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From Russia and Ethiopia to the Internet by Richard Seltzer

When I began writing my first novel, The Name of Hero, in 1970, I never expected I'd still be working on the same story 25 years later. I went fishing for a good subject, hooked something far bigger than I imagined, and have been pulled along by it ever since.

The Name of Hero is technically an "historical novel" -- a novel based on historical events. But it doesn't fit in the usual mold. The events depicted, while true, are totally obscure. Very few people know about the exploits of Russian explorers in Ethiopia in the 1890s, or the Russian conquest of Manchuria in 1900. Fewer still have heard of the main character -- Alexander Bulatovich. But the pieces of research fell into place so perfectly and the story was so compelling, that if I was going to write any book, it had to be this one.

Back in 1970, when I was a graduate student in comparative literature at Yale, my great-uncle Charlie died. Among his belongings was a box full of old papers and envelopes with the stamps and postmarks cut off. Inside one of those envelopes was a letter and a clipping.

April 3, 1914

Dear Sir,

Although I know you only from good references of your honesty, my sad situation compels me to reveal to you an important affair in which you can procure a modest fortune, saving at the same time that of my darling daughter.

Before being imprisoned here, I was established as a banker in Russia as you will see by the enclosed article about me of many English newspapers which have published my arrest in London. I beseech you to help me to obtain a sum of 480,000 dollars I have in America and to come here to raise the seizure of my baggage, paying to the Registrar of the Court the expenses of my trial, and recover my portmanteau containing a secret pocket where I have hidden the document indispensable to recover the said sum. As a reward, I will give up to you the third part, viz. 160,000 dollars. I cannot receive your answer in the prison, but you must send a cablegram to a person of my confidence who will deliver it to me.

Awaiting your cable, to instruct you in all my secret. I am Sir,

Yours truly,

S. Solovieff

First of all answer by cable, not by letter, as follows:

Senor Requejo

Lista Telegrafos

Santander (Spain)

Yes = Seltzer

The clipping told of Serge Solovieff, a banker in St. Petersburg, who had embezzled over five million rubles, murdered a compatriot in Spain, been apprehended in London and extradited to Spain. The money was still missing.

There was no date on the clipping, but the item on the reverse side was a review of an issue of the London Quarterly dealing with the centenary of Tennyson's birth in 1909. It is hard to imagine reviewing a magazine long after it was published, but the letter was dated 1914 -- five years later.

Why would anyone keep a clipping from an English newspaper for five years in a prison in Spain, and then send it to a total stranger in the U.S., with a letter asking for help? Was this some sort of hoax that someone tried to play on my great-uncle or his father? But what was there to gain?

On a whim -- half a century late -- I sent a cablegram to Santander, "Yes, Seltzer." Of course, no one answered. Shortly after finding this item, I got orders to report to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for basic training. I had been fortunate in finding a place as a Russian linguist in an Army Reserve unit. This active duty for training abruptly interrupted my graduate studies, but it was far better than being drafted and sent to Viet Nam.

At Fort Polk, I tried to maintain my sanity by reading Russian novels and writing the first chapters of a Russian novel of my own about this Serge Solovieff. The story went nowhere.

After basic, I was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, for further training. While there, I frequented the library at San Angelo State College and read microfilms of old English newspapers, trying to find the original of that clipping, or any related news.

Instead, I found Anthony Bulatovich in the London Times of 1913. The article described how Russian troops had besieged two monasteries at Mount Athos in Greece and exiled some 660 monks to remote parts of the Russian Empire for believing that "The Name of God was a part of God and, therefore, in itself divine." Bulatovich -- former cavalry officer who had "fought in the Italo-Abyssinian campaign, and afterwards in the Far East" -- was the leader and defender of the monks.

News was a more leisurely business then than now. The reporter drew an analogy to characters in a novel by Anatole France and drew an interesting sketch of the background and motivations of the main figure. I got the impression of Bulatovich as a restless man, full of energy, chasing from one end of the world to the other in search of the meaning of life. Eventually, he had sought quiet as a monk at Mount Athos, only to find himself in a battle of another kind.

I was hooked by this new character and new story. The situation was bizarre and yet characteristically Russian -- a heresy conflict in the twentieth century. What was the controversy that inspired such devotion in its adherents and impelled the Russian church hierarchy to take such drastic ? What would a Russian soldier have been doing in Ethiopia at the turn of the century? What war could he have fought in the Far East? What was it that impelled him to go from one end of the world to the other, and then to become a monk?

After getting out of the Army, I moved to Boston. There I tracked down all available leads on this story in libraries, but could find very little additional information. There was a poem by Mandelshtam about the heresy. The philosopher Berdyayev had nearly been sent to Siberia for expressing support for the heretics. But that was it.

I tried spinning a fictional account around the few facts I had. It would be in the style of Somerset Maugham's Razor's Edge, where the main character is seen dimly through the eyes of a narrator, and comes across as a monumental figure striving to understand the meaning of life. That draft never got very far.

Then in the spring of 1972, the "B" volume of the new edition of the official Soviet Encyclopedia (Bolshaya Sovietskaya Entsiklopedia) appeared. The previous edition had mentioned an "Alexander" Bulatovich who died about 1910. The Bulatovich in the Times article was named "Anthony" and was very much alive in 1913. The new edition made it clear that Alexander and Anthony were the same man. (In the Russian Orthodox Church, it is common when becoming a monk to adopt a new name with the same initial letter.) The new article corrected the date of his death (1919) and referenced books that Bulatovich had written about his experiences in Ethiopia. This encyclopedia item was signed by Professor I.S. Katsnelson, from the Institute of Oriental Studies, in Moscow.

With the same flair for the impossible that had led me to send a cable to Santander, I sent a letter to Professor Katsnelson. To my surprise and delight, he replied by return mail, sent me a copy of a reprint of Bulatovich's Ethiopian books that he had recently edited , and also gave me the name and address of Bulatovich's sister, Princess Mary Orbeliani, who was then 98, and living in Canada.

From that point on, one lead led to another.

Katsnelson offered to help me gain access to Soviet archives that had some of Bulatovich's unpublished notes and other related materials. But my Army security clearance prevented me from travel behind the Iron Curtain. (I would be in the reserves for six years, and would have a six-year travel restriction after that).

Instead, in the summer of 1972, I traveled to Mount Athos. That involved elaborate preparations. I obtained a letter of introduction from a monk at Hellenic College in Brookline, Mass., to the Metropolitan in Salonika, who then wrote me a letter of introduction to the Synod in Karyes on Mount Athos, who then gave me permission to not only visit the monasteries, but also use their libraries. I spent most of my time at the one remaining Russian monastery there, St. Pantelaimon, mostly absorbing the atmosphere of the place and its timelessness.

Along the way, in Salonika, I met a Professor Popoulidis who had recently written his dissertation on the religious controversy but had been totally unaware of the other part of Bulatovich's life -- his explorations in Ethiopia and military duty in Manchuria. And, in Athens, at the National Library, I found and photocopied a book Bulatovich had written about the controversy.

The dispute was over the interpretation of the "Jesus Prayer" -- a form of meditation that had been common at Mount Athos for centuries. This is the same prayer that figures prominently in Salinger's Franny and Zooey. The practitioner repeats the prayer over and over until it becomes part of his or her pattern of breathing, so the prayer continues endlessly. The monks reported that this discipline could lead to a mystical experience of the presence of God, and believed that this effect was due to the power of the Name of God itself.

Meanwhile, I corresponded with Mrs. Orbeliani. And the following summer I visited her in Penticton, British Columbia. I stayed there for three days. In long tape-recorded conversations and in letters before and after that visit, she provided me with valuable information about her brother's life and insight into his character. At 99, she was very articulate, lucid, and helpful. She was delighted that someone was showing an interest in her brother's work and beliefs. She was a remarkable and inspiring person -- unassuming, warm and open. Living in a nursing home, she continued to pursue her artwork, specializing in water colors. Although her fingers were swollen from arthritis and she had difficulty even unwrapping a piece of candy, she could still play Chopin on the piano from memory, smoothly and without hesitation. Her own tale would make an interesting book: flight during the Revolution by way of Baku to Yugoslavia, and hardship there under the Nazis; sending her son to engineering school in Louvain, Belgium; his career in the Belgian Congo; and then eventually joining him in British Columbia. (She passed away in 1977 at the age of 103).

Increasingly, I was getting caught up the research, carrying it far beyond what one would normally do to write an "historical novel." Each new piece of information raised more questions and pulled me in even deeper. How could I stop?

But, by coincidence, Solomon got a job at Harvard's Widener Library and let me have access to the stacks. Much of the material I needed could not be found through a card catalog. With this unauthorized access, I was able to follow up references and find related materials on nearby shelves. In this manner, I found and photocopied numerous books and articles about the heresy, as well as material about the Manchurian campaign of 1900 by Bulatovich's commander, General Orlov.

Soon thereafter, Mrs. Orbeliani's son, Andrey, sent me a xerox of Bulatovich's official military record, handwritten in 1905. This provided a complete account of his service, with many previously unknown details on the Manchurian campaign. It also raised intriguing questions.

There was an unexplained gap in Bulatovich's military record. In Manchuria, during the Boxer Rebellion, he rescued a French missionary named Lavesier or Lavoisier and later was named a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for having done so. His sister told how on returning from that excursion, Bulatovich was attacked and wounded by a Chinese boy who jumped at him from a tree, and he struck back with his saber in defense, severing part of the boy's head and being drenched in the boy's blood as the dying boy clung to him -- a gruesome incident that haunted his dreams for years afterward. She also mentioned that her brother caught typhus from the missionary and that after he recovered from his wounds and the illness, he made a short trip to Japan. The military record says that he was never on leave for convalescence from wounds and makes no mention of a trip to Japan. It just skips from the rescue of the missionary to four months later when he was with another Russian army in another part of Manchuria. Apparently, he had been left behind, considered as good as dead. And if he went to Japan, he did so without official permission.

About this time, an article about Bulatovich appeared in Novoye Russkoye Slovo, a Russian language newspaper in New York. The writer, Vladimir Mayevsky, claimed to have known Bulatovich and summarized his life with a very negative slant -- saying that Bulatovich had married and abandoned an Ethiopian princess and that all the sudden shifts in his career were due to one scandal or another.

At this point the volume of the research material was becoming overwhelming; and after seven years of trying, I still didn't have a working beginning to the novel I intended to write.

I was fascinated by Bulatovich's character. I wanted to work out the puzzle of his motivations, to figure out what could have lead to all the shifts and twists of his life story: from St. Petersburg, to Ethiopia, to Manchuria, then back to St. Petersburg where he became a monk, and on to Mount Athos, becoming the champion of the "heretics" there, then a chaplain at the Eastern Front in World War I, surviving the Revolution and Civil War, and returning to preach on what had been his family's estate in the Ukraine, only to be murdered by bandits.

What drove him to do the things he did? How could I present all these facts I had uncovered in a way that they seemed plausible?

For a while, I tried to use a narrator as a bridge to help contemporary readers relate to this strange person and these strange events. But adding the perspective and opinion of a fictitious narrator wouldn't do justice to all this material that had come to me, like an amazing gift. I wanted to stay as close as I could to the facts as known. I needed the immediacy of a direct account, so I decided on an omniscient third person, (thinking of Tolstoy).

New research material keeps coming to me, even when I don't actively seek it. Professor Katsnelson died in 1981, the year that Hero was published. But just a couple years ago, the Institute of Oriental Studies finally published a book about Bulatovich's third and fourth trips to Ethiopia in 1899 and 1911 . This volume consists of the archival materials that Katsnelson had gathered and edited.

Around the same time, Tom Dykstra, a graduate student at a Russian Orthodox Theological Academy, found a copy of Hero in a library and came to me asking for help in researching his thesis on the "heresy." I shared with him all the materials I had gathered, and he has given me copies of numerous articles and books that seemed impossible to find when I tried 15-20 years ago.

Wesleyan College contacted me and asked me to speak about The Name of Hero. Preparing for that talk, I got immersed once again in this story that was once so magically given to me and to which I have not yet done justice.

A professor of history at Michigan State University asked me to translate Bulatovich's two books on his experiences in Ethiopia because of their historical and scientific value. I did that translation and those books are now available on-line at this website. 

Now, with the dramatic changes in what used to be the Soviet Union, the ethnic and religious differences of old Czarist Russia are relevant once again, and are important to understanding what is happening today. The flow of history has changed, and what was once a backwater is now in the mainstream.

In one form or another, the story of Bulatovich must be told; and, for me, the story of the story continues. privacy statement