Tag Archives: emigres

Days in the Caucasus: Banine

“‘The champagne flowed freely’ to use that classic phrase. Thus our world marched towards disaster.

Memoirs potentially offer valuable eye-witness accounts, and, unlike non-fiction, are unmoored from facts, figures and extensive research, yet with that ‘insider’s view,’ they can illuminate great moments in history. Banine’s Days in the Caucasus is a great example of the niche-memoir. Born in 1905, into a large oil merchant’s family made rich when a peasant grandfather struck oil, Banine (real name Ummulbanu Asadullayeva) was caught between two worlds. On one hand, her wealthy father fostered western ways (a devoted Baltic German governess, Miss Anna), but she was also a member of a Muslim family, and her relatives expected Banine and her sisters to conform to Muslim ways. It didn’t help that Banine’s grandmother, “a fat, authoritarian woman,” had been abandoned by her husband for a Russian, so that from that time on, all things Russian were despised. When the memoir opens, life is good for Banine. Her father is a widower who places the care of his many daughters into the gentle, loving hands of Miss Anna. The politics on the horizon are strictly family politics–and those focus on marriage. Banine spends a great deal of the memoir describing her early life; it’s certainly colorful, but in spite of growing up in luxury, there’s always the distant threat of marriage.

Banine’s childhood includes the ethic troubles between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. Banine and her two nasty male cousins “played at massacring Armenians, a game we loved above all others.” While the children ‘play’ at torture and disembowelment, the 2 males cousins, without Banine’s knowledge, ‘play’ “rape the Armenian.” The malicious tendencies of these two dreadful cousins appear later in the memoir.

By 1914, the Caucasus becomes “full of Russians,” and this brings changes to Banine’s family. At first, the biggest ‘threat’ is Russian men carrying off Muslim girls, and Banine’s older sister turns those fears into reality. But suddenly, after the Tsar abdicated, the Armenian population “managed to install a military dictatorship,” and Banine’s family was forced to flee. There was a brief period in which the family managed to move back to Baku, but ironically just as her grandfather died leaving Banine a “a multimillionaire at the age of thirteen,” the Red Army soldiers arrived. So much for the inheritance. ….

After her father’s arrest, Banine retreats to her grandmother’s countryside house where she is reunited with her libidinous cousin, Gulnar. Their way of life there is upended with arrival of the “Commission for the Creation of Holiday Camps,” and it’s declared that the grandmother’s house will be divided for the use of “revolutionary veterans, all worn out to a greater or lesser extent by their exploits.” Gulnar, who can’t wait to get married so that she can start taking lovers, is delighted by the male Russians, and soon Banine and Gulnar are eagerly indoctrinated, wear Lenin badges, and join a commission to inventory the contents of neighbouring villas.

In spite of the gravity of events, the memoir is light. I’m used to piles of corpses when reading from this period, but Banine’s privilege, youth, location, and family connections must have shielded her from the atrocities of the times. We hear nothing of the events taking place in Russia or Ukraine. The major problem here is Banine’s desire to run off with a Russian vs her sense of duty towards her father. The intimate look at the family dynamics offers a completely different view of this period.

Impartial observation seems to show that in families where interests diverge, hatred between relatives is constant and widespread; where interests are not divisive, affection sometimes exists. But most often there is only indifference mingled occasionally with a sense of duty towards the clan, which one could, with a little imagination, take to be love. To be honest, indifference appears to me to be the natural state between members of a family. When one thinks of the number of people one must know in order to find some friends, to discover an affinity in the small group that is family would be something of a surprise.

Banine’s relatives wish to marry her off to a cousin as she’s this great heiress, and even when her fortune is lost, one uncle can’t let go.

That memories were all the heiress had left of her fortune did not deter him: the memories were dazzling enough especially since he considered Bolshevism an accident of fate and our impoverishment a temporary phenomenon.

While there are many memorable people here. Banine’s cousin, Gulnar stands out. At one point, Banine, naively tells Gulnar, that life isn’t so bad:

“To be honest, life isn’t too terrible in Baku or Tiflis.”

“That’s because they haven’t had time to deal with us yet.”

Review copy

Translated by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova


Filed under Banine, posts

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.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Sedia Ekaterina

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


Filed under Berberova, Nina, Fiction