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History of our Russian Family

History of our Russian family

Written by: Aunt Iya, sister of Fea, in Moscow, 1980's

Translated from Russian by: Deborah Doniach 1989




In the city of Vienna the inhabitants were divided into professional guilds. In the gardening corporation there were two brothers.  One of them immigrated into the USA and the other remained in his garden: he carried out botanical experiments and developed the “black tulip” and a blue rose. In the years 1830 to 1840 Georg Heller imported valuable plant breeds from abroad. He obtained them from subtropical and tropical countries and acclimatized them.  He ordered expensive and unusual species of trees for the production of wood chips or shavings, and walnut trees to produce oil for the lubrication of industrial machinery.  He used to import bushes and even flowers. For his services to the government his guild gave him the highest decoration conferred by the nobility.  At this time he became acquainted with the Russian ambassador Prince Repnin, who was a great lover of horticulture.  The prince persuaded him to emigrate to Russia.  When Nicholas I came to the throne, he promoted Repnin from ambassador to Governor of the Ukraine.  Repnin was a dedicated Russian patriot, so he managed to convince Georg Heller to settle in the Ukraine.  The latter arrived in the early 1850's.  The prince spent all his spare time working with the scientist.  Heller sold his house in Vienna for 320,000 marks and started to import for Russia the plants he used to buy for Austria.  In the Ukraine he did all his experiments in a village called “Lagosh”.

Repnin and Heller installed two laboratories: one above ground and one underground.  For tropical plants it was necessary to have an Orangery, but when this became overcrowded they transferred the plants from one of the beds out of doors and this they went on calling the Orangery.  This special bed was kept going until 1861, i.e. for as long as they could employ serf labor.  After 1861 they were obliged to curtail their experiments, since they had to engage workers and pay them regular wages.  The prince often borrowed money from Georg Heller.  He gave him IOU’s but alas he died suddenly and had no time to pay his debts.  The prince had no direct descendents and the rest of his family was only interested in money and valuables.  They took a way all they could and left the Orangery to its fate.  The local landowners helped themselves to bushes and trees.  Vestiges of Georg and Repnin's work can still be seen in Ukrainian gardens.  In our old property there were rare breeds of apples and pears.

After the death of Repnin, Georg remained without means of support.  The IOUs of the prince were not recognized by his heirs, and the prince never gave bills of exchange.  The scientist was literally thrown out with his entire family.  He already had 6 sons.  Friends of the prince took pity on him and engaged him as head gardener.  One of his sons, Edward aged 14 was appointed his assistant.  The Russian botanical society invited Georg to participate in various experiments.


During the riots of St. Bartholomew's night against the Protestants in France, a family named Couché managed to escape and settled in the Ukraine.  This is how Edward met Elisabeth Couché.  One fine day the young man abducted his bride from her father's home and they eloped.   Her father never forgave his daughter.  Some time later, the Couché family was invited to Moscow where they became quite wealthy.  Elisabeth did not live very long but she left Edward two sons: Georg and Nicholas.  The 3-year old Nicholas was taken to live with his grandfather the scientist.  After Elisabeth's death, Edward lived with a serf called Anastasia whom he married after the abolition of serfdom.  Edward gave all his children a good education.  Andrei obtained a degree from Derpnitski University.  His daughters Tonia, Sasha and Maria all finished the gymnasia.  The oldest son looked after the rest of the family and arranged his sisters' marriages.  Edward was angry with his son Georg for marrying a priest's daughter so he left him a small farm with only 10 acres of boggy soil where a watermill had stood on the river Soulia.  Georg Heller the elder brought up Nicholas and sent him to a good boarding school.  Nicholas knew French, German, Russian and Ukrainian. The scientist lived to a very old age.  The watchman of Gamsi the banker remembered him well and used to tell stories about him to lya Nicolaevna ( the writer of this family history).

Grandfather Edward leased the estate of Civers which was very neglected.  Edward put his son Nicholas in charge of the farm, whilst he devoted himself to improving the land.  He planted sunflowers and poppies in the abandoned fields.  At that time, poppy seed oil was greatly prized though the narcotic potential was not fully developed at the time.  Andrei Edwardovitch married Olga Karlovna, daughter of the scientist's second son.  Karl himself was an amazing person. He possessed the faculty of easing childbirth.  When a woman could not be delivered they called in Karl.  He would place his hands on the abdomen - this relaxed the mother, eased the pains and often led to a successful outcome.

They called Karl “the peasant women's God”.  Unfortunately he was powerless when it came to his own family, since Olga and Andrei's daughter Nadia was a hunchback.  Their other daughter Natasha finished the preparatory training course given to young women in the early years of the century, but she did not participate in the revolution.


Nicholas bought the large farm on the Civers estate.  The estate mansion was in ruins having neither floors nor a roof.  When the house of the Civers family in Berestovka burnt down, Nicholas and his family moved to the farm.  Nicholas was married in 1879 ( he was born in 1850), to a red headed girl called Johanna Karlovna Stessinger.  This is how he met her.  In Riga there was an important annual trade fair and while it lasted the Russian landowners supplied corn and other cereals for it via the Libavo-Romney railway (Romeny was the nearest town to our family estate).  A lot of export trade was carried on via this railway line to England, France, and Germany.  Business was brisk.  For the building and maintenance of the railway, German specialists came from Riga.  Nikolai Edwardovitch went to Riga and there he met Johanna.  Forbears of her family owned a piano factory and the present Mr. Stessinger had a timber yard and did a lot of business with foreign countries.  When the British fleet tried to get a foothold in Riga, old Mr. Stessinger blocked the port entrance with a huge bonfire made with timber from his yard.  For this he was handsomely rewarded. His wife, grandmother Stessinger, was either a grand-daughter or else a great-granddaughter to M. I. Kutusov, the general who fought Napoleon.  Grandma Stessinger had 22 children of which 17 survived into adult life.  Uncle Bruno was a teacher.  The others, Iya does not remember.  In general the Stessinger family was very gifted.  Aunt Julia was an artist, uncle Bruno made an excellent translation of Krilov's fables into German.  My mother Iya kept the fables “Damian's ear”, “The Crow” and “The Fox” for a long time in his translation and even taught them to her students.  She also passed them on to other teachers of German.  Rotraut, the daughter of Bruno was a book illustrator.  In the family there were also musicians, composers and a singer.  Admittedly she was married to a military man who would not allow her to appear on stage so that she only took part in private concerts but she sang superbly.


EUGENE, born 1883, Qualified as a civil engineer in the architectural institute at Grap.  In the First World War he built and reinforced various strongholds.  He often remained in dangerous buildings to the last.  He was married to AIexandra Alexieevna Petrov.  They had a daughter named Ira.  After the war he worked as an architect and lived in Kiev.  He was a very busy man.  Shura felt lonely and bored so she started a friendship with another man.  When Genia went into the army and asked her to join him, Shura refused.  When he asked her for a divorce because a lady landowner from Belorussia blackmailed and forced him to marry her, Shura did not blame him but her relatives cursed Genia very much.  Genia gave 25,000 gold rubles to Ira and left a trunk with the marriage valuables in our house.  When the Soviets took over, the trunk contained all the linen, table silver and samovars.  The red army people put everything out on the table.  Nina took away a few of the things from under their noses but mother (lya) was too frightened and never touched a thing.  The soldiers left her two pairs of sheets and took away everything else.  They even confiscated the grand piano.  They stored it in a cold damp place so that it was severely damaged.  The strings were shaken up and one of the legs fell off.  Later the authorities gave it back and it went to Allochka.

Figure 1 - Champs Elysée

FEA: Born 1886.

In 1905 she took part in the revolution.  Father took Fea to the big farm to make sure she attended the gymnasia.  She graduated with a medal.  Young Klever, son of an artist, wanted to marry her.  She did not stay with him long and they parted when she went to Petersburg to join the revolution.  She joined the “pioneers”.  In the town square the students got somehow mixed up with a band of Cossacks on horse back.  Fea was not afraid of horses and she showed the students how to escape unhurt by going between the horses' legs.  Thanks to this, the students got away with only a few whip lashes on their backs.  Fea had to go to Kharkov and from there she walked all the way to Poltava (almost 100 miles).  They made out her passport in the name of Shiryaev and in 1910 she went abroad.  Until the outbreak of World War I we always wrote to her using the name Shiryaev.  In Geneva Fea met Lenin and his wife Krupskaya.  She made friends with the family of Lunacharsky.  She always remembered how Lunacharsky would pace up and down the room with big steps, describing how wonderful life would be under socialism.  Later Fea fell ill with tuberculosis and was laid up for 2 years.  She began to develop her method of remedial exercises and she claimed to have been cured by correct breathing.  Meanwhile she lived with the pianist Arieh Abileah and they had three daughters: Deborah born 1912, Mira (Miriam) born 1913 and Maia born 1917.  In 1928 she moved to Paris where she created a school of gymnastics and dancing located on 33 Champs Elysee.  (see Figure 1 - Champs Elysee, Paris France)

During the German occupation she remained in Paris and was protected from the fascists by her friends.  She died in Paris in 1983.

MUSA : Born 1889.

She studied in the gymnasia.  She earned her keep as did all the other children in our family.  She lived with a family where she taught the children German and helped them with their home work.  She studied medicine in Kharkov.  She often stayed with aunt Eleanor who had finished the Drezdens’ conservatoire . The wife of Court official Rebinder used to invite her to celebrity concerts and she would take her sisters with her.  Aunt Lelia Stessinger played wonderfully well and taught music.  Musa lived in Romney for a long time.  Her children were Nina, Misha and AlIa.  In the war years she helped the Partisans.  After the liberation she was denounced and sent to Siberia, to a place called Susum.  In the 1950's she was rehabilitated. Misha died in the war and Nina died in Moscow in 1950.

ZCIA: Born 1890.

She did not finish secondary school as she was somewhat frivolous.   She attended the Froebel school in Kharkov but was a poor student.  She worked as a private family teacher.  The children loved her and enjoyed learning German.  She married an army sergeant and they escaped to Romania together with Vrangel.  There she lived in poverty.  Later she tried to return to Russia but Musa did not try hard to get her back, so she continued to live in poverty.

IYA: Born 1892 .

She finished her secondary school with a medal and took a teacher's training course.  She worked as a froebel teacher at first.  Later she taught in various school and in a teachers' training college.  She also taught in the Textile Institute of Kupavna (a branch of the Moscow institute).  She worked for 42 years and retired in 1963.  In 1917 she married a teacher named Mikhail Ivanovitch Kirilov.  Their children were: Valentina, born 1919, Victor, born 1923 and Kyra, born 1930.


In 1895 our father Nikolai Edwardovitch married Eleanor Ramsay, the daughter of aunt Louise who was the niece of his deceased wife Johanna.  Aunt Louise had married an Englishman Mr. Ramsay who was a teacher.  Being a younger son he had to earn a living since his older brother inherited everything.  That was how he came to Russia.  They had 2 sons and a daughter.  We know nothing about Charles. Augustus wished to get married when he traveled around the country training to become a qualified Master-cook.  His girl-friend was from a poor background and Aunt Louise did not allow the marriage to take place.  As a result Augustus remained a bachelor and was always somewhat strange.  It is remembered how when Duke Civers escaped with his Family after the revolution, the Mujiniks stormed the brewery.  Augustus beat his breast with indignation at being called a “gentleman” when he was only the beer-cook.  He gave the Mujiniks some rotten liquor in revenge.  The Karatels, called in by Duke Civers, gave Augustus the sack.  This was most unfair since he had saved the brewery.

Nikolai Edwardovitch had several children from his second marriage: Leonid, Nina , Valerian, Maximillian, Erhard, Edward and Constantin. Leonid became an agronomist and later died of some disease.  Valenan perished of typhoid during the Civil War.  Nina was a poor student.  She was lazy and after the 5th form she married Kolia Skibin who had been a fervent revolutionary since the age of 14.  He spent a lot of time in prison and was of a spiritual disposition.  He was a distant relative of Grandfather Edward's elder son.  After 2 years Nina left him and returned home.  Later she met Constantin Artemovit, and lived next to Romney rail way station.  They had 2 daughters and one son.  She died in the 1950's leaving a 10-year old son.


The original typed document was scanned and converted into MS Word through a Optical Character Reader by Jonathan Bendor, Fea’s grandson and Mira’s youngest son, on 16 July 2005 at his home at Southborough MA, USA.  Minor editing of original document was performed.