Saturday 11 October 2014

What Did We Ever Do For the Russians? asks Laurie Graham

As anyone who has been in London recently must know, the city has become a Mecca for wealthy Russians. They want the best of British for themselves and their children, and not for the first time in Russia's history.

When I began researching The Grand Duchess of Nowhere I was already aware of a British presence in Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries  -  I remembered, for instance, being shown the former English Church on the Angliskaya Embankment of the Neva in St Petersburg  -  nevertheless I was surprised by just how a la mode we Brits had once been. The Germans may have been there in greater numbers, but we were the flavour of the day.

The ground was laid by Empress Catherine II's trade treaty with Britain. Industrialists emigrated to Russia and built factories there. They brought an energy and enterprise and technical expertise that Russia desperately needed. For the most part those men, like the grandfather of the novelist William Gerhardie, went native and made Russia their true home. In their wake came British merchants, shop-keepers, bankers, doctors (Scots medics were especially esteemed)), and tough-love nannies. Tsar Nicholas II chose one such for his four daughters. Though Nanny Eager was Irish by birth she has a definite look of cod liver oil and no nonsense about her.

When Nanny Eager arrived in St Petersburg in 1898 she would have found it well-provided with familiar things. There were at least four stores that called themselves The English Shop, vying with each other for the custom of wealthy Russians. Crosse & Blackwell piccalilli, Huntley & Palmer's ginger nuts, Pears' soap, Trumper's badger-hair shaving brushes. And for those difficult birthday gifts for friends who already have everything there was always Nichols and Plinke  -  a kind of Liberty's of its day  - established in St Petersburg before Faberge arrived and stole their thunder.

There was an English bookshop on Gorokhovaya Street and a subscription library attached to the English church. Burton ale may not have quite the cachet of champagne or Crimean wine but it was hugely popular in 19th century St Petersburg, and so was Newcastle coal, in spite of Russia's unimaginably vast sources of birch wood which also makes excellent fires.

English landscape gardeners were all the rage too, as were our coach-builders, and a Grand Duke's country estate was considered nothing without a string of English hunters in the stables and a pair of English hounds chewing on the legs of his brand new Maple's mail order mahogany sideboard.

What did we ever do for the Russians? Quite a lot it seems. And now we've come full circle.

The Grand Duchess of Nowhere was published by Quercus Books on October 2nd.


Clare Mulley said...

Really interesting Laurie, thank you. I have not heard this before - always good remember how intertwined we are in some ways.

adele said...

This lis really fascinating, Laurie.....

anglicanspb said...

You might also find our 'Brits in Imperial St Petersburg' board on Pinterest of interest: - please let us know of any others that we can add, we recognise that it is not a full list. With very best wishes from #SPB