Today I want to talk about these lost and newly-found photographs with an amazing story. It is the oldest of the surviving photographs from my family's archive.
A young man with a stylish mustache – he’s an officer in the Tsarist Army, Irinarkh Uskov, my great-grandmother’s brother. Beside him is his friend, whose name is unknown. The picture was taken in the early 20th century.
Despite the fact that the Uskov family had a large photo archive of those times, it was almost completely lost during the revolution of 1917. I know that my great-grandfather Semen Uskov was very rich man, a merchant of the second guild. He owned a chain of department stores and several steamers plying the river Volga. All his thoughts were turned to the future. He wanted to improve the material life of his own descendants, and he married a girl from an impoverished noble family.
However, his plans went awry, and in 1917 erupted the revolution which broke the habitual way of life. Semen Uskov was arrested. His wealth was expropriated by new Soviet power. During his arrest, the tenderness and beauty of his wife and daughters attracted the attention of security officers (officers of the CHK, which was the name of the KGB in the first years of Soviet power). The pleas of the unfortunate merchant were in vain, his wife and daughters brutally raped and murdered.
Only one of his daughters, Valentine, was able to escape from the strong hands of the insurgent proletariat. Being the youngest of four daughters, she spent her early childhood in an Orthodox monastery. The Uskov family had a tradition of giving their youngest daughter to the convent, where she was to atone for the sins of their relatives. Locked in the monastery walls, she didn’t even know about the great tragedy.
Surviving relatives decided to try to save life of Valentine and secretly took her from the monastery. To save the honor and life of a 15-year old girl, they had to hurry in giving her hand in marriage to a Red commissioner from the Zhilkin family. Before the revolution, his family occupied a low position in society, and marriage to a woman of a higher caste really flattered the selfish nature of Zhilkin.
The young girl meekly obeyed the will of her relatives. She was ordered to take from the ruined paternal home a few dresses that belonged to her older sisters. Valentine managed to hide in the folds of monastic clothing a stack of photographs, among them was this photograph of her brother.
All her life she had been saving these photographs. Even in the terrible years of Stalin’s dictatorship, Valentine never parted with them despite the fact that it was a really dangerous thing to do – the photographs, which depicted her relatives occupying officer ranks of the Tsarist Army, could cause her to be exiled in Siberia. But her love for her family made Valentine fearless, and for her it was stronger than the fear of hard labor and death.
Despite constantly moving and the occurrence of World War II, the photographs were not entirely lost. Of the entire pack survived only these.
The exact fate of Irinarkh Uskov remains unknown. According to one source, he was killed during the World War I; on the other, he was shot by soldiers of Red Army during the revolution.
Interestingly, Irinarkh and Valentine were related to Irakliy Uskov. He was a chief at Orsk fort and a good friend of the great Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko. Feeling the pain of an exiled artist, Irakliy Uskov sincerely sympathized with Taras and allowed him to disrupt the royal ban on drawing. The ban was caused by Taras’ arrest for slander after drawing a caricature of the Royal Family. Later, Taras and Irakliy became great friends.
About three years ago I was horrified to discover that these two photographs are gone. All this time, I thought that they were stolen and sold to an antique shop. But about a week ago, while my sister was cleaning the flat, she found them. I consider it a good sign to tell you the story of these photographs.
Next time, I’ll tell you the story of the second photograph.