The Charm before the Storm

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
    Penguin, 242 pp, £3.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 14 008623 4
  • The Russian Album by Michael Ignatieff
    Chatto, 191 pp, £12.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 7011 3109 8
  • The Making of a Peacemonger: The Memoirs of George Ignatieff prepared in association with Sonja Sinclair
    Toronto, 265 pp, £15.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 8020 2556 0
  • A Little of All These: An Estonian Childhood by Tania Alexander
    Cape, 165 pp, £12.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 224 02400 0

Stuck in the country, bored and vaguely discontented, with themselves, their lives or the way things are, half the heroes in Russian fiction appear to be waiting for something to happen while the other half, in varying degrees of relief or despair, settle down to the thought that nothing will – not in their lifetime. Tolstoy might not have made so much of Levin’s contentment had contentment not been so hard to find. These are large and uneasy generalisations, but it can sometimes seem as if most of what was written in Russia before 1917 was written in the expectation of upheaval.

Thoughts of this kind are prompted by reading about the lives of some of those who left Russia in the years that followed the Revolution and were sustained in their exile by a sense of fabulous loss. Nabokov, whose account of his Russian childhood, Speak, Memory, must be one of the best books the Revolution produced, sometimes thought in later life of revisiting the places on which his memory fastened, while knowing that to do so would have been preposterous, an indignity. The reasons for not going back had as much to do with art as with politics. His family had always spent time abroad and between 1904 and 1905 were away for nearly a year. In Speak, Memory he writes about the moment in their journey home when the train reached the Russian border: ‘now, sixty years later’, it seems to him ‘a rehearsal – not of the grand homecoming that will never take place, but of its constant dream in my long years of exile’. The upheaval when at last it arrived was so violent, and for those who left the severance so abrupt, that coming home could never be a match for staying away. Inside Nabokov’s head the places he had known as a child had an enchanted existence: to have seen them again would have been pointless.

The analogy that comes to mind is with the First World War and the feverish nostalgia for Edwardian privilege that it set in train; and although one may not have much sympathy for the sound of the upper classes weeping over their losses, it isn’t always easy (or necessary) to resist their sad chronicles of the charm before the storm, with every moment cherished in retrospective anticipation of its loss. Nabokov writes about his mother reading to him at bedtime and recalls the ring on her hand as she turned the pages of the book. He then imagines that he might have seen reflected in its facets ‘a room, people, lights, trees in the rain – a whole period of émigré life for which that ring was to pay’. As the storm approached, his mother, like him, cultivated her memories. It was, he says, a family disease. ‘She cherished her own past with the same retrospective fervour that I now do her image and my past. Thus, in a way, I inherited an exquisite simulacrum – the beauty of intangible property, unreal estate.’

Michael Ignatieff was born in Canada in the 1940s. ‘My friends,’ he remarks a little sheepishly at the start of his book, ‘had suburban pasts or pasts they would rather not talk about. I had a past of Tsarist adventurers, survivors of revolutions, heroic exiles.’ His family, aristocrats like Nabokov’s, had like Nabokov’s served the Tsars for several generations, and left Russia in the wake of the Revolution, disillusioned with the old autocracy and appalled by the new one. The Russian Album is about their memories, a record of what they had and how they lost it, a writer’s tribute to the historical significance of other people’s lives. It is also, as his first chapter carefully explains and his last pages mysteriously deny, a book about himself and his inheritance – even more intangible property, unreal estate.

‘My earliest memories,’ Ignatieff says, ‘are not memories of myself, but of my father talking about his ancestors.’ At the time of the February Revolution, George Ignatieff, Michael’s father, and the author of The Making of a Peacemonger, was four, ‘just old enough’, his son writes, ‘to remember the bayonets glinting like glass below the window of the house in Petrograd on the morning the soldiers stormed to the Duma and said they had had enough of hunger and war’; by October the Ignatieff family, mother, father, five sons and ten servants, were living in a rented house in the Caucasus. In May 1919 they left Russia; and a few months later, the five boys and their father stood in Pall Mall as General Haig marched by at the head of an Allied victory parade that included no Russian contingents. (‘Remember, Russia is a defeated nation,’ their English nanny remarked with some satisfaction to the defeated Russian family of whom she had charge.) Repeatedly warned by their parents that they ‘must not end up like so many émigrés driving taxis and keeping their bags packed for the return journey to Petersburg’, the children, of whom George was the youngest, set about finding work with what readers of Russian novels might think of as a very un-Russian sense of life’s possibilities. George was 14 when he followed his older brothers to Canada and, as he describes it in his own memoirs, it was during his first summer there, working on the Canadian Pacific Railway, that he dumped the émigré baggage for good. ‘The promotion I earned that summer, from axeman to rodman, had done more for my self-esteem than any number of inherited titles.’

The matter of inherited titles is an important one in George Ignatieff’s book, as is the family tradition of public service which got the Ignatieffs their estates and their title. His great-grandfather, rewarded by Nicholas I for the support which he gave him in the Decembrist revolt, was commander of the Corps des Pages for twenty-five years, and presided late in life over Alexander II’s Council of Ministers; his grandfather, Count Nicholas, described by Lord Salisbury as ‘an amusing, joking man without regard for the truth’, negotiated the treaty which concluded the Russo-Turkish War and, as Alexander III’s Minister of the Interior, re-organised the secret police and introduced the legislation which kept the autocracy safe in their hands for the next thirty-five years; his father, born in the Russian Embassy in Constantinople, was the Tsars’ last and very popular Minister of Education. Exile entailed a different allegiance; it didn’t put an end to the family tradition. George Ignatieff joined the Canadian foreign service in June 1940 and retired thirty years later, one of Canada’s most senior diplomats and its leading expert on disarmament.

In 1955 he returned to Russia for the first time, accompanying Lester Pearson on an official visit to Moscow. It wasn’t a happy occasion; he felt out of place, there was too much to eat and drink, his Russian was rusty, the talks were unproductive, and he resented the fact that Khrushchev addressed him as ‘Count’ or, sometimes, ‘ex-Count’: ‘I felt compelled to point out that as a Canadian I preferred to be called plain Mr.’ That was the main trouble: as far as his hosts were concerned he wasn’t a Canadian at all. The effect was predictable – he never felt more Canadian in his life. ‘My return to Ottawa,’ he says at the end of the chapter, ‘was a homecoming in the truest sense of the term.’

Twenty-odd years later he went back to Russia again, this time with his son Michael, to find what traces they could of the family history. His grandfather’s estate in the Ukraine, now a village school, was off-limits; the one near Smolensk, bequeathed to his mother’s family by Catherine the Great, had been burned to the ground in 1917; the house in St Petersburg from which he and his brothers had watched the beginnings of the February Revolution was now the Leningrad Palace of Marriages, mothers with pins in their mouths adjusting their daughters’ dresses in what had once been the family schoolroom; in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus one September afternoon they found the green gate that led into the garden of the last house in which they had lived on their way out of Russia – the house still there but with several others crammed into the space around it. These visits elicited a more obvious emotional response, but they feature in his son’s book, not in his. Nabokov’s retrospective fervour, and the sense of permanent displacement that invigorates his writing, seem to have skipped a generation in the case of the Ignatieffs, père et fils. A certain sort of cliché would say that it is only artists who are affected or afflicted by things of this kind: but maybe artists are the only people who can put them to good use.

Both George Ignatieff and his eldest brother had wanted to write the family history but one died quite young and the other was too busy. Their parents, Michael Ignatieff’s grandparents, wrote (unpublished) memoirs of their own lives, his a dry public document, hers a jumble of memories, written in English for her grandchildren to read. They died in Canada, towards the end of the Second World War, not long before Michael Ignatieff was born. Apart from their memoirs, they left behind a few objects – a silver ewer and basin which Michael’s maternal great-grandmother used to wash her hands when she woke up in the morning at her country estate; a diamond star given to his other great-grandmother, a former Princess Galitzine, by the Sultan of Turkey – some photographs, and as far as their grandson was concerned, a very powerful sense of a past which both was and wasn’t his, which had been lost and which it was his business to recover.

Ten years ago he decided in his turn to write the family history, or some part of it. Having at first thought to tell his grandparents’ story in its historical setting and, later, to make them into the characters of a novel, he has settled for something in between the two which has qualities of both and moves without effort between historical upheaval and domestic upset. Based to an undefined extent on his grandparents’ memoirs, The Russian Album shares or plausibly re-creates – there’s no knowing which – their sense of what happened to them, and though he doesn’t quite give the impression that he was there at the time, one can sometimes imagine him as a young Anglo-Saxon, rather like the narrator in William Gerhardie’s novel Futility, standing unobtrusively to the side of the action, a little in love with the lives he’s describing and at the same time worried about these people on whom so many difficulties have been inflicted, his grandmother especially.

She was born Princess Natasha Mestchersky in 1877. The youngest of eight children, she was awkward and shy, and at puberty she stopped eating. The doctors were summoned – ‘one so eminent he sent along an assistant beforehand to test the chairs he was to sit on’; they prescribed (those were the days) a trip to the Riviera, where she was made to eat poudre de viande sandwiches and told she was spoilt. When her father died she became her mother’s companion, in winter pushing her Bath chair along the Promenade des Anglais; in summer reading her Carlyle’s History of Frederick the Great. It was by then the sort of sad, worthy life that Russian novels are full of and when she came to write her memoirs it was clear that, like Nabokov’s mother, she had committed every detail to memory.

She met Paul Ignatieff in Cannes in February 1903 and they were married six weeks later in an Orthodox church in Nice. The trunk which carried her trousseau back to Russia is now in an attic above the garage of her oldest surviving son’s house in Richmond, Quebec, empty, covered in dust, but with the label still intact of the shop in the Rue St Honoré from which it had been ordered. In Speak, Memory Nabokov remembers playing cards with his mother on a train journey through Germany in 1909. ‘Although it was still broad daylight, our cards, a glass and, on a different plane, the locks of a suitcase were reflected in the window.’ The suitcase had been bought for his mother’s wedding trip to Florence in 1897. In 1917 it had carried a handful of her jewellery from St Petersburg, via the Crimea, to London. After her death it became his, accompanying him on his passage through more than two hundred motel rooms and rented houses in 46 American States. ‘The fact,’ he writes, ‘that of our Russian heritage the hardiest survivor proved to be a travelling bag is both logical and emblematic.’

The Ignatieff marriage wasn’t very happy; at least Natasha didn’t think it was – disgruntled husbands are a feature of our times more than theirs – and she blamed herself for its failures. Her husband was a quiet, melancholy man whom other people seemed to find more charming than she did. In his youth he’d been anxious and asthmatic, and like her, was sent to France, to Charcot’s clinic in Paris. He spent six months there, reading Tolstoy and thinking Levin-like thoughts about the wisdom of the Russian peasant and the need for the aristocrat to return to the soil. ‘It is only by putting on the chains of service that man can fulfil his destiny on earth,’ he wrote, ominously, in a cousin’s commonplace book; and when he’d finished his military service he went back to the Ignatieff estate at Kroupodernitsa, to the life of a working farmer and a dutiful son. It wasn’t a life that appealed to Natasha and the feeling one gets reading her grandson’s account of the first year of her marriage is that it was also the first year of her exile.

Fifteen years later the Ignatieffs bought another farm, on the Sussex coast between Hastings and Battle. ‘Paul called it Kroupodernitsa ... Just turned 50, he thought he would go back to his beginnings, to the days when he farmed his father’s estate.’ He hadn’t, in fact, stayed on his father’s estate for long. ‘The chains of service’ – the Ignatieffs are always ‘dutiful’, never ‘ambitious’ – drew him to Kiev, where within 18 months of his marriage he was appointed chairman of the zemstvo; in 1905, in the middle of the first revolution, he was made governor of the province; in 1908 he was invited to join the Ministry of Agriculture in St Petersburg. Initially pleased to leave Kroupodernitsa, Natasha had dreaded moving into the governor’s mansion: she dreaded St Petersburg, the cold North and the exalted social atmosphere, even more. By then she had four children. Before setting off for the capital she took them to the seaside for a holiday. There was typhoid in the water supply and the youngest child died. It was at that point, Paul said in his memoirs, that she began to lose interest in the rest of the world. At the end of 1916 she lost another son, born prematurely. But by then Rasputin was running the country and there were angry demonstrations in the streets of Moscow and Petrograd. Natasha believed the child had been taken to spare him a future of which she was terrified.

Michael Ignatieff’s account of the collapse of the Tsarist autocracy and of his grandfather’s attempts to stave it off is admirably lucid. Paul took the post at the Ministry of Agriculture just as his friends – Nabokov’s father, for instance – were beginning to distance themselves from the regime. Though he was in many ways no less liberal than they were, and no less convinced of Nicholas II’s hopeless stupidity, he held on for much longer than was reasonable to the Slavophile’s belief in the mystical union of the Tsar and his people. In 1915, in the middle of a disastrous war, when almost everyone he knew, however right-wing or left-wing, had given up hope, he became a member of the Cabinet, and as Minister of Education introduced a series of reforms which the Tsarina did her best to impede. A year later he was dismissed, and took to his bed with a return of all the symptoms which Charcot had evidently been unable to cure. Three thousand people wrote to him to signal their dismay, and when the family left St Petersburg his former colleagues from the Ministry of Education were at the station to say goodbye to their chief.

With Paul in his bed Natasha took over. Something of that sort was no doubt happening all over St Petersburg. One can see it, for instance, in Tania Alexander’s A Little of All These, which isn’t so much the story of her own Estonian childhood as an account of the life and loves of her monstrous mother, Moura Budberg. At the beginning of 1918, as the Revolution spread northwards, Mrs Alexander’s father, a member of the Baltic nobility and former aide-de-camp to the Tsar, went back to Estonia to guard his estate. The children followed a few months later. Their mother stayed behind in St Petersburg where her own mother was ill – and took the opportunity to ditch her husband for the more magnetic Robert Bruce Lockhart. In this, as in most things, Moura Budberg’s behaviour was unusual. Even so, Mrs Alexander is right to speak of the strength of character which, like Natasha Ignatieff or Nabokov’s mother, she showed in adjusting to the loss of her position, her wealth and her household. One might want to shrug one’s shoulders and say that no one had much choice in the matter until one remembers that Natasha’s husband didn’t effectively get out of bed until somewhere around 1920: in May 1919, when the family left Russia, he was too weak to walk and was carried up the gangplank of the British steamship that took them to Constantinople on a stretcher. So when Mrs Alexander says that ‘Russian women of that pre-Revolutionary generation were more resilient than their menfolk,’ it might be as well not to dismiss the remark on the grounds of its being a cliché – perhaps it’s a cliché because the wives were by and large more resilient than their husbands.

There are, however, other things to say on that score. Djon von Benckendorff, Mrs Alexander’s father, was murdered in April 1918, a victim presumably of revolutionary violence. In 1922 Nabokov’s father, a minor official in Kerensky’s government, was assassinated in Berlin by a Russian fascist, ‘a sinister ruffian whom, during World War Two, Hitler made administrator of émigré Russian affairs’. As long as she remained in Russia Natasha Ignatieff was sustained by anti-Bolshevik rage. At the time of the February Revolution, she had closed the curtains, turned off the lights and told the children’s tutors on no account to let the boys near the windows: the scene below, she said in her memoirs, was ‘atrocious, shameful, never to be forgotten’. It wasn’t a show and the boys weren’t to watch. (Not unnaturally, they didn’t agree and crept back to the windows when she wasn’t looking.) ‘Calm yourself, dear,’ Paul kept saying to his wife as he lay in bed nursing his own more complicated despair.

In Paris, on the first leg of their exile, she went, briefly, to cookery school, where, before her money ran out, she learnt how to make risotto and marrons glacés – the staple of endless meals which she cooked but didn’t herself eat; she listened to her children’s chatter; when they were older bought them Turkish cigarettes; and all the while became more and more grievously homesick. The English Kroupodernitsa wasn’t the success they had hoped; and while Paul spent his evenings ‘doing the accounts’ with a Miss Adams Brown, Natasha would take a glass of port up to the bathroom and lie, muttering, in the bath. When eventually Paul took off for Paris – there at least ‘he still counted for something’ – her sons, now more or less grown-up, sold the farm and arranged for Natasha to join them in Canada. She settled down the best she could, but the summer she enjoyed most, even after Paul had returned to her, was the summer she spent writing her memoirs. Memory, she said, ‘quite flew me back to my happy past’. Nothing Michael Ignatieff says about her past makes it seem very happy to us: it was exile’s great trick to make it seem so to her.