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Kirill Finkelshteyn
In the wrong body. The secret life of Nicolai de Raylan.
Moscow: IDRIS publisher.  2021; 416 p. 16+


     According to the information in Obraztsov’s article, Anna Terletsky was born on December 12, 1872, in Odessa, in the family of Mamert Mamertovich Terletsky and Serafima Petrovna Terletsky (b. 1843 – d. after 1917). Serafima Petrovna came from a large noble family of Sizovs. Her father, Pyotr Sizov, graduated from the Black Sea Navigation Academy in 1820; sailed on various ships near the Caucasus shores for over 30 years; participated in several armed skirmishes with the Turks; wrote a “Practical Astronomy” course based on French and German manuals; and was discharged from service in 1857 with the title of Captain of the 1st Rank; died in 1871[1]. Perhaps, thanks to her mother's stories about her grandfather, Raylan claimed that his father was an admiral.

   Anna’s (Raylan’s) father was of Polish descent, a Catholic, by education, a lawyer, and most likely a nobleman. At the time of his acquaintance with his future spouse, he served as a judicial official at the military headquarters. Obraztsov writes that the love of 18-year-old Serafima did not elicit sympathy from her father. He strongly opposed the marriage due to the Polish origin of the groom. Nevertheless, his daughter, who passionately loved the handsome Pole, resisted parental will and threatened to run away. In the end, the father gave his consent (the wedding took place in 1863) but refused to provide any support for the young couple. Therefore, at the beginning of the married life of Serafima and Mamert, they had to endure significant financial hardships.

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    A year after the wedding, the Terletzkis had a son named Victor. He lived only seven years, however, and died of diphtheria. The next two children, Nikolai and Angelina, died of illness in infancy. It seemed as if a sinister curse pursued the Terletzki family. In 1868, Serafima Petrovna gave birth to a daughter, Varvara, lovingly called Vavochka. Four years later, on December 12, 1872, came another daughter. She was christened Anna, but the family established a custom of calling her "Nina," and the nickname stuck so firmly that even some acquaintances did not know her real name. Serafima Petrovna said that Nina was born a weak girl who lacked energy and cheer: “The child was some kind of little phlegmatic, neither wanting nor interested in anything.”

    Soon after Anna-Nina was born, her father left government service and began acting as legal counsel to the governing body of the Lozovo-Sevastopol Railway (later known as the Southwest Railway Society) located in St. Petersburg, and so the family relocated to the capital of the Russian Empire. As a Polish Catholic, Mamert Mamertovich did not have favorable prospects for advancement within government ranks[2], whereas working for private enterprises—which railways were at that time—provided a respectable living.

   Vitashevsky’s aunt, who owned furnished rooms in St. Petersburg at that time, claimed that Nina’s birth “was accompanied by a fantastic increase in their fortune. <…> Nina was surrounded by incredible care, love, and luxury far exceeding the limits of the Terletsky’s means,” hinting at the acquisition of some kind of inheritance. On the strength of that same aunt’s words, Vitashevsky writes that “In Petersburg, the Terletskys gave birth to a child, whom they raised as a girl, under the name Nina (and accordingly dressed), but who was actually a boy and probably not even their son." The cause of these rumors was an incident that occurred in 1884 when Nina turned twelve. At that time, Serafima Petrovna with her two daughters and a governess, lived for a while in Odessa in the furnished rooms of that same aunt of Vitashevsky, who by that time had moved from St. Petersburg to the southern city.      

   “The child who lived with S.P. Terletskaya under the name of ‘Nina’ as her daughter was, of course, dressed in feminine gowns. But the child exhibited all the mannerisms of a boy. <…> This was the basis of multiple misunderstandings between mother and “daughter.” And so, once, having been angered by being refused something or irritated by a reprimand from the “mother” or governess, the child burst into the kitchen in his usual disheveled state and, lamenting the supposed unfairness of his treatment, blurted out:

     - The devil knows what they're doing to me, dressing me as a girl, not giving me any freedom, but I’m a boy and I want to live like boys do. I'll tell my mom that I won't wear dresses anymore.' <…> From that moment on, it was firmly believed in our family that there was some secret behind the past of the child 'born' into the Terletsky family," wrote Vitashevsky.

Whether there was any mystery in Nina’s past as well as the causes of her strange behavior will become clear from the further narrative. For now, let’s return to the year 1875, when the Terletskys moved to St. Petersburg, by “turning the floor over” to Serafima Petrovna.

    "When the child turned three years old, and her health remained weak, I turned to Professor Bystrov in Petersburg[3]. After examining my daughter, he advised me to change her upbringing. 'Dress Nina in boys' clothes,' he said. "Dress Nina in boys' clothes," he said. "Don't constrain her body with any laces or fasteners. Set up a trapeze at home, lay out a mat, and give her complete freedom. Let her develop like a boy.' I followed his advice. In six months, the girl underwent a complete transformation. She became healthier, more active, gained an appetite, and, most importantly, grew very fond of her boyish activities and hardly ever left them.

   Years passed. Nina improved, and when she turned seven, I decided to dress her as a girl. But imagine my surprise when I noticed that Nina hated her new costume—a dress. She began to beg me to rid her of such attire, insisting that girls' clothes were unbearable for her, but I did not yield. Nina burst into tears. 'I don't want to be a girl,' she said, crying... [...] Nina seized every opportunity to cut her dress with scissors or stain it with ink... Moreover, she broke all her toys if they corresponded to her gender. Dolls, baby carriages, cribs — everything was destroyed by her with a special disdain and indignation. She even refused to play with girls; her friends could only be boys, and her favorite toys were a drum, a saber, and a toy horse. Despite these peculiarities, Nina was very intelligent and kind, albeit a somewhat fiery girl. She had a deep and highly sensitive nature."

   Around 1883, when Nina turned ten years old, the family moved from Petersburg to Kyiv due to changes in the father's career. Here, Serafima Petrovna enrolled her daughters in a gymnasium: Varvara entered the fourth grade, continuing her education, and Nina entered the first grade. During this time, the mother noticed new peculiarities in her daughter: an aversion to having her hair braided and to the girls' school uniform. Sometimes, at night, Nina would wake up and start praying fervently. "I would sit with her in the room, and suddenly, turning to the icon, she would say with sadness, 'God, why did you make me a girl and not a boy?' This surprised me greatly because during pregnancy when I was expecting Nina's birth, I passionately wished for a boy to be born.”

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    As she grew older, Nina was visited by thoughts of metamorphosis into a man. Serafima Petrovna related that once, when her daughter had turned eighteen, she found the young girl crying, and when she asked what had happened, Nina replied, “Mama, I am well. Wait a year, dear Mama, and then everything I have been promised will come true, and you will find everything out.” Soon after that, Serafima Petrovna learned from a close friend that Nina was impatiently awaiting the moment when, as someone had promised her, she would be made into a man.

     Changes were taking place not only in Nina’s mind but in her outward appearance. His/her photograph was published in an article relating Nikolay de Raylan’s diary entries[4], where she is depicted the year she graduated from high school[5]. The snapshot shows us, if anything, a rowdy boy: short hair, a mischievous glint in the eyes, an ironic smile on the lips. A far cry from the respectable female student with a long braid and downcast eyes.

     Anna-Nina’s childhood and youth look different in Nikolai de Raylan’s diary entries, which were published in American newspapers. The diary excerpts provided here and later on are given in italics.

   As Nina grew older, thoughts of transforming into a man began to occupy her mind. Serafima Petrovna recounted that one day, when Nina turned eighteen, she found her daughter crying. When asked what was wrong, Nina replied, "Mom, I'm healthy. Just wait, mommy, for a year, and then everything they promised me will come true, and then you'll find out everything." Soon after, Serafima Petrovna learned from a close acquaintance that Nina was eagerly anticipating the moment when someone had promised to turn her into a man.

   Changes were not only taking place in Nina's consciousness but also in her outward appearance. In an article featuring the diary entries of Nikolai de Raylan[4], a photograph of him/her was published, depicting Nina at the time of her graduation from the gymnasium.[5] The image portrays more of a rebellious tomboy: short hair, a mischievous glint in the eyes, and a sardonic smirk on the lips. It was a look vastly different from that of a proper gymnasium girl with a long braid and a demure gaze.


   The childhood and youth of Anna-Nina take on a different light in the diary entries of Nicolai de Raylan, the narrative of which was published in American newspapers. The excerpts below from the entries are given in italics.

    “The first sentence of the diary is a sort of headline and consists of a declaration showing her own interest and her knowledge of the widespread interest of others in her dead father and the information he could disclose. She calls him Vladimir and says in a free translation:

    "Vladimir, in whom the whole world is concerned the known unknown!"

     The first phase of her life traced in her Journal, many pages in which indicate that she was a drunkard, gambler and a profane roué, depicts her as a school girl. Her mother had placed her in a government school for girls in Kiev, Russia, where the Taletsky family home was situated, and between the ages of 15 and 16 years, she was to graduate. Somewhere around this period her mother, who had been well-to-do before, suddenly acquired considerably more wealth. The figure mentioned in the diary is 250,000 rubles (about $123,000 at the end of 19th century).

    Nicolai, the only given name by up with her, on which De Raylan is known to have been called, no feminine name appearing in any of her papers, discovered the existence of this sum and became suspicious concerning it. In some way not made clear in her diary she found that it had been settled on her mother as trustee by some member of the nobility, to be conserved in the interest of Nicolai. This discovery made the young girl curious as to the reasons for the settlement, and caused her to wish for her father, as expressed among her writings, to find from him what mystery surrounded her origin. Her mother she says would not tell her. Nicolai writes of various interviews with her mother in which the latter refused to give information, and of various attempts to make her parent speak on the subject. Finally was born in her a desire to get for herself the substance of the trust fund to control it and spend it as she liked.

    As the time of the graduation from the girl's school drew near, this 16-year-old girl conceived a Napoleonic scheme to force her mother to pay her a considerable sum of the money, or at least to divulge the information she sought so eagerly, or both. She had her inspiration in two statutes of Russia one of which makes it a crime punishable by imprisonment for any to gain entrance by any means for a boy into a girl’s school. The other was the law regulating compulsory military service, which made it a serious crime for a mother to hide the sex of a male child.

    The completeness of detail with which the 16-year-old girl set about to prove herself a boy shows her to have possessed originality and imagination to the point of genius. No detail was left uncompleted. Before she made known to anyone her purpose she made final and convincing arrangements to provide for evidence in case her sex was questioned.

    She had been watched ' over from early childhood by a French governess, Louise Ratone, about nine years her senior. With far-seeing shrewdness, Nicolai decided that – Louise would be the best witness she could have, the latter having almost grown up with her, so affecting to take the governess into her confidence, she said, according to the diary: "Louise, you've seen me in the house here posing as a girl, when in fact all the time I have been a boy. The purpose of my mother in disguising me In this way was to inherit or in some way procure this money that has come to her.

     She convinces Louise of the truth of her statement, and they entered into a compact, according to the diary, to leave Kiev together, and enter on a campaign, the purpose of which should be to force the mother to give up the information and the money. Nicolai told the governess she long had been secretly in love with her, and would marry her as soon as the money was obtained. They left Kiev in company and went to St. Petersburg, not telling the mother where they were going, their purpose, or when they would return. The latter does not seem, according to the dairy to have been greatly concerned in her daughter's movements.

    When in St. Petersburg, the diary states, Louise Ratone wrote a letter to Nicolai's mother, stating that the daughter had threatened repeatedly to commit suicide, and once had attempted it. Nicolai states that the purpose of this was to see how much her mother was interested in her welfare. No mention is made of a reply, nor is there 'any reference to it.

   The very first phrase from the diary entries suggests the idea that they are full of the author’s fantasies: she knows nothing about her father, her mother concealed the mystery of her birth; and during her school years, she was a drunkard, a gambler, and a rake. It’s impossible to imagine a high school girl in the role of a “drunkard and gambler,” let alone a “profane roué.” Such a “student,” shall we call her, wouldn’t last long at a high school in tsarist Russia. Pupils were closely monitored not only in the classrooms but also outside the walls of the educational institution.

   Anna’s plan “to force her mother to pay her a considerable sum” also raises doubt. It’s unclear why, having filed a lawsuit against her mother, the daughter, having turned out to be a son, should gain access to money put away in her name. After all, if the mother did lose the lawsuit, a new guardian could have been appointed. Terletsky-Raylan could simply have waited several years until reaching the age of 21, because according to the laws of the Russian Empire, at this age, children gained the right to manage their assets without the involvement of a guardian.

   The references to the two laws of the Russian Empire that allegedly inspired her to take legal action against her mother do not seem credible. In the "Code of Laws of the Russian Empire," there was no law that subjected boys who infiltrated a girls' gymnasium to criminal prosecution, nor was there a law punishing the concealment of male gender.

There is no reason to trust Raylan's words regarding convincing Louise "of the truth of his story, and she agreed to leave Kyiv with her ward." How did Louise and Nina afford the journey to St. Petersburg? Besides train tickets, they would have had to pay for accommodation and meals. It seems necessary to rely on the information provided by the mother, according to whom the entire family moved to St. Petersburg around 1890. It also raises doubt that Louise, who had been a governess for many years, never once found her ward undressed, personally confirming her female gender.

      On the other hand, not everything in Serafima Petrovna's account can be fully trusted. Both Raylan and Vitashevsky speak of an unexpected wealth that came to Nina's mother, yet Serafima Petrovna herself makes no mention of it in her revelations. It is unlikely that Nicolai and his distant relative could have invented the same legend. Although the sum of the unexpected wealth, 250,000 rubles (more than 100 million by today's exchange rate), seems implausible, it appears that Serafima Petrovna deliberately kept silent about it. Most likely, one of the motives for Nina's transformation, in addition to the desire to change gender, was indeed the idea of gaining a share of her mother's estate. Confirmation of this is found in a letter from the mother to Anna, which will be presented in the next chapter.

[1] General Navy List, XI. – Sokolov, Russian Navy Library, St. Petersburg. 1883, #247

[2] After suppressing the Polish uprising of 1863-1864, the authorities cultivated a perception of Poles as of rioters, conspirators, and rebels opposing lawful government.

[3] Nikolay Ivanovich Bystrov (1841-1906) was one of Russia’s first pediatricians and a Privy Councilor; a Doctor of Medicine, the founder and first professor of the Department of Childhood Illnesses of the Imperial Military Medical Academy, founder of the Society of Children’s Doctors, Distinguished Life Pediatrician in the Court of His Imperial Majesty.

[4] Information about the studio where the photograph was taken is provided underneath the photo: “Fr. de Mezer. Kyiv”. Indeed, such a photography studio did exist in Kyiv from 1865 on. Its owner, Franz de Mezer, was the most respected and well-known Kyiv photographer and bore the title of “Court Photographer of Her Majesty the Hellenic Queen” (the Greek King’s wife, Olga Konstantinovna, who was related to Nicholas II).

[5] Although Nina had switched to homeschooling, according to the rules in effect at the time, she had the opportunity to take the yearly exams, including the final exam, as a non-attending student.

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