Accountants are dangerous. And no, I am not going to entertain you with my adventures in mortgage and banking. The fact is, while doing a bit of research both for The Ministry of Lightning and for a short article I am about to write, I chanced on something that will not go in the article – being only tangentially connected with the topic – and will certainly get into the novel. And it’s all about accountants.
One accountant in particular.
His name was Andrea Compatangelo, and he was an Italian, from Benevento.
Let’s bactrack a little – during the Great War, a number of Italians fought in the Austro-Hungarian forces, simply because the territories from which they came, while being ethnically Italy, were part of the Hapsburg Empire. Many of these men were taken prisoner on the Eastern Front, and deported to Russia.
After the war, an Italian military mission took care of extracting the “talianski” from the Russian working camps, and bring them back to Italy. This is the subject of the article I am writing.
But there were others. And here we go down a wholly different rabbit hole. This is a strange story…
Andrea Compatangelo was an accountant, and he was in Russia on a business trip in 1918. He noticed the high number of Italians among the Austro-Hungarian army prisoners, and hatched a plan to bring them back home.
We will never know where he found a batch of Italian Army uniforms, but he put one on, and passing himself off as a Captain of the Italian Army, he demanded the liberation of the Italian prisoners, so that they could be re-assigned to a phantomatic Battaglione Savoia. He probably had a nice wad of fake official papers to back-up his requests. He supplied his men with uniforms and weapons, and in June 1918 he commandeered an armored train and set off on the Trans-Siberian, with the aim of reaching Tientsin, where the Italian legation was.
Along the way, the Battaglione Savoia found the time to stop and fight on the side of the White Russians – a fact that, when reported, baffled the Italian High Command.
The Battaglione Savoia often fought side by side with Czech units.
As he traveled east on the Trans-Siberian, “Captain” Compatangelo picked up more Italian soldiers, more weapons and a better engine. He expected more men to join him, so he stopped for six weeks in Krasnojarsk, taking control of the town and imposing the martial law. He also opened a hospital, and got the help of two nurses, one of them a – supposedly – Russian duchess.
From Krasnojarsk he crossed Manchuria – where the Battaglione Savoia had a confrontation with the Chinese forces – towards Vladivostok. In Vladivostok the Italian regular army finally caught up with Compatangelo, that dropped out of uniform and retired to a local hotel, where he was debriefed. Then he said goodbye and forever disappeared from our history.
The Battaglione Irregolare Savoia was incorporated in the Italian forces, and fought against the Red Russians before the men were finally sent back home without fanfare in 1920.
And apart from the madness of this whole story, while I read the little I was able to find about this weird adventure, the story of the two nurses in Krasnojarsk got me thinking.
Let’s say there is a girl of roughly 20, maybe a little older, traveling along the Trans-Siberian, escaping the horrors of the Bolshevik revolution. Let’s say she’s Eastern-European. Say Czech, or maybe Polish. Her father was a traveling entertainer- a stage magician, for instance – and he taught her to take care of herself. She’s young, she’s smart, and when she finds herself in a town controlled by White-leaning foreigners, she decides to pass herself for White aristocracy. A Russian Duchess. She makes herself useful, too, to better integrate herself in her new environment.
She joins the Brigade when they leave Krasnojarsk: traveling East on an armored train is a lot better than chancing it on your own, right? And Tientsin, where these Italians are going, is a city that offers a lot of opportunities, for a charming Russian aristocrat.
The Krasnojarsk Nurse would be in her late 30s in 1936, when in Tientsin Captain Felice Sabatini meets a Russian Duchess “probably in her early forties”, that is not a Russian Duchess, but the daughter of a Polish stage magician.
Much shenanigans ensue, as described in the prequel to The Ministry of Thunder, the novella called Cynical Little Angels .
There’s also an armored train involved.
You know I am desperately in love with my character of “Duchess” Helena Adele Saratova, from the Ministry stories. And the way in which she emerged right now through these historical facts is simply perfect.
All the pieces fit together.
Isn’t this historical fiction writing business just great?