Finding Count Vronsky in Serbia

In 1878 Leo Tolstoy somewhat abruptly ended the story of desperate and broken Count Vronsky in Anna Karenina by sending him to Serbia to fight in the Serbo-Turkish War of 1876-1878, where he sought adventure, or even death, as penance for his famously ill-fated affair.

A century and a bit later, this slightly inelegant end to the story of one of the protagonists of this classic caught the attention of Budimir Potocan while he was studying world literature in Belgrade. Knowing Tolstoy’s habit of moulding his characters on real people, he was intriguedaboutthe life of a man who was an inspiration for Count Vronsky and his fate after arriving in Serbia.

Potocan, who is now a professor of journalism at Megatrend University in Belgrade, came back to the subject in1987,when he was writing a piece for Politika, a Serbian daily for which he worked at the time. Using the extensive biographical detail that Tolstoy provided for the character of Count Vronsky, from his looks and military career to his education at Moscow’s Lomonosov University, Potocan started to unearth the exciting story of hisreal worldcounterpart.

After extensive research, Potocan came to the conclusion that Vronsky was based on Count Nikolay Nikolayevich Raevsky, scion of a famous Russian noble family and a distant relative of Tolstoy’s, who died fighting against the Ottomans in Serbia in 1876.

After his first story on the subject of Raevsky and Vronsky was well received, Potocan decided to pursue his interest further and dig deeper into the story of this vagabonding cavalry officer whose story turned out to be as exciting as the one of his fictionalised counterpart.

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Nikolay Nikolayevich Raevsky Source: Wikimedia Commons/PetarM.

Much like Vronsky, who was described as “a perfect specimen of Petersburg’s gilded youth”, young Raevsky enjoyed the benefits of a distinguished family and excellent career. His grandfather achieved fame at Borodino, the site of a decisive battle in Napoleon’s failed conquest of Russia, where he was charged with a critical strategic position, Raevsky redoubt, which is now marked by a monument. Born in 1839, young Raevsky was educated in Maths and Physics at Lomonosov University, named after his maternal ancestor, and then joined an elite Russian cavalry unit, the Imperial Guard Hussars.

During hisservicehe became interested in the status of South Slavic states and was sent on a secret mission to Serbia in 1867, as the Ottoman forces were retreating from their garrisons in Serbia. His correspondence from the period suggests that he was sent to investigate the readiness of the Serbian artillery and cavalry and routes around Serbia and Bosnia, in preparation for a potential new war against the Ottomans.

After returning to Russia, where he fought in the far east and was promoted to the rank of colonel, Raevsky was once again drawn back to Serbia as hostilities with the Ottoman Empire flared up after the 1875 Herzegovina revolt, led by ethnic Serbs against Ottoman rule, and the subsequent declaration of war between Serbia and the Ottomans in 1876

This war between the tiny Serbian state and the great Ottoman Empire became a bit of a cause celebre in Europe with calls in support of Serbia coming from the likes of French novelist Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi, a general and a key figure in the struggle for Italian unification.

However, the greatest support came from Russia, as in the 1870s the spirit of Pan-Slavism, a movement for the emancipation of and co-operation between Slavic peoples, was in full bloom. Although Tolstoy as a pacifist was very sceptical of Pan-Slavism, which even led to clashes with the editor of Anna Karenina, many Russian youths volunteered to fight with their ‘Slavic brethren’, which was also in line with the Russian Empire’s pretensions to supplant the ailing Ottomans in their control of the Balkans.

Russian General Mikhail Chernyayev, victorious from campaigns in the Russian Far East, came to Serbia and pledged allegiance to Prince Milan to lead the Serbian Army, and Tchaikovsky even composed a Serbo-Russian March for the occasion.

Count Raevsky enlisted as soon as the war broke out in June 1876, however, from the beginning things went wrong for him.  He complained to his sister-in-law that he was held back byadministrationfrom joining the fighting. After a roughly three week delay, he arrived in Belgrade via Odessa in August 1876 and reported for duty to General Chernyayev, who was leading the Serbian troops.

There, Raevsky’s troubles continued, as Chernyayev apparently did not look kindly on him and they even got into a fight after Raevsky ordered a retreat from one position against the general’s wishes.

Even though they made up, the worst was soon to come for the young count. A little after two weeks since arriving in Serbia, on2September1876, Raevsky was killed by shrapnel from a Turkish grenade while defending the village of Gornji Adrovac in Southern Serbia.

Church in Gornji Adrovac built by Raevsky family. Source: Juzne Vesti,

His body was quickly buried in the grounds of the nearby St Roman Monastery in Djunis, where a tombstone with his name still stands. However, after two weeks his remains were sent to Belgrade, where there was a major ceremony in his honour, and where his mother received his body and buried it in the Raevsky family tomb.

Although there are legends that his heart is still buried in St Roman, as a token of his love of Serbia, Professor Potocan considers it unlikely, given the Orthodox Church burial customs. Nevertheless, there is a beautiful reminder of Raevsky’s tragic last visit to Serbia: an ornate Russian-style chapel built in the village of Gornji Adrovac by his sister-in-law.

The final mystery remains: was there a tragic love – Raevsky’s ‘Anna Karenina’ – that spurred him to join the war?

Potocan believes that there must have been someone, given his extensive travels and as he left everything to go to Serbia and sacrifice himself.

Maybe we will find out at some point, as Potocan remains determined to continue his research and has recently published a book on the subject: Vronsky in Serbia – Missions of Colonel Raevsky in 1867 and 1876.

Even without Karenina, it is no wonder that the story of this tragic young colonel, who in many ways encapsulated a part of Imperial Russian high society in the late 19th Century, served as an inspiration for one of the most famous homewreckers in world literature.

This article was first published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight and is available on Balkan Insight portalHere is where to find a copy.

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