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.