folder Filed in Russia, Stories
Czar’s Cossack bounty hunters in hot pursuit
AS Media access_time 8 min read

He could still hear the shouts of the pursuing Cossack troops as he waded out into the cold sea, his long woollen underwear clinging to his strong body. Soon the rocky beach slipped from under his feet and he began to swim out to sea. Away on his right, he could just make out the lights of the busy Baltic port of Riga and as he crested the waves, the flickering lights of the tramp steamers waiting to enter harbour.

Jacob Baronavich was 24 years old and had been on the run for the last three days. That was when the local Cossack recruitment sergeant had knocked on his door to collect him for conscription into the imperial army of the Czar of Russia. He managed to avoid the callers and ran for his life. It had taken three long and hungry days for Jacob to reach the coast. However, the Cossack chappers were close by, eager to collect the bounty on his head.

Jacob saw the lights of a steamer away to his left and kicked out towards it. Daylight was beginning to show above the waves and he could just make out the shape of the ship as he pounded towards it. Slowly he inched his way forward, diving under the waves as they tried to force him back towards the shore. He was tired and now trod water more frequently, but his determination never flagged…

It seemed like hours before he was in hailing distance of the tramp steamer. Jacob could see some men walking along the decks. He floated while he gathered his strength to shout to them. The flag fluttering at the stern was a strange one and he thanked God it wasn’t Russian. There was a shout from the ship: ”Hey look, there’s a man in the water.” The deck came alive as men ran to the side. “No, it’s not a man,” said one of the crew. “It’s a bundle of clothes floating on the water.”

Lulled by safety of a foreign ship

A man in a blue peaked cap lifted a telescope and shouted: “It is a man. Lower a boat and fetch him in. Bring some blankets and brandy and you Jim, go and tell the captain.” He shouted down to Jacob:  “All right, mate. Hold on. We’re coming for you.” Then he urged the crew to “pull away as he looks all in.”

Gentle hands lifted Jacob from the waves and laid him carefully in the bottom of the boat. Bo ‘sun, Tom Williams covered the shivering form with blankets and poured a few sips of brandy onto his handkerchief and squeezed them between Jacob’s swollen lips…

Captain Bellis was there to meet the lifeboat as it was winched back on board. He ordered his crewmen to take Jacob to the sick bay. He went down with them and waited as they undressed the limp figure and covered it with fresh blankets. The Captain looked through Jacob’s pockets, but found no identification. Jacob opened his eyes and saw the anxious faces over him before closing them again, falling into a deep sleep. He was lulled by the warmth of the cabin, the heavy blankets and the safety of a foreign ship.

When he woke up, he heard the steady throb of the ship’s engines and felt the pitch and toss of the vessel as it moved into the open sea. A young crewman in blue overalls was by the bed. “Ho, so you’re alive then. Thought you were a real gonner. Want some hot soup – I think you need it.”

Jacob could not understand the words but felt the kindness in the voice. His aching body sat forward and he sipped, gingerly, from the spoon. His whole being gasped as the soup slipped down his throat. “You wait here. I’ll go and tell the skipper you’re awake.”

No way he could tell his story

A few minutes later the door opened and a jovial man in a blue suit with shining buttons came into the cabin. “Now, let’s see what this is all about. Who are you and where do you come from? And, why were you taking a morning swim in the Bay of Riga?” Jacob looked at his face and wondered what the strange words meant. There was no way he could tell his story to the captain.

An hour later Captain Bellis, with signs and a few Russian and Yiddish words, had the gist of Jacob’s story. He realised he had a refugee on his hands. The captain had been plying the Baltic ports for years and had heard stories of the conscription methods used to fill the Czar’s armies. It was unbelievable. Just like the old days in England when press gangs roamed the seaport inns to recruit men for the royal navy. Thank God those times had passed into history.

But, what could he do? They were due to call at several ports before putting back into Riga for the last cargo before London. Captain Bellis talked it over with his first mate on the bridge. There seemed no solution. If they put into Riga, they would have to declare they had a refugee aboard. Jacob would be arrested. Goodness knows what would happen to him then.

The skipper was a God-fearing man and a stalwart at the Gwersyllt Chapel, near Wrexham, Wales. He could not let such a thing happen to any man.

Birth certificates had never been used

Suddenly, he had an idea. Ships’ papers included forms and certificates to cover most eventualities. There must be something in his desk to help, but a search produced nothing to answer the current need. Except, perhaps, a pad of birth certificates that had never been used. Nobody had ever been born on his ship. The skipper mused: “There’s nothing in Queen’s Regulations to say it can’t be done. Yes, I’ll do it.” He took the pad of birth certificates along to the sick bay. “Now young man – tell me your name.”

It took a little while before Jacob realised what Captain Bellis wanted and then he replied “Jacob Baronavich.”  The captain looked at the man lying there and tried to assess the type of man he was. Though his beard and hair needed trimming, his eyes were those of a strong and honest man. He guessed his age at about 25, just about the age of his own son.  The skipper made up his mind – he would make out a birth certificate and give him British nationality.

As soon as he was fit enough, Jacob Baronavich helped the crew whenever he could, particularly the carpenter and ship’s cook. With their assistance, he acquired a few words of English. Then the ship returned to Riga and Jacob was able to thank Capt Bellis for saving his life. He was given his birth certificate, signed by the Captain and over-stamped with the seal of her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria. Jacob was puzzled when it was read out.

Captain Bellis explained: “You keep this paper and if you are stopped by the authorities, show it to them. You are a British subject and nobody can harm you. Good luck and come to us if you can.


Family history can be distorted and different versions can emerge when retold down through the ages. This runaway recruit story comes in several versions, differing in details, but similar enough for it to be credible. This version, in, was first published in the Sunday Express on 7 December 1980.

What happens next to Jacob, is outlined in the second version of his story written (by another family member) due to be published shortly online at Watch out for it.  

The second sons of Jewish families had to serve for up to 25 years in the Russian Imperial Army, although the period was reduced by Czar Alexander II in the 1870s. Cossack “chappers” (enforcers) roamed the countryside, eager for the 50 rouble bounty for each draft dodger rounded-up.

Now, you might like to read another seafarer’s story

ancestry-stories authors Czar Alexander family history genealogy history Riga Russian social history

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