Famous surnames (unintentional) in my Russian historicals

When I began my first Russian historical in January ’93, I chose names from a 1965 encyclopedia. This was long before the Internet existed for research (provided sources are properly vetted).

After my Russophilia began developing much more deeply at sixteen, I realised my characters’ names are well-known in Russian history. I also discovered surnames differ by sex; e.g., Konev vs. Koneva, Malenkov vs. Malenkova, Vishinskiy vs. Vishinskaya.

Marshal Georgiy K. Zhukov, 1896–1974

Zhukova, Lyuba’s birth surname. Its root, zhuk, means “beetle.” This is the name of WWII hero Marshal Georgiy Konstantinovich Zhukov.

Malenkov, main antagonist Boris. Georgiy Maksimilianovich Malenkov was an important politician during Stalin’s reign. Its root, malenkiy, means “little; small.”

Konev, Ivan’s family name, which Lyuba gladly takes to get rid of her repulsive blood father’s name. There were two famous bearers, Major General Ivan Nikitich and Ivan Stepanovich, both important WWII commanders. Its root, kon, means “horse.”

Marshal Ivan S. Konev, 1897–1973

Litvinov, heroic friend Pyotr. He double-crosses his father and brothers to get his friends out of the newly-formed USSR and onto a ship to America, and later defects to Sweden with his baby sister. In 1945, he comes to America with his sister, wife, and children. Maksim Maksimovich Litvinov was a diplomat and ambassador to the U.S. Its root, Litvin, means Lithuanian.

Beriya, the creepy secondary antagonist of Part I of the first book. It was such an eerie coincidence how I inadvertently selected the surname of a real-life sexual predator and vile waste of oxygen, Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beriya.

Vishinskiy, Lyuba and Ivan’s friend Nikolas, an inveterate intellectual who began going by the Greek form of his name at age twelve. After arriving in America, he changes the spelling to Vishinsky. Andrey Yanuaryevich Vyshinskiy was an infamous prosecutor in the show trials of the Great Terror.

Marshal Kliment Ye. Voroshilov, 1881–1969

Voroshilova, Lyuba’s rival Anastasiya, who sometimes plays the role of secondary antagonist of sorts. Kliment Yefremovich Voroshilov was a high-ranking military officer and politician under Stalin.

Kutuzova, Lyuba’s female best friend Eliisabet. Most Estonians didn’t have official surnames till the 19th century, and many took Russian and German names when the law dictated they adopt surnames. Eliisabet’s ancestors took their name in honour of Prince Field Marshal Mikhail Illarionovich Golenishchev-Kutuzov, a great military hero.

General Kutuzov, 1745–1813

Golitsyn, a boardinghouse manager who later becomes Ivan’s uncle. The House of Golitsyn is a princely family.

Furtseva, Lyuba’s friend Anya. I got lucky when I chose the surname of a famous women for a female character! Yekaterina Alekseyevna was one of the most important female politicians in the USSR.

Minina, Lyuba’s friend Alya, and Anya’s lesbian partner. Kuzma Minin is a national hero who defended the Motherland against a 17th century Polish invasion.

Shepilov, Lyuba’s cousin Ginny’s former best friend Aleksandr, who comes through with heroism when push comes to shove. Dmitriy Trofimovich was a reactionary politician who served under Stalin and Khrushchëv.

Tsar Boris Godunov, ca. 1551–1605

Godunov, antagonist cousins in the first book. Though both Misha and Kostya are morally repugnant, Kostya is more buffoonish than evil. He’s great comic relief. I loved using both again in the third book.

Vrangel, Lyuba’s next-best friend Kat. The House of Wrangel is a Baltic–German noble family, with many illustrious members over the centuries.

Nikonova, Anastasiya’s best friend Katrin, later Lyuba’s dear friend as well. Originally, her name was Nikon, taken from Patriarch Nikon. I was the classic kid who read too much and understood too little!

Discarded famous names:

Stalina, Lyuba’s cousin Ginny’s sweetheart Georgiya, whom he later unknowingly fathers a child with during her visit to America for Lyuba and Ivan’s wedding in 1923. I changed it to the similar-sounding Savvina. Does anyone NOT know who Stalin was?!

Trotskiy, Lyuba and Ivan’s friend Aleksey. That namesake is pretty obvious too, which is why I changed it to the similar Tvardovskiy (more on that in Part II).

Herzen, Lyuba’s cousin Ginny. The famous bearer was Aleksandr Ivanovich, an important philosopher and writer. I changed it to the similar-sounding Kharzin.

Hamilton Heights and Hotel Kämp

Copyright The Fixers; Source Wikis Take Manhattan 2009

Hamilton Heights is an uptown Manhattan neighborhood which used to have a heavily Russian flavor. Its borders are 155th Street (north), 135th Street (south), Edgecombe Avenue (east), and Riverside Dr. (west). Within Hamilton Heights is the sub-neighborhood Sugar Hill.

It takes its name from Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, who lived his last two years there. His mansion, Hamilton Grange in St. Nicholas Park, is a reminder of a bygone era when NYC was mostly farmland, with detached houses.

Hamilton Grange, Copyright olekinderhook; Source

Mount Cavalry United Methodist Church

Much of the housing dates from the late 19th and early 20th century. As beautiful as this architecture was, it became less desirable to white residents in the 1930s and 1940s because many African–Americans had begun moving in. At the time, they were just as affluent as the white residents.

In the wake of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and again after WWII, many White Russian émigrés, Poles, and Ukrainians called Hamilton Heights home. The neighborhood was home to Russian churches, bakeries, groceries, bookstores, theatres, and delis, a library, and a Russian House.

Today, only the Holy Fathers Church is left.

Holy Fathers Russian Church, Copyright Beyond My Ken

Church of St. Catherine of Genoa, Copyright Beyond My Ken

Today, most of the residents are Hispanic, African–American, and West Indian. Many African–Americans in the eastern section are professionals.

Like just about every other Manhattan neighborhood, Hamilton Heights too has been taken over by gentrification and hipsters. Many of today’s non-Hispanic white residents are artists, actors, teachers, and other professionals.

Trinity Church Cemetery

Landmarks include St. Nicholas Park, Riverbank State Park, Riverside Park, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Trinity Cemetery, the former High School of Music & Art, the Audubon Mural Project (depicting the birds painted by John James Audubon in the early 19th century), the City College of New York, and the Harlem School of the Arts.

My character Mrs. Viktoriya Yeltsina and her two oldest daughters, Valya and Zina, settle in Hamilton Heights after they escape to the U.S. in January 1924. They ran boarding houses in Moskva and Tver, so it’s only natural they establish a boarding house in Hamilton Heights.

Their boarding house serves the Russian community, and they have their own spacious apartment within it. When Valya finally marries at 39 (to a man thirteen years her junior), she stays in Hamilton Heights to raise her family and run a Russian gifts boutique.

Hotel Kämp was designed by prolific Helsinki architect Carl Theodor Höljer, and built in Neo-Renaissance style by restaurateur Carl Kämp. After its grand opening in October 1887, it quickly gained a reputation as Helsinki’s grandest, most luxurious hotel.

The hotel had 24 gas lamps, 25 electric lamps, 75 rooms, a beer house in the cellar, a street café (débuted summer 1891), a French-style roof (sadly lost after 1914 renovations increasing the hotel’s height), and its own horse-drawn transport from the depot and port. It was also Finland’s very first hotel with an elevator.

Many famous artists, singers, musicians, composers, writers, intellectuals celebrities, and royalty stayed by Hotel Kämp, or met in its café. The newspaper Päivälehti (now Helsingin Sanomat) began its publication from the café.

As it originally looked

After the 1918 Finnish Civil War, the occupying Germans used Hotel Kämp as their HQ. During the Winter War of 1939–40, the hotel was used again by foreign occupiers. Many Finnish and foreign diplomats and politicians also stayed by the hotel during WWII.

Over the years, the hotel lost its former glittery prestige, and closed in 1965, among many protests. The historic building was razed, with a new hotel taking its place in 1969.

Since 1999, the hotel has once more become Finland’s grandest.

Pre-demolition interior

Copyright Kämp Collection Hotels; Source

Copyright Mikkoau

My character Pyotr Litvinov often stays by Hotel Kämp during his Finnish holidays. As the son of a high-ranking Party member, he has more leeway for travelling abroad than many others.

In June 1940, Pyotr takes an enormous risk by bringing his baby sister Yaroslava on his annual summer holiday. Pyotr has been planning to defect for some time, but his plans are hastened when Yaroslava, under suspicion as a “social parasite,” begs him to help her escape.

They spend one night in Hotel Kämp, and after a late, long, leisurely breakfast by the café, they set off for Sweden and defect.

18 April 1918, Copyright Gunnar Lönnqvist

Hudiksvall, Sweden


Houses by the Hudiksvallsfjärden Bay, image by Ankara.

Railway station, image by Leojth.

Hudiksvall, a.k.a Glada Hudik (Happy Hudik), is a city of about 15,000 in East-Central Sweden, snugly nestled inside the Hudiksvallsfjärden Bay. It was founded in 1582 by King John III, who made the residents of Hudik move to the bay in order to more easily collect taxes from the crafters and traders. During Sweden’s Golden Age, the city’s primary industries were furs, copper, iron, skins, and wood. In 1636, Hudiksvall lost trading privileges, and the city’s growth significantly slowed until the 19th century.

Hudiksvall has been damaged by fire ten times in history, most seriously in 1721, when it was burnt by the Russians. After that fire, only the city’s church survived. In spite of its reputation for neutrality and progressive politics in the modern era, Sweden used to be a huge world player, with a lot more land and territories, and fought in a number of successful wars.

Hudiksvall Church, circa 1900.

Hudiskvall plays a role in my WIP, Journey Through a Dark Forest, when Pyotr Stepanovich Litvinov and his baby sister Yaroslava defect from the USSR in June 1940. In my first Russian historical, Petya risked his life and double-crossed his father and older brothers to save his friends and get them to safety in America. He’s always been more of a Menshevik than a Bolshevik, and just couldn’t stand to live under totalitarian rule anymore.

When looking into Swedish cities for Petya and Yaroslava to defect to, I ruled out big cities, cities in isolated, sparsely-populated areas, and cities too far away from the West coast of Finland. I figured it would be easier for them to hide and blend in if they lived in a smaller town (where the NKVD would probably be less likely to look), and also didn’t want them to travel much deeper into Sweden after they already went through so much stress after the journey from Russia to Finland. And Hudiksvall has a reputation for its hospitality, so I knew they’d be warmly welcomed and protected.

On his first night in Hudiksvall, Pyotr meets his future wife Zara, another ex-patriate, at the inn he and Yaroslava check into. Zara and her co-workers are initially afraid they’re spies, but are quickly reassured that this isn’t the case at all.

Train passing under a hotel, image by Edaen.

Sports are very popular in Hudiksvall, with facilities including an indoor sports hall, a solarium, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a ski slope, three exercise trails, an indoor hockey arena, a soccer field, and a trotting track. The city is also home to a number of sports clubs.

Kärleksstigen is a public park with a beautiful garden of roses and perennials. The city also has a wilderness park, a greenhouse, horseback riding, places to watch animals, boating and canoeing, and nature preserves. Other attractions include decorated farmhouses, the 14th century Bollnäs Church (which houses a number of Medieval wooden sculptures), the 16th century Arbrå Church (which houses many Medieval chalk paintings), and the Rengsjö Church (built in 1795).

Altar of the Bollnäs Kyrka, image by Kvant.

Arbrå Kyrka

Arbrå Kyrka, cropped from image by Svens Welt.

More information:



Goodbye to the Motherland (Georgia)

Font: Georgia

Year created: 1996

Chapter: “Goodbye to the Motherland”

Book: You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan

Written: 1999 or 2000

Computer created on: I want to say the ’93 Mac, though this was a period when I was going back and forth between that Mac and the newer ’96 or ’97 one and converting files back and forth between MacWriteII and ClarisWorks.

If it was on the ’93 Mac, it was MacWriteII. If it were the newer machine, it would’ve been ClarisWorks.

This is Chapter 21 of my first Russian historical novel, and the closing chapter of Part I, “Russia.” Reading the end of Chapter 19, “Kalinin,” and the whole of Chapter 21 really chokes me up. These people are saying goodbye to the land where they grew up and believed they’d grow old and die in. They have to get into Estonia (which was not part of the USSR till 1940) and then to America to save their lives, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it.

The chapter opens in Novgorod, where Lyuba’s party of 12 has been split up among four cabins provided for them by their friend Pyotr, who’s risking his life by double-crossing his father and older brothers to save his friends. At this point, Lyuba and Ivan are essentially living together as husband and wife, though still without sex. Trouble comes when they discover the Godunov cousins are in the area, along with Pyotr’s father and brothers, still hunting for Ivan.

Pyotr hustles them into Pskov, but the manhunt extends there next, and then it’s a race against time to get everyone into Estonia. Even after they’re all in Estonia, after a dramatic escape, the hunters continue closing in. A rather unlikely person saves Lyuba and Ivan in Tallinn, though the wrong directions he gives unintentionally lead to another person the Godunovs have been looking for, as is revealed in Part II.

Some highlights:

“Go on your walk with Zhóra.” Lyuba points to Ginny’s coat. “I do wish you’d pick up your clothes instead of just flinging them on the floor.”

“Don’t look.  I just saw someone who could turn my cousin and her boyfriend into the authorities.  Shepilov.” Ginny’s voice drops down to a whisper.

“There were men around asking about a tall man whom you seem very much to resemble.” An old fat woman comes up to them. “Are you by any chance wanted for murder back in Moskvá?”

A week and a half and one hundred fifty kilometers later, they arrive in Pskov.  There’s no time to take in the beauty of the last Russian city they’ll be setting foot in before they cross the border over to Estonia and the coast.  Pyotr shuttles them quickly into a large imposing-looking house under cover of darkness.  He orders them not to leave the house or make any noise.  All the shades are pulled and drawn.  The floors are padded with extra-thick carpets.  No sunlight is allowed in.  Lyuba already wants to scream after two weeks of this locked-up existence.  It’s as worse as when they went to the first hiding place in April of 1917.  They hear boots in the night, every night, and the sounds of riots and strikes going on, but they cannot peer out to see what’s going on.  Pyotr has to come in and out of the house by an airvent covered over with slush.

“I’ve seen a young man with blonde hair and blue eyes going in and out of this house by a back entranceway.  We have reason to believe this young man is helping a convicted criminal.  You wouldn’t happen to be sheltering a rather tall young man with brown hair and eyes, would you?”

That evening Lyuba goes upstairs to put Tatyana to bed and notices Iván and Nikolás are nowhere to be seen.  Then she sees one of the windows broken and the curtains flying in the breeze.  Two sets of footprints in the snow.  Quickly she plugs the window with a pillow and waits for the nightly visit from Pyotr.

“This is the last Russian city you’ll be seeing for a long time,” he whispers as they climb up into a cattlecar of an abandoned train he’s gotten an Azerbaijani émigré to operate. “Look back and remember it.”

Kittey reaches down and scrapes away the snow on the ground until she reaches dirt.  She scoops up a handful of dirt into a miniature porcelain teacup. “I’ll keep this Russian soil until I’m old and gray.”

The smell of blood is in the air the next morning.  Rotting bodies are everywhere when she peeks out through the crack.  Fires are spreading.  And to top it all off, Pyotr comes into the house to inform her that the Azerbaijani émigré who was operating the train has been arrested, and that he himself was being watched late at night by the awful Godunov cousins.

“Don’t look back.  You cannot make a single noise.  I’m going to carry you, you’re going to carry Tatyana, Tatyana will carry her doll, and this is how we’ll leave Matusa Rus.”

Iván slips a large emerald ring with small accent diamonds onto her finger. “I’m twenty-two years old and you’ve finally consented to be my wife, the fifth time I ask you!”