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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 subsequent events suggest that Nina chose a fixed goal and proceeded towards it according to a prearranged plan. She was only waiting for favorable circumstances to fulfill her darling wish. Finally, that favorable moment came. In Serafima Petrovna’s retelling, events unfolded as follows…

    In December 1891, the father of the family received a new appointment, and went to the city of Uralsk (now Western Kazakhstan) to new railway under construction. Mother, Nina and the governess Ratone remained in St. Petersburg, they were supposed to join Mamert Mamertovich in May 1892.

    A few days before departure, when everything was already sold out or packed into travel trunks, Nina begged her mother to let her go for a dinner and to say goodbye to her friend Zhenya R., whose family the Terletzki’s knew well, and went on a visit accompanied by a governess.

     Ratone soon returned, saying that Zhenya's mother wanted to see Nina off herself, and that they should be back by 11 pm. Serafima Petrovna had a bad feeling: “as the evening came I became out of place... I remembered that Nina, saying goodbye to me, was somehow especially tender, somehow nervous and passionately kissed me.

Her premonitions had not deceived her.

    “Exactly at eleven o’clock, the entrance bell rang. I rushed to open the door myself in full expectation of finding Nina there, but to my surprise, a courier entered and delivered a letter sealed with our family seal and addressed to me. I saw from the handwriting that the letter was from Nina. She wrote, ‘Mama, forgive me, 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 hysterical fit. Doctors were called… Then, that night, she went to St. Petersburg’s mayor, von Val, with the wretched letter together with an acquaintance who lived in the same building[1]. After reading the letter, the mayor comforted Serafima Petrovna somewhat by stating his firm conviction that it had been written to deceive. Still, 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.

     Telling this story, Serafima Petrovna clearly hinted that the governess Ratone was initiated into Nina's plans, guided her and became the evil genius of the family. So for some reason she did not stay 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 “developed the idea of the possibility of Nina’s actual suicide”, insisted on leaving for Uralsk as soon as possible, referring to the need to prepare Nina’s father for misfortune, before he himself finds out everything.

    Since the first searches yielded no positive results, Serafima Petrovna together with Ratone (oddly, the governess was not dismissed immediately) journeyed to Uralsk, and in two weeks, Mamert Mamertovich received a telegram from his nephew in Moscow, who informed him that Nina was alive and passing herself off as one Vladimir, who couldn’t remember his relatives; that she was staying in Moscow with Attorney at Law Plevako[2], and that her case was being handled by Critical Investigator Sakharov[3]!

   The parents immediately telegraphed Sakharov that hiding under the name of Vladimir was their daughter Nina, and Serafima Petrovna set off for Moscow in hopes of recovering the runaway. Once she met with her nephew, she found out that he had seen Nina wearing men’s clothing back in St. Petersburg, but had hesitated to detain her for fear that she would then begin to conceal her identity even

    After that, according to the mother, she visited court investigator Sakharov and attorney Plevako. The latter informed her that Nina, under the guise of Vladimir, had arrived in Moscow from St. Petersburg with a letter from Chief Prosecutor of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Petrovitch Pobedonostsev[4], asking F.N. Plevako to investigate the young man’s case! But having received a telegram that the mother was setting off for Moscow, Plevako relayed the information to Vladimir, who was then staying with him. Realizing that his identity had been discovered, Vladimir escaped and could not be found.

    Serafima Petrovna also told Obraztsov that after visiting Moscow, she went to see K.P. Pobedonostsev, who treated her very sympathetically and informed her of the following: “Approximately a year before Nina ran away from home, a young lady came to his office and asked him to determine her gender, saying that while she dressed as a young lady, she was actually a young man - in fact, the son of an Italian prince who had been given to strangers to be brought up for an enormous sum of money in order to conceal his actual origins.” The story told to Pobedonostsev seemed so incredible that he didn’t give it much weight, assuming that the young lady before him was of unsound mind. However, a year later, this individual appeared before him again, this time accompanied by another young lady, who claimed that her companion was actually her bridegroom in disguise, and that she intended to marry him, but that the undetermined sex of her bridegroom presented an obstacle. According to Serafima Petrovna, the visitor’s male gender had supposedly been established, after which Nina had been sent off to Plevako in Moscow.


   In comparison with the story of Serafima Petrovna, the same story of transition and flight in the article with Nikolai 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 Kiev. 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 Kiev[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 were 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 translating 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 in 1892-1895.

[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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