stalin’s constitution that stated that all children had the right to an education, including at university level, paid for by the state, so there were very strong political overtones there.  I didn’t really sense any suggestion that most people had much interest in politics … although I gather that the 1938 version was much more political than the later version which was translated into English and which I read.   And the idea of the self-made man who beat the system is really more redolent of Victorian Lancashire than of Tsarist Odessa.  Very Samuel Smiles … and he does actually mention reading books by Samuel Smiles.  He taught himself English, and he seems to be a great admirer of Britain – which, again, has strong overtones of Victorian Liberalism, which I wouldn’t quite have expected from a book written in Stalin’s Soviet Union.  But Chukovsky wasn’t a typical Soviet author, and this isn’t a typical book of any sort of genre – it’s very different, and, whilst it’s only short, is worth a read, and a lot of thinking about.

Lists – ten historical places in time I’d like to visit


This was a blog challenge idea, and it sounded so easy … but it wasn’t. I was originally going to try to tie it into particular books, but I didn’t get very far with that.  Would I really want to be caught up in the Siege of Atlanta, with or without Rhett Butler to help me escape?  Or in Russia in 1812, with everything being burned to stop the Grande Armee in its tracks?   Or negotiating the politics of the Tudor courts?   One of the balls in Jane Austen books would be a lot more peaceful, but I would very definitely be classed as “not handsome enough to tempt me“. Back to the drawing board.   Try just general places, without specific books.  And the first one has to be Victorian Manchester.  I’m so predictable, aren’t I?

1 – Victorian Manchester. Yes, I know all about the condition of the working-classes: I have read Engels’ book several times.  But this was a time of confidence, and belief, and hope.  This was a time when people believed they could change the world.  Peterloo (OK, that’s Georgian, not Victorian) – it was a tragedy, but it began with the genuine belief that people could win their rights.  The Chartists carried that on, and so did the Suffragettes.  The Anti Corn Law League, the whole campaign for free trade – we even named the Free Trade Hall after it!   The glorious buildings – to have the confidence to do that, even after the Cotton Famine.  The ideas of self-improvement and self-help, and the growth of the trade union movement.  That’s what the world’s missing now – the confidence that we can change things for the better, and getting out there and fighting for it.

And 9 more, in no particular order.

2 – Elizabethan England, again for that feeling of hope and confidence, moving on from the internal turmoil of the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation. Well, until it all went pear-shaped in Charles I’s time, but no-one would have seen that coming back in the Gloriana days.  The flourishing of culture, as well.  I can’t be doing with Shakespeare, but he does symbolise the English Renaissance.  Yes, I know that the Elizabethan Age gets rather mythologised, but you can’t have myths unless you’ve got something to start with.

3 – Venice in the 18th century. I was going to say the Renaissance, but I’m not an arty person, for one thing, and Renaissance Italy involved too much fighting and political chaos and religious intolerance.  Venice in the 18th century, all that grandeur and glamour and elegance, would be a much better bet.  I’ve even got Carnevale masks: I wore them when I went to the Venice Carnival for my, ahem, “significant” birthday in 2015.

4 – Vienna in the late 19th century.  Music and waltzing, literature and philosophy.  I quite fancy the idea of sitting in a Viennese coffee house, exchanging ideas with great minds … who would probably think I was talking a load of utter rubbish and be totally unimpressed with my support for Slavic nationalists. But still.

5 – The Caliphate of Cordoba. OK, this is another one that’s probably been mythologised into a lot more of a Golden Age than it actually was, but there is certainly something in the idea of La Convivencia, the flourishing of Christian and Jewish and Islamic culture together.  We’ve come so far from that, and sometimes it seems as if we’re getting further away from it rather than getting closer towards it again.

6 – I’ve got to have Russia in here somewhere!   I want to be a romantic Slavophile.  I want to walk around wearing a red sarafan (I have actually worn one once) and go on about mysticism and melancholy and the “going to the people” and peasant communes.  Er, except that most of that is romantic rubbish.  I could be a noble in St Petersburg, but that really doesn’t work at all with being a romantic Slavophile.  Oh dear.  I’m going to have to be a revolutionary instead, aren’t I?

7 – The Lake District in the time of the Romantic poets. Hooray – I can get away with Romanticism in this one!   Maybe I could stay with Wordsworth in Grasmere?

8 – I’ve got to have America in here somewhere, as well, but it’s a bit difficult to say that I actually want to be there during “my” period of American history, the 1840s to the 1870s. The Twelve Oaks barbecue does sound like good fun, until war gets declared in the middle of it, but, quite apart from the fact that, as with a Jane Austen ball, I’d be the person no-one wanted to sit with or dance with, it’s a slaveholding society and I just couldn’t be there.  No – it’s going to have to be the American Dream, the immigrants sailing into New York and hoping that they’re going to find that the streets are paved with gold.  OK, it’d probably mean ending up doing backbreaking work in horrible conditions, but, again, it’s that feeling of hope, that belief, that you can make the world a better place and be part of it.

9 – India with Gandhi. I normally refuse to class anything later than the First World War as “history”, but I watched the Gandhi film again recently, and I’ve been reading up on Indian history, and … that incredible idea that you can bring about change by non-violent civil resistance, and the hope – even if it did turn out to be futile – of religious tolerance and co-operation.  There are a lot of groups of people now who have little hope – the Rohingyas spring to mind – but what an inspiration that time was.

10 – Do you know what, I actually do want to go to a Jane Austen era ball? I’d get over no-one wanting to dance with me!   At least the clothes of the time were fairly loose, so I wouldn’t look as fat in them as I would in clothes from some other time periods.  I like that idea of the county society in Jane Austen books, that you did get invited to parties and balls as a matter of course, and weren’t sat at home wondering how you’d get to meet new people.  I am absolutely useless at social occasions and would probably have hated it all in practice, but I do like the idea in theory.  I mean, Mary Bennet does seem to enjoy the balls, doesn’t she, even though everyone thinks she’s weird?  I like the idea of visiting spa towns and “taking the waters” as well.

I just wish I could match all these times and places up to books! But most of the best historical fiction’s set against a background of war and turmoil.  Is that because it appeals to authors, it appeals to readers, or it appeals to me?  And, if anyone’s reading this, please tell me when and where you’d like to go, and if any of our ideas match.  If they do, maybe we can build a time machine and go there together 🙂 .

Frankie Goes To Russia – BBC 2


This has been a strange build up to the World Cup.  Instead of the usual excitement, anticipation, and speculation as to who might win and whether or not England have got any chance, it’s been dominated by fears about racism, homophobia and hooliganism.  A Foreign Office committee issued a warning this morning about the risks which fans face.  Interviews with Gareth Southgate and the players have been more about these issues than the actual football.  This is horrible.  This isn’t how it should be.  And, whilst I do think that the media have come to demonise Russia over the last few years, to a level so ridiculous that it’s comparable with what went on in the 1870s (I’m getting a bit of “in the past stuff” in there, to try to pretend that I’m being on topic!), there is undoubtedly cause for concern.  No-one could ever call me anti-Russian, and even I’m saying that there’s cause for concern.

Only a few months ago, Paul Pogba and other black members of the French team were subjected to vile racist abuse during a match between France and Russia in St Petersburg.  Last year, during an under 17s match – under 17s, just kids – black members of Liverpool’s team were racially abused by players from Spartak Moscow, a club whose social media sites has referred to its own black players as “chocolates”.  Danny Rose said yesterday that he’s asked his family not to travel to the World Cup, because he’s so worried that they might face racist abuse.  That’s heartbreaking.  He said that his dad’s really upset.  To play in a World Cup is such a big thing, such an achievement, such an honour; and Mr Rose should be up there in the stands, bursting with pride.  Now he’s not going to get that chance.

When you’re a kid, the players are – obviously! – older than you.  Then you get to the point where they’re the same age as you.  I’m the same age as the Class of ’92.  Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and me – we were born within a few months of each other, and grew up within a few miles of each other, and now they’re all hugely successful, world famous, multi-zillionaires, and I’m … er, anything but!   Then the players are younger than you, and you even find yourself watching the likes of Kasper Schmeichel, Thomas Ince and Alex Bruce, whom you remember as toddlers!   And then it gets to the point where you are so ancient that you could actually be the mum or dad of the younger players.  It’s not great.  It really, really is not great!

But you do get this feeling of maternal/paternal pride when young lads you’ve watched come through the juniors make it all the way to the top, and that’s lovely.  Last night, both goals in England’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica, our final warm up match before the World Cup, were scored by Manchester lads who came through the United youth system – Marcus Rashford, just 20 years old, and Danny Welbeck.  I was so proud of them both, I can’t tell you!   And that’s how I want to feel.  I don’t want to be worrying that those lads, both black, are going to have people shouting the n word or monkey chants at them.

Ashley Young and Gareth Southgate have both said that the potential problems have been discussed at team meetings.  It’s good that the subject is being addressed, and a united front being presented, but this, and the warnings from the Foreign Office, and the concerns expressed in the media, aren’t what the build up to the World Cup should be about, in England or anywhere else.  We should be talking about who’s going to be in the England starting XI for the first match.  What are our chances?  Who’s going to win?  Which players and teams are going to light up the tournament?  Will it be the big names?  Will some young lad come from nowhere and make a name from himself?  Will an older player who’s supposed to be past his prime prove that he’s still got it?  Will an unfancied team make a fairytale run through to the later stages – remember Iceland at Euro 2016, and Cameroon at Italia ’90?  Those magical World Cup moments that you never forget, that people are still talking about years later, that get replayed on TV time after time after time – where will they come from this time?

That’s what we should be thinking about, and talking about.  Even the daft side of things.  Nigeria’s “interesting” kit.  The inevitable photos in the tabloids of players’ glamorous celebrity partners.  The quirky things that somehow grab everyone’s attention – remember the vuvuzelas at South Africa 2010?  And everyone getting obsessed with Nessun Dorma during Italia ’90?  Referees and linesmen (sorry, “referees’ assistants”), because, let’s face it, we all know that there are going to end up being controversial decisions which will make headlines.  Who’s got the best commentators, the BBC or ITV?  And why are there so few women involved?

But no.  Instead, the build up seems to have been mostly about racism, homophobia and hooliganism.  Thanks a lot, FIFA.  Oh, and where have they chosen for the next World Cup?  Qatar!   I understand the idea of taking the World Cup to different places – but, seriously, Qatar?  Hardly top of the international list when it comes to human rights, is it?  And can anyone actually name a single Qatari football club, or even a single Qatari football player?  Not to mention the problems with the heat.

Well, we all know very well that something is very rotten in the state of FIFA.   But, whatever went on with the voting process in 2010, when Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup and Qatar the 2022 World Cup, this is where we are.  And no-one’s saying that Russia is the only country in the world where these problems exist.  There’ve been horrendous incidences of racist abuse at football matches in Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine, Germany and elsewhere in recent years.  Hooliganism … well, we can’t deny the involvement of some English fans in clashes in France in 2016, and it wasn’t just English and Russian fans either.  And there were been some nasty incidents in Spain, Italy and elsewhere during European club matches in the season just gone.  But Russia is where the World Cup’s being held, so it’s Russia (and, yes, I do know that I should really be saying “the Russian Federation”) at which we’re looking.

OK, that was a long rant!  What about the actual programme?  Well, quite honestly, it was a bit of a piss-take.  Frankie Boyle, who presented it, is very, very funny, and he made me laugh all the way through, from his deadpan comments about the weather (he went in February, in several inches of snow) and his horrible breakfast to his brilliant crack about how the Russian stadia will be used for football after the World Cup whereas the London 2012 Olympic stadium was handed over to West Ham.  I don’t like West Ham, sorry!  And watching a Cossack chop up a cabbage with his sword was certainly entertaining.  It was all entertaining.  But it all gave the impression of not taking things very seriously, and this just isn’t funny.  It’s not funny that a member of the England squad is so worried about potential abuse that he’s asked his family members not to go.  It’s not funny that black/ethnic minority fans are being warned that they may be at risk of abuse.  It’s not funny that LGBT fans are being warned not to make an obvious show of their sexuality.  It is just not funny at all.

Some of it was serious, admittedly.  And some of the points, whilst made in a jokey way, were very valid.  What the hell was Boris Johnson thinking of, comparing the 2018 World Cup to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, “Hitler’s Games”?  Has the man never heard of the Siege of Leningrad, or the Siege of Stalingrad?  Does he have any idea how many people the Soviet Union lost in the fight against the Nazis?  As Frankie said, remarks like that, from a senior member of the British government, are offensive to put it mildly.

That was at the end of the programme.  It began with a visit to the Luzhniki Stadium.  Now, as we all know, the Luzhniki Stadium was the scene of one of the greatest events in the history of the universe – United winning the 2008 European Cup/Champions League.  Against Chelsea.  Now, thinking back, I cannot remember any particular warnings or concerns at the time about the final being played in Moscow.  OK, it was a one-off match, but even so.  And that says a lot about how much has changed in the last few years … oh dear, was it really ten years ago?!  And, to be fair to FIFA, in the eight years since the decision to stage the 2018 World Cup in Russia was made.  The war in Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea.  The worrying and highly discriminatory “homosexual propaganda” law.  All the failed drugs tests.  Syria.  The allegations over interference in the US presidential election.  And, most recently, the Salisbury poisonings.   That’s quite a mixture of things, but it’s all served to worsen Russia’s image in the media … and, of course, the nature of the media has changed a lot in that time, as well.

So how much of the genuine fear about racism and homophobia is well grounded?  Well, strangely, the programme barely mentioned racism.  And Frankie seemed to be setting out to look for trouble.  He spoke to was some kind of obsessive Putin fan, who was clearly rather weird and presumably not at all representative of Russian opinion.  Frankie tried to get him to talk about the issue of homophobia.  The guy insisted that there were no gay people in Russia.  Frankie, serious for once, tried to talk about the need for equality and human rights, but he just couldn’t get any sense out of the guy.  That was clearly worrying, but surely it would have been better to have spoken to the man/woman on the street, in order to get some sort of accurate gauge of public opinion?

And he went to some rather odd organisation which was training people in how to greet visiting fans – and, as he said, it was a bit like a Swiss finishing school.  All social etiquette stuff.  But, again, hardly representative of any sort of general public opinion.  And then on to the hairdresser’s.  That bit was actually better, because the woman in the hairdresser’s made some interesting comments about Russian views on women, and how society there’s still quite patriarchal.  But it was all interspersed with stuff about beards and male grooming, which I don’t really think is anyone’s main concern ahead of the World Cup!

Then on to Rostov-on-Don. Glasgow’s twin city.  Supposedly infamous for hooliganism.  I thought that was Spartak Moscow!  United played Rostov not so long ago, and there was no trouble.  And Frankie didn’t find any trouble either – there were lots of families at the match, and it was all very nice.  He then spent a lot of time hanging around with Cossacks.  I was rather disappointed that none of the Rostov fans at Old Trafford turned up in Cossack dress, I have to say!  The idea of Cossacks policing football matches – which apparently is going to happen – sounds  a bit bonkers, and we were shown videos of the worrying scenes at the Sochi Winter Olympics in which Pussy Riot (thank you, Google – the programme didn’t mention the group’s name, and I couldn’t remember it and kept thinking “Pussycat Dolls”!), the protest punk group, were whipped by Cossacks.  But, instead of talking about that, we then got scenes of a Cossack chopping up a cabbage with his sword.  Yes, it made for good TV, but I doubt that worried fans and players are going to be very reassured by seeing someone chop up a cabbage.

Frankie did seem to be concluding that there wasn’t that much to worry about, politicians were making things worse and the media were creating a bit of a fuss about nothing.  I hope he’s right.  But I’m not sure that making a comedy programme about people’s very real fears, over such serious issues as racism and homophobia, is really very appropriate.  Frankie was clearly taking the issues seriously, especially in the discussion with the very strange man who just wouldn’t acknowledge that people could be gay, but the tone of the programme just didn’t really work for me.  These aren’t laughing matters.  I love Russia, but no-one can deny that there have been some horrible racist incidents at football matches there, very recently, and the anti-gay “propaganda” law of 2013 has no place in any decent society.  No offence to Frankie Boyle, who is a comedian and was being a comedian, but, BBC, don’t say that you’re going to show a programme about something so serious and so horrible and then show a bloke chopping up a cabbage with a sword.  It just isn’t appropriate.

Here’s to a wonderful World Cup.  May it be full of wonderful football, and free from any sort of unpleasantness.  We can but hope.


Between Love and Honour by Alexandra Lapierre


Dagestan possibly isn’t the most obvious of places from which you might expect a chivalric romantic hero to come.    The words people most associate with it these days are probably, and quite understandably, “lawlessness” and “terrorism”.   It’s sad: Dagestan and neighbouring Chechnya have a fascinating history.  And this book, set against the background of the Caucasian Wars, is based on a true story.  Jamal Eddin, our chivalric, romantic hero from Dagestan, was a real person, and Alexandra Lapierre’s done rather a good job of telling his story.

The expansion of Russia does rather tend to get lost in the wider course of European history – which is daft, really, because it’s had far more effect on European and world history than short-lived conflicts like the War of the Austrian Succession or the Seven Years’ War.  The Great Northern War gets a lot of attention, and I suppose the Polish partitions do too, but Russia’s expansion southwards and eastwards only tends to become a “thing” in English language history books once you get to the Great Game and the fear that Russia might barge through Afghanistan into India.  Obviously the whole issue of the Dardanelles and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire gets a lot of coverage, but Russia never actually got involved in any sort of land grab there, other than with the Danubian Principalities.   The Caucasian Wars, on the other hand, get ignored.

Admittedly, that’s partly because the early part of Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus clashed with the Napoleonic Wars.  Everyone knows about 1812.  But what about Russia versus Persia?  Yes, Persia.  By the 1820s, Russia was in control of what would later become the three Transcaucasian republics of the Soviet Union – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  And needed to take over the rest of the Caucasus – the area that’s still part of the country which we all call “Russia” and should really call “the Russian Federation” – to link everything up.  The leaders of the resistance formed the imamate of Chechnya and Dagestan, and turned it into a holy war, in which the local population were pushed into following sharia law.  Some of this sounds really rather familiar, doesn’t it?

So, we have Shamil, the Lion of Dagestan, Imam of the Caucasian Imamate.  Following his defeat in the long siege of Akulgo in 1839, he was forced to give up his eldest son, Jamal Eddin, as a hostage, to be brought up in St Petersburg.  Common enough practice in medieval times – think England v France or England v Scotland – but unusual by the 19th century, but it happened.

Nicholas I, Mr Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality, usually seen as a bit of a baddie, crushing the Decembrists and refusing to consider the sort of reforms later made by his son Alexander II, comes across as being rather nice in this book.  He takes a deep personal interest in Jamal Eddin, who is allowed to follow his own religion and dress in Circassian clothing, whilst receiving the education of a Russian nobleman at a military college and then entering the Russian army.   However, inevitably, Jamal Eddin finds himself caught between two worlds, and it all comes to a head when he falls in love with a Russian girl and wants to marry her – and decides to convert to Orthodoxy and become a true Russian.

This happens just as the Crimean War breaks out.  I don’t like the Crimean War.  I always feel rather guilty for saying that, because my great-great-great-grandfather fought in it; but I don’t.  The whole thing was largely due to Louis Napoleon wanting to look like a big shot.  There’s no way Britain should have gone to war with Russia.  It’s the same old thing that happened again in the 1870s, and is happening now – the press whip up this silly paranoia about Russia, and people believe it.  Gah!!  Anyway, this book shows it all in a rather romantic Slavophile way.  Russia wanting to be the defender of Orthodoxy and all that.  Yay!!  Come on, it’s true!  What was Nicholas I’s middle brother called?  Constantine!  Because Catherine the Great genuinely thought that conquering Constantinople was a possibility.  Yes, all right, it does sound a bit land grab-ish, but there genuinely is this idea of being the protector of the Orthodox Slavs and all that.  Bulgaria believes it.  Serbia believes it.   Sorry, I’m way off the point now!

Anyway, back at the ranch, or, rather, back in the Caucasus, Shamil has kidnapped two Georgian princesses and their children and household staff.  In the book, one of the princesses was Jamal Eddin’s first love: I’m not convinced about that, but it makes it all a bit more romantic.  He says he’ll release them if Jamal Eddin is returned to him.  Seeing as it’s apparently unthinkable (no-one actually sees to consider it) for Jamal’s fiancée to go to the Caucasus with him, this means that poor Jamal Eddin is – and this is where the title comes from – caught between love and honour.  (The title’s actually “Between Love and Honor” (sic) but I’m not keen on using American spellings.  How much choice he was given in reality, I don’t know, but, in this book, he nobly sacrifices his own happiness and that of his fiancée for the safety of the hostages.

And so the hostages are freed, and the engagement is broken off.  His fiancée eventually married someone else, but, according to her memoirs, never forgot him and always thought of him as her true love.  Poor Jamal Eddin failed to adapt to life back in the Caucasus, fell ill, and died three years late, still only in his twenties.   Not long afterwards, in 1859, Shamil surrendered.

I just need to get totally off the point again.  When I was in Russia in 2012, another British tourist started talking about “You know, the team with the unpronounceable name”.  “You mean Anzhi Makhachkala!” said I.  They’d just been bought by a zillionaire.  They signed some world-class players, and got Guus Hiddink to be their manager.  When Hiddink left, Rene Meulensteen, who’d been United’s first team coach in Alex Ferguson’s later years but hadn’t been wanted by David Moyes, took over.  He was sacked after 16 days.  Anzhi later made major budget cuts and have now gone down the pan.  This doesn’t have an awful lot to do with the Caucasian Wars.  But, if things had gone differently, maybe Dagestan would actually have become known for something other than violence.

I think that a lot of people forget that the Russian Federation is not just mainly Slavic and mainly Orthodox.  Not enough is generally known about the Caucasian areas.  That’s one reason to read this book.  Another is that it’s a genuinely interesting true story.  And … well, how many books these days talk about “honour”?    If anything, it’s a word associated with the losing side – think Richard Lovelace’s poems, or Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind.  It’s a concept that isn’t much talked about these days.  Maybe we could do with bringing it back.  Although it all ends in tragedy anyway.  But how very Russian is that?!

This is good.  It’s not the best-written book ever, but the story is really something different.


Russia 1917: Countdown to Revolution – BBC 2


There were, of course, two revolutions in Russia (“the Russian Empire” would be the correct term, but “Russia” is the one generally used) in 1917 – the February Revolution and the October Revolution. The one referred to in the title of this programme was the October Revolution, the “ten days that shook the world”.  It was one of the most important events of the twentieth century, and yet very little’s being said about its forthcoming centenary.  As far as I know, there are no official commemorations planned in Russia itself.  Contrast that with the song and dance that was made for the bicentenary of the Storming of the Bastille in 1989.  We even had a “French day” at school: we got croissants at break and were supposed to speak French all day!  But the French Revolution, despite the Terror, the guillotinings, the wars, is associated with people yelling “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” and the replacement of the ancien regime with something far more egalitarian.  The Russian Revolution, thanks to the events of October 1917 (October by the Julian calendar, November by the Gregorian calendar), just replaced one repressive regime with another.  Civil war, famine, Five Year Plans and the damage they did in Ukraine, the Cheka/the KGB, the horrors of Stalinism …

Nevertheless, Lenin has traditionally been presented in Russia as a hero, as Chairman Mao is in China. The mausoleum in Red Square’s still there.  And the focus of this programme was largely on the three figures of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.  Ulyanov, Bronstein and Dzhugashvili – it’s quite interesting how none of them were known by their real names, names which the programme didn’t even mention!  Various historians were interviewed.  And the focus was all on the period between the February and October Revolutions, so the pre-February regime barely even got mentioned, which was rather bizarre.  How can you have the Russian Revolution without the Romanovs?!

The big snag with the Russian Revolution is that you can’t really sympathise with either the Romanovs or the Bolsheviks. The Romanovs have been romanticised over the years.  And, hey, they’ve even been canonised.  On a personal level, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for them, especially in relation to Alexei’s haemophilia.  And, come on, they didn’t deserve to be massacred in such a horrific way.  Even if you think Nicholas did, what about the rest of the family?  But, on a political level, Nicholas II was an utter disaster as a Tsar, and Alexandra made things worse.  They had the perfect opportunity, with the Romanov tercentenary in 1913, to win some kind of emotional support, at least with those outside the intelligentsia, but they even pretty much screwed that up.  And the mess that Nicholas made of things during the Great War was the final straw.

It’s interesting to look at how they were viewed outside Russia, as well. George V, as we now know, didn’t want them coming to Britain because he knew how unpopular they were here.  Same thing in France.  Many people in the US opposed America entering the war on the side of the Triple Entente because they didn’t want to be allied with Russia.  Bloody Sunday (1905).  Pogroms.  Autocracy and repression.  You can’t sympathise with that.  And you can’t sympathise with the Bolsheviks either.  So what would you commemorate?

Could it have been different? The programme subscribed to the often-held idea that it would have been impossible to introduce a democratic system to Russia in 1917.  Too big.  Too complex.  No experience of democracy.  No culture of democracy.  Maybe if something had been done gradually?  Catherine the Great introduced some reforms – then got scared off by the Pugachev uprising.  Alexander II introduced major reforms – then got scared off by the Polish-Lithuanian rebellion.  And then got assassinated, which scared his son Alexander III off good and proper.  1905?  Well, some reforms were made.  It was a start.  But surely the biggest chance was the February Revolution.  Kerensky, as the programme pointed out, was the real poster boy of 1917.  It’s very difficult to do anything in the middle of that sort of chaos, with war, and shortages, and in such a huge and complex country – but you have to think that he should have done better.  He didn’t manage the war much better than Nicholas had done, and he failed to get the support of those on the right wing as well as the left.

Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, of course, were all off the scene at the time of the February Revolution. Incidentally, I could have screamed when the narrator referred to Stalin as Lenin’s lieutenant, pronounced “loo-tenant”.  Ugh!!  It’s “LEF-tenant”.  Lef lef lef!  American pronunciation on the BBC.  I don’t know what the world’s coming too!  Anyway.  So we had this rather sitcom-type image of Lenin in Switzerland, Trotsky in America and Stalin in Siberia, all – a bit like Hugh Grant at the beginning of Four Weddings and a Funeral, when he realises that he’s running horrendously late for his best friend’s wedding and rushes around trying to get ready, saying “fuck” every thirty seconds – panicking because the revolution’d started without them.  There was also a lot of waffle about how Trotsky and Stalin were both very glamorous and good-looking.  Er, can’t see it myself, but each to their own!  And I don’t know why they went on about Stalin so much anyway, TBH.  He really wasn’t that important in 1917.  His time came later.

I was just about to say that Lenin travelled from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station, but that’s the Pet Shop Boys, not the Russian Revolution. Oh dear.  He travelled from Zurich to the Finland Station.  The official picture is that he was greeted as the hero of the people, like Nelson Mandela being released from prison in 1990, but, as the programme said, most people didn’t actually have a clue who he was.  But, as Simon Sebag-Montefiore in particular made clear, the October Revolution was largely about Lenin.  Trotsky was the better speaker, and probably better-known, but Lenin was the one who took control of things, and Lenin was the one who believed that a communist revolution in Russia was actually possible.  It was never supposed to happen like that.  Marxist revolutions were supposed to happen in … well, Manchester and London, probably, going off what Marx and Engels said.  Urban, industrial areas.  And yet Lenin made it happen in Russia.

So, as the different historians were asked, was it a popular uprising or was it a coup d’etat. As one of them pointed out, you can’t really have a genuine mass uprising, because you couldn’t possibly organise it without the authorities finding out.  And it was really only about Petrograd, to start off with.  There’s the famous Eisenstein film which shows the dramatic storming of the Winter Palace – except that, in reality, it really wasn’t very dramatic at all.  Someone’d left the door open, so all they had to do was walk in!  Signalled by the shot fired from the Aurora – I remember being quite excited when I saw the Aurora in St Petersburg, just because that shot is so famous.   And a very good point was made that a lot of people were so sick of the problems being caused by the Great War that they were past caring who was in power.

It was done in quite an interesting way, with different people putting forward different points of view, but the focus was only on the period between the two revolutions, and you can’t really understand what went on without knowing about what was happening before the February Revolution, back to the 19th century or at least back to 1905, and about the civil war that followed.  And then they jumped right forward to the present day, with Simon Sebag-Montefiore saying that he thinks that, out of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, Vladimir Putin most admires Stalin.  And that Lenin, the traditional hero of the Revolution, has been shoved out of the picture, but that maybe his time’s coming again.

I’m not convinced. I think Putin’s more of an “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” man – the absolutism of Nicholas I, not of Stalin. I don’t think the events of 1917 are his kind of thing at all.  But Nicholas I managed to fall out with both the West and Turkey, and we really don’t need that to happen again.  We should all be working together, but that’s not the way things are going at the moment.  As the centenary of the October Revolution approaches, maybe everyone should look on the knock-on effects which it was to have for the rest of the twentieth century, and remember how important it is for the West and Russia to work together, not against each other.

The Constant Queen by Joanna Courtney


Word PressThe “Constant Queen” of the title is Elizaveta of Kiev, daughter of Yaroslav the Wise and, as the wife of Harald Hardrada, Queen of Norway.  Harald Hardrada is, of course, famed here for invading England in 1066 and being defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which several generations of teachers have had to explain is near York and nothing to do with Chelsea, but, in doing so, weakening Harold Godwinson’s chances at the Battle of Hastings.  Before that, he’d had a very eventful life, fighting against Denmark, being a mercenary in Kievan Rus, serving in the famous Varangian Guard in Constantinople, fighting with the Varangians in Sicily and possibly even in the Holy Land, and then retaking Norway and founding Oslo.

A lot of this comes into the book. Unfortunately, not all that much is known about Elizaveta (Elisiv in Old Norse, but the Slavic “Elizaveta” sounds so much nicer!), or about Harald’s other wife (mistress? Handfast wife?) Tora, but Joanna Courtney’s created two very interesting characters with what we do know about them, and it’s a very entertaining book.  From a historical viewpoint, the most interesting thing is the reminder of how influential Kiev (yes, I know we’re supposed to say “Kyiv” now, but no-one ever says “Kyiv” when talking about Rurikid Kievan Rus) was in Yaroslav’s time.  One of Elisaveta’s sisters became Queen of France, another became Queen of Hungary, and one of her brothers married a daughter of the Emperor of Byzantium.   In this book, Agatha, the wife of Edward the Exile and mother of Edgar the Atheling and St Margaret, is also one of Elizaveta’s sisters.  No-one’s sure about that, and there are alternative theories that Agatha was from Hungary, one of the German states or even Bulgaria, but it’s certainly possible that she was a princess of Kiev.

Who would have thought, then, that Kievan Rus would decline so soon, and that its successor state(s) would fall under the “Tatar yoke” and be pretty much cut off from the rest of Europe for so long?  Or that England, with its close ties to Norway and Denmark, would, after 1066 spend four (or you could even say) five centuries getting entangled with affairs in France and have very little further involvement with the Scandinavian countries?   England, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the Isle of Man, and the trade routes via Kiev to Constantinople … and Vinland too, with Erik the Red making a guest appearance in the book and meeting up with Harald and Elizaveta!

There was some talk, around the time of the Scottish referendum, that Northern England and Scotland (the Shetland and Orkney Isles remained under Norwegian rule until the mid 15th century, of course) should try to rebuild closer ties with the Scandinavian countries.  Sounds like a very good idea to me!  Really, you’d think that the Normans would have maintained close ties with Denmark, with King Rollo (not the cartoon character!) being of Danish origin; but it didn’t seem to happen.

A few annoying things.  Joanna Courtney has this bizarre habit of changing people’s names – usually to something completely inappropriate.  She’s renamed Sveyn, son of “Canute the Dane”, as Steven.  I mean, could she not have picked something Danish-sounding?!  And she’s renamed all Elizaveta’s brothers.  For example, Iziaslav’s become Ivan, and Vyacheslav’s become Yuri.  Ivan and Yuri are names which belong to Muscovy, not to Kievan Rus.  It’s all wrong!  Very annoying.  And very patronising to the reader, as apparently she changes the names as she thinks readers cannot cope with either names that aren’t familiar or two characters sharing a name.  Also, there were repeated descriptions of men as “blonde”, Miklagard was spelt “Miklegard”, and the Norwegian women were given patronymics ending in “son” instead of “datter”.  But, OK, those aren’t major gripes!

1066 is the best-known year in English history.  But it’s also a crucial year outside England: Harald Hardarda is usually described as being the last great Viking king.  And Elizaveta was his queen.  It’s such  a shame that we don’t know more about her, but Joanna Courtney’s made a very entertaining book out of what is known.  A refreshing change from all those books about the Tudors!!

The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne


Word PressThis is an extremely silly book.  Grand Duchesses go AWOL from the Ipatiev House and the Bolsheviks do nothing about it.  People roam around Lenin’s Russia with no form of ID on them, and enter Brezhnev’s Soviet Union with no visas.  No-one can find a Russian Orthodox church in Paris in 1919 – evidently they missed the great big Russian Orthodox Cathedral built there in 1861.  There is a strange sub-plot about an artist accidentally killing a policeman, which doesn’t fit in anywhere.  Byelorussia, as it was generally known until the early 1990s, is referred to as “Belarus” in a scene set in 1971. The twist in the tale is obvious from very early on.

It’s actually quite entertainingly written. But it’s very, very silly.