The Witches of St Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones

Standard

Well, on the plus side, it was high time that someone wrote a novel about the “Montenegrin princesses”, Stana (Anastasia) and Militsa, daughters of the King of Montenegro, wives of Russian Grand Dukes, and instrumental in introducing the Tsarina Alexandra to “Monsieur Philippe” and then to Rasputin.  On the minus side, most of this particular novel is nonsense, and that’s made worse by the fact that the author claims in an afterword that it’s largely based on fact.  As a work of fiction, it’s quite entertaining.  As a work which claims to be a relatively accurate piece of historical fiction, it’s a disgrace!   According to Ms Edwards-Jones, Nicholas and Alexandra had a fifth daughter, who was taken away and adopted; Alexandra and Militsa were having some sort of affair; and Militsa was the one who shot Rasputin.  I’ve never heard such rubbish.

She also seems to have a rather vivid and possibly rather warped imagination – some of the stuff about Rasputin’s carry-ons is admittedly probably true, but the idea that the Tsar and Tsarina indulged in public naked capers and that Stana and Militsa tried to create spells with miscarried foetuses is distasteful, to say the least.   And this silly idea that the Khlysty (a religious sect) indulged in all manner of orgies was made up back in Peter the Great’s time in order to discredit them.  Over the years, a lot of unpleasant stories have been made up about different religious groups.  It’s hardly very responsible of authors to propagate them.  And some of it was just plain bonkers.  Monsieur Philippe had a magic hat which made him invisible when he wore it?!  I thought this was meant to be a historical novel, not a children’s fantasy book.

Philippa Gregory’s claims about Woodville witchcraft are bad enough, but at least the Woodvilles, having died over half a millennium ago, aren’t likely to be hurt by them.  Stana and Militsa both died within living memory.  I really do dislike this trend of making up all sorts of rubbish about people who are either still alive or who may still have immediate relatives and friends living.   The book contains some ridiculous errors, as well.  There was no change of dynasty in Montenegro following an assassination.  That was in Serbia.  Wrong country!   Montenegro is not primarily Roman Catholic: it is primarily Montenegrin Orthodox.  And why do so many people make a mess of Russian names?

This was my book for the Facebook group reading challenge, which was to read a book about witches, but I freely admit that I wanted to read it because it was about Imperial Russia, and already had it on my TBR pile when the “challenge” about witches was posted.   I also have to admit that I’ve rather enjoyed ripping it to shreds, just because it annoyed me so much!

But what a shame.  These two women are not particularly well-known, but they should be, because they did play an important role at the court of “Nicky and Alix”, and it was partly through their influence that Alix – poor woman, desperate to produce a son and heir, and then, when he arrived, desperate to keep him safe because of his haemophilia – became involved with Rasputin.  That certainly played a part in the fall of the Romanov dynasty, and the communist takeover of Russia has had a huge influence, to put it very mildly, on world events ever since.  This could have been an excellent and very important book … but, as it was, I’m not really sure what the author was playing at with it.

 

The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits

Standard

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

Standard

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.

Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

Standard

In 1986, there was an absolutely superb TV mini-series about Peter the Great.  They don’t make programmes like that any more!   I found the story of his second wife, Martha Skavronskaya/Marta Skowronska, the peasant girl who ended up becoming Tsarina Catherine I, Empress of all the Russias, fascinating.  So, 34 years later, I was so excited to find out that someone’d written a novel about her that I splashed out on the hardback version as soon as it became available.  And I really did enjoy it.  I’ve got a few quibbles about historical accuracy but, as no-one really knows that much about Marta/Catherine’s early life, it’d hard to criticise too much.  However, what the book *didn’t* do was what it said on the tin.  It was subtitled “the most powerful woman history ever forgot” – but it didn’t cover her time as tsarina regnant.  It finished when Peter died, apart from a couple of pages covering Catherine’s death two years later.  Why write a book about the incredibly story of an illiterate peasant girl becoming Empress of all the Russias but not show her actually, er, *being* Empress?!  Very entertaining book, but what a strange ending.

I think of her as Martha Skavronskaya, but that’s the Russified version of her name.  She was originally Marta Skowronska.  Annoyingly, the book calls her Marta Skowronski, which is incorrect: that’s the masculine form of her name.  In all the confusion in the Baltic between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Swedish Empire and what became the Russian Empire, no-one’s very clear about her history, although the name’s Polish.   She was born in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, somehow ended up as a maidservant in the home of a Lutheran pastor in what’s now Latvia, was married off to a Swedish soldier and, when Russian troops occupied the area during the Great Northern War,  somehow (there are a lot of “somehows”!) came to be part of the Russian camp, went back to Moscow with the soldiers, became part of the household of Peter’s best mate Menshikov, and was then noticed by Peter and became his mistress.

Ellen Alpsten’s come up with a very lurid tale in which Marta was an illegitimate child brought up by a brutish father and wicked stepmother, sold to a landowner who raped all his maidservants, murdered the landowner, ran off to Latvia with the money she’d stolen from his household, was taken in by the pastor whilst starving on the streets, had an affair with the pastor’s son, was married off to the Swedish soldier, and was then raped by Russian troops whilst trying to get to her husband’s deathbed and was taken to the Russian camp by a general who took pity on her.  As no-one actually knows the truth of it all, it’s hard to criticise an author for making up stories, but she should have said in the afterword that she’d made it up.  It’s very annoying when authors don’t do that.

After that, things are pretty well-documented, or at least the subject of well-known and widely-accepted stories (like the one about Catherine’s lover, whose head Peter had pickled in a jar), and the book sticks fairly well to the known facts. Some bits are exaggerated – there are stories that Catherine had Peter’s baby son by his mistress Maria Cantemir poisoned, but I’m not sure where the story included here, about Catherine having Maria infected with smallpox, came from! – and there are a few careless errors (Peter’s mistress Anna Mons and her brother, Catherine’s probable lover William Mons, are described as being German when they were actually Dutch) – but there are no major inaccuracies.

It’s coarse, brutish and vulgar, but it was!  The Most Drunken Synod and all that!  And it sometimes seems as if half the book’s about Catherine’s pregnancies, but she did have twelve pregnancies – but, sadly, only two children who survived to adulthood.  Her fascinating daughter Elizabeth’s bad reputation is exaggerated a bit, as well!  It was nice to see Elizabeth as a young girl: I’m used to seeing her as the bossy aunt-in-law in books about Catherine II.

There’s a lot about the Great Northern War and the Russo-Turkish War, and a lot about court intrigue, but there’s not much about domestic politics.  The Tsarevich’s links with the Old Believers are not even mentioned.  Nor is the Table of Ranks.  And there’s very little about things like Peter introducing Western dress.  But, OK, it’s not a textbook, and the ins and outs of the Table of Ranks possibly wouldn’t be that interesting to the general reader.  And it kept me gripped all the way through.  Admittedly, a book about Imperial Russia would have to be really bad not to keep me gripped, but this wasn’t bad at all.  It was just so strange that it didn’t cover Catherine’s time as ruling tsarina.

The reign of the empresses is fascinating in general, but Catherine I’s case is particularly fascinating.  Catherine II was born a princess, albeit a very minor one.  Catherine I was a peasant girl who never even learned to read and write.  And she has been largely forgotten … although so has the Empress Anna; and even the Empress Elizabeth isn’t as well-known as she should be, overshadowed by Catherine II.  It was wonderful to find a book about her, but so very odd that it didn’t actually cover her reign.

The Romanov Empress by C W Gortner

Standard

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!

Catherine the Great – Sky Atlantic

Standard

At least the naked men in Sanditon weren’t running around brandishing scimitars.  What on earth are the people who wrote the scripts for this on?  Oh dear!  Back in 1986, there was a superb TV mini-series about Peter the Great.  I’ve been reading about 18th century Russia ever since.  The first holiday I paid for with my own money was a trip to Russia. I went for every Russian history module available at university. I picked the winner in the 1997 Grand National because of Catherine the Great (seriously)*.  My friend at university had a teddy bear called Pugachev.  So I was really looking forward to this,  But, sadly, it was more akin to Versailles, The Borgias and The Tudors, although admittedly without the wild historical inaccuracies, than to the brilliant series that got me hooked on 18th century Russia when I was 11.  It’s one of those series that’s mesmerising because it’s just so bad, but I was so much hoping it was going to be … well, good.  And it isn’t.

Ballrooms and bedrooms are fine up to an extent, but could they not have got a bit more history in?!  And, whilst Helen Mirren looks absolutely wonderful for 74, she was playing a woman who was only 33 at the start of the series!  Everyone else had been aged up to match (apart from Nikita Panin, who’d bizarrely been aged down), so, instead of an array of handsome, dashing young Orlovs, we got a group of blokes who’d been made to look like the cast of Last of the Summer Wine in colourful costumes.  Still at least they wore costumes.  Potemkin ran around stark naked (what is this obsession with bare backsides on TV this year?) whilst wielding a scimitar.  I wouldn’t have thought that was a very sensible idea, TBH.

And could they not even have checked basic facts?  They called the Empress Elizabeth Catherine’s mother-in-law.  No!!  She was Catherine’s husband’s auntie.  Or basic terminology?  “Serfdom” and “slavery” are not interchangeable terms.  I knew it was bad news when the programme started by helpfully informing us that we were in “St Petersburg, Russia”.  Did they expect that viewers might think we were in St Petersburg, Florida?!   Mind you, if we were, it would at least explain why not one person has addressed anyone else by their first name plus patronymic.  It’s Russia, OK.  Patronymics.  We need patronymics.

I want to write a long essay about all sorts of aspects of Catherine’s reign, but they’ve hardly even been mentioned.  We got a rather odd version of … well, I’m not actually sure if it was meant to be the Nakhaz or not, because it seemed to be too early for it, but I think it was.  Anyway, it only mentioned serfs, and completely ignored all Catherine’s plans for the other social estates.  The First Polish Partition’s been ignored completely.  The Russo-Turkish war has been mentioned, but only really in relation to various blokes arguing over who’s better than whom.  There has, to be fair, been quite a lot of talk about the Pugachevschina, but it annoyed me because Catherine just seemed to be going “Oh dear, this seems to be quite serious,” and asking Potemkin what to do.  And it’s failed to make the point that it put Catherine off making further reforms.

On the positive side, at least it hasn’t gone for the popular, prurient image of Catherine as someone who spent all her time chasing one man after another, and it’s made it clear that she was genuinely in love with her “main” lovers.  It hasn’t even suggested that Peter might not have been Paul’s father.  And I assume that they are not going to include the ridiculous horse story.  But it has shown an awful lot of scenes of Catherine gossiping with Praskovia Bruce, balls with men wearing dresses and women wearing breeches (which was actually more Elizabeth’s thing than Catherine’s, apparently because Elizabeth looked good in breeches and knew it), and men having playground “I’m more important than you so ner” arguments, rather than anything serious.  OK, I know it’s not supposed to be a documentary, but I did expect there to be a bit more about the actual events.

And, strangely, seeing as it quite clearly isn’t aimed at serious historians, there hasn’t been much explanation of what’s going on.  Much as I dislike programmes which treat you as if you’re stupid, this is not a part of history with which most Anglophone viewers are going to be familiar, and it jumped right in with Catherine visiting the former Ivan VI in prison without even giving his name, never mind explaining that Elizabeth had deposed him and Peter had been (his aunt) Elizabeth’s heir.  Also, putting the R or the N in “Catherine” backwards might work for a meerkat advert or a sign at a football match, but it just looks silly in a period drama.

The costumes are great.  The sets are great.  But precious little else about this is great.  I quite like the way they’ve shown Catherine’s sense of humour, and her comments about women in power, but the lines are written for an older woman with a lot of life experience, and that just wasn’t Catherine in the 1760s and early 1770s.  It feels as if they wanted Helen Mirren and wrote the part for her, instead of writing about Catherine.  And I appreciate that royal period dramas are going to focus on the court and the personal life of the monarch, rather than on what was going on in the country at the time, but there needs to be a balance and this was skewed way too far in favour of ballrooms and bedrooms.  Bleurgh.  I’ve been waiting 33 years for another mini-series based in 18th century Russia, and the wait really hasn’t been worth it!

 

*Just in case anyone is actually reading this, and wondered, when teenage Sophie/Catherine first went to Russia, she became pally with Count Gyllenborg, the Swedish ambassador.  I picked Lord Gyllene for the 1997 Grand National because the name sounded a bit like Gyllenborg.  All right, I’m weird.  But he won!

 

The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton

Standard

I feel vaguely guilty for having enjoyed this, because it was mostly just a lot of historical royal gossip. Maybe I’m being a bit of an academic snob here, because I never feel guilty about reading historical royal gossip when it’s in academic book format – Theo Aronson’s written loads of books like that, and so have Carolly Erickson and various other people, and I assume that Margaret Pemberton’s been reading some of them!  Or maybe it’s because I feel vaguely uncomfortable about reading fictionalised accounts of the lives of people who seem so close: the book runs from 1879 to 1918, but some of the main characters were still around as recently as the 1950s. I haven’t got Netflix, so I didn’t watch The Crown!  Anyway, I did enjoy it – and I suppose it wasn’t all fluffy stuff, because it covered the build-up to the First World War and the Russian Revolution, focusing mainly on Princess May of Teck, later Queen Mary, Princess Alix of Hesse, later the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, later Kaiser Wilhelm II.

There are an awful lot of cousins, who have relationships with and marry each other. If you’re used to royal family trees, it will make perfect sense. If not, you might get confused! It’s all been said umpteen times before, but it’s still entertaining. I’m not sure what the King of Norway would make of the suggestion that his grandmother, the then Princess Maud, had a full-blown affair with Prince Francis of Teck: it’s known that she was interested in him, but I’m not sure about the rest. And I’m not convinced that Princess May had always been in love with the Duke of Clarence. He comes across as a very romantic figure here, but, whilst the rumours that he was Jack the Ripper are more than a bit OTT, a romantic figure he was not! But I quite like the idea that Ella of Hesse went into her marriage with Grand Duke Sergei knowing full well that it was a lavender marriage, and actively chose that because it was the nearest she could, at that point, get to being a nun … rather than finding out after the ring was on the finger, as her sister-in-law Victoria Melita of Edinburgh did.

I’ve heard it all a million times before, but it’s still quite fascinating how there were all these cousins and second cousins marrying each other. Or not marrying each other, in the cases of Maud and Francis, “Eddy” (the Duke of Clarence) and Alix, Wilhelm and Ella, etc etc.

What about the three main figures? The book revolves around the fictional and possibly rather silly idea that May, Wilhelm and Alix recognised each other as “Kindred Spirits”, all being outsiders for one reason or another, and swore an oath of friendship. The blurb on the front cover says “Her broken oath would cast an empire into turmoil” … and I don’t actually know to what that’s supposed to refer! It makes no sense whatsoever. Does it mean something to do with Alix and Wilhelm’s supposed childhood friendship? And who’s “The Summer Queen”? Queen Victoria? May? That doesn’t make much sense either. Anyway, I think all the “oath” stuff is best ignored: it just seems to be there to try to justify the focus on three different people, and link them together.

Alix’s story has been told in both academic books and fiction umpteen times, and is therefore very well-known, but she seems remote in this book. We don’t really get a sense of her concerns about changing her religion, her fears for her haemophiliac son’s health, or what was going on with Rasputin. The book also suggests that it was Wilhelm who convinced her to marry Nicholas, which doesn’t make much sense either but is presumably to tie in with the “kindred spirit” idea.

Queen Mary’s story, on the other hand, has rarely been told. She’s usually seen as the epitome of dignity, and, because of that, as being a bit cold, so it was nice to see a book reminding us of her difficult childhood, as the descendant of a morganatic marriage, and the time her family spent living in Italy and the freedom she enjoyed there, as well as how difficult it must have been for her when the Duke of Clarence died. She comes across really well here.  I’m glad about that.  She’s an admirable figure who coped well with some very difficult times.

“Willy” comes across well too. He’s such a hate figure in the English-speaking world, because of the First World War, and also the appalling way in which he treated his mother. If Queen Mary is seen as the epitome of dignity, he’s seen as the epitome of Prussian militarism – but the author is quite sympathetic to him, reminding the reader of all the horrific treatments he was subjected to in order to try to cure the damage done to his arm by a difficult birth. He certainly didn’t have it easy, but I’m not sure why the author’s quite so sympathetic towards someone who was undoubtedly very militaristic, and had some very unpleasant attitudes. She shows him as being an Anglophile, when he was anything but, and ignores some of his extremist views. On a more positive note, she touches on the interesting Harden-Eulenberg affair, when his closest friend and advisor fell from power amid a lot of talk about homosexuality, then a taboo subject in the German Empire.  It’s something that’s increasingly attracting attention from historians of the period, many of whom link its effect on the Kaiser to an increase in militarism.

There’s the odd blunder – notably saying that the previous Queen Mary had been Mary Tudor! – and the author annoying refers to “England” rather than “Britain” all the way through, but it’s generally accurate.  In fact, it generally reads as if it most of it was taken from books by Theo Aronson or Justin Vovk, and fictionalised, but maybe I’m doing the author a disservice there.  Even though a lot of the subject matter is pretty “heavy”, especially that relating to Russia, the story’s fairly light, and it’s not a bad choice for holiday reading.  Something about it vaguely annoyed me, but I think that was just because it felt weird that the lives of people who lived so recently, and whose lives, at least in the cases of May and Wilhelm, are well within living memory, had been turned into easy reading.  And, as I’ve said, that’s probably just me being an academic snob!   Given that I knew all the factual royal gossip in this already, I am clearly a total hypocrite … 😉 .  And I did really enjoy it!

 

 

Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon

Standard

As part of WordPress.com’s showing love and support for Pride month, I’m very pleased to be reviewing a book which shows aspects of two of my specialist subjects from university days, the history of the Russian Empire and the experiences of working-class immigrants in the United States (New York City), through the lives of a same sex couple and a couple including one transgender partner.  It covers a lot of themes, including the Kishinev pogrom, the fight for workers’ rights and the growth of trade unionism in New York City, and the US women’s suffrage movement.  I don’t know how easy it would be to follow without any background knowledge of the history and culture (I’m fairly au fait with Bessarabia, but I’m weird!), and it doesn’t help that the author uses a very strange (“modern”, apparently) transliteration system which I doubt any of her readers will have seen before, but (odd transliteration aside) I found it generally pretty good, if rather rushed in parts.  I do like a historical novel which assumes that the reader has the background knowledge and can just get stuck right in there!  There are a lot of “suffering in the old country, coming to America” novels, but this one’s quite unusual.

The main character in the early part of the book was Gutke, born in Kamenka (in what’s now the disputed area of Transdnistria) in the mid- 1850s, after her mother Feygele was raped.  Neither Gutke nor the reader ever knew who the attacker was.  It was an isolated attack, not part of a pogrom, but the use of sexual violence against women as a means of persecuting a particular community, as happened during pogroms, or as a side-effect of war, as when soldiers were based in Kishinev during the Russo-Turkish War, came up several times during the part of the book set in Bessarabia.  It also mentioned, briefly, that Gutke, by then a midwife, assisted women looking to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape.  These are difficult and distressing subjects, but they’re relevant to every generation.  Oh dear, that makes the book sound really miserable.  It wasn’t exactly a fairytale, but it really wasn’t all miserable!

Feygele was shunned by her own community for having an illegitimate child, with a non-Jewish father, even though people knew that she’d been raped.  So she moved to Kishinev to make a new start – and Gutke grew up there in a very female-centric world.  Feygele got a job at the women’s ritual baths, and Gutke, when she was old enough, became a midwife.  It was very much a world of sisterhood, and also a world in which several of the main people in her life were lesbians.  And we were shown how she resented the way in which her world treated women: many of them were pushed into early marriages, and she wasn’t allowed to say the mourning prayers when her mother died – a man who wasn’t even a relative or close friend said them instead.

Gutke then met Dovid/Dovida, who became her partner.  This should have been an interesting relationship, but unfortunately we didn’t see much of it, and we didn’t hear anything from Dovid/Dovida’s point of view.  The reviews on Amazon had referred to a transgender character, but it was never clear exactly what the character’s situation was.  They were a genetically female character with the given name as Dovida, living as a man called Dovid, but that seemed to be more because of the greater educational and career opportunities open to men than because they identified as male.  It’s not even clear which name the character’s known by in private: Gutke seems to use both of them at different times.  We know that the character has a male identity in public, but we don’t really see them at home, and there is this confusion over whether they identify as male or just prefer the life of a man because it offers things that the life of a woman doesn’t.  All a bit vague, really.  And, shortly after Gutke and Dovid/Dovida got together, the book moved on to another set of characters, led by a girl called Chava, the link being that Gutke was the midwife who’d delivered her.

Chava’s brothers were involved in the Bund and in Zionism, but, again, this wasn’t really developed properly.  Instead, the story moved on to the Kishinev pogrom.  Of the many pogroms, this is probably the best-known, and it had a huge impact on public opinion in the West.  However, this was the first time I’d ever seen it described in a novel, rather than in a text book.  Again, the book didn’t shy away from a difficult and distressing subject.  Chava’s father was killed, and her mother raped and killed.  Afterwards, it was decided that Chava should go to Odessa, and from there emigrate to America with some relatives, including a cousin of the same age, Rose.

This was the end of the section of the book set in the Russian Empire. Now, one thing that really winds me up with books set in the Russian Empire is when authors talk about “Russians” when writing about an area that isn’t actually Russian.  This book did refer to the state as “Russia”, which I suppose is fair enough, but it did make it clear that Kishinev – and I wouldn’t expect anyone to write about “Chisinau” or “Moldova” when writing in English about a period prior to the 1990s – was in Bessarabia, and talked about Moldavians and the Romanian language.  Gold star for that, because it really does annoy me when people get it wrong!  But I could have done without the weird form of transliteration for Yiddish words.  The author said herself, in the glossary, that she was used to the traditional spellings.  Yes, and so is everybody else, and no-one will know this weird “modern” form, so why use it?!

So, goodbye Kishinev, goodbye Odessa, and hello New York City’s Lower East Side.  Like most working-class immigrants, Chava and Rose and the rest of the family all too soon found that the streets weren’t paved with gold.  Well, they hadn’t been expecting that, but nor had they been expecting to end up working long hours for low pay in sweatshops. It’s a common theme in books, but this one was unusual in that the two girls – only in their mid-teens – soon became involved with the labour movement.

They also became lovers.  Was that possibly a bit of a cop-out by the author?  Because they were part of the same family unit, they were living under the same roof, and sharing a bedroom anyway, so the issues that might otherwise have arisen, about them sharing a home and how people might have reacted to that, never arose.  But the development of their relationship was very well-portrayed, whereas with Gutke and Dovid(a) it felt as if we missed most of it.

The political stuff was all a bit rushed.  I can’t believe that anyone, especially a 17-year-old girl, would organise a strike almost immediately after arriving in a new country and starting a job.  The timings were rather odd generally: without the references to historical events – the Russo-Turkish War, the assassination of Alexander II, etc – it would have been impossible to know how much time had passed, and it jumped from the 1880s to the 1900s very suddenly.

But the inclusion of the labour movement in a book about immigration was interesting.  Although so many first and second generation immigrants have been involved in the struggle for workers’ rights, and women’s rights, in the UK, the US and elsewhere, the subject’s often avoided, and it does seem to be because people are nervous about writing anything that suggests minority groups are linked with anything that can be seen as anti-Establishment.

Many of the people mentioned in the American part of the book were real historical figures.  Emma Goldman, a proponent of workers’ rights, women’s rights and gay rights, who was imprisoned as an anarchist.  She’s well-known to historians, but you don’t often find her or people like her in novels.  “Coming to America” (or Britain, or anywhere else) novels more often go for an angle of going from  … well, not necessarily rags to riches, but usually working-class to middle-class.  It doesn’t always happen like that, however hard people work.  Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labour, even better-known than Emma Goldman but also rarely found in fiction.  Lillian Wald, shown as a friend of Gutke and Dovid/a – who’d almost moved to New York –, the founder of American community nursing and an advocate for female suffrage and African-American rights.  Rose Schneiderman, a member of the New York Women’s Trade Union League, who drew attention to dangerous workplace conditions following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire  of 1911, and helped to pass the New York state referendum of 1917 which gave women the right to vote.  I’m not sure that two teenage immigrants working long hours would have met quite as many leading activists as they did, but never mind!

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.  It killed 146 people, mostly young women.  The doors were locked to stop workers from taking unauthorised breaks, so they couldn’t get out.  It did lead to legislation about workplace safety, but that wouldn’t have been much consolation to the families and friends of the dead.  And, in the book, one of the dead was Rose.  Most of those killed were recent immigrants, some from the Russian Empire, some from Italy.  They’d gone to America for a better life.  Many, like Rose, had gone there to escape the pogroms … and, as the book put it, and it’s hard to argue, they were effectively killed by American capitalism instead.

I suppose the book did end on an upbeat note, with Chava joining Rose Schneiderman on a tour of Ohio to try to gain support for women’s suffrage.  And Gutke and Dovid/a presumably got to live happily ever after, and their support of Chava was very moving, as was the support that Feygele received from the women she met in Kishinev.  But it was a sad end to the book.  After the recent Coronation Street storyline in which Rana died on her wedding day – for which it was very unfair to criticise the scriptwriters, given that the actress had chosen to leave! – there was a lot of talk about  how stories involving same sex romances tend to end in tragedy far more often than those involving opposite sex romances do.  But maybe this was never going to be a happy ever after book, because it was always about how tough life can be, for Jews in the Pale of Settlement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and for immigrants in New York City in the early 20th century.

It was rather rushed, as I said, especially the part in America, with a lot of aspects of it not really being developed very well, but the subject matter was fascinating, and, whilst it’s well-known, often neglected in fiction.  This isn’t the best book ever, but it’s worth a go.

 

A few other reviews with particular LGBT interest, as WordPress.com is marking Pride month:

Pose

A Terrible Splendor

A Very English Scandal

Second Serve

The Favourite

Gentleman Jack

 

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

Standard

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.

Great Alaskan Railroad Journeys – BBC 2

Standard

Russian Orthodox churches, stunning scenery, and cute furry sea otters.  All in one thirty-minute episode.  Hooray!  Sadly, as Michael Portillo, resplendent in a burnt orange jacket and royal blue trousers, and his guides made clear, the history of Alaska is nothing like as beautiful as the views – an all-too-familiar story of native peoples and native wildlife populations decimated by the effects of outside involvement.  Lots of history in this first episode, along with lots of gorgeous scenery – in what is by far the biggest of the United States, seven times the size of the United Kingdom, but with a population of under 750,000.

First up, Ninilchik, with its glorious Russian Orthodox church.  I like Russian Orthodox churches 🙂 .  Founded by Russian settlers in the 1840s, it’s now an officially-designated Alaska Native village, and most of the people there, including the gentleman who showed Michael round, are of mixed Alaska Native and Russian heritage.  The man explained that many of the Russian men who came to Alaska – the first settlers arriving in the 1780s – married Alaska Native women, and a joint culture developed.

Sadly, whilst this talk of intermarriage and a mixed culture sounded all very nice, it was explained that the Russian period was actually disastrous for the indigenous population.  As happened when Spanish conquistadors and settlers arrived in Central and South America, and in so many other cases, the native peoples, with no immunity to European diseases, was devastated by disease.  They were also treated appallingly by the Russians – first forced labour, then actual enslavement, especially in the Aleutian Islands where disease, conflict and slavery killed up to 85% of the population.

From there, we got a bit of light relief, as he visited another area with Russian heritage, where there was a Russian tearoom.  There used to be a Russian tearoom in Bacup.  Then it moved to Skipton.  Then it closed down, and I was very put out.  Anyway, this one’s still going – and we got the obligatory dressing up bit which Michael seems to like to include in most episodes.  More interesting than the dressing up were the samovars.  I love samovars.  And even more interesting than the samovars was the fact that the owner of the tearoom was an Old Believer.  Sadly, the programme failed to mention, presumably largely because it would have been totally irrelevant, the fact that some Old Believers back in Russia became involved with the textile industry and therefore established links with Lancashire; but I’m mentioning it because I like telling people that.  Yes, I do know that I’m about the only person on the planet who finds that interesting, but Old Believers in general are very interesting.

Moving swiftly on, before I start going on about the Schism of 1653, the current goings-on over the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, or anything else.  On to Seward, where, whilst sailing round Resurrection Bay amid the most spectacular views of snow-covered mountains, Michael and his guide discussed the Alaska Purchase – made by the United States from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million, in 1867.

Russian explorers first made landfall in Alaska in 1741, with the first Russian settlement there being established in 1784, and the Russian-American Company getting stuck into the incredibly lucrative fur trade.  I always think of the most valuable furs as having come from Canadian beavers, and was interested to hear that those from Alaskan sea otters were considered better.  Obviously wearing fur is not acceptable now, but it was such a huge trade at the time … but things didn’t go as well as the Russians had hoped.  Conflict with the native peoples, who bravely resisted Russian settlement, competition from British-Canadian and American companies, and, above all, the stupid, thoughtless, over-hunting of fur-bearing animals, with no thought for what was going to happen in the future.

So.  1867.  Two years after the end of the American Civil War.  Eleven years after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, six years after the sort-of-emancipation of the serfs, four years after the outbreak of the Polish-Lithuanian rebellion.  And a year after the attempted assassination that, along with the rebellion, probably frightened Alexander II off continuing along a liberal, reformist path – and he, the Tsar-Liberator did so much, with the military, the judiciary, and the administration.  Not to mention the fact that the Russian government was skint after the Crimean War, and needed money to pay off landowners (after emancipation) and build railways.  And in the middle of the Great Game, with Russia stressing that Britain might try to take Alaska … which I think was very unlikely to happen, because Britain was far more worried about Russia trying to barge into India, and had already made it clear that we didn’t want Alaska.  Anyway.  Russia decided to sell.

And America decided to buy.  William Seward, who negotiated the Alaska Purchase with the Russians, was an interesting character.  I think of him primarily in terms of his role in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, but he was involved in anti-slavery activities long before the Civil War, and, whilst some early Republicans had Know-Nothing backgrounds, he’d always spoken out in support of immigrants and backed the rights of non-Protestants.

As was pointed out, Seward said that the Alaska Purchase was his greatest achievement.  It certainly turned out to be a brilliant deal for the Americans.  Seal fisheries, to start with.  Poor seals  😦 .  And then all that gold.  Not to mention all the other minerals there.  And, of course, the oil fields.  The Russians found some gold in the 1840s, but, bizarrely, didn’t do anything about it.  Barely three years after the American takeover, gold mining began in earnest, and, come the 1890s, it all just went wild.

That was years later, though.  At the time, it seems to have been far more about the infamous concept of Manifest Destiny.  And the Americans seem to have been as concerned as the Russians about keeping the British out.  Those were the days, when Britain had a strong government and a strong opposition!  Canada – and the Alaska Purchase took place in the same year as Canadian Confederation – was already part of the British Empire, so I’m not sure why the Americans thought it would make that much difference if Britain were to take Alaska.  Well, the idea seems to have been to weaken British Columbia by sandwiching it between two parts of American territory, but I’m not sure what they thought was actually going to happen … but anyway.  Anglo-American relations were pretty bad at that time, Britain having the needle about US agents having illegally captured two Confederate diplomats from a British ship in 1861 (I remember once writing about that in my rough book whilst not paying attention during a maths lesson when I was about 15.  I was a very weird teenager!) and the US having the needle about Confederate warships having been built in Birkenhead.

The deal wasn’t entirely popular in America at the time, with some people feeling that the money would have been better spent on Reconstruction.  Having seen, on my travels through some of the southern states, how places like Natchez and Memphis have never really recovered from the Civil War, there’s certainly a very strong argument in favour of that … but, from a wider economic viewpoint, Seward made the right choice.

Well, he did from an American viewpoint.  Oh, and Michael didn’t go into nearly all this much detail, in last night’s thirty minute episode, but I’m just indulging myself because I love writing about both Imperial Russia and 1860s America 🙂 .   From a Russian viewpoint, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a pretty bad move.  As Michael remarked, imagine how different the Cold War might have been if Alaska had been part of the Soviet Union.  For that matter, imagine the effect on today’s geopolitical situation of Alaska being part of Putin’s Russian Federation rather than Trump’s United States.

All of which rather ignores the fact that the land wasn’t Russia’s to sell – and Michael, who was being shown around Seward and its environs by an Alaska Native gentleman, did make that quite clear.  There were only a few hundred Russians there at the time, and yet Russia sold, and America bought, land on which around 50,000 indigenous people were living, and neither side seems to have given two hoots about the rights or views of those indigenous people.

This was only the first episode, and I would like to think that future episodes will explain that the American treatment of the Alaska Natives was also pretty shocking.  The territory (for lack of a better expression – it wasn’t even an official “territory” until 1912, and only became a state in 1959) was initially put under military control, and, as was done elsewhere in America, attempts were made to convert the native peoples to Christianity and to Americanise their way of life, and Alaska Natives were not granted US citizenship until 1921.  I’m not having a go at either the United States or Russia, any more than at Britain or many other countries, but these issues need to be raised, and raising them in popular TV programmes is far more helpful than pulling down statues or

And the over-hunting also continued under American control.  It was also interesting to hear that concerns were raised in Michael’s guidebook published in 1899, about rising temperatures and the retreat of the glaciers.  I grew up in the 1980s, when we kept hearing all about acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer, and we tended to think of concern about climate change as being a fairly new thing.  Evidently not.

One thing that wasn’t mentioned (I wonder if it might come up in a later episode?), which was incredibly controversial, was that, after Kristallnacht, there was a proposal by the US Department of the Interior to settle refugees from Nazi Germany in Alaska – which, as Alaska wasn’t a state at that time, could have been done without causing issues with the very unpleasant US immigration quota system.   The idea, which was intended more to boost the American presence in Alaska than to help refugees, didn’t go down very well and nothing ever came of it, but I just thought that that, and the German settlements set up along the Volga at the same time as Russia was first getting involved in Alaska, were worth a thought … at a time when there are so many people living in refugee camps around the world.  /irrelevant point that just occurred to me.

Anyway – from 19th century history to the aforementioned cute furry sea otters.  Michael visited a wildlife centre, where he got to feed an extremely cute rescued sea otter pup.  It’s good to know that sea otter numbers are now making a comeback.  It’s causing some issues with fishermen (that should probably be “fisherpeople”, but even so.

From Seward, he (Michael, not the sea otter) took a wonderfully scenic railway journey towards the Spencer Glacier.  I would so love to do that!   The Alaska Railroad was built in the early 20th century, and Michael was told that, rather than being to transport gold, it was more a case of needing a way of transporting coal.   Gorgeous views.  And, hey, this is technically supposed to be a programme about railway journeys, not a historical documentary series!   Fascinating though the history of late 18th and 19th century Alaska is, it was all fairly gloomy, and it was good that the programme ended on a more cheerful note, with these spectacular views.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure how a journey through Alaska was going to fill a whole week’s worth of episodes.  That’s quite a bit of screen time.  But, on the basis of last night’s episode, Alaska’s got more than enough to fill all that time and more.  And keep up the good work with including lots of history in there :-).  History and scenery together – excellent combination!