What Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff’s Life Can Teach Us About Blackness

An epic story of science, white-passing, and class privilege.

Fati Hassane
5 min readJan 4, 2022
The Bogdanoff Twins loved space. Photo by Billy Huynh on Unsplash

Twin brothers Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff passed away from Covid-19 six days apart, late December 2021 and early January 2022.

They had been in the French public eye for over four decades, hosting shows that aimed and largely succeeded at making science more popular, fun, and accessible. And to anyone remotely interested in their background story, they came across as novel characters.

Extra-ordinary novel characters

Described as geniuses, they could speak and read English, German and French at the age of 3, drive a (stick) car at 6, fly a plane at 16. They graduated from high school at 14 and hosted their first show on national TV at 18.
Over the decades, they authored many scientific books and triggered criticism from the academic community for their lack of scientific rigor.
They were always somehow hanging in there, close to the highest levels of power as the country went from being led by leftist, rightist (and in-between, some would say) presidents.
We knew from their name that they were of Central European descent. We also vaguely knew that they had aristocratic roots and grew up in a castle in the country. What the public opinion vastly didn’t know, or chose to forget, is that they were also Black (by US standards) or quarterons (“one-quarter Black”) as we regrettably still say in France.
Or, to be more precise, they were partly of Black descent, but their Blackness is up to debate.

The Bogdanoff twins were born to Maria Dolores Franzyska Kolowrat-Krakowská (known as “Maya”) and Yuri Mikhaïlovitch Osten-Sacken-Bogdanoff, a russian painter.

However, if their story was the subject of a book or a movie, it should start with their grandmother, an Austrian Countess named Berta Kolowrat-Krakowská.

Not your regular Countess

In 1923, she was married to Hieronymus von Colloredo, a member of the German princely family, when she met Roland Hayes, an American lyric tenor and composer invited to perform in Prague. A passionate love story is said to have ensued, leaving Maya pregnant. Before giving birth, strongly encouraged by her husband, she gave up her marital life, four children, titles and possessions, and set up in a castle of rural France. Maya was born on February 12, 1926. Roland made some attempts to legally adopt the child and raise her in the US, but Berta never agreed to it (it may or may not have something to do with the fact that she was still married to the German prince — they made several public appearances as a married couple throughout their lives). Instead, she raised her daughter by herself.

A random castle (NOT the Bogdanoff’s) Photo by Mr. Xerty on Unsplash

Just two twins in “culturally assimilated” France

Maya would grow up and have the twins in 1949. However, she chose to leave them to their grandmother for most of their childhood. Therefore, it is safe to say that growing up in rural France of the 1950s and 1960s, without any contact with their grandfather’s family (except from one meeting with Roland in Paris when they were five), without a close black figure, the Bogdanoff Twins from the Saint-Lary castle never got exposure to any black culture.
Another central element to their story is that they are white-passing: they were perceived as white despite their black grandfather. Up until the 1990s, they did have an “exotic” (read “non-western-Europe”) vibe that I attributed to their Central European roots. And what happened after the 1990s, you ask? Well, that’s a topic for another story. A most certainly another author.

Their Black roots were not a secret, but it was never (as far as I know) acknowledged, even though they were regularly invited in various night shows to discuss the most random issues, such as their twin bonds or extraterrestrial life. This is not usually the case for Black, Asian, and racially ambiguous celebrities.

Unlike Clare, the character of the excellent “Passing” movie (currently on Netflix), Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff probably never consciously chose not to be Black. It’s almost as if their grandfather being African American had nothing to do with them. And French society, building on their appearance, name, and Central European aristocratic background, created a reality where this bit of their story was irrelevant.

Simone de Beauvoir famously said that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” It is not biology that determines the experience of being a woman. This experience is rather determined by how society attaches certain meanings to the female body.
Similarly, one of your four grandparents being black might not mean anything if society perceives you like the nerdy castle boy from Austrian and Russian roots. However, I don’t believe that being from an upper-class erases the experience of being Black. I knew this even before the French Ivoirian filmmaker Isabelle Boni-Claverie made the impeccable demonstration with her documentary “Trop noire pour être Francaise?” (Reuniting Blackness and Frenchness).
However, I can’t help but think that the Bogdanoff Twins’ social status and their white-passing reinforced one another and protected them from the experiences that many mixed-raced people go through in Europe.

The next generation of Bogdanoff might see things differently.

Igor ended up marrying three times, having a total of six children. Grichka never married. When questioned about this, his answer was, “I’m too attached to my brother… this is also why his marriages never last”.
One of Igor’s children, Sasha Bogdanoff, undertook a journey that led her to meet her family from Roland Hayes side in 2013 in Boston. From this point, she decided to become a singer. She describes herself as “White, French, Belgian, Tzech, German, but also, Black”. She has traced her ancestry and has determined that her roots are originally from Côte d’Ivoire (don’t say “Ivory Coast”, please, thank you). She even visited the country and performed in Abidjan in 2016.

There would be a lot to unpack here, especially in comparison to the Bogdanoff Twins’ apparent distance to anything Black. However, it is safe to say that a millennial’s needs and points of view in a hyper-connected Black-Lives-Matter-era might differ from the ones of two tanned boys who grew up in a time when no one would question the French Cultural Assimilation Model.

Like in any Alexandre Dumas series, there’s more to the story than what the first novel would give away.

Bonus: Roland Hayes sings “Go Down, Moses.” 1922



Fati Hassane

“I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central.” Stories in good French and decent English.