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How a walk in Boston led to the setting of a novel – in Russia!

Sometimes, inspiration strikes in strange places. Like where I am walking around in Boston—lovely place, I must say, and I especially liked the harbour walks—and come upon one of those information signs that give you an insight into the history of the place. This particular info sign was about the Russian Wharf, which in itself did not interest me all that much. Except for a reference to Kronstadt as the centre for all trade with Russia in the 18th century.

Peter himself, who, apparently, was close to 2 metres tall

“Kronstadt?” Duncan Melville stirs in the back of my brain. “That’s a lively place. A place where tradesmen can grow very rich, buying up flax and hemp and selling whatever luxuries the Russian aristocracy wants from the west.”
“You’re in Chester, Pennsylvania,” I tell him.
“But we cannot stay here, can we?” he says bitterly.
No, not in 18th century America, not when Duncan is married to Erin, who happens to be a woman of colour who had the misfortune of falling three centuries or so back in time.
But Kronstadt?
I shiver thinking about it—for various reasons, one of them being that I know very, very little about that period of time in Russia. Well, beyond Peter the Great. Every Swedish child knows of Peter the Great, the Russian tsar who crushed the Swedish army at Poltava in 1709, thereby destroying the short-lived Swedish Empire wrought, principally, by Gustaf II Adolf. Personally, I am a tad fond of Peter–mainly because he had the guts to go VERY unconventional when it came to his second wife. More about that here(Plus, I am somewhat intrigued by the fact that one of Peter’s daughters married a sort-of Swedish prince. And yes, there will be a post about Karl Fredrik . . .)

“I’ve tried looking at the other colonies,” I tell Duncan. And I have, but it is probably the single most depressing research I have ever done, poring through the colonial laws that forbade any form of interracial relations—well, except those where a slaveowner forced himself on his slave. Starting in Maryland and Virginia, colony after colony put in place legislation that carried quite the consequences for anyone daring to overstep the rules. A white man entering into a common law relationship with a free woman of colour could find himself indentured—as would she. A white man married a free woman of colour and they both became slaves, as did their children.

Strangely enough, these horrifying consequences did not stop people from loving each other, despite their different skin colour. As an example, a very young white woman fell in love with a black slave in Maryland and so loved him she married him, thereby becoming the property of his owner—as did all their many children. I hope she felt it was worth it . . .

Pennsylvania held out the longest, but in 1725-6, they too implemented legislation forbidding interracial relationships. Which is why Duncan and Erin have to go, question is where.
“I thought we’d decided,” Duncan says, tapping at the map of Kronstadt.
“You crazy?” Erin leans over. “I’m not going to live in Russia! That’s where Putin lives.”
“Putin who?” Duncan frowns.
“Horrible dude who likes to portray himself as an alpha male by riding horses without his shirt on,” Erin says. “A dictator, who oppresses his people and starts wars to make himself look good.” She glares at me. “I don’t want to go there.”
“He’s not around in your time,” I say.
“Excuse me, he sure is,” Erin says. “The person who isn’t around in my time is Peter the Great, because he was as dead as a doornail by the time I was born.”
“But you’re not in 21st century anymore. You’re in the 18th.”
“Whoopee me,” Eri mutters, but when Duncan opens his arms she settles in his lap. I smile, thinking that sometimes I am rather successful in compensating my protagonists for all the stuff I put them through. Not always.

Back to Kronstadt:

Karl XII

To give you a very brief background, when Peter the Great had finally wiped the floor with that pesky Swedish king Karl XII (and no, I am not a fan of Karl, who was, to put it mildly, weird), he concentrated on his other great endeavour, hauling his country into the modern era. Well, not for everyone: the Russian serf system was to survive a further two centuries, but for the up and coming, the elite, Peter wanted a Bright New World.

V Serov: Peter the Great striding through the swamps that was to become his new capital city, St Petersburg

He had already founded St Petersburg where the Neva enters the Gulf of Finland and named it after one of the more important saints (not himself). This new city was built atop a Swedish fortress, and one of the first things Peter had built was a new fort. After all, those Swedes could potentially regroup and attempt to reclaim what they had lost. To further protect his new city, Peter decided St Petersburg needed some sort of naval protection, which is why he started constructing naval defences, very much centred round the little island of Kotlin. Soon enough, there were fortifications in place on Kotlin, collectively named Kronshlot. To further strengthen the defensive position, causeways were built to several small, manmade islets with further fortifications. Anyone attempting to attack St Petersburg would find it very, very hard to approach from the sea.

So: Peter now had a fortified island that very quickly became a bustling port. Not only for the fledgling Russian navy, but soon enough for trading vessels from all over the world. While many would sail all the way into St Petersburg, it was probably easier to dock at Kronstadt—plus the island soon became home for expat communities from Britain, Holland and the former German countries.

Russia had always done a lot of trade. Well into the 18th century, Russia was the biggest provider of furs to the rest of Europe, but soon enough the American colonies were exporting huge quantities of pelt back to the home country, thereby affecting this Russian trade staple. Yes, that probably annoyed the Russians—a bit. But as they effectively held monopolies on two of the most important raw materials for shipbuilding—flax and hemp—Russian trade was brisk, to say the least. Plus, just like now, Peter the Great’s Russia (including present day Ukraine) produced huge quantities of wheat that were exported. And, apparently, goose feather—well, wing pens—that fed the ever growing demands for more quills.

Kronstadt soon had its own cathedral. It was criss-crossed with canals bordered by merchant warehouses. It had dry docks and three separate harbours: one for the trading vessels, one for the active Russian navy vessels, one for the navy vessels being repaired. Given the high number of expats, I imagine there was a thriving inn business and, probably, several establishments offering services of a more carnal nature. All in all, Kronstadt was a bustling little town.

“Doesn’t sound too bad,” Erin says.
Huh. Come winter, it was probably freezing cold, the ice thick enough that you could walk to St Petersburg. But in the summer…
“It stinks,” Erin says drily. “Something I have learned here: avoid larger towns during the hotter months, because everything is like an open sewer.”
“Maybe not so close to the water,” Duncan says. “It is easily washed away.”
Erin shudders. “Well, I won’t be swimming anywhere close to that island.”

St Petersburg—and Kronstadt –have been on my bucket list for yonks. Given the present situation, they’ll remain there—at least for the foreseeable future. But that does not mean I can’t have my Erin doing some visiting in my stead. Plus, I am thinking 18th century Russia—well, most of 18th century Europe—would be far less condemning of a marriage between a white man and a woman of colour. Especially if the lady in question was beautiful—and rich. Some things never change, do they?

“I’m not rich,” Erin protests.
Everything is relative, honey.
“Don’t call her that,” Duncan says with a scowl. “Only I get to call her honey.”

Whatever. I study the map of Kronstadt, and in my mind I see a cavalcade of events—some of them quite, quite dangerous. And there’s a nasty character with buck teeth that looks at Erin as if she’s a particular tasty dessert he wants to sink his teeth into (Eeuw!) and then there’s the whole situation with Antoine and his not-so-nice brother Felix Chardon who, remarkably, seems to have returned from the dead.
“He was never dead.” Duncan is now glaring. “And I will not have him come back, you hear?”

Ms Inspiration and I share a little smirk. Sometimes, the plot just takes over.

For those of you interested in getting to know Duncan and Erin, the first book about them, The Whirlpools of Time, came out in 2021. The second, Times of Turmoil, will be released this autumn. And then, dear peeps, we’re going to Kronstadt!
“Huh.” Erin gives me the evil eye. “I am considering going on a strike.”
“Aye, me too.” Duncan sits down beside her.
I sigh. Sheesh, sometimes these characters of mine are SO difficult!

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