• M. K. Stelmack

Not a pen, not a cannon

Anna slipped across the room to Prince Sergei Trubetskoy who was built entirely from tall, thin rectangles from his longish head to his spindly legs and horizontal thrust of shoes.

She curtsied and handed him the petition. Around him were clustered a half-dozen tea drinkers in soft chairs, her father numbering among them.

“That is the petition I spoke to you about earlier,” Mr. Ryleev called across the room. “If you could but sign it.”

Prince Trubetskoy looked about. “I haven’t a pen,” he observed and then repeated himself to the cluster. Her father looked pointedly at Anna.

She raced up two flights and down the long corridor to her room where she picked up her father’s well and favorite pen with its Canada goose feather and scampered back, only to step into a testy cross-room exchange between Mr. Ryleev and the prince.

“I am awake to the troubles of the land,” Mr. Trubetskoy said, hitching himself in his armchair, his various pointy body angles getting rearranged. “However, I’m not convinced that a full-scale revolution will change anything.”

“But nothing less will do either. If we’d but fight for the common peasant as wholeheartedly as they fought for the Motherland against Napoleon, then we’d stand as the greatest republic in the world!”

“We, in this room, fight? Against who? Each other? I cannot visualize this.” Prince Trubetskoy gazed out the window as if for inspiration.

“Against the system.”

Prince Trubetskoy raised his giant, spidery hands for all to see. “But the system has cannons, and I haven’t even a pen.”

Anna stepped forward.

(An excerpt The Tsar’s Little Angel)

Here are two real historical figures, Prince Sergei Trubetskoy and Mr. Kondraty Ryleev. A quick note about the ‘prince’ honorific. There were a whole pile of princes and princesses, counts and countesses in Russia, the vast majority of whom were in no way related to the royal Romanovs. How that came to be is a topic for another day.

Both gentlemen were a product of the Napoleonic wars fought and settled a decade earlier. They’d participated in a number of battles, and would’ve witnessed for themselves the plight and valor of the Russian peasant. This compassion for the downtrodden lower class inspired the officers, mostly from the nobility, to campaign for the abolition of serfdom and of the tsarist regime following the defeat of the French dictator.

The coalition under which they campaigned eventually broke off into two societies: The Northern Society and the Southern Society. The Northern Society advocated a constitutional monarchy to be achieved through peaceful means, and the Southern Society, under the leadership of Pavel Pestel, pushed for a republic to be achieved through any means, violent or otherwise.

Kondraty Ryleev replaced Sergei Trubetskoy as one of the three directors in March, 1825, two months prior to the scene above. New members, young and often from the lower gentry class, were recruited by the liberal poet-rebel and agitated for a wholesale overturn of Russian society. Under Ryleev’s directorship (he shared duties with two others), the Northern Society approached the radicalism of the Southern Society.

Not that Ryleev ever truly believed that either Society would succeed. To his fellow director on the eve of the December revolution: “I foresee that we will not succeed, and yet a crisis is inevitable. The tactic of revolutions is contained in one word: ‘dare!’ And if it ends badly for us, others will learn from out failure.”

Exactly how badly it ends for Kondraty Ryleev and Sergei Trubetskoy is not for me to reveal here, though a quick hop over to Wikipedia will tell all.

Given that the excerpted scene takes place at fictional Nyaboskoye Palace and that Sergei Trubetskoy was in Kiev at the time of this scene, this debate didn’t happen. But it did represent the two faces of the revolution. The cautious, vacillating, older, conservative side in the person of the prince, and the bold, quixotic, younger, sacrificial as played out by the poet. Both men influenced the outcome of the revolution, exactly because they played their differing parts so well.