Destruction, Reconstruction, Belief: The 1837 Fire at the Winter Palace and its Aftermaths (A Paper in Verse)


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.

 

1837 was

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

Year 1837

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 [1812].

Minsk, it burned in [18]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.

 

To wit:

 

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 [18]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!