by Henry Lane Hull
As a graduate student in Russian history in Washington, I came to know many members of the Russian émigré community who had fled to America in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
At the time of the Revolution the Naval Attache at the Russian Embassy in Washington was Captain Illarion Mishtowt. As a young naval officer he had seen action during the Battle of Tsushima. His ship was captured and he had been taken prisoner, being held in the Philippines until President Theodore Roosevelt brokered the Peace of Portsmouth that ended the war.
Tsushima was the 1905 confrontation in the Pacific between Russia and Japan where Japan decisively defeated the Tsarist fleet, thereby triggering the first Russian Revolution of the 20th century. Some of the captured Russian vessels remained in the Japanese navy until the 1930s.
After the fall of the Tsar in 1917, Captain Mishtowt and his family remained in America. His wife was the granddaughter of the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff and the grandniece of his colleague Peter Tchaikovsky. The Mishtowts were a wonderful elderly couple and as a unit represented the best of Old World Russia.
The Mishtowts had two sons. One became a career officer in the U.S. Army and the other, George Mishtowt, attended Georgetown University for his undergraduate and medical degrees, where for both he finished first in his class. After becoming a physician he entered private practice and served as a doctor in the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II, entering France on a glider on D-Day. Subsequently he joined the State Department, serving with distinction at embassies across the globe and was among the physicians who established State’s Medical Department.
He rose to become the director of the department, serving for five years, during which time he had jurisdiction over all medical personnel and operations at every American embassy and consulate. After his service in the diplomatic arena, he returned to private practice in his field of cardiology and tropical diseases in Washington. His parents, who lived well into the emergence of his career, were elated by his success and modestly spoke of it in the context of their family having been blessed to have missed the atrocities attendant to the Bolshevik seizure of power.
After Dr. Mishtowt retired from the practice of medicine, he settled in Landrum, S.C., with his only child, a son named Alexis. He died at the age of 97 on January 26, 2015. Less than a year-and-half later the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Department was conducting an undercover operation in Landrum, when deputies thought they were being threatened by a heavily armed suspect. One of them opened fire, resulting in the death of Alex Mishtowt from multiple gunshot wounds.
In my days there the Russian émigré community in Washington was quite vibrant, with many figures that left their fields of prominence behind them in order to make new lives in America. In 1937 when the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, another émigré, was giving a concert at Constitution Hall, he asked to meet the man who later became my mentor, Cyril Toumanoff, the son of a Russified Georgian princely family, who had served as a major general in the Tsarist army.
Another of my professors was the grandson of the last President of the Russian Imperial Senate, the court of highest appeal and thus the last chief justice of Imperial Russia. The Mishtowt family was an integral part of that society, a group of individuals of vastly different talents, each of whom was spectacular in his or her own right. That the life of their last direct male descendant, the great-great-grandson of Rimsky-Korsakoff and great-great nephew of Tchaikovsky, should perish in such a bizarre manner becomes another of the myriad mysteries of Russian history, in this case as transported to the New World.