Of late I have been wandering around the Russia of the early 20th century, in the company of various governesses from these shores. Author Harvey Pritcher met up with Miss Emmie to hear her tales and he combined those with others who had been around at the time. They had arrived in Petersburg in the days of the Tsar, leaving in the aftermath of Grand Duke Michael refusing the throne after his brother abdicated. But much happened before they left.
This was a Russian society in which the lingua franca was French. The governesses taught English to the the toddlers, and learned their Russian from the streets, in the parks and in the shops. The worked in fine houses, on estates and spent the summers at the country dachas. Two revolutions in 1917, the February uprising that deposed the Tsar, and then the October rising of the Bolsheviks, changed all that. We tend to forget that in those days there was a war raging across Europe, including Russia. The borders were beseiged by Germany, but the internal strife prevailed.
We travel the length and breadth of the country; by overcrowded train to and from the Crimean resorts, along the Volga and the Dvina to Archangel. The governesses left and were reunited with families. Jewels and precious metals were hidden in cellars, sewn into clothes (much as the Tasr’s family had down as they were taken to Ekaterinburg), and weapons and gunpowder were hidden in chairs or thrown into ponds as the searches began and assets seized. In later years many were reunited with former charges. Interesting times indeed.
I was reminded of another delightful read, in a similar vein.
Eugenie Fraser’s The House by the Dvina is a an utterly charming account of her time in Archangel, before, during and after said Revolution. She wrote her memoir after returning to her native Broughty Ferry. I am tempted to revisit those ice-bound rivers, troikas and sledges, but for the time being I will resist.
As always there is some tenuous link from one book to the next. A previous work on travels in Russia in a previous age that I hugely enjoyed was Philip Marsden’s The Bronski House. He had gone to Belorissia 20 years or so ago, in the company of exiled poet Zofia Ilinska, to delve into her past; the times spent by her mother in those same revolutionary days. Marsden’s writing is magnificent, his words singing from the page as he paints pictures of mounted troops and estate workers. I see that one of his earlier works was a of a journey among the Armenians, and that could find its way to the table before long.
And so when recently I saw Marsden’s latest work on the high street shelves, I could not resist the pull of my arm. The Levelling Sea therefore is next up.
The subtitle is The Story of a Cornish Haven in the Age of Sail. We are about to go back to the mid 16th century, those heady days of exploration as the world began to open up, of privateers and mutineers, and religious fervour and dissent. It is a long time since I have been in Cornwall and I’m looking forward to going back, and back further.