Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Women in Exile

Three Profiles

Thus far this blog hasn’t made use of oral history to map the history of the Revolution. Yet oral history helps to see how the Revolution as an abstract phenomenon manifested itself in the particular. In history, it’s the little things that sometimes matter more than the big things. Is it more important to know what happened to autocracy or is it more relevant to ask what happened to windjammers, snow-filled food storage well, oil lamps, dachas, public parks filled with attendant-operated “tricks and follies,” full-length dress school uniforms, French-speaking nannies, and German tutors? Another advantage of oral history is that it helps us to recover the voices of women, whose stories often unfold in the context of the private sphere as opposed to the more masculine public sphere. Although women haven’t produced a large percentage of the documentary evidence for large portions of history, their life experiences are no less important for that.

Memories of Revolution: Russian Women Remember isn’t an objective book and it’s not even about ordinary Russians. The ten women who sat for interviews with Frances Welch and Elena Snow were extraordinary. They were exiles, almost all White Russian exiles, and all grew up in considerable privilege before 1917. One was 98 at the time of the interviews. The stories are remarkable. Some of the exiles knew famous people and participated in public life on a political or artistic level. Leo Tolstoy helped to arrange the adoption of one, who remained in Tolstoyan circles throughout her life. She even painted one of the most famous pictures we have of the master. Another woman’s father served on the Tsar’s personal yacht and went to a school that was tied to the life of the Tsar’s court. She herself became a sculptor of note, soon tied by marriage to a revolutionary of some note.

The histories of these women—as told by the women themselves—shed light on a many facets of Russian history. We learn about how aristocratic and bourgeois families operated, in terms of dating rituals, entertainment, musical preferences, education, servant support, nourishment, and technology. Most poignantly, we see how the trauma of history works. As the book’s authors assert, many of these women see the pre-revolutionary period as an idyllic period, never to be repeated. 1917 came with a fury. Fathers and brothers and male cousins were often murdered or tortured or killed on the battlefield. Properties were confiscated. Many were put to work. Some came close to starvation. Many were jailed, their wives left to plead that as admirals they had at least treated their men with fraternal love and respect.

The book is most powerful in its understatement. As one women remembered, one year she was too young to participate in a school dance. She watched as the older girls danced with elite, uniformed cadets, and thought: “Oh well, next year I’ll be allowed to dance. But next year never came.” Another woman recalled her mother devoting specified days to writing letters for illiterate hired help. The letters often listed each and every member of the letter-sender’s village, including all of their patronymics. The story-teller recalls asking her mother why they had to write such monotonous letters all of the time. The mother explained that if the letter-sender neglected to mention the name of a single member of the peasant commune, he or she would be gravely insulted.

One woman remembers how the Bolshevik victory resulted in the wholesale sale of valuable private property on the black market to avoid the danger of outright confiscation. This woman, relocated to London, believed she had purchased some of Catherine the Great’s earrings and wore these earrings most of her life. One woman said she lost touch with her peasant nanny but then rediscovered her in Paris two decades later. The nanny immediately asked her how old she was, since she only knew her age in relationship to the woman she raised.

It’s remarkable really, to hear these women describe the way their lives were overturned. One minute their servants are preparing picnics for them, the next they are impoverished, landless, crowded, unemployed, and under suspicion. Some of the women remember hearing about the political events as they unfolded. They remember hearing when the First World War broke out, when Rasputin was murdered and they allegedly found his shoe in the Neva river, when the February Revolution occurred and people stood around talking on the streets about what should happen next, when the Bolsheviks disarmed troops who were loyal to the Provincial Government, when Bolshevik forces started hunting down opponents, etc.

One woman remembered seeing the tsar’s girls riding merrily in a troika before the Revolution, then seeing the tsar shoveling snow for exercise and being told that he was a prisoner in his own palace. The same woman remembers living next to Gorky who, she said, bothered the children by trying unsuccessfully to play with them. Most revealing, this woman also remembers that her aunt was sent away to the gulag where she survived owing to her talent as a painter. For two decades, the woman employed her talents to draw portraits of a man she must have hated—Stalin--for Communist officials.

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