Alexander Van der Bellen’s father in 1917

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May 24, 2016 by AK

In his memoir, Lighted Windows (1978), Veniamin Kaverin recalls scenes from Pskov in the first days after the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd:

Kostya von der Bellen was a student from our class. He was very short, important-looking, jug-eared. A line from Chekhov’s notebooks – “A tiny gymnasium boy called Trachtenbauer” – still makes me think of Kostya, invariably.

We are walking back from the gymnasium – Tolya R., the seven-grader von der Bellen (Kostya’s elder brother), and I. There is a long, untamable, fierce argument betwen Tolya and von der Bellen. Actually, it’s Tolya who is growing fierce while von der Bellen – handsome, wearing a well-tailored greatcoat – is arguing sensibly and unhurriedly. He is explaining that Kerensky was a babbler and a wimp.

– Had Savinkov been in his place, they’d have the Bolsheviks over a barrel. The only decisive move by the Provisional Government was arresting Kornilov and Lukomsky but the arrest – and that’s the tragedy – was a crime. In the Russian army, which the Bolsheviks are trying to destroy, Kornilov exemplified honor and glory. The army’s healthy forces would have united around him. And it’s going to happen anyway because Lenin will keep the power he sezied for two weeks, no more.

Tolya is not arguing back any more. He is trying to cope with himself; his lips are trembling; he is breathing with difficulty. Suddenly he says, in a breaking, frantic voice:

– One more word, and I’ll shoot you.

Then von der Bellen, who has just been speaking in a firm, self-assured voice, stops short and falls silent. Now all his efforts are focused on one thing: to prove he is not frightened. Murmuring something, he turns around abruptly and walks away.

Why do I remember this argument, out of thousands? Because only a month earlier it was impossible to imagine that a seventh-grader would tell another one: “I’m going to shoot you,” and the other one would not laugh it off but would feel frightened and lost.

The son of that handsome student has just been elected federal president of Austria.

Alexander von der Bellen’s (the seventh-grader’s) and Alexander Van der Bellen’s (the president-elect’s) Dutch ancestors had settled in Russia in the 18th century. When the first hospital was opened in Pskov in 1803, its first staff doctor was a von der Bellen, almost surely an ancestor of Alexander and Kostya (Constantine).

Shortly after the 1917 revolution, the Bellens moved to Estonia. Constantine, whose diminutive appearance as a teenager so amused Kaverin, graduated from the Tartu university with degrees in trade law and, later, in medicine, and served as a doctor for more than 40 years, most of them in Soviet-controled Estonia. He only retired at 75, and lived to 90, dying soon after independence in 1993.

Alexander also received a degree in trade law from Tartu, in 1926. The Russian Estonia wiki only mentions that he repatriated to Germany in 1941 and was living in Tyrol in 1945. For a former Russian subject with a vaguely German surname in Soviet-occupied Estonia, claiming German ancestry and taking advantage of the Volksdeutsche repatriation clause of the January 1941 Berlin-Moscow agreement was probably the wisest and safest choice at the time. Alexander Sr. died in Innsbruck in 1966.

Die Zeit calls von der Bellen an aristocrat but that is probably an exaggeration. The family was ennobled for their service but so were many others in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The grandfather of the new president, the father of Alexander and Kostya – also called Alexander – was a civil servant in Pskov. His career peaked in March 1917, when the Provisional Government appointed him governor, only to dismiss in July.

As for Tolya (Anatoly) R., it appears that he was executed in 1938 as a member of a “Social-Revolutionary terrorist organization.”  Old Bolsheviks suffered a decimation in the late 1930s but Anatoly R., an ardent revolutionary, was not even a Bolshevik in 1917. Most likely, he was a member of a radical faction of the Social-Revolutionary (SR) party that was briefly an ally of the Bolsheviks in 1917-18 but was brutally suppressed after it tried to violently steer the Bolshevik government away from the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty. Anatoly R. allegedly belonged to the “Steinberg(-Kamkov) group,” a faction led by Leo Steinberg‘s father.


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