The Sound of Poetry
My earliest memories are of adults reciting poetry in our apartment near Paris—my father, my aunts and uncles, and Marina Tsvetayeva. I would have been five or six, and I did not know that there were worlds beyond our family, the darkening dining room, the hot fragrant tea, and the waves of poetry that engulfed us.
Tsvetayeva had pale green eyes, her skin was swarthy, and her short hair was touched with silver. I liked her harshness—the brisk movements, the low, slightly raspy voice with the hard r’s of the well-born Muscovite.
Tsvetayeva wore heavy silver bracelets on her wrists; a leather belt was drawn tightly around her waist. I remember her sharp profile against the twilight, the clinking of her bracelets and the Russian verse delivered in a somewhat stylized manner, vibrant and yet even toned.
This was also how my father read poetry, and my aunt Ariane, who knew all of Eugene Omgin by heart. Some years later I would be told that, according to his contemporaries, Pushkin had recited poetry in this way.
I had been told that Pushkin had been Russia’s greatest poet, that he was being celebrated just then in 1937, on the centenary of his death in a duel, secretly plotted by the Russian Czar. Pushkin’s poems and Lermontov’s, the other great poet killed in a duel, were often read at the table after dinner. The adults were divided: my aunt Natasha and my grandmother preferred Lermontov to Pushkin, but the others, including Tsvetayeva, favored Pushkin.
I too considered myself a Pushkinite, although it was Pasternak, yet another poet, who was in fact my favorite. Though he was hard to understand, it was he who spoke most beautifully about Russia, the faraway land of summer woods, of lilacs and swirling snowstorms. My father read his poems with special fervor, causing each line to resonate. Many years later, hearing Robert Lowell read his own verse and Yeats’s, I had a sense of recognition. Here in another language was the incantatory monotone with which my childhood had reverberated.
In Paris in the thirties there was a small Russian literary milieu, and my family was part of it. My parents’ friends were the poet Tsvetayeva, the philosopher Berdyaev, and whenever he visited his family in Paris, Isaac Babel. These writers, unknown in France outside a small circle of Russian readers, are now celebrated in Russia. But then, with the exception of Babel, their names were reviled in the Soviet Union, as were those of my two grandfathers, who both had been mortal enemies of Lenin.
There were many other Russian émigré communities in France in those years of different political or religious persuasions. Paris alone was said to be home to three hundred thousand refugees from the Bolshevik revolution. However, my family’s loyalties were above all literary. And populist. The people, the well-being of people everywhere was a concern often discussed with the children. As were the history of Russia and her fate under Communism, about which little was known until the astounding drama of the Great Purges unfolded. By then I was seven.
I understood that we were neither Red nor White, that we “belonged to the people.” Both my grandfathers had been grandsons of serfs in prerevolutionary Russia. Leonid Andreyev, my father’s father, was from the Orel region in central Russia, and my mother’s adoptive father, Victor Chernov, from Saratov, on the Volga River. Both men had loathed the czarist regime, both had been revolutionaries in very different ways. Divorced from my grandmother, Chernov, now living in Prague, had been a leader of the Socialist Revolutionaries, the ill-fated SR party destroyed by the Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the October 1917 coup d’état. As for Andreyev, he had died in exile in Finland in 1919. He was a celebrated writer until the Bolsheviks erased his name from Russian literature.
Andreyev had been sympathetic to the SRs, and yet he was aware of the ambiguities of their political credo. Until 1908, they had condoned individual terrorist acts directed against highly placed officials. At that time the czarist regime was becoming ever more repressive. A secret “Combat Organization” within the party plotted the killings of leading czarist politicians, guilty in their eyes of intolerable crimes against the people.
But these high-minded, seemingly experienced revolutionaries had allowed themselves to be infiltrated by the Russian Secret Police, the Okhrana. Eventually czarist double agents were themselves staging some of the assassinations, settling personal vendettas and helping discredit the revolutionary movements. Arrests and executions multiplied. These inspired Leonid Andreyev’s most powerful works, which explored the morality of using terror against autocracy: The Seven Who Were Hanged, The Governor, Darkness. . . . His visionary novella The Red Laugh foretold the horrors of the oncoming wars.
In the mid-thirties my parents received a shipment of objects that had come from Leonid Andreyev’s house in Finland. Among them was a set of bronze candlesticks and a massive Empire inkstand, which looked to me like a diminutive funerary monument. Small black steps lead to an urn that concealed a glass container of ink. Evidently writing in ink was the key to immortality. In my mind this inkstand was a sacred object, and I loved to draw it, trying to capture the bronze steps with a deliberate, ascending zigzag line.
The shipment from Finland, my father’s legacy, included a vast collection of photographic glass plates. They were color transparencies. Each was mounted in double: they were meant to be viewed through a stereoscopic viewer. They had been packed in shiny flat cardboard boxes labeled in Leonid Andreyev’s energetic, rounded handwriting. We had no viewer, but my father would show them to me by holding them up to the light. Their colors were lifelike, muted, and yet vivid. I was told that these images were obtained through the chemical use of potato flour. It seemed hard to believe. How could these butterfly wings glowing against the daylight come from potatoes?
Through these photographs my father’s childhood became a part of mine. Sitting on the stairway, my father was the beautiful boy, with the sad, soft gray eyes—he had lost his mother when he was five. His small brother, Daniel, in a canvas summer hat, looked even sadder. Now they had a handsome, self-satisfied stepmother who tried vainly to look lovable in her pictures, clutching bouquets to her bosom. Leonid Andreyev was there too, enigmatic, sorrowful, wearing strange costumes. Close enough to touch were the visiting relatives, the Nordic landscape edged with clouds, the birch trees and the ponds shining softly. And the field flowers identical to those my mother gathered into bouquets for me to draw.
Several outsized charcoal drawings had also arrived from Finland. Among them was Leonid Andreyev’s “Devils Trimming their Nails,” inspired by Goya. For a while my father pinned this study in the hall of our small, sunny apartment in Le Plessis. The devils were repulsive; my mother and I hated them. Eventually they were rolled up and disappeared under the couch in my father’s study, where paintings and drawings were customarily stored. I was not happy with this arrangement. In my opinion the devils, who looked both contrived and evil, should have been thrown out of our house altogether.
But in fact this picture was emblematic of what was going on in the larger world just then—the Spanish civil war, the rise of Stalin and that of Hitler. Andreyev’s writings and especially his novellas remain alive today. His plays are performed in Russia after a seventy-year-long interlude. The problems Andreyev pondered are today’s problems—war, violence, hunger.
How I wished there would have been photographs preserved also from my mother’s childhood! She had grown up in Italy on the shores of the Mediterranean, among lemon trees and climbing roses. At fourteen in 1917, at the beginning of the revolution, she returned to Russia with her family. After the Bolshevik coup d’état she and her mother and sisters were arrested. A price was put on Chernov’s head—he had gone into hiding. The women’s situation was desperate. Then a friend, a former SR once married to Maxim Gorky, Ekaterina Peshkova, obtained a permit from Lenin himself for them to emigrate.
My family’s adventures in revolutionary Russia had been fantastic, full of odd coincidences. They haunt me to this day. There were tales of Red Army men in pointed helmets riding through the sunflower fields of Saratov, led by their mythical chieftain, Chapayev. Tales of night searches by the Cheka, the Bolshevik Secret Police. Denunciations and arrests in snowbound Moscow, train rides through endless frozen steppes. And the story about my mother and her twin sister, Natasha, living alone in the woods for a whole summer.
The four women in our family—my grandmother and her three daughters—were brilliant storytellers. My grandmother was the most accomplished. Some years after glasnost came to Russia in the 1980s, leafing through a volume of recollections by SR women imprisoned by the Bolsheviks on their way to Siberia and annihilation, I came across a testimonial about my grandmother’s powers as a storyteller. She had an ability to bring to life whatever she recounted; be they daily events, history, plots out of Dickens or Alexandre Dumas, or events from her happy childhood on an estate in the south of Russia. In a Pskov prison, according to one of her comrades, her tales had kept her cell mates distracted for hours from the grim realities before them. Though she was an excellent journalist and a superlative cook, storytelling was my grandmother’s magic gift—she was the Scheherazade of our family.
Snatched out of that grim Pskov prison thanks to Peshkova’s intervention, my grandmother was reunited with her daughters and sent out of Russia to France. My maternal family’s years in Russia during the revolution—where my grandfather was called from his Italian exile to be Minister of Agriculture in the provisional government that replaced the czarist regime to become a fugitive in less than a year—made a breathtaking, intricate tapestry of tales. Against it our French life unfolded peacefully. I was in awe of these tales, yet to me the present was even more compelling.