19.12.14

A Traditional Russian Christmas

Religious celebrations of any kind, including Christmas, were frowned upon by the Soviet State, and largely banned following the October Revolution of 1917. Fortunately this policy was changed in 1935, although the Festive season became a more secular celebration held in the New Year. Nowadays, Christmas in Russia is normally held on the 7 January, although many Russians celebrate it more traditionally on the 25th December as well, as many other countries do. The official Christmas and New Year holidays in Russia last from December 31st to January 10th.

Some of the old traditions have survived, such as the decoration of a tree, always an important part of the festivity. In the old days a tree would be brought in from the forest and decorated with paper lanterns, bows of ribbon, home-made crackers, spice breads, nuts and sweets wrapped in gold and silver leaf paper. Candles would be attached to the lower branches where they could easily be put out with a wet sponge on the end of a stick. The children would hang up a stocking from the chimney piece just as we do in the UK.

Where the Tsar and Tsarina stood in church.

Traditionally, there were Church services on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, also on 6 January. The congregation were expected to stand throughout the long service, even the Tsar and Tsarina, and the church would often be so cold that feet would go numb, as temperatures outside could be as low as minus 25 degrees. All servants of the household, including the governess, were expected to attend in their best clothes, complete with a warm hat and scarf.

Dinner on Christmas Eve generally consisted of twelve dishes to mark the Twelve Apostles. Roast pork was a popular dish, as was goose with apples, venison or lamb. This would be followed by fruit and jellies, candy and little cakes made with treacle or honey, ring-shaped biscuits. Plus a selection of dates, figs, walnuts and chocolates.

None of this delicious food was available during the revolution, however. In a diary I read of the period, written by a British woman, she said: ‘By way of a Christmas feast, we each had two little meat-balls yesterday. We had bought 5 lb of beef at 100 roubles the lb. We were wonderfully lucky getting it so cheap.’ But then on the 5th January she and her friend were ordered by the House Committee to clear snow from the street on the 6th and 7th from 1 to 3 p.m. Even worse, in Moscow people were ordered from their beds on Christmas night to clear the snow from the tram lines as fuel needed to be delivered, otherwise the lights would have gone out. So much for their celebrations.


Millie, who was governess to the children of the Countess Belinsky in The Amber Keeper, did her best to make Christmas a happy time, although she had more immediate problems on her mind.

Set against the backdrop of revolutionary Russia, The Amber Keeper is a sweeping tale of jealousy and revenge, reconciliation and forgiveness. 

English Lake District, 1960s: A young Abbie Myers returns home after learning of her mother’s death. Estranged from her turbulent family for many years, Abbie is heartbroken to hear that they blame her for the tragedy. 

Determined to uncover her mother’s past, Abbie approaches her beloved grandmother, Millie, in search of answers. As the old woman recounts her own past, Abbie is transported back to the grandeur of the Russian Empire in 1911 with tales of her grandmother’s life as a governess and the revolution that exploded around her. 

As Abbie struggles to reconcile with her family, and to support herself and her child, she realizes that those long-ago events created aftershocks that threaten to upset the fragile peace she longs to create. 

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1.12.14

Life in a Russian Prison

St Peter's Gate

The Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul is an important landmark in St Petersburg, and definitely worth a visit. One of the first structures to be built in St Petersburg instead of being used to defend the city, it’s history is far more sinister. It quickly became one of the most feared prisons in the Russian Empire, the building also housing the headquarters of the secret police. During the revolution it was to hold some of Russia’s most prominent political prisoners.


We found it rather chilling when we visited last year although it is now a museum, and remarkably clean and cared for. But we were certainly given a grim picture of the harsh difficulties of life back in the days of the revolution.



Seized by the Bolsheviks at the start of the October Revolution, the fortress was used to bombard the Winter Palace on the night of October 25, 1917. People could be arrested for no justified reason. Perhaps because a relative was politically opposed to the Bolsheviks, or a brother was suspected of having deserted from the Red Army. Or simply because they worked for a non-Russian. In addition, many foreigners themselves were arrested, the Bolsheviks making a list of British who lived in the city, so that they knew who to imprison next. Over 2,000 people in Petrograd were imprisoned and hundreds shot, the prisoners often forced to dig their own graves.


As Millie, my heroine in The Amber Keeper, says:

The prison at the Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul, situated on Zayachy Island in Petrograd was every bit as terrible as I had feared. Transported in a car over the Ioanovski bridge, through the courtyard, and from there to the fortress via Peter’s gate, never had I known such fear. I was numb with terror... Over and over I protested my innocence...

Nobody was listening, certainly not the guard who took most of my clothes and possessions from me and locked me in one of the dark and damp cells of the Troubetzkoy bastion. I tried talking to him in Russian, French and English, all to no avail. He simply ignored me...

There were traders charged with selling food without a permit, soldiers who had broken the rules by stealing property and selling it for themselves, and people who simply looked bewildered, rather like myself. Anxiety, fatigue and fear was evident in all their troubled faces...

I’ve taken out any spoilers, but her agony worsens as she struggles to survive. I doubt her cell looked as comfortable as this one.


Disease was a big problem. Typhoid was rampant as there was no water provided for washing purposes, and because of the filth and the freezing cold. Prisoners were rarely allowed warm clothes to protect them, and no medical help. Not even much in the way of food. They had to rely upon friends and family to bring food in for them, or they would starve.




In the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in the courtyard adjoining, are the graves of the Romonov family, including Tsar Nicholas II, Alexandra and their children. We found the display quite awesome.

This, of course, is the big attraction today, along with the neighbouring beach where families picnic in the summer. It is also used to host concerts, including the Petrojazz annual festival.




Following our visit we took a cruise along the River Neva where we were able to see the wonderful architecture and palaces along the banks. St Petersburg is an amazing place to visit, and if you go, don’t miss the Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul.

The Winter Palace

The Amber Keeper

After her mother’s suicide, Abbie Myers returns home to the Lake District with her young child—and no wedding ring. Estranged from her turbulent family for many years, Abbie is heartbroken when she hears that they blame her for this tragedy.

Determined to uncover her mother’s past, Abbie approaches her beloved grandmother, Millie, in search of answers. The old woman reveals the story of how she travelled to Russia in 1911 as a young governess and became caught up in the revolution.

As Abbie struggles to reconcile with her family, and to support herself and her child, she realizes that those long-ago events created aftershocks that threaten to upset the fragile peace she longs to create.

Set against the backdrops of the English Lake District in the 1960s and the upheavals of revolutionary Russia, The Amber Keeper is a sweeping tale of jealousy and revenge, reconciliation and forgiveness


 Click here to find Book Club Questions


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