I’m a historian of tsarist Russia. In 2002, I was doing research on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. I thought that all major original sources had long been published, but then, in a Moscow archive, I found an eyewitness account, written in German and completely unknown to historians. Unfortunately, the author was anonymous. In 2004, I was back, this time working in a different archive. About 18,000 people in post-Napoleonic Moscow had applied to the Russian government for financial assistance, and I randomly read a few hundred of them. One that I read contained details that matched precisely what I had seen in the memoir. The handwriting was even the same. Through pure luck, I had stumbled across a signed document by the author of the memoir. It was a needle-in-the-haystack moment.
Usually, that’s where this kind of story ends, and nothing more turns up about the intriguing figure whom one discovered in some archival document. But this time was different. It turned out that Johannes Ambrosius Rosenstrauch—that was his name—had left quite a paper trail, which I followed through archives in Russia, Germany, France, and Holland.
Rosenstrauch’s life exemplifies the Nanovic Institute’s theme of social and political geographies. He was always on the move and reinvented himself as he went. By following his career across Germany and Russia, we get a sense of how people could change their lives by moving from one political and social system to another. He was born in Germany in 1768. As a young man he took a false name and became an actor with itinerant theater companies—a risky career choice, a bit like joining the circus today. He converted from Protestantism to Catholicism and back again. He joined masonic lodges and found himself repeatedly in war zones invaded by revolutionary France.
In 1804, he emigrated to St. Petersburg; Russia had a large German minority, so there was demand for German actors. Later he went into business, importing European luxury goods for sale to Russian aristocrats. In 1811 he moved to Moscow, just in time for Napoleon’s invasion of 1812. He went on after the war to become a rich merchant and important freemason, and he met leading people in Russian society, including Tsar Alexander I. At age fifty-two, he changed his life again by becoming a Lutheran pastor in Ukraine. This was the Russian Empire’s Wild West: a vast, sparsely inhabited plain that was being colonized by settlers from many countries, including Lutherans from Germany. Rosenstrauch lived there until his death in 1835.
A few years ago, I discovered that near the end of his life, he had his portrait painted. I finally had a face to go with “my” story! The painting was out of public view for most of the 20th century because after the Bolshevik Revolution, when was politically dangerous to be related to wealthy foreigners, Rosenstrauch’s descendants hid it in their attic. It only reemerged in 1990, when it was donated to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Rosenstrauch shows how much we can learn about even fairly obscure figures of the past. Some of his acting contracts survive in the archives. People who met him mention him in their memoirs. His masonic lodge kept records: one folder in a Russian archive contains 229 sheets of handwritten documents from his lodge. His son served as consul in Moscow for the King of Prussia, and in the archives in Berlin, I found a handwritten testimonial from Otto von Bismarck. I also found many references scattered randomly in 19th century Russian and German books and newspapers digitized by Google Books.
The Moscow publisher NLO (New Literary Observatory) is planning a Russian-language edition of Rosenstrauch’s memoir alongside a biography of him that I wrote during my sabbatical in 2013. I have plans for a future English-language edition as well, but those remain to be worked out.