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In Natasha’s Trunk

The Russian Album

by Michael Ignatieff
Viking/Elisabeth Sifton Books, 191 pp., $18.95

About three years ago, there appeared in The London Review of Books an article by Michael Ignatieff describing a visit, with his father, to the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow to find the grave of his “Uncle” Alyosha, a czarist officer and later general in the Red Army. Ignatieff’s name was, at the time, unfamilar to me: yet I had a sense that here was a fragment of a larger work, which, for its subject matter and stylistic grace, might turn out to be something of a masterpiece.

The Russian Album is a simple story—“deceptively simple” to use the appropriate cliché—written in homage to the memory of the author’s grandparents, Count Paul Ignatieff and his wife, Natasha. He, a Tolstoyan and member of the reformist intelligentsia, was minister of education in the Czar’s last cabinet, and belonged to the generation of modernists who gave Russia the world’s fastest growing economy in the years before World War I. She, born Princess Mestchersky, was a shy and beguiling woman whose family was enfeoffed by Catherine the Great, and who counted among her forbears the historian Nicholas Karamzin.

It is also the story of how a highly literate Canadian, Nova Scotian on his mother’s side, alternately attracted to and repelled by Russian émigré circles, succeeds in coming to grips with an ancestry that, to most of us, would seem impossibly exotic. Lastly, it is the story of a piece of luggage—and of the photo albums and other mementos it once contained: “a battered canvas trunk the shape of a loaf of Hovis bread, bound with leather straps” and ordered in 1902 for Natasha’s trousseau from a shop on the rue St. Honoré, its labels and scribblings still bearing the scars of flight—from St. Petersburg to the Caucasus, to Istanbul, to England, and thence across the Atlantic to Canada, where it has ended up, an emblem of scrambled destinies, in a loft above a garage in Richmond, Quebec.

When reading memoirs of the prerevolutionary period, one is struck by the extreme mobility of the Russian upper classes, whose “world,” regardless of national frontiers, appeared to stretch from the Atlantic to the Urals, and beyond. One also gets the impression that their huge neoclassical houses were a theatrical, somewhat illusory, backdrop to what was an essentially footloose existence: in other words, home was where your bags were. The fact that so many White exiles were able to encapsulate the contents of their lives into a suitcase—as would Nabokov into his mother’s pigskin nécessaire de voyage—allowed them to withstand the trials of the diaspora with stoic fortitude. So when Natasha, dying in Quebec, says, “We must get out of here” to the son who has built her a bungalow, she is perhaps echoing a set of attitudes engrained in Russians of her caste since the days of the Golden Horde.

As an outsider, I am also fascinated by the prevailing “Russianness”—a flavor as distinctive as Jewishness—that filters down the generations of exile. Once, at breakfast with a friend of Russian origin who was, to all appearances, an English-woman, there was a reverberative explosion at the far end of the table: “We are a wonderful people!” The morning paper carried news of Yuri Gagarin’s foray into space. Another time, on Easter Sunday, I entered a room full of well-groomed, well-heeled young people with names such as Romanov or Galitzine, who, taken individually, were indistinguishable from any other set of New Yorkers—the broker, the art dealer, the social worker. Yet together, with a few words of Russian between them, there was the same conspiratorial “brew” you find in student lodgings in Moscow, or among the new crop of dissidents in Paris.

The Russian Album, despite Mr. Ignatieff’s “Canadian” stance, is an exemplary Russian performance, quite unlike its Anglo-Saxon counterparts in tone and manner of execution. It belongs, rather, to a tradition of treating family history as imaginative literature that goes back, say, to Aksakov’s A Russian Gentleman and has continued to the present day, both inside and outside the Soviet Union. A recent case is Joseph Brodsky’s “In a Room and a Half,” a most touching portrait of his family life in Leningrad.*

Our earliest memories are often bound up with recollections of our grandparents: either as objects of awe and wonder, or as the ideal companions whom we outgrow as they lapse into senility. Unlike our parents, they survive in our memories complete in themselves: we can neither praise nor blame them for what we are. Middle age, therefore, is the time for a writer to record them, before the chain of memory is forever broken. Mr. Ignatieff is forty. He never knew Paul or Natasha: they died two years before he was born. Yet as a child he felt Natasha’s presence, not only in a series of haunting photographs but in her favorite blue lupins—the flower of northern gardens—that she had planted at Richmond to remind her of the lupins at Doughino, her parents’ estate near Smolensk.

In 1940, realizing that she had a “special vivid manner” of expressing herself, Countess Ignatieff began to type out—on two fingers and in the English she had learned from her governess—a “stream of free associations” describing her childhood; her courtship and marriage in Nice; her life at Kroupodernitsa, the Ignatieff estate in the Ukraine; her life in Kiev, in St. Petersburg; then revolution, flight, civil war, and escape on an English freighter.

Her unpublished—and apparently unpublishable—manuscript runs to 250 odd pages and is the principal source for her grandson’s book. But Paul Ignatieff had also written a memoir, as dry and guarded as hers was disorderly and revealing: an “exercise in discretion” designed to set straight the record of the career of a man who worked tirelessly to modernize Russian agriculture; who, as Governor of Kiev province, suppressed an anti-Jewish pogrom; and who, as the last remaining liberal among the Czar’s advisers, implored his sovereign to remove the Rasputin clique and was dismissed at the instigation of the Czarina.

In addition, Mr. Ignatieff has pulled a succession of objects out of Natasha’s trunk—her photo albums, the family icons, her volumes of Karamzin bound in red morocco, a silver ewer from Doughino—scattering them through the text, as talismans, to connect the distant Russian past with the Canadian present: a literary device, to be sure, but one he handles with great dexterity.

It was once explained to me just how much historical information one could extract from a careful study of early Soviet photographs—especially where one knew that Trotsky had been airbrushed from the negative. Mr. Ignatieff, too, has gone over his family albums with a magnifying glass, searching for clues to bring his characters to life. His portraits are, at times, a little harsh. “Memory heals the scars of time,” he says. “Photography documents the wounds.” Thus, from the way Natasha nervously crooks her forefinger, one can see that the woman dressed in lace and sable for a court portrait of 1913 is the same woman who called herself the “old crow,” standing awkwardly, in carpet slippers, in winter, outside the bungalow in 1944.

Originally, Ignatieff was torn between the alternatives of turning his grandparents’ story into a novel or of letting them “loose on the world” in their own words. His choice of the middle path is surely the right one; and if, sometimes, the tale seems a bit “novelistic,” that is because the habits of the landed gentry (as we know them from Turgenev or Tolstoy) do not have to be invented but are simply there: the summer mushroom hunts, the troika rides, the sleigh rides, the bells of the Kremlin, as well as the same, roughly predictable cast of characters—the faithful peasant and the unfaithful steward; the tough old lady being wheeled about her garden by a lazy Cossack, or her eccentric son, the “green-fingered” Uncle Sasha, who wore suits of green baize and had a passion for pea soup.

To have overloaded the narrative with too many direct quotations from either of the Ignatieffs’ memoirs might have detracted from its concentrated drama. Yet the few specimens of Natasha’s prose are so idiosyncratic that one longs for more. For instance, at the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896, she and her mother sat outside the cathedral in Moscow and watched the Czarina holding on tight to “her tragiceyed consort.” “The young queen’s arms and face,” Ignatieff writes, “were discoloured by red flushes, a nervous symptom, the insignia of dread.” On this occasion, at least, I would have preferred her words to his.

I mention Nabokov because his father (also Vladimir) and Paul Ignatieff were close friends: in fact, the fate of their two families ran somewhat parallel. Both men were rich. Both worked desperately to effect a liberal, constitutional government that would bring Russia in line with the Western democracies: an ambition that earned from Lenin the sneer of “parliamentary cretinism.” The course taken by the elder Nabokov was to burn his court uniform, join the Kadet party in the Duma, serve a lenient prison sentence for subversion, and, eventually, be assassinated by Russian fascists in Berlin in 1922. Ignatieff, on the other hand, preferred to combine loyalty to the Czar with the process of gradual reform, realizing, perhaps with greater prescience, that a Russia deprived of its emperor would be an empire run amok.

As a young man, suffering from nervous disorders, he had gone to Paris to be cured by the great Professor Charcot of the Salpetrière. Charcot advised him to steer clear of cities and retire to the country. So, like Levin in Anna Karenina, he worked side by side with his peasants on his Ukrainian farm: an experience that gave him the conviction, later, to push through a series of enlightened agricultural reforms. As minister of education, however, he saw the rottenness of the regime at its core.

Once the Revolution occurs, Paul’s attacks of neurasthenia come back: he and Natasha undergo a reversal of roles. She, the diffident, retiring wife, transforms herself into the tigress who defends her husband and five sons from the mob. He, a spirit utterly crushed by the extremism of either side, lies in bed, in a state of near catatonia, while mutinous soldiers stream past the window with bits of red stuff tied to their bayonets: his breakdown symbolizing the fragility and failure of Russian liberalism.

The subsequent adventures of the Ignatieffs, buffeted between Red and White armies in the Caucasus, make a thrilling tale. Paul, hardly able to walk, is arrested by Bolshevik thugs, taken by train to a place of execution but released on the intervention of a local school-teacher, who remembers the former minister’s struggle for national education. Finally, the redoubtable Cockney governess, Miss Peggy Meadowcroft, takes the family’s escape in hand, badgering the captain of an English ship to give them a passage and browbeating the White authorities to give them a pass. The account is hardly less memorable than Konstantin Paustovsky’s eyewitness account of the fall of Odessa in In that Dawn, in which the last ships steam away with refugees still clinging to the gangplanks, and a squadron of Red cavalry rides down the pier.

The latter part of The Russian Album recounts the poignant (and mildly hilarious) vicissitudes of exile: in England, where the Ignatieffs’ dairy farm becomes a haven for penniless relatives; in Canada, where Natasha haggles with the butcher and Paul philosophically digs his vegetable garden. His “liberalism” made him a suspicious figure to other Whites: to say nothing of his continuing friendship with “Uncle” Alyosha (who, as military attaché in Paris, went over to Lenin in 1917). He thus spared his family the rancorous and obscurantist bickering of émigré politics; his five sons—“the little fools,” as Natasha used to call them—were free to make lives of their own. Four of them, in their eighties, are alive in Canada. The eldest, Nicholas, who as a boy was horrified by White atrocities, almost became a Soviet fellow traveler in the years before his death. The next in line, Dima, still calls the Bolsheviks “bastards.” The author’s father, a successful Canadian diplomat, was once asked by Khrushchev to come “home”—but declined.

Of all the objects once housed in Natasha’s trunk none is more eloquent of the past than the chain of diamond and turquoise stars (those that survived the pawnshop to be distributed among her Canadian daughters-in-law) given long ago to Paul’s mother by the Sultan of Turkey.

Count Nicholas Ignatieff, her husband, was the Czarist adventurer-diplomat who inveigled the Chinese emperor into ceding the Amur territories (the scene of the present Sino-Soviet frontier dispute); who engineered the independence of Bulgaria; and who, as Alexander III’s minister of the interior, was responsible for harsh legislation against the Jews. Paul’s nervous breakdowns can be seen as a reaction to his father’s domineering temper—as can his passionate liberalism and concern to “unfreeze” Russian society. One can be absolutely sure that there are many minds like his at work in the Gorbachev era; and that the ideals he fought for are not entirely lost.

Readers of Michael Ignatieff’s earlier book The Needs of Strangers will recall his equally impassioned quarrel with the utopians, right or left, for failing to maintain standards of common decency. Readers of The Russian Album will realize how certain specifically “Russian” concerns and attitudes have persisted to the third generation, and that this fascinating document is not an exercise in nostalgia but an ongoing story.

  1. *

    Joseph Brodsky, Less Than One (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986).

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