Of Elvis Sightings And Empty Tombs

Because 16 August was the 39th anniversary of the passing of Elvis Presley, “The King,” yesterday I shared my posting from earlier about the occasion. In that essay, I note that the many Elvis sightings in the decades after his death represented an old tale: a famous person dies and is said to actually have faked his or her own death, to be seen sporadically thereafter. I also noted that one of the more famous cases of this claim involves Czar Alexander I of Russia who died in 1825 after reigning for 24 eventful years which included the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars and the diplomatic machinations of the Congress of Vienna. The rumor of Alexander faking his death started circulating almost immediately upon his death in 1825. It was fairly widely believed in the mid-19th century that he was the old starets (ста́рец or staretz; plural: staret[sz]y; it means, simply “old man,” (stare– being the Slavic stem for “old.”) Feodor Kuzmich.

Alexander was born December 12/23 1777, grandson of Catherine The Great. (The first date is the Julian form that Russia used until 1923, out of sync with the physical year by 11 days in that era; the second is our present Gregorian system.) Alexander died after a bout with fever on 19 November/1 December 1825. He was just shy of 48 years old and he had been in previously robust health.

Part of the reason his death was almost immediately “doubtful” is that he and Czarina Elizabeth were far, far from the Court at Saint Petersburg or even the hurley-burley of Moscow. Elizabeth’s poor health had motivated the Imperial couple to remove to the muddy village of Taganrog on the Sea of Azov in September of that year. Taganrog was no place for an Emperor, and had few decent facilities, and no really qualified medical appurtenances. The Czar’s autopsy was carried out thoroughly, according to the report signed by nine doctors, who were mostly hastily drawn from the area’s military outposts, but from the document one cannot tell what he could have died from; all the organs were “perfect,” there was nothing unusual on the brain. His body was embalmed and placed in a coffin of cedar-wood lined with a thick lead interior. The coffin was sealed and the body was eventually sent back to Saint Petersburg for the formal funeral. The coffin reached Saint Petersburg after a long and arduous journey on 28 February 1826, and the funeral was held in mid-March. The former Czarina died the following June.

Because of the long delay in the body reaching the Capital, the tradition of permitting the masses to view the corpse lying in State was omitted. This of course only helped fuel rumors that the Czar’s body was not within the coffin. Almost immediately stories began to circulate that he had secretly travelled to the Holy Land on an English vessel, or that he had emigrated to America, or was kidnapped by Cossacks near Taganrog; the only common agreement was that the Czar’s coffin contained the body of a soldier who resembled the Czar. After a decade or so these rumors faded away.

Then there appeared in 1835 in the village of Krasnoufimsk in Perm a starets with an unusually imposing bearing named Feodor Kuzmich. He had no papers and claimed to have no recollection of his origins. Kuzmich was given 20 lashes and transported to Siberia. There he developed a reputation for holiness and profound scriptural knowledge. Staretsy were common enough among the peasantry of Old Russia, but learned men were seldom among them. As he attracted a local following, his reputation grew and local notables began to consult with Kuzmich, who also appeared to have a vast and detailed knowledge of politics, history, and civil administration. Soon he began receiving vistors from the far points of the Empire. Most were convinced that the old man was a former high government official who had turned incognito.

Eventually the heir apparent, Nicholas, and Grand Duke Alexis visited Kuzmich. At Alexis’ visit a soldier cried out, “It is our Czar Alexander!” The starets replied “I am only a vagabond; be quiet or you will go to prison.” Kuzmich continued to claim to know nothing of his background right up to his death in January 1864. Asked upon his deathbed to reveal his true identity, Kuzmich said, “God will know his own.” He was buried at the Monestary of Saint Alexis in Tomsk under an epitaph reading: “Here rests the body of the great starets Feodor Kuzmich, Blessed By God.” That last bit, “Blessed By God” was the epithet given to Alexander I after he defeated Napoleon. The future Nicholas II made a veneratory visit to the grave in 1891. Czar Alexander III had a portrait of the old man in his study. A portrait of Alexander I was found in the starets’ home. In 1891 several graphologists examined and compared sampled of Kuzmich’s handwriting and that of the late Czar. All were agreed that the samples were “consistent.”

In 1925, the Soviet government decided to remove the remains of the Imperial family from public access to discourage veneration of or homage to the Czars. When the Communist agents disinterred the Romanovs from their tombs, one tomb was empty: Alexander’s. It seems that the report from the early Soviet era cannot be decisively confirmed, but the surviving Romanov’s of that day claimed to be unsurprised, believing that Alexander’s body lay in Tomsk.

There are some rather plausible reasons to give careful attention to the Alexander I/ Kuzmich mystery. Firstly, Alexander I was recorded as often declaring his desire to step down from his throne to a pleasant and peaceful retirement, even declaring that age fifty would be the ideal time. Too, the descriptions of Alexander I’s final illness are as confusing as they are contradictory: he slept fitfully/he slept soundly; he had a high fever/he was cold and clammy; he had no appetite/he ate improvidently; the autopsy revealed syphilitic lesions on the brain/the brain was perfect; the corps’ right leg showed the scarring of an earlier wound while Alexander I’s injury had definitely been his left leg, and so on. Several of the nine signatories of the official autopsy report later disavowed having signed it. Nicholas I, who succeeded Alexander I, burned his brother’s last years’ papers. And then there is that empty coffin in Saint Petersburg.

It would, however, have taken a fairly large number of conspirators in Taganrog to pull the charade; that no one involved ever talked of any such deception is also a pretty telling point, for great secrets rarely stay secret.

For a full account of Alexander’s life, read Henri Troyat’s Alexander Of Russia: Napoleon’s Conqueror, trans. Joan Pinkham; Dutton, 1982: ISBN: 0525241442.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be in San Francisco.

— Oscar Wilde

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