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From Moscow to London, Stockholm to Venice

the world froze at 10, 12, 15 below

for three months. Wine froze in bottles, cows in byres,

and wolves came down to villages scavenging.

Tree trunks shattered. Church bells once rung fractured.

Travellers crossed the Baltic on horse-back,

skaters glided under the Rialto.


The War of Spanish Succession was paused

for more clement weather – and regiments

of Swedish soldiers died in Russian blizzards,

ceding victory in the Great Northern War

to Peter the Great almost by default.

(Both Napoleon and Hitler ignored

that hard lesson about Russian winters).


Climatologists cannot agree

on what caused the Great Frost: the prolonged absence

of sunspots, perhaps, or volcanic ash

from recent eruptions, Vesuvius,

Santorini. Trade stopped. Hundreds of thousands

perished in a flu pandemic, or starved

to death. Louis XIV ordered bread

be given to the poor. Even the Sun King,

at his new palace in Versailles, felt obliged

to try to save the lives of mere strangers.




In The Gulag Archipelago’s Preface

Solzhenitsyn quotes a peasant proverb:

‘Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye.

Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes’.


He opens the Preface with an anecdote,

a story he encountered in a magazine.

Political prisoners, from one

of the many Kolyma labour camps

in the Siberian tundra, by chance

dug up a frozen subterranean stream,

with fish preserved in motion for tens

of millennia. The prisoners

broke the ice, ate the fish.




© Copyright David Selzer
2 Responses
  • Elise Oliver
    February 26, 2021

    France suffered 600,000 deaths from hyperthermia, starvation and influenza as a result of Le Grand Hiver. You attribute some altruistic motives to Louis XIV but he was actually concerned that there would be a peasants’ revolt following food riots all over France. This motivated him to distribute bread and grain, although the punishment for hoarding grain was hard labour or even execution. Of course, the same could apply here for hoarding toilet paper, although we’re much more fortunate in terms of food supply than 18C France or the gulags because, after all, we do have food banks.

  • John Huddart
    March 4, 2021

    I think this is another masterpiece. Your poems about cultures, and world history, remind me of the amazing drone footage that accompanies virtually everything on the box these days. They provide sharply focused sketches, freshly and aptly juxtaposed. Yours is always the unusual angle, reminding us what we ought to have spent our lives reading about!

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