How Falkirk High helped to track revolution’s Sherlock

Robert Henderson with his new book
Robert Henderson with his new book

He was a revolutionary, a detective and a freedom fighter against one of the cruellest and most ruthless of regimes.

Vladimir Burtsev, a campaigning journalist, fearlessly and relentlessly exposed the horrors of the Tsarist regime in Russia – and as he did so, he argued for its opponents to come together to oppose them.

And yet his compelling story is only now being told properly for the first time – thanks to a former Falkirk High School pupil.

Bob Henderson is now an honorary resident associate at Queen Mary University of London and for many years he was the Curator of Russian at the British Museum and Library.

His expert knowledge of Russian history has led him to lecturing and being published all over the world – but he insists he has Falkirk High School to thank for such a rewarding and fascinating career.

From Bantaskin Primary, he went to Falkirk High School in 1968.

At that time it was compulory to study French in first year of High School and in second year pupils were allowed to choose a second language.

Falkirk High School offered Russian lessons and Bob opted to take the language – partly, he admits, because his big sister, Sheila, had taken Russian and he thought she would probably help him out. From school, he went to Glasgow University for five years to study the language to degree level, including spells in Minsk and Paris.

His knowledge of the language got him a job in the British Library in London, at that time part of the British Museum.

They wanted people with language skills and trained him in librarianship so in 1984 he became Curator of Russian.

His job took him deep into the archives, not just in London but also in Russia and and he discovered a passion for the country’s history.

They revealed many fascinating stories of Russian emigres and his work uncovered many surprises.

Bob tracked down the library records of the famous Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, including two letters – a discovery that was widely reported in national newspapers such as the Observer.

“We knew Lenin had used the library, but we didn’t know much about it,” Bob explained. ”I was sent to the archives to discover everything I could.”

More recently, in Russia, he made a discovery that generated headlines across the world – a photograph of a woman widely thought to have been Lenin’s true love.

Apollinariya Yakubova and Lenin had known each other before he met his wife, Krupskya and there were rumours that she refused to marry him. Known for her powerful personality, she was also rumoured to have been very beautiful.

The photograph Bob discovered, confirming her striking looks, was the first image the world at large had ever seen and there was huge excitement.

“There’s nothing like archival discovery,” said Bob. “When you come across a little gem it’s very satisfying.

“But it takes a lot of work – I always think it’s a bit like panning for gold or mining for diamonds. There’s a lot of dross you have to get through first.”

All the time he was investigating stories, he found one man’s story fascinating.

“Vladimir Burtsev was known as the Sherlock Holmes of his time and exposed many of the Tsarist spies,” Bob explained. “He was really the Julian Assange of the 19th century. People would rely on him to get things published.”

After taking early retirement from the library, Bob went on to do a PhD at Queen Mary University, publishing his thesis in 2008.

His book, Vladimir Burtsev and the Struggle for a Free Russia, is described as an absorbing account of an extraordinary life.

“Burtsev was a great man for trying to unite all the revolutionaries,” said Bob.

One of his newspapers was called Common Cause, something that has always reminded Bob of his old school’s motto ‘Invicem Servite’ , which translates has Serve One Another.

Bob and his wife Elaine, an employment lawyer, still live in London, but he keeps in touch with family in Falkirk and he has always been grateful to Falkirk High.

He keeps in touch through his neice, Lynne McGrain, who works at the school and bought him a FHS jumper as a present. Despite his extensive list of academic achievements gained since, he still wears it with pride.

Vladimir Burtsev and the Struggle for a Free Russia by Robert Henderson is published by Bloomsbury, and retails for £76.50 for the hardback.