Son’ka ‘Golden Hand’ and The City of Thieves

SophiaBlyuvshtein1A sharp, beguiling pair of eyes cuts through the din of the crowded dining room at Odessa’s luxurious Petersburg Restaurant, the plates of wealthy land owners, industrialists, and judges loaded with Black Sea caviar and their mouths stuffed with talk of flaccid corruption.

The following day, the same individual glides elegantly amid the weekend crowds along the sun-drenched, cosmopolitan Nikolaevskii Boulevard. Sheltered from the sun by the frills of an umbrella and face partly covered by the arc of a wide-brimmed hat, a single gesture immediately slows the pace of a pram pushed along by her teenage nanny as the flower sellers happily interrupted the hawking of their wares to dote on the infant. She is accompanied here by what appears to be a former army general, the military pride glinting on his chest suggesting a brush with the armies of Napoleon, or perhaps a role in the brutal sacking of the Caucasus, as he looks wistfully beyond the flotilla of boats scattered in the harbor.

cafefankoni

Odessa’s stylish Cafe Fankoni toward the end of the 19th century

Later unaccompanied, her arm gently brushes the pages of The Odessa Post as she heads into the ‘Ladies’ Salon’ at the back of the stylish Café Fankoni. As its sophisticated clientele are voyeuristically transported by reporters into the murky world of the nearby suburb Moldavanka, the same sharp eyes exchange knowing glances with dancer Kitty Florence and the ‘Queen of Thieves’ Ol’ga D’ichanko, who had also arrived a few days earlier, dividing the moustachioed gentlemen on the veranda between them without uttering a single word. (1)

Everything about the life of Son’ka ‘Golden Hand’ remains shrouded in seductive mystery. Only a few pieces of evidence litter her trail–a signature, perhaps even forged; a handful of blurry photos displaying her array of different disguises; Son’ka’s nickname, earned through her proclivity as a teenage pickpocket during her rural upbringing in a small town outside Warsaw in the early 1850s. By the time she hit her early twenties, whispers of this name would accompany her travels between Moscow’s swanky Aquarium Nightclub and St. Petersburg’s elegant Balabinskaia Hotel, stretching even further afield to the European capitals of Budapest, Vienna, and Berlin.

The balmy summertime air and melting pot of crime and corruption which characterized the fin-de-siècle port city of Odessa undoubtedly provided the perfect working retreat for the leader of the criminal gang known as ‘Jacks of Hearts.’ (2) Allegedly, this group was comprised from a procession of Son’ka’s former lovers, many of whom she had stolen from such as her first husband, the merchant Isak Rosenbad. Once duped, they were happy to work alongside her as they made their money back multiple times over.

Not that Son’ka was ever incapable of working alone. Arriving at the imposing doorways of dynastic family homes and asking to see the master, waiting alone in the drawing room provided the perfect opportunity to search for whatever money and valuables she could lay her hands on. On the infrequent occasions she was interrupted, a quick costume change would see her silk and jewelry removed in one swift movement as she escaped dressed as a cook or maid through the servant’s quarters. (3)

Despite her nickname being earned through the art of pickpocketing, Son’ka received the most infamy as the reported innovator of a crime which would become known as ‘Guten Morgen.’ (4) During her stay in Odessa, this meant creeping softly down the hallway of the extravagant Londonskaia Hotel, felt slippers on top of her shoes, and trying the handles of 20-Ruble-a-night luxury suites usually occupied with male guests sleeping off a potent cocktail of vodka and baccarat. If any of her dozing marks happened to wake, Son’ka would slip off her clothes as if in her own room before acting embarrassed for the mistake. Appealing to their leniency and drunken lust, Son’ka would invariably leave with the stolen goods after sex, an increasingly popular crime in the late Imperial Russian Empire known as khipesnitsi. (5)

sonka

Son’ka in her high-society attire, thought to be in her mid to late 30s

On one occasion, however, she came across a middle-aged man passed out on the couch astride a loaded revolver. Underneath a burning candle on the accompanying table sat a pile of letters, sealed and ready to be posted. Only one envelope remained open, containing a letter explaining to his mother how he had gambled away the money sent to pay for the treatment of his sick sister. Reaching into the lining of her dress, Son’ka took out 500 Rubles, placed the pile of notes gently under the cold handle of the revolver, and left as if she had never entered. (6)

This apparent clemency did not, however, extend to high-end jewelry stores, as Son’ka would stakeout the shops of Odessa’s Deribasovskaia Street before looking to distract the clerk with the help of more accomplices, hiding the gems under her deliberately grown fingernails. She would sometimes replace the diamonds with cheap forgeries and, on other occasions, hide them in a plant pot on the counter to collect the following day.

When a tip-off eventually led the police to her ramshackle apartment on Moldavanka’s Old Free Port Street, they found a wardrobe full of Parisian hats, fur capes, and a bespoke dress with multiple pockets to conceal even the tiniest gem. Her dresser was cluttered with the nefarious flotsam of false eyebrows, wigs, and, sitting proudly among them, a blue diamond hanging on a velvet ribbon stolen from the noble Langeron family by her lover, Wolf Bromberg.

By then Son’ka had disappeared, however, via the hustle and bustle of the Central Train Station. Appearing in the guise of ‘Countess Sofia Ivanova Timrot,’ she flirted with wealthy aristocrats about their potential investments and waited for them to fall asleep, drugging them with opium or chloroform if need be, and continued to steal from carriage to carriage as she hurtled back toward the perceived shelter of Warsaw. (7)

Although her heart would be perpetually drawn back to the chthonic alchemy of Odessa, Son’ka would only return on one occasion to the ‘City of Thieves.’ Approaching her late thirties, this fateful trip saw her arrested following one of Wolf’s property scams in which the Italian jeweler Galiano paid part deposit of a necklace for a house overlooking the fashionable Langeron Beach. Sentenced to exile following her Moscow trial in December 1880, Son’ka’s recapture following her escape from a small Siberian village saw her dispatched to hard labor on the desolate penal colony of Sakhalin Island in the North Pacific, where temperatures would reach a perishing -20 degrees in winter.

Living on the exile settlement, Son’ka oversaw the running of a café-chantant (singing café), casino, and carousel which paid homage those in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but her frequent escape attempts alongside the suggested murder of the shopkeeper Nikitin saw Son’ka savagely beaten by the frayed rawhide lash of the executioner Komlev and thrown into solitary confinement.

sonkasakhalin

Son’ka shackled on Sakhalin Island in the 1890s

Odessa now came to her as the sprightly and suave, if somewhat controversial, journalist Vlas Doroshevich visited the island to interview her, where he described her shackled in a famous image. Lamenting the loss of her daughters, who had been sent to finishing school in Paris, Son’ka’s final act of sorcery was to create the illusion that she may have switched places with a fake stand-in and that her death, recorded on the island in 1902, might not have even been her at all.

Dr. Mark Vincent

profileMore of Mark’s writing can be found at: http://www.cultoftheurka.wordpress.com
Follow him on Twitter @VincentCriminal
Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps (I. B. Tauris/Bloomsbury)

 

Notes: 

(1) References to Kitty Florence and Ol’ga D’ichanko, along with a number of locations, taken from Roshanna Sylvester’s wonderful book: Tales of Old Odessa: Crime and Civility in a City of Thieves (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2005), p.56 & 122.

(2) Katz & Pallot, ‘From Femme Normale to Femme Criminalle in Russia’ Against the Past or Toward the Future?’, New Zealand Slavonic Journal, 44 (2010), p.123.

(3) Gregory Breitman, Prestupnii Mir, (Kiev: 1901), p.47.

(4) Katz & Pallot, ‘From Femme Normale to Femme Criminalle in Russia’, p.123.

(5) Sylvester describes khipesnitsi as a con game which involved seducing and blackmailing respectable middle-aged ‘family men’: Sylvester, Tales of Old Odessa, pp.94-95.

(6) Brietman, Prestupnii Mir, p.43.

(7) Louise McReynolds, The News Under Russia’s Old Regime (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p.113 & 139.

Advertisements

Perfect Love and Sacred Sin: Sex and Rasputin

rasputin_piercing_eyes

Being a fan of both history and music, I’ve often wondered about the hypothesis presented by the great scholar, Boney M: Was Rasputin (Jan 21st 1869 – Dec. 30th, 1916) really Russia’s greatest love machine?

I’ve wondered about this for years. Over time, Rasputin’s life has become more legend than fact thanks to a campaign of propaganda so scathing that most people today have not only heard of him, but associate him with evil. Even now, his life is usually viewed through the lens of our own morality.

Rasputin’s views, like the man himself, are rather more complicated that you might expect, and cannot be reduced to simply good or evil. He was a monk with deeply held religious beliefs that developed out of Orthodox tradition as well as his experience with the Khlyst sect, a group that believed that true joy could only be achieved through forgiveness, and therefore the surest way to God is to sin for the purpose of being forgiven, usually through ritual orgies.

This is not a biography. Rasputin’s life and death are well-documented and will be revisited on this site in the future. Today, with the 100th anniversary of his assassination barely a month away, I am looking at Rasputin’s views on love and sex in order to see if Boney M was right.

The part about him being a love machine, that is. Not the part where he’s also “the lover of the Russian queen.”

That is a post for another day, I’m afraid.

rasputin_listovkaThe Man

During his lifetime, Rasputin was hated, feared, and revered in equal measure. In the last days of Imperial Russia, he was seen to have too much influence over the royal family and the government. He was a peasant with the ear of the Tsar; an untrustworthy figure at best, and at worst, a convenient scapegoat for the political unrest that plagued the empire. Because he was seen as undesirable or even dangerous, a campaign of misinformation and unflattering political cartoons was launched against him, the effects of which are still felt today.

Keep in mind that sources from this period are maddeningly unreliable: due in no small part to political upheaval and the subsequent revolution, records are full of omissions, contradictory accounts, and outright lies. This, coupled with the rumors widely circulated about Rasputin, makes it difficult to get a read on him. He was rumored to be an insatiable lecher, a filthy peasant who was at once so dumb he was barely coherent but at the same time, intelligent and calculating enough to single-handedly overthrow Russia. He’s said to have been hideous, stinking, and with food perpetually stuck in his beard, but women loved him. Because he hypnotized them, probably.

It’s a lot to live up to. It’s difficult to imagine someone being both a genius and complete idiot, repellent and irresistible. This view of him begins to unravel with the account of Filippov. Desperate to understand how he was so attractive to women, he checked him out in the public baths:

“His body was exceptionally firm, not flabby, and ruddy and well-proportioned, without the paunch and flaccid muscles usual at that age…and without the darkening of the pigment of the sexual organs, which at a certain age have a dark or brown hue.”

Filippov reports finding nothing unusual about Rasputin’s physical appearance, and further describes him as an exceptionally clean man who bathed and changed his clothes frequently, and ‘never smelled bad.’

For a man in his late thirties/early forties, Rasputin was in good shape. He was clean, “exceptionally firm,” and he had abs! It’s also worth noting he was 6’4” and had eyes so hypnotic they were described as “phosphorescent,” beautiful, and maniacal.

We begin to understand what Filippov missed: Rasputin was pretty hot.

Okay, I can hear you laughing from here, but bear with me: great body, ridiculous beard, eyes that are both crazy and beautiful, and the supernatural ability to drop panties at fifty paces?

Come on, he’s totally the Tom Hardy of Imperial Russia.

Theory and Practice

Rasputin himself was not as indiscriminately lustful as he was made out to be. His voracious sexual appetite plagued him, and he made it his mission not only to conquer it, but to use his experience to help others to do the same.

Many women acquainted with him reported that in spite of frequent advances, he did not seem to be overly interested in physical relations. During this same time, however, he was very fond of prostitutes, but his behavior with them is not what the tabloids would have led us to believe. According to ‘Peach,’ an ex-prostitute who in the 1970s still referred to him as Grishka, he was a little odd:

“He took her to the same cheap hotel where they all took her and ordered her to undress. He sat down across from her. And sat and watched in silence. His face suddenly turned very, very pale, as if all the blood had left it. She even got scared. Then he gave her the money and left. On his way out he said, “Your kidneys are bad.” He took her to the same hotel another time. And even lay down with her but did not touch her.”

Rasputin was right; years later, Peach had to have a kidney removed.

Why didn’t he touch her? It was an exercise in restraint. Rasputin believed the way to refine his nerves was by mastering his flesh, and so he would put himself in situations of great temptation and actively improve his spirit by resisting. In his words, as recounted by Filippov:

“(It) is something womenfolk do not understand…The saints would undress harlots, and look at them, and become more refined in their feelings, but would not allow any intimacy.”

The idea was that if one could refine their nerves and reach the highest Platonic states, they could literally float and even walk on water through the heightened ability of their soul.

That is not to say he was celibate.

To understand Rasputin’s view of sex, there are two key things you have to understand:

1. God is Love
2. Love > Marriage

Many of Rasputin’s devotees were married women, but he never slept with them if they were in love with their husbands. Love is sacred, while marriage is a social construct. If one had a loveless marriage, it would not be a sin to find love outside of it: rather, the sin would be to remain faithful within it and to never experience real love (God). None of his devotees who we’re reasonably certain did sleep with him ever admitted adultery. He advised them not to not only for his own protection, but because he did not believe it was adultery to have sex outside of a loveless marriage.

As Edvard Radzinsky explains: “Love was the chief thing for him. Love everywhere overflowing. The pagan Love of nature, of trees, grass, and rivers. Only Love was holy. And therefore if a married woman loved her husband, she was for Rasputin untouchable. But whatever was not love was a lie. (…) If a woman did not love her husband and remained in the marriage, she was sinful. Rasputin was against love’s being subordinated to the laws of marriage. It was for him something terrible that came from the official church. Everything that was not true love was to him criminal and subject to change.”

The relationship between sex and love was a little more complicated. Sex was still a sin, but the best way to be cleansed of it was to have it and thus be freed of the impulse.

Until it struck again, in which case he was only too happy to take that sin upon himself. For the spiritual well-being of the women, of course. At one point, he advised his coterie to visit him daily to be purged of any sinful impulses that might arise.

This practice is part of why people of a more traditionally religious persuasion dismiss him as “evil”: his understanding of the nature of God and the purpose of love and sex was different from that of mainstream Christianity. That is not to say he exploited it for his own purposes; he genuinely believed that his was the surest path to God. Like the Khlysty, he believed that true joy was obtained through forgiveness, so communion with God could be found on the other side of sin.

It’s worth noting that if we disassociate sex with sin in this case, it becomes something altogether more benign. If sex is not inherently sinful and is practiced as an expression of love, the only thing you can reasonably object to in this instance is the women’s marital status.

So was Rasputin really Russia’s greatest love machine? If we look at the love aspect outside of the euphemism here, maybe he was. After all, love was central to his spiritual mission and understanding of God. From what remains of his personal life, remembered conversations, and the evident swarms of female devotees, we can draw our own conclusions. It’s safe to say he was not as promiscuous as he was made out to be, and sex for him and with him was more than an expulsion of sinful impulse: it was a spiritual experience.

Jessica Cale

See also:
Radzinsky, Edvard. The Rasputin File. Anchor Books, 2000. New York.
Boney M: “Rasputin.” Nightflight to Venus (1978).