Thursday, March 3, 2011

Blavatsky and Count Witte

HPB’s first cousin, Count Sergei Witte, will get a new evaluation based on his written memoirs. Oxford University Press will be publishing Francis W. Wcislo’s study, Tales of Imperial Russia: The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849-1915, which is scheduled for release in May. Subjecting Witte’s reminiscences to historical record, Wcislo writes: “Truth be told, his memoirs are, quite simply stories: narrated tales and remembered impressions of a life in imperial Russia that allow the historian access to the cultural values, human identities, and patterns of life experience, which constituted its rhythms.…Indeed, Blavatsky’s story was the very first genuine ‘tale’ he told. All of Witte’s narrative devices were here for the first time on display.”

The English version of Witte’s Memoirs, based on dictated material and translated by Abraham Yarmolinsky in 1921, and by Sidney Harcave in 1990, has been a prime source of information on Blavatsky’s life in Russia. His mother, Katherine Witte (née Fadeeva), was the younger sister of HPB’s mother, and he spent part of his childhood living with his grandparents, as HPB had done.

What Witte knew of Blavatsky’s debut in the 1850s was mainly family lore, buttressed by both his belief she possessed ‘some sort of supernatural talent’ and his own few boyhood memories of her. In that sense he constructed Blavatsky. There was Blavatsky the orphan, raised by his grandparents after Elana Gan’s early death. Blavatsky was a young, harried woman, married off to a much older civil official in Armenia when she was 17, who within months had fled home to her grandparents. She was the runaway. Returned to Tiflis, Blavatsky was dispatched to her father in Russia, but, arriving in the Black Sea steamship depot of Poti, she ‘took the scent (sniukhat’sia)’ of an English steamship captain and sailed off with him to the capital city of the Ottomans, which Witte in Greek and Slavic fashion called Constantinople. There she became…a circus bareback rider, lover of the European opera bass Mitrovitch, companion of a London man on business in America, follower of the mid-century’s ‘greatest spiritualist’, concert pianist and choirmaster of the Serbian king. This bewildering array of indentities for the illicit woman was very much Witte’s concoction. They all bore little facsimile to the historical record, none more so than his own memory of a chastened Blavatsky, returned in 1860 to Tiflis and a respectable life, when Witte would have been 12.

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