In June 2004 an English translation firm included the noun “serendipity” in its listing of the English words most difficult to accurately render into other languages. Defined as the faculty of finding valuable connections or agreeable discoveries by sheer accident, it has its origin in a Persian fairy tale entitled “The Three Princes of Serendip.” The heroes of this romance, in current terminology, were always on the receiving end of many “lucky breaks,” particularly insofar as they always met just the right person at just the right time. In other words, the lives of these three individuals were a series of amazing co-incidents.
How this can happen in real life can be at least partially explained by something known as “The Six Degrees of Separation.” This is a theory suggesting that every person currently living on the face of the earth can be linked with every other person with no more than six steps. I find this concept of special interest because of some of the “amazing co-incidents” I have experienced throughout my lifetime.
Allow me to give one example. Nine years ago I attended a wedding in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I had never been to Albuquerque before nor, as far as I am aware, had any of my family. However, at the reception after the wedding rehearsal, I quickly learned that the priest sitting across the table from me was the author of a book I had in my library in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Moreover, the individual from whom I received this book (my fifth cousin, four times removed who lives in southern Michigan) was one of this priest's best friends. Now that is only three degrees of separation, but in terms of distance it is twelve hundred miles from Winnipeg to Albuquerque; thirteen hundred from Albuquerque to southern Michigan and a thousand from Michigan back to Winnipeg.
Of course, in this example, the three people involved, my cousin and his author friend and I, are all contemporaries. The obvious next question is a simple one; what about someone who has been deceased for more than three generations …How easy is it to make a connection with such an individual?
An example of how readily such connections can be made is a series of remarkable co-incidences linking members of my own family and that of my wife with the ill-fated last tzar of Russia. In my illustrated lecture “Russian Serendipity: Tzar Nicholas II and Six Degrees of Separation” I examine family connections in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and New York with the following three incidents:
- the April 1897 visit of Nicholas II and his wife to Kyiv, Ukraine,
- the July 1918 murder of the Imperial Family at Ekaterinburg, Siberia and
- the July 2007 discovery of the remains of the heir to the Russian throne, Grand Duke Alexis and his sister the Grand Duchess Maria.
In addition to myself, these connections deal with my great-great grandfather, Ferdinand Kuehn, a colonist in the Russian province of Volynia (now in the northern portion of Ukraine); his best friend, Adolf Klatt (at one time conductor of the Russian naval band in Odessa, Crimea who also happens to have been a great uncle of my wife); August Stubel (another of her great uncles) and, most interesting of all, Countess Tanya Tolstoy Pankrat, a great granddaughter of the renowned Russian novelist, Count Leo Tolstoy. There is even a connection with one of Canada’s most gifted wildlife artists, the late Clarence Tillenius whose work is admired every day in the murals of Winnipeg's Museum of Man and Nature.
I regard the connections between these individuals as one of the most remarkable examples of serendipity I have ever personally encountered.