By Andrew Williams
THE engraving drew my eye because it was the only object in my teenage friend’s house that was older than him. It was the portrait of a man with a shrewd face and cavalry sideburns, his uniform stiff with stars and ribbons.
An ancestor, my friend explained; he left Scotland a penniless outlaw to make his fortune in Russia. James Wylie became the personal physician to three tsars, and I can’t remember if my friend said so at the time, but he is the doctor mentioned by Tolstoy on the eve of the battle of Borodino in War and Peace.
His life and reputation – formidable in Russia to this day – were still at the front of my mind almost 30 years later when I began researching my story To Kill a Tsar. The novel tells of a radical young doctor at the end of the 19th-century who is drawn into revolutionary circles and a conspiracy to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. My hero’s medical pedigree is unquestionable because he claims kinship on his father’s side to Wylie, but he is well connected on his mother’s side too.
Just a few yards from Wylie’s mansion on St Petersburg’s finest embankment is the house occupied by the Greig family – the Glens in my story – for 150 years. The first of the dynasty was Samuel Greig from Fife who rose through the ranks of Catherine the Great’s navy to become an admiral and “father of the modern Russian fleet”. The next three generations were admirals, generals and government ministers, marrying into the Russian aristocracy without ever losing their ties to Scotland.
A little further along the same embankment was the mansion of another court physician, John Rogerson from Dumfriesshire, who proved his worth examining the prospective lovers of Catherine the Great to ensure they were free of venereal disease. Surgeons and soldiers, merchants and manufacturers, bankers and brewers, the more I read and walked the city the clearer the picture of the old and close connection between the two countries and it became a backdrop to my story.
The connection began 400 years ago with the Scots mercenaries who served Tsar Ivan the Terrible. More than a score rose to the rank of general in the centuries that followed, men such as Peter the Great’s friend and tutor, Patrick Gordon. Some, like General Tam Dalyell of the Binns, returned to Scotland richer and with their reputations enhanced, but others stayed, their descendants taking royal service, cementing a Caledonian connection.
By the beginning of the 19th century Scots were making their mark in all aspects of Russian life. Perhaps the most obvious legacy today is the one left by Charles Cameron, the architect of the royal palaces and gardens at Tsarskoye Selo and Pavolvsk.
In St Petersburg, the Scottish entrepreneurs, Charles Gascoigne and Charles Baird built an industrial kingdom on the Neva, supplying steam-driven machinery and engineering expertise to all corners of the empire.
Baird’s works produced the cast iron for the city’s bridges and in 1812 built Russia’s first steamship, The Elizaveta, with a brick chimney for a funnel. Another Scotsman, Murdoch Macpherson, founded the huge Baltic shipyard in Petersburg that launched imperial Russia’s battleships.
“To come from the north side of the Tweed is the best recommendation a man can bring to this city,” an English engineer observed tetchily in 1805, “the Caledonian phalanx being the strongest and most numerous, and moving always in the closest union.”
The Scots had done well for themselves but by the end of the 19th century the settled order they belonged to was in question. Imperial Russia was changing very rapidly, with a population explosion, a drift from the countryside to the new factories in the cities, and a growth of an educated class agitating for democracy, an end to autocracy, freedom of speech, the rule of law. Impatient with the failure of peaceful protest a small group of Russian revolutionaries met in the summer of 1879 to form a secret party to wage “intensive warfare” on the tsar and his government. In its skillful use of propaganda and assassinations the new party – The People’s Will – was to mark itself as the first terrorist group of modern times. Members of The People’s Will took the sort of quasi-monastic pledge an Al-Qaeda volunteer might recognise; to renounce love, ties of family and friendship, and to give their lives if necessary to bring about a revolution. Like a cult, the tougher the vows and the greater the sacrifice the better.
The imprisonment and death of members of the group – “our martyrs” – only helped to stiffen the resolve of those who were left. As one member of The People’s Will admitted, it “created a cult of dynamite and the revolver, and crowned the terrorist with a halo – murder and the scaffold acquired a magnetic charm” for young people. Disenfranchised, disillusioned with the state, they were excited by secrecy and comradeship, by adventure and danger and killing.
Most of the Anglichane – as the Russians called the Scots and the English in Petersburg – owed their living and therefore their loyalty to the tsar and his government. But younger men and women, like Hadfield, the doctor hero of my novel, returned from universities abroad with dangerously democratic principles.
Hadfield shares my fascination with the “cult of dynamite and the revolver”. As a descendant of that most loyal of royal servants, James Wylie, he is a favourite of the Anglichane gentry in the city. But as a foreigner, a liberal, he is viewed with mistrust by conservatives and revolutionaries alike.
For a time, he will enjoy the adventure of associating with men and women wanted by the tsar’s secret police, he helps at the clinic they run for the poor, and he admits to sympathy for their cause, but he is outspoken in his opposition to terror. Then he falls for someone he shouldn’t, a committed member of the “cult” and he is forced to choose. What does the man of principle do when he is in danger of being drawn deeper and deeper by his friends into a conspiracy to assassinate the tsar?
• Andrew Williams’s To Kill A Tsar is published in paperback this week by John Murray, priced £7.99.