Fire: the incident which destroyed Count Kleinmichel’s estate in Potchep

Fire. Australia is burning and the word is on everyone’s lips. Thankfully, at the moment anyway, my family has not been impacted. Although I do know people who live in the fire affected areas, they too are safe. But there has been total devastation, homes destroyed, lives lost, and wildlife decimated.

Fire has twice played a role in my maternal family’s history. In 1837 the Winter Palace in St Petersburg burned, and my great great grandfather was appointed by the Tsar to lead the reconstruction. I have written about this here.

Closer in time, my grandmother (pictured above with her father) was impacted by fire in her youth when her father’s estate, Potchep, suffered severe destruction from fire. In her book, Upheaval, my grandmother writes about this fire:

          “Potchep, having no regular fire company, my father donated the whole equipment: fire engines, trucks and firemen’s apparel for twenty men, – who were trained in this line at his expense.

          It was a great day when everything was ready and there was a demonstration of the fire company’s work. All our family drove out in several carriages to the spot where the demonstration was to take place. A large and excited crowd had already gathered at some distance from the barn that my father had sacrificed for this occasion. As soon as we had settled in our places, the signal was given and up thundered the fire engine and the trucks all spick and span, the firemen in their new uniforms, their casques dazzlingly bright in the sunshine. The men attacked the barn, as if a fierce fire were raging in it. They showed agility and presence of mind. The crowd cheered. When all was over a delegation from the inhabitants of Potchep thanked my father and we drove home very happy and excited.

          Alas, when the next year, while we were as usual spending the winter in Moscow, our house in Potchep caught fire, the firemen, I am afraid, did not show as much efficiency. A great part of the rooms were badly damaged. We never returned to Potchep in the summer, but afterwards spent the summer months in Ivnia, an estate in the government of Koursk.”

When I first read about the fire at Potchep I wondered if it was arson, as I had heard fires lit by disgruntled peasants were not uncommon in Russia at the time. However, Peter Solomon in his book, Reforming Justice in Russia, 1864-1994: Power, Culture and the Limits of Legal Order, states that “When peasants used arson against local landowners, they almost never set fire to the manor house or any other residential structure on the landowner’s estate.” So perhaps the Potchep fire was an unfortunate accident.

Whatever was the cause of the fire, my grandmother and her family were lucky to have somewhere else to live. So many people in the fires in Australia have lost everything and have nothing to return to. My heart goes out to them.

If you would like to help those who are suffering in the bushfires or the brave people who are fighting them, this article gives you options:

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Mike Berglund

    Thanks so much for this story. I’m glad you and your family are ok!

  2. Elisabeth

    I think peasants could do this. So sad wisiting Potchep now and see how whole city was destroyed by the communists. The onty beautiful building left there is Resurrection Church.

    1. Avatar photo

      Elisabeth – I guess we will never really know. So interesting that you have been to Potchep and sad that it is destroyed.

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