How we make history

I picked out The Vanished Pomps of Yesterday, while clearing a friend’s bookshelves, just to laugh at the title.

It turned out to be the 1919 memoirs of Lord Frederic Hamilton, a British diplomat stationed in, amongst other places, St Petersburg around 1880.

I’m writing a novel about Russian revolutionaries in the lead up to 1905 and 1917. The 1870s and 80s were a key period in Russia. This was the time of the Narodnik revolt, when peasants were encouraged to oppose the government by middle-class sympathisers, and were brutally punished; of the formation of both Narodnaya Volya, the first revolutionary terrorist organisation, and the Okhranka, the Russian secret police force which was supposed to repress revolutionary activity but was from the outset implicated in terrorist violence. Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by Narodnaya Volya. I eagerly grabbed The Vanished Pomps to read.

Unfortunately, Hamilton is not at all interested in revolution.

He was in St Petersburg when Alexander II was assassinated. He tells us that the bombs were painted white, to look like snowballs, and that “Lady Dufferin… had heard the explosion of the bomb, and seen the wounded horses led past, and was terribly upset in consequence.” The next thing we know is that she has recovered enough to watch the funeral procession (“like so many things in Russia, it was spoilt by lack of attention to details”) and to attend, along with Hamilton, the funeral, where “… the only detail of the funeral which struck me was the perfectly splendid pall of cloth of gold.”

Alexander II on his death bed, by K.E.Makovsky

For six months after the assassination, social life in St Petersburg stopped, Hamilton notes. (All civil liberties were curtailed, and police repression massively stepped up, which he notes not at all). He plunges into a long description of all the fun things he nevertheless managed to get up to: mostly shooting and fishing parties on the Gulf of Finland. “It will be seen that in one way or another there was no lack of amusement to be found around Petrograd, even during the entire cessation of Court and social entertainments”, he informs us after ten pages of sporting larks. Phew, what a relief!

Hamilton’s longest comment on terrorism and police involves a ball given by the French ambassador for the newly crowned Nicholas II (“of unfortunate memory”). Just before the ball began, the Okhranka searched the embassy for a bomb thought to have been hidden in a flower pot. “They made a frightful hash of things and not only ruined the elaborate decorations but so managed to cover the polished floors with earth that the rooms looked like ploughed fields, dancing was rendered impossible, and poor Madame de Montebello was in tears. As the guests arrived, the police had to be smuggled out through back passages. This was one of the little amenities of life in a bomb-ridden land.”

The only reason factories (the revolution was largely fomented among factory workers in Moscow and St Petersburg) are mentioned at all is because their wealthy, often foreign owners attend the same clubs as Hamilton does. Peasants are there to provide a picturesque backdrop to his bear-hunting expeditions. Politically-active members of the intelligentsia feature once, when he derides ‘Madame O’ for lack of political acuity in criticising the current regime. “Poor dreamy, emotional, hopelessly unpractical Russia! Madame O–’s theories have been put into effect now, and we all know how appalling the result has been.”

Hamilton and his circle of aristocrats, diplomats and wealthy industrialists remind me of Marie Antoinette eating cake. Of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. How can he not have been aware of or interested in what was going on? He was there, in communication with ministers and emperors, watching history being made  – and all he noticed was shooting, fishing, dressing, dancing, eating, drinking. And, two years after the revolution of 1917, when his book was published, that’s all he wants to tell us about. It’s frankly infuriating. It makes you think they deserve what they got, those blinkered posh twits.

But then again, how many of us are aware at the time of what the future will prove to be significant? And, perhaps more relevantly, how many of us want to be aware? If someone from the future were to pick up a UK newspaper from today, what might she conclude? That we were mostly blinkered twits led by blinkered posh twits, too interested in the latest TV series or fashion or banker’s bonus to want to notice that our society is falling apart.

It’s pretty obvious from the book’s title where Hamilton’s sympathies and interests lie. And yet I feel I can glean something from it for a novel about revolution. The detail about the bombs being painted to look like snowballs, for instance, or the gleam of the cloth of gold covering Alexander II’s coffin: it is touches like this which make a historical novel come alive.

And the overall tone of the book invokes in me a dim echo of what those revolutionaries must have felt like: what gave them their fervour, made them mad.

(The only thing Wikipedia really has to note about Lord Frederic Hamilton is that he introduced skiing to Canada. Enough said.)

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