Thursday 11 September 2014

An Old Man and His Cat, by Laurie Graham

  The research for my new novel The Grand Duchess of Nowhere required me to untangle the vast network of the Romanov dynasty as it was in the early years of the 20th century. There was much discussion with my editor about Russian names  -  to give people their full name with patronymic? Always? Sometimes? And then what about nicknames and diminutives? The Russians do love their diminutives. Compromises had to be made in the interests of being reader-friendly, and my solution, given that I am no Tolstoy, was to focus on just a few members of this very large family. Size apart, the Romanov family was much like any other. It contained roués and straight-shooters, the prim, the giddy and the seemingly normal. Factions were on no-speaks with other factions, and some of the rifts that appeared as the Revolution gathered pace and loyalties were tested were never repaired.  

The story of what happened to Tsar Nicholas II, his family and his closest retainers is well-known, though none the less chilling for being so often retold. But what about the rest of the dynasty? At the time of Nicholas’s abdication in 1917 there were more than fifty recognised Romanovs living in Russia, plus a number of semi-detached scions, principally morganatic wives and their children. Romanov men were never afraid to follow their heart rather than the rule book on suitable brides.  Of these fifty or so Romanovs the majority escaped into exile. But eleven of them suffered the same fate as the Imperial Family, and a recurring theme struck me as I researched their deaths: the Bolsheviks always executed their enemies in the dead of night.

The first Romanov to be killed was Tsar Nicholas’s brother, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich. In the family he was known as Misha. For just a day or two after Nicholas’s abdication he was Tsar Michael II. You see what I mean about names?  

In March 1918 Grand Duke or ex-Tsar Misha, pictured here with his beloved (but unapproved) wife Natalya Brasova, was exiled to Perm. His faithful friend and secretary, Brian Johnson, went with him and so, for a while, did Natalya and their son. Brian Johnson, by the way, was half English, half German, born in Russia, and was more generally known by his Orthodox name, Nikolai. See, names again?  Early on June 13th, in the gloaming of a Russian white night, Grand Duke Misha and Johnson were driven to a forest clearing and shot. Their bodies have never been found though several searches have been made in recent years. You may find this link of interest.

A month after Misha’s death, on July 17th 1918, in Yekaterinburg, the Imperial Family were woken from their sleep and murdered. The following day, in the town of Alapaevsk, a further six members of the Romanov family were killed:  Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna (the Tsarina’s elder sister) with one of her fellow nuns, Varvara,  three Grand Dukes from the Konstantinovich branch of the dynasty, and 22 year old Vladimir Paley, a young poet and one of the morganatic offspring of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich. Here is a photograph of Vladimir in his cadet uniform.

In the dead hours of the early morning they were bundled into a cart, driven to an abandoned iron working and thrown down one of its shafts. What the fall failed to accomplish was finished off with grenades and bundles of burning brushwood. None survived.

There was then a six month hiatus before the final Bolshevik cull of Romanovs. Grand Dukes Paul Alexandrovich, Dmitri Konstantinovich, Nicholas Mikhailovich (aka Bimbo) and George Mikhailovich aka Gogi) had at first been detained under a fairly lenient form of house arrest in Vologda, free to associate with one another, but after the assassination of Nicholas and his family they were transferred to the Shpalernaya House of Detention in Petrograd (now St Petersburg).

On January 29th 1919, long before dawn, they were brought by truck to the Peter & Paul Fortress. Grand Duke Paul was so frail he had to be carried to the place of execution and was shot where he lay on a stretcher. The other Grand Dukes had the briefest moment to embrace each other on the edge of the trench that had been dug to receive their bodies. For me one of the most poignant details of that scene -  four elderly men, taken from their beds, stripped of their shirts in sub-zero temperatures, and shown the grave that awaited them  -  is that Grand Duke Bimbo, the Romanov’s oddball intellectual, botanist, historian, enthusiast and prankster, had brought his cat with him from jail and his very last act was to entrust it to one of his executioners and ask him to care for it.

Here is Bimbo decked out for an official portrait. I'd like to think there was a cat just out of shot on that button-back chair or perhaps already making its scornful way out of the door.

This is recent history. There is abundance of photographs of all the people I’ve mentioned in this post and I studied those faces often as I was writing The Grand Duchess of Nowhere. But as novelists we’re always searching for the little human stories beneath the starched collars and corsets. For me, Grand Duke Bimbo and his cat were just one such.  

THE GRAND DUCHESS OF NOWHERE, Quercus Books, will be published on October 2nd.


michelle lovric said...

what a brilliant and sad post. 'Cull' is the right word. It does also show the nation of catlovers in our most endearing light. Of course we make provisions for our cats. Of course.

Carol Drinkwater said...

I am not a fan of the Romanovs and cannot understand the fascination with their deaths. I find it interesting though that there is not the same fascination nor, I think, body of literature about the French royalty at the time of the revolution. Any idea, Laurie, why these Russians rather than all other 'culled' aristocrats resonate so with us today?
Vladimir Paley looks rather handsome.
Very best of luck with the book.

Sue Purkiss said...

I think it's partly that there's lots of footage that shows the family living their lives before the revolution - just children and teenagers, going swimming, having picnics, meeting up with their English cousins. To have those images alongside the ones of the cellar where they where butchered - well, how can that not seize the imagination? Whatever the family they came from, they were just children who didn't deserve a horrible fate. As to the French royal family, they're just that much further back in time - it's less easy to see them as just people, perhaps?

Laurie said...

I think Sue's explanation is correct. Historically speaking this is very close to us, with photographs and recordings that emphasise the human factor. I would add a personal opinion that France settled relatively quickly into peaceful republican ways whereas the Russian revolution heralded the arrival of the horrors of communism.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Thanks, Laurie and Sue. Yes, perhaps the time difference is the defining point.

Susan Price said...

What happened to the cat? This is an especially urgent question if it was one of those beautiful Siberian Forest Cats.

I have no especial love for the Romanovs either, but it is sad in that they had no more choice than any of us over what family they were born into, and Nikolas II was far from being the most brutal Czar in Russian history...

But if you perpetuate a brutal, uncaring regime, eventually there is going to be a reaction. It will be violent, and, often, it won't be those most deserving of punishment who are most severely punished. I wish the leaders of our ever more right-leaning and fanatical world would go to bed thinking of that...

Becca McCallum said...

My first toe dipped in the water of online writing was in a collaborative story about 'what if the Romanovs had survived'. I eventually left that, but with a greater understanding of the complexity of the Russian naming system (and then all the nicknames too, as you said in your post. I suppose the nicknames helped to distinguish between people who were frequently (officially) called the same name).

You do wonder what happened to the cat. Hopefully it was adopted by a regiment and grew fat on mice caught in the barracks.