Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Refugees from the Russian Revolution: 1 – From Moscow to Kyiv

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi (Pen name of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya) 
translated by Robert Chandler and Irina Steinberg


Thanks to Pushkin Press and  their excellent translations I've made another discovery, the Russian writer Teffi. In Memories she writes about her journey as she escapes Russia in 1919, in the throes of the civil war that followed the revolution. In a series of extraordinary stories and sketches, she presents memorable characters and remarkable conversations. She writes in a deceptively simple and seeming light-hearted prose about the varied adventures and sometimes near-desperate situations she and her companions undergo.

For example, after they have succeeded in leaving Moscow, the next hurdle is getting across the border into Ukraine. After a helpful officer disappears (with rumours that he has been shot, for taking bribes) it seems impossible that they will be allowed to cross the border. But in the nearby rundown transit settlement they are asked to put on a performance of plays and songs to an audience of Red Army soldiers, and assured that if they do, they will be allowed to cross. One of their number, Gooskin, says “Now we're in real trouble. Slap into the hornet's nest. Executions every day. Only three days ago a general was burned alive. And they make off with every last piece of luggage. We must get out of here fast.”

By some miracle, the day after their performance they are given the promised escort to the border and continue their journey with several changes of trains, to Kiev, where Teffi sees an extraordinary sight – a Russian officer standing outside a bakery, eating a cake. She writes,
“Just imagine – daylight, sunshine, people everywhere, and in the officer's hand, an unseen, unheard-of luxury, the stuff of legend – a cake!
I close my eyes and open them again. No, it isn't a dream. So it must be real life.”

Sunrise over modern day Kyiv
 Teffi finds a room to rent in Kyiv. It is virtually unfurnished and the windows don't close properly (it's winter) but it is central and spacious, and she likes it. She writes some articles for the local newspaper, Kiev Thought and then comes down with Spanish flu. In a delirious state, she remembers friends coming to visit her, bringing bouquets of flowers. After she recovered she writes,

“.. when I went outside for the first time, Kiev was all ice. Black ice and wind. The few pedestrians I saw were barely able to make their way along the streets. They were falling like ninepins, knocking their companions off their feet too.
I remember an editorial office I used to visit from time to time. It was halfway up an icy hill. Trying to get to it form below was hopeless – I'd manage ten steps then slide back down again. Approaching it from above was no better; I would gain too much momentum and slide straight past. Never in my life had I encountered such ice.

The mood in the city had changed; it was no longer celebratory. Something had been extinguished. Everyone was on the alert, ears pricked, eyes darting about. Many people had quietly disappeared, to destinations unknown. There was more and more talk of Odessa.
“Things are looking up in Odessa, I've heard. Whereas round here... Peasants, armed bands....They're closing in on us.....Petlyura or something....”
Kiev Thought did not fear Petlyura. Petlyura was a former employee. He would, of course, remember this.
He did indeed. His very first decree was to close down Kiev Thought. Long before he entered the city, he sent his minions ahead with instructions.
Kiev Thought was perplexed, even a little embarrassed.
But close it did.”

Centre of Kyiv today

Petlyura was the leader of the Ukrainian Nationalists. During the revolution and the ensuing civil war, Kyiv was sometimes controlled by the Nationalists, sometimes by the White Army and ultimately by the victorious Bolshevik army.

As well as poetry, short stories and satires, Teffi wrote plays, and this shows in her superb dialogue. As her journey continues, with events and characters becoming more and more surreal I suddenly understand Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. In an utterly bizarre world how else can you write? In situations in life which make no sense yet you have to respond to, and when these events clash hopelessly with your sense of reason, your desires, your usual way of responding and relating to others, the imagination makes leaps into fantasy.  Or the imagined past, as Bulgakov does so well as he gets inside the mind of his character of Pontius Pilate, living at a time when events were equally bizarre. 

Bulgakov had personally requested Stalin to let him emigrate, but permission was refused. The Master and Margarita was written in secret, and never published in his lifetime. But living in the Stalinist regime where he was not free either to publish what he wanted, or leave, writing his surreal masterpiece makes complete sense.

Teffi and her fellow  citizens, acquaintances, friends and colleagues are trying to escape. In situations where the normal rules of life are suspended, and as rumour follows rumour, they have no idea what is going on or what will happen. Russia, after the Revolution, was in the throes of civil war, Ukraine was occupied by the Germans, but after they retreated, Ukraine declared itself independent. After this very brief spell of autonomy, it was occupied by the White Army, followed a few months later by the Red Army.  As soldiers who had fought in the White Army found themselves no longer able to protect the city and the citizens, they were in grave danger themselves. Bulgakov's The White Guard, written several years before The Master and Margarita, tells the story of a family caught up in these terrifying times. (It was dramatised, but later suppressed by Stalin's regime.)

Saint Michael's monastery, Kyiv

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