Part 5 1884 – 1885

Esper is described in a biography written by Lev Tikhomirov as being chivalrous and courteous with the ladies of the group even though his clothes were little better than rags. This sometimes struck a comical note with his elaborate gestures causing his clothes to gape and expose himself.

His friends suggested that he seek assistance from his father, Alexander.  But he seemed to have become estranged from his father who thought that Esper should return to Russia, apologise to the Tsar and resume his duties in the navy.  It was only when some of Esper’s friends had been executed that his father finally realised the seriousness of the situation.  However it seems that someone in his family did help Esper financially.

Esper’s role as a revolutionary did not fit well with his sense of duty, while he appreciated the need for social change in Russia and had sworn an oath of loyalty to the Tsar and he felt a strong sense of patriotism to Russia and the navy.  While Esper was nihilist in outlook he still regarded the obligation of an oath quite seriously.

This affected the way his companions would deal with him.  The life of a revolutionary in a foreign land is quite precarious, the tricks and lies necessary to raise funds perhaps going so far as criminality did not appeal to Esper, so the group would not involve him in these activities. He maintained the character of an open and honest officer not at all suited to conspiratorial work. In a private confession to Tikomirov he said that in the event of a war he would petition the Russian government to take him back into service. There was a further matter in the dealings with Sergey Degayev, a double agent, where harsh decisions were kept from Esper, but more of that story later.

Esper would tell stories of his time in the Russian navy; Tikomirov retold one of Esper’s stories. It seems that the first time Esper was left as officer of the watch, in command of the ship as Esper was enjoying the importance of his role a boatswain came to him and told him that the wind was changing and they would need to change course. Esper maintained the present course and issued no orders to change course. The boatswain came again with more urgency, Esper decided that something must be done but he didn’t know what. Then the ship was hit by a sudden squall, shaking the ship and caused it to list.  The captain came out of his cabin, his clothes in disarray, he shouted at Esper then ordered a change of course. But it proved difficult for the captain to get his orders obeyed by the sailors. It seems that they were carrying the Grand Duke and his wife the Grand Duchess.  The captain had to go to the Grand Duke and ask him to get his wife to leave her cabin and move to another place on the ship. It seems that to get his orders understood by the sailors he had to swear, and he was unwilling to swear in the presence of the Duchess. But without the swearing the sailors did not understand and would not take seriously the commands they were given.

Esper was well liked in the group and became a favourite; he was sociable and had an extensive range of acquaintances throughout Paris.

In the group in Paris were Dora and Ekaterine Tete’lman, two young Jewish sisters. They had recently arrived from Odessa in Russia. There they had been students at the Odessa’s University of New Russia and members of a group called the Shternberg group. Lev Shtenberg had been a member of Narodnia Volya in St Peterburg, but when police action became too much after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II he had moved to Odessa. According to a book by Erich Haberer[1], of the University of Toronto, Ekaterine and Dora Tete’lman were part of the leading lights of the Narodnia Volya group based at the University.

They had travelled to Paris via Switzerland and had brought information about a possible spy to the expatriate Russians in both Geneva and Paris. It had been realised that whenever one person attended a meeting, shortly after there would be a police raid and people arrested.  This person had previously been active in St Petersburg but had recently moved to Odessa.

The story of Sergey Degayev.

That spy was Sergey Degayev. When the revolutionary committee in Paris were informed they decided to call Degayev to Paris and confront him.

When confronted Degayev confessed his role.  Degayev had been a member of Narodnaya Volya since 1880. He took a part in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, by being part of the team that dug the mine under the Tsar’s route, he may also have been nearby to observe the final successful attempt on the Tsars life. He was arrested after the assassination, but eventually released as his guilt could not be proven.

Degayev was eventually arrested by Gendarme Lieutenant Colonel Georgy Sudeyken who was the head of the Secret department of police responsible for all the police secret agents in Petersburg. He was a most dangerous enemy of Narodnaya Volya having wiped out the group in Kiev.

Originally Dageayev’s young brother, Vladimir, had been arrested by Sudeyken, who suggested to Vladimir that he become an informant, spying on the other Narodnaya Volya members. When released Vladimir reported the suggestion to the Narodnaya Volya Executive committee. They suggested that Vladimir agree to spy, and then trick Sudeyken into attending a meeting with Sergey Degayev where Sergey would kill him.

However that plan fell apart when most members of Narodnaya Volya in Petersburg were arrested. Daegeayev moved away to take up a job as a railway engineer.  He continue his revolutionary activities and started recruiting and organising Narodnaya Volya meetings among the military officers of the town of Tiflis.

In 1883 Vera Figner ordered Degayev to move to Odessa to set up an underground printing press. In December that year he and the whole of his group were arrested. He was interrogated by Georgy Sudeyken, who using flattery managed to get him to become an informant.  He persuaded Degayev that together they would get into a position to influence the Tsar towards a reform of Russian society.  Though other research has suggests that Degayev cooperated to get his wife, who had also been arrested, released.

Whatever the truth, Sudeyken arranged for Degayev to escape from prison. Degayev provided information leading to the arrest of Vera Figner and other leaders of Narodnaya Volya. This left Degayev as de facto leader.  Degayev was sent to Switzerland to try and trick Lev Tikomirov and Peter Lavrov, the remaining leaders of Narodnaya Volya to return to Russia so that they could be arrested.  Tikomirov and Lavrov were suspicious and did not go.

During 1883 the relations between Degayev and Sudeyken became very friendly, Sudeyken often visiting Degayev’s apartment, sometimes with women to pursue extramarital relationships. They even placed bets, with Degayev betting Sudeyken that he could not locate a person of interest to the police without his help.  Degayev won.

Sudeyken became discontented with his superiors, he considered that they were placing too many restraints on his actions, he wanted more power. He also considered his rank was too low for the important work he was doing.  He and Degayev planned that Sudeyken would resign, and then Degayev would arrange the assassination of two people close to the Tsar, Grand duke Vladimir, the tsar’s brother and Konstantinos Pobedonostsev the Tsar’s aide. They planned that this would then result in Sudeyken being recalled with the powers and rank that he thought he was due.

However the Tsar would not accept the resignation and the plan was not implemented. Increasingly Degayev came under more suspicion in the revolutionary group, one person who had genuinely escaped from the same prison that Degayev claimed to have escaped, noticed inconsistencies in his account.

In Paris, Degayev was interrogated by Lev Tikomirov and he admitted to being an agent of the Okhrana. The Narodnaya Volya executive committee decided to spare Degayeve’s life if he agreed to go back to St Petersburg to kill Sudeyken.

Degayev returned to Russia with two minders to make sure he carried out the assassination and to assist him.

The plan was to get Sudeyken to visit Degayev’s apartment. There they would shoot him. Degayev told Sudeyken that he had a young woman from Narodnaya Volya at the apartment who had planned an assassination but might be persuaded to turn informant.

Sudeyken went to the apartment with his nephew also a secret police officer and when being led to the room where the supposed woman was waiting Degayev shot him in the back. Sudeyken called to his nephew for assistance but he just tried to escape from the apartment.  One of the conspirators attacked him with an iron bar fracturing his skull.  Finally Sudeyken was shot again. At this point Degayev ran away, he thought that the two minders had instructions to kill him.  Meanwhile the concierge of the building having heard the shots and the commotion reported the matter to the police. However the police had instructions not to interfere in the apartment whatever happened. It was the next day that the apartment was searched by the police to find Sudeyken dead and his nephew dying.

The three made good their escape from Russia and the executive committee kept their promise to Degayev and allowed him to escape to South America. Later he went to North America met up with his wife and attended Johns Hopkins University studying Mathematics and Astronomy.

Later he went to the University of South Dakota as a professor of mathematics. By this time he had changed his name to Alexander Pell.  He died in 1921 and a prize fund was created in his name, the Dr Alexander Pell scholarship, given to prominent undergraduate majoring in mathematics.



Throughout the rest of 1884 Esper mixed with the Russian emigre community in Paris and grew close to Ekaterine Tet’lman. The group were working on producing pamphlets and papers to be sent back to Russia. However few of these got through to Russia, the Okhrana, the Russian secret police were working very closely with the French police to watch over the revolutionary group.

At some time in 1885 Esper became seriously ill. It was thought that he had tuberculosis, and that he was near death. The group sent him to Clarens in Switzerland, with the hope that he would recover but the expectation that he would die.

Ekaterine went with him and they were given an allowance and with fresh air and food Esper made a remarkable recovery. It seems that his problem was not illness but starvation. The whole revolutionary group were devoting all of their resources into producing the papers to be sent to Russia. There was little left over for the necessities of life.

While in Clarens Esper and Ekaterine became even closer. Tikhomirov wrote a story in his biography of Esper that one day Esper took Ekaterine for a sail on Lake Geneva. Esper was an experience sailor but that did not stop Ekaterine being fearful of the manoeuvres he was undertaking. Though as Tikhomirov puts it “his courage and skill conquered her trembling heart and there, on the shores of Lake Geneva there intimacy was sealed.”

Tikhomirov thought that Esper and Ekaterine were married; however this may not have been a formal marriage. Later in her life when she remarried after Esper’s death she made a comment that she had been previously married for 35 years “without the rites”.

Little is known about Ekaterines background, she was born in 1864 in southern Russia, I believe Odessa and was studied at the university there. She was a member of a small group of revolutionary students.

At some time during the summer of 1885 a letter finally caught up with Esper. It had been sent by his old cadet friend Vladimir Lutsk. The letter had been sent to Paris and there it had been opened by the revolutionary committee, then sent on to Esper.

Vladimir Lutsk had left the Russian Navy before Esper and had been working round Eastern Europe. He was writing from Bulgaria where he was working in a naval ship yard. It seemed that Bulgaria was about to go to war with Serbia. The major powers in the area, Austria and Russia did not want the war to happen. They feared the potential consequences of two minor powers warning and dragging in the major powers.

To discourage Bulgaria, which was a client state of Russia, Russia withdrew all its officers from the army and the navy.  Ever since Bulgaria had obtained independence from Turkey some eight years previously with Russia’s aid Russia had been providing the officers for the army and navy while Bulgaria trained their own. It was hoped that this withdrawal of officers would bring the parties to their senses and stop a conflict.

However Serbia and Bulgaria were intent on their chosen course towards conflict and so Bulgaria was desperately looking for people with military and naval training to command their forces. Lutsk himself had been asked to command the Danube fleet, but he said no, he wasn’t suitable, but he knew a man who was, Esper.

Thus the letter he wrote asking Esper to come to Bulgaria and take command of the Navy. Enclosed in the letter were a thousand francs and some advice to be careful crossing Austria as others trying to make the same journey were being arrested by the Austrians who were also anxious to stop the conflict.

The revolutionary committee in Paris also wrote urging Esper to assist. They thought that if the war was successful for Bulgaria it would be good to have a country kindly disposed to the revolutionary group.

[1] Jews and revolution in nineteenth century Russia by Erich Haberer, University of Toronto. Published Cambridge University Press 1995.

Next section Part 6 1885 – Serbo-Bulgarian War