Counterfactual biographies? N. I. Sieber and A. A. Rusov.

Kiev, Independence Square

After a week’s work in Kiev, I am a bit disappointed with my findings in the Central State Historical Archive of Kiev (CDIAK), despite the kindness and effectivness of the archive’s staff. Most of the documents that concerned Sieber preserved in Kiev had been already collected by our Russian colleagues, so I came to Kiev mostly in order to make sure we had not missed something relevant. It looks like we had not. What I did find in the archive helped with contextualising Sieber activity in Kiev. The documents show the very negative attitude of authorities toward the Kievskij Telegraf since Avdotija Gogockaja took over in 1875, the severity of the repression that hit the circles of the ukrainophiles around 1875, and the instrumental role played by Mikhail Vladimirovich Juzefovich (who was also behind the Kievskij Telegraf‘s rival Kievljanin) in bringing about the end of the Kievskij Telegraf and of the South-Western Branch of the Imperial Geographical Society (two institutions Sieber collaborated with). But these facts are probably well-known to historians of Ukraine and Russia in this period. Instead, what really struck my imagination (and I assume imagination is an useful faculty for a historian) is an absolutely minor story.

The Central State Historical Archive in Kiev

While following the traces left by the “Old Gromada” – how the police called Dragomanov’s ukrainophile group – I came across a one Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Rusov (274: Kievskoe Gubernskoe Zhandarmskoe Upravlenie, I, 3228, listok 428). In a typed document dating from 1913, the Czarist secret police – not the III section of the 1870s, but the much more notorious Okhrannoe Otdelenie – reconstructed the political and cospiratorial biography of this guy, by exploiting the powerful resources of their institutional memory. In the 1870s, Rusov had been publishing a “liberal” newspaper called Trud, but eventually he and his wife assisted Dragomanov with the publication of the Kievskij Telegraf. When the Telegraf was closed by order of the government, in 1876, Rusov lost is job as a teacher in Kiev because he was “politically hopeless” (how to translate “politicheski neblagonadezhnij”?). He was denounced as a member of the “Old Gromada” in 1879.

This map, which represents administrative subdivision in 1918, may be useful for following Rusov’s frequent migrations across the South-Western gubernijas of the Russian Empire

Rusov left Kiev and moved to Chernigov to work in the statistical office of the local zemstvo (on the political role of zemstva statisticians as forerunner of the Revolution one should read the great Statistique et révolution en Russie by Martine Mespoulet). But the Chernigov’s statistical office was eventually closed “due to its dangerous tendencies” (“vvidu vrednago napravlenija”). In 1883, Rusov was again denounced for spreading illegal publications in Odessa and acquitted, but the authorities found out his involvement in the conspiratorial activities of another group of ukrainophiles, in Elizavetgrad (now, Kropyvnytskyi), in the province of Kherson.  He was translating pamphlets “of tendentious character” into Ukranian, a very neblagonadezhnyj activity.

In 1886, he lost his job again as a secretary to the administration of the Kherson’s governorship because he “kept his contactacs with hopeless people,” despite the fact he knew he was under special surveillance (“glasnyj nadzor”).  The police followed him whereever he went, from the governorship of Kherson to that of Poltava and then Khar’kov, where he moved in 1892, never ceasing to meet “persons of absolutely dubious political hopefulness.” In Khar’kov,  he was again employed at the municipal statistical office. In 1910, he was suspected of collaborating with the Ukrainian pedagogical journal “Svitlo”, published in Kiev and in 1911 he was known to be in contact with Konstantin Oberuchev, “member of military-revolutionary organisation, ” but the investigation yielded no conclusive result. The police also suspected Rusov to be in contact with the “conspiratorial societies,” based in Paris, named “Zemskij Sojuz” and “Svjashennaja Druzhina,” although he was not a member of such organisations. What happened to him afterward is unknown to me.

My interest in this impressive conspiratorial activity (and in the equally impressive perseverance of the secret police in observing Rusov’s activity) was sparked by the fact that he must have crossed Sieber’s road at some point, since they were both involved in the Kievskij Telegraf , they were both close to the ukrainophiles in the 1870s, and they must have both received an education in statistics, since this became Rusov’s most stable occupation. Yet, how different their lives! Rusov moved from one provincial capital to the other, with probably badly paid jobs in local offices, while Sieber emigrated to Switzerland where he lived who-knows-how. Although the archive of the police also bear traces of Sieber’s alleged “conspiratorial” tendencies, we could not locate anything comparable to the consistent record of Rusov’s political activity. How to explain these differences? Can we compare two individual lives as an euristhic tool?

Of course, the life of Rusov is in no way more typical than Sieber’s and I am not in a position to construct a benchmark (as could be done, for instance, by following the career paths of a group through a prosopographical database). But I think that a comparison of life-paths can still help us asking the right questions. Why was Sieber so much less persecuted than Rusov, despite the fact that both wrote for the Kievskij Telegraf? Maybe the crucial difference was the social level: Sieber probably belonged to a much higher class than Rusov (he enough money to travel and married the daughter of a landowner, after all). Maybe, Sieber was more prudent (Rusov was clearly a bit reckless!) and/or he was clever enough to leave Kiev before it was too late. Nevertheless, Dragomanov and Feodor Kondratevich Volkov also left the Russian empire but this did not prevent the police from recognising them as the chief leaders of the ukrainophiles. Maybe the Swiss citizenship screened him from the police. Maybe Sieber was not really a ukrainophile, even if he mixed up with them for a while. He certainly does not appear in the list of the members of the “Old Gromada” that was compiled by the Gendarms of Kiev in the 1880s (CDIAK, 274, I, 225, list. 40-55). Or maybe most records of the police investigations against Sieber were moved to Moscow and we were simply not lucky enough to locate them (so far).

Ach, So wenige Berichten, So viele Fragen!



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