Beausobre, Iulia de
Category: Ordinary person
Iulia Michaelovna Kazarina was born in 1893, and was brought up in St Petersburg, Russia in a wealthy and privileged family. They had holidays in the Crimea, skied, went to Paris and lived in palacial splendour. Her life was not totally free of problems, however, even at this early age. She had diphtheria when she was four whilst away in the country far from medical help, but she survived. When she was nine and whilst the family were holidaying in the Crimea in Yalta she contracted scarlet fever but survived this too. In Egypt when she was about 20 ‘and the Khamsin winds were particularly hot and dusty’ she got ulcers in her throat and was unconscious for 3 days, but she also survived this.
She married Nicolai de Beausobre, a Russian diplomat and settled initially in Moscow. And then came the Russian revolution and turned everything on its head. Initially they were sent to Samarkand where she stayed in a local house whilst her husband attempted to persuade the local people of the futility of fighting against the new Communist regime. She also had a son born in 1919 on the sixth of January under extremely difficult circumstances and in appalling conditions. She was with her husband and her maid Sacha, but the child died of hunger and she and Nicolay only just missed doing the same.
They returned to Moscow after a year. And then both she and her husband were arrested in a raid on their house, he was taken to a separate prison. She never saw him again and throughout her subsequent ordeal was unaware what had happened to him and whether he was alive or dead. In the end she found he had been shot.
The first place Iulia is sent is called the ‘Inner’, there she is kept in solitary confinement for several months in a room with a straw mattress bed, a single shuttered window and a table. She has a bucket for a toilet. She is allowed to go to a washroom and the toilets every morning. Her rations are dry rye bread and gruel. She quickly falls ill and starts to ‘travel’ in her mind. Whether these are out of body or visions it is difficult to tell, but she doesn’t watch, she is involved, as such many of them are probably out of body experiences. They keep her sane. Her state of mind is not one of indignation or hatred, but acceptance and almost forgiveness and the consequences are that her visions in particular are particularly beautiful. She even recognises the existence of a spirit helper she calls Leonardo – a helper who has been with her since childhood.
She is constantly interrogated all this time in the hope she will implicate her husband in a supposed plot against the new regime, but as she genuinely knows of no plot and given her loyalty to her husband would never have said if she had known, for day after day, hours and hours of questioning produce nothing.
In time others come and join her in her cell at one time five people all live together on these beds with the one bucket. At least two of these people are ‘plants’ put there in the hope they will get information from the conversations the others have. In the end, Iulia lived 9 months under these conditions until her interrogators give up, brand her a ‘terrorist’ [which implies political murder and is normally classified as ‘a man’s crime’] and send her to Boutyrki prison where she is put in a room full of what she calls ‘the underworld’ – nearly two hundred prostitutes, petty thieves, murderers and Russian peasants. There she gets lice, her things are stolen and she has to fight to get any food at all. But people are kind to her there and she finds a sort of camaderie amongst the women.
Then after a relatively short time she is transferred to a concentration camp, by cattle truck, in Siberia. She nearly loses her hands and feet from frost bite and eventually is transferred to the hospital there . Yet again she almost dies, but meets with much kindness from some of the doctors, men and women there. The sentence is five years, but she is eventually invalided out and left to fend for herself. She is repeatedly refused proper papers, but her friends and her old maid Sacha help her and give her shelter.
Eventually her friends arrange for her old governess in England to apply through Intourist, to have her ‘deported’ to England, money has to be paid from the UK for this to happen, but after three unsuccessful attempts, the application succeeds and she reaches the UK in 1934, aged 41.
In Britain, she published her autobiography, The Woman Who Could Not Die (1938) which describes this extraordinary ordeal in graphic detail. It is not, as one might think, a negative book. It is actually a story of the triumph of the human spirit, faith and the power of forgiveness over appalling adversity. It is also a story of human good, that the power of good is far more in evidence than the power of evil, it is just that evil even in tiny amounts can do more harm, the greater good is eclipsed by the small amount of evil and the power it wields.
Her other books include reflections on Creative Suffering (1940). She went on to publish a translation of Russian Letters of Direction by Macarius the Elder of Optino (1944), and a life of St Seraphim of Sarov, Flame in the Snow (1945), based on popular sources rather than the official hagiography.
In 1947 she married the historian, Lewis Namier. After his death in 1960, she wrote his biography, for which she received the James Tait Black Award in 1971.
She died in 1977.
“she would suffer no interruption in the story told by her fellow Russians – Dostoevsky, Turgeniev, Tchekov – of the obligation laid on the human being to achieve a state of beauty even when destiny seems to have imposed ugliness on it by ineluctable degree”
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