Somewhere in Europe. 1933.
Morning has just dawned. She is still in bed, her unkempt hair caressing the pillow. A ray of sun gently kisses her cheek. Florence is truly irresistible. What could he do without her by his side? Everything about her makes him happy: her vitality, her beauty, her figure – and the figures in her bank statement.
But that is just a detail – the cherry on top.
He would love to spend more time with her, but he has business to do. Besides, Phyllis is waiting for him, sprawled on another bed, in another hotel.
The Baron slides from underneath the sheets and gets ready for the day.
A perfect shave, a touch of brilliantine in his dark hair, an elegantly knotted cravat. And for the final touches: a well-polished monocle and a walking cane with a silver handle.
The man walks slowly, and confidently, through the cobbled streets of the capital.
Looking around this tiny city, others may see the only urban centre of a small, insignificant, and backwards country. But not the Baron.
He perceives the beauty of these valleys, the winds of change finally blowing through them.
Most of all, he sees potential.
He cannot help but to think aloud in his native Russian.
Yes, he mutters.
I like this country.
I am going to take it.
SETTING THE STAGE
I would like to introduce to you today’s protagonist, Boris Skossyreff, who went down in history as the alleged Baron, alleged spy and confirmed swindler who in 1934 managed to pull the con of cons: becoming the King of a country, the micronation of Andorra.
Boris could have been born from the imagination of Hergé, the artist who created Tintin.
Or maybe he could have been a character straight out of a movie by Wes Anderson, the film maker who gave us Grand Budapest Hotel and The Royal Tenenbaums.
Even better, Boris could be a character from the Tintin adaption that Wes Anderson sorely owes us.
But the truth is that Boris Skossyreff could have been born out of the imagination of just one man: Boris Skossyreff himself.
But I can perceive your confusion, so let’s proceed with some kind of rationality, even though this whole story has little to offer in that department.
If this was the treatment for a movie – which is not – and if I were a lazy writer – which I am – at this stage it would be very convenient to introduce a totally made-up character to lay out some exposition, to help the audience with some context.
Oh, but aren’t we lucky?! There she is, just walking through the town square, Mrs Blanca de la Exposición-García, elected Best Tour Guide in Andorra, 1933.
And how convenient! She is accompanied by some English tourists, so we can understand their conversation!
The older gentleman, Colonel Mustard, asks:
“Pray thee, Madam, would you care to expound on the peculiar system of government of this fair land? My travel companion, Professor Plum, hasn’t quite grasped it!”
“Why, sure gentlemen! Perhaps now that you are sober you shall pay some attention!”
Through Blanca’s explanation we would learn that Andorra is a micronation, covering a surface of just 468 Square Km, or 120 square miles.
It is nestled in an idyllic valley above the Pyrenees mountains, on the border between Spain and France.
Its capital, and only major city, is Andorra la Vella. And in the early 1930s, the entire state counted only 4,000 inhabitants, living in a largely feudal society based on cattle herding.
The tiny nation was first declared independent by none other than Emperor Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, who needed to create a ‘buffer state’ between his Frankish Kingdom and the Muslim-controlled Spain to the South.
Well, madam, would cry the Colonel. I call bovine excrement on that statement! If Andorra has 4,000 citizens now, it surely had less that 1,000 back in the 9th Century! Not much of a buffer state, was it?
The irked Blanca would have to admit that the whole Charlemagne thing is probably a legend, but one that Andorrans like to believe.
Now, if you allow me to continue.
The story goes that Charles’ grandson conceded control over the Andorran valleys to the Counts of Urgell, in today’s Catalonia, northern Spain.
In 1133 the Counts sold the rights to exploit the valleys to the local bishop. So, the Bishops of Urgell collected taxes over harvests and herds, but they needed some ‘muscle’ to defend the Andorran valleys.
This muscle came from the Caboet family. In exchange for their services, the Bishops granted them formal ownership of Andorra.
By 1257 the ownership rights were inherited by a French aristocrat, Count Roger Bernard de Foix.
[Foix sounds like ‘Foo-ah’]
But this formidable lord was still expected to pay taxes to the Bishop of Urgell.
To which he said:
Which is French for
The dispute between the Count and the Bishop was settled only in 1278, when the Lord of Aragon stepped in.
He forced the two parties to sign two treaties, known as the First and Second ‘Act-Paréage’. These treaties established a unique form of government, which makes Andorra the only Co-Principality in the World.
The Count and the Bishop would both be ‘princes’, or rulers, of Andorra. They would take turns to administer the country, each turn lasting one year. Neither of them would live inside Andorra’s boundaries, rather they would each appoint a ‘vicar’ to rule in their stead.
On the French side, the right to rule Andorra was transferred from the Counts de Foix to the King of Navarra, then to the King of France and finally to the President of the French Republic.
Although this lineage is disputed by the Orléans family. Being the current Dukes of Guise
[Guise sounds like ‘Geese’]
… they claim to be direct descendants of the Counts of Foix, and legitimate heirs to the Throne of France – should the monarchy be restored, of course!
On the Spanish side, things are less complicated: The co-Prince is still the current Bishop of Urgell.
And our excellent Mrs Exposición would have to admit that after that, Andorran society and politics did not evolve much, for centuries.
The societal structure remained feudal, and locals did not have the right to freely exploit their natural resources, still controlled by the two co-Princes!
Only recently, modernity finally landed in the Valleys above the Pyrenees.
A series of strikes had erupted into a popular uprising in July of this very year, 1933. This revolution introduced an electoral reform, granting the right to vote for all males aged 25 or over.
The following elections installed a local government, the General Council, which gave Andorrans the power to use their own natural resources.
The Spanish Bishop, Justí Guitart,
[Juice-Tea Gheet Art]
barely took notice, but French President Albert Lebrun
dispatched a detachment of French Gendarmes to restore order!
Luckily, they just left this very October. But who knows what the future holds?
I dare say – Professor Plum would utter – that Andorra is in dire need of a saviour, someone with a plan who could drive social and democratic reforms, thus pulling away the Valley from the cone of shadow cast by its more powerful neighbours!
At that point, our trio of talking encyclopaedia entries would notice the Baron, casually strolling into a café.
“Pray thee, Madam, who is that curious character? No offense, but his elegant demeanour seems oddly out of place …”
None taken – would graciously concede Blanca. That man is Baron Boris Skossyreff, a white Russian aristocrat who has moved here some weeks ago. Allow me to introduce him to you.
We are now inside the café, sitting at the table with the tourists and Skossyreff. As they down chalices of fine local red vintage, the impeccable aristocrat is happy to recount his life story.
And now, via a series of flashbacks, we are given a glimpse into the confusing past of our protagonist …
Boris Skossyreff was born on the 12th of June 1896 from Russian parents in Vilnius, today the capital of Lithuania, back then part of the Czarist Empire.
Or at least, this is what we believe. The problem with Skossyreff and similar characters within the Brethren of Swindlers, is that they are both the protagonists and the narrators of their own life story.
Narrators which are notoriously unreliable.
So, we will have to piece together the events of his life by using scattered sources, conflicting reports, and healthy pinches a salt.
Little is known about his background. He claimed to be a member of the minor Russian aristocracy and styled himself as a ‘Baron’. But there is no evidence he was actually a nobleman.
According to the man himself he served in WWI as an officer, but according to other sources, he only trained for two months as a junior officer before being kicked out of training.
Whatever his military career, when the 1917 October Revolution came along, Boris experienced some serious trouble.
Bolsheviks and Barons did not really get along, and so Boris, his dad and three uncles were all imprisoned. The four older men were all killed by the Communists, but the young Skossyreff managed to escape thanks to an unidentified friend.
The self-proclaimed baron then reached the Western Front, where he acted as liaison officer and translator for the
‘British Royal Naval Air Service Armoured Cars Unit’.
In another account, he performed the same job, only not in France. The British Unit had been dispatched to Russia, to support the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in the early stages of the civil war. It was on that occasion that Boris joined them, to get back at the hated Communists.
Wherever he may have served, in early 1919 Boris settled in London, starting a prolific career as a conman and general purveyor of bullsh*t to whomever was willing to lend an ear.
In January of 1919 he was first arrested on charges of forging cheques, which he used to pay his stay at five-star hotels.
On this first occasion he got away scot-free, as again some mysterious friends stepped forward to clear the balance.
But he did not lose the habit of writing bad cheques and was later expelled from the country.
Boris’ movements between 1919 and the early 1930s are a bit unclear.
He claimed that he had worked as a spy in the Netherlands, and that the grateful Dutch Royal Family had awarded him the title of ‘Count of Orange’.
What is certain is that he had acquired somehow a Dutch passport, with which he may have travelled to Colombia.
On the 21st of March 1931 he married one Marie Luise Parat, which he proceeded to immediately cheat on.
First, with a beautiful young Englishwoman named Phillis Heard.
Then, with American millionaire divorcée Florence Marmon.
In 1932, Boris and Florence were living in Palma de Majorca, Balearic Islands. His official occupation was as Professor of English and ‘Physical Culture’, which I guess is an old-fashioned term for PE.
But he most likely got up to no good again, as a decree of expulsion was issued against him.
Then, sometime in 1933, the self-styled Baron Skossyreff entered Andorra with both his lovers, Florence and Phyllis.
He took great care to have them lodge in two separate hotels, and then chose a suitably aristocratic residence for himself: a beautiful villa, the “House of the Russians”, in the village of Santa Coloma.
Bankrolled by Florence, Boris charmed his way into Andorran society.
He strutted like a peacock around mountain paths and cafes, clad in fine tailored suits, monocle and walking cane.
He sweet-talked members of the local high society, boasting his connections with the Russian, Dutch and French aristocracy.
He garnered the sympathy of the lower rungs of the social ladder, with his modern, democratic ideals.
Gradually, he laid out his plans to whoever was willing to share a drink with him.
He claimed that the French Presidency held no rights over the co-principality. The real pretender to that title on the French side was Jean D’Orléans, Duke of Guise.
As we have learned earlier, Jean considered himself to be the rightful heir to the old Counts De Foix, and still a pretender to the French throne.
It is questionable whether Boris had ever even met the Duke.
But he assured Andorrans that the Duke and him were good pals. So good, in fact, that the Duke had granted him the right to assume the Andorran throne in his stead!
And if Andorrans backed his claim, he would enact a series of reforms to finally propel the country into modernity. His key selling point was to turn the tiny, impoverished nation into a new Monaco: a tax haven, rife with casinos and flush with cash.
Moreover, if Andorrans were to elect him their King, he would ensure complete autonomy from those meddlesome co-Princes in Paris and Urgell.
According to some accounts of Boris’ adventures, citizens of Andorra glugged down his proposals like a chalice of fine vintage from the Casa Beal vineyards.
[Casa Bay – al]
Our imaginary friends Blanca, Mustard and Plum have also emptied their glasses. As we thank them for their services, we can concentrate on our protagonist.
Will he or will he not succeed in his takeover plans?
THE KING’S MOVE
1933 was coming to an end, and it was about time for Boris to make his move – although he was due for a major setback.
Now, according to Boris himself, authorities had been so enthralled by his plans that they granted him Andorran citizenship in December 1933.
But this part of the story is likely cooked up by Boris himself.
In fact, most newspaper articles of the time report how, on the 22nd of May of 1934, Skossyreff had presented to the local government, the ‘General Council’, a document formalising his plans.
But local law forbade foreigners from meddling into Andorran politics! Boris and his two lovers were subsequently booted out of the country.
If he was truly a citizen, he wouldn’t have been kicked out, wouldn’t he?
The exiled trickster then relocated to the Hotel Mundial, in the Catalonian town of La Seu d’Urgell, just south of the Andorran border.
To avoid confusion, I should specify that La Seu d’Urgell is a different town than the already mentioned Urgell, which is farther south.
From his new HQ, Boris made contact with British, French and Spanish newspapers, claiming that he had full backing from the Duke of Guise and his supporters, the so-called ‘legitimists’, who advocated a restauration of the French monarchy.
A French press agency reported that Skossyreff had offered a large sum of money to the General Council, in order to be made King of Andorra.
The money had come from the legitimists’ pockets, it appeared. But it is also likely that the cash came from the bank account of the smitten Florence, always supportive of his man.
Whatever the source of what was essentially a big fat bribe, it did have some serious consequences, which unravelled during the eventful July of 1934.
On the 6th, Skossyreff proclaimed himself King of Andorra.
Or, more precisely:
Prince of the Valleys of Andorra,
Count of Orange,
and Baron of Skossyreff,
Regent for His Majesty the King of France,
Sovereign of Andorra, and
Defender of the faith”
Between the 7th and the 10th of the month, the General Council ratified this auto-proclamation with two subsequent votes.
Out of the 24 councillors, 23 voted in favour.
Andorra was formally declared a Monarchy, ceasing to be the rather confusing co-principality it had been so far.
On the 12th of July, Boris I triumphantly installed himself in his official residence of ‘Casa de la Vall’, in the capital city of Andorra la Vella.
The monocled monarch clearly did not faff about: in a matter of a few days, he displayed a productivity to rival only that of Simon Whistler.
In no particular order, he pledged his allegiance to the Duke of Guise, aka the true King of France, dissolved the General Council, appointed a new provisional government, and issued a new constitution.
This legal text contained only 17 articles, the longest being shorter than 30 words. But this Twitter friendly charter was enough to light the torch of modernity on the ancient ways of the Valley.
As Boris had promised, he declared Andorra a tax haven, with the intention of attracting foreign investment and the establishment of casinos.
He proclaimed freedom of politics, religious beliefs, and opinion.
He issued social welfare programmes to protect his poorest citizens and promised to allocate funds to promote education and sport.
Finally, he declared a general amnesty and planned general elections to be held on the 1st of August.
It was a climactic set of reforms, one that was surely due to attract the attention of the two co-Princes.
North of the Pyrenees, the reaction can be best described as
Or, in French:
In other words, the French President Albert Lebrun tacitly accepted, or more likely completely ignored the events taking place in Andorra. Which was surprising, considering that he had dispatched a battalion of Gendarmes a few months earlier!
South of the Pyrenees, in Spain, it was a different story.
Remember how one single councillor had voted against Boris? The same guy travelled to Urgell to meet with his Excellency the Bishop, Justí Guitart.
[Juice-Tea Gheet Art]
The Bishop was fuming! How did this sketchy character dare turn his idyllic valley into a haven for gamblers? His excellency believed that casinos were but the waiting room to Hell!
The Bishop was about to move some useful pawns, and together they would move on to check mate the King.
THE BISHOP’S MOVE
First, he mobilised the press, issuing a release in which he stated that Boris’ proclamation was unlawful.
Guitart’s declaration irked Boris I, who, in response, immediately declared war. Not on Spain, mind you, neither on Urgell, but on the person of the Bishop.
A fun fact here: during WWI Andorra had declared war on Germany, sending a total of 0 troops to the Western Front. After the Armistice, the signatories of the Peace of Versailles completely forgot about Andorra.
Formally, the tiny nation was still at war with Germany!
Therefore, for a span of a few days, Andorra was technically fighting a war on two fronts!
Guitart was not intimidated and called upon the Spanish Government to intervene.
At the time the Prime Minister was Ricardo Samper. As a member of the Radical Republican Party, Samper had no sympathy for monarchs, and he agreed to help the Bishop.
What followed is not entirely clear, as sources do not agree on some important details.
According to one version of events, around the 20th or 21st of July, King Boris I was not in Andorra.
Rather, he was lounging in his bathrobe, enjoying a tea at the Hotel Mundial in La Seu d’Urgell – Spanish territory.
This is when a squad of five Spanish policemen barged in and seized him under the recently approved “law of vagabonds and malefactors”. This law sanctioned the arrest of people with no clear occupation or residence: people like the homeless, nomadic romani … or pimps.
The Republican newspaper ‘Luz’ had a field day, screaming from its headlines:
“At last, Law of vagabonds to be applied to a King”
In their cartoon depicting the event Boris is portrayed in full Imperial regalia – Freddy Mercury style – as he is shackled to two moustachioed cops.
I am enclosing here said cartoon. Copyright may not allow Jen to show it on screen, but at least Simon can lay his eyes on it and let us know his impressions …
One interesting detail in this cartoon is a street sign in the top right corner of the image. It reads ‘Seu d’Urgell’. Another sign father away in the background of the image reads ‘Andorra’.
I don’t know how much we can trust a satirical cartoon as a primary source, but this seems to confirm that the arrest did take place in Seu d’Urgell.
Which contradicts the second – and most popular – version of the event, according to which Boris was in fact in Andorra la Vella on the 20th or 21st of July.
The Spanish police therefore had violated international law by performing an arrest in another country!
This seems unlikely. Spanish newspaper El Mundo even pointed out that, during his short tenure as a King, Boris may have never actually set foot in Andorra!
Whatever the site of the arrest, on the 23rd of July the now deposed King Boris was taken to Barcelona, then to Madrid on a 3rd Class train carriage.
Of course, the aristocrat complained about that kind of treatment!
Skossyreff was briefly held at the Modelo prison in Madrid, before going on trial.
Boris vocally defended his dynastic claims and he even announced that he could count on
“well paid people ready to launch an armed incursion into his fantastic principality”.
Authorities could not be less bothered. Their official stance on the whole affair was that they did not give
“any importance to the person of the detainee, nor to the events he announces”.
But Skossyreff’s rambling statements attracted the attention of the general public and the press. Journalists from ‘La Vanguardia’ interviewed his mistress Florence Marmon, whose main concern was to clarify that she was not
“the Baron’s secretary”,
as reported by other journalists.
The trial dragged on until November of 1934.
In the end, the Spanish judiciary was not sure on what to do with this guy. Sure, he had broken the law of vagabonds, but he had already served some time in jail.
But could he be trusted with staying in the country?
The easiest solution was to expel him. Boris himself asked to be exiled to Portugal, but on reaching the border he was arrested again – by the Portuguese this time – for not having a passport.
The Portuguese gave him a provisional passport and kicked him out of their country, too!
The former King had now truly become a vagabond. With nowhere to go, he attempted to reach France, only to be expelled once again!
THE LAST CAPER
If this was a feature film, this would be the moment when the credits rolled, and the good, old-fashioned caption reading ‘The End’ appeared on screen.
It was now time for the newsreels to be projected.
And the newsreels would show a distorted, monstrous image of what had happened in Andorra.
Elsewhere in Europe, in Berlin, Rome, Moscow and other capitals, other men with the gift of the gab and a talent to seize the right occasion, had already taken advantage of social turmoil to gain power on the back of their promises.
Those men with sinister goals had already started laying their plans to take over the countries of their liking.
1934 and 1935 would be the beginning of the slippery slope that would eventually drag a continent, and then the entire world, into catastrophe.
The Italian invasion of Abyssinia, the failure of the League of Nations, The Spanish civil War, the Sudetenland crisis, the Nazi annexation of Austria … and so on, until the start of the most disastrous was ever experienced by mankind.
I may be wrong, but I like to consider the adventure of King Boris I of Andorra, with all its plot holes and inconsistencies, as the last moment of carefree levity, the last caper before night fell over Europe.
And our very friend Boris Skossyreff would play a part in the dark times that followed.
Between 1934 and 1939 his movements were unclear, although it appears that he travelled to Portugal, Morocco, Gibraltar and France.
In 1942 he settled in Germany: he first worked as a translator in a private company, but sometime in 1943 he joined the German Army. According to newspaper El Mundo, he was a ‘sonderführer’, or ‘special officer’, with the military police on the Eastern Front.
That would make him one of many citizens from Soviet territories who would collaborate with the Axis powers out of hatred against Bolshevism.
Boris’ assignment as a special officer was indeed special, as his task was to interrogate Red Army prisoners.
In the later months of WWII, Skossyreff lived through another remarkable adventure, although I would say with a 99.99% degree of certainty that it happened only in his fantasies.
According to declarations released in 1963, Boris infiltrated the Yalta Conference in February of 1945, disguised as a French Officer. Eavesdropping on the conversations of the ‘Three Great’ – Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin – he was able to retrieve useful intelligence about their plans: more precisely, that the Allies were planning to drop an atomic bomb on Berlin!
In March or April of 1945 Skossyreff secured a meeting with Adolf Hitler in his bunker under the German capital. During their conversation, the former King convinced the Fuehrer that all was lost, and if Germany continued fighting, it would risk nuclear annihilation.
It was thanks to Boris if Hitler, before committing suicide, would leave orders for an unconditional surrender to the Allies.
After saving Berlin from a nuke strike, Boris was arrested by US Troops in May 1945. He proved that he was not a German citizen and he convinced the Americans that he was not a Nazi, securing his release.
He then settled in the Rhineland town of Boppard for a few quiet years, before making a big mistake.
In 1948 Boris travelled to Eisenach, in Thuringia, then part of the Soviet-controlled sector of Germany. Following a check of his papers, Soviet troops identified him as a former ‘special officer’ in charge of interrogations.
It was a very tight spot.
If he were to be recognised as a former Russian national, he would have been executed on the spot as a traitor. It was better to go for the lesser of two evils, which in this case was to admit that yes, he was German – despite the Russian-sounding surname – and that yes, he had been a Nazi.
The confession spared his life, but earned him an incarceration in a Siberian Gulag – which is a fate I would not wish on my worst enemy.
The man who had once been King – possibly, allegedly – languished in a hellish labour camp, alongside POWs, political prisoners, and ordinary criminals.
After 8 years, the Soviet Union and West Germany negotiated the release of German prisoners and Boris, too, returned home in 1956.
With enough intrigue and adventure to fill some 10 lives, the now 60-year-old settled again in Boppard and lived quietly until his death, on the 27th of February 1989.
DISMEMBERED APPENDICES ALTERNATE TIMELINES
As mentioned several times, accounts of the story of the King of Andorra tend to be inconsistent. But they all agree on one point: by end of July 1934 he had been arrested.
Several online sources, however, mainly originating from Russian-speaking outlets, report a completely different version of events: one according to which Boris Skossyreff remained in power until 1941!
One of the sources I came across is the website all-andorra.com, owned by media company All Pyrenees. According to its director, Ms Irina Rybalchenko:
“[All Pyrenees] is an international information media platform dedicated to Andorra … available in Catalan, English, French and Russian languages.”
This website features a short essay by Pere Joan Tomas Sogero, Honorary consul of the Russian Federation in the Principality of Andorra. The essay recounts a brief history of Andorra, touching upon the story of Boris the way we just heard it.
However, another page of the same website, features what sounds like and alternate history version of the events!
In this parallel universe, Boris I is still King when Civil War starts in Spain, offering support to the Republican side against Franco’s Nationalists.
This causes criticism by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who refers to Boris as
“if not the agent of Moscow then the agent of Republicans!”.
In February of 1939, fleeing members of the Spanish Republican army are allowed sanctuary in Andorra by Boris I, despite threats from Francisco Franco.
The Nationalist forces then enter Andorra with the goal of overthrowing Boris I, but are forced to leave, thanks to France’s intervention.
In June of the following year, France is occupied by the Nazis. The puppet regime installed in Vichy is suspicious of Andorra, anticipated to become a base for De Gaulle’s Free French soldiers and resistance fighters.
So, in autumn of 1941, Vichy and Francoist Spain dispatch a team of secret agents to arrest Boris I. The King is then interned in a concentration camp in Le Vernet, Southwestern France, where he would die in 1944.
If you are familiar with the story of the Man from Taured, you will know that Andorra is no stranger to parallel universes.
And if you are not familiar, how about you go check the video on this topic in the channel ‘XPLRD’ …
Two of the sources I consulted mention a curious detail about Boris’ adventure. Before he attempted his Andorran takeover, another man had tried to bribe the General Council.
This was an unidentified citizen from Chicago, who had offered $ 100,000 – more than two million in today’s money – to obtain the crown of Andorra. In exchange, he would have turned the co-principality into a gambling paradise.
I may be biased against Chicago residents with a love of gambling, but I immediately pictured some 1930s gangster installing himself as the King of the Valley. And that would make for a very interesting alternate reality: one in which the Italo-American Mafia has taken control of their own independent rogue state slap-bang in Western Europe!
Another story, which if treated with the right amount of whimsy, symmetry and mustard-coloured backgrounds would be right up the alley of Mr Wes Anderson …