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18 May 2016

The jolly refugee: how Teffi captivated the world

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea reveals the eye for truth and optimistic spirit of an extroadinary Russian celebrity.

By Erica Wagner

This remarkable memoir of a journey from Moscow to Ukraine to the Black Sea and beyond – undertaken in 1918 and 1919, not long after the overthrow of the last tsar – begins with a plain-spoken admonition. There are no famous figures to be found in these pages, the author says; no political lines will be drawn. Readers “will find only a simple and truthful account of the author’s involuntary journey across the entire expanse of Russia – a journey she made along with millions of other ordinary people”.

Yet Teffi was not ordinary. She was one of the most renowned writers of her day: a poet, a playwright, a journalist, an author of short stories. Her work was loved by Tsar Nikolai II; she was equally adored by Vladimir Lenin, whose Bolshevik revolution toppled the old regime and led to Teffi’s flight. Such was the extent of her fame that there were Teffi sweets and a Teffi perfume. So great was her talent that she was even able to overcome the great handicap of her sex. “In general Teffi writes so cleverly and beautifully that even her enemies would not call her a woman writer,” one of her fellow scribes remarked.

But English-speaking readers may not have heard of her. Pushkin Press is doing them a great service by releasing – in elegant packaging and with scholarly yet accessible notes – not only Memories, but also Subtly Worded, a collection of her short stories, and Rasputin and Other Ironies, a selection of her journalism and non-fiction.

Teffi’s real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya; she was born in 1872. Her father was a celebrated criminal lawyer. Rising to fame in the early years of the 20th century, she was more than sympathetic to the forces of revolution – but she disdained Lenin and his party, as her biographer Edythe Haber writes in her useful introduction to Memories. The lightness of her tone, and her keen gift for humour, often disguised the political bent of her writing.

It was her resistance to Bolshevism which made her flight from Moscow inevitable: Memories makes vivid her experience as a refugee. It’s true enough to say that she remained, even during her dangerous odyssey, a person of privilege, unlike so many others fleeing across Europe then and in the 21st century. That does not make her observations any less acute; and her use of humour highlights the darkness that lies behind her tale. She is persuaded to leave Moscow by an impresario she knows only as “Gooskin” (a pseudonym like her own), who charms her into leaving, not by emphasising the danger of staying, but by claiming that to flee will bring comfort, greater fame and riches. He’ll take her to the Hotel London in Kyiv, he says; he has already reserved its best suite for her. “You’ll take the money, buy yourself some ham and some butter – and then you’ll be sitting there in a café, eating away to your heart’s content,” he tells her.

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She knows Gooskin isn’t telling the truth: his story shifts; there are different hotels, different arrangements mentioned; and yet she knows she must follow him. All the while, she notes what she sees, the people and places she encounters as they head south from Moscow, to Kyiv, to Odessa, by ship to Sevastopol and then east to Novorossiysk. Pleasant trains give way to freight cars; in Odessa, in order to get their vessel, the Shilka, out of port, the passengers have to load the coal themselves. This is part necessity, part revolutionary socialism; later, Teffi is ordered to scrub the deck when some of the other passengers deem she is being accorded unfair privileges. But, she tells us, it turns out that she has always dreamed of scrubbing a deck: she saw a sailor do it when she was a little girl: “I had thought at the time that nothing in the world could be jollier.” So, wearing a pair of silver shoes, she sets to work with a mop and bucket.

Perhaps this is the essence of Teffi, the quality that makes her writing both potent and endearing: she pitches in. She never returned to Russia; eventually she got to Paris, where she became just as well known as she had been back home. She loved the city, and in Rasputin and Other Stories there are pieces describing her crowded little room at a pension in Montparnasse. There is, too, a chilling (and hilarious) long piece about her encounter with the Mad Monk himself, and a childhood meeting with Tolstoy.

Teffi has a gift for optimism that recognises the truth of a situation but refuses to be discouraged. Adrift in Odessa, far from home, in a city haunted by poverty and disease, she takes stock. “Say what you will, I think, I’ve really not done at all badly for myself. It’s a lovely day, there’s a splendid view, no one’s threatening me or driving me away. I’m sitting like a lady on a comfortable bollard, and if I tire of sitting I can stand up for a little while and go for a walk. I can do as I please and no one will dare to stop me.” No one ever did dare; Teffi is a courageous companion for anyone’s life.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi is translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne-Marie Jackson and Irina Steinberg and published by Pushkin Press (350pp, £16.99)

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This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump