Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi – Book Review
By Barney Bardsley
There are few things more pleasurable to the reader, than to discover a writer new to you: someone who lights up your imagination, who illuminates something you thought you were familiar with, in a quite new constellation. Thus it has been, for me, with Teffi, otherwise known as Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhivitskaya, who has written a memoir of the Russian Revolution of such charm and energy, that the minute I finished it, I wanted to turn back to page one, and start all over again.
Revolutionary Russia has been a place, and a period, of fascination for me, since being a young child. I pored over library picture books, stuffed with onion domed churches, Cossack horsemen, and great snowy Siberian wastelands, and dreamed of going there myself one day, of learning the language, and meeting the people. At university, I took up Russian as a subsidiary subject, and spent six weeks in Leningrad in 1976, during the grim years of Brezhnev and the Cold War. It did not disappoint. I have never forgotten the experience.
What Teffi provides, in her marvellous memoir, is a uniquely personal – and humorous – account, of life, right at the beginning of the revolutionary experiment, in 1918-19. Her story, of flight and exile in the face of a marauding Bolshevik army, is astonishingly vivid, occasionally bitterly sad and depressed, but above all, authentic, humane, and thrillingly alive.
“A glorious maverick”
Teffi despises the Reds, particularly Lenin – “there is no inspiration in him, no flight, and no fire” – and her sympathies are quite obviously with the counter-revolutionary Whites at this stage. But she is certainly no privileged reactionary. Her writing pulsates with liberal feeling. Indeed, she wrote for the first legal Bolshevik newspaper, Novaia Zhizn (New Life), but quickly became disillusioned, when it turned into a Party mouthpiece, expecting its writers to spout platitudes rather than give original views.
That was never going to be Teffi’s destiny: she was a glorious maverick, and remained so throughout her final days in her beloved Russia; during her long flight to freedom – described so winningly in this book – through to her long exile in Paris, where she settled until her death in 1952.
Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea is a breathtaking account of Teffi’s long and difficult journey from Moscow, to Kiev – like “a station waiting room, just before the final whistle” – to Odessa and the Black Sea. The book ends with her journey over to Sevastopol, then Novorossisk, on an embattled old ship, the Shilka.
Throughout the journey, it is always Teffi’s intent to double back, and return home. Only in the closing pages, does the penny drop, when she catches sight of something ominous and prescient in the Russian countryside: “an idyllic picture of green hills, peacefully grazing flocks and – against the backdrop of a scarlet evening sky – a finely etched black swing with a stub of rope. A gallows.” There will be no going back. Exile is the only option.
Amidst the dreadful privations of her journey, the lack of food, the cramped sleeping conditions, the constant threat of danger from roaming revolutionaries, armed to the teeth, Teffi retains an admirable sense of humour and a startling resilience. This is what lends her book such distinction and flair. It is clear that she is a stylish woman, and one, indeed, who once had a perfume and a brand of chocolates named after her!
So it is with panache that she includes details of ingenious female invention, that would be never be noticed by the male writers of the time, or thought relevant by them. She talks about a woman making a new dress from the gauze used for bandages in the trenches. And she recounts with some relish an encounter with a woman in Odessa, who scolds her:
‘“Have you had your curls done already?”
“No,” I replied in bewilderment.
“What’s got into you? the Bolsheviks are coming and we have to leave. Are you telling me you’re going to leave without having your hair done first? Zinaida Petrovna’s no fool. She said: ‘I realized yesterday that things were getting serious, so I went and had a Marcel wave and a manicure straight away!’’
Everything about this book is delightful. Up to and including the footnotes, which I often find intrusive, but which here are useful, explanatory and lucid. This book is yet another credit to Pushkin Press, who consistently produce exemplary works from around the world, edited and designed to the highest standard. Teffi is surely one of their crowning jewels.
‘Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea’ by Teffi is published by Pushkin Press, £9.99