Text by Natalya Denisova
It is hard to find a literate person that does not know the surname Plevako. Eloquent defendants of someone are often ironically called “One more Plevako!” Actually the name of one of the best attorneys of the Russian Empire of 19 and the beginning of 20 century came into jurisprudence history. There are some sound arguments that Fedor Nikiforovich Plevako was half Kazakh “high cheek boned angular face of Kalmyk type with widely placed eyes and disobedient locks of long dark hair could be called ugly if it would not be lightened with internal beauty seen in the overal animated look, kind lion`s smile, fire and sparkles of conveying eyes”. It is the quotation from an essay of the Russian lawyer and literary man Anatolyi Fedorovich Koni. The same description of Plevako was made by contemporaries who knew him personally such as Chehov, Bunin, Veresayev, Teleshov. All of them were acquainted with the prominent lawyer or attended his proceedings where he appeared for defence . And each contemporary drew attention of Fedor Nikiforovich unusual origin.
His life beginning was full of legends and misteries. The lawyer himself wrote about himself as follows “My father is a Court Counsellor Vasilyi Ivanovich Plevak, the mother is a serf”. Archive documents certify that the famous lawyer`s father served at the Customs Office of a few bordering with Kazakhstan towns namely Petropavlovsk, Troitsk, Chelyabinsk almost 200 years ago. But it is still mystery how he appeared on the border with the Great Steppe. There is a supposition, that he was Polish, excilled here for the rising in 1830 participation and who held a small rank position at the Troitsk Customs Office. However, there is no documental evidence of Mr. V.I. Plevak participation in revolutionary events, that is Polish rising.
One more supposition tells that the future lawyer`s father from some impoverished noble family started living separately at the age of 15. By the age of 35 he was promoted to the administrative position managing an administrative economic segment and in 1833 started his work in the Troitsk Customs Office. There he bought an orphan Kazakh girl who gave a birth to their children called “tribe of quill drivers” that means illegitimate.
The remained minutes of Troitsk Customs Office members meeting dated 3, August, 1838 say “ A Buchar Mirchan Fatkullin`s request to place goods cleared by Petropavlovsk Customs Office to the warehouse before shipment to Tashkent”. Among this meeting members was a collegiate member V.I.Plevak. One more document of the same Customs Office of 1844 indicates the higher rank namely Court Counsellor. Besides, there is one more title “Holder” that means awarded with an order. This position was one rank higher. He was holding this position until 1851 when he retired and moved to Moskow.
His mother Ekaterina Stepanova`s origin is much more mysterious. The Eurasian historical register keeps some data about this woman “her family lived in “Kirgiz” aul (village) nearby Kustanay town . Official place of her living was aul #7 of chubarskay volost (region) of Kustanay area of Turgay region. Her father was Aldar, a bay and a warrior”.
His mother herself remembered a little about this Kazakh life so there are only some of her recorded memories “We live in the steppes nearby Troitsk in a felt tent. We were rich as the felt nomad tent was covered with carpets and I slept together with the elder family members under the fur blankets and on the fur bedding. There were rifles, sabres and expensive clothes. I remember I wore coins and elegant clothes”. The same historical register states that in childhood Ekaterina was called Ulmesek.
“During the night attack by thieves, and robbers while escaping Aldar`s daughter Ulmesek fell out of the nomad tent. She was given this name because the first Aldar`s children died so this name was a hope to save her life. After a few days wandering in the steppes the girl came to the river, where some Russian woman met her and sheltered. After a while Ulmesek learnt the Russian language and forgot her own.
When she grew up she met an administrator of the local Customs Office Nikifor Plevak who came to serve in Troitsk. He liked the girl and the mistress let have her willingly. They did not have a wedding ceremony and the marriage was not registered so their children were recorded as “born from the established relationship of Troitsk bourgeoisie Ekaterina Stepanova, a girl”.
In Troitsk V.I.Plevak`s family was ordinary as there were enough “strange” marriages there. Their children Fedor and Dormidont were regarded as illegitimate as their parents did not have an official church wedding ceremony. Their boys did not have a real patronymic name Vasilyevich. So patronymic name Nikiphorovich was given after the God father of the elder brother. But this fact did not affect their position in a small town at all. Problems of brothers Plevak started in Moscow where the family moved in 1851 right after their father retirement. In autumn the boys went to a Commercial college. Both did well. More over 9 year old Fedor was very good at Math so by the end of the first year their names were put on the “gold board” of the college. But after half a year Fedor and Dormidont were excluded as illegitimate. Their father did a lot for his boys to be admitted to the Moscow gymnasium #1. After exams they entered immediately the 3rd year form. The same school was attended by students who afterwards became well-known Russian public figures like anarchism ideologist Peter Kropotkin.
In 1864 Fedor Plevak graduated from the Law faculty course of Moscow University. After graduation from the University he added the letter “o” to his surname and instead of Plevak like his father his surname became Plevako that resembled the Ukranian surnames. More over he pronounced his surname putting a stress on the last letter like French.
Very soon he acquired the reputation as a prominent lawyer and court speaker who has no equalin Russia. As a defendant of civil claimant or private prosecutor Plevako participated in big criminal proceedings. Having unattractive look with “lisping slightly” voice Plevako impressed the audience with his sincerity, emotional power, speaker`s inventiveness and expressiveness of words. Plevako never prepared his speaches in advance but quite often recorded them after the court at his friends` or court journalists` requests. Two volumes of such records remained.
He liked defending women, but after seeing a thief who wore a lot of diamonds he refused defending her. It was a notorious Sonka Golden Hand to whom a lot of films are devoted today. Instead he defended free of charge oppressed actresses, musicians and just unhappy beaten and left wives. A big echo in society caused the proceeding of a police-officer Orlov who killed an actress P.N.Befani. He murdered her just because she left him as she could not stand his mocking any more. This police-officer lost his profit as he withdrew all her money. Two children were left orphants. Plevako talked a little just about 20 minutes but by the end of his speech all audience was sobbing. And there were about 2 thousand people in the court.