Magazine article The Spectator

Moscow-Advances and Retreat

Magazine article The Spectator

Moscow-Advances and Retreat

Article excerpt

Moscow advances and retreat

Simon Sebag Montefiore


by Malcolm Bradbury

Picador, L16, pp. 498

In October 1773, Denis Diderot, the philosophe and literary celebrity of his age second only to Voltaire, arrived in St Petersburg to enlighten the mind of the Empress Catherine the Great. He believed he was about to change Russia and civilise the barbarians. Catherine had finished her long relationship with Prince Orlov and was about to recall from the wars the love of her life and partner of her reign, Prince Grigory Potemkin. But this left a hiatus in the lovers' hour of the afternoon. She chose to fill this gap by receiving Diderot for a series of conversations about reason and liberty during which that self-regarding old chatterbox tapped Catherine's knees and tried to persuade her to make silly, impractical reforms. Diderot's mission to Catherine the Great is the background to Malcolm Bradbury's playful, erudite, funny and thoroughly enjoyable novel, which is particularly well-timed because Catherinefever will hit London this autumn when the Hermitage of St Petersburg opens a permanent exhibition of the Empress's treasures at Somerset House.

In this joyful feast of reason and whimsy, Bradbury, in top form, tells two parallel stories: Diderot's adventure runs alongside the visit of an English academic to Petersburg in October 1993 with some Swedish professors who are holding a Diderot conference to discuss that polymath's career which varied from Encyclopaedist to pornographic novelist and prophet of the computer. There are other parallels too: in 1773, Catherine was trying to crush the rebellion of serfs and Cossacks under the pretender Pugachev while in 1993 Boris Yeltsin faced the revolt of his communist Parliament in the White House. The themes of Bradbury's circus of history are the effects of the past on the present, the judgment of posterity, the survival of ideas and of course the absurd self-importance of intellectuals that he portrayed so brilliantly in his novel The History Man. Whether one was actually in Moscow at the White House in 1993, or has studied Catherine's court, whether one has visited Russia as a tourist, or whether one simply relishes sparkling prose (and I review this as all of the above), this game of parallels and ideas works delightfully well, especially when Sweden is left behind, and Diderot and the contemporary narrator reach Petersburg, where Bradbury employs his full bag of tricks and all his humorous exuberance in the dialogues between Empress and philosophe. …

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