Monthly Archives: June 2013

THE LIFE OF THE 18TH CENTURY IRISH PEASANT ( Real life through the eyes of a fictional character) by glenn kinyon

100_1547_0001Thady was born in the west of Ireland in County Kerry, a ruggedly beautiful land of bald mountains, low forests, and deep blue lakes. During Thady’s time, County Kerry was about as provincial a backwater as one would find in Ireland, and that’s saying something. Thady’s father died when he was a toddler and his mother turned him over to her brother’s family to be raised while she disappeared to God knows where. Ultimately he was raised by the family of a companion after running off at the age of twelve. Hunger and beatings had been his lot to that point. He was always big for his age, which meant he was continually being challenged by older boys to defend himself. And that he did very well.Ireland

Thady’s one refuge was the church. The parish curate took pity on him and he was made to feel at home with Irish Catholic ritual and Bible teachings. As did most Catholic peasants, Thady grew up superstitious.  In Ireland, as in Russia or Ethiopia or Scandinavia, Christianity was blended with the ancient beliefs of the local culture. Certain people could cast spells with good or evil intent. Charms could be worn, potions swallowed. The devil might appear in the form of an animal, and the parish priest might consecrate a batch of holy water to protect a parishioner from a perceived evil omen. Banshees cried out in the night.  Pennies were tossed over shoulders, cards were read, and signs were interpreted.Fighting with sticks

At fourteen, Thady was recruited by an exclusively-Catholic organization known as the Whiteboys. The Whiteboys were protectors, a gang of bloody vigilantes with various local chapters and leaders. They settled the grievances of the poor helpless tenants against powerful landlords, agents, and tithe proctors. If a family’s farm was confiscated to pay outstanding debt, the Whiteboys would threaten anyone who turned up at the auction, or they might raise funds to buy the property back at very low bids with no one else bidding against them. They were as violent as it got, and many a manor house was burned to the ground, many a traitor killed by Whiteboy gangs. In the parlance of the time, to be “up” was to be initiated into the Whiteboys.Irish cudgel fighting

Like the Hatfields and McCoys, their cousins in the old country feuded family against family with fatal results. Massive, deadly gang fights occurred at community fairs—or even at funerals or weddings—like clockwork. Rows between families were called “faction fights.” At times these skirmishes might erupt in the middle of town when a member of one family looked sideways at a member of the other, but more often they were planned. Then there were “party fights,” which were essentially religion-based. Party fights pitted Catholics, or “Popish,” against Protestants, who were commonly represented by the “Orangemen” after the latter’s founding in 1795. Party fights were considered to be even more bloodthirsty than the family feuds, as clans that were enemies at other times would join together under the banner of their common faith. Unlike Catholics, Orangemen were allowed by law to carry muskets, which could make those fights a bit unequal.Pikes In “Beyond the Berezina,” Sir Malcolm discovers Thady while watching a party fight between the Whiteboys and the Orangemen from his hotel balcony. As Irish Catholics had been forbidden from owning firearms for so long, their fighting factions had become proficient with other implements of warfare, and particularly the cudgel. They knew which type of wood made the best weapon, and they learned how to fill them with lead at the end “what’s to make acquaintance with the cranium,” as Thady explains in the story.  After seeing fifteen-year-old Thady fail to so much as flinch when a cudgel is broken over his head, Sir Malcolm takes him under his protection and tutelage, and the rest is history. Well, fictional history.Irish brawler

The rural Irish were overwhelmingly Catholic; the entire country had been Catholic roughly from the sixth or seventh century until Henry VIII founded the Anglican Church and began giving Irish land to the Anglican nobility. His daughter Elizabeth I populated Northern Ireland with Protestants from Scotland and England, transferring ownership of land confiscated from the Irish Catholics. In Thady’s time, the rural Irish spoke both the Celtic language and English, and had an interesting way of Anglicizing the one, and Celti-cizing the other. A statement in English might be capped off with ersha misha, which means “Say I.” A common exclamation was dher manhim, or “by my soul.” The Celtic—or Irish or Gaelic—language is a language of deep emotion and colorful description. One of my favorite Irish phrases is acushla machree (or simply acushla), which means “pulse of my heart.” A mother might refer this way to her child, or a man to his sweetheart. I find it to be a touching way of expressing an intense feeling. Asuillish machree means “light of my heart.” When addressing a close friend or loved one, different Irish words meaning essentially “darling” or “beloved” were thrown in at the beginning or end of a sentence—Alannah, avourneen,  astora, achora, aroon, avick, ahagur, inusha, and musha to name a few. A common term of endearment for little boys was bouchal or bouchaleen. Girls were referred to as colleens. Colleen Bawn means “Fair Girl.” 100_1422

Irish curses in those days, likewise, were evocative and meaningful. For instance, “May the grass grow tall at your door.”  While at first thought that might not sound like such an unpalatable imprecation, when you think about it a little harder the meaning is a bit more chilling. Imagine what would precede grass growing tall at your door. You have been kept from the most basic act of tidiness and concern for appearance. For that to have happened, you and your family have been destroyed. “May the crows have your carcass” is another one set off by a real hatred, considering it precludes a “dacent Christian berril.” Evil charms were known as pisthroges. A few other common Irish words or phrases mixed in with English were: kailyee—a friendly evening visit; fetch—a ghost that assumes the form of a known person living or deceased; collogue—verb meaning to whisper; phatie or pratie—potato; shebeen—a drinking establishment; poteen—whiskey. And speaking of whiskey, the rural Irish were adept at designing and building stills to avoid liquor taxes. These were usually hidden up in the mountains near a continuous source of running water, and the locals were ever watchful for government men, who as often as not took their cut to keep quiet.

100_1570Irish speakers in those days were big on puns and word play, but their humor could be quite sophisticated, too, particularly among the more educated groups, such as estate owners, teachers, clergymen, or students of the priesthood. Teachers were highly sought after, by the way, and it was common for them to entertain competing bids from different parishes or communities. Hedge schools were the standard means of imparting an education to the children of the poor. These were so named because, lacking a building, classes were conducted in good weather beside hedge rows. Sometimes, though, a barn or house might be available. There are stories of teachers being kidnapped from one community and taken to another to be plied with gifts and put to work.100_1571_0001

My intent was for Thady’s interests and manner of speech to accurately reflect those of the Irish Catholics of the 18th and 19th centuries. He is a lover of scrapes and scrimmages and busting heads, an occasional pipe smoker and a very occasional brandy drinker. He is also humorous and soft-hearted when someone or something catches his attention just right. He has to part company with his Russian sweetheart in Moscow, but doesn’t let it get to him. He grew up illiterate, but Sir Malcolm teaches him to read and gives him a general education. Thady’s first duty is as a bodyguard for Sir Malcolm; he’s trained as a battlefield warrior, too, in time to take part in the bloody affray at Vinegar Hill in County Wexford against the British.Vinegar Hill Battle He’s the only person Sir Malcolm takes to Russia when fleeing His Majesty’s army—fleeing Brigade Major Robert Wilson, in particular.



The rumors of Elvis Presley’s staged death and new identity had nothing on those of Tsar Alexander I of Russia. One must judge for oneself, however, the level of credibility to be given such a claim. In the case of the latter, the evidence is at the very least interesting; to some, convincing.Young Tsar

Alexander Pavlovich, first grandson of Catherine the Great, was twenty-three in 1801 when he succeeded his father, Tsar Paul, on the throne of Russia. Paul was assassinated by a circle of conspirators, a plot Alexander was only partially aware of. He knew his loopy father was to be temporarily deposed, but was not apprised of the murder. Still, his common sense likely told him Dad would never go willingly. Whatever went through his mind before the deed, throughout his life Alexander bore the burden of his father’s death as if he himself had wielded the blade. From his first days as tsar to his final months on Earth a quarter of a century later, he confided in close friends that he intended to abdicate and retire to the countryside. His shoulders were not built to bear the weight of an empire, he would say.St Petersburg

No one involved ever adequately explained why Alexander chose such a forbidding backwater as Taganrog for his wife’s convalescence in 1825. Her doctors insisted she repair to the more welcoming climes of the Mediterranean, to France or Italy. Taganrog was a cold and windy village of only 5,000 inhabitants on the lonely Sea of Azov, north of the Black Sea 1400 miles south of St. Petersburg. The accommodations were hardly fit for an emperor, an empress, and their retinue; but that’s where Alexander insisted on taking his ailing tsarina for her prescribed rest. He left on the three-week trip two days ahead of her. On the outskirts of the capital, he visited the Alexander Nevsky Monastery—the tsar’s patron saint. Here, according to witnesses, he spent several hours in tearful prayer. Afterward, the church metropolitan presented him to an old monk who resided in a corner of the monastery. The monk lived a spartan existence with his single bench and a coffin in which he slept. The emperor seemed intrigued by the old man and his lifestyle, and the two prayed together at the elder’s behest.Monastery

Alexander stood on the steps of his carriage, staring at the monastery spires, as he and his entourage rolled away from the city. He was probably thinking of the sad state of affairs in which his country found itself. Conspiracies to topple the government were cropping up all over. His beloved 18-year-old daughter had recently died, which devastated him no end; and shortly afterward in November 1824, the capital, St. Petersburg, suffered a massive flood that killed several hundred people and left many more destitute. As the story goes, Alexander, while touring the ruins, was heard to say that God was punishing the Russian people for his sins.

Taganrog palaceIn Taganrog with his wife and staff, Alexander fell ill in early November a few weeks after his arrival. The empress, Elizaveta, kept a diary, noting her husband’s condition from day to day. The cheerfulness of her entries reflected the tsar’s improving health, and on the morning of November 11, 1825 she noted how well he seemed to be doing.Elizaveta Alekseevna Although up to that point she had been meticulous in recording the events of her daily life in Taganrog, this would be her last entry. That day, at ten in the morning, Alexander summoned her to his room, and here she and he spent six hours behind closed doors. When she finally emerged, the people around her noticed how distraught she appeared. She immediately wrote to her mother, “Where does one find peace in life? Just as you think that all is settled for the better and that you can enjoy life, there suddenly appears an unexpected trial that steals away the ability to enjoy the blessings around you…it’s so unfair.” We never learn what she was implying. Alexander died on November 19.

The port of Taganrog was useless as a harbor during the winter owing to its high winds and rough, icy water. Shipping began wrapping up in October and was usually finished sometime in November. And even during its milder months, Taganrog was no tourist destination. So why had a private yacht flying a British flag been sitting for an unknown length of time at anchor in the harbor? And why did it leave the day of Alexander’s death?Yacht 2

As a descendent of the Russian nobility, author Alexis S. Troubetzkoy was in a unique position to conduct the research and interviews necessary to dig up all available evidence regarding the mystery of Alexander’s death when he wrote his 2002 book Imperial Legend—The Mysterious Disappearance of Tsar Alexander I. He found evidence that the yacht belonged to the Earl of Cathcart, who had been British ambassador to St. Petersburg and a close friend of Alexander’s. To sum up Troubetzkoy’s exhaustive research, the following, while not verified as fact, serves to fill in some nagging blanks. This comes from investigations carried out by various members of the Russian aristocracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A person of unknown identity wearing peasant’s clothes boarded the yacht in Taganrog. The yacht was forbidden to take on other passengers. The yacht sailed to Palestine, where its lone passenger disembarked. Traces were found of a traveler who spent time in Palestine—possibly several years—and then went to Kiev, where he was received by one Count Osten-Sacken, who gave him papers in the name of Feodor Kuzmich.

The reports made by the doctors and others attending the tsar’s body after his death were contradictory and imprecise in many areas, which is exceeding unusual for such an eminent personage. The autopsy was belated—thirty-two hours—and inconclusive, although the physicians were among the most competent in Europe. A number of accounts noted how the face was black and unrecognizable after the embalming, which was right after the autopsy. When the body lay in state in Taganrog for public viewing, its face was kept covered. During the months that followed before the burial in St. Petersburg, only the Tsar’s inner circle viewed the face and then only at night with guards standing by. Before the tsar died, an officer by the name of Maskov arrived with an official message. Alexander put him in a carriage that quickly wrecked, killing Maskov, who, reports say, was the same height and build as the emperor. Documentation of Maskov’s interment is sketchy, but he was reportedly buried right away in a cemetery near where he died, without ceremony or observations of protocol. Alexander’s brother, Nicholas, who replaced Alexander on the throne, took great financial care of the Maskov family from then on. Maskov’s daughter was admitted to an elite school for the nobility on Nicholas’s orders, although tsars were not known for involving themselves with the lives of regular citizens. No official reason exists for the emperor’s interest in the Maskov family.

Feodor Kuzmich

In 1836, a tall man somewhere around age sixty, arrived in a Siberian village looking to get his horse shoed. He refused to answer questions from the blacksmith or onlookers as to his history—only that his name was Feodor Kuzmich. The police whipped him for being a vagrant, sold his horse to settle a hotel bill, and sent him in chains to a work camp. This man was no typical vagrant, however. He seemed to be highly educated and well traveled, and he proceeded to make friends and distinguish himself in the work camp. He was soon released and moved from place to place in Siberia over the next several years, all the while earning a reputation as a starets, or wise religious leader. People came to him in droves seeking his advice and counsel. Children especially took to him, and these he taught history, geography, grammar, and religious subjects. He also gave detailed accounts of life in St. Petersburg.

A group of workmen were repairing a window in Kuzmich’s cabin one day, and after making repeated requests to the workers to be quieter, the elder stated sternly that if they knew who he really was, they wouldn’t dare aggravate him so. Another time, Kuzmich was recovering from an illness in the hospital when a high-ranking man, a count and army general, paid a visit to that facility. The visitor had been a close friend and advisor to Tsar Alexander, and was well-received by the patients; that is, except for Kuzmich, who covered himself in his bed and turned his face to the wall until the man left. Such insulting behavior was uncharacteristic of the starets, and it incited considerable discussion.

Kuzmich eventually ended up outside of the city of Tomsk, where a merchant named Khromov built a cabin for him. He became part of the Khromov family and lived in their home while the cabin was under construction. The youngest daughter, Anna, recorded in her diary how one night she was reading to the family a book about Tsar Alexander I. When she read a quote from Alexander, a voice from a nearby room exclaimed, “I never said that!” The door was open to their guest’s room, and it was he who’d made the comment. They immediately found him kneeling in prayer. A story went around at the time about an incident that took place on a cold winter’s day. Kuzmich asked Khromov for some extra firewood. Khromov dispatched one of his workmen to bring the wood from town. The workman grumbled and bitched, reportedly to himself, about leaving his warm cabin and hauling wood for over two miles to Kuzmich. When the man got to Kuzmich’s cabin, Kuzmich refused the wood, stating that the workman delivered it with anger in his heart. Kuzmich maintained that the man had sworn and cursed him while loading the wood. The man fell to his knees and begged forgiveness, and Kuzmich obliged.

The Khromovs reported many visitors to the cabin over the years, some of obvious rank and importance. They overheard conversations that took place in French. Solid evidence has been uncovered that Alexander II, Tsar Alexander’s nephew and son of Tsar Nicholas I, was among those visitors. But one of the most intriguing stories involves a local girl named Alexandra, who became close to Kuzmich. She was twelve when they met, and she visited the starets often over the years. He taught her lessons in many subjects, including religion, and told her stories of distant lands and holy places. At the age of twenty, the girl told Kuzmich she had decided to visit Russia’s holy sites. Kuzmich made up an itinerary for her and handed her some letters of introduction. Alexandra later recalled telling Kuzmich she wanted to see the tsar. Kuzmich advised her to be patient and that in time she would meet more than one tsar; she would learn tsars are human like everybody else, he said.Kuzmich

Alexandra visited the wife of Count Osten-Sacken in Kiev, and gave her Kuzmich’s letter of introduction. The countess took her to their country home and introduced her to the count. Alexandra remained several months with the couple, during which Tsar Nicholas visited. Like the count, the tsar queried Alexandra about Kuzmich, at one point stating with a far-off look that Kuzmich was indeed a holy man. When she returned to Siberia, Alexandra immediately went to Kuzmich’s cabin. She observed with astonishment how much he looked like Emperor Alexander Pavlovich. He seemed to become angry and asked her who told her to say such a thing. She explained that she’d seen a portrait of the tsar and that’s what made her say it, and added that Kuzmich even held his hands the same. The old man didn’t respond, but left the room.

When Kuzmich died in 1864, Khromov took a cloth sachet from around the old man’s neck. Inside was a scrap of paper with a message written in code, and the letters A and P. Several experts studied it over the years, but in 1927, at virtually the same time in two different cities, two men broke the code:

Anna Vasilievna, we have discovered an incredible flaw in our son. Count Pahlen informs me of Alexander’s participation in a conspiracy. We must hide tonight, wherever it is possible.


St. Petersburg. March 11, 1801

Paul’s mistress was Anna Vasilievna Gagarina, and she lived in the castle with the tsar. Count Pahlen was one of the conspirators. Paul was assassinated on that date.Tsar Alexander I of Russia

There was a deathbed confession of a man to his daughter in 1866 relating to Alexander’s grave. He was a poor man, but he was leaving her 10,000 silver rubles. He feared that people would say he stole it, so he wanted to disclose the circumstances of its acquisition to his daughter. The story is complex, but in the event, he and some others were once sworn to secrecy and given the silver rubles as a reward for their silence. He was a guardsman stationed at the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul where Alexander was entombed. He watched as workmen lifted up the tsar’s casket and opened it. It was empty. They brought in a wooden coffin from a wagon outside and placed it in the tsar’s casket, which was then resealed. This was two years after Kuzmich died.Fortress of Saints Peter & Paul

The stories of Kuzmich and the possibilities of his imperial identity were legion in the Tomsk area, far too many to recount here. And there are many other stories from beyond Siberia. One of Alexander’s physicians, Dr. Tarasov, a close friend and confidant who attended Alexander at Taganrog, refused to visit the emperor’s tomb during the annual memorial ceremonies until he heard about the death of Kuzmich forty years later. In his memoirs he wrote that his reasons for this involved a profound secret that he would take to his grave. Count Osten-Sacken, likewise, refused to visit his good friend Alexander’s grave. Tsar Nicholas II once visited the tomb of Feodor Kuzmich, as did other dignitaries.

Several members of the imperial family and other aristocrats who investigated the death over the years confided a belief that Kuzmich and Alexander were one in the same, or at any rate some of those individuals spoke in ambiguous terms when asked about the subject. Nicholas I had most of the documentation relating to his brother’s sojourn in Taganrog quickly destroyed—including family correspondence and diaries—along with the port’s shipping records from 1823 to 1826. Alexander, while in Taganrog, announced that a Russian soldier was required to put in twenty-five years, and he’d done that. He stated that he was ready to retire. Russian emperors, however, weren’t really allowed to retire, considering they were appointed by God, as the belief went. In 1902, orders came down from the Kremlin to erect a chapel on the site of Kuzmich’s grave, although the Bolsheviks later destroyed it for materials. Just prior to his death, Kuzmich requested that a ring and an icon be delivered to the palace in St. Petersburg; it turned out that these items had disappeared before Alexander’s death. Kuzmich, it was observed by those who were around him, changed his socks frequently. Alexander Pavlovich suffered from athlete’s foot, which required that he change his socks frequently. When the Bolsheviks ordered an inventory of the items at the imperial palace at Gatchina, a container of keepsakes belonging to the wife of Nicholas I was discovered. At the bottom was a monk’s skullcap, inside of which was a piece of paper with the inscription, “The cap of the Blessed starets.”

Until a DNA study is done, we cannot know the truth of the matter. What we know for sure is that Kuzmich, whatever his real identity, was in his middle thirties during Napoleon’s Russian campaign. We know that he received visitors of all ranks with ease, spoke Russian and French, and comported himself like a statesman. We also know that he was a deeply religious man. Alexander, too, was deeply religious, particularly during the 1812 invasion when he began to get involved with different religious sects and mysticism. Kuzmich had to be somewhere in 1812. It is indicated in “Beyond the Berezina,” that he was serving a holy purpose in Lithuania.

No one can prove otherwise. Alexander I


The Ireland of the Rebellion–by Glenn Kinyon

Irish Peasants

In 1798, Ireland was a land of misery and terror where an individual was forced to choose sides. After that choice was made, the family home, the farm, or the person’s source of income was often destroyed by the partisans of the side not chosen. The British Protestant masters of Ireland had imposed suffocating regulations upon the Catholic peasantry as a tool of eradication, and many of those peasants joined forces with a group of liberal republican Protestants—the United Irishmen—to ignite a revolution across the island. Not unlike the American War Between the States, Irish brother fought against Irish brother, son against father, daughter against mother. The loyalist forces—those who fought on the side of the British—enjoyed the upper hand in terms of firepower and organization, and they combed the countryside meting out punishment to any and all suspected subversives whether the latter were guilty of such charges or not. Suspicion alone was enough to earn some poor soul sufficient lashes to bare his ribs, a hanging, a burning, or any of a number of other tortures.1798 Ireland The notorious North Cork Militia devised the “pitch cap,” where a paper sack was filled with pitch, placed on a suspect’s head, and lit on fire. The victim would lose his hair and skin in his attempt to remove the burning material. Sometimes a militiaman added gunpowder for extra amusement. The rebels, however, were just as violent in their reprisals. Some rebel groups buried their loyalist captives alive. One incident, where Catholic militants burned some 150 men, women, and children alive in a barricaded barn, would taint the republican effort throughout the uprising. Catholic priests held court on several consecutive days in May and June in county Wexford, whereupon those they deemed guilty of being traitors to the cause were piked to death on the spot. British soldiers burned down crowded hospitals in the same county to retaliate against that retaliation. And those horrors continued for weeks until the less-organized and more poorly-equipped rebels were beaten, tortured, and massacred into submission.

The government kept garrisons in towns across the island, and the authorities eventually began declaring martial law in county after county as the threat of rebellion increased. Too, the British established the system of free quarters, in which military units could billet on the best houses of suspected individuals, often leaving family members destitute, raped, or dead in the process. By early 1798, the military, the militia, civilian volunteer yeomanry units, and the Protestant-only Orange Order were running roughshod over the peasant population, burning the homes and barns of any person suspected of being involved with the rebel United Irish organization.Irish Peasant Hovel Informers were known to satisfy personal vendettas in this fashion, or debtors would bear false witness against creditors. Commanding officers ordered the citizens to turn over their weapons, and if the number of weapons that turned up was deemed insufficient, the soldiers turned the town to ashes. If soldiers found a weapon on a man’s property, they killed him.  They applied torture without restraint. No considerations of age or infirmity sufficed as protection against loyalist outrages.

There was something notable to the 1798 rising, however, that took place in the counties of Wicklow and Wexford. The rebel effort, which was long assumed to be just a spontaneous insurrection, was, on reflection by many historians of the period, too methodically conducted not to have been the product of skilled military planning. In fact, had it not been for a couple of poorly-followed-up victories against the loyalists, the rebel effort would in all likelihood have succeeded, and driven the British from the island. A minutely-devised uprising in Dublin, commanded by local Protestant aristocracy, was only thwarted as it began because spies had infiltrated the inner circle. The Wicklow/Wexford insurrection commenced at roughly the same moment, and began sweeping in a wide swath toward Dublin, as if a pincer movement had been put in place, intended to surround British forces. This rising lasted for weeks where it should have petered out in a day or two, that is, if it had only been a spur-of-the-moment inciting of the rabble as historians and observers then tended to portray it. The rebellion was extraordinarily successful on many fronts. The question is: Who was the mastermind?

In “Beyond the Berezina,” that individual was Sir Malcolm Ussher, member of Ireland’s Protestant Ascendancy, who wished that the government of Ireland be transferred to the Irish rather than left in the hands of the British. While the Ascendency was at least superficially sympathetic to the plight of the Catholic peasantry, the main Protestant objective was self-government, self meaning the high-born Irish Protestants. Still, Sir Malcolm was genuinely concerned with the betterment of the Catholic condition, as were many Protestants of the day. Not for another 123 years would the Republic of Ireland become a free nation. The rebellion of the Irish Catholics against the loyalist element still goes on, though, to one extent or another in Northern Ireland, whose six counties remain part of the United Kingdom.

Life in 18th and 19-century Ireland for the Catholic—and generally Irish-speaking—peasant was one of servitude. The majority of the island’s land was owned by absentee landlords who left the management of their estates to agents. The tenant peasant was allowed a small piece of dirt to farm potatoes for his own subsistence, but spent most of his time working the landowner’s property to pay the rent. Irish Peasant ChildrenThe agents by and large were brutal and corrupt men who intimidated the tenants into submission. Tenants were expected to evince respect for their superiors at all times. Agents, judges, aristocracy, and nobility dealt harshly with any low-rank insolence—such as failing to yield the right-of-way on a road or cutting down a tree for firewood. (Peasants could dig and burn peat for warmth and nothing else.) The 17th-century Penal Laws, designed to eliminate Popery in Ireland altogether, had only lately been relaxed, and certain severe articles yet remained. Probably the worst of these was the tithe. Catholics (and Presbyterians) were required to pay a substantial percentage of their income to the Church of Ireland, which was a branch of the Anglican Church—a church not attended by Catholics or Presbyterians. Tithe proctors collected tithes from the tenants, often by way of the lash, which made these men despicable to the Irish peasant. For decades Catholics had been forbidden to be teachers, and although that law was rescinded a few years prior to 1798, the Catholic population was overwhelmingly illiterate because of it, and consequently impoverished and dependent. Famine and disease swept through the Irish countryside every several years, and hunger was a way of life for the peasantry. Irish Rebellion

The majority of the Irish who rose up against their government in 1798 had nothing to lose. The wealthy Protestants who provided the leadership and lit the fire, on the other hand, had everything at stake—people such as Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and the Sheares Brothers, Henry and John, of Dublin. And then there was that mysterious architect of the Wexford insurrection, known in “Beyond the Berezina” as Sir Malcolm Ussher.


Russian BivouacThe French in Russia during the 1812 invasion often commented on the stamina of the low-ranking Russian soldier. The private seemed to be more machine than man, fighting as if he had no mind of his own and no thought of dying. The truth was not too far off. Many of those young Russian minds probably were gone. Conscription filled the Russian ranks, but unlike other European states, the Russians drafted the ranker essentially for life. Twenty-five years was the mandatory term, but after so long a time, the conscripted soldier knew he could not likely go home. If he did, he would be a stranger among a family who would not have heard from him in many years. He would be a middle-aged man without the skills necessary for village or manorial life. And as a retired soldier, he was considered “free,” which meant he was no longer held responsible to the lord of a manor if he’d been a serf, or for paying taxes in his village if he’d been a state peasant.  The military would be all he knew at that point. Most retired soldiers became wanderers.

When the authorities imposed a levy, life was finished for the young man whose number came up; existence as he knew it was at an end. In fact, an induction was usually treated like a funeral, with tolling bells and wailing women. To a soldier, military life was so miserable that death was often preferable. State-owned peasants and manorial serfs bore the brunt of the military draft as the laws exempted sons of merchants, clergy, and noblemen. National service was devastating to the point that parents frequently maimed their male babies rather than ever have to worry about it. Self-mutilation by draftees was so common that laws had to be implemented. Intentional injury could be severely punished and the perpetrator could be forced into service anyway, which pissed off company commanders trying to form cohesive units. Runaways eventually became the responsibility of village leaders, whose backs might feel the lash if they could not produce the required number of conscripts. Incarcerating a draftee until an officer came to collect him was common practice. On the outskirts of the empire, particularly near Poland or Prussia, flight was practicable, but in the interior it was near impossible. A male of draft age wandering into a town with no visible means of support was automatically considered a draft dodger and quickly reported.Russian charge

Some peasants were wealthier than others, and these might be able to buy a substitute inductee from a broker. Enterprising middlemen could buy serfs from a landowner and then sell them at a profit to peasant families who could afford them. A family then would deliver the purchased peasant in place of their son to the draft officer. Administrative corruption was also rampant, and bribery was another means for the better-off to avoid giving up their own. Sometimes, losing a son to conscription would ruin a small family.

Cowardice or other forms of dishonor on the Russians’ side of a battlefield met a punishment both swift and capital. The Russian soldier was not permitted to duck his head while under artillery fire. During skirmishes and pitched battles against Napoleon’s army, the Russian ranker generally faced death admirably, but hopelessness likely informed that behavior more often than any patriotism. On entry into the service, the recruit was immediately forced to march great distances to his regiment. Here, the living conditions were ripe for disease and illness. The food was anything but nutritious, the water was unhealthy, and the barracks were usually close and filthy. The men were treated like hell, often barbarically, which, combined with homesickness, was a significant factor in the high rate of suicide.

Russian Infantry

In “Beyond the Berezina,” Sir Malcolm purchased several Don Cossacks, serfs also known as “Little Russians,” to work his stables. He bought these from a female landholder—a pomeschitsa—in Voronezh province. Such a woman actually existed at that time, and her reputation was one of inveterate cruelty. Sir Malcolm treated his serfs well and they responded accordingly. Every once in awhile a ne’er-do-well was discovered in the mix, and Sir Malcolm would mark such a person for the conscription rolls when a levy was imposed. In real life, masters and villagers were known to turn over criminals, drunkards, and the generally useless for military service when called upon to satisfy the requirements of a levy. Sometimes a serf family’s sons were called out of turn by the master to punish the father. Sir Malcolm was a factory owner, and in 1812 Russia, factory workers were often exempted from duty, as the state needed their skills in their civilian capacities. Many of Sir Malcolm’s employees volunteered out of patriotism when Napoleon invaded, which was not an uncommon reaction that year. Manor-house staff in 1812 Russia also enjoyed exempt status, which is why Sir Malcolm did not have to find replacements for his. Sir Malcolm’s carriage factory, by the way, was based on one the French actually found unharmed and stocked when they arrived in Moscow. That factory survived the fires, as did Sir Malcolm’s. Russian Infantry Borodino

Russian Serfs and Peasants During the Napoleonic Invasion

Angry SerfsDuring the retreat of Napoleon’s army from Russia in 1812, the British liaison to the Russians described in his journal what he saw take place in a rural village. To paraphrase General Sir Robert Wilson, the peasants had laid some fifty refugees out naked in the snow. Village women commenced dancing around and singing while bashing their prisoners’ brains out with clubs. Other eye witnesses reported captured refugees being roasted on spits, being stripped and made to freeze to death, being drowned, and being battered and used as target practice. Peasants didn’t withhold the most unfathomable tortures from women or children let alone soldiers. So who were these people who were so unfeeling and so over-the-top violent—acting not only as individuals but as whole communities? There is no simple answer to that.

Serfs Towing BoatThe condition of Russian peasantry in 1812 was as appalling and as hopeless as any existence at the time. The livelihood of the nobility was dependent on the free labor that serfdom provided, and the odds of that changing were essentially zero. Each estate was its own world with its own rules set down by the individual master or mistress. The difference between serfs and peasants was essentially that serfs were owned by private landowners, where peasants were the property of the Russian state. Human beings were bought and sold at auction or by way of a contract between private parties; they were sold along with mules, carts, or any other material goods. Russian newspapers carried ads describing a slave’s attributes and skills for interested buyers. For example, this ad was posted in the Moscow News in 1797: For sale: a waiter, 25 years old, with his wife and a minor son. A very good weaver; can also shave and draw blood. The wife can look after the mistress and is capable of any work. Also for sale in the same place: a…carriage, not much used, of the best workmanship.

Families were sold together by and large, but not always; they could be permanently torn apart. In general, the more serfs a master—or pomeshchik—owned, the better off the serfs would be. If several thousand serfs were owned, they would commonly be on obrok, in which the serf paid quitrent in cash or kind. Serfs owned by lesser pomeshchiks in many cases labored under the system of barshchina, similar to the pre-Revolution corvee in France, where the master was compensated in labor. This type of existence was conducive to short, tormented lives for the workers. It should be noted that life was not horrible for every serf; many actually became wealthy through personal skills, education, and entrepreneurship, and even purchased their own serfs and property. The serf was not legally allowed to own property, however, and such purchases were necessarily made in the name of the master. Envy and resentment of a neighbor’s success was firmly embedded in the Russian character, and the industrious peasant was often a lonely peasant. Peasants could not marry without the consent of their masters, and female serfs who turned up pregnant without being married were punished severely.Russian Steppe Serfs

Serfs were subject to the whims of the master or those of the stewards and bailiffs in his employ. The treatment they received at times was inhuman. By law, owners weren’t allowed to kill their slaves, but they could and did beat them near to death. (Limits on lash strokes applied to minors.) Some landowners cultivated virtual harems out of their serf populations, in which young girls were required to satisfy their masters’ sexual demands under threat of torture. No laws existed to stop these things, and such behavior was not necessarily imbued with any social repugnance. House serfs, being in the close proximity of the pomeshchik or pomeshchitsa, seemed to bear the brunt of the caprice and cruelty dished out from above relative to their brothers and sisters who worked the land. Good masters did exist, it would be fair to say, and the lot of certain serfs was not so bleak. Some masters provided schools—although laws prohibited serfs from entering high school—and hospitals, and even allowed their slaves to buy or otherwise earn their freedom. On a rare occasion, a serf would actually become wealthy or attain high levels of employment in government service. Stories also abound of the sadistic behavior of serfs in charge of other serfs.

For all the torment the peasant population of Russia endured, these servants could be inconceivably brutal in their own rite. Alcoholism was prevalent in lower-class Russian families and villages, which paved the way for physical abuse at home. Peasant husbands and even grandparents beat their wives and children as severely and as often as they liked. But such violence was not limited to the cottage. School teachers used birch rods on bare legs to discipline students for such egregious behavior as not earning acceptable grades or talking. Pets that got into mischief were sometimes put on trial and hanged. But the most unfathomable reports of peasant behavior came during the retreat of the French military and civilians from Moscow. Throughout the advance of Napoleon’s army in the summer of 1812, soldiers became marauders, putting whole Russian villages to the torch, raping and murdering females, wreaking gratuitous destruction without restraint. The villagers paid Cossacks and partisans for captives during the winter exodus in order to exact retribution for those outrages, whether those captives were French soldiers or private citizens of other nationalities who had nothing to do with any past injustices. Villagers herded prisoners into barns before setting the structures on fire; they forced people into deep pits and buried them alive; they drove spikes through people’s heads; they pushed even children through holes they’d chopped in iced-over ponds. In “Beyond the Berezina,” such scenes of horror play out time and again for the principals, all based on extant reports from survivors of the era.

It should be mentioned that the Russians—and particularly the provincials—were extremely religious. The belief that Napoleon was the antichrist referred to in the Bible permeated the rural mind. Every occurrence was due to the direct actions of God or Satan; and the savage treatment of prisoners was divinely sanctioned. Superstition governed the lives of the lower classes; peasants looked for omens and avoided behavior that brought on retribution from unseen forces. Beliefs varied regionally, but every home had an icon corner, and around almost every neck hung the image of a saint—usually Nicholas. Great processions of humanity annually followed statues of the Virgin or some other relic, which may have been assigned supernatural attributes, from one location to another and back. The dominant religion was Russian Orthodox Christianity, which varied in many aspects from its Latin and Greek cousins. Regional pagan customs often survived from the pre-Christian era to be included in the established orthodoxy.

In “Beyond the Berezina,” Sir Malcolm Ussher owns several serfs that he’d bought at auction, slaves from an area close to the Ukraine then known as Little Russia. The Little Russians had different beliefs and practices from those of the peasants reared nearer to Moscow or St. Petersburg, or those from Siberia. Many of them were Cossacks from the vicinity of the Don or Kuban Rivers, and were referred to as Don or Kuban Cossacks. They were not nearly as patriotic or concerned with the fate of Mother Russia as their northern cousins. Overall, Napoleon’s invasion was important to the civilian population in those regions only as it related to their own well-being. In regions farther north, too, along the lines of the French advance, some serfs used the opportunity of the invasion to talk the invaders into murdering their masters. No single peasant mindset could be counted on in those days.