Posts Tagged 'St Petersburg'

This is fact

I’ve been reading and writing (one novel finished, the next one in the planning stages) about Russian revolutionaries for so long now, I sometimes have difficulty remembering what is fact and what is fiction.

So it’s extraordinary to walk the blind, stuffy corridors of the Trubetskoy Bastion prison in St Petersburg, and peer into cells where all these people who’ve been locked away in my imagination were really incarcerated. Peter Kropotkin, Boris Savinkov, Vera Figner, Lev Trotsky; so where’s Dmitry Suvorov – ? Oh no, idiot, I made him up, didn’t I…

But the lesson I learn from this experience is that the old truism is utterly true: fact really is stranger and more terrible than any fiction.

What else can I make of it, the various incarnations of Russia’s main prison for political offenders in the Petropavlovsky Fortress, from Peter I’s son to the Decembrists to the Narodniki and SRs and Bolsheviks to the enemies of the revolution? It is such a bizarre mixture of inhumanity and repression and bureaucracy and chaos and idiocy and human error.

In Tsarist times the prisoners were isolated in separate cells, banned from communicating with each other or even the guards. They all did communicate though, by tapping out messages (on the beds, the walls, using spoons, cups, buttons) in an alphabet that they all knew. “The struggle for tapping is the direct struggle for existence,” wrote revolutionary Vera Figner.

The prisoners’ alphabet

Punishment in special cells (up to seven days alone in total darkness and cold) was mainly for attempts to communicate with other prisoners or the outside world. For tapping – three days. For writing notes in books – two days. For writing notes in the bible – four days.

The books and bibles came from the prison library. The only occupation permitted prisoners was, incredibly, reading. Didn’t the Tsarist regime realise the dangers of the written word – how else did they think revolutionary ideas spread? Books in the prison library all had to pass the censor. Nevertheless prison officers regularly found ‘morally dangerous’ works there by Gorky, Saltykov-Schedrin, Zola, Engels, Marx’s Capital…

While locked up in his cell the anarchist Kropotkin wrote up his seminal research into the origins of the ice age. Trotsky wrote Results and Prospects, in which he developed his theory of permanent revolution. Prisoners went mad, set themselves alight with gasoline from the lamps, died of TB and typhoid, were sent off to be hanged, to be incarcerated for years in the Shlissenburg fortress, to exile in Siberia where they met up with other revolutionaries and frequently escaped to Europe – Siberia a sort of vastly inefficient get-out clause for the government, a way of solving the problem of dissidents without in fact solving it at all.

After the February 1917 revolution, the cells briefly filled up with Tsarist ministers. The prison bureaucracy began to break down. Following the October revolution, they were joined by provisional government ministers and deputies, by white army officers, cadet mutineers, monarchists… In March 1918 the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, took over. For three years ‘Enemies of the revolution’ were packed twenty to a cell. There was no prison regime anymore, just whatever brutality the guards wanted to practice. No food, no bedding, no exercise, no books. No rules.

“Opening the window of our flat on Lakhtinsky street in the nights of 1918–1919, we could hear irregular shooting and short bursts of machine gun fire from the direction of the Petropavlovksy fortress”, wrote the academic Dmitry Likhachev. The identities and fates of the 500-600 prisoners during this time are mostly unknown. No one kept records, not like those exhaustive Tsarist lists that form the basis of today’s Bastion museum exhibits. All there is is a handful of names recalled by the few survivors.

The other lesson the Trubetskoy Bastion teaches. That this is the way (must it be?) of tyranny and revolution; in fact, in fiction.


God and the State, Russian style (part II)

Spas na Krovi – the Church of the Saviour on the Blood – was built on the spot in St Petersburg where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.

With its domes outside like brightly coloured twirls of ice-cream, and glittering mosaics covering every inch of wallspace inside that isn’t covered in polished marble, it’s as gaudy as the cloth of gold Lord Frederic Hamilton recalls as the only notable thing about the Tsar’s funeral.

In the later Soviet era, the building was used to store props from the Maly Opera Theatre. Appropriately, since the whole building looks like some over-the-top and faintly ridiculous piece of stage scenery. The scrolloping shrine over the cobblestones where the Tsar was blown up was once carved of marbles and jaspers from Siberia and the Caucasus. The top section is now an imitation, painted pasteboard, because the original got destroyed by some careless theatrical Communist…

(Or  played the part of an especially heavy and expensive prop in some long-forgotten Soviet-realist opera)

Alexander II got a gigantic overblown church as gravestone. His assassins got a gallows. In one of his books, Frederic Hamilton describes how he watched them being driven to their execution in open tumbrels, accompanied by brass bands playing incessantly loud and inappropriately cheerful marches. This was supposed to prevent them from addressing the crowds and inciting further revolutionary violence.

They considered themselves martyrs to the cause. The Tsar, meanwhile, was by implication joining the ranks of Christian martyrs depicted on the walls of Spas na Krovi.

The cause carried on; six years later to the day, a group of young revolutionists tried to assassinate Alexander II’s successor, Alexander III. They were arrested before they even got the bombs out of their pockets. The bombs they’d made were so amateur they would not have gone off anyway. One of them was Lenin’s older brother Alexander.

More than fifty years and the  revolution later, when the city had a name neither the assassinated Tsar nor hanged Alexander Ulyanov could possibly have guessed, during the siege of Leningrad the memorial church was used as a morgue for all the nameless dead.

On this Sunday morning the church is full of a different kind of worshipper than the Spaso-Preobrazhensky up the road. Tourists at the altar of history and luxury. I drift around from tour group to tour group, listening to the guides.

One of them is telling the stories behind the biblical scenes depicted in the huge wall mosaics. Her middle-aged Russian flock, deprived of religion through years of Communism, listen as dutifully as Sunday-school children.

Another describes the expensive and painstaking process by which the smalti glass mosaic tiles were made. A third is explaining why there are blank spaces on the iconostasis – the icons and decorations disappeared sometime during the Soviet era, when the church was looted by the heroic revolutionary proletariat/by dishonest amoral opportunists (delete as appropriate).

“And why hasn’t the museum returned these icons, you ask,” the guide says fiercely ( no one has asked). “Because we don’t know where they are, that’s why! They were stolen, these treasures of the Russian empire, and never returned, and maybe some rich person has them now in some private collection…”  she purses her lips and scowls, it’s clearly a personal affront, this theft of her heritage of gold-framed icons and crosses carved of rock crystal.

From high mosaic domes the sad-eyed saints and virgins look down at Putin’s citizens enjoying the splendours of Imperial Russia. The revolutionaries might never have existed. Light falls in through the high windows in pale, dusty blades. Outside, St Petersburg hums with sun and Sunday, the homeless and the impoverished grandmothers line up with their plastic cups and pathetic begging notices, while inside in gilt and smalti Jesus is feeding the five thousand.

All photos from 

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