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


    During the mid-2010s, American journalist Dennis Rodkin offered walking tours in Chicago dedicated to the history of sexual life in the city.[1] The tour covered forty-three historical sites, including famous gay bars and clubs; a building that housed a high-class brothel at the beginning of the 20th century; the place where the first sex education courses in the US were offered in 1913; and the building where vagrants, prostitutes', and other "interesting characters" were treated for syphilis during the 1930s. One of the highlights of the tour is a multi-story building at the intersection of LaSalle and Adams Streets which, according to the guide, was home at the beginning of the 20th century to the Russian consulate. There, he says, a Spanish-American War veteran named Nicolai de Raylan served as the consul's secretary, and after death it was discovered that "he" had actually been a woman. Astonished listeners learned that although de Raylan was married twice, his "spouses" had no idea of their husband's true sex, as he had successfully disguised himself thanks in part to an artificial penis affixed to his body.

     Perhaps the tour's creator gathered most of this information about de Raylan from two recently published books on the history of Chicago's LGBT community, both of which devote several pages to the "strange case of Nicolai de Raylan."[2] In addition to these books, there are also many English-language articles and books on the psychology of sex which briefly describe the "de Raylan case" alongside other examples of biological females who lived their lives as men. Their authors are only interested in Nicolai's transgender life as a straightforward example of sexual deviance, so it is unsurprising that these writings are full of inaccurate biographical information taken from the newspaper articles that appeared in the wake of de Raylan's death. 

     In contrast to these well-known publications, the author of this book is primarily interested not in the medical aspects of Nicolai de Raylan's life, but in his unusual life story, his talents, and the strengths of his character that made it possible to overcome the "curse" of his sex and achieve considerable success in society. Even if the means to that success were not always seemly, neither were the times in which he lived nor the people that surrounded him.

     It so happened that I found out about the "de Raylan case" not through reading books about sexual psychology (which I had no interest in prior to beginning my investigation), but as a result of my interest in the lives of students at the Imperial Nikolaev Gymnasium in Tsarskoye Selo. But what could graduates of a prestigious metropolitan educational institution possibly have in common with a woman born in the south of Russia who spent half her life in the guise of a man all the way over in North America?! [3] The link connecting these two seemingly unrelated parties was an 1882 graduate of the gymnasium, a Russian trade representative to the United States named Grigory Abramovich Vilenkin. In August of 1905 in the port of New York, he met a Russian delegation that had come to conduct peace negotiations with Japan. He accompanied the head of the delegation, S. Y. Witte, on his way to Portsmouth, acting as his guide and interpreter.[4] One of the envoys that Vilenkin met in this position was the Russian consul of Chicago, Baron A. A. Schlippenbach. While working on an article about Vilenkin and the Treaty of Portsmouth, I decided to look into Schlippenbach's role in the negotiations. Typing his surname into Google, I came across a newspaper article from 1907 describing the baron's trip to Phoenix to exhume the body of a Russian consular officer, a certain Nicolai de Raylan...In the several years that have passed since then, de Raylan's story has continually fascinated me, and researching the twists and turns of the little hussar's fate has been the source of many exciting moments for me.   

     I became even more motivated to write this book when I found out that I am connected to the hero of our story through time, however indirectly, by a living thread! Before the Russian Revolution, my great-grandfather N. M. Moiseev served as a parish clerk at the Palace Hospital in Tsarskoe Selo, where the body of John Kochurov—priest at St. Catherine's Cathedral and confessor to Nicolai de Raylan—was delivered after he was killed in the Bolshevik takeover of 1917. Father John moved from Chicago to his homeland in 1907, and in 1916 began serving in Tsarskoe Selo, where he was eventually martyred during the revolutionary turmoil. My great-grandfather was undoubtedly acquainted with Kochurov during his life. ("Who doesn't know one another in this blessed city!" the critic Erich Hollerbach, a Tsarskoe Selo native, once exclaimed.) My great-grandfather's son wrote in his memoirs that the clergy of St. Catherine's Cathedral, which would have included Father John, would come to their house to visit on the first day of Easter. It's highly unlikely that Father John would have told my great-grandfather anything about his Chicago parishioner named Nicolai who had turned out to be a woman, nor how he had heard this parishioner's confession, absolved him of his sins, and even joined him in marriage with Anna, a servant of God. Still, discovering that my great-grandfather knew a man who interacted with de Raylan in the United States made the story feel more tangible and personal.

     One mystery that gave me no peace for a long time was the question: does de Raylan's place of burial still exist in the Greenwood Cemetery in Phoenix?  How, I wondered, could a grave be preserved if no one has been taking care of it for over a hundred years? It's unlikely that anyone would have visited it once de Raylan's body was exhumed in 1907. To clear up all doubts, I wrote an e-mail to the Greenwood Cemetery to inquire: was there still a grave there for a Nicolai de Raylan buried in December 1906? In my message, I explained that he was not a relative of mine, but rather the subject of a historical investigation, and that I was willing to pay for the costs associated with a search. A day later, I received an amiable reply from a cemetery employee:

“Dear Kirill,


I understand you are trying to locate information for research you are doing on Nickolai de Raylan, date of death, 1906.  There is no need to pay for the information, I would be happy to assist you.  Due to accessibility of the file from 1906, it may take some time to locate the information you're requesting.  It certainly sounds like interesting work you are doing so at this time I only ask for your patience while searching the file.   I will let you know my progress and what facts I come up with.


Thank you, I am honored to serve you.




Kathleen Pierce

Greenwood Memory Lawn

    After three days, I received a letter from another employee who informed me that she had managed to find the burial place of N. de Raylan. It was located in area 3: section 8, lot 4, grave 7. Attached to the e-mail was a current map of the cemetery divided into its different sections, as well as a detailed diagram of section 8 as it was in the early 20th century, with the graves labeled. The name "N. de Raylan" was inscribed in a rectangle on one of the grave plots.





      My investigative zeal ignited, in my letter of thanks I asked if they could possibly send a photograph of de Raylan's grave. This was probably too much to ask even of such kind and selflessly helpful staff, and my request remained unanswered. I wasn't able to find out what the grave looked like or whether its tombstone was still there, but the fact of the burial itself had been confirmed.

     Natalia Gagarina, a Phoenix resident whom I met on a forum for Russian-speaking writers in Vienna, helped solve the mystery. A Kaliningrad native and descendant of a noble family, executive director of a Russian library in Arizona, author of several action novels, and an all-around extraordinary and creative person, Natalia enthusiastically responded to my request that she find Nicolai's grave. I sent her the maps of the cemetery and briefly filled her in about de Raylan and the book I was working on, and soon Natalia and her husband, Richard, went in search of the burial place. It turned out to be difficult to find: the cemetery had ballooned in size over more than a century, the different sections had no clear boundaries, and, most importantly, there was no tombstone bearing the name N. de Raylan. The graves of de Raylan's cemetery "neighbors"—Franklyn P. Secrist, Nora Sargent, and others—were still there just as the site diagram indicated, but in the little hussar's burial spot there was only a small patch of grass. Still, thanks to the detailed map, Natalia and Richard were able to pinpoint the exact spot where de Raylan was laid to rest, and they laid a winter bouquet upon it. And so, for the first time in over a hundred years, there were flowers on the grave of the little hussar.

     Inquiring at the cemetery office for clarification, my friends in Arizona learned that since the gravestone is missing, it must have never existed; but since the name de Raylan appears on the old map, that means he really was buried there. Apparently only a temporary sign was installed at the funeral—de Raylan's wife Anna was stingy even when it came to the tombstone.


     The Arizona cemetery has no fences, no flowerbeds, no grandiose statues, only modest tombstones and grave markers scattered across the lawn. No one, throughout the cemetery's entire existence, has disturbed the peace of the dead: wars, revolutions, and natural disasters came and went all around it, yet no new graves appeared on the sites of previous burials.

Here, in a small green oasis in the middle of the Arizona desert, Nicolai de Raylan, a person who lived a remarkable and unusual life, rests in an unmarked grave. It seems to me that he deserves not only a wreath upon his grave, but also a tombstone concisely inscribed "Nicolai de Raylan 1872-1906"—and for his epitaph, Marina Tsvetaeva's poem of the same name and this book may serve best.


Oh Lord, forgive all evil thoughts and sins

Of he who lies here beneath the vernal grass!


He was ill, worn out, not of this world;

He loved angels and the laughter of children.


In spite of his wish to challenge His Holiness,

He never tread upon the snow-white stars of the lilacs...


In all his sin he was a fragile child,

And so, Lord, please forgive him!


P.S. On February 18, 2020, at the initiative of Marshall Shore, a historian and tour guide from Arizona, a tombstone was placed at Nicolai de Raylan's burial spot in Greenwood Cemetery. The slab is engraved with the name "Nicolai de Raylan," the dates of his birth and death, and a quote from an essay by the American writer, poet, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1872): "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." 


[1] In 2018, Rodkin published an article titled: "The Invention of a Man: The secret life and memorable death of Nicolai De Raylan", Chicago magazine, March 2018. URL:

[2] J. Austin and J. Brier. Out in Chicago: LGBT History at the Crossroads. Chicago History Museum, 2011. — pp. 32, 33, 39; Sukie de la Croix; The strange case of Nicholai de Raylan//Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago before Stonewall. By St. Sukie de la Croix. University of Wisconsin Pres, 2012. pp. 32–34.

[3] Finkelshteyn K. I. The Imperial Nikolaev Tsarskoye Selo Gymnasium. Students. St. Petersburg: The Silver Age, 2009.

[4] Finkelshteyn K. I. На пути к миру [The Path to Peace]//Boston. Город и люди [The City and the People]. Boston: M-Graphics Publishing, 2012. p. 302-313.


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