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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

WEIRD MOSCOW




I hadn't meant to talk to Lyudmila Biryukova about Gostomysl, the Norwegian grandfather of Rurik I and predecessor of the Russian royal line. It was her son I was looking for.


Kolya Biryukov, so his friends told me, collects bricks. He's got thousands of them, they said. He hoards them in his cupboard where other people stack their shoes. He keeps them under the bed, on book shelves, at the bottom of the fridge.


"He's gone on holiday to Cyprus," said his mother when she opened the door. "I can't show you his brick collection. He'd kill me if I touched it."


But how did she feel about sharing her tiny apartment with the equivalent of the Great Wall of China?


"To be honest, it doesn't bother me much," she said as we skirted the builder's palette stacked with cement blocks beside the umbrella stand. "I have my own interests."


Since she retired from the Dynamo Engineering plant as an electromagnetic constructor making metro cars and spare parts for spaceships 20 years ago, Biryukova has been working on the definitive genealogy of Russia's first tsars.


"It all began when I went to an exhibition at the Historical Museum dedicated to the Russian royal family," she said. She bought a family tree of the Romanovs, which went as far back as the sixteenth century. "But I wanted to know more," she said. "I wanted to find out about the roots of the Russian tsars."


For the last four years she has scoured the city in search of history books on ancient lineage. She has spent so much time in the dungeons of the Lenin Library opposite the Kremlin that every guard there knows her face.


"I have read 63 different authors on the history of Russian blue blood," she said -- no mean feat when Nikolai Karamzin's turgid "History of the Russian State" runs into 12 volumes alone. As she read, she made copious notes about Russia's first leaders and their relatives.


Her family tree begins with Gostomysl, a Norwegian prince who moved to Russia at the end of the eighth century. She has traced Russia's first tsars to the Scandinavian nobility, the Prussian royal House and the Lithuania line.


After Gostomysl, a complicated network of arrows, all painstakingly marked with indexes and footnotes, leads you through the various Yaroslavs, Mstislavs and Ruriks. The tree ends in 1212, when Vsevolod III, known as the "Great Nest" because of the unusually large family he sired, breathed his last.


But ask her about the lavish burial of Nicholas II in St. Petersburg this week, 80 years after he was executed by a Bolshevik firing squad, and she shakes her head.


"I have read everything there is to read about Russia's tsars," she said. "And the conclusion I have come to is that they were all power-crazy, warmongering madmen, who cared more about Faberg? eggs than they did about their subjects."


Biryukova doesn't have any plans to publish her family tree. "I did it for myself," she said. "It's frightening what you unearth when you read about Russian history."