Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi

“And then there I was, rolling down the map. Fate had pushed me on, forcing me wherever it chose, right to the very edge of the sea. Now, if it so wished, it could force me right into the sea-or it could push me along the coast. In the end, wasn’t it all the same?”

Before you start reading Teffi’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, take a look at a map of Russia and Ukraine; it helps to track Teffi’s journey and to understand just how, in the wave of Bolshevik advances, she found herself with a startling lack of choices.

memories

In 1918 Teffi left Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg) and moved to Moscow. Over the course of the book, she travels, after getting the necessary permits, to Kiev, and then to Odessa, Sebastopol and finally, Novorossiik.  By tracing her journey, it’s easy to grasp how she, along with many other desperate refugees, always trying to stay ahead of the Bolsheviks, found themselves with little choice but to escape by taking to the sea.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea is a non-fiction account of the author’s journey from Moscow to Ukraine. Teffi (1872-1952), whose real name was Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was, like many Russian intellectuals, initially in favour of social change. She was a immensely popular writer in Russia, and according to the introduction from Edythe Haber, Teffi was a favourite writer of both tsar Nikolai II and Lenin. She “actively supported” the 1905 Revolution and while she wrote for various Bolshevik newspapers, later Teffi became a critic of the Bolshevik party. Memories finds Teffi post revolution in Moscow, and it’s a very scary place indeed. There are food shortages. People disappear and many of those who remain are “desperate” to get to Ukraine.

Those last Moscow days passed by in a turbid whirl. People appeared out of the mist, spun around and faded from sight; then new people appeared. It was like standing on a riverbank in the spring twilight and watching great blocks of ice float past: On one block is something that could be either a cart packed with straw or a Ukrainian peasant hut; on another block are scorched logs and something that looks like a wolf. Everything spins around a few times and the current sweeps it away forever.

Fueled by the knowledge that an actress was arrested for reading works written by Teffi (and a fellow Russian author, Averchenko,) it doesn’t take much persuading for Teffi, under the guidance of a “squint-eyed Odessa impresario by the name of Gooskin,” to apply for permits to travel for a ‘reading tour’ to Ukraine. It’s a dangerous journey that takes them to the unpredictable violence of a village in the border zone, full of refugees, and ruled by the sadistic “deranged” commissar H-.

In German-occupied Kiev, Teffi can’t quite absorb some of the things she sees. It’s incredible to see Russian soldiers alive, standing in the sun, sitting in cafes, laughing and eating cake “instead of hiding away in basements like hunted animals, sick and hungry, wrapped in rags, knowing that their very existence threatens the lives of their loved ones.” At first, Kiev seems like a miraculous place, almost surreal when compared to the places Teffi has left:

But soon it begins to feel more like a station waiting room, just before the final whistle.

The hustle and bustle is too restless, too greedy to be a true festival. There is too much anxiety and fear in it. No one is giving any real thought either to their present or to their future. Everyone just grabs what they can, knowing they may have to drop it again at any moment.

The scenes in Kiev convey a desperate giddy gaiety which reminds me of the musicians  playing on the Titanic as it sinks slowly into the waves.

From Kiev, Teffi flees to Odessa with the plan to eventually return to Petrograd via Vladivostok, but fate decrees otherwise, and Teffi leaves never to return again. Throughout the book, Teffi meets people she thinks she’d lost and loses people she thought had reentered her life. She recounts atrocities on both sides–although her sympathies are clearly with the Whites.

In spite of the terrible things that Teffi witnesses, there’s a sense of humour accompanying these memories. This does not make the stories funny at all–rather, the things she witnesses and records are that more horrific. We see women grabbing the last piece of crepe de chine before it’s “confiscated” by Bolsheviks, women buying some old velvet curtain to be remade, optimistically, into a gown, while it’s still available, carpets sold in the shadow of retreat, and then there’s one resilient soul who insists on having her hair done before the Bolsheviks arrive.

Another aspect of the memoirs is the instant establishment of culture wherever the refugees land. Within a few hours of arrival, evenings and readings are arranged as if the establishment of a cultural life is vital. There are so many scenes here I’ll never forget: the looted and abandoned hotels, the frantic dash to the steamer, the man walked out onto the ice for execution, the general set on fire so that a bullet isn’t ‘wasted,’ the dogs chewing a human arm, the donkeys being beaten with sticks, and the French soldiers grabbing armfuls of their laundry right before they evacuate from Odessa.  And always there’s the sense that time is running out. Teffi stays in each oasis of safety for increasingly shorter times, or so it seems, with Bolshevik infiltration occurring right before a red surge. The Bolsheviks continue their relentless march, and Teffi jumps from one safe-White held zone to another–until there’s nowhere left.

My memories of those first days in Novorossiisk still lie behind a curtain of gray dust. They are still being whirled about by a stifling whirlwind–just as scraps of this and splinters of that, just as debris and rubbish of every kind, just as people themselves were whirled this way and that way, left and right, over the mountains or into the sea. Soulless and mindless, with the cruelty of an elemental force, this whirlwind determined our fate.

Finally…A quote I have to include for its pure, tragic beauty

I have turned into a pillar of salt forever, and I shall forever go on looking, seeing my own land slip softly, slowly away from me.

Review copy

Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, Irina Steinberg.

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19 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Teffi

19 responses to “Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi

  1. Her writing is superb. Another one on my list.

  2. Slightly bitter about this one, as I was turned down for reading it on Netgalley. But since I was born on the other side of the Black Sea, and live in ‘exile’ (of a more mental variety than poor Teffi), I could really relate to this. I’ll just have to buy it in a bookstore when I come to the UK.
    I love the quotes you have chosen: it sounds much more poignant, less humorous than some of her other work.

  3. Wonderful review, Guy. It gives a real feel for the poignancy of this phase of Teffi’s life. I have a copy of this on the shelf and hope to get to it a little later in the year.

    I’ve just been reading her ‘Rasputin and Other Ironies’ (the title of the US edition is slightly different), a fascinating collection of her shorter non-fiction pieces. It’s in the review pile, so I should be able to post some thoughts in the next couple of weeks. If you haven’t read it yet, I would also recommend Subtly Worded, a fascinating collection of Teffi’s stories ranging from the comical/ironic early pieces to the later melancholy works. She was a great writer.

  4. Tredynas Days

    Your review increases the desire to read this after hearing some of it read on BBC Radio 4.

  5. I’m not sure I would be able to cope with this. I’m currently teaching German to a woman from Odessa and it is hard to hear what’s really going on in the Ukraine. Nonetheless, it sounds amazing. I like what you wrote about the humor and how it reinforces the tragedy.

  6. Really looking forward to this – I loved Subtly Worded.

    A great rediscovery, well done to Pushkin (who publish her this side of the pond) and NYRB.

  7. Seems like a good one to add to my pile of Russian disaster literature, like Victor Serge, whom I don’t see anywhere on your blog. Also from NYRB.

    BTW, I posted a question a while ago, but I don’t see it anywhere…did you get it? About an old flick. And Imre Kertesz.

    And if you really want to dive into the depths, try Borowski, “This Way to the Gas…”

    • No I don’t know the name of the film at all. You might try IMDB which supposedly is a great source if you put in salient characteristics and then search. I’ve tried it but I’ve never had any luck.

      I have yet to try Imre Kertesz.

      And I have quite a few by Serge on the shelf. A bit of a strange figure when you start digging.

    • There’s a billet about Fateless / Fatelessness on my blog, if you’re interested.

  8. Another great review and the quotes you’ve chosen really do give a good feel of the writing style.

  9. I saw Kaggsy’s review of this and thought it looked interesting, and you confirm that. I definitely hope to read this, it sounds both well written and fascinating which is never exactly a bad combo.

  10. You and Kaggsy have convinced me this is one to read. It struck me as a bit odd that she got the visa to do a reading tour if her works were considered so dangerous that the actress was arrested them. You’d have thought the authorities would recognise a reading tour would just promulgate her ideas?

    • The actress who arrested was arrested in a different city, while the getting of visa was a very local ordeal which involved flattering a local commissar. The ‘reading tour’ was just an excuse to get out of Russia and into Ukraine where it was supposed to be safe and there was food.
      Russia was in such chaos, it wasn’t like the organized suppression of the much later Soviet Union under Stalin.

  11. Great review. I love the last quote.

    What a journey it must have been and it always makes thing more tangible when you read about them from someone’s POV and not just as generalities.

    I always wonder how people survive through times like this. Live in a dictatorship. Live their all lives in a permanent war or near war like in Lebanon.

  12. Fantastic book, which you’ve captured perfectly Guy. One to re-read in future I think.

    Having read two of hers, what I love about Teffi is that her instinct is to write with a light touch, but she does so without conceding the seriousness of the situations she describes or the folly (or humanity) of the people she encounters. She doesn’t retreat into irony, I mean, if that makes sense.

    I plan to get to the third collection of hers available in English – Jacqui mentions it above. Have you any more of her stuff?

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