Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Mysterious Princess Zizianoff

Illustration from a New York Times story
about Princess Zizianoff, April 1921

Once there was a Russian princess who wanted to live in America. 

It was after the Great War, after the Bolshevik Revolution.  She visited New York City during the early 1920s on a six-month visa and found it to her liking.  Since then the Immigration Act of 1924 had slammed the door shut, even on royal aspirants from Western Europe.  But the French quota had yet to be filled.

Nina Zizianoff had been born in Chambery in 1878, so it made sense for her to go to Paris to ask the American consul, a diplomat named Donald Fairchild Bigelow, to grant her a permanent visa.  To Nina's great surprise, on Christmas Eve of 1925 he turned her down. 

In an interview with American newspaper reporters, he accused the princess of having been an international spy for the Central Powers during the war.  She was deported to Siberia after being caught, he said, and now worked as an agent of the Soviet government while masquerading as an anti-Bolshevik.

Princess Zizianoff, newspaper illustration, 1921

No way would he grant a visa to Nina.  And yes, Secretary of State Frank Billings Kellogg backed Bigelow one hundred percent. 

“References to political activities which make me undesirable in America are extremely amusing and of an astonishing ingenuity,” the princess told the New York Times.  “On the contrary, I am a lover of American things and am eager to become one of you myself.”

The widow of a prince who had been close to the Czar and his family, Nina Zizianoff had begun selling herself to the American public in 1921, introducing herself as a “princess who became a peddler,” having defied deprivation and death before escaping from Russia to Vienna.  There she penned a long autobiographical article that was picked up widely by U. S. newspapers.  

The headlines proclaimed: 

She Lived Among Killers, Grafters and Children Trained to Brigandage

Princess Nina Zizianoff’s Thrilling Escape from the Bullets of the Russian Firing Squad Only Doomed Her to Years of Starvation

Her own story and her portrayal of Russia under the Bolsheviks may have been part of a grand scheme, but readers found it riveting.

The proletariat, promised land, liberty and ownership, instead is now a silent horde controlled by terror and hunger, she wrote.  The Russians are children.  They believe and want everything.  They will endure everything and are overjoyed by trifles.

Imprisoned in Siberia – because she had worked without a permit in an open-air market in Petrograd, she claimed – Nina saw prisoners chained together hand to foot, just like Russia dragging its chain, hoping for death.

Children over the age of six were taken from their parents and placed in boarding schools, where they occupied barracks, starving and dressed in rags but singing: “Long live our red liberty!  The Soviet is our family!”  

The bourgeoisie have become agents provocateurs, she wrote.  People disappear, arrested for all kinds of reasons.  At night the Communists shoot the traitors.  At dawn they load the  frozen corpses onto trucks.

While Nina may have won the hearts of Americans, the article evidently planted seeds of doubt at the State Department.  Princess Nina did not give up easily, however.  After Bigelow turned her down, she filed a lawsuit against a young woman named Irene Kaline, the daughter of a wealthy tailor alleged to have had an affair with Nina after his wife and family fled to safety during the Revolution.

As retribution Irene had accused Nina of being a spy, said the princess.  A long, complicated tale emerged involving a family servant, stolen heirlooms, libelous postcards, and exonerating documents that might be stashed in a house in Prague.

The lawsuit fell apart but in 1927 Nina filed another one – this against Donald Bigelow, who had since moved on to an appointment in Tangier.  She charged defamation and libel and asked for 500,000 francs in damages.  The suit became a very big deal as it moved through the French courts.

Donald F. Bigelow appears in the third row,
far right; American Foreign Service Journal, 1936

At issue was Bigelow’s diplomatic immunity.  His lawyers admitted that Bigelow should not have publicly referred to Nina as a Bolshevik.  In fact, he should not have discussed the case with reporters.  However, since he had merely expressed the position of the State Department, how could he be personally liable? 

Invoking an 1876 consular treaty, Bigelow’s lawyers further argued that American consuls could not be tried in France except for the commission of a crime.  But the Tribunal of the Correctional Court of Paris was not buying.  In January 1928 it ruled against Bigelow, stating that the consul’s remarks about the princess did not constitute part of an “official act” and ordering him to pay the cost of the appeal.

While the decision was important enough to be debated in the American Journal of International Law, there is no evidence that Bigelow paid anything to the court or to Nina Zizianoff. 

The princess designed her own trademark,
which she planned to use on branded products
when she finally became a U.S. citizen.

The princess filed one more lawsuit in December 1929, going after the newspaper that first reported Bigelow’s accusations.  A French court fined Richard Grozier, editor of The Boston Post, 20,000 francs and condemned him to two months in prison.  But unless Grozier were to set foot in France, the judgment could not be enforced. 

It seems unlikely that Nina Zizianoff would have returned to Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union.  She probably spent the rest of her life in France, and her name never appeared in an American newspaper again.

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