I’m reading the memoirs of Baron Wrangel, and you know, just from the dates in the title, that this man lived through some fantastic, turbulent times. Wrangel was to live through a number of Tsars, but when the book opens, Emperor Nicholas I ruled Russia “like a gamekeeper.”
Under his administration of the empire, based as it was upon a system of flogging, imprisonment and exile to Siberia, the great could indulge their caprices with impunity, and my father, like most men, was cast in the mould of his period. He carefully concealed his feelings under a mask of harshness.
The author argues that although society consisted of master and serf, ” in reality… the masters were also slaves.” People still remember the Décemberistes, but this is not a topic for discussion. In this culture of extreme censorship and conformity, Dostoevsky was sent to Siberia. Later Lermontov fell foul of the same Tsar and was exiled to the Caucasus twice only to meet his tragic death in 1841. Nicholas I wasn’t gentle with some of Russia’s greatest writers.
The memoirs begin, naturally enough, with Nikolai Egorovich’s childhood. His mother died when he was four and he only has a few fragmented memories of her. It’s a large household–four boys, three girls, many serfs, and two aunts. Aunt Ida is “shrewish and spiteful,” but Aunt Jeanne is completely different:
Aunt Jeanne, on the other hand, was a kind soul, simple-minded and good-hearted. Brought up when the Emperor Paul was still alive, at the “convent of Smolny for daughters of the nobility,” she retained the traditions of that period. Through fear of being thought “shameless,” she never spoke to young men, and would blush and cast down her eyes when replying to gentlemen of ripe years. She usually kept to her own apartments, and preferred playing with her pugs and listening to the song of her canaries to taking part in conversation in the drawing room. The amount of sweets she was able to devour was unbelievable. Even to watch her was enough to give one indigestion.
Our great delight was to ask her the time. The answer was invariably the same. “Thank God, I have never been compelled to learn that. For such things I have my women.” And she would ring for her maid.
“Tell me what time it is by this watch.”
What a culture of contrasts. A member of the nobility who calls her maid to tell the time, a nursemaid who faces down Nikolai’s father in order to spare the children a whipping, and serfs married to those “allotted” to them while the idea of free choice is a subject of hilarity.
Translated by Brian and Beatrix Lunn