Living like a moth

Michael Ignatieff

  • The Other Russia: The Experience of Exile by Michael Glenny and Norman Stone
    Faber, 475 pp, £14.99, March 1990, ISBN 0 571 13574 9
  • Inferences on a Sabre by Claudio Magris, translated by Mark Thompson
    Polygon, 87 pp, £9.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 7486 6036 4

I have always wondered when my grandparents realised they would never see Russia again. In July 1917, when they locked up the house on Fourstatskaya Street in Petrograd, left the key with my grandfather’s valet and set off with a party of servants for Kislovodsk, a spa town in the north Caucasus, they told the children that they were all going for a summer holiday. That is what they said. But what were they thinking? The disintegration of the Provisional Government was underway. One of their sons swears he overheard his father whispering to another relative: ‘I’ve got to get them out of here.’ And my grandmother, whatever reassuring fictions she may have told her children, took her jewellery with her, and ordered the maid servants to pack a trunk of family valuables. Some shadow passed across her mind, and she took precautions, and that is why there is a silver ewer and basin in my house, one piece of family linen with a monogrammed crest and two bits of jewellery. Without that instant of hesitation, they might have been lost.

Yet I suspect that even when Russia’s Black Sea coast was receding astern in the spring of 1919, my grandmother and grandfather still kept the hope of return alive in some unreconciled region of their minds. My grandfather was heard to remark that it might be possible to join Kolchak’s White Army in Siberia. In the meantime, the boys would be enrolled at St Paul’s School in Hammersmith. When I look at the photographs of my grandparents on their farm in Sussex, it is not until the mid-Twenties, after the definitive defeat of Kolchak and all the rest, after the recognition of the Bolshevik regime by the Western powers, that I begin to see – imprinted in their faces – the recognition that they would never return. A new grimness and bleakness are evident in their eyes. They have come face to face with the irrevocable.

This is one of the great themes of exile: how the temporary becomes permanent, how the doubt kept at bay grows into a certainty, how, finally, the candle gutters out. What was remarkable about the White Russians is how long they cupped that candle with their hands. Packed suitcases were stored under beds in miserable Paris apartments for decades until death put an end to pretending. Children born in exile were raised to believe that one day they would return to the lost kingdom. Some of these children regarded the Nazi invasion of June 1941 as a providential sign that the time for return had come at last, and they died in the Russian snows, clad in Wehrmacht uniforms. Their deaths exemplify the incorrigible hold of fantasy upon exile life.

Then there is the theme of remembrance as torture. Hunting for mushrooms under the dark trees at the bottom of the ‘English garden’; the three bells at Russian stations; the crunch of felt boots on white snow: in every miserable hotel in Clichy, in every little cottage in Clamart in the Twenties, such memories had the power to transport the haunted rememberer across time only to hurl him back into the odour-filled prison of Russian poverty with its black bread, cabbage soup and paraffin stoves.

To the themes of memory as torture and the slow asphyxiation of hope must be added the theme of defilement: the estate pillaged and set to the torch, the Chinese silk ripped from the walls, the icons looted or tossed onto pyres, steeples toppled and family bookshelves rifled. It is the cruelty of parallel time that makes the defilement so hard to bear: knowing that as you emptied another dustbin in Nice or took another fare in your Paris taxi, some stranger, some nest of families, was partitioning your apartment on the Liteiny Prospekt or on Galernaya Street and was either tearing up your floorboards for fuel, or ripping your curtains for bedding. In my grandmother’s memoirs the passages where anger and grief mix together into something close to despair are elicited by images of desecration: the moment, for example, when she describes how her mother’s estate, Doughino, was burned to the ground, and her brother was made to sweep out the filth in the prison yard of the local town.

There wasn’t only loss and despair, however: exile also offered the possibility of liberation from the chains of the past. As the exiled artist Vitaly Komar remarks in The Other Russia, ‘Russia is an island. And the impossibility of reaching that island can be a stimulus to painting.’ In Speak, Memory Nabokov wrote of the ‘syncopal kick’ of exile, of dispossession so juddering the frame of memory that it roused the artistic imagination to seize that frame and get the once-clearly-seen picture to stabilise into clarity again. If all writing springs from estrangement, from some inextinguishable puzzlement about what is, then one can think of exile as a condition which forces that puzzlement on those who might otherwise have taken their reality for granted.

Inch by inch, instant by instant, Nabokov had to reconquer with his prose a reality which, until exile absurdly supervened, had been his for the asking. To wonder whether exile made him a better writer than he might otherwise have been, to suggest that exile might even have been the precondition of his writing, is just as foolish as wishing that one’s writing could be tempered and deepened by a sharp, but preferably short, dose of Eastern European censorship, imprisonment or oppression. One would not wish exile on anyone, but dispossession did make pre-revolutionary experience unreachable and thus incited a few heroic talents – Nabokov, Bunin, Berberova, Tsvetaeva, Khodasevitch – to reclaim it for the imagination. Thanks to their efforts, the Russian Ancien Régime is a kind of Atlantis of the European mind, as vivid beneath the waves as it was above them.

Norman Stone and Michael Glenny’s book is a scrapbook of Atlantis, an oral history of survivors from the sinking. Many of them were in their eighties when Glenny’s tape-recorder finally reached them in their close, cluttered rooms and for this alone – preserving these ancient voices before they went silent – we can be grateful. What is incredible about these old remembrancers is how much historical time is encoded in their memories. Sometimes it even amazes the exiles themselves, as when Irina Ilovskaya says of her grandmother: ‘Just imagine, she was born in the Caucasus and died in Paraguay.’

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[1] McGill/Queens University Press, 1998.

[2] Cornell University Press, 1972.

[3] Oxford, June 1990.