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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 Terletskaya was born on December 12, 1872 in Odessa, in the family of Romuald-Mamert Mamertovich Terletzki and Serafima Petrovna Terletskaya (b. 1843 – d. after 1917). Serafima Petrovna came from the numerous and noble family of Sizov. Her father, Pyotr Timofeevich Sizov, graduated from the Black Sea Navigation Academy in 1820; served on various vessels 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; was dismissed from service in 1857 with the title of Captain of the 1st Rank; died in 1871[1]. Perhaps it is precisely because of his mother’s stories about his grandfather, the captain, that Raylan would later say his father had been an admiral.

    Anna's father was Polish Catholic, and a lawyer. At the time of meeting his future wife, he served as a judicial officer at the military headquarters. Obraztsov writes that the love of 18-year-old Serafima did not arouse sympathy from her father; he strongly opposed marriage because of the Polish origin of the groom. Nevertheless, the daughter, who passionately fell in love with the handsome Pole, opposed her parental will and threatened to run away. After all, the father agreed, and the wedding took place in 1863, but he refused to provide anything for the young couple. Therefore, at the beginning of their married life, they had to be in great need.

                                                           .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .


    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 and frail girl who lacked energy and cheer: “The child was some kind of little phlegmatic, neither wanting nor interested in anything.”

    Soon 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 Terletskys’ means,” hinting at the acquisition of some kind of inheritance. On the strength of that same aunt’s words, Vitashevsky writes that “a child was ‘born’ to the Terletsky family in St. Petersburg, whom they raised as a girl under the name of Nina (and dressed the child accordingly), but who was in fact a boy and, in all likelihood, wasn’t even their own son.” The cause of these rumors was an incident that occurred in 1884, when Nina was twelve years old. At that time, Serafima Petrovna with her two daughters and a governess spent some time living in Odessa in the furnished rooms of that very aunt of Vitashevsky’s, who by that time had moved to the southern city from St. Petersburg.



   “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:

    - God knows what is done to me: I’m dressed as a girl, given no freedom, but in reality, I’m a boy, and I want to live as boys do… I will tell Mama that I won’t wear dresses anymore. <…> From that moment, our family was confirmed in the conviction that there is some mystery over the past of the child ‘born’ in the Terletzki family,” – Vitashevsky wrote.

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

    “When the child was three years old and her health was still weak, I sought the counsel of Professor Bystrov in St. Petersburg[3]. Having examined my daughter, he advised me to change the way I brought her up. “Dress Nina,” he said, “in boys’ clothing. Don’t constrain her body with any laces or clasps. Set up a trapeze at home, put a mat down, and give her complete freedom. Let her develop as a boy.” That’s exactly what I did. In half a year, the girl was completely transformed. She became healthier, more vigorous, an appetite appeared, but the most important and remarkable thing was that she came to really love her boyish amusements and engaged in them almost without interruption. Years passed. Nina became more robust, and so, when she was in her seventh year, I decided to dress her as a girl. But how great was my surprise when I noticed that Nina hated her new outfit, a dress. She began asking me to rid her of such attire, assuring me that girls’ outfits were intolerable to her, but I didn’t give in. Nina began to cry. “I don’t want to be a girl,” she said, crying… <…> Nina took every opportunity to cut her dress up with scissors or to stain it with ink… Not only that, she broke all her toys if they only matched her gender. Dolls, prams, cots – all were destroyed by her with a peculiar kind of contempt and indignation. She even refused to play with girls; only boys could be her friends, and her favorite toys were a drum, a saber, and a hobby-horse. In spite of these oddities, Nina was a very clever and kind, albeit hot-tempered girl. Hers was a deep and very impressionable nature.”

   Around 1883, when Nina was 10 years old, the family moved from St. Petersburg to Kiev due to changes in the career of the father of the family. Here, Serafima Petrovna assigned her daughters to the gymnasium (High school): Varvara went to the fourth grade, continuing her education begun in St. Petersburg, and Nina went to the first grade.

At this time, the mother noticed a new weirdness in her daughter: an aversion to the hair tied in a braid, and to the girl’s school uniform. Sometimes at night, Nina woke up and began to pray eagerly: “Lord, why did you make me a girl and not a boy?

   This surprised me terribly, as during the pregnancy, when child was expected to be born, I passionately longed for the birth of a boy»

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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.


    “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 considerable 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; 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 establishment.

    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. Terletskaya-Raylan could have simply waited several years to reach the age of 21, because according to the laws of the Russian Empire, upon reaching this age, children gained the right to manage their assets without the involvement of a guardian.

    The diary author’s references to the “two statutes of Russia” that inspired her to file a case against her mother do not appear credible either. There was neither a law according to which boys who infiltrated a girls’ school would be subject to criminal prosecution, nor a law about punishment for concealing one’s male gender in the Code of Laws of the Russian Empire.

    There is also no basis for believing Raylan’s claims that he convinced Louise “of the truth of her statement, and they entered into a compact to leave Kiev together.” What means did Louise and Nina have for undertaking the journey to St. Petersburg? Besides railway tickets, they would have had to pay for both lodging and meals. It seems that here, we should trust the mother’s information, according to which the whole family moved to St. Petersburg around 1890. It is also doubtful that Louise, who had served as governess for many years, had never once seen her charge nude so as to assure herself firsthand of her charge’s female gender.

    On the other hand, we can’t fully trust Serafima Petrovna’s story either. Both Raylan and Vitashevsky talk about a sudden acquisition of wealth by Nina’s mother, while Serafima Petrovna herself doesn’t mention a word about it in her own revelations. It’s unlikely that Nikolay and his distant relative could have invented the same falsehood. Although the size of the unexpected fortune doesn’t appear entirely believable, it seems likely that Serafima Petrovna intentionally kept quiet about it. Most likely, one of the motives of Nina’s reincarnation, besides the desire to make a gender transition, was really the idea of getting her hands on part of her mother’s fortune, which is confirmed by the mother’s letter to Anna, which will be provided 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. Kiev”. Indeed, such a photography studio did exist in Kiev from 1865 on. Its owner, Franz de Mezer, was the most respected and well-known Kiev 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 home schooling, 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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