Friday, February 19, 2021

The Complicated Route
Leading to That Rabbit Hole


Ah, the "rabbit hole." Almost any researcher knows of it: that tempting—and often misleading—path which engulfs our good intentions and buries us with fascinating, but ultimately useless, details.

I'd posit that one requirement to qualify a research find as a "rabbit hole" is that it must have a complicated path leading to its official door. Let's see if we can reconstruct that path to today's rabbit hole.

We are, in case you need a reminder, hunting for any genealogical information on a woman named Alexandra Manouiloff, formerly of Marseilles, who immigrated to New York City and completed her petition for naturalization just before dying in 1966. This Alexandra was noted to be sister of my godmother's mother, Lydia Leonoff Melnitchenko (at least, as the Americans would list her married name). 

Searching for the surname Manouiloff produced little of consequence, when employing the usual genealogical websites, so I struck out in a different direction. I took my search to the archived newspaper collections, and ultimately out in the wide world to Google.

The first sign I could find of any mention of that surname—at least spelled in that precise manner—was in a commentary called "Bits for Breakfast," written by George Douglas and published in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 20, 1917. It was just a blip of a mention, but given the context—the recent changes in government in Russia—it was enough to give me a research toe hold.

Douglas began his observations by mentioning, "One of the first promises of the Russian Duma is a free press." The writer then went on to refer to the many European governments which had recently been rather heavy-handed in their policies of censorship.

He wrapped up his point by producing an excerpt from a mere report of a speech said to have been given by "Professor Paul Milyukov" in the Duma. The author, apparently, considered it to be a prime example of the difficulty of censorship.

"I hold in my hands," the professor was alleged to have said, "a copy of the Berliner Tageblatt for September 16, which contains an article entitled, 'Manouiloff --- (censored) Sturmer --- (censored).''

That was only a minor portion of a speech by Milyukov which Douglas attributed as a key cause of the change in the Russian government of that time. While on the one hand, as it is all I had been able to find on any mentions of that surname Manouiloff, I want to stay put, riveted on that one detail, on the other hand, we can't just sweep all those associated names under the rug. Those are details which will help us set the stage—whatever that stage might turn out to be.

Let's go back and review those names. First, the professor: who, it turns out, was actually politician Pavel Milyukov, whose many impassioned speeches seemed designed to elicit emotional responses. Indeed, his speech on November 1, 1916, addressing the Russian Duma attacked then-prime minister Boris Stürmer.

Stürmer, as it turned out, had an assistant who, in Russian fashion, went by the name Manasevitch Manouiloff. We know now, by our understanding of the workings of Russian patronyms, that Manasevitch would be the patronymic form referring to Manouiloff's father—what we would consider a given middle name actually being a formal and acceptable way of referring to a man, sometimes in place of including his given name.

The speech attributed to Milyukov had been printed up in various British and American journals. We learn, in gleaning clues from these journals, that Manouiloff had been arrested the previous September for "blackmailing the Union Bank of Moscow." In addition, he was fingered as "a former functionary of the secret Russian police in Paris." His purpose, it seems, was to furnish reports to his superiors on the activities of Russian "revolutionists."

Some time following such accusations, this Manouiloff did eventually end up in prison, perhaps not so much for being implicit in a scheme to bribe editors of key newspapers, but more as a function of the demise of the entire Russian parliamentarian provisional government.

Enter first sighting of said rabbit hole.

In the turmoil of the waning years of the tsarist government, there was one woman who, somehow, figured significantly in the story of what became of the tsar, his wife and family, and the infamous spiritual leader known as Rasputin. That woman, a lady in waiting in the court of the last Emperor of All Russia, became a close confidante of the tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna.

Perhaps only because Anna Vyrubova managed to escape her Bolshevik captors do we have her memoir of those last years of the Russian court. I certainly wouldn't have known of that history—having never researched ancestors with Russian heritage until embarking on this exploration of my godmother's family—except that, thanks to that all-encompassing Google search for the surname Manouiloff, I discovered its thrice-mentioned appearance in Vyrobova's manuscript.

Thankfully, Anna's memoirs are freely available to all who want to explore her story through the foresight of Project Gutenberg. But I warn you—should you want to do more than search for Manouiloff's mere mentions in her manuscript—the tightly-packed text can wear on your eyes. Better to find a copy of the book, Memories of the Russian Court, or its newly remade reprint, now entitled My Dear Friend, the Tsarina.

Or, for those who would prefer, at the start of this weather-stricken weekend, to freely jump with abandon into a beguiling four-hundred-page rabbit hole of pre-revolution Russian court history, you can start with the typewritten transcription here.

And don't say I didn't warn you. 


  1. Well that is an interesting bit of history!

    1. Yes it is, Far Side--and new to me. Makes me miss my former research partner, a distant cousin of my husband, now deceased, who was a professor of Russian history. I'm sure she would had had plenty of insight to help fill in the blanks.


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