“‘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.”
Translated by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova