Discovering my Grandfather: a piece of Russian history

by rhiannon on August 31, 2009

Some years ago I lived near Cambridge in a wonderful flat that was the top floor of a large Georgian house. The owners, Terrence and Iris Armstrong, were friends as well as landlords and I was often invited to Sunday lunch which I enjoyed since they almost always had interesting guests.

One time they particularly wanted me to come as the guest was a professor of Russian history and I am of Russian origin. Both my parents were born there and Iris and Terence thought it would be interesting for me to meet him. I regret to say that I do not recall his name so I will refer to him as the Russian Professor. We were introduced and as I have an unusual surname, he immediately asked whether I had any connection to Maxim Hanfman. When I said that he was my grandfather, he practically fell and worshiped at my feet.

Maxim Hanfman

Maxim Hanfman

He said that my grandfather was a most wonderful and admirable man. Maxim died several years before I was born and was for me a shadowy figure that I knew very little about. He was a newspaper editor. He was Jewish but had converted to Christianity as a teenager. My father was the youngest of his four children and at some point he left my grandmother to live with another woman. He died at 56 of a heart attack. That was the extent of my knowledge.

The Russian Professor had much to add and this is what he told me: Maxim had edited a newspaper during the revolutionary period in Russia. This newspaper was unusual in that it held a moderate, liberal position at a time when extremism of the Right and the Left was the norm. The Bolsheviks felt the paper was too bourgeois and insufficiently committed to the Revolution. the conservative czarist faction thought it dangerously radical and that it should be suppressed. The paper seemed to have the annoying habit of printing stories that were actually true and objective and nobody liked that. It was a situation where being a moderate could be lonely and dangerous position.

He spent time in prison because of his activities, something that happened to a number of independent thinkers and intellectuals. He received political asylum from Latvia during that brief, chaotic period at the end of World War I when Latvia and Lithuania was independent of Russia and before they were swallowed up by the Soviet Union and he lived in both countries. Maxim’s newspaper was the only one of it’s kind, a voice of moderation and common sense and a source of real information in a crazy world .”Your grandfather deserves more recognition. He would be an excellent topic for a PhD thesis.” was the Russian Professor’s verdict.

What an interesting and serendipitous way this was to learn about a relative I knew very little about. That he was a man of integrity and courage is deeply pleasing to me. It feels good to have a forbear I can be proud of. I wish I had asked my father for more information while he was alive but I didn’t. Since then I’ve developed more of an interest in the family history and have googled Maxim but his life and work were so pre-internet and I found only this:

Several outstanding Russian journalists of Jewish descent, M. Hanfman, M. Milrud, B. Chariton, and Dr. B. Pollack, also managed to save themselves by finding a safe haven in free Latvia. With the Latvian-born Jacob Brahms they founded the Russian-language morning newspaper Segodnia in Riga, later also the evening newspaper Segodnia Vetcherom. In the twenties and thirties Segodnia was the best Russian newspaper outside the USSR, much more interesting and informative than, say, Posledniya Novosti of Paris. This Russian-Jewish journalist and publishing group helped found the Latvian daily Pedeja Bridi (At the last minute), which competed successfully with the largest Latvian paper Jaunakas Zinas (Latest news) until 1935, when difficulties under the authoritarian regime caused it to end publication.

I recently found a passport that was issued to Maxim in 1918. This gives his date of birth as 4th October 1872 This would be Old Style. In the modern  calendar  it would be the 17th—still Libra. That may account for his balanced political position. This passport is very unlike those of today: handwritten in three languages—Russian, French and German—it gives him leave to travel to Lithuania and the Ukraine on personal business. A crookedly cut photo is simply glued on to the page. The fees to obtain it were 13  and 25 roubles. It was issued in Petrograd—not yet Leningrad but no longer St. Petersburg—a turbulent transitional time in Russian history. I wish I knew more.

Maxim Hanfman's passport, Petrograd 1918

Maxim Hanfman's passport, Petrograd 1918

Afterthought: Today (2/9/09) I found a photo of Maxim Hanfman’s tombstone on which the year of his death is given as 1934 and not 1929 as I had assumed.

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