June 5, 2012
This is part III of a three part article. Parts I and II can be found here:
Fortified with a bowl of thick borsht and a healthy shot of vodka I am ready to face what is probably the most meaningful day in my life.
Vasiliy drops us off in the forest. A path leads to Saint Isaak's, the family church. Marina did not bring a headscarf. I go inside alone. The church is packed, mainly elderly women. A deacon conducts the service. I pay my respects to the icon in the middle of the church and thank God for allowing me to live this long.
Outside, the vicar has joined Marina, he blesses me and hands me an icon of The Savior. "Welcome back," he says simply and goes inside. Last night's rain had washed out the last of the winter snow. In the distance, a woodpecker announces the arrival of spring.
The symbolic return home
A short walk takes us to the grandiose gateway and bell tower, which was once part of a fortress and I am faced with over two hundred years family history. Through this gate, in 1918 my grandfather and his immediate family rode out for the last time fearing for their lives.
As I slowly walk up the driveway, museum staff pour out of the main door.
By noon I have seen the whole building. The Bobrinskys lived in comfort but not luxury, normally occupying six rooms on the second floor.
The day is warm. We are on the balcony on the top level from where there is a wonderful view of the lake and the city beyond.
View from the terrace
"Are you familiar with Bobriki? and what happened there?" Marina asks.
"I've seen it on the map." I answer, mystified by her discomfort.
"Terrible things have happened, which many people would rather forget: But as historians we must be true to history. On the second day of the conference we will take the participants to Bobriki, We think that you as representative of the Bobrinsky family should know about the events there before hand."
Marina finishes the gruesome story. The sun warms my back. I stare at the rooftops wondering on the forces that change normal people into inhuman fiends. How people in authority allowed and incited wars, revolutions and other events that encouraged humans to kill each other. Napoleon got close, but did not reach Bogoroditzk. There was heavy fighting here during WWII and a number of locals reached Berlin. The military cemetery is full of graves.
Marina reminds me it is time for lunch. We descend to the wine cellar where the Museum Director and senior staff have gathered around a table loaded with Russian goodies. Unpleasant thoughts vanish at the sight of caviar, herring, salmon and a variety of salads.
After pouring vodka all around, the director makes a long winded speech of welcome, emphasizing how much Russia has changed and how my presence symbolize this change.
Toasts and improvised speeches are an ancient Russian ritual. I manage to hold my own.
The following day, I get an almost shocking surprise., Marina and I go to the heavily guarded Tula Museum of Visual Arts. It is still early and the museum is closed. A guard ushers us in. Marina leads me to a room where I expect to see a Meisen porcelain service given by Empress Katherine II to her son. This set became famous as when Napoleon advanced toward Moscow, Alexey Grigorevich hid it inside the walls of the entrance bell tower of the estate. He died soon after the French retreat and the service lay entombed until 1911 when workers doing repairs to the tower discovered the buried treasure.
The author in the Tula Museum of Visual Arts
The treasure is in display cases in the center of the room. But Marina leads me to the real treasure, a collection of Renaissance paintings worth gazillions of rubles each. They belonged to my grandfather and graced the walls of the palace in Bogoroditzk.
People from all over the world come to see the marvels in this room. Most are unaware that these treasures belonged to a Count who ended his days working as a humble bookkeeper in Paris. He died in 1928.
Our next stop is Yasnoia Poliana, farm and museum, Leo Tolstoy's home.
Itīs been a long day. The languid Russian twilight is setting and I make myself comfortable with a beer at a table on the hotel terrace. The atmosphere has changed since yesterday. There are more people at the cafe. The ladies working inside keep popping out of the door.
The Hotel Rus and chapel
A man in shirtsleeves approaches. "May I sit down?" he asks.
"Please," I reply.
He thanks me and sits down. "You shouldn't be drinking beer." He is obviously in his cups.
"I like beer."
"Is that what they drink in South America? You would look much better drinking cognac"
He shouts at the sky. "Bring us cognac."
A waitress appears with a pint bottle, shot glasses and a tray of sliced lemon sprinkled with sugar. My new table mate pours into glasses. "To your health and may God protect you always." He dumps the brandy down his gullet.
Everyone is watching us. If I sip people would find it strange. Down the hatch it goes. Then I chew on a slice of lemon. "Do you own this place?" I ask.
"Yes, I am very lucky." He points at the chapel in front of the hotel. "And now God has sent you to us. Count, I know your name but you don't know mine. I am Sergei." He pours another shot.
"I am not a Count"
"You are higher, you have Czar's blood. You honor us."
After two more brandies, I no longer feel embarrassed.
"Now we will eat." Sergei grabs my arm and drags me inside. Passing the cafe he tells a waitress. "Bring us food, cognac, vodka"
I am beginning to feel like a character in a Chehov's play. We sit in a cavernous banquet hall. Two waitresses place food on the table.
Sergei has the insistent host act down to a science and I have the conference tomorrow. I am in trouble.
I needed not to have worried. One of the museum ladies erupts into the room and addresses me, "Alexey Valerianovich, something has happened and you re urgently needed at the palace."
"Have a drink," Sergei offers.
I Thank Sergei for a wonderful dinner and leave.
"How did you find me?" I ask my rescuer.
"Someone from here called the museum, and the guard called me. We can't have you with a hangover tomorrow."
In the reception hall three ladies with violins accompanied by a piano greet conference participants with Bach's Brandenburg concertos. Museums from Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and other cities plus the Tula Province Minister of Culture and municipal authorities are represented. An international touch is given by the Museum of Estonia-
Marina, who is the museum's curator introduces the authorities. She then says, "Representing the Bobrinsky family is the grandson of Vladimir Alekseevich, the last proprietor of this palace, Alexey Bragin a true Russian aristocrat, keeper of the fanily traditions and author of a wonderful memoir I hope soon Russians will be able to read."
The applause was tremendous. A big change from when to be called an aristocrat was a death sentence.
The author addressing the conference at dinner in Hotel Rus
In the afternoon I make my presentation on life in the Russian Diaspora. Finished I am told by several people, the tale had brought tears to their eyes. I think of the horrendous tale Olga Mazurok, Vice Director of the Bobriki Musum, will deliver tomorrow on the site of the horrid event, the news of which, so many people had wanted to suppress.
The author arriving for the trip to Bobriki
Bobriki was the residence of another branch of the Bobrinsky family The name means Little Beavers. A bus takes us first to the Saint Isaak Church on the palace grounds where we attend a short requiem mass. A Tula TV crew approaches me and asks for an interview. With the interview over, we pile into the bus, that takes us to the city of Donetz. It is a half hour ride.
We get off at the entrance to a park and walk toward a gray, semi ruined chapel, the site of the abomination Olga will tell us about.
Arrival at Bobriki
In 1918, when the Revolution was in full swing, a mob descended on the burial ground next to the Bobrinsky chapel and began to dig up the bodies. They took out gold dentures, wedding rings in the name of the Revolution. But opening a sarcophagus inside the chapel defeated them. This was the body of Pavel Alexeevich Bobrinsky who in 1830 at the age of 29 was killed in a Duel in France. His body was embalmed, placed into the sarcophagus and shipped to his home.
Using an axe, the revolutionary mob broke the sarcophagus and were aghast at the sight of the perfectly preserved corpse who seemed to be winking at them. The crowd scattered. The revolutionary leadership had to gather them and t gunpoint force them to dig a common grave inside the chapel. They then converted the chapel into a cafe so that the proletariat could dance on top of the bodies of their former bourgeois oppressors.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, forensic archeologists excavated the mass grave and identified the remains of each individual. The chapel was again consecrated and the remains of each body given a proper burial. The chapel is now a national monument.
The new graves
Inside the lugubrious chapel the cold air seems to penetrate the bones as if remembering the evils of the Revolution. Outside, it is warm and the trees begin to dress in green.
Beyond the horizon, from the comfort of their desks, some people are clamoring for regime change. Fools who don't know the real consequences of revolution-
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