Jasper Kent is the contributor for this week’s Take Five, a regular series where we ask authors to share five facts about their latest books. His book Thirteen Years Later, the latest volume in the series The Danilov Quintet, is available today.
Aleksandr made a silent promise to the Lord. God would deliver him – would deliver Russia – and he would make Russia into the country that the Almighty wanted it to be. He would be delivered from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness … ” and “the destruction that wasteth at noonday … the terror by night…”
1825, Europe – and Russia – have been at peace for ten years. Bonaparte is long dead and the threat of invasion is no more. For Colonel Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, life is peaceful. Not only have the French been defeated but so have the twelve monstrous creatures he once fought alongside, and then against, ten or more years ago. His duty is still to serve and to protect his tsar, Aleksandr the First, but now the enemy is human.
However the Tsar knows that he can never be at peace. Of course, he is aware of the uprising fermenting within the Russian army – among his supposedly loyal officers. No, what troubles him is something that threatens to bring damnation down upon him, his family, and his country. The Tsar has been reminded of a promise: a promise born of blood, a promise that was broken a hundred years before.
Now the one who was betrayed by the Romanovs has returned to exact revenge for what has been denied him. And for Aleksei, knowing this chills his very soul. For it seems the vile pestilence that once threatened all he believed in and all he held dear has returned, thirteen years later…
1) On December 14th 1825 over three thousand officers and men assembled in Senate Square in Saint Petersburg in an attempt to prevent the accession of Tsar Nicholas I and to install his brother Constantine as a constitutional monarch. Had they succeeded, the history of Russia would have been very different. The revolutions of 1917 might well not have happened and the Soviet Union might never have existed. But the Decembrist Uprising, as it came to be known, failed – not least because Constantine was not interested in power. The crowds were dispersed by cannon fire, the ringleaders were hanged and almost 300 officers were exiled to Siberia. Thirteen Years Later climaxes with the events in Senate Square on December 14th.
2) Before writing War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy had originally planned a novel called The Decembrists, following the lives of the men involved in the Decembrist Uprising, their subsequent exile to Siberia and their pardon and return in 1856. During his research he became ever more convinced that the roots of the uprising lay in the experiences of Russian soldiers during Napoleon’s invasion of 1812 and this became the basis of what we now know as War and Peace. It is believed that Tolstoy in fact planned this to be the first book in a trilogy that would go on to cover the uprising and the return of the exiles. The first three books of the Danilov Quintet deliberately follow the same plan, with Twelve set during the Napoleonic invasion, Thirteen Years Later encompassing the Decembrist Uprising and The Third Section ending with the return of the exiles.
3) In the autumn of 1825 Tsar Alexander I travelled south to winter in the town of Taganrog. Within months news reached Saint Petersburg of his death from malaria, precipitating the failed uprising. Almost instantly rumours began to spread as to what had really happened to the tsar. Within the royal family, stories abounded, even into the twentieth century and beyond the Russian Revolution. Tolstoy himself explored the rumours in the fictional diary The Posthumous Notes of the Starets Feodor Kuzmich. The explanation of the events in Taganrog offered in Thirteen Years Later is one which has not previously been explored by historians.
4) Whilst staying in Taganrog, Tsar Alexander took a two week tour of the nearby Crimean Peninsula. Much of the first-hand detail, used in Thirteen Years Later, of this tour is taken from the memoirs of a Scottish doctor, Robert Lee, who later became a Fellow of the Royal Society. Lee spent much time in conversation with the tsar’s personal physician, James Wylie – another Scot – and the two took opposing views on the recently devised theory of homeopathy. Lee was something of an expert on malaria and gave the apparently healthy tsar advice on the disease just weeks before his death.
5) One of the highpoints of Tsar Alexander’s visit to the Crimea was the ancient cave city of Chufut Kalye, set on a high plateau close to the peninsula’s erstwhile Tartar capital, Bakhchisaray. Today the city is abandoned, but in 1825 there was a thriving population of Karaite Jews. The area is a fascinating mix of cultures, where within walking distance one can visit a mosque in the Khan’s Palace at Bakhchisaray, an Orthodox monastery set into the cliff face itself, and synagogues surrounded by the cave dwellings of the plateau (see here for photographs). In Thirteen Years Later it is deep inside these caves that Alexander and the novel’s hero, Colonel Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, encounter the mysterious scientist Richard Cain.