Excerpt: 'The Stolen Prince'

Read from The Stolen Prince by Hugh Barnes, selected by Karen Grigsby Bates in her annual summer roundup of books for Day to Day.

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Under the sky of my Africa

To sign for gloomy Russia.

–Pushkin, Eugene Onegin

On 9 June 1762, during the ‘white nights’ of midsummer in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s black knight left the Winter Palace in a huff. He was African and the son of Peter the Great, or so he claimed in a letter to Catherine the Great. (The epithet was bestowed somewhat liberally in eighteenth-century Europe.) ‘Sacked!’ he wrote in disbelief, ‘after 57 years of loyal service, without reason or reward.’

It had been a day of snubs and humiliations. The last straw came at a banquet given by the tsar, Peter’s grandson and Catherine’s husband, Peter III, to mark the signing of a peace treaty with Frederick the Great, king of Prussia. It was a gala occasion—the first of its kind in the new palace—and the whole of Petersburg was there. Built ‘for the glory of Russia’ by the Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the magnificent structure cast a spell. Diversity and scale, the icy turquoise façade stretching two hundred yards down the Neva embankment, gave its baroque detail a heavy, almost barbaric flavour. In the half-light of the northern solstice, the vast bulk of the palace seemed to float upon the water. An optical illusion perhaps, or just the visible manifestation of an incomprehensible mystery: Dostoyevsky’s ‘invented city’, its existence seeming to defy the physical and moral order of things.

Other guests noticed the African’s moody demeanour. He was peevish and irritable, according to Baron Nikolai Korf, the head of the secret police, who described the outcast ‘smiling like a wounded monkey’ as he turned his back on the crush of senators, diplomats, ladies-in-waiting, aides-de-camp—even members of the imperial family just arrived from the tsar’s native Holstein—and vanished into thin air.

It was the usual racist slur. Not that his was the only black face in the crowd. Negro slaves were a common sight in Petersburg. In the grand salons of Millionnaya (or Millionaires’) street, they appeared in a variety of roles, such as pets, pages, footmen, mascots, mistresses, favourites and adopted children. At the Winter Palace, so-called court Arabs—usually Ethiopians dressed à l’orientale in turbans and baggy trousers—stood guard like stage extras in the wings of marble and lapis lazuli. Recent events were the other backdrop. The African was not the only most disgruntled soldier who opposed the end of Russia’s victorious involvement in the Seven Years’ War. Talk of conspiracy was rife. A hotchpotch of disaffected courtiers and adventurers loyal to Catherine were said to be plotting a coup d’état. Even Korf, the tsar’s chief dissident-hunter, was thinking of changing sides.

It is often said that the African took part in the overthrow of Peter III. But Korf’s anecdote is all that remains of his brief days as a revolutionary. Police reports show he left Petersburg after his untimely departure from the Winter Palace. The only other documentary evidence is a stationhouse register in the province of Pskov. An entry for 5 July—the day of Peter’s murder—finds him returning from his country estate at Mikhailovskoye, 285 miles south-west of the capital, and inscribing his name and rank, as well as the date, for communication, in accordance with the law, to the secret police: ‘Abram Petrovich Gannibal – General-in-Chief – Landowner – Travelling on Private Affairs.’

The story of Abram Petrovich Gannibal, and how he got that name, is the stuff of epic drama or romantic legend. It begins, in 1703, with a journey out of Africa. The young Moorish prince, aged seven, did not leave of his own free will. According to legend, he was kidnapped by pirates off the Barbary coast and sold as a slave to the Sultan of Turkey. Before long, however, a Russian spy in Constantinople rescued the exotic-looking child and dispatched him to the Kremlin as a present for Peter the Great, who became his godfather, and later adopted him. As for the riddle of his ‘mysterious origin’, which prompted Vladimir Nabokov to write a 60-page essay on the subject, as an appendix to his controversial edition of Eugene Onegin, new evidence has emerged in the last decade, and more will come out in the course of this book. By coincidence, in the year of Gannibal’s enslavement, Russia’s westernizing tsar abandoned Moscow to build his new capital on a Baltic swamp. This ‘Venice of the North’ was founded on malaria-stricken bogs, and built by hundreds of thousands of serfs, many of whom died of disease and malnutrition during its construction. Saint Petersburg and the freed slave grew up side by side. The city with its Italianite architecture and stuccoed façades rose out of nothing on the banks of the Neva. The tsar’s black favourite also scaled the heights of European society. He was féted in salons from the Winter Palace to the court of Louis XV. Women were spellbound by his sexual charisma; their husbands marvelled at his nonchalant wit. At the same time, his military exploits from northern Spain to the icy wastes of Siberia—to say nothing of his marital problems—sealed Gannibal’s reputation as the Russian Othello. His life rang with praise and applause, but so far he has been the subject of a disproportionately small amount of biography—none of it in English. The oracles have been dumb, and sometimes surly. Today he is remembered, if at all, only as the great-grandfather of Russia’s finest poet, Alexander Pushkin, who portrayed his black ancestor in an unfinished novel, The Negro of Peter the Great.

Excerpted from The Stolen Prince by Hugh Barnes. Copyright © 2006, Hugh Barnes. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

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