Michael Ignatieff

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.

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