FINDING TRUTH IN A DARK KINGDOM

Spies. Revolutions. An exiled prince. Secret love letters. Sometimes the truth is stranger, and more fascinating, than any fiction. BY NINA BOGDAN

There is a great freedom in doing research and translation work without worrying about the needs of a client, especially in this day and age when translators often work for intermediaries and don’t even know who their clients are. Our contacts are project managers who have no knowledge of the language and are unable to answer the simplest questions. Our work goes through several hands, and we often may have no idea of what the finished product looks like.

It is quite liberating to be one’s own “end client.” With this liberty, however, comes responsibility, as when one is involved in genealogical research, for example. Whether one is researching one’s own family history or someone else’s, it is inevitable that discovered information may not be what we expected or, worse, may be something unpleasant. It is quite delightful to discover that one’s ancestors were celebrated artists or noted scientists, but what if this is not the case? Nevertheless, researchers, historians and translators all have an obligation to document what they discover truthfully and accurately. They are documenting the past for future generations. In documenting my family history, for example, I am making a contribution to the exploration of Russian history—a history that has been, in many respects, skewed. My task is to add what I’ve discovered to the body of knowledge, not selectively include information that is pleasing to me.

Behind the curtain
When I initially set out on my research, I knew so little about our family history that I didn’t even know what questions to ask. Neither one of my parents was prone to revelations about the past. Both of them had traveled long journeys to the United States, and their main concern was building a life in a new country, learning its language and customs. Reflecting on the past was viewed as pointless or painful. I knew that there were differences in my parents’ background—my father was born in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic into a family of peasants; my mother came from Russian nobility and had been born in exile, in Harbin, China. Apart from these and other basic facts, however, the family past was hidden, as if behind a curtain, first the Iron Curtain itself and then, after the Berlin Wall fell, yet another opaque curtain of dusty old archives and long-forgotten memories.

I spent ten years pulling that curtain aside. The main focus of my research gradually became the life of my maternal grandfather, Prince (Knyaz in Russian) Nikolay Alexandrovich Ukhtomsky, whose death long preceded my birth. He had been taken away from his family, arrested by the Soviet organization SMERSH (“Smert’ Shpionam”—Death to Spies), when my mother was 11 years old, so even her knowledge of him was limited. I had learned early on that he died in the GULag, but finding out how he got there and why was perhaps the most difficult part of my research. When I was younger, I had often thought to write a fictionalized history of my family’s past, but as I learned more and more about it, I found that truth was not just stranger but infinitely more fascinating than fiction.

Needless to say, virtually all the materials and documents that I discovered were in Russian and, since I write in English, translating everything accurately and faithfully was a primary concern. As usual, I experienced my share of careless commentary from the uninitiated. “Well, that should be easy for you.” Yes, it is “easy” for me compared with, say, earning a PhD in nuclear physics. But my translation of historical documents and letters is a great responsibility. Like it or not, I am emotionally involved. And since I know I am involved, I frequently have to step back and check myself.

An investigation of sorts
I found quite a number of negative things written about my grandfather. Of course, just because they are written, doesn’t necessarily make them true, but these writings must be documented nonetheless if I am to compose a true picture of who he was. I was jolted when I read a comment made by an erstwhile associate of my grandfather’s, that “many” people in Berlin in 1923 “considered” Prince Ukhtomsky to be an informer of the GPU, the Soviet Union’s State Political Directorate, a precursor of the KGB. Iosif Gessen, a Russian political activist and writer in Berlin, wrote that “metamorphosis was an integral part of refugee existence” but, despite the complexities of life in exile, and the fact that Berlin was, in fact, the “spy capital” of Europe in the 1920s, I found this assessment of my grandfather impossible to believe, knowing what I did know about his life by then. His family was descended from Rurik, the first ruler of ancient Rus’, and the Belozersk princes. He had abandoned his study of law at Petrograd University in 1916, enrolled in Nikolayev Cavalry School, and went on to fight on the Northern Front in World War I, then with the White Guard in the Russian Civil War. He spoke German, French and English, worked as a journalist both in Harbin and in Western Europe, and included both members of the Russian intelligentsia in exile as well as various political figures among his associates.

In refutation of this first assessment, Prince Ukhtomsky was accused and convicted of counterrevolutionary activity and espionage against the Soviet Union in a 1946 trial where he was one of eight defendants. Because this trial was the Soviet version of the Nuremberg Trials, with two members of the Russian Fascist Party as defendants, Prince Ukhtomsky was, in later accounts, often described as a “fascist.” Again, I was taken aback. These extremist labels seemed to have nothing to do with the man I was getting to know through his letters to friends and associates. So who was this man that aroused such ire in others that they would accuse him of such terrible things? My desire to know spurred me to continue my research. It became an investigation of sorts—my purpose was to separate fact from opinion, truth from propaganda.

A portrait never complete
Though I traveled as far as Siberia and China in the course of my exploration of the past, some of the most fascinating information I found was in my own “back yard.” The Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford University are one of the largest repositories of Russian émigré materials in the world, and I spent many hours there poring over files, both in the course of my research for the book Russian San Francisco as well as my family history project. As I leafed through one file, which had never been properly organized (probably because it consisted of hand-written letters written in pre-Revolutionary Cyrillic that were fairly difficult to decipher), I came across a scrap of paper with the words “Ouchtomski letters.” My heart stopped for a moment as I knew this English-language spelling was yet another version of “Ukhtomsky.” And, indeed, this file turned out to be a treasure trove of letters from my great grandparents in Harbin to a Russian family that had immigrated to Seattle, Washington in the 1920s. They were not in any order nor were the pages numbered, so deciphering them was a monumental task, not unlike deciphering coded messages. The task was not made easier by my great grandfather’s scrawling writing or my great grandmother’s penchant for scribbling additional notes and postscripts on the page edges.

Leafing further through the file, I came across two other letters, these in neater handwriting that was strangely familiar. But the ink was faded and they were undated. They were both addressed to an unnamed Princess or Knyaginia. (The title Knyaginia meant that a noblewoman was married whereas Knyazhna meant she was unmarried.) And the signature of this letter-writer was “Knyaz Ukhtomsky.” I had previously obtained documents that included handwritten statements by my grandfather and therefore was familiar with both his signature and his writing and I realized these letters were from him. As I labored over the faded words, I learned that these were love letters, written to this woman when they both lived in Harbin, probably in 1922. Of all the documents I found over the years, these letters were the only true window into the soul of this man whom I had never met, a soul that he himself described, in one of the letters, as a “dark kingdom.”

My grandfather’s life was tragic and his portrait will never be complete. Too much has been lost in the tumultuous years of war and exile. But the labels attached to him fell away as I continued to delve into his life and learned never to be satisfied with pat explanations, which are, inevitably, inaccurate. My discoveries were not always sad, of course, but it was the painful ones that underscored the importance of always remaining faithful to the truth. NB

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  1. Catherine Cauvin-Higgins says —

    Nina, thank you for this very moving article. I do not know if your quest took you to Paris where the Russian “white” emigration was very important as you know. “Ouchtomski” would also be the French transliteration of your grandfather’s name. Nina Berberova might even have provided some information through her memoirs about those years. What a quest you embarked on! Is this research part of the book you mention (Russian San Francisco)? We need more researchers like you about those dark years in Russia, even more so now…sadly.
    Всего доброго
    a colleague from ATA, CTA, ALTA 🙂

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