In Natasha’s Trunk

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…

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