Sometime into my research about the life of Angelica Balabanoff, determined more than ever to write an interesting book about this amazing woman (see my previous articles about Angelica), I visited the Swiss Federal Archives in Berne. Going to the most expensive country in Europe was a luxury I could barely afford and I took extra care in organising my trip. After exchanging numerous e-mails with the archivists, filling out the order forms, making sure that the archives were actually open during the three days I was taking off work, and that there would be no surprise Swiss bank holiday, I took the train to Berne. I knew in advance that it would be a full-time research trip. The documents that included references to Angelica’s name totalled four hundred pages. The Swiss police followed the Russian revolutionary most of her life, noting down her every move, and I was yet to discover that they continued to collect documents even after her death.
The archives are situated in the olive-coloured neo-classical building, slightly away from the centre of Berne on the other side of the river Aare. Large open-space rooms with high ceilings and glass floor-to-ceiling windows were equipped with long white contemporary tables offering plenty of place for each reader to pile up documents.
My emotions registered way beyond excitement when I opened the first craft storage box and pulled out the file. It had been created by the Department of Police and Justice in Berne in 1903. The thick greenish-from-time cover page had Angelica’s front photo on it. Taken at the police station, it showed a tired, tense-looking woman in her thirties with badly brushed curly hair and large shadows under her eyes, wearing a dark, buttoned, wool cardigan. Next to the photo in the Gothic ink-pen handwriting were her name, place and date of birth. I immediately saw that there were two dates – 8 August 1877 and 4 May 1875. The Berne archive was not the only place that provided perplexing information.
Date of birth was evidently a delicate issue for Angelica. She used every opportunity to change it. One of her passports claimed her birth date as 4 August 1877, another stated 14 July – obviously implying the day of surrender of the Bastille. When registering at the New University of Brussels, in the student registration form, she wrote a date that looked like it could have been 26 April 1897 or 1847. Later, when registering for the second year her of her studies, she neglected to put any date at all, while other students dutifully provided this information.
The French counter-espionage file started on Angelica in 1933 in Paris indicated 4 May 1875 as her date of birth in the Swiss file, probably relying on the information provided by the Swiss police. More dates appeared in her FBI file and in the obituaries, the “official” one considered that on her tombstone – 4 August 1877.
After going through all archives in Berne, I found out that Angelica had been questioned about her date of birth by the Swiss Federal agents who realised that they had one date too many. She answered that she was “not sure herself about the exact date of birth”.
I was determined to find the real date. Angelica maintained an extensive correspondence with numerous people and I was hoping to find more information in one of her letters. Hundreds of letters addressed to her by her friends and colleagues exist and are mainly housed in the Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. At first it seemed impossible that none of them would have any mention of the date. However, she warned on a number of occasions that she would destroy all documents which contained private information, her date of birth certainly included. She kept her word. But at the very least, after dedicating five days of my “vacation” to reading through her letters in the archives in Amsterdam, I learnt a lot of interesting details about her life even though I came across no exact date of birth.
I hoped that Angelica’s friends were more attentive to the possible historical importance of her correspondence. I was right. Even when she specifically asked them to “destroy it,” they turned her letters over to the archives in various universities in Europe and in the U.S.. I read through piles of pages, written by Angelica, in which she described her life, deeds and emotions, but not her birth date. She appears to have never mentioned it to anyone.
Angelica knew that she would not be able to avoid an obvious question: “When is your birthday?” For occasional celebrations she had invented herself a rule: “…when people wanted to make me a surprise [sic] for my birthday, I asked them to make it in occasion of the Mayday.” Labor Day was the favourite holiday of the secretive revolutionary.
I was about to abandon my investigation when the tedious research brought some results of which I will tell you more in my next article about Angelica and her incredible life.