1919 was a year of travelling revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa. The uprisings were triggered by the efforts (sometimes secret, sometimes not) of Britain, France, Italy and Spain to colonise the Middle East and to divvy up its territories at the end of the First World War. As their intentions became apparent – after both Britain and France had repeatedly promised otherwise – thousands of men and, for the first time, women took to the streets in protest.
Desperate crossings – Lenin’s sealed train, Luding Bridge, Granma – were at the heart of several 20th-century revolutions, but the one that killed my great-grandmother seemed to be a perfectly average late-summer voyage. According to the official account, on 1 September 1948, the steamer Pobeda (‘Victory’), bound from New York to Odessa, was in the Black Sea, nearing its destination. A sailor rewinding some movie reels in a storage cabin inadvertently caused a spark, igniting the thousands of highly flammable filmstrips and phonograph records inside. Two crew members and forty of the 310 passengers were killed. Among them were Evgeniia Afinogenova, née Jeannette Schwarz of the Lower East Side, and Feng Yuxiang, former war minister of the Republic of China, on his way to bend the knee to Mao Zedong. Among the survivors were Afinogenova’s two daughters, aged six and eleven, my grandmother and her older sister, who were taken to Moscow to be raised by their grandmother.