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


     This book’s prologue  was written in strict accordance with the articles that were published in US newspapers in December 1906—articles full of conjectures, assumptions, and journalistic fantasies [1]. In this chapter, however, the author has tried to stick to the true facts, separating the seeds of truth from the chaff of myths and false judgments made by reporters eager to sensationalize. Over many years of searching, we have managed, bit by bit, to retrace the life journey of Nicolai de Raylan, an extraordinary person who was able to overcome the curse of his birth sex. His story has much in common with that of the cavalry maiden Nadezhda Durova [2]. Just like Durova, de Raylan came from a noble family, ran away from home at a young age, transitioned to live as a man, became a hussar, and left behind diary entries resembling something out of a captivating adventure novel. 

     Even after almost two hundred years, interest in Durova's memoirs[3]—in which she recounts taking part in the Napoleonic War of 1812 under the guise of a cornet named Alexandrov—has not faded. This is exemplified by books, a play, an opera, and films that depict the adventures of the cavalry maiden. Although de Raylan did not participate in bloody battles like Durova, it is not unlikely that the story of his/her life will also arouse great interest among modern readers.

    Besides the newspaper articles published between 1906-1908, the other main sources of information about Nicolai de Raylan’s life in America are the Chicago Circuit and Probate court records from the case of de Raylan's divorce from his first wife and the case regarding his estate. Without much hope of success, the author of this book sent a request to the court archives for these records. To his great surprise, a brief correspondence resulted, a month later, in the arrival of a large package.  It contained about 150 pages comprising de Raylan’s divorce proceedings papers (1903)[4], as well as copies of the papers related to his estate case (1907-1908)[5] containing detailed statements from witnesses, lawyers, and judges, plus financial and legal documents.

   One of the estate case documents immediately attracted the author's attention. It was an English translation of a form granting power of attorney to the Chicago consul Baron Albert Schlippenbach signed by Nicolai de Raylan’s mother and notarized in Odessa on October 13/26, 1907.

                                            “POWER OF ATTORNEY.

    Know all men by these present, that I, Serafima Petrovna Terletzki widow of a collegiate assessor, being the heiress at law and next kin of Anna Mamertovna Terletzki, who called herself Nicolai Constantinovich Rylan, deceased, do hereby make, constitute and appoint the Imperial Russian Consul of Chicago my valid and lawful attorney for all acts or things whatever, proper or necessary for the purpose of collecting damages and Insurance and benefits arising by reason of the death of the said Anna Mamertovna Terletzki, (alias Nicolai Constantinovich Rylan), deceased, however caused, and to probate the estate of said deceased, hereby my said attorney full power to represent me in all courts and for all purpose <…>.


    In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and seal.

(Signed)  Serafima Petrovna Terletzki, widow of a Collegiate Assessor.

   On the thirteenth/twenty sixth day of October in the year one thousand nine hundred and seven this power of attorney was executed before me, Sigmund Samoilovich Gurovich, Notary Public of Odessa, in my office by Serafima Petrovna Terletzki, who resides in Odessa, at 11 Sofievskayia street, who is personally known to me <…>.

                                            Consulate of the United States

                                            Odessa, Russia, October 13/26th 1907.






    Thus it was revealed that the daughter of a collegiate assessor, Anna Mamertovna Terletzki, had been hiding under the name of Nicolai de Raylan and that Anna's mother’s name was Serafima Petrovna. A search for information about Mamert, Serafima Petrovna, and Anna Terletzki in the Russian archives did not bear fruit. Therefore, for a long time, all that could be gleaned of Anna-Nikolai’s life in Russia came from two notebooks with diary entries and letters found in Phoenix after Raylan's death.

    The notebooks were sent to the Russian consulate in Chicago, then handed over to the legal representative of the Cook County public administrator's office who had been assigned to handle the de Raylan estate. This official was the young Chicago lawyer Mikhail Feinberg (1886-1957), a native of the city of Vilna—now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. He enthusiastically investigated this unusual case, traveling to Phoenix to confirm de Raylan’s sex and to refute the “widow’s” claim to his property, carefully studying Nicolai's letters and diary entries. These writings were translated and published in English by the Chicago Tribune, and later the same article was reprinted with minor variations by many other American newspapers [6].


    The document that the press termed a “diary” would be more accurately described as notes and memoirs, since they were written after the author arrived in America. The entries cover several years of de Raylan's life, from his high school studies in Russia (1888) to his first steps on American soil (1892). They tell the story, worthy of a best-selling detective novel, of his transition into life as a man and the circumstances of his flight from Russia. Unfortunately, the brevity of the newspaper article and the probable inaccuracies of the translation from Russian do not give a clear picture of the events and experiences de Raylan describes.

    What was published in the newspaper is not the original text written by Feinberg, but rather an interpretation based on an extensive interview that Feinberg gave a Chicago journalist. In addition, any reader with even a little bit of knowledge of the realities of life in Russia at the end of the 19th century will realize from the first pages that the “diary entries” are a bizarre mixture of fiction and reality. Despite these shortcomings, for a long time, de Raylan's diary entries remained the only document through which it was possible to imagine Anna-Nicolai in his/her homeland.

    Only when this book about de Raylan was almost fully written was it discovered[7] that, in 1917, a professor at the University of Odessa named V.N. Obraztsov[8] had published an extensive article in the Russian magazine Historical Bulletin[9] containing an interview with de Raylan’s mother. In it, she recounted details about her daughter Anna Terletzki’s life, from her birth to her flight to America.

    Anna’s mother, Serafima Petrovna, had personally appealed to Professor Obraztsov to publish the story of her daughter, sharing memories and documents such as her correspondences with the investigating judge in Russia and the Chicago consul Schlippenbach. One reason motivating Serafima Terletzki to make her family’s story public was the article “A Little Historical Secret” by her distant relative N. Vitashevski[10], which was published in 1915, also in Historical Bulletin[11]. In it, the author, based on rumors and gossip he’d heard from his sister and aunt, writes about a mysterious child: a boy of unknown origin, raised in the Terletzki family under the guise of a girl.

    Serafima Petrovna considered these speculations offensive to herself, to her relatives, and to the memory of her beloved, now-deceased daughter, and so decided to disclose the mystery that she, as a mother, had been holding in her heart.

The following story of Anna Terletzki's life, from her birth to her flight from Russia, is based on de Raylan’s diary entries and the information given in the articles by Vitashevski and Obraztsov. Neither of these sources can claim to be the ultimate truth. De Raylan's notes intertwined real events and personal fantasies that he sometimes seemed to take for reality; Vitashevski used unverified rumors, and even in the most complete and reliable story of Serafima Petrovna one can find inconsistencies and omissions. The author hopes that comparing these texts in which the same events are presented in different ways will help to recreate the true picture of the protagonist’s life.

[1] A list of sources for the prologue is given at the end of the book.

[2] Nadezhda Durova (1783-1866), was a biological woman who, while disguised as a man, became a decorated soldier in the Russian cavalry during the Napoleonic wars. She was the first known female officer in the Russian military. See

[3] The Cavalry Maiden Journals of a Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars. Indiana University Press. 1988.

[4] Eugenia Raylan vs. Nicolai Raylan. De Raylan Divorce File G-240095, 1903. Circuit Court of Cook County, Cook County Clerk of Court Archives.

[5] Estate of Nicolai Raylan, Probate File, P2-8482, 1907–1909.  Cook County Clerk of Court Archives.

[6] «Diary Discloses De Raylan Plot», Chicago Daily Tribune, June 26, 1907: 7; «The de Raylan mystery in process of unraveling», Arizona Republican, June 29, 1907: 5. All subsequent quotations from Rylan's diary entries are given from these sources.

[7] Lorenzo Benadusi, Paolo L. Bernardini, Elisa Bianco. Homosexuality in Italian literature, society, and culture, 1789–1919. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.

[8] Obraztsov V.N.  Explanation of the "Little Historical Mystery". Historical Bulletin, V. CXLIX, July-August 1917. pp. 165-197.

 [9] Professor Obraztsov Vladimir Nikolayevich (1873-1926) graduated from the medical faculty of Kazan University. From 1904 he worked at the Department of Nervous and Mental Diseases of the Novorossiysk University. He is the author of more than 30 scientific works devoted to the diagnosis, clinic, and treatment of nervous and mental diseases and chairman of the Odessa Society of Neuropathologists and Psychiatrists.

[10]Vitashevski Nicolai Alexeevich (1857-1918) was a writer, memoirist, revolutionary figure, actor and ethnographer.

[11] N. Vitashevski. Little Historical Mystery. Historical Bulletin, V. CXLII, 1915. pp. 485-494.


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