While the eyes of the world are trained on Russia (as I write we are in the opening week of the 2018 Football World Cup, being hosted there), I've been lost in the pages of Eugenie Fraser's Russian childhood memoirs, "The House by The Dvina". The World Cup's festival of football is very glitzy, and well polished, the millionaire football celebrities, play under dazzling lights. Russia though, seems to be a place, (an idea?) loaded with melancholy, a place alive with a living history cast in sombre tones, and bearing an unusual weight of tragedy. I love Russian music, and yet it is some of the saddest music ever written. Unsurprisingly then, The House on The Dvina, is a book full of characters, remarkable stories, evocative moods, several surprises, and deep, dark sadnesses.
The author grew up in Tsarist Russia, in Arkangel on The White Sea, in the Far North of Russia. Her family were comparatively wealthy, and were Russian Orthodox Christians, and Tsarist loyalists too. Her memories of this period are happy ones, of childhood adventures and gardens, and friends and Christmas parties - of sledges and frozen rivers in Winter, and swimming and adventures in the Summer.
Unusually (and I had no idea about this when I picked the book up in the Oxfam bookshop in Perth), Fraser's family were half-Russian and half-Scottish. Her Mother came, not merely from Scotland, but from Dundee's little neighbour, Broughty Ferry; some twenty miles from where I live. Early chapters of the book are concerned with the story of how her parents met, and contain fascinating portraits of life in turn-of-the-century Dundee; what it looked like, family-life, religion, work, transport and culture. This was an unexpected delight, in a book I had assumed was purely a Russian memoir. Her mother's journey to northern Russia, cultural transition, and life in Orthodox Russia as a Scots Presbyterian, is a great story. Having been brought up in the Cold War era, Russia and the Eastern bloc were always in some ways 'closed'. I did travel to the Soviet Union (Moscow, Leningrad, Gulf of Finland), in a highly controlled Intourist trip in the 1980s. But there was always the sense that while we could see the sights, we were kept well away from the real Russian people. We were there to bring in hard currency, not to engage with the culture. It was interesting to discover that in the era after the Crimean War and before the October Revolution of 1917, there was significant openness between Britain and Russia - and a young Russian coming to work in Dundee wasn't a ridiculous proposition, but a sensible exploration along thriving trade routes.
The tragedies in this story start with the dreadful situation on the Eastern Front in the First World War, the horrific casualty rates; and despair facing the country. The shenanigans at court, the unpopularity of the Tsarina and the machinations of the mysterious Rasputin feature as the backdrop to the unravelling of the life they knew in the old Russia. The first revolution in 1917 they coped with, despite the ongoing problems in the war, Kerensky is viewed as an orator of no substance; while the Bolsheviks are absolutely hated. The author's family supported the White cause in the civil war, and felt betrayed and deserted as the Allies withdrew and left Russia to the fate of Lenin, Bolshevism and then Stalinism. The Bolsheviks who appear in this story are murderous thugs, who smash all that was good in the country and produce little but vandalism and near starvation in its place.
Amazingly, the author and her mother and brother managed to gain passage out of Russia and back to her grandparents in Dundee - while their Russian father was unable to leave. They never saw him again. What happened next? I don't know - but I'm sure there's a sequel somewhere!
This sad, plaintive memoir works really well as a child's-eye view of the Russian Revolution - which is a story usually told in terms of Dumas, Soviet's, strikes, slogans and Marxist ideology. The Scottish (Dundee!) angle to the story was an unexpected twist - which made it all the more intriguing to read sitting here by the banks of The Tay.
It's not an academic read, or a real stretch - but it is nevertheless good reading. Interestingly, there is a childlike quality to the memoirs - even though they were clearly written when she was an adult, looking back over the troubled century.