Count Sollogub on the 1824 flood in St. Petersburg

Sep 26, 2015 by

[Note: the following is primarily for the benefit of the students in my current courses.]

From the Memoirs of Count Vladimir Sollogub, on the 1824 flood in St. Petersburg [translation mine]:


Flood_StPetersburg_1824“And I remember with horror that the river once ceased to be a river and turned into a sea, furious, enraged, flushing Petersburg from the face of the earth.

It was November 7, 1824.

More than once we would awaken at night by canon shots. We were told that when the water rises, signals are made from the fortress warn residents. The more often the shots are repeated, the stronger and stronger the danger. On the night of 6 November, the cannonade almost never stopped. By morning, people began running around the house. All the cellars had been flooded. Water stood in the courtyard. We hastily dressed and ran to the reception rooms overlooking the embankment. Never have I seen anything more terrifying. It was some gray chaos, behind which a vague silhouette of the fortress was visible. Slanting rain echoed wildly howling gusts of wind. The granite embankment was beaten by huge black waves with splashes of white foam – and they were hitting harder and harder, and rose higher and higher. It was impossible to discern where the river was and where the sky was… And suddenly, in front of our eyes the embankment disappeared. From the fortress to our house, one whole convulsive sea rumbled and flooded the alley. Our situation was becoming dangerous. In front, the Gulf rushed to attack us. Behind, no salvation was expected either. The frightened servants came running with the news that the Moika river flooded the banks and the Stables bridge, which was wooden at the time, had broken up. Fortunately, our parents were not perturbed in spirit, and we listened to their arguments. The question was: would the sea wind continue with its present force for more than 24 hours? The event was possible, though unlikely. After 24 hours, a storm usually stops and the wind changes direction. We had to expect a change in weather; but if the weather does not change, the flooding, spreading more and more through the surrounding areas, will be spreading slowly and not deeply, so that rescue measures will be devised, and the passing ships will pick up the drowning people who had moved to attics and roofs. Thus, there was no panic in the house, and we looked with anxious curiosity to everything that happened. Especially we were interested in the flow of water along the Moshkov alley. It swept swiftly, undulating, muddy, and various objects floated in it, exciting our children’s attention. Children would always find a toy for themselves in anything. There floated buckets, tubs, barrels, furniture, coffins and simple gravestones crosses, flushed from the Smolensky cemetery. The next day, they were saying that a booth floated before the Winter Palace with a sentry in it. When he saw the sovereign standing at the window, the sentry saluted him and was saved. Whether the story is true I do not know, but that the emperor personally took care of the dying, there is no doubt, and I was a witness to that. One of our servants shouted that ships were drowning in the Neva. We rushed to the windows onto the Neva River and saw a terrible sight. By the onslaught of a fierce storm there were swept in the misty whirlwind some broken barges with hay. The wind disperses the hay all around in big heaps, barges broke into pieces, and we could clearly see that in the midst of the collapse some shades were kneeling and raising their hands to the sky. And seeing this, we too felt the horror, and also began to kneel and pray. Salvation seemed impossible. Suddenly, on the left, two state-owned boats were cleaving the waters from the palace in the direction of the dying. At the stern of the first one sat a general wrapped in a gray overcoat. Salvation was sent by the sovereign. On the other hand an empty barge was coming onto which a royal messenger transplanted those awaiting death when their mangled ships were falling apart.

Meanwhile, the storm did not abate. The flood was rising at slowly but higher and higher. Water already splashed at the level of the bottom floor where, in the father’s apartments, there were a lot of valuables, especially paintings. They started to drag some of the things upstairs, but without fuss or hurry. Father had lost coolly his house in the Moscow fire, and now calmly looked at the material damage. His supposition, however, was justified. The storm began the day before at four o’clock in the afternoon. We had to wait for 24 hours to pass. The dusk grew. Soon, as all the lights were broken, came darkness like in a coffin. But four o’clock struck. Twenty-four hours have passed. The water slowly began to subside. The wind changed. Petersburg was saved. There is a prediction that it would die some day from water and that the sea will flood it. Lermontov, who was endowed with great innate talent for painting as well as poetry, loved to draw with a pen and even a brush the view of the angry sea, from which was rising from the tip of the Alexander Column crowned by its angel. This image reflected his cheerless, foreboding fantasy.

After the flood on November 7, a wistful, leaden, all-absorbing gloom descended onto Petersburg. There were no other speeches, no other concerns but about the a seaside neighborhoods that were the most affected. Entire streets were piles of debris and corpses over which were heard screams of those left without food and without shelter. The broad Russian charity has found itself a job. Private alms, philanthropic committees, official events were zealously vigilant. Engineers drew projects of huge projects bypass canals and drainages to prevent future disasters. Above this general impulse reigned a supreme mercifulness of the increasingly more saddened monarch. The court and the capital were in sorrow. Petersburg was gloomy. The sovereign’s health was precarious. In the summer he went to the south.”

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