Paul Werth is Professor of History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
‘Twas evening in St Petersburg
The days were very short
It happened in December
At the dwelling of the court.
The tsar was at the theater
When the news was brought to him
“The palace has gone up in flames!”
The news was very grim!
Speeding to the palace,
Nicholas found that it was true
The edifice, it was ablaze,
There wasn’t much to do,
Except to save some artifacts,
Possessions of the tsar,
And block the fire’s spread from there,
Make sure it not go far.
The blaze it could be seen
From many miles away by all.
People flocked in shock and awe
And found themselves in thrall.
Just two days passed and all was lost
The palace was in rubble
The Hermitage was saved, ‘tis true,
But now there was much trouble
Deciding what should next be done,
Interpreting the blaze.
What caused the thing? And who’s to blame?
Do any merit praise?
The fire, it posed dangers
Of an ideological sort,
But also opportunities
For emperor and court
To show that tsar and people,
They were bound in mutual trust,
In mutual faith, in mutual love.
From ashes and the dust
The palace, it would rise again,
Erasing all the grief.
The reconstruction, it would serve
To foster more belief
In Russia’s strong autocracy,
Capacity of the state
To mobilize its people
And accomplish what was great.
The year the blaze occurred
And then at once, immediately
Was reconstruction spurred.
Yet more than this, I say to you,
Occurred in this fine year
You’ll be quite impressed to hear
Saw big events and happenings
Of consequence and weight:
Pushkin died, the railway came,
In Khiva the khanate
Faced conquest by the Russians
(Though that proved to be a farce.)
Gazety in the provinces,
That previously were sparse,
Now came throughout the land
And could enlighten all their readers
Glinka wrote an opera
That praised the country’s leaders.
Chaadaev took another route
“Our Rus’ amounts to nil.”
Insane, he was declared to be,
And told to drop his quill.
Good Lord! you say, I never knew
That so much had occurred
In such an inconspicuous year
Of this I never heard!
One should write a book on this!
It may just be a shock
To learn that this is being done.
And no, it’s not a crock.
But who is this that writes this book?
And who could be so fervent?
I’ll tell you, friends, who does this work.
It’s I, your Humble Servant™.
I turn now to the fire.
And if it not seem too perverse,
I’ll try to tell my story
In the style of Pushkin’s verse.
For Russia, fire was not new
Its incidence was frequent
By no means should one misconstrue:
Flame often was just recent.
At one point Petersburg did burn [1736-37].
And then it became Moscow’s turn .
Minsk, it burned in 35.
And if these towns, they did survive,
Then they were changed by conflagration.
But never once before the year
Of 1837, ‘tis clear,
Had Russia’s palace endured cremation.
Catastrophe would end this bliss:
No other loss would be like this.
The Winter Palace was unique
It was for monarchy a stage
A place from which the tsar could speak,
With subjects thus engage.
So relates a sage of fame,
McCaffray is that person’s name.
The palace was the city’s heart,
In this it had no counterpart.
And Nicholas more than any other
Adored the dwelling, loved it greatly
Found it cozy, yet so stately
Loved it more than had his brother.
With opulence and flawless gilding,
It was the tsar’s most vivid building.
It also belonged to the nation—
Thus declared the ruler’s friends.
And folks of every station
Viewed the palace through a lens
That made the dwelling theirs as well,
Or so the ideologues did tell:
Sergei Uvarov, Viazemskii
Perhaps the skeptics won’t agree.
But I’m inclined at least to grant
Some truth in this assertion
So I’ll state without coercion,
Shunning strident rant:
The palace was a national treasure—
Exquisite gem by any measure.
Here I won’t attempt to tell
The way the blaze occurred
Or that a strange and smoky smell
Appeared. And then folks stirred.
They sought to find the odor’s source.
It was a fire—yes, of course!
They sent to bring the emperor hence.
To organize the hall’s defence.
The ruler gave a noble try.
Despite all toil, it was too late.
The hall succumbed to its grim fate.
The gathered folk let out a cry:
Where it had been, there now was void,
The palace lay in ash, destroyed.
The worries of the tsar were real,
Anxiety ruled his mind.
A sense of shame he now did feel,
Depression quite unkind.
The smell of smoke now made him nervous
And some of those within his service
Endured his anger and his ire
Did they not answer for the fire?
His quartermaster faced arrest:
The Hermitage saw smoke this time
To lose THAT now would be a crime.
As you, my list’ners, may have guessed:
A false alarm was what occurred,
Yet reprimands were still incurred.
Religion was a way for some
To explicate the blaze
Perhaps the country had succumbed
To sin, and failed to praise
Almighty God, and thereby drew
The Good Lord’s wrath, perhaps ‘twas true.
So presumed, perhaps with sweat,
The churchman known as Filaret:
“It’s looking like our faith has slumbered!
With the blaze God sends a message
In doing so he seeks to presage,
Good Christians, that our days are numbered!”
The only way to circumvent
God’s wrath was clear: “We must repent! “
Remarkable, it truly was:
The palace disappeared!
Dangerous, too, and this because
It surely could be feared
That people might begin to ask,
Is monarchy but just a mask
Hiding tsarist impotence
Weakness and incompetence?
Recall now, friends, you won’t dispute:
This was the age of revolutions
When one heard talk of constitutions
And to old regimes they did impute
A plethora of defects—and
Might not they gain the upper hand?
In all of this there thus was threat:
How would the folk react?
The question caused the tsar to fret:
How could he counteract
The efforts of his system’s foes
And others eager to compose
Accounts that cast his rule in doubt?
They even might begin to flout
That sacred thing: authority.
It took but a minority
To undermine a good regime.
An omen was what folks might see
(And not a good one, obviously)
And hold the tsar in less esteem.
The situation he was in
Demanded ideological spin.
Ideological spin, we said,
Is what the tsar now needed.
So his retainers forged ahead,
Gave thought and then proceeded
To publish articles, brochures
Thereby producing likely cures
To combat gossip and bad versions
Of what occurred—in short, perversions.
Within days, the Northern Bee
Produced a colorful account
(avoiding any body count)
By which all readers thus could see:
Although the loss indeed was dire,
There was a lot here to admire.
The emperor arrived that eve
But did not lose his head
Neither did he whine or grieve.
He took command instead.
And from the chaos and confusion
The deep despair, the disillusion
He mobilized the soldiers there
To carry out upon the square
All those things that they might save—
Works of art upon the shelves
The portraiture of 1812—
But asked them not to be too brave:
Their lives were the important thing.
Their deaths no benefit would bring.
The emperor thereby appeared
As solid as a rock.
His fortitude was thus revered
He stayed around the clock.
The members of his family, too,
Without excessive ballyhoo
Each did much to aid the cause
And thereby earned distinct applause.
His brother, Grand Duke Mikhail,
Found a method to protect
The Hermitage and to deflect
The flame. And thus he showed his zeal.
By hoses he was soon beset,
From spurting water soaking wet.
The empress was a paragon
Of piety and pluck.
It’s true that she was woebegone
As things all ran amok.
But from her rooms she would not flee
Until her husband did decree:
Since fire now was at her door
She could not tarry anymore.
Yet even so she would not leave
The scene. And so she did retire
In order to regard the fire
From the Foreign Min’stry’s eave.
In her own way she remained strong
To contradict this would be wrong.
Alexander, the tsar’s young heir,
Lent a hand as well.
Arriving at the Palace Square
A servant came to tell
That there was fire not just here
And so the heir did disappear
To that other part of town
And though his carriage then broke down,
He commandeered a horse right there
And made it to that fire’s site.
And so the tsar’s young Muscovite
Played his role in this affair:
By tending to that other blaze
The worthy youth earned rightful praise.
Soldier, lackey, servitor
Were praised in articles, too.
Firefighters, all concurred,
Had nobly followed through.
The zeal of all was on display
Their selflessness one could portray
As characteristics of the folk
And in that way, thereby, evoke
Their loyalty to tsar and throne.
The people clearly shared the grief
Of tsar. And thus expressed belief
In monarchy. And thus was shown:
The people and the tsar were one,
Their unity surpassed by none.
Not neglected was the chore
Of shaping foreign views.
“Them foreigners” sometimes abhorred
And sometimes would abuse
Dear Russia for its “tyranny”
And so the poet Viazemskii,
Sat down upon his poet’s bench
And offered up a text in French.
L’Incendie du Palais d’Hiver
Soon appeared in lovely Paris
And sought thereby to disembarrass
Russia of the foreigners’ glare.
Tsar and folk were family,
There were no grounds to disagree.
The palace, in this telling,
Was the source of Russia’s strength
And from this graceful dwelling
All across the country’s length
Came laws that served to civilize
And wise reforms to optimize
The country’s progress and perfection,
Its subjects to ensure protection,
The country’s future to ensure—
A future that was bright and grand.
From here the country’s fate was planned
Russia had become mature.
With accomplishment and intellect,
Russia now deserved respect.
Others offered similar tracts:
Zhukovskii and Sergei
Uvarov carted out such facts
And thereby did inveigh
Against the West’s odd supposition
That Russia’s singular ambition
Was despotism. No, not true!
In fact, its system did imbue
The people with distinct affect—
Not a written constitution
Or other abstract convolution—
Appealing not to intellect:
Not conjecture, grim and dreary,
But living bond—not a theory.
Flesh and blood, thought and act,
Instinct, sense, and sympathy
Did these things, too, not count as fact?
Why could those foreigners not see
The wondrous ties that bound the land
To monarch and his caring hand?
The people thus expressed their cares:
The palace that had burned was THEIRS.
And they would reconstruct it now.
Prepared, they were, to give exertion,
And also wealth, without coercion.
And though the tsar did disallow
Such help from subjects, still it showed
The way folks viewed the tsar’s abode.
For God’s sake, Werth, you’ll now declare,
All of this is myth.
Be of your sources more aware,
And let’s agree forthwith
That we should just reject this hype
And other kinds of tsarist tripe!
Utopia, this represents,
A skewed account of these events.
It’s hard for me to disagree
Notable, I think as well,
I fear that I’m compelled to tell
Although I do so timidly:
Not all these texts saw light of day
A few of them were stashed away.
Here’s the deal: the tsar took fright
That numerous texts like this
Were overkill and thus just might
Make things seem more amiss
Than they were, in fact. And so
To several authors he said, No,
“Let’s not publish more such things.
To talk of such destruction brings
Attention to our failures, right?”
And so Uvarov’s text was sent,
Zhukovskii’s treatise with it went,
Into the archive in the night.
Published later they would be,
Access to them long unfree.
Greatest in this drama, though,
Was not the written word.
I bet you’ll be impressed to know,
Perhaps you’ve even heard:
The Winter Palace rose once more
From out of ash it soon would soar
Like a phoenix. Amazing ‘twas,
Astonishing, indeed, because
It took but fifteen months to build:
From piles of ash to splendid luster
Incredibly, the tsar did muster
Ten thousand workers, many skilled.
The situation thus reset,
It was now possible to forget.
Two things were foremost in his mind
As tsar began this scheme
The first was that the time assigned
Was really quite extreme:
Easter Day in 39
This was his radical design
For opening the new abode
Intensive work did this forebode.
And yet those workers got it done.
Day and night did many toil
Some their health did thereby spoil
They worked in rain as well as sun.
Implicit in the tsar’s appeal:
The idea that all hinged on zeal.
If speed was one main attribute
Of plans the tsar proposed,
The other—no less absolute—
To which dispute was closed,
Was that the palace be the same,
Identical in form and name.
Old and new, the same at heart,
You could not tell the two apart.
In fact, distinctions did exist:
Elevators, central heat,
Less wood, more brick (though not concrete)
But subtle shifts could be dismissed.
There it was, the house stood tall
As if it never burned at all.
Imagine, then, that happy day,
That cold spring day in March,
In 1839, I say,
Across from that big arch [of General Staff],
When Nicholas could consecrate
The palace and thus fascinate
The gathered throngs, who then observed
The galleries, and then were served
Dessert and drinks. They got to view
The brand new palace, all its splendor.
To its charms they did surrender.
The Savior, thus, and palace, too:
Both enjoyed their resurrection,
Between the two there was connection.
Reward for all was given out
To those who did the work
To toilers loyal and devout,
To those who would not shirk
Their duties and their obligation
To work for months without cessation.
Six thousand medals for these guys
Of silver, thus to formalize
The gratitude of Russia’s ruler.
Those higher up got even more:
Promotions, gold—yes, quite a score!
(Topics for the water cooler.)
Recognition from the chief
Could foster even more belief.
The fire, then, it was trial,
A chance for Rus’ to prove
Its greatness and thus to compile
A case and thus remove
The accusations from abroad,
A clear occasion to applaud
Its strenth and its vitality,
Its admirable mentality,
But also show sincere submission
To Providence and will of God,
To give the Father reverent nod,
And thus dear Rus’ to spare perdition.
When calamity came to the gate
Precisely then was Russia great.
I’m nearing all that I can say
Just note the clock’s advance.
Perhaps you’ve liked it. This I pray.
And in this circumstance
I need to say how hard it be
To write like Pushkin—gracefully.
These rhymes, they take a ton of work
And rhythym adds an extra quirk.
And though I know it will be worse
Favor me and even coddle!
Let me use another model!
Release me now from Pushkin’s verse!
In other words: I call a truce!
Take me back to Dr Suess!
And now I look at faces
And reactions from the crowd
I try to gauge their sentiment:
Horrified or wowed?
Some here care about the facts,
They’ll surely find much fault
You’ve got it wrong, you worthless clown!
It’s time for you to halt!
Those who saw me last year say:
O Jesus, what a dunce!
OK, present your work in verse,
But do it only once!
But Wortman! Maybe he’s impressed,
Perhaps he’ll buy me beer!
But maybe not: This poem stinks!
He’ll ruin my career!
And yet when all is said and done,
One has to take a chance.
If all went well, I’ll have the right
To puff my chest and prance.
But either way, I do believe
I’ve told you something new
About the Winter Palace,
And the ways we might construe
The meanings of the fire then
And how those were addressed
By tsar and loyal servitors
And how at tsar’s behest
The palace rose again from ash
And stands there to this day
And is the great museum
On the river’s pleasant quay.
Now at last I’m finishing
This poem, mediocre.
Some might applaud, while others cry:
Good riddance to this joker!