Tag Archives: Russian Revolution

The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov

I’m going to throw a question out there… Would you want your life to be defined by history? In my mind, the question is accompanied by images of Ulysses S. Grant,  Mannerheim, and Makhno–men who happened to be born at a crucial time in history and whose lives were swept up in war. But cast these images aside, and let’s start looking at something a little less famous, a lot less stature, and this brings me to The Black Russian, a non-fiction book by Vladimir Alexandrov–an incredible tale of how one man’s life was ripped apart by history and the dominant, brutal attitudes to race and class.

The Black RussianThis book tells the remarkable story of the life of Frederick Bruce Thomas who was born in 1872 to former slaves who were farmers in Mississippi. Just looking at the date of the date of Frederick’s birth tells us that he was born to a whole new Southern world, but a society that was still in a great deal of post-Civil War turmoil. Frederick’s parents must have been remarkable people as they managed to amass, at one point, 625 acres of land which they successfully farmed. But their very prosperity led to a powerful local, white landowner tricking them out of their land with a “multilayered trap” which included false threats and manufactured debts. Basically run off their land penniless, Frederick’s family fought back seeking legal redress, but after Frederick’s father was brutally murdered, the family sank into poverty once again.

Frederick set out in the world on his own and always seemed to make very concise intelligent decisions, and even though the choices he could make in his work world were very limited due to his race, nonetheless, a clear pattern emerges which “prefigures his future life and career.” Frederick quickly attached himself to those who could afford luxuries. He didn’t get stuck working in a back water dump of motel but always lived in large cities which attracted the wealthy who had money to spend.

he [had] entered an elegant service industry, one that existed for the benefit of people with money and social standing. No matter how lowly or demanding Frederick’s own labours might have been, he was nevertheless involved in providing adornments for those who could afford to pay for such luxuries.

Frederick worked as a waiter, but again, only in the most expensive restaurants and then after a successful career in Chicago and New York, in 1894, he sailed for London. Unfortunately, we don’t know what Frederick thought of England, but there are many quotes included from white Americans visiting London during the same time period who expressed a range of views–some outraged and some delighted–at the way “American negro[s]” “can go into the finest restaurants and be served just like a white man.” Frederick ran a boarding house in Leicester Square but it was a short lived endeavor, and then off to Paris where he worked for a few years and quickly learned French. But he was still restless and moved onto Brussels and the Riviera. It’s as though he auditioned countries to find his next home, and then, rather surprisingly, he finally settled in Moscow, married, started a family, and became one of the most successful variety theatre & restaurant owners in Russia. His theatres attracted the curious and those with money to throw away, and in one of his establishments, Maxim’s, he introduced the “theme space” which appears to foreshadow the outrageous hotels of Vegas.  With Frederick as an affluent millionaire, bribing local officials to look the other way for the risqué acts he searched the globe for, this should have ended as a happy story, but 1917 rolled around and a penniless 47-year-old Frederick, with his second wife and children found himself fleeing from the Bolsheviks and boarding a ship in 1919 full of American refugees. Good thing the American consul had no idea that Frederick had become a Russian citizen in 1915 under special dispensation from the Czar.

The Black Russian tells a tale of courage, ingenuity, dizzying success, flight, and then disaster. Frederick’s incredible life was bookended by racism and class-hatred, and what a tragic roller-coaster ride. He fled a country in which his class held him to the lowest, domestic positions, then, with his own unique talent and nose for business, he reinvented himself and was a phenomenal success in Russia, of all places, only to have it ripped from him by the Bolsheviks who saw him primarily as upper class and not as a black man who’d succeeded against the odds. This is one of those stories that if it were fiction, the average reader who toss aside after a few chapters thinking that the story was too implausible.  The Black Russian begins as  a gripping adventure story as Frederick’s family flees a panic-stricken Odessa, and then the book segues back into Frederick’s beginnings, his search for success, his dramatic failures in Constantinople and his ignominious end. The book also provides a backdrop of the society of the times, and while this is, at times, essential, the information is sometimes anticlimactic when compared to the main story.

At the peak of his success, Frederick was worth “about $10 million in today’s currency.”  While The Black Russian is the tale of one man’s rise and fall, the book also shows that Frederick, once liberated from the racial attitudes that held him to menial domestic positions in America, soared in a society in which his colour was no impediment. Intelligent, forward-thinking and unleashed in a country in which his colour was not an issue, Frederick showed just how successful he could be. It’s impossible not to read his story and consider how Frederick’s life would have been contained and limited if he’d stayed in America. Not only do we see  Frederick’s intelligence and strategic planning, we also see his sense of humor and how he loved to play with the American tourists who came his way, acting out–somewhat outrageously–their lowest expectations of a “semiliterate” subservient American black domestic–even though quite obviously diamond-flashing Frederick did not fit their stereotypical racist ideas and was, in fact, at the height of his success, a cosmopolitan figure, a successful, worldly millionaire who carved a fortune with his intelligence and adaptability.

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Moscow but Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia

The cover of the short story collection, Moscow but Dreaming caught my eye. I’d never heard of the author Ekaterina Sedia before, but since I have a fondness for most things Russian (Ekaterina was born and raised in Moscow but now lives in New Jersey), I decided to read the book–and this in spite of the fact that I wasn’t sure that the collection was my sort of thing at all. I admit that I didn’t care for the first story, but by the time I got to the next one, I was hooked into reading this beguiling, eclectic mix. History, fantasy, science fiction, and even the macabre, yes it’s all here from the talented and multi-track mind of this young Russian author whose work, peppered with elements of folklore and the supernatural stretches genre boundaries in a China Mieville/Neil Gaiman sort of way. Here’s her website, and just the design alone should give you a hint of this author’s work.

moscow but dreamingOne of my favourite stories is Citizen Komarova Finds Love and concerns the displaced, impoverished Countess Komarova, who following the upheaval of the Russian Revolution, finds herself displaced from her family’s ruined mansion and working in a shop in the town of N.

The owner of the shop, a man as old as he was ornery, let her rent the room above the shop, where the wind howled under the roof thatched with a ragtag team of tiles and shingles. There was a small and round metal stove, known colloquially as ‘bourgeoisie,’ as indiscriminate and insatiable as its namesake: it burned books, pianos, furniture, twigs and entire palmate fir branches, crackling birch logs. It gave back cherry-red heat that spread in waves through the room over the shop, and broke over the stained walls, much like the distant Mediterranean over its rock shores.

Countess Komorova, now plain citizen Komarova, spends a great deal of time on her memories–in particular, a childhood holiday spent in the Mediterranean.  The bleak winter days of the Revolution continue, and “whatever nobility survived” gravitate to the shop, and hoping to gain a few coins, they drag their bedraggled finery with them. Naturally there’s not much of a market, and the goods pile up waiting for the buyers who never come. Since the shop is run on consignment, there’s not much to lose.

The rest of January passed in the sparse slow sifting of snow from the clouds, grey and heavy like quicksilver. The stock of the consignment shop increased: every dress and fur coat and petticoat and necklace, every ring and feathered hat had made its way there, as the former nobility grew hungrier and less optimistic about the possible return of the old order of things. The corners were now filled with rustling of lace and slow undulations of peacock feathers, their unblinking green and azure eyes nodding in the drafts. Countess Komorova, who in her entire lifetime never experienced such luxury, stroked the ermine muffs and guarded them jealously from marauding moths.

But then one day, in comes a different sort of customer, a Red cavalryman who brings in four horseshoes. He returns several times and with each visit, the items he brings are stranger than the ones before….

Another favourite is Tin Cans, a story told by an elderly night watchman who considers himself lucky to get a job at the Tunisian embassy, once the house of Beria. This is a ghost story, but even so there’s a marvelous quote about Brighton Beach–a place the old man has visited:

I don’t know why anyone would voluntarily live in Brighton Beach, that sad and gray throwback to the provincial towns of the USSR in the seventies, fringed by the dirty hem of a particularly desperate ocean. The irony is of course that every time you’re running from something, it follows you around, like the tin can tied to a dog’s shaggy tail. Those Brooklyn inhabitants, they brought everything they hated with them.

The narrator, who’s one step from extreme poverty, feels lucky to get the job, but the nights in the embassy halls bring no peace, and instead the night watchman glimpses ugly scenes of Russian history.

But all the stories are not concerned with Russian history.  One story Hector Meets the King presents a different version of the Hector of the Iliad. In One, Two Three, set in America a desperate childless couple adopt a “malevolent house spirit,” a Kikimora, and in There’s a Monster Under Helen’s Bed, an American couple adopt a very damaged Russian child. The latter, is, of course, rather topical thanks to Putin’s recent decision to ban the adoption of Russian children to America.

Another story I really liked was Yakov and the Crows, a story about an office worker who befriends crows that visit the workplace looking for food, and there’s also Chapaev and the Coconut Girl–a story about a young Russian woman  working in America who having developed AI cockroaches in her lab, works on developing an AI Chapaev, a man she “worships.” The Bank of Burkina Faso concerns the deposed Prince of Burundi who now lives in a Moscow apartment scheming of ways to collect his millions which are in the elusive Bank of Burkina Faso. I thought this was going to morph into a con-artist story, but instead this became a story of collective dreaming. Anyway, this has to be the imaginative short story collection I’ve come across in some time, and that makes it difficult to put into any sort of neat, descriptive box. The introduction by author Jeffrey Ford mentions the description Magical Realism, at the same time noting that this is a “weak term” when applied to Sedia’s work. Magical Realism, IMO opinion, fits well with Spanish literature, but with Russian literature, we’re looking at something much more nebulous–something that sits uneasily on the fringes of evil–the dark and treacherous space between how we live and what we endure.

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An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov

“And perhaps the reason I always briefly regretted leaving people and countries, perhaps this feeling of only very fleeting regret was evanescent precisely because nothing that I saw and loved–soldiers, officers, women, snow and war–will ever leave me, not until the time has come for my last deathly voyage, the slow fall into the black abyss, a million times more protracted than my earthly existence, so long that while I am falling I will have time to forget about everything that I have seen and remembered and felt and loved; and when I have forgotten everything that I have loved, then I will die.”

Far into Gaito Gazdanov’s novella, An Evening with Claire, the narrator, a young man named Kolya, discusses the Civil War with his renegade uncle Vitaly, a Russian dragoon captain who challenged his commanding officer to a duel. When the commanding officer refused, Vitaly slapped his face and ended up in prison for 5 years. A cuckold and a freethinker, Vitaly advises his nephew not to listen to his teachers or to priests because they are all “idiots” and tell lies. It’s Russia, 1919, and Vitaly learns that his soon-to-be-16-year-old nephew has enlisted in the White Army, not from any political ideology, but because he is on White territory and it’s “expected” of him. Vitaly tells Kolya:

“Russia,” he said, “is entering the zone of the peasant stage of history, the strength of the muzhik, and the muzhik serves in the Red Army. The Whites,” according to Vitaly’s contemptuous observation, “don’t even possess that romanticism of war which could seem attractive; the White Army is the army of the middle class and the semi-intelligentsia. It’s full of madmen, cocaine addicts, cavalry officers mincing like coquettes,” Vitaly said sharply. “Failed careerists and sergeant majors can be found in the ranks of the generals.” 

Vitaly sees the Whites “like dying coral, on the corpses of which new formations are growing. The Reds–they are what is growing.” Vitaly cannot dissuade his nephew–the situation is too far gone, so instead he offers a piece of advice:

“Listen to me,” Vitaly meanwhile said to me. “In the near future you will be witnessing many atrocities. You will see people killed, hung, shot. None of this is new, important, or very interesting, but here is what I advise you: Don’t ever become a man of conviction. Don’t reason or draw conclusions, but try to be as simple as possible. And remember that the greatest happiness on earth is to think that you’ve understood something about the life surrounding you. But you don’t understand and when, after some time, you look back on it you will see that you had not truly understood. And after another year or two has passed you will be convinced that you were mistaken the second time as well. And so it will go without end. And nonetheless this is the most important and most interesting thing in life.”

Vitaly’s advice is central to An Evening with Claire, and it’s also seminal to the novella’s style, for the tale passes through the narrator’s memories rather like a camera recording events, or a photograph album, in which the reader flips through the pages and discovers snapshots of the author’s amazing life.

My first Gazdanov novel came earlier this year with the splendid The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. An Evening with Claire, according to the excellent and informative introduction written by translator Jodi Daynard, was Gazdanov’s breakthrough work. It was published in Paris in 1930 by a 26-year-old Gazdanov who had, up to this point, written a handful of stories. An Evening with Claire touched a nerve within Europe’s émigré population as a whole,” and after reading the book, it’s easy to see why.

This is not a traditional novel with a plottable story line for the book mainly deals with the issue of memory. Critics thought An Evening with Claire was influenced by Proust and Bunin. According to the introduction, Gazdanov didn’t read Proust until after WWII, and while the connections are there, it’s best to approach Gazdanov not as a secondary Nabokov or a pale Proust, but as an important Russian émigré writer who reflected the displacement and loss experienced by those swept up the events of this remarkable time.

Gazdanov (1903-1971) was just 16 years old when he enlisted in the White army during the Russian Civil War, and some of those experiences are recorded in the novel. With the defeat of General Wrangel in 1920, Gazdanov left the Crimea and eventually, in 1923, landed in Paris. All these dramatic twists and turns of fate appear in An Evening with Claire, and perhaps the role of memory is emphasised because for those displaced by the turmoil in Russia, memory was–after all–one of the very few things left for the émigré population, and the one thing that could not be taken away.

The novel begins with a very definite structure: the first person narrator, Kolya, in Paris, is visiting, as he does every evening, Claire, the married woman he loves. Her husband, rather conveniently, is in Ceylon. Claire, a tease whose eyes are “gifted with the power of so many metamorphoses–cruel one moment, shameless or laughing the next” has been ill. On this particular evening, Kolya finally possesses Claire–a moment he’s dreamed of for ten years.

I thought about Claire, about the evenings I had spent with her, and gradually I came to remember everything that went before them; and the impossibility of understanding and expressing all of it weighed heavily upon me. This evening it was even more apparent than usual that there was no way for me to embrace and feel that endless succession of ideas, impressions and sensations which, in their totality, rose up in my memory like a row of shadows reflected in the dim and fluid mirror of a seasoned imagination.

Kolya admits that throughout his life he “was far too indifferent to external events; my deaf inner existence remained incomparably more significant,” and from this point, he recalls certain moments–beginning with his earliest childhood memory. This leads to the memories of his robust, generous-hearted father, a chief forester in Siberia,  who wasted away and died when Kolya was eight. Kolya has a much more difficult time understanding his mother as “concealed within her was the danger of internal explosions and the continual conflict of selves.” After the death of his siblings, they grew closer but parted when he attended military school.

There are some incredible memories here as Kolya notes his ability to access a moment from his past and find himself there–a boy, a teenager, a young man, and then a soldier.

Usually much time would have to pass before I would understand the sense of a particular event, and only after it had completely lost and influence on my receptiveness would it acquire that meaning which it should have had when it took place. First it would migrate to a distant and illusory region to which my imagination descended only rarely, and where I would find, as it were, a geological stratification of my history.

Some memories are recalled by the sense of smell and then transmitted to us through Gazdanov’s language which effectively builds a snap-shot:

Just as, in order to remember clearly and distinctly my life in the military school and the incomparable, stony sorrow with which I left that tall building, I had only to imagine the taste of meatballs, the meat sauce and macaroni–so could I, as soon as I smelled coal, immediately picture the beginning of my service on the armoured train, the winter of 1919, snow-covered Sinelnikov, the bodies of the Makhnovites hanging from the telegraph poles, their frozen bodies swinging in the winter wind and striking the wood of the poles with a blunt, light sound, the blackening hamlets behind the station, the whistle of the engines sounding like distress signals, and the white summit of the rails, incomprehensible in their motionlessness.

Moments from the war comprise the most powerful passages in the book: a soldier goes insane–another soldier, Kopchik, is avoided by Kolya who feels that “there was something inhuman and evil about this soldier, something I would not have wanted to know,” and scenes of Sevastopol, the temporary, chaotic home of the remnants of the defeated White army. Claire also appears as an attractive child and as a seductive newlywed, and when the narrator is cast from Russia and becomes a “vagabond,” she rather romantically embodies the narrator’s sense of regret. Ten years later, in Paris, that regret would seem to expunged in the night Kolya spent as her lover, but is regret ever dismissed? Or does is remain ephemeral, inaccessibly frozen in suspended time?

An Evening with Claire is not a quick read and is best read slowly. Gazdanov offers us a glimpse of a vanishing world, and his experiences of war are tempered with time and edged with sadness–yet there’s also an emotional distancing there. As translator Jodi Daynard notes, “it became a mark of his character to measure the value of experience subjectively, seeking to find its meaning, not to judge it.” Absolutely marvellous.

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Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev

First, credit must go to Book Around The Corner for pointing out Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev. It’s doubtful that I would have come across this nasty little tale of adolescence and addiction without her review. My copy is one of the European Classics series from Northwestern University Press, and the translation is by Michael Henry Hein.

The blurb on the back (yes I know that’s shallow) states that this is a “Dostoevskian psychological novel of ideas [and] Novel with Cocaine explores the interaction between psychology, philosophy and ideology.” It’s apparently not enough to throw out the link to Dostoevsky, because there’s also a quote from John Updike: “fascinating … Reminiscent of Nabokov’s eccentric precision.”

Well which is it? Is Novel with Cocaine Dostoevskian or “reminiscent of Nabokov?” I press the point because Nabokov did not admire Dostoevsky (he called him a “cheap sensationalist” amongst other things) and he would not have appreciated being compared to a book that’s compared to Dostoevsky. Russian literature is composed of more than one flavour.

Since I read Novel with Cocaine, that entitles me to an opinion on the book, so here it is: it’s Dostoevskian.

The novel is split into four distinct sections: School, Sonya, Cocaine and Reflections, and the story begins with the school days of Vadim, the Russian anti-hero. The setting is pre- and post-Russian Revolution and 17-year-old Vadim, his mother and their servant live in Moscow. In spite of the fact they are terribly poor, Vadim manages to squeeze a couple of roubles from his mother (and the servant) in order to buy himself a few luxuries. He’s bitterly ashamed of his mother’s poverty, and when his mother extends love and affection, it’s returned with shame and loathing. Most teenagers are eager to shed the yoke of childhood–a role that implies a number of conditions of subordination, but in Vadim’s case, his loathing of his mother is pathological.

But this pathology is not limited to Vadim’s relationship with his mother–although it may begin there. School details how Vadim, who’s being treated for venereal disease, seduces a girl knowingly infecting her too. Vadim, at seventeen, is an accomplished manipulator, and he even convinces the poor girl to pay for the room. Here’s Vadim analysing his actions:

It would be absolutely wrong to assume that during the few minutes it took to drive to the maison de rendez-vous I was unconcerned about passing on my illness to Zinochka. Pressing her against me, I thought of nothing else; but my thoughts centered not so much on the responsibility I might incur as on the trouble others might cause me. And as is so often the case in these matters, fear of discovery did not in the least deter me from the act; it simply led me to go about it in such a way that no one would know who had perpetrated it.

In order to avoid any future difficulties, Vadim, the scumbag, gives a false name and phone number, and he later regrets the incident, not for infecting the girl, but because he didn’t have much fun:

It was wasteful of me to contaminate the girl, I thought and felt, but what I meant by the word “wasteful” was not that I had committed a horrible act; on the contrary, what I meant was that I had made a sacrifice, hoping to gain a certain pleasure in return, which pleasure had not been forthcoming.

This incident reminded me a great deal of Apropos of the Wet Snow: Part II of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, and the relationship between the young narrator and a prostitute. Novel with Cocaine is Dostoevskian in its exploration of the toxicity of the protagonist’s relationships, and also for its philosophical emphasis. More of that later.

Lest you get the wrong impression, Novel with Cocaine is also very funny. The scenes with Vadim and his school chums are priceless and also observant. In one section, Vadim describes the political dynamics of the classroom as a “horseshoe” with the excellent students on one end and the terrible students on the other. Vadim notes that “the closer the students moved to the middle, the duller they became.” He observes that students fail to make progress through the horseshoe as each is hampered “by the reputation he has made for himself over the years.” Thus a halo effect rules the teachers’ perceptions, and Vadim relates a series of hilarious incidents in which one student, Burkewitz, achieves the impossible–he alters the opinions the teachers have of him and ‘moves’ from one end of the symbolic horseshoe to the other. Burkewitz is to appear later in a significant role.

Sonya relates Vadim’s relationship with a married woman, and through this affair Ageyev effectively inverts the Great Russian Tragedy of Anna Karenina. Vadim’s liaison is no great, tormented love affair. It’s not grand passion ending in scandal, societal rejection and suicide. No, Vadim’s affair with Sonya is tawdry, sordid, grubby and very, very petty. In a marvellous letter to Vadim, Sonya complains about Vadim’s dirty underwear and reveals an affair conducted with the “equanimity of a civil servant“:

 Is that the love I was ready to leave everything for, to ruin my life for? I asked myself. No Vadim, no my dearest, it wasn’t love at all; it was a foul, a loathsome mire. I have enough of that mire at home not to bring more back to my all-mahogany conjugal bed from the fusty back room of some dive or other.

If a bildungsroman is a book in which the character matures, then the opposite happens here. Vadim reaches so-called adulthood with an uncanny understanding of his own motivations, but that knowledge brings him nothing whatsoever. Instead he lurches into an addiction–as the title indicates–with cocaine. Vadim, a twisted self-absorbed individual incapable of the reciprocity requisite in relationships, begins to conduct the only relationship for which he’s suited: a love affair with cocaine.

In Reflections, reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in which the narrator argues to himself in isolation, Vadim presents certain philosophical arguments designed to examine the intricacies and baseness of human nature while hinting of the Russian Revolution:

For all we should have to do is fill our theaters with plays in which villains not only survive, not only escape punishment, but triumph, plays in which villains triumph and the virtuous poor succumb, and we should soon see people pouring into the streets in revolt, rebellion, insurrection. But, you may object again, it would be a revolt in the name of justice, in the name of the most noble of human feeling. And you are of course correct, perfectly correct. But have a look at us as we come out to revolt in the name of humanity, have a good look at our faces, our lips, and especially our eyes, and if you refuse to see that you are surrounded by wild animals then you had beat a hasty retreat: your inability to distinguish man from beast may cost you your life.

There’s just one last thing I want to bring up. The translator’s intro mentions that M. Ageyev is a pseudonym, and that the real name of the author is unknown (Wikipedia identifies the author as Mark Levi). Here’s the book’s spotty history:

In the early thirties a Paris-based Russian émigré journal, Numbers, received an unsolicited  manuscript from Istanbul, a manuscript entitled Story with Cocaine. Following the succes de scandale of its journal publication, it appeared as a book under the title Novel with Cocaine … then disappeared, seemingly forever.

Ok, so far so good. Then this:

Now about fifty years later, it has resurfaced. One of the work’s early admirers (and we are told, a close friend or relative of the author) came upon it in a second-hand bookshop in Paris and immediately set about translating it in French. At the same time she tried to uncover as much information as she could about the author. Rumor and speculation aside, all that has come to light is this: ‘Ageyev,’ a Russian émigré living in Istanbul, wished to move to Paris and establish his reputation as a writer there. Encouraged by the reception of Novel with Cocaine, he sent first a short story, then his passport to a friend in Paris. The short story was published, the passport lost. Recent attempts to locate him by means of notices in French and Turkish press have proved fruitless. Neither the friend nor anyone else has ever heard of him again.

The intro goes on to speculate that perhaps the anonymous author returned to Russia and died in Stalin’s purges.

Here’s what I don’t understand: How can the author be unknown and yet a “close friend or relative” finds a copy of this book in Russian in a second-hand bookshop. Which is it? A friend or a relative? And how can this friend or relative not know the name of the unknown author if they are a friend or a relative? Is the identity kept secret to protect the author? This doesn’t any sense to me or am I missing something here?

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Boris Savinkov and W. Somerset Maugham

Boris Savinkov is not a name I’d readily link with W. Somerset Maugham, but I came across a chapter about these two vastly different men in the marvellous book A Traveller in Romance: Uncollected Writings 1901-1964– W. Somerset Maugham (edited by John Whitehead). In the chapter The Terrorist: Boris Savinkov, Maugham recalls meeting Savinkov years before. Here’s how the chapter begins with Maugham on a ship:

I suppose it was something in the air. No one in the ship could sleep. One went to bed tired, but no sooner had one laid one’s head on the pillow than all one’s senses grew alert and one was wide awake. This was not the case only with a few bad sleepers, but with the passengers in general, and as night followed night, knowing there would be no rest in our rooms, we stayed up later and later.

One evening, having played bridge till our eyes ached and our brains were dizzy, we sat in the smoking-room, half a dozen of us, weary but unwilling to face a sleepless bed. We drank and smoked. We talked of one thing and another and presently one of those present threw out a question.

‘Who is the most remarkable man you’ve ever met?’ he asked.

As the conversation continues into the night, Maugham listens:

I sat silent, for no one spoke to me, and within myself considered whether really the most extraordinary men were to be found among those who have made a splash in the world; I had a notion that perhaps they were to be found rather among the obscure, living secret lives in a great and populous city, solitary on some island in the South Seas.

As I read this passage, I thought how typical it was of Maugham to include the South Seas into the equation. Here’s an observation made by Maugham as the discussion continues:

But I noticed that no one had said what he meant by extraordinary. Had it any reference to goodness? Had it to do with force of character or was it the sense of power that is manifest in certain men, which had led the speaker to claim for one or other of the persons mentioned that he was the most extraordinary man whom he had ever met? Or was it just strangeness?

Not the best discussion for the insomniac, and later Maugham returns to his cabin, tries to sleep, and instead goes onto the ship’s deck and recalls his meeting with Boris Savinkov in 1917 in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg):

I suppose few remember his name now, but [it] is a name that might have well been as familiar to us all as that of Lenin, and if it had, Lenin’s would have remained obscure. Boris Savinkov might easily have become a man of tremendous authority in Russia; I do not know whether he failed owing to some defect in his character or because the circumstances of the time were such that no man could have altered the course of events. There is no more sometimes than a trembling of a leaf between success and failure.

Maugham gives no hint as to why he was in Petrograd in 1917–hardly a tourist destination at that time in history. He just states that he’d “been sent there on business.” What sort of business, I wondered, and why did he contact Savinkov? There is no explanation. At that time Maugham had read two of Savinkov’s novels and knew of his reputation as a terrorist. When he meets the Russian, Maugham reports that Savinkov  “had the prosperous, respectable look of the manager of a bank.”

Maugham meets Savinkov in order to conduct this mysterious business more than once, and the chapter discusses the various topics of conversation that took place between the two men. At one point, the conversation turns to the Bolsheviks:

Savinkov hated the Bolsheviks. When he spoke of them, though his voice remained soft, his eyes grew steely. The last words he ever spoke to me were these:

‘Between me and Lenin, it’s war to the death. One of these days, perhaps next week, he will put me with my back to the wall and shoot me, or I shall put him with his back to another wall and shoot him. One thing I can tell you is that I shall never run away.’ 

Savinkov spoke those words to Maugham in 1917. Shaplen, the translator of Savinkov’s memoirs, states that Savinkov provided Socialist-Revolutionary Dora Kaplan with a gun with which to shoot Lenin in 1918. Considering the quote from Maugham, well, it all falls into place. While the wounds were not lethal, Lenin never fully recovered, and later suffered a series of strokes before his death in 1924. Dora Kaplan was executed. 

Savinkov lived in exile for a few years before being lured back to Russia in 1924  through the encouraging letters of a friend. He was arrested immediately in Minsk. Then came the trial, news of his ‘repentance,’ and a ten-year prison sentence. Then came the suicide. (I’m injecting here that suicide by ‘falling out of a window’ is a a popular but highly suspicious end–I’m thinking Giuseppe Pinelli as one example).

Shaplen appears to struggle with this final phase of Savinkov’s life. He takes the trial and the suicide at face value while speculating exactly what was going on in Savinkov’s mind when he ‘repented.’ Shaplen asks whether Savinkov returned to Russia thinking that his moment had come to seize his place in Russian history:

Lenin had been dead eight months and the Communist Party was beginning to be torn by the internal strife which, being in large part a struggle of the epigones for the succession to Lenin’s power, resulted ultimately in the elimination one after another of most of the Bolshevik old guard, the exile of Trotsky and the enthronement of Stalin. Did Savinkov believe that the moment was propitious for his reappearance on the stage? Did he see in the schism which was beginning to rend the Bolshevik Party an opportunity to impose himself upon the situation?

Maugham’s thoughts gel well with Shaplen’s speculations. Here’s Maugham on the subject of Savinkov living in exile and waiting for what he considered the perfect moment:

He went into hiding till the fitting opportunity to strike presented itself. For all his passion there was a certain coldness in his temperament; he was not a man to allow his emotions to interfere  with his judgement. He had that great gift, the capacity to wait till the moment was ripe.

Maugham’s memories of Savinkov occupy just a few pages in the book, and yet the recalled acquaintance underscores Maugham’s power as a story-teller. It’s a haunting tale of a disturbing moment in Maugham’s life and also in the history of Russia. Although the story is told, there’s no sense of closure. It’s only fitting that remembering the episode leaves Maugham on the ship’s deck unable to sleep, in a deck chair and staring “at the starry night.”

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The Pale Horse by Boris Savinkov

“You simply have to spit at the whole world.”

It’s impossible to write about a novel by Boris Savinkov without talking about who he was. In Western culture, Savinkov’s name seems to have almost faded from view, but in the early twentieth century, he was known as the “General of Terror” and considered one of the most dangerous revolutionaries of the time. Born into a privileged family in 1879 Warsaw, Savinkov,  the son of a judge became a law student. He joined the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and within a short period of time, he led a combat unit responsible for the most spectacular assassinations of the time, including the assassination of Grand Duke Sergius.  His controller, although I doubt the word was used at the time, was Evno Azef, the head of the organization’s Central Committee. As it turns out, Azef was actually in the pay of the Okhrana, and so his dual role–organizing assassinations and revolutionary activity while also reporting back to the Imperial secret police makes him one of the most infamous agent-provocateurs in history.

Savinkov led a remarkable and curious life. Apart from his life as a terrorist, during WWI, prior to the Russian Revolution, he enlisted in the French Army as a private. Following the February Revolution, he made a number of alliances while fighting against the Bolsheviks (whom he hated with a passion), and he acted as Assistant War Minister under Kerensky in the Provisional government.  After the October Revolution, he continued to fight as a counter-revolutionary, and the Bolsheviks offered a large reward for his capture. Savinkov left Russia but was lured back in 1924 through letters from a friend. In reality the letters were most likely dictated by the GPU (secret police). Savinkov was arrested immediately upon his arrival in Minsk. After a brief trial he was sentenced to ten years and sent to prison. Savinkov never served his sentence. He ‘fell’ out of a window–an alleged suicide.

The translator of Savinkov’s memoirs, Joseph Shaplen (who believes the suicide story, btw), calls Savinkov a “strong individualist” and that he “believed himself the sole judge of his actions.” This attitude didn’t go down well with Savinkov’s comrades, his so-called ‘superiors’ and it eventually led to his expulsion from the Socialist-Revolutionary Party.

Savinkov was a shapeshifter of extraordinary talent, and under the pen name Ropshin, he also wrote a number of short stories, poems, a few novels, and his memoirs. The Pale Horse was called “The most Russian novel of the period” by Russian writer Dmitry Mereshkovsky while the Socialist Revolutionary Party considered Savinkov’s novels to be spoofs. It’s hard to pin down a man like Savinkov–he was determined to bring revolution to Russia through the destruction of the Romanovs, and yet he wasn’t too picky about who he aligned himself with to fight the Bolsheviks.

The Pale Horse, Savinkov’s first novel is written in the form of a journal–an account of a planned assassination.  It’s a thinly veiled account of Savinkov’s terrorist activities in 1905 pre-revolutionary Russia, although for the purposes of the novel, the target is a governor and the names are changed.  The tale is told by George, the leader of the combat unit, “a small group of five,”  –Fedor, Heinrich, and Vania, an idealistic and religious young poet, with the explosives manufactured by “chemistry expert,” Erna (a thinly disguised Dora Brilliant). The novel charts the persistent attempts to kill the governor and the lengths the group is prepared to go to to achieve their ends. We follow them through the planning, the tawdry gaiety of the Tivoli gardens, the disguises, the spies, the failed plots, the relocations and the clash of personalities over the question of just who is going to throw the first bomb. Even Azef appears as Andrei Petrovich–a man who thinks that the orders from the Central Committee mean something to George.

Since the events in the novel so closely follow events in Savinkov’s life, it’s almost impossible to untangle just where the fiction begins. George is a fascinatingly odd character who at times seems to eviscerate his belief system to reveal that it rests on exactly… nothing. He exploits Erna’s feelings for him, and engages in an affair that’s more about making a point than love or lust. His mild distaste for Erna is seen through frequent references to various body parts (her large hands, her red nose, for example), and yet at the same time there’s a hint of a vague, distant pity for this woman simply because she’s weak and doesn’t ‘get it’. George’s deepest feelings and his greatest arguments are reserved for the idealistic Vania. Vania, based on the real-life Kaliayev, struggles with the thou-shalt-not-kill part of Christianity even as he makes the moral choice to be a revolutionary. Rather surprisingly religious arguments, through Vania’s inner turmoil, take up a fair portion of the text, but George always has an answer. Here’s one of George’s nihilist statements:

 I somehow could not believe in death. It seemed unnecessary and therefore impossible. I did not even feel joy or pride at the thought that I was dying for my cause. I felt strangely indifferent. I did not care to live, but did not care to die either. I did not question myself as to my past life, nor as to what there might be beyond the dark boundary. I remember I was much more concerned as to whether the rope would cut my neck, whether there would be pain in suffocation. And often in the evening, after the roll-call, when the drum ceased beating in the courtyard, I used to look intently at the yellow light of the lamp, standing on the prison table, among the bread-crumbs. I asked myself; Do I fear or not? And my answer was: I do not. I was not afraid – I was only indifferent.

And here he is debating his relationships with fellow revolutionary Erna, married lover, Elena, and humans in general:

People say that where there is no law there is no crime. If that is true, where is the wrong in my kissing Elena? And why am I to blame in not caring any longer for Erna? I ask myself this and I can find no answer.

If I acknowledged a law I probably would not kill; I would not have made love to Erna, and would not be seeking the love of Elena. But what is my law?

They also say: love your fellow-man. But suppose there is no love in my heart? They say: respect him. But suppose there is no respect for others in me? I am on the border of life and death. Words about sin mean nothing to me. I may say about myself: ‘I looked up and I saw the pale horse and the rider whose name is death.’ Wherever that horse stamps its feet there the grass withers; and where the grass withers there is no life and consequently no law. For Death recognises no law.

A fascinating read. While there’s a story here, the book is a treatise on revolutionary ethics and the primary question: Do the ends justify the means? Camus’ play The Just Assassins is another look at this question. Savinkov strikes me as more aligned philosphically to the revolutionary of the 1880s People’s Will, and I shortly confirmed this by reading an excerpt from his memoirs:

The Social-Democratic program had long ceased to satisfy me. It seemed to me that it failed to meet the demands of Russian life, particularly on the agrarian question. Moreover, on the question of terroristic struggle, I inclined to the traditions of the Narodnaya Volia (People’s Will).

A word on my version. I bought a print on demand copy (the book is no longer in print). While I’m grateful to be able to read this at all, the typos were annoying. Apparently the publisher uses OCR software to reproduce the book, and since the technology is automatic, old texts will yield typos and missing texts.

Finally, The Pale Horse is available as an excellent film version called The Rider Named Death.

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The Ladies from St Petersburg by Nina Berberova

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.

ladies from St PetersburgThe 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. berberovaAccording 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

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