The Rehabilitation of Nicholas II By Natalia Poklonskaya

I’ve been a fervent anti-Communist ever since I was old enough to know what Communism is. This fact surprises some people, especially when they find out that I put years and years of effort into learning to speak Russian. I suppose they think that a love of the Soviet Union led me to study Russian. Even though it’s been gone for twenty-five years, it still looms large in many people’s imaginations.

The thing is, though, the Soviet Union was never what led me to Russian. It was imperial Russia—specifically, the imperial Russian family of the doomed last tsar, Nicholas II, and his wife and five children. They were what initially sparked my interest in the Russian language. (I feel like there’s a certain irony in that the form of Russian I learned is slightly different than what they spoke. After the Bolsheviks seized power, they enacted a wholesale orthographic reform of the Russian language. Certain letters were removed from the alphabet and the spellings of words were changed. Even some grammar was changed. As a result, I can read the pre-Revolutionary Russian, but couldn’t reliably produce it myself since I have never learned the spelling rules that were used at the beginning of the twentieth century.)
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A Documentary About Pyotr Wrangel

I watched a fascinating documentary this weekend. Unfortunately, it’s in Russian, so if you don’t speak Russian, this post may not be all that useful, as neither video has English subtitles.

Anyway, the documentary aired on the channel Russia-24, which was once banned in Ukraine for being too pro-Russian. (I don’t know if it’s still banned.) I’ve embedded both videos below.

Wrangel in his uniform. From here
Wrangel in his uniform. From here

Baron Pyotr Nikolaevich Wrangel was a Russian general who fought on the side of the Whites during the Russian Civil War. His ancestry was Baltic German, hence the non-Russian last name. After suffering great defeat at the hands of the Reds (the Bolsheviks), he then escaped the country and went into exile and worked with other White emigres to form a group called the Russian All-Military Union that was meant to unite White Russians living abroad. This organization was active for many years, and depending on who you ask, may still exist. Since I love anything and everything to do with the Whites during the Civil War, I really enjoyed this documentary.

I haven’t really been watching many Russian-language videos recently, so it was nice to take some time to watch this documentary. I’m trying to get back in the habit of watching Russian documentaries since it’s a really fun way to keep up passive understanding of the language.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Book Review: The Billion Dollar Spy

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and BetrayalThe Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a really fantastic book that tells the story of Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet engineer who spied for the CIA and gave the United States hundreds, maybe even thousands, of technical documents pertaining to Soviet radar, military planes, weapons, and much more.

The book briefly traces the history of the CIA in Eastern Europe. At the start of the Cold War, it was very hard to recruit and run agents within the Soviet Union itself. Most of the assets spying on our behalf were doing so outside of the Soviet Union and were diplomats or intelligence officers working abroad. Eventually, this changed, and the CIA was able to recruit in Moscow itself. There was a setback during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, as the director of the CIA during this time placed more importance intelligence gained through technical means as opposed to intelligence from actual humans.

This was the environment in which Tolkachev approached the CIA. It took the poor man about a year to get the CIA to actually respond to his overtures for contact—but once they did, he produced an impressive amount of material. Originally, he hand-wrote valuable intelligence, either from what he’d seen over his career as an engineer or from documents he memorized, but the CIA quickly realized this wasn’t feasible long-term, so they supplied him with miniature cameras to photograph documents.

It wasn’t easy and he ran the risk of being caught many times, especially when he took documents home to photograph them. At one point, his wife discovered his spying and told him to stop, not because she liked the Soviet Union but because she was worried about the potential consequences for their family. In fact, Tolkachev’s hatred of the KGB and the Soviet Union stemmed from Natasha, his wife. Her family was murdered in Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and she was briefly reunited with her father when she was eighteen. He was released from a labor camp in poor health and told her everything: how Natasha’s mother Sofia was arrested and shot because she dared go visit family living in Denmark, a capitalist country, and how he refused to turn against Sofia, which led to his long sentence in the labor camp.

Tolkachev spied for many years, asking for payment in an escrow account he would have access to upon defecting, and also asked for everyday items that were hard to come by in 1970s and 1980s Moscow, including Western music for his son Oleg.

Unfortunately, despite the CIA and Tolkachev’s efforts to evade KGB surveillance in Moscow, Tolkachev was arrested, tried, and executed. His capture was the result of an internal betrayal; both Edward Lee Howard, a disgraced former CIA trainee, and Aldrich Ames helped the KGB identify him. He was executed in 1986. His intelligence helped the United States well into the 1990s: thanks to him, the United States was able to fight Iraqi pilots during Desert Storm since the Iraqis flew Soviet aircraft. Hoffman also emphasizes that the Tolkachev case shows how valuable human intelligence is, as there was no way to have acquired all this intelligence without having a source like Tolkachev.

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A Fascinating New Website: ‘A History of Russia in Photographs’

This link comes from Paul at the excellent Royal Russia blog, one of my favorite websites to read since it combines two of my favorite things (history and imperial Russia). There is a new website available called “A History of Russia in Photographs.” Now, the site is in Russian and I don’t see an English option, but you can still look at it even if you don’t read Russian. The first time you go to it, there’s a button you have to click on a little pop-up window welcoming you to the site. The button is brown and says Перейти к просмотру and if you click on it, the site loads. You can click on a year on the timeline at the top of the page and see photographs from that year.

This site looks really cool and I can’t wait to explore it further once I have some time this weekend!

The U.S. Through the Eyes of a Foreigner

As you may know, I read a bunch of Russian craft blogs. I might even be addicted to them. I love crafts (specifically knitting and crocheting) and I love Russian, so they’re great fun for me to read.

Last week, Nastenka at Creative Living wrote a lovely post, all in Russian, about a recent trip she took to California. (She lives in Moscow.) It’s so interesting to see what someone who wasn’t born and raised here thinks about my country. It’s even more fascinating to see what a non-native English speaker thinks. I’m not sure how much English Nastenka speaks, but she definitely knows some since her blog is peppered with it. (Настенька, если вы хотите говорить по-русски со мной, я могу помочь вам!) Anyway, it looks like it was a good trip. Getting the visa was annoying because the government website is stupid and makes the connection time out before you can finish filling out the application, she says. She ended up getting a three-year visa, though, which is more time than I’ve ever had on a Russian visa!

She landed in San Francisco and rented a cute red car. She visited Stanford, downtown San Francisco, the piers with the sea lions, and rode a cable car. (I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I had to look that up in English. I couldn’t think of the English word for трамвай for the life of me!) All in all, it looks like a nice trip, if a bit short. The flight here and back to Russia is so ridiculously long that it eats entire days of the trip, unfortunately.

Check out Nastenka’s photos of her trip here! Yes, the entire post is in Russian, but just keep scrolling and you’ll see photos.

A Tsar In Imprisonment

Last week, I posted about a photo of Tsar Alexander III and his family. In the photo is Nikolai Alexandrovich, the tsar’s son who later became Tsar Nikolai II (more commonly known as Nicholas in English). The photo I want to talk about this week also has Nicholas in it, but many years later, towards the end of his life. (It should be noted that he was in pretty good health at the time of his death and probably wouldn’t have died for many more years, had he not been shot in the head by a firing squad.)

Click to see larger.
Click to see larger. Source. Courtesy of Beineicke Library at Yale University.

In 1917, Nicholas made the difficult decision to abdicate the throne. Originally, he was going to abdicate in favor of his son, Alexei (pictured above in the photo), but since Alexei had health problems (he had very severe hemophilia, which could not be treated at this time) and he feared that the boy would be separated from his family, he abdicated in favor of his brother Mikhail, who was next in line to the throne after Alexei. Mikhail wanted no part of being tsar, though, and so he refused to take the throne.* After ruling Russia for three hundred four years, the Romanov monarchy came to an end.
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Happy Victory Day! / С Днем победы!

You know what today is, everyone? It’s Victory Day over in Russia! On this day, the war with Germany ended in an Allied victory. (Technically it was May 8 in my country, but that’s just a technicality, right?)

I know what I’m doing when I get home from work tonight. I’m watching the Victory Day parade that’s broadcast from Moscow every year. I’ll post a link to the video later.

victory day 2016

С Днем победы, друзья!

A Tsar’s Family

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction about the Romanovs recently. I think they’re my favorite dynasty and they ruled my favorite country (which is the Russian Empire), aside from my native country, of course.

Last night I was reading about the Romanovs on the internet (because apparently reading books about them isn’t enough!) and came across a photo of Tsar Alexander III and his family. Alexander III was the father of the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II. Here’s the photo.

Click to see larger.
Click to see larger.

When I read the caption on the original site of who everyone was, it kind of made me sad. I just finished reading Virginia Rounding’s excellent book Alix and Nicky in which all of these people were talked about. The photo was taken in 1888. Thirty years later, by 1918, many of these people were dead.

Alexander III is the man seated in the middle with the little girl on his lap. He died unexpectedly of a kidney disease in 1894 at the age of forty-nine, leaving his eldest son Nicholas to become the tsar of Russia. By all accounts, poor Nicholas didn’t feel up to the job. Alexander’s wife, Maria Fyodorovna, is standing behind him. She’s the woman on the left with her hair piled on top of her head. Surprisingly, she survived the Russian Revolution and ensuing Civil War and returned to her native Denmark (she was a Danish princess before she married Alexander). She died 1928 at the age of eighty.

Now we come to the tsar’s children. The boy on the left standing in front of Maria Fyodorovna is Mikhail (or Michael, if you prefer the English version of the name). He had a bit of a falling out with the family when he married a woman he wasn’t supposed to marry (she was married to someone else when he began having an affair with her and eventually she got divorced so she could marry Mikhail). I can’t fault him too much, though, since her name was Natalia! Anyway, poor Mikhail was executed on Bolshevik orders in 1918, about a month before his doomed older brother, the tsar, was executed.

Standing behind Alexander III is Nicholas (Nikolai in Russian, but everyone in the English-speaking world seems to call him Nicholas). He was the oldest son (and oldest child) of the tsar and therefore inherited the throne. I was thrilled to see him in this photo because I’ve never seen him this young! He’s nineteen or twenty here and doesn’t have that characteristic facial hair he had later in life. He also died in 1918, along with his wife, children, and four very loyal servants. They were victims of the Bolsheviks too, of course. He was fifty years old.

The little girl sitting on Alexander’s lap is Olga, his youngest child. She survived the Revolution and ended up living in Canada, where she died in 1960 at the age of seventy-eight. Her sister, Ksenia, who’s standing next to Nicholas in the photo, also survived. Ksenia ended up in England and died there in 1960, aged eighty-five.

Finally, the young man seated on the right is Georgy. As Nicholas’ younger brother, he was tsarevich (heir to the throne) until Nicholas had a son, which wasn’t for a while. (Remember, Nicholas had four daughters before he finally had a son.) Unfortunately, poor Georgy died of tuberculosis in 1899 when he was twenty-eight. Nicholas found out the news and had to tell his mother, who was understandably devastated.

Anyway, I hope that sheds a bit of light on this photo. It’s just sad to think that when they posed for it, the family didn’t have much longer to be together—and obviously, they didn’t even know it.

Inaccuracies In Russia-Related Novels

The cover isn't too bad, I guess...
The cover isn’t too bad, I guess…

I’ve been slowly working my way through my to-read list on Goodreads and it’s been a very interesting experience. The library system where I live has most of the books on there and I’ve been checking them out and seeing how they are. Some books aren’t as good as I expected, so I often don’t read those. In fact, there’s one in particular I was really looking forward to, but it had so many problems that I had to stop reading it. It’s called The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne.

History buffs and Russia fanatics (both of those terms describe me to a T!) will recognize the title as a reference to the merchant’s house that the last tsar of Russia and his family were imprisoned in before their execution in July 1918. (In Russian, it’s Дом особого назначения, in case you were wondering.) I’ve been obsessed with the Romanovs for years, so I couldn’t wait to read this book.

Now, I should make one thing clear: I understand that authors can take “poetic license” when writing fiction. They invent characters that didn’t exist, almost certainly invent most dialogue (because what historical document contains a word-for-word description of every conversation ever), and sometimes slightly change the chronology of events. However, poetic license does not give anyone the excuse to be a sloppy researcher. And that was my problem with this book: there were so many glaring inaccuracies that I cannot help but conclude it was sloppily researched.

Let’s talk about the names in the book. The main character, Georgy Jachmenev, has a good friend named Kolek Boryavich Tansky (p. 27). Kolek is not a real first name. As far as I can gather, it would be a diminutive/nickname form of the name Nikolai. Kolya would be a more common nickname, but I can work with Kolek. The patronymic, Boryavich, is completely inaccurate, though. In Russian culture, a person’s middle name is called the patronymic and it’s formed from the father’s first name. There are different endings if the person is a man or a woman, but the fact remains that Boryavich is not a patronymic. I’m guessing the author took the name Borya and made it into a patronymic. Except Borya is not a first name, either—it’s the diminutive/nickname of Boris! Patronymics are never formed from a diminutive. They come from the full first name, so this character’s patronymic should be Borisovich.

This isn’t the only character with a messed up name, either. I could tolerate it once. The main character’s father is named Daniil Vladyavich Jachmenev. That patronymic isn’t right, either. I’m not sure what the author was aiming for here. Vladimirovich? Vladislavovich? Your guess is as good as mine.

The odd thing is that other characters have perfectly correct names. For example, Kolek’s father is named Borys Alexandrovich Tansky, which is perfectly accurate. The spelling of the first name is a bit unconventional, but not technically wrong.

And now let’s talk about the main character’s wife’s first name: Zoya. At one point, the main character says of her name: “A Russian name, of course. It means life” (p. 8). I know how to say life in Russian, and it isn’t anything like this! (It’s жизнь [zhizn], if you’re curious.) I actually researched this because it bothered me so much. As it turns out, Zoya comes from the Greek word for life. So while I guess the author was technically correct here… I do think he’s misleading because it doesn’t mean life in Russian and in multiple places he implies it does.

And then there’s the main character, Georgy. Early on, he acquires an odd nickname: “At the age of six I was a foot shorter than all my friends, earning myself the nickname Pasha, which means ‘the small one'” (p. 30). Again, this isn’t right at all! Pasha is a nickname, but not for Georgy, nor does it mean “the small one.” Pasha is a nickname for the name Pavel, which is the Russian form of Paul. I cannot imagine why a child named Georgy would be nicknamed Pasha. It’s just inexplicable.

Anyway, after these rampant errors—seriously, in a couple of chapters it felt like there were multiple bad patronymics and characters addressing our protagonist as Pasha on nearly every single page—I grew disgusted with the book and decided to stop reading it. Then I had an idea: it would be so fitting, I decided, if the plot twist was a certain stupid, overdone one when it comes to the Romanovs. I flipped to the end of the book to find out…

Warning: spoiler ahead! Though by this point, you’re probably completely put off from this book…

…and sure enough, I was right. It’s revealed at the end of the story that Zoya is—surprise, surprise—actually the Grand Duchess Anastasia, tsar’s youngest daughter, who somehow managed to escape execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks that terrible night. Sigh. This idea has been so overdone throughout the years that it bores me.

I realize this may seem paradoxical since I’m an ardent admirer of the Romanovs. After all, if I have some kind of affection for them, you’d think I’d want at least one of them to have survived, right? Of course I wish they hadn’t been executed. What annoys me is when facts are overlooked. I’ve read so many accounts of their last days, in English and in Russian, and the fact will always be it was impossible for anyone to have survived that execution. The forensic evidence also discredits any survival theories, too.

If you’re going to pull this trick as an author and have one or two of the family survive, you’ve got to do it in such an outrageous way, as part of a massive, crazy yet amazing plot that I would never have come up with on my own for me to enjoy it. I actually just finished reading such a book and I will certainly write a post about it, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, if you know of any good books—fiction or nonfiction—concerning imperial Russia, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and let me know.

My Latest Obsession: Russian Craft Blogs

As you probably saw last year, I stopped following the news. It’s been an excellent decision and one that I cannot recommend highly enough. However, since I used news websites to help with my Russian learning, I realized I needed some way to fill this void because I need my daily dose of Russian content. It’s not easy keeping up with my Russian in a monolingual city, but it can be done.

The first thing I’ve done is resolved to read more books in Russian. I read novels really slowly and Russian novels are often really long, so I’ve been working on the same book for ages. That isn’t enough, though. To get exposure to some more easily read material, I’ve turned to blogs. I used to read some political blogs in Russian, but you know how that ended up.

Luckily, there are a ton of Russian people using the internet to blog, just as there are in the English-speaking world. (I read that internet penetration in Russia isn’t as high as it is in the US or Canada, but since Russia is so big, that’s still a lot of people online. Just saying.) And I’ve found a new niche of Russian blogs that I am completely obsessed with. I call them the craft blogs.

Right now, I’m following four Russian craft blogs: Дневник рукодельницы, Creative Living (despite the name, it is written in Russian), Матрёшкин блог, and Родом из мечты. The four lovely Russian women post about their lives and the craft projects they do, like sewing, knitting, crocheting, and needlepoint. I am totally addicted to these blogs because they’re fascinating. It’s so neat to see what everyday life is like in Russia. You see, not all of these bloggers live in big glittering Moscow. The first one lives in Penza, I think, and another lives in Samara. And yes, maybe their lives aren’t as conventionally exciting as some well-known journalist or politician living in Moscow, but that isn’t a bad thing. My life isn’t exactly that exciting either, sometimes. I’m certainly not meeting famous people or jetting off to exotic locations every weekend!

Plus I like reading about other people’s crafts. It’s a bonus that I get to learn some Russian words while I’m at it. 🙂