Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi

Review published on July 27, 2017.

This is the new translation from Pushkin of a memoir published in 1928. Teffi, before the Russian Revolution, was the most well known and read writer in that country, producing short stories, plays and what she referred to as “feuilletons”. This piece covers about six months in 1918. She is persuaded to leave Moscow “for a month’s reading tour in Ukraine” to ensure her safety. A casual phrase that sets the tone of what is in front of the reader. Safety includes passing hundreds of miles through various war zones during international war and political revolution with national dissolution. So expect throughout this accounts of seeming minutiae almost denying major themes, unless of course you are paying attention.

We are told Teffi was a socialist – but not a Bolshevik (dangerous) – and her writings always concentrated on people although she had no interest in just the wealthy. So this extraordinary memoir – of more than historical interest – speaks of universal themes current today. How do people cope as the world they are accustomed to breaks down? How do people cope with the threat of both the big things and seemingly small things in violent times, when risks and violence can apparently be both calculated but also entirely random? Teffi never fails to talk about people, the callous, the psychotic, the careless, and the exploiters, but also those who offer kindness (often to strangers) to their own risk.

The narrative is a “simple” physical journey south, graphically told through the people she meets. But layer upon layer Teffi visually builds a broader and deeper picture of time and place. With her interest in people, her piercing vignettes had me almost laughing on occasions until the dangerous realities of her life kick back into mind. By dropping more and more facts almost casually, she makes you aware of the deeper picture and myriad layers of risks for ordinary people. But this is not just international war, but revolution too – where previous “norms” are being deliberately overthrown and risks increase. Life is still a series of choices, but random risks are much higher too.

To give a flavour: Given a bed for the night, Teffi is advised not to close the curtains as she undresses – closed curtains mean the household has something to hide – revolutionaries will visit. If you go for a walk turn left not right – right will bring you to the body dumps which will get you shot. We are told that on one occasion she randomly selects a train south rather than the “safer” steamer. Safer although it is always stopped by militias who rob, rape and kill. Eventually, almost incidentally, we are let know that the chosen alternative train journey is open topped goods wagons in the midst of winter. “Peasants” re-evolve back into the wealthy as a safer zone is approached.

It should be said that this gradual awareness of life in those times in those places echoes perhaps the evolution of Teffi’s movement (and that of many other others – if indeed they survived) from safety, through risk and into permanent exile. The awareness of this adds a huge poignancy, not least because Teffi’s deep awareness and love of her country shines through all she has written. This a deeply compelling read, in spite of all the unpalatable facts that are being deeply embedded into one’s mind and memory. A brilliant read I would recommend to all.

Hilary White 5/5

Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi
Pushkin Press 9781782272991 pbk May 2017

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