I first heard the name Kathleen ffrench in 1988. I was on my way to the Soviet Union with my husband, who was taking up a post as a foreign correspondent, and we had stopped off in Ireland to visit our families. My mother-in-law, Rosamond Lombard (née Blake), gave me letters which had been gathering dust at the back of her shelves for some years. They were written by Kathleen ffrench during the Russian Revolution to her relatives in Ireland. Rosamond hoped I would be able to find more information about Kathleen and her Russian family.
The first three years of our time in Moscow were all-consuming; we worked hard, and were exposed to many interesting new experiences. The days raced by and I had no time to think of Kathleen ffrench or the letters. But as our last year in Moscow approached (1991), I felt compelled to attempt to discover whatever I could about her. I showed the letters to a Russian journalist, Masha Kiseleva. She is a lively woman, well educated, used to bartering, blat (talking your way through a situation) and survival tactics. She was very excited about the letters and we decided to go to Ulyanovsk (Simbirsk) together to see if we could find out any more about Kathleen ffrench.
Ulyanovsk, besides being the home of Kathleen ffrench and her family property ‘Kindiakovka’, was also the birthplace of Lenin. Lenin’s family name was Ulyanov and the town was renamed in his honour during his heyday (1917–24). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it reverted to its original name, Simbirsk. The town lies about 600 kilometres south-east of Moscow on the mighty Volga. At Simbirsk the river is a couple of kilometres wide and is crossed by a huge bridge. We had been told that the Kindiakov family had connections with the poet and writer Ivan Goncharov, so we first of all visited the Goncharov museum. The director of the museum told us that the Kindiakovs were more important in that area than Lenin’s family. She showed us photographs hanging in the museum of Kindiakov ancestors, and found all sorts of papers and information about them. The director and an archivist kindly took us by car to the spot where the grand house of Kindiakovka had stood, high on the banks of the Volga. We toured the gardens, now overgrown with weeds, and the two curators described to us in detail how they had looked in all their original glory. The village where the Kindiakovka serfs had lived was pointed out; according to the archivist, the serfs were well looked after. We were shown the ruined mausoleum where family members had been buried, and where Kathleen had managed to snatch her beloved governess’s body away before it was desecrated by the Bolsheviks, who destroyed everything: the house, stables, vineyards, church and even the mausoleum. The only building on the site now is a memorial to the writer Ivan Goncharov (1812–91), which Kathleen ffrench had built in 1912.
The next day, we went back to the museum, to be interviewed by the local media. I brought some photographs and letters to show the people in the museum, who were very excited to have information about Kathleen. I was able to fill them in on the latter part of her life, about which they knew nothing. They did not know where she had gone and where she had died.
Our next call was to the Simbirsk archives where we managed to have a look at the catalogues of the extensive Kindiakov papers held there. We were stunned when we looked through the lists and realised that there were at least 1,200 letters and family papers held in the collection. The letters were folded neatly and stored in boxes, all the records written up by hand. We asked about the possibility of photocopies. Impossible. I was a foreigner, permission would have to be obtained from Moscow, they didn’t have any photocopying paper, and so on.
We took a tram to see where Kathleen ffrench had been imprisoned in the winter of 1918. The filthy prison where Kathleen and a handful of friends looked across the bridge to Onfa waiting in vain for the British to arrive. I thought of her working in the yard as the cook’s assistant in an effort to get some fresh air. We looked at her town house, now a recruitment centre for the Red Army. This visit to Simbirsk brought us to the cemetery where Kathleen had taken the body of her beloved companion and governess Jenny Thompkins late at night, to save the body being violated in the mausoleum at Kindiak.
"The strain, suspense and anxiety for all I care for is telling rapidly. They even broke into the vault where my dear old English governess is buried and wished to do away with my faithful old horse instead of letting him die in peace. All I hope to achieve is to steal my dear old friend’s body tomorrow night and bury her in the cemetery in town and avoid her remains any further insult."
In Russia, graves are usually among birch trees with a gilded domed church nearby. In winter, the trees take the weight of the snow, and the sun glistens on the metal crosses, the railings and the headstones. Tracks are worn among the trees leading to the graves most visited by relatives.
A taxi dropped Masha and me off at the entrance. Towering above us was a statue of Lenin’s father, a local schoolteacher, with a child below. This statue had been erected in Lenin’s time, to celebrate his birthplace and his family. It was intended to dominate the cemetery, to show Lenin’s father as a caring man of the people.
We were told that not long after the 1917 Revolution, the Bolsheviks drove bulldozers in to flatten and destroy the graves, and dump earth on them to cover up the gravestones of the wealthy society families. Fearing the consequences, the families dared not visit for traditional memorial ceremonies.
It was a cool day, with grey skies. We could hear the harsh cry of the ravens, a familiar sound in Russian birchwoods. Along with the cawing of the birds, persistent clicking and scraping sounds were apparent. It was only then that I noticed people on their knees working at the ground.
That was in 1991 and, after so many years, the surviving relatives were trying to restore the gravestones to remember their past loved ones. It was a moving and sobering sight. One can only imagine how the first person appeared with a spade, and others quickly followed; how important it was that the history of their families could be openly acknowledged with sadness and affection.
I was filled with excitement, but also a sense of responsibility, to find out more. It was obvious that in the archives there was a huge resource in those letters, meticulously catalogued. The excitement was infectious and made us restless. Masha and I walked around the town wondering how we could get our hands on the letters. At that time, Russians were not used to anybody having access to information about the past. No matter how much they had suffered under communism, many had known no other system and were suspicious of anyone wanting information.
Our only hope was to wait for a couple of months when Masha would be able to return to Simbirsk with several reams of paper and photocopy as many of the letters as she possibly could.
It has taken many years of hard work, with a lot of help from my very generous friends, to transcribe and translate the letters and documents. They have revealed a first-hand story of the life of Kathleeen ffrench, a woman with an indomitable spirit. While in prison for several months, she suffered dreadful indignities and underwent extreme suffering until eventually released. Her teeth were falling out and her arms pitted and marked by attacks of vermin in the filthy prison cells.
Kathleen ffrench wished her treatment by the Bolsheviks to be published for the world to read. After such a long time and such tragic events, here is the opportunity to finally hear her voice.
Kathleen ffrench (1864–1938) had a tumultuous childhood, torn between her Irish and Russian parents. Both families were landowners at the time of the decline of the landowning classes. They were aristocrats living off the land, supported by an impoverished, uneducated peasantry. Many were asset rich and cash poor, but still struggled to keep up appearances. They could not anticipate the enormous social changes that would be brought about by the revolutions they were about to live through.
Kathleen’s extensive travels between her estates in Russia, her home in London and her estate in Ireland created a great deal of correspondence between close friends and family. Fortunately she preserved many of these letters, and they have survived.
Her Russian family was typical of its time, analogous to the family in Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard. Likewise, her Irish family was typical of many landowning Irish families. At the turn of the nineteenth century, when Kathleen inherited her Irish estate, she was an absentee landlord, and stubbornly allowed her grand Irish home to go to rack and ruin, for lack of funds.
I was lucky enough to be able to gain access to almost 500 letters and documents from the Russian archives, giving me intimate details of Kathleen ffrench’s life. Most of these were written in French, the language used by Russian aristocrats of the nineteenth century. They were faded and very difficult to read. Words were abbreviated and ran off the ends of lines. When the writer was short of paper, some letters were written a second time at right angles across the page over the previous writing, with very little punctuation. Some of the letters were a jumble of languages, partly in French, partly in English and partly in Russian. Many of the letters were without dates, or addresses, but in some cases the contents revealed the time and place of their composition.
Some of the later letters had been translated into Russian by the Simbirsk archivist, making it even more difficult to unravel the sense and meaning. The twentieth century letters were mostly written in English and Russian, often with little punctuation and with incorrect spelling.
Translation is always a daunting task. Where I have used excerpts from the letters, for aid of understanding I have put in some punctuation, and endeavoured to identify as closely as possible the circumstances in age and time. They may not be placed in exact chronological order.
Researching and Writing
An Irish Woman in Czarist Russia