By Ben Orcutt -- email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- Ask Count Basile A. Denissoff what's in a name and he's most likely to answer -- in his thick French accent -- everything.
Denissoff, 77, is a descendant of Russian nobility and proud of his ancestry. He has collaborated with Shenandoah University to produce a DVD of his family's legacy.
"I took all my slides and I went to Shenandoah University in Winchester and we put that on the disk," Denissoff said during a recent interview at the Warren County home he shares with his wife, Ilona, also 77. "I did it because I want my kids to keep on knowing about what's going on."
Denissoff said the folks at SU combined the slides with his narrative on the history of his family, adding Cossack music and Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" to set the mood.
"My ancestors are Cossacks," Denissoff said. "Cossacks were actually people from Russia, but they moved south to get away from the government. They became an independent tribe. There was 11 tribes. There is the Don, from the Don River, Don Cossacks, and that's where we are from."
Cossack means "free people," Denissoff said.
Denissoff's father, Elias Vassilievich Denissoff, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and went on to become secretary to the Russian prime minister. During the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Denissoff's father, who also was a count, moved his family to Belgium, where Denissoff was born in 1931. Denissoff's mother is Belgian.
Denissoff wears a ring with his family's coat of arms that was passed down from Catherine the Great, who gave the Cossacks and his family their nobility for their service to Russia.
"Before Catherine the Great, there was no nobility in Russia," Denissoff said. "Catherine the Great started to have a nobility system. It goes from son to son. My father was a count. My grandfather was a count."
Denissoff's family came to the United States in 1948, when he was 16.
"My father was worried very much about the Russian communists," Denissoff said. "They even came to East Germany, Hungary. So that's why we came in America."
Denissoff's father became a Russian Byzantine Rite Catholic priest, and Denissoff earned a degree in math from Saint Procopius College in Illinois. In 1963, Denissoff took a job with Corning Glass Works in Corning, N.Y., where he worked for 35 years as a management process specialist and was involved in the production of the windows for spacecraft that went to the moon and also for missile nose cones.
Nearby Cornell University was the recipient of Denissoff's historic documents, which he says were valued at $35,000. Denissoff and his wife moved from Raleigh, N.C., to Warren County about 12 years ago to be equidistant from their six children and now 23 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Preserving a family's legacy is important, Denissoff said, which is why he made the DVD.
"I think that kids should know where they come from," he said.
Denissoff also thinks preserving one legacy helps to keep the family together. His grandson, 19-year-old Mark Speary, a 2008 graduate of Skyline High School, is grateful to Denissoff for producing the DVD.
"Well, it represents my family and where they came from," Speary said. "When I watch that, I'm appreciative of everything I have. I feel very honored to be a part of it."
If he gets married and has a son, Speary said he would consider naming him Basile or Elias to keep the family tradition alive.
"I would rather try to keep the last name going," Speary added. "My cousins are the only ones that can do that."
Speary also appreciates the original Russian paintings that his grandfather has on display, such as one of Peter the Great, and the bronze icons from the Russian Orthodox Church.
"Oh yeah," Speary said. "It's beautiful. It's like a museum."
Denissoff said his grandson's appreciation of the family's legacy is "wonderful," which for Denissoff means mission accomplished.