I recently searched the internet for information about Russian Silver Age authors, and this led me to the topic of Russian emigre literature. I read a few articles that stated that while Nabokov is considered the greatest Russian emigre writer, Nina Berberova is also one of the greats. Last year, I’d read Berberova’s The Accompanist which I liked but didn’t love, and so I decided it was time to read another Berberova. This time I reached for The Ladies From St Petersburg which is actually three stories combined together under one title.
The Ladies from St Petersburg is published by New Directions and translated by Marian Schwartz. Schwartz is the Berberova translator, and by that I mean that Marian Schwartz has translated a number of Berberova novels (The Accompanist, Billancourt Tales, The Cape of Storms, The Book of Happiness, The Tattered Cloak and Other Stories) , and after reading the foreword (also by Schwartz) it’s clear that the two women–writer and translator–had quite a relationship.
Berberova was born in 1901, emigrated in 1922 and died in 1993, a professor emeritus at Princeton University. According to Schwartz, Berberova is the “classic neglected writer” and she defines that by this description: “despite her literary excellence, readers and critics overlooked her, mostly due to circumstances beyond her control (revolution, war, social prejudice).” Just reading Schwartz’s foreword is enough to make any sensitive reader intensely curious to read the work of Berberova.
The first story, The Ladies From St Petersburg gives the book its title. Although there are no dates given, there are clues that it’s 1917. Middle-aged Varvara Ivanovna and her daughter Margarita have travelled from St Petersburg by train for a long-arranged holiday in the country at a genteel boarding house owned by Dr. Byrdin. To the other houseguests cut off from the news of events taking place in the cities, the new arrivals represent a chance to get updates about the unrest. No one yet grasps the magnitude of the events taking place, and while the guests feel uneasy at the news of shootings, uprisings, and shortages, Dr Byrdin downplays the idea of a revolution:
“I assure you that all this revolution business will fizzle out very quickly. We here are all agreed that the Bolsheviks have no chance whatsoever of success.”
But it’s through tragedy that the radical change taking place in Russia becomes glaringly apparent when Byrdin accompanies Margarita to negotiate with a peasant for his services. This chilling story then records, with deceptive simplicity, the startling social encounters Margarita and Dr. Byrdin endure on their brief journey outside of the cocoon of the boarding house . But again, although shocked, neither Margarita nor Doctor Byrdin really absorb the enormity of what is taking place:
“How crude people have become,” Margarita said pensively.
And the doctor reassures her:
“Not for long. Everything will fall back into place again.”
And then seven years later Margarita returns to the area and witnesses exactly how “everything” has fallen “back into place again.”
In the second story, it’s December 1917 and Zoya Andreyevna arrives by train in Rostov. She has been evacuated from Kharkov due to the threat of the Bolshevik onslaught. A few years earlier Zoya left a husband she no longer loved and defied societal standards of behaviour by living openly with her lover. The lover, a soldier with the White Army, has remained behind in Kharkov with his regiment to fight the Bolsheviks. Zoya is waiting in Rostov for her lover to arrive.
In The Ladies From St Petersburg, Dr. Byrdin and their guests had no idea that life as they knew it was about to be swept away, and in Zoya Andreyevna, Zoya is just part of a vast wave of people who’ve suddenly, unknowingly become refugees:
“People surged by in herds, the majority of them strangers to this large provincial town. The refugees, who had seen epidemics, devastation, and war at close hand, filled the town with horror and despair. They too surged by, these people, from northwest to southeast–from Kiev, Kharkov, and Poltava, through this cold and dusty town to the overflowing districts of Ekaterinodar and typhus-ridden Novorossiisk, only to turn back westward later, but this time to the shores of the devastated Crimea, where they entrusted their nomadic lives to small vessels that hurled wrenching but futile SOS’s into the dark expanses of the Black Sea.”
Zoya, whose clothes indicate she’s a member of the privileged classes, takes a room in a shabby boarding house while she waits for the lover who will probably never arrive. The house is owned by Maria Petronova, and other residents include her sister Anna, a male student and a woman called Tamara. While the student is largely oblivious to Zoya’s presence, the women in the boarding house resent her and begin to spy on her every move. As the days pass, mild teasing of Zoya turns into spiteful resentment, and the atmosphere in the house grows increasingly hostile. Anna and Maria feel begin to feel emboldened:
“in the general displacement, the universal alarm, the time had come for them, too, to live and act. Just as everyone around them was filled with anticipation of the end, so they had begun to anticipate. Something told them that there were not two or three or four of them but no end to the people, no counting them–whether they had a needle or a slotted spoon in hand–gripped by the general hatred and vindictiveness.”
The third story The Big City is much more elusive. It’s post WWII, a nameless Russian emigre with an unknown past arrives in an unidentified American city (a thinly disguised New York). We are told nothing of the man’s history except that he’s left a lover behind in Europe, and now like a piece of flotsam and jetsam, he arrives in America and after renting a room in a high rise building, he once more begins a new life.
In The Big City Berberova very cleverly strips her character of details of his past, and she offers us a glimpse at exactly what it is like to arrive in America for the optimistic term ‘the fresh start.” Of course the man, who once fled Russia to Europe, and now fled Europe to America has a very convoluted past, probably full of tragedy, but washed up in America, he is just another refugee: lonely, desperate and forced to begin again. Arriving with just the clothes on his back and perhaps a battered suitcase, the man’s fragmented experience of the past is invisible. In this story Berberova perfectly captures the levelling of the refugee experience.
The brilliant selection of these particular stories combined under one cover can be no accident, for we see the stages range of the revolution through a handful of characters. The Ladies From St Petersburg offers a brief, painful view of a society on the brink of destruction. In Zoya Andreyevna, Russian society is in freefall. Maria, Anna, and Tamara form a vicious pack against a woman they view as their class enemy, and their behaviour is an eerie prototype of Stalin’s purges. In The Big City, the lack of indentifying markers of this main character serve only to poignantly underscore the refugee’s anonymity. There are no longer concerns about where to bury a relative or how to keep a few personal possessions, the tattered remnants of a former life. But the absence of identification is perhaps also symbolic of the erasure of Russian culture. Instead there are memories. Just memories and survival, and that is all.
“I am in the centre of a thousand possibilities, and a thousand responsibilities, and a thousand unknowns. The horrors and misfortunes of my age have helped me, the Revolution liberated me, exile tempered me, World War Two pushed me into another dimension”
–from The Italics Are Mine, Nina Berberova’s autobiography