When I started collecting information about the Serebriakoff family I had no concept of what would be found. At that time, 1995, the family knew very little of the history and how the family came to be resident in England. That was easily explained by the fact that Esper’s son, Vladimir, had been left in this country at a very young age, 17, and like all young men it is unlikely that he had paid much attention to the things he had been told about his family.
I expected to be able to record a few dates of birth and death and maybe a few stories. I had little hope of recovering any material from Russia and no idea that any existed anywhere else.
Vladimir’s youngest daughter, Barbara Taylorson (nee Serebriakoff), had found in a book of Russian Heraldry a reference to an Osip Serebriakoff who had been made a prince in the late 1790s. This initially looked promising, but I am now fairly sure he is not connected to our Serebriakoffs.
The first major breakthrough came in 1998. Victor, Vladimir’s first son, had a Russian contact who was able to go to the Russian Navy records office in St Petersburg, while returning to Russia on a holiday, and request Esper’s naval records. While these records were of course interesting, they were all in hand written Russian. I was fortunate, though, to have a neighbour, John Harrison, who was able to translate the papers for me. I am grateful for his help in this and also in putting me in touch with a friend of his, Graham Camfield, a lecturer in Russian History at the London School of Economics. Graham was able to pass me information concerning Esper’s activity in London between 1894 and 1905. He also had picked up on Esper’s time in Bulgaria and the later association of Ekaterine with Pavel Filonov.
During the early 2000s the increasing power of Google and people’s willingness to put information on the internet led me to more and more discoveries. Sometimes it felt that whenever I ran a search I would be presented with new information. In about 2011 a search revealed a book written by Esper and his experiences in Bulgaria. It had been translated into Bulgarian by Mariana Barchevo of the Ruse Regional Museum of History in Ruse in northern Bulgaria. The museum was only too willing to send a copy of the book. Here again Google was a great assistance, by then its translating function enable me to translate the Bulgarian into English.
The most recent breakthrough was the discovery of work by Nadezhda Slepkova of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Zoological Institute, Zoological Museum. She had published a paper in a Russian scientific journal “Studies in the History of Biology” in 2013, entitled “Historian of the Zoological museum, Anatoly E. Serebryakov (1890 – 1938)”. I am very grateful to her for sending me a copy of the publication.
In conducting her work she had come across the unfinished work of Anatoly. She spent considerable time in discovering the details of Anatoly’s life and that of his father, mother and Pavel Filonov. She was helped greatly by the fact that Filonov’s sister had retained and preserved all Filonov’s and Ekaterines work and papers through the very difficult times of the siege of Leningrad which was only finally broken in January 1944 after 2 years and 4 months.
It is from her paper that the detail of life for Anatoly his mother Ekaterine and brother Pytor have been drawn. It creates a dreadful image of life in the early period of the Soviet Union, where simple actions, not answering a question, entering a church, result in overwhelming consequences. It may have been that the family were regarded with some suspicion as being the wrong sort of revolutionaries. Esper had been a nihilist and had specifically broken away from the socialist party. Possibly he sensed it was going in the wrong direction. But this suspicion of the family by the authorities may have resulted in swifter and firmer action. It is also known that a maid was acting as a spy on Ekaterine, one of her diaries was stolen. On the other hand Ekaterine was able to secure the commuting of Anatoly’s death sentence to a period of imprisonment. It is difficult to understand at this distance of time. But 1938 marked the height of the Great Terror, and perhaps Anatoly should just have answered the question on the census, having already been detained twice.
Perhaps the greatest treasure revealed by the work of Nadezhda Slepkova is the photograph of Esper and his family. This photo had not been seen by any members of the family before. The photograph was apparently taken in England in 1905 or 1906 before most of the family moved to Finland. From communications with Nadezhda Slepkova it seems that Ekaterine’s diary held in the Manuscript Division of the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg has many more photographs. The diaries themselves are hand written, in a variety of inks and sometimes pencil and form an almost complete record from 1921. There is a gap between February 1933 and May 1936 where probably the diaries were not preserved. In 1938 Ekaterine writes, “28 March 1938 was agreed to revise the diaries and cross out the facts that I find awkward.” There are some areas crossed out but they are not very large. My greatest regret is the lack of information in connection with Ekaterine. There is no information about her early life, just that she came from Odessa and was a member of Narodnia Volya in the University there. It may be that her diary could throw some light on this but there does not seem to be as much written about revolutionary activity in Odessa as there was for that in St Peterburg.
Esper seems to have been a fairly prodigious writer, at least from the period of 1990 onwards and searches of literature connected with Russian expatriates in London will throw up many references to him. I am in possession of a photocopy of his book, “Revolutionaries in the Fleet”, but it is a poor copy and difficult to read and translate. This book sets out the activities of Esper and other officer’s members of Narodnia Volya from 1879 onwards. There is probably much more material to be discovered.