Och aye, Dmitri: Russian 'Scots' find their roots

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The Independent Online
Scots, like Cornishmen and weak beer, have a reputation for penetrating parts that the rest of the planet doesn't reach, but even they are about to break new ground. Today sees the first Highland Games ever to be held on Russian soil. Stranger still, locals - who are part-Celt - will be taking part.

The venue is the small Znamensky stadium in Moscow, once the arena in which Soviet athletes displayed their skills. Today's gathering is altogether more exotic: from noon, Muscovites will hear the unfamiliar strains of bagpipes floating across the rooftops, followed - the organisers hope - by thunderous applause for caber tossers, stone putters, weightlifters, hammer throwers and Highland dancers.

Some 50 people from Nairn and Dufftown in the north-east of Scotland have been invited to take part, alongside a similar number of their expatriate countrymen and Russians. They will welcomed by a bearded Russian piper who, though in full regalia, is no more Scottish than Boris Yeltsin.

The event throws light on a story that is still unfolding in Russia, as it recovers from more than seven decades in which the Soviet authorities placed large chunks of its history in refrigeration. Many here are beginning to discover that the two nations have more in common than a lively temperament, a willingness to live in horrible climates and a fondness for strong liquor.

"I always thought my father was the only Scot in the whole of the Soviet Union," said Alexei Karadanov, a 71-year-old part-Celt part-Russian, whose father was an emigre who worked at a motor plant under Stalin. He was addressing a meeting of the Caledonian Club, a society with more than 50 members, mostly Russians who are now delving into their Celtic roots.

Mr Karadanov (he took his mother's surname to avoid problems with Soviet officialdom) may have been right about his dad. Brought up in Poland, his father was lucky: being a foreigner was often enough to ensure a place in a labour camp or death during the worst phase of Stalinism. But there are plenty of part-Celts like him around.

Clarks, Moffats, Leslies and Collies have cropped up across the land. A register has been compiled of some 450 surnames that can be traced back to Scotland, (including a gentleman from Rostov-on-Don called Igor Stewart and a Moscow philosopher called Andrei Yurivitch Melville).

All of this is proving of intense interest to some Russians. Just as more and more are tracing their family trees back to former nobility, so others are exploring their foreign roots. "There is a trend afoot," said Professor Paul Dukes, of the University of Aberdeen, who specialises in Russian history. "Before, especially under Stalin, this sort of thing was quite dangerous. Now that it's pretty open, genealogical societies are cropping up everywhere."

Russian history has a scattering of prominent Scots including Patrick Gordon, Peter the Great's top general; Mary Hamilton, a lady-in-waiting to Peter (later beheaded), and the designer of the first Russian steamship, Charles Baird, the owner of an industrial empire in 19th-century St Petersburg. The poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov was descended from a Scottish mercenary.

But most were ordinary Jocks who left in search of a better life. "There is evidence that from the 11th century, Celtic monks penetrated into Russia," said Dr Dmitry Fedosov, a Russian historian who is fast making the Scotland-Russia connection his life's work.

He says there was a gap after the Mongol invasion of 1240, but once Ivan the Terrible was installed in the 16th century, the flow of Scots continued until the 1917 revolution, driven away by anti-Catholic laws and economic need. "There were preachers, craftsmen, jewellers, merchants, doctors, architects, engineers, industrialists and many more."