How I did Research on My Book about Angelica?

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16.05.2014 Posted in Writing No Comments

Dear Reader,Angelica's Tomb at the Non-Catholic cemetry in Rome

I’m about to finish writing a biography of Angelica Balabanoff. A fasinating woman and prominent Russian socialist of the 20th century. Before telling you more about my book, I have to tell you more about my reasearch thet went on for five years. This work proved to be as incredible as my heroine. Because of her nomadic life, the documents are spread all over the world. It turned out that just about every police and state archive of each country that Angelica visited during her life had documents on her. Luckily for me, most of them were in the languages which I understand (some better than others) – German, French, Russian, English and Italian.

During the course of my research, nearly twenty different archives and libraries, mainly in the U.S. and Canada, agreed to provide the information in electronic format after a few e-mail exchanges which had greatly facilitated my work. Some held such vast documentation that they could not scan it and send it to me, and so I had to go there in person. As I undertook this research on my own, it was a significant financial investment which I made over a few years. I live in Paris, so the French documents were the easiest to consult, but I also traveled to New York, Rome, Berne, London, Brussels and Amsterdam.

To understand the difficulty of the research one has to imagine a stack 2.5 meters long with Angelica’s personal documents, letters, notebooks, drafts of articles, photos, business cards and some personal items held in Amsterdam. A bit smaller but still impressive is the collection of documents in the Swiss Federal Archives in Berne. The Swiss police had followed her for over sixty years, meticulously putting together all articles and reports considering her a dangerous agitator and her presence unwelcomed on the Swiss soil.

Speaking Russian was of vital importance. Most of the universities and state archives in the Western Hemisphere get back to you within a few days of your request. In Russia, the hierarchical government structure makes work extremely administrative and any exchange of information takes much more time with each response to e-mails presented in the form of a letter, stamped and signed by a department director. I had to telephone all of them and explain again and again the reason for my call. Nevertheless, the people I had on the phone in Chernigov, Odessa, Kiev, St Petersburg, and Moscow were helpful and the documents were impeccably organized. I had some incredible conversations with the librarians: “I know we still have not gotten back to you,” I was told in one of the places. “Our main elevator which we use to bring up the documents has been out of order for the last six months and we cannot retrieve them. All requests are on standby.” Nonetheless, I usually received all documents I was looking for relatively quickly after my calls.

My research brought me to the most unusual places, such as the Trotsky center in Paris. It is maintained by ten people who believe in Trotskyism. On 25 April 2012, I entered a small office which opened directly onto the street in the 10th arrondissement, in the middle of an otherwise Indian- and African-populated neighborhood with ethnic restaurants and Afro-hair salons exhibiting all sorts of manicured dreadlocks and style patterns. The Trotsky Center has an interesting collection of books, journals and microfilms which they keep in their back room, some of which were most useful for my research.

My inquiry into her life had quite naturally started with her childhood and her hometown, Chernigov. The first thing to find was the place where she had been born. She had always said that it was in the suburbs of Chernigov. So I found the Chernigov archive web-site. It provided very little on-site information and invited researchers to contact them directly. I sent an e-mail detailing my request. A few weeks later I resent it. Receiving no reply, I decided to give them a call. I was hoping that they would have a computer-based registry that for some reason they decided not to publish online. The first thing that I heard on the other end of the phone after explaining the reason for my call was a long silence.

Stay tuned for more news about my research and incresdible life of Angelica.

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