Belarus-born adventuress as Dr. House of the 17th century
Salamieja Turns Down a Hungarian King-to-be
A young woman like Salamieja could never feel safe in the midst of the war. One day a local Pasha ordered her to cure a Hungarian aristocrat József Rákóczi, the duke of Transylvania, who came to the town of Vidin in March 1738. The young man was quite an important figure in the region. His father, Ferenc Rákóczi, was the leader of the Hungarian uprising against the Habsburgs in 1703-11 (today Hungarians consider him their national hero). At that time, his son József was a candidate for the Hungarian crown. He was backed by Yeghen Mehmet Pasha, the Great Vizier (head of the government) of the Ottoman Empire.
József Rákóczi tried to flirt with Salamieja, but without much success. The Hungarian crown candidate felt offended and accused the doctor of spying for Austria. “It was the time of bloody wars, and many innocent people accused of spying were sentenced to death”, she explained in her journal. The woman realised that it was just about the time to hit the road. Without passport, she left Vidin. She took her daughter, servants, and Joseph Fortunat de Pichelstein, her “prisoner”, along. However, soon Salamieja was arrested by Turks and narrowly escaped execution – as always, owing to her luck and skilful hands. The son of the Sultan’s treasurer got sick. The young man’s face and tongue got swollen so heavily, that he could barely breathe. Salamieja began to treat him, and in three days the treasurer’s son could already open his eyes. Forty days have passed, and he was completely healthy. As a result, the doctor was pardoned.
During a major battle for the city of Azov between the Turkish and the Russian army, several relatives of Salamieja’s Turkish friends were captured by the Muscovites. Here it is important to mention that Salamieja calls the Russian Empire “Moscovia” rather than Russia. It was typical for her time, when the name “Ruś” was usually referred to the Eastern lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, while the Russian Empire was called Moscovia.
Salamieja promised her friends to release their relatives (she already became proficient in that). She went to Russia across the present-day lands of Ukraine, Poland and Belarus. In the town of Bar (now in Ukraine) Salamieja decided to leave her unfortunate captive Joseph Fortunat de Pichelstein at the local Jesuit monastery, until his parents repaid the ransom. However, he seemed so mortified by the prospect of spending time with Jesuit brothers that he pleaded for a permission to become... Salamieja’s husband!
The young widow figured that it would not be a bad solution after all, since her chances of getting married again were rather slim. So they married, and Salamieja even persuaded Radzivil, the Great Hetman of Lithuania, to give her husband a position of an officer.
However, the steep ascent up the career ladder made her freshly-baked husband a bit dizzy. “You are just a doctor, while I am a Lithuanian officer”, he boasted to Salamieja. However, she did not pay much attention to Joseph’s bragging. She even bought him all kinds of equipment a true officer from Lithuania required - from horses to pistols to signet rings and snuffboxes. Then, determined to pursue her quest of releasing captive Turkish friends, Salamieja left her daughter at the local Roman Catholic nunnery in the city of Nesviž (the unofficial capital of the Radzivil family). By the way, the girl could only speak Turkish and understood no word of Polish. Salamieja entrusted to the husband all her possessions and left for St. Petersburg.
Fascinated with St. Petersburg
Salamieja became truly fascinated with the Russian capital. In her journal, she describes the drawbridges, broad avenues, and the numerous palaces of the Russian capital. “St. Petersburg is so beautiful and majestic! It stands on the Neva River . This city is more beautiful and attractive than Istanbul or Vienna. It is so neat, with its long streets, hundreds of stone buildings and palaces, all similar in size and so evenly built that they seem to form a monolith wall”, she wrote.
In her journal Salamieja compliments Peter the Great, the Tsar, who had made a bold attempt to Europeanize Russia. It was him who had built the new Russian capital (it was his idea, which was implemented by conscripted serfs from all over Russia and also by Swedish prisoners of war). “There, where once swamps was, houses of stone and wood have been built. The roads are sand-tamped, and each mile is marked with five posts with signs in Russian, German, and Latin showing directions and distance. There are many taverns with conveniences; everything is cheap, because one is not allowed to make prices higher than the fixed rates, which are put up on every door. Poor travellers can even get a free drink and a meal”, describes Salamieja with excitement.
She also admires the smart way in which the city fathers kept St. Petersburg clean. “There is no mud or rubbish in St. Petersburg. If a poor peasant leaves the city, he must pay two kopecks; but if he takes litter or dung along, even a handful, than he doesn’t have to pay anything. Upon entering the city, a peasant should bring a piece of wood or a stone; otherwise he is charged two kopecks. The wood and stone is then in order to fix pavements. Bread, meat, fish, cheese, and butter – all this is very cheap here. It lacks vegetables, but there is a lot of freedom and safety for good people to walk around and to travel. People are hospitable and polite”.
Raised from the Dead
It is difficult to tell whether this idyllic picture was realistic or Salamieja’s impressions were influenced by the rich circles in which she moved. She had letters of recommendation to brigadier Semion Karaulov, famous Russian hero of many wars. His family resided in one of the city’s palaces, where brigadier rented a flat.
The family of the officer could really use the services of Salamieja. His children kept dying right after their birth. When Salamieja entered their home, the brigadier’s wife was just about to deliver a baby. As it had already happened before, the newborn son of Karaulov was suffering from asphyxia. When Salamieja saw it, a childhood memory instantly surfaced in her mind. Once she was present during the delivery by a 40-year-old woman in a village in her homeland. The woman’s newborn son did not scream. The midwife, a simple uneducated woman, took the tab, which was used by peasants to leaven the dough, and covered the baby with it, while saying a prayer. She wasn’t a half-way through with the prayer, as the child revived and began to scream. Salamieja had no idea why it worked. However, she repeated the same trick, and it worked – the brigadier’s son came back to life.
Curing of the Shrew
After saving the master’s son, Salamieja was surrounded by respect and care. However, her ultimate goal was to have an audience with the Empress Anna Ioannovna. It was the time, when the lazy and poorly educated Anna fully relied on her foreign consultants – mostly Baltic barons of German origin, who run the whole country.
Karaulov advised Salamieja to seek the patronage of Duchess Maria Cherkasskaya, the wife of the only Russian-born minister in the Tsarina’s government. The 60-year-old Duke Alexey Cherkassky had virtually no influence on the government’s policy. However, he enjoyed respect of Anna.
Duchess Cherkasskaya was famous for her bad temper and habit of taunting her servants. Alas, Salamieja had nothing to do but to hope that the Duchess would be keen to have a foreign servant at her home. The wife of the brigadier Karaulov introduced Salamieja to the Duchess, who lived in an opulent palace on the Millionnaya Street (Millionaires’ Street), in close vicinity of the Winter Palace, the Tsarina’s residence.
Salamieja managed to find way to the Duchess’ heart. For years the old Duchess had been suffering from vertigo and migraine. This prevented her from visiting the Winter Palace. The Tsarina, in her turn, began to suspect that the Duchess disrespected and ignored her Empress. All that complicated their relationship and, likely, was also the major cause of the bad temper of the Duchess.
For Salamieja, who, as we know, made blind people see and revived babies, it was a piece of cake to make the Duchess feel better. The vertigo disappeared; headaches became less acute. The Duchess finally was able to pay a visit to the Tsarina’s palace again, missing no chance to boast about her doctor in the company of the Empress.
The very same day Duchess Cherkasskaya went to see Empress Anna, a blind musician requested Salamieja for her services. He served at the court of Elizaveta, daughter of Peter the Great (some years later, after the death of Anna, she would seize the Emperor’s throne). The musician asked Salamieja to treat his daughter, who had a cataract. “Fortunately, the girl had a light cataract, and I was able to remove it the very same day with my instruments”, writes Salamieja. She doesn’t write whether she attempted to treat her blind father. In fact, Salamieja is not at all too eager to speak about her failures in her journal. The cure of the musician’s daughter was witnessed by lackeys from the Winter Palace, who soon spread the rumours around the court. Eventually, Salamieja was ordered to present herself before the Empress.
According to etiquette, Salamieja bowed three times before approaching the Empress. Anna let Salamieja kiss her hand and asked why she had come all the way to St. Petersburg. “I was in Turkey, in Istanbul, serving the Sultan’s daughters and many other people – I am somewhat knowledgeable in medicine.
There I learned that Moscovia is ruled by a lady. I immediately wished that Lord would bless me with the happiness of seeing with my own eyes what I have heard about. I also hope that here, in St. Petersburg, all my needs would be provided for, with God’s grace”.
Flattered, the Tsarina ordered to provide Salamieja with lodgings in a room at the Winter Palace together with seven other court ladies. Adhering to the Russian tradition of adding a patronymic to one’s name, the Empress called Salamieja “Solomonida Efimovna” (her father’s name was Jaŭchim).
Salamieja soon found a lot of clients in the Russian capital. Women had much more confidence with her than with male doctors. This made Salamieja’s male rivals envious. The personal doctor of the Empress prohibited the court pharmacy to provide medicine according to Salamieja’s prescriptions. Salamieja asked one court lady, who had very ill eyes, to report the conflict to the Empress. As a result, the ban was lifted – however, on one condition: Salamieja’s prescriptions should only be aimed at curing eye diseases. Nevertheless, Salamieja jumped at the opportunity and issued a prescription, which included medicines for all her clients, with all kinds of illnesses. The pharmacist became suspicious and showed the prescription to the personal doctor of the Empress. He became furious: “What kind of ophthalmologist is she, can one cure eyes with such drugs?” The word about it has reached the Empress, who demanded that Salamieja explained herself. So she did, openly telling the whole truth. This warmed the Tsarina’s heart. After that Salamieja was allowed to prescribe any medicine she deemed necessary.
Standing up for Turks
Salamieja’s small practice went very well. As someone who was born in Belarus, she was familiar with both the Polish and Old Belarusian languages, which made it possible to understand Russian without problems. She also entertained the Empress with stories about her adventures in Turkey and about Turkish customs. However, even in this regard she managed to cross someone’s path. “What a deceiver you are, Solomonida Efimovna!” said the Empress one day. “You say that Turks are kind people, but look what brutes they are, how they mutilated poor Michajlovna!” She referred to Avdotja Michajlovna, an old woman, who served at the court of the Empress. She had spent 40 years as a captive in Istanbul and was released by ambassador Veshniakov. Avdotja claimed that Turks tortured her with red-hot iron grips and made her wear shoes with live coals inside.
Salamieja grew suspicious and asked Michajlovna to show her feet. “Let her present the scars on her body, at the places, where she was allegedly burned. As a child I had cut my finger. See, I still have the scar! You, Michajlovna, also should have scars. Or, perhaps - excuse me - you were a thief yourself or some other rogue; in that case even Christians would torture you, not just Turks. Thank God, I came to Turkey as a young girl of 14 years with my husband. Not a single Turk stole anything from me, nor beat me up, nor insulted, because I always avoided bad company. Moreover, if a Turk buys a horse or a cow, then he would feed them and take care of them. A captive has also been paid for – why would her master attempt to fry and mutilate her? That’s not possible!”
The Tsarina agreed with Salamieja. The latter decided to make use of Anna’s good mood and asked whether the Empress could give her two Turkish captives as a present. “Two? I would give you four!” Tsarina Anna answered, in a true nature of a wide Russian spirit. The next morning Salamieja discovered under her pillow the decree with an empress’ seal.
Salamieja was told to visit minister Volynski, who would oversee her departure to Rzeczpospolita. The official invited Salamieja to his office and began to deliberate on how much money would suffice to bring Salamieja from St. Petersburg to Navahradak. “50 Roubles should be enough for you”, he concluded.
Salamieja did not argue with him. Instead, she complained to Duke Cherkassky, who, in his turn, complained to the Empress. Anna received Salamieja the next day, and, laughing about the stingy minister, ordered to give the doctor a thousand Roubles, numerous silver goblets, valuable textiles and serviettes embroidered with the Empress’s coat of arms. After that, Salamieja set out on a long journey...
By Ales Kudrytski for the ODB