Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea
NYRB, 2016, Translation of 1929-1930 Russian original
I am not a memoir reader, nor much of a biography reader. The concept of reading someone else, regardless of fame or obscurity, explaining why they did what, or who they choose to dine with on a certain night, has not an ounce of interest to me. As such I wasn’t expecting much from this book, billed as it was as a memoir of one of Russia’s most popular pre-revolution writers. There was, however, just a hint of suggestion in the title that it may have a travel component, which managed to push it a few spots up the reading pile.
I was pleasantly surprised. Although written very much in a first person perspective, the book did indeed read more along the lines of a good road novel than a self-centered memoir and very quickly pulled the reader in to conversational range of the author, then never let go. The format of the book supported this, with endnotes rather than footnotes to non-intrusively help with the references that only those who were as intimately involved in the place and times as the book’s intended readers would have understood.
Set against the backdrop of the Russian Civil War, the author, who has already departed the chaos of Petrograd for the slightly better, yet rapidly declining, situation in Moscow, is approached by a tour manager with an offer to travel and perform a reading of some of her works in the Ukraine for a month, which at that point in time had not yet become embroiled in the fighting. She doesn’t overly want to go, but when a friend who has accepted a similar deal invites her and her manager to travel with his party she reluctantly agrees and begins the process of getting the necessary permissions and permits to proceed. In this her manager proves very helpful by nudging things here or there, suggesting contacts, and generally showing that his motivation isn’t so much the monetary outcome of the trip but in getting himself out of Russia before things become worse.
And so the journey continues. After leaving Moscow on a train bound for the Ukraine, they discover that the border inspector that they had “worked with” to enable free passage of themselves and their luggage across the border has been arrested and shot for corruption, so they change plans, get off the train, and end up after several adventures making their way by foot across the border into the Ukraine. Although things were better, it still required significant effort to arrange travel and lodging onto Kiev. Once in Kiev, it becomes untenable to stay there, and so what had started, ostensibly enough, as a 1 month lecture series turns into a progressive flight away from the conflict and into exile.
This book, originally written over 10 years after the events it portrays and aimed at an emigre readership of whom many would have had similar experiences, is an excellent and highly readable mix of individual observations within the larger context of a mass societal change.