top of page

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


   Below are excerpts from the diary of Nicolai de Rylan, which tells about a fateful meeting with the Flemish playwright and businessman Frans Gittens in Antwerp, on the way to America.

   I continue to record my memories while they are as fresh as if everything happened just yesterday. From the story of my escape from Russia and passage to Antwerp, I now turn to describing my trip to America.

   On the afternoon of July 12, 1892, the steamboat Noordland, operated by Red Star Line Company[1], sat on the Scheldt River in the port of Antwerp, preparing to set sail for America. Along with numerous other steerage (third class) passengers[2], which had separate compartments for single men, single women, and married couples, I boarded the lower deck of the ship. Then the first-class passengers, who were to travel in comfortable, spacious cabins on the upper deck, and the second-class passengers, who would have simpler cabins, boarded the Noordland.

   Before the ship arrived, we steerage passengers were gathered in the gloomy steamship company building, which smelled of carbolic acid. After two hours of tedious waiting, we were examined by a doctor, who tried in half a minute to identify people with communicable diseases and physical handicaps for whom the way to the Promised Land of America was closed. Then the employees asked each of us about twenty questions: name, place of birth, age, occupation, etc., the answers to which were recorded in a special journal called the ship’s “manifest”.

                                                              Steamship Noordland.

   The majority of the passengers around me were emigrants from Northern Europe, and the western and southern outskirts of Russia: handymen, builders, carpenters, peasants, and craftsmen, who had decided to try their luck on American soil, along with their wives and children. I was forced to witness oppressive scenes of crushed hope whenever a hidden malady was found in one of a family’s members, often a child, thus barring their way to the promised America. The family then had truly little time to make an agonizing decision: should they all stay in Europe, or leave one member behind to the vagaries of fate?

   I remember a large Jewish family from a town in Little Russia[3] standing before me, who had overcome enormous difficulties to reach Antwerp through Germany. A doctor examined them and found that everyone, except thirteen-year-old Goldele, was healthy and could sail to America. However, the girl couldn't sail because she had a contagious eye disease - trachoma. At first, they didn't even understand what it meant. Then they realized that Goldele would stay here, in a foreign land, in Antwerp. There were cries, screams, moans. The mother fainted twice. The father wanted to stay here, but it wasn't possible; the entire ship's roster would be lost. So, they decided that they would go, and Golda would stay until her eyes were healed... Who knows if they will ever meet again?

   When the last passenger had boarded the Noordland, the drawn-out blast of the steamship’s horn rang out over the pier, and the chain of the anchor clanged. The crowd that had come to see the boat off, frozen stiff from the long wait, came alive: hats and kerchiefs flew into the air while shouts of farewell and the sobs of emotional ladies resounded. Once the gangplanks were removed, the bridge watchkeeper gave the command: “Cast off!” The sailors dropped the mooring lines from their posts, and the last thread connecting the massive transatlantic steamer to dry land was broken. Thick smoke poured down from a huge black pipe, the propeller began to pick up speed, and the ship slowly pulled away from the pier. The coast shrank and receded into the distance, along with the array of steep-roofed medieval houses with lancet windows, lapidary shops, stately bank buildings, and the ancient Het Steen castle with sharply tapered turrets resembling an illustration of the famous Tower of London in a high school history textbook.

Tu es le fleuve immense aux larges quais, ou tronent

Les banquiers de la ville et les marchands du port;

Et tous les pavillons majestueux des nords

Mirent leurs blasons d'or dans l'or de tes eaux jaunes.


Tes navires charges de seigle et de froment

Semblent de lourds greniers d'abondance doree,

Qui vont, sous le soleil et sous le firmament,

Nourrir la terre avec le pain de tes contrees[4].


   This poetry, as if merged with the landscape, came to mind as I stood amidst a multilingual crowd on the deck. One evening, sitting by the fireplace with a mug of good ale, they were recited to me by my Antwerp friend Frans Gittens, whose chance encounter had altered so much in my life...

   If not for old Gittens, I could have fallen victim to a swindler posing as a representative of a shipping company. He offered cheap tickets on a cargo ship to New York with fewer amenities compared to a passenger ship but at a lower cost. From the funds my unforgettable Jenny had gathered, there were only about 50 rubles left, and the cheapest third-class ticket to New York on a passenger ship cost 62 rubles.

   Indeed, the Lord himself decided to help me and placed Frans Gittens at a nearby table in one of the Antwerp taverns, making him an involuntary witness to my negotiations with the "agent." Back then, in my naivety, I was glad that thanks to my knowledge of French, I managed to strike a favorable deal with the "experienced agent" and was ready to pay 45 rubles (the agent accepted money in any currency) when a well-dressed gentleman, about fifty years old, in an elegant suit with a wide tie, unexpectedly rose from the neighboring table, swiftly approached us, and in raised tones began to sharply rebuke my interlocutor in Dutch. The pale agent mumbled something in response, looked around for a way to retreat, then hastily jumped out of his chair, dashed through the half-open door, and disappeared into the street crowd.

   “Excuse me for interrupting your conversation,” said the stranger, switching to French, “but a little longer, and you, my dear young man, would have made an irreparable mistake. Our police have long been hunting after a band of port conmen who profit from inexperienced emigrants. After all, the steamship on which that rascal was offering you a ticket only goes to the English city of Portsmouth, which is only about three hundred miles away. Many migrants have already fallen for this simple ploy. In large ports like ours, even respectable people participate in frauds like this; recently, a retired colonel was convicted in Antwerp for ticket fraud! By the way, tell me, did he also offer you female companionship?"

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

   All day, despite the tedious screening and long wait, I never stopped feeling a joyful excitement:

   I did it! Despite all the obstacles! Finally, I am free and can start a new life, bidding my past goodbye forever!  Nobody can tell me what to do or how to do it, who to date or when. At last, I can live in harmony with my self-image, forever ridden myself of all these horrid skirts, frills and ruffles, vapid talk of love, suitors, fashion and beauty, servants, and household management. God made a mistake when He imprisoned me in a woman's body—a body I have felt alienated from for so many years. Since childhood I've known myself to not be of the weaker sex; in both heart and mind, I've belonged to the stronger sex capable of great achievements. The very thought of having to get married, as mom has been pushing for me to do for several years, imagination that some mustachioed man smelling of horses and tobacco would be touching my body drove me to complete despair and made me want to end this agonizing life. Better eternal rest than daily torment!

   I remember my dear sister Varvara, my beloved Vavochka. She was married off when she was barely seventeen. They married her, against her will, to that pompous, whiskered monster, the retired Major Volchaninov. Vavochka had not suffered long when, less than a year after the wedding, God took her to Heaven. Thank God that I am spared of that prospect now.

   As I always do in moments of emotional turmoil, I opened the cherished book that has become my guiding star in this world:

   "These two contradictory emotions – love for my father and aversion to my own sex – troubled my young soul with equal force. With a resolve and constancy rare in one so young I set about working out a plan to escape the sphere prescribed by nature and custom to the female sex.  

    Freedom, a precious gift from heaven, has at last become my portion forever! I respire it, revel in it, feel it in my heart and soul. It penetrates and animates my existence. You, young women of my own age, only you can comprehend my rapture, only you can value my happiness! You, who must account for every step, who cannot go fifteen feet without supervision and protection, who from the cradle to the grave are eternally guarded, God knows from whom and from what".

  These words are deeply consonant with my thoughts. Am I any less capable than the young Lady Durova, who eighty years ago turned herself into the valiant cavalryman, Cornet Alexandrov? I believe that I, Nicolai de Raylan, who was once an unremarkable schoolgirl, was born for such feats and accomplishments. Perhaps I too will become a brave hussar, although I will have to serve a foreign country rather than my homeland.

   The sun was already close to setting when the first waves hit the bow of the ship as it set off, the expanse of the azure sea sparkling before us. Goodbye, Old World—who knows if I'll ever see your shores again? 

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

[1] Red Star Line was founded in 1872 by shipping magnates from the United States and  Antwerp, Belgium. Over the years, the company operated a total of 23 ships, all of which had names ending in ‘land’. Around 1890, it carried over 50,000 passengers annually to New York and Philadelphia. The steamer NOORDLAND was built for Red Star Line in 1883 in Great Britain. It details were - 5,212 gross tons, length 400ft, beam 47ft, four masts, and a speed of 13 knots.  There was accommodation for 63-1st, 56-2nd and 500-3rd class (steerage) passengers. (

[2] Steerage is a term for the lowest category of passenger accommodation in a ship. It is originated in the fact that these passengers were allowed space in the machinery spaces of the ship.


[4] Excerpt from the poem «L’Escaut (Scheldt)» in French by the Flemish(Belgian) poet Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916). L’Escaut is the French name for the river Scheldt.

You are the immense river with broad quays, where

The bankers of the city and the merchants of the port reign;

And all the majestic flags of the North

Reflect their golden emblems in the gold of your yellow waters.


Your ships loaded with rye and wheat

 Seem like heavy golden granaries,

 Which, under the sun and under the sky,

Will nourish the earth with the bread of your lands.

bottom of page