Tag Archives Versailles


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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.





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