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


      All the following events suggest that Nina chose a fixed goal and proceeded toward it according to a carefully thought-out plan. She was only waiting for favorable circumstances to fulfill her cherished wish. Finally, that favorable moment came. In Serafima Petrovna’s retelling, events unfolded as follows…

   In December 1891, the family's father received a new appointment and was sent to the city of Uralsk (in what is now Western Kazakhstan) to a new railway under construction. Serafima, Nina, and their governess Ratone remained in St. Petersburg and were meant to join Mamert Mamertovich in May 1892.

   A few days before departure, when everything had already been sold off or packed into travel trunks, Nina begged her mother to let her go to dinner to say goodbye to her friend Zhenya R., whose family the Terletskys knew well. The governess accompanied her on this visit.

Ratone soon returned, saying that Zhenya’s mother would accompany Nina herself on the way back and that she would bring her home by eleven o’clock. Serafima Petrovna had a bad feeling: “As the evening fell. I felt out of sorts...I remembered how Nina, saying goodbye to me, had somehow seemed especially tender and a bit nervous and kissed me with unusual passion.”

   Her premonitions had not deceived her.

   “At exactly eleven o’clock, the front doorbell rang. I rushed to open the door myself, fully expecting that I would find Nina there; but to my surprise, a courier entered and gave me a letter bearing our family seal and addressed to me. I could tell from the handwriting that the letter was from Nina. She wrote, ‘Mama, forgive me, for I have deceived you. When you receive this letter, I will no longer be among the living. I am fatigued, life has tired me out. Don’t look for me. Go to Papa in Uralsk as soon as you can. People won’t understand you and will make various conjectures to upset you. I beg you, leave as soon as possible. Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me.’”

   Poor Serafima Petrovna fell into a fit of hysterics. Doctors were called…Later that night, she, accompanied by an acquaintance who lived in the same building, took the wretched letter to St. Petersburg’s mayor, von Val.[1] After reading the letter, the mayor comforted Serafima Petrovna somewhat by stating his firm conviction that it had been written to deceive her. Nevertheless, he ordered the river police to search for the body and subsequently established that the letter had been given to the courier by a lady wearing a thick black veil.

   When telling this story, Serafima Petrovna clearly hinted that the governess Ratone was aware of Nina’s plans and had helped and advised her, like a sort of evil genius. So for some reason, Ratone had not stayed with Nina on the day of her disappearance. It seemed that “Ratone was sincerely depressed by what had happened, crying and praying a lot.” But at the same time, she “encouraged the idea that Nina really may have committed suicide” and insisted on leaving for Uralsk as soon as possible, referencing the need to prepare Nina’s father for the bad news lest he might find out everything before they could join him.


   Since the initial searches yielded no positive results, Serafima Petrovna, together with Ratone (strangely, they didn't immediately fire the governess), headed to Uralsk. Two weeks later, Mamert Mamertovich received a telegram from his Moscow nephew, informing him that Nina was alive, posing as Vladimir and claiming amnesia. She was in Moscow, staying with the sworn attorney Plevako[2]. This case was being handled by the judicial investigator on major cases, Sakharov! [3]

   Nina's parents immediately telegraphed Sakharov, informing him that their daughter Nina was the one posing as Vladimir. Serafima Petrovna traveled to Moscow, hoping to bring the runaway back. Meeting her nephew, she learned that he had seen Nina disguised as a man back in St. Petersburg, but he hadn't dared to stop her. He feared that if he did, Nina would become even more careful in concealing her true identity.

   According to the mother, she then visited the judicial investigator Sakharov and attorney Plevako. The latter informed her that Nina, in the guise of Vladimir, had come to Moscow from St. Petersburg with a letter from Ober-Prosecutor of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Pobedonostsev[4]. Pobedonostsev requested Plevako to investigate the case of the young man. However, upon receiving the telegram about the mother's trip to Moscow, Plevako informed Vladimir about it. Realizing that his incognito was compromised, Vladimir fled, and he couldn't be found.    

   Serafima Petrovna also told Obraztsov that after her visit to Moscow, she had met K. Pobedonostsev. He had treated her sympathetically and shared the following: “About a year before Nina escaped from home, a girl had come to him, asking him to determine her true lineage. She indicated that although she dressed as a girl, she was, in fact, a young man. Moreover, she claimed to be the son of an Italian prince, entrusted to the care of others for a substantial sum of money to conceal his true origin." Pobedonostsev found the story so implausible that he did not attach much importance to it, assuming that he was dealing with someone mentally disturbed. However, a year later, the same individual returned, this time accompanied by another girl. The new girl asserted that her companion was her cross-dressed fiancé, with whom she intended to marry. However, the officially unidentified gender of the fiancé was an obstacle. According to Serafima Petrovna, the male gender of the visitor was supposedly confirmed by the Chief Procurator, after which Nina was sent to Plevako in Moscow.

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    The same story of transition and flight in the article with Nicolai de Raylan's diary entries looks in many ways different:

   “The preparation for the assuming of the male disguise consumed about two years and the actual occurrences began to take place in 1890. It was apparently in 1891 that Louise Ratone, after the two girls had been at St Petersburg a short time, wrote a letter to the late M. Pobedonostseff, the procurator of the Holy Synod, telling him and asking for an interview.

The statesman and churchman confidential adviser of the czar, and who was sometimes called the dictator of Russia - took an interest in the case at once and summoned Nicolai to his palace. Nicolai went there alone and at the end of a private interview succeeded in convincing the procurator that she was telling the truth. He insisted at once on starting criminal proceedings against the mother of Nicolai und this seems to have been too rapid a step forward for the girl at the time. She was dismayed because of the disclosures, which she saw must eventually come if the case came to trial, but to make good her claim she went on with it”.

At the instance of the procurator, she swore out a complaint against her mother in the courts at Odessa, not far from Kyiv. These charges are now of record in Odessa, according to the diary. The procurator went to that city himself and advised the police officials. The Taletsky woman was arrested and preparations made for her trial. The mother sought the advice of Attorney Plavako of Kyiv [1].

    At this juncture Nicolai saw that discretion was the better part of valor and that she would probably be landed in prison herself if she submitted to the medical examination necessary to a formal hearing of the case, even though she had fooled the procurator.

She had met in St. Petersburg a young woman named Zaney Rosderhney, with whom she afflicted to fall in love, as she did with convincing cleverness nearly every woman she met, and whom she courted when Louise Ratone was not around. Both Nicolai and Louise saw that the "Jig was up" and they abandoned their plans.

    Zaney, the St. Petersburg sweetheart raised money enough to start Nicolai on her travels, and the latter fled to Helsingfors, Finland. Informing Zaney and leaving a letter for the procurator, telling him that her filial devotion prevented at the last moment her appearing against her mother, and that she would flee to save the latter's name and honor.

The procurator was chagrined, but gave word to the officials to proceed with preparation for the case. He said it could be proved, perhaps, without her. At the same time he started the police out after her and during her wanderings it was the part of Zaney, the sweetheart to remain in St. Petersburg and" report to her by letter the steps being taken by the police.

    The case, against the mother proceeded to trial and the procurator was the chief witness for the government. Louise Ratone also appeared. The mother's attorney produced the doctor who had assisted at the birth of Nicolai and the Greek catholic priest who had christened her. They both testified that they positively knew that Nicolai was a girl. The procurator flew into a rage. He said he had ocular evidence. The case was dismissed.

    M. Pobedonostseff now found himself in an embarrassing and delicate position. He had stood sponsor for Nicolai and personally supervised the proceedings and swore that she was a boy. He was in the humiliating circumstances of having to confess that he had been fooled. The story was hushed up quickly, but the secret police of Russia were placed on the trail of the fleeing girl, and they tried for years to track her and in her diary she intimates her conviction that it would have gone hard with her if they had caught her and taken her back to Russia, and all through the remarkable document there is an undercurrent of fear of arrest-

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     Here a long gap occurs in the diary. No part of her life after reaching Chicago is touched upon until three years ago, she copied into it a letter she wrote to Zaney Rosdorhney, her St. Petersburg sweetheart with whom she had corresponded continuously, asking Zaney to tell her the whereabouts of her mother, whether she was still living, if not if she had left a will, and if so, what its provisions.

     Miss Rodorhney forwarded the letter itself to Nicolai's mother. The latter replied, and the reply was forwarded by Zhaney to Nicolai in Chicago. A translation from the Russian of this letter reads as follows:

“You may tell my daughter that, having caused such misery to me on account of our disagreements and not having any news from her for twelve years, and having assumed she was dead, I care to hear nothing more from her. Let matters rest as they are. Do me the favor not to stir the matter anymore. She wants to know whether I have made a will. You can tell her that I intend to leave all my property to those who have taken care of me in my old age. She can now see what has come to her after making me all that trouble for the purpose of getting from my property."

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[1] Victor Wilhelmovich von Val (1840-1915) was a statesman, cavalry general, and Mayor of St. Petersburg from 1892 to 1895.

[2] Fedor Nikiforovich Plevako (1842-1908) was a highly renowned Moscow lawyer, outstanding court orator, and State Councilor. He was known as “Moscow’s Chrysostom” (after the “golden-mouthed” historic preacher); contemporaries used to say that he occupied a similar position in the law as Pushkin did in Russian poetry.

[3] Nikolay Vasilyevich Sakharov (1829-1902) was a famous Russian criminologist and publicist. From 1879 onward, he was appointed Investigator of Particularly Important Cases of the Moscow District Court and investigated particularly severe crimes that occurred in the old capital at that time.

[4] Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonotstev (1827-1907) was a statesman (senator, member of the State Council), legal scholar, translator, and church historian, who occupied the post of Chief Prosecutor of the Holy Synod (the Emperor’s representative in the Synod) from 1880 onward; a staunch champion of autocracy, Russian Orthodoxy, and nationalism. During the reign of Emperor Alexander III (1881-1894), when the events being described occurred, Pobedonostsev was the Tsar’s closest advisor and exerted significant influence over him. Some called him the “great inquisitor” and “prince of darkness,” others “Russia’s savior.”



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