When my father reached Paris from Russia in May 1919, the man who met them at the Gare de Lyon was Uncle Alyosha. My father was six at the time and he has no memory whatever of the tall, soldierly gentleman with a moustache. Instead his memory darts unerringly to the thing which mattered to him at that moment in his life. In Uncle Alyosha’s apartment in Saint Cloud, he was served koulibiaka, a pâté made from salmon. To a little boy who had just discovered what it was like to be hungry in the war zones of the southern Caucasus, where the Whites would capture their town one week and the Reds the next, the koulibiaka must have come dancing before his eyes as a promise of deliverance.

My father is now 70. This summer he took us back to find the old family houses, to recover family memoirs from Soviet libraries and, among other things, to find out what had happened to Uncle Alyosha. He was the only member of the family to go back after the Revolution: indeed, Stalin had made him a general of the Red Army. In my childhood I can remember being told the apocryphal story of Alyosha’s batman who, in the darkest winters of Stalinism, would answer the phone in Alyosha’s Moscow apartment with the words, ‘General Count Citizen Ignat’ev, at your service!’

Alyosha was not exactly anyone’s uncle: he was my grandfather’s cousin, born like him in the Imperial twilight in 1877, the year of the Russo-Turkish War. It was impossible that he would still be alive. But what had happened to him? Where would we find his grave? How were we to explain his apostasy?

In 1944, in those distant days when we and the Soviets were still allies, there appeared an English translation – by Ivor Montagu – of A Subaltern in Old Russia by General of the Red Army, A.A. Ignat’ev. On the cover there is a photograph of Uncle Alyosha sitting straight-backed, legs akimbo, red stars on his collar, his black boots glistening, his hands folded over a sword resting on his knee. He holds his chin stiffly erect and he has exactly the same thin amused smile, the same superbly assured carriage as in the photograph we have of him as a Chevalier Guards’ officer at the coronation of Nicholas II in 1894.

It was not obvious why Progress Books in Moscow or Hutchinson in London should have thought that Alyosha’s recollections of the guards’ regiments of his youth were a contribution to the war effort and to mutual understanding between the Allies. But after two weeks in the Soviet Union I began to understand why they should have published him in the depths of the war. He was living proof of the continuity of the Russian military tradition across the abyss created by the Revolution; a useful reminder to Allies with short historical memories that the Russians had fought with them once before against the Germans.

Alyosha was certainly not the only Tsarist officer of high rank to desert to the Red Army. A majority of the officers of the Tsarist army went over to the Reds, and not to the Whites. Alyosha’s defection was only more spectacular than most. Not many would have chosen in 1932 to leave the safety of the Russian émigré community in Paris and return to Moscow, to a life at the mercy of ‘the Kremlin mountaineer’. So why had he done it?

Desertions of this magnitude require a long preparation. In Alyosha’s case, the disillusion began, as it had for so many officers of his generation, with the fatal blundering of the Russo-Japanese War, with the sacrifice of regimental honour on the forgotten battlements of Mukden. When he returned to St Petersburg after that war, he recorded feelings that bring to mind the returning Vietnam veterans. No one, least of all the fat-bottomed staff officers at General Headquarters, wanted to hear a word about the war they had just lost. In disgust he asked to be transferred to Paris as military attaché.

In 1906, Uncle Alyosha’s father – also an officer in the guards – was assassinated in Tver, where he had been sent as governor. We found a portrait of Alyosha’s father in the Pushkin Museum in Leningrad. It is by Ilya Repin and it is captioned ‘a typical complacent bureaucrat of the Ancien Régime’. That, for once, is about right. He is resting a corpulent chin on a plump palm and he is listening to some interminable debate in the State Council. In the wake of the concessions made after the 1905 Revolution, he was one of those who muttered aloud about deposing Nicholas II and replacing him with a Tsar prepared to lay about the Russian people with a whip. All of this may explain why, when news reached Alyosha in Paris that his father had been felled by a Socialist Revolutionary assassin, he was convinced that the fatal shots had in fact been fired by a police spy. This suspicion was heightened when he received the Tsar’s tepid one-line telegram of condolence. Alyosha’s memoirs cleverly conceal the fact that his voyage towards Bolshevism began not from the left of the Tsarist regime, among the Kadets or the non-party liberals like his cousin, my grandfather, but from the right, among the enthusiasts of the whip.

Yet if he was a dissembler, he was a brilliant one. To this day, he is the member of the family of whom complete strangers on a Soviet train will ask if you are a relation. It is a measure of his success that we learned soon after our arrival in Moscow that he was to be found in Novodevichy Cemetery. Apart from the Kremlin Wall itself it is the most illustrious resting-place in the Soviet system of eternal rewards. In its dark, green walkways are to be found the great Soviet generals, members of the Politburo like Nikolai Podgorny, the disgraced ex-President of the Brezhnev era, Ekaterina Furtseva, Khrushchev’s Minister of Culture, and in one forgotten alley, Khrushchev himself. In another alley, which we were unable to find, there is the funeral statue of Stalin’s wife, who is supposed to have committed suicide. On the solitary marble bench in front of it, so the story goes, the dictator used to sit at dusk and brood over her forgiving face.

Only relatives are allowed into the cemetery, and only on Tuesdays. My father bought carnations at the gate-house and we set off in search of Uncle Alyosha down the labyrinth of dark alley-ways. Soon we were lost. We found Rimsky Korsakoff and we found Prokofieff, but not Alyosha. We also found the war-time Russian Ambassador to London, Ivan Maisky, staring up at us with his protruding eyes, full of intelligence, humour and malice. My father and mother remember him getting out of a car sometime in 1942 in London and waving to a crowd which was chanting ‘Open the Second Front Now!’

Walking among the dense and crowded rows in the deep shade, I felt conscious of a frantic struggle going on among the dead to attract the attention of the living. Everywhere one looked the dead were brandishing their mementos – a tank commander displayed a tank on top of his gravestone; a pilot his plane; an artist his palette. A rocket designer had attached a little rocket to his gravestone with aluminium wire, while an oceanographer in the next plot had placed a giant shell on top of his remains so that his visiting relatives would always hear the sound of the sea. It was a poignant sight, all these men – for they were mostly men – still struggling for immortality in the lush summer undergrowth.

The departed shades are tended by old women in headscarves and stout boots who move briskly among the alley-ways with wheelbarrows full of rakes and brooms, sweeping and scratching at the vegetation which always seems on the point of swallowing up the tombstones. Each of the old women seems to have her own alley-way and her own little platoon of graves. They are vigorous and self-sufficient women who seem to have laid their own husbands in the earth long ago.

After about an hour of futile wandering in search of Alyosha’s grave, we went up to one of the old women. We had a plot number and an alley number but, as is usually the case in Russia, neither of them seemed to make any sense. ‘Ignat’ev! Ignat’ev!’she exclaimed and bustled off down one of the alleys, beckoning us to follow. She was about half my father’s height and as she led us to the spot, she chattered excitedly, glancing up from time to time at him, as if she was talking to a very tall pine tree.

‘There!’ she pointed. In deep shadow, beneath the trees was Uncle Alyosha. The sculptor had fashioned him life-size in exactly the same pose he had seemed to hold for the better part of a century: looking up, to his left, slightly stiff as if his head were held by a guardsman’s collar, the same thin, slightly mocking smile beneath his moustache. As he had been in the photograph at the Tsar’s coronation, as he had been on the cover of his war-time memoirs, so he was now in the leafy dusk of Novodevichy. We looked at the dates: 1877-1954. He had died in his bed, at the end of his master’s era.

As Russian military attaché at the headquarters of Marshal Joffre, he had known everybody: Clemenceau, Foch, Asquith, Kitchener, Briand, Grey – they all troop stiffly through the pages of his memoirs. After the disastrous Russian defeats on the East Prussian plains in August 1914, when whole regiments ran out of ammunition and had to advance on German machine-gun nests armed only with bayonets, he had persuaded Joffre and Clemenceau to lend Russia the money to buy French munitions. He had overseen the purchases himself from the great weapons factories at Le Creusot, and all the accounts were in his name. He watched the battles of the Marne, the Somme and Verdun from the French field headquarters. He was not just a headquarters officer. When the fourteen thousand Russian troops withdrawn from the Salonika front and sent to fight in France rioted on their troop-ships in Marseille and killed their commanding officer in August 1916, it was Uncle Alyosha who went down and read the riot act to them – with, one supposes, all the ruthlessness which good breeding can sometimes teach.

My father crossed himself and laid his pink carnations in Alyosha’s stone arms. The little lady in the headscarf took her tools out of the wheelbarrow and set to work. She scrubbed the marble plinth until we could see our reflections in it, then the marble skirting around the tomb itself. Then she scratched away at the vines and the ivy which were clambering up the side of the monument. She muttered and then drew herself up. She was very sorry, she said, that the grave was in such neglected condition. (It wasn’t.) But since no family had ever visited it, she had let the vegetation reclaim it. She said: ‘Now that he has visitors I shall keep him for you.’ She smiled and bowed when my father handed her his card.

On 8 March 1917, when he received the telegram announcing the formation of the Provisional Government, Uncle Alyosha sat up all night, and after drawing a line down the middle of a piece of paper put the reasons for refusing to recognise the Revolution and remain an émigré on one side of the column, and the reasons for remaining Russian on the other side. To line up the choices in this way was to decide the issue.

It was not his recognition of the Provisional Government which earned him the hatred of the growing émigré community in Paris, but his decision to work for Lenin. During the Civil War, he turned his personal accounts for weapons’ procurement over to what he regarded as the legitimate government of the Russian state. The émigrés who supported Kolchak, Denikin, Wrangel and the other White generals never forgave him. Lenin kept him on in Paris in the Twenties buying weapons and then negotiating the repayment of the original loan agreement made with Joffre. In 1932 he was invited home, and, exiled from the émigré community in Paris already, he decided he had nothing to lose. They made him a general at one of the staff colleges and he brought back the drill and the spit and polish of the old guards’ regiments. He became a ‘character’. They let him write his memoirs and retire. At the end, they let him be buried with the great and the not-so-great in Novodevichy.

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