1636 The Kremlin Games – Snippet 46

Chapter 37

On the Oka River, between Moscow and Murom

August, 1633

“Hey, Stinky. What do you have there?

Pavel Mikhailovich didn’t much like being called Stinky, since he didn’t stink any worse than his brother did. “I got a pamphlet, Shorty. There was this kid handing them out in Moscow.”

“What’d you want a pamphlet for that you can’t read?” Ivan Mikhailovich demanded. He didn’t much like being called Shorty, since his brother was only one inch taller than he was.

“Well, I figured you’d read it to me. Oh, that’s right! You can’t read either.” Pavel Mikhailovich made a rude gesture at his brother, then continued. “The kid stuck it in my hand. I wasn’t going to stop in the middle of a Moscow street and explain to him that I couldn’t read. So I stuck it in my pocket and forgot about it.”

Pockets, not entirely by chance, had become the mark of a well-dressed man — to the extent that someone had suggested a law forbidding them to peasants and Streltzi. The notion hadn’t gotten very far, but just the fact that had been broached was enough to make pockets a fad.

“Fine, then. How’s the engine doing?” In theory, Ivan, being three years older, was the captain and Pavel was the engineer. In fact, they switched off and both turned their hands to whatever needed doing on the Gorchakov Steam Barge One. It was the only steam barge in Russia and it was brand new. The barge was thirty feet long and twelve feet wide. The front twenty feet had boxes and barrels like any barge on the Moskva river might. But the back ten feet were different. They contained a Frankenstein monster of an engine that James Watt wouldn’t have recognized in his worst nightmare. The engine started with a big iron pot, the boiler, which was connected to a big wooden tub by a copper pipe. More copper pipes led to two wooden cylinders, each about six feet long, held together by what a wine merchant would call an excess of barrel hoops.

Though you couldn’t see it from the outside, the inside of each cylinder had a piston a bit over a foot across. From the piston, a piston rod extended out of the cylinder and attached to a connecting rod, which attached to a flywheel, which was connected by way of a belt drive and an assortment of other wheels and belts to a rod on the end of which was a propeller. The power was controlled by a valve that restricted the flow of steam to the cylinders, and the direction of rotation by a lever that added a reversing gear.

“Well enough,” Pavel said. “It’s leaking a bit more than I like out of cylinder two. When we get to Murom, we should pull the cylinder head and check the greasing. But it should get us there.”

Ivan nodded. They had to do that every so often to one of the cylinders or the other. The inside of the cylinders were coated with lard, the steam melted the lard, and the piston shoved it to the ends of the cylinders.

Then he turned and went forward again.


Struck with an idea how he might twit his younger brother, when Ivan got to the middle of the barge he asked loudly, “Say, can anyone read? My brother can’t and he got given a pamphlet in Moscow.” The front half of the barge was stacked with boxes and barrels of goods from Moscow and the Gorchakov Dacha, on which sat half-a-dozen passengers, all of it, and them probably, headed for the Gorchakov family estate at Murom.

There was a general shaking of heads. The passengers were mostly Streltzi on this run, which varied a lot. But there were generally better odds of finding a literate person on the barge than most places. The barge made a local, then an express, run in both directions. This was the express run from Moscow to Murom, a bit under four hundred miles by river. They would next hit land in four days or so. For safety’s sake, they threw out an anchor and stayed in the middle of the river at night.

One woman asked, “What have you got?”

“Just a pamphlet some kid gave my brother in Moscow,” Ivan answered.

“Sorry I can’t help.”

“Doesn’t matter. We’re sure to find someone in Murom who can read it to us. Why are you going to Murom?”

“I’ve got a cousin there. Maybe I can get work, what with all the new business Princess Natalia is promoting.”


The other passengers had similar stories. Looking for work, looking for opportunity. Bright people, hopeful people, but not literate people. So they wouldn’t find out what the Flying Squirrel had to say till they got to Murom.

Meanwhile, they cooked their meals over the boiler fire and had a generally good four-day vacation, talking about the goings on in the wider world.

“What’s the Dacha like?” the woman who had a cousin, second cousin actually, in Murom, asked the first night.

“Confusing.” Pavel laughed. “I don’t have any idea what they are talking about most of the time.”

“So how did you get the job?” asked a big man who was going to Murom in hopes of work as a blacksmith or maybe a foundry man. Not belligerently, just with the assurance that comes with being the biggest man around most of the time.

“Because we are very good boatmen,” Ivan said, with a touch of belligerence in his tone. This was their barge, after all.

The big man waved off any offence. “I didn’t mean that. I don’t doubt your skill but I heard that those folks at the Dacha are dead set on reading and writing and figuring. I heard even the servants are learning to read at that Dacha place.”

“That’s true enough,” Pavel agreed after swallowing his mouthful. “But the princess said they’d never find enough river men to handle steam barges if they insisted that they all be able to read.”

“So they plan to make more of these?”

“They’re already making them at Murom,” Ivan confirmed. “We got the first one because we’re the best boatmen out of Murom and even the princess had heard about us.”

“We’re part of a test,” Pavel explained. “Us and the steam engine. We were shown how to operate the steam engine and sent out with it to see how it worked. Every time we go by the Dacha they ask us about what has gone wrong and how we fixed it. At first it was really bad, but we got to know the engine pretty quick and we have fewer breakdowns every trip.”


Not no breakdowns as it turned out. That trip, on the second day, they had a pipe come loose from the number two cylinder and they had to repair it as best they could with rags and pig fat and continue on. It was during the pig fat repairs that Pavel explained that what they had was a low-pressure steam engine. “See,” he explained amiably, “The piston is so big so that the pressure on any little bit of it can be less and you still get the same total power.”