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Russian Sketches

Voices in the Snow

by Olga Carlisle
Random House, $4.95 (paper)

This is a delicate, charming, unique record of a visit to Russia by the granddaughter of Leonid Andreyev. Mrs. Carlisle was born in Paris, and grew up in a literary atmosphere among Russian émigrés; when she saw Russia for the first time in 1960, she brought to her meetings with Soviet writers and intellectuals an intimacy with Russian culture and a particular sympathy with Russian writers as a type and as a force. Nevertheless, all this ready sympathy could not close the gap between her more traditional and idealistic Russian upbringing and the realities of Soviet life. And it is just this “literary” consciousness of old Russia in confrontation with Russia today that makes her book so vivid and sensitive as a personal record. There are odd touches of homesickness, of the kind that the children of Russian intellectuals so devoutly grow up with in exile, and notations of honest bewilderment and pain. There is a real struggle described in this book, for Mrs. Carlisle always tries to be sympathetic and fair to Russian writers (like Ehrenburg) who have had more severe trials than people in the West can appreciate. And it is the authenticity of struggle communicated in the book that makes it valuable. Many Russians of the old school go through a conflict that they cannot express.

Mrs. Carlisle, though young, is in spirit a part of “old” Russia. No doubt it is her keen “literary” consciousness of old Russia that got so many of the older Russian writers, even so brash and professionally hard a type as Mikhail Sholokhov, to talk to her so easily and richly about their work and about Soviet literature generally. She is particularly vivid on Pasternak, of course, who was himself the very embodiment of “old” intellectual Russia; but she appreciates the younger poets and painters with the same quick and informed sympathy. She has a painter’s feeling for the Russian landscape and for the odd, drab, suddenly colorful life of a great anachronism like Leningrad, the beautiful city on the Neva that was the site of the Russian revolution, but which seems to many Russians to belong to the past. There are fine touches throughout the book that bring home the amazing survival of timbered houses in the center of Moscow, the people carrying sprigs of mimosa on Sundays in winter, the hulking tyranny of the buildings of Moscow University, as overbearing as Egyptian temples. The students in the Hermitage, looking at the great paintings, walk through the rooms hand in hand, and in the long winter night Leningrad emerges as thousands of yellow lamps.

Yet the most interesting side of the book lies in the muted but expressive record of what “old” Russia can involuntarily feel in Russia today. Russia, simply as a human scene, can be difficult and oppressive enough to the complete outsider who finds himself caught up in a society where the tensions are evident, though he can never locate or understand them. But to someone like Olga Carlisle, growing up in the outside world with so many literary, highbrow, sensitive and tender feelings about Russia, there must have been a particular shock in the recognition of how much even she, another “Russian soul,” could not fully get hold of, understand, assimilate and express. Russia has often been too much for the Russians themselves—there has been just too much space, too much winter, too much suffering, too much bureaucracy, meanness, aspiration. It can certainly be too much for a visitor, no matter how sympathetic. And not always by design, Mrs. Carlisle communicates this. She visited an émigré family that had gone back to Russia in 1947 and been promptly arrested.

The intimate familiar atmosphere made the S’s tales all the more horrible. They suggested boundless injustice, immense misery, cruel endless Siberian winters, hundreds, thousands, millions of exiles.

I said good-bye to my hosts trying not to show them how upset I was. The S’s live on the top floor of a dilapidated apartment house…and the staircase was barely lit, untidy. Stepping onto the snowy sidewalk I burst into sobs. The street was fortunately deserted. I walked back to the hotel, following the narrow side streets with their small log houses buried deep in snow. On the way I saw only ghostly figures of women sweeping the snow off the pavement.

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