The Tsar's Dragons
The first of a trilogy based on the exploits of John Hughes, who founded a city in Russia in the 1800s
In 1869, Tsar Alexander II decided to drag Russia into the industrial age. He began by inviting Welsh businessman John Hughes to build an ironworks.
A charismatic visionary, Hughes persuaded influential people to invest in his venture, while concealing his greatest secret – he couldn’t even write his own name. Hughes recruited adventurers prepared to sacrifice everything to ensure the success of Hughesovka (Donetsk, Ukraine). Young Welsh men and women fleeing violence in their home country, Jews who have accepted Russian anti-Semitism as their fate, and Russian aristocrats: all see a future in the Welshman’s plans.
In a place where murderers, whores, and illicit love affairs flourish, The Tsar’s Dragons is the story of a new beginning in Hughesovka, a town of opportunity.
So many papers to put into order. So much history to be preserved.
As I sift through the dry, brittle, letters, diaries, plans, age-tarnished albums, and photographs – Glyn’s photographs – scents rise from the papers and the long-dead flowers pressed between their pages. The perfume of old summers fills the air, drifting through the mist that shrouds the years, evoking memories of myRussia more vivid and redolent than those conjured by mere words alone.
Where to begin?
I recall Glyn Edwards’ letters, written on the same day from the same house and yet so very different. I search for them and look once more on his strong firm hand. The first is a detailed letter to his brother Peter and sister-in-law Sarah, the second, shorter, little more than a note, to his wife Betty.
Strange to think Glyn penned these before a single brick of the ironworks had been laid. Before John Hughes imported the Welsh metalworkers and colliers and long before the gamblers and adventurers flocked to colonise the Iron Master’s new town. Men and women who saw the possibility of making their own fortunes in the enterprise of Mr Hughes’s New Russia Company. They came, first in their hundreds, then their thousands.
Salesmen, shopkeepers hoteliers, priests, whores and whoremongers, murderers, thieves, the steadfastly moral and downright criminal of every nationality, all crowded into a few square miles. Forced to live next to, if not respect, their neighbours. Every one of them drawn by one man’s vision of a brave new industrial town that promised freedom, equality, wealth, and a better life for all who had the strength to work and the courage to join him, no matter what their class, creed, or lineage.
John Hughes had the vision but he couldn’t have realised it alone. It was Glyn Edwards who recruited the men who built the town. I look at the words etched on the thick cream paper, engraved with the address of the Beletsky Dower House and beyond the page I see them as they were.
Glyn, over six and a half feet tall in his stockinged feet, heavily built, as handsome, swarthy, black-haired and eyed as a gypsy. My brother, Richard Parry, just out of boyhood, with the dark curly hair and blue eyes of the Irish; Russian aristocrat Alexei, with blond hair and mischievous blue eyes that belied his angelic features; Nathan Kharber and his sister Ruth, slight, dark, with Jewish features and piercing eyes that penetrated the soul; Huw Thomas, born to subservience, mousy in looks and nature; Dr Peter Edwards; Count and Countess Beletsky; and myself, Anna Parry, the youngest, smallest, and least significant emigrant, taken to Russia as a charity case because I was the subject of salacious interest and gossip in Merthyr. The women who became closer to me than sisters. Sarah Edwards, healer, mentor, friend; Cossack Praskovia, who could have modelled for Titian with her voluptuous figure, red hair, and emerald eyes. And Sonya, who saved us all in the end with her self-sacrificing, unconditional love.
Every one of us over-shadowed by John Hughes, who strode over the steppe and through life with the air of a medieval king born to govern, to command, and above all to build and create …