In 1917, Russian writer Teffi left his native St. Petersburg, which was experiencing severe food and fuel shortages, for Moscow. There was bread in Moscow, but she felt like she was watching the city in agony as the newly installed Bolsheviks rounded up their enemies. They also shut down opposition newspapers that published his writings. In 1918, when a sleazy impresario offered her a reading engagement in Odessa, she accepted. Performers had freer access to touring visas and theater companies were bloated with people desperate to emigrate. As she left, Teffi told herself that she would be back soon; in fact, she would never return to Russia.
Teffi was the pseudonym of Nadezhda Aleksandrovna Lokhvitskaya, born in 1872 into the St. Petersburg intelligentsia. At the turn of the century, after a decade of unhappy marriage to St. Petersburg law school graduate Wladyslav Buczynski, Teffi left her husband and children at their country estate and returned to St. Petersburg, where she is quickly became a success. author of serials, stories, verse and plays. (Her first play was called “The Woman Question.”) It became so popular that there were Teffi candies and Teffi perfume.
Like many of her fellow writers and artists, Teffi supported socialism and the 1905 revolution. Along with other prominent writers of various political leanings, she worked for Russia’s first authorized Bolshevik newspaper, New life. The paper was a strange creature, a product of uncertain times, with a political direction from Lenin and a literary section that included big non-Bolshevik names like Teffi and the scandalous symbolist Zinaida Gippius. A large number of New life the employees showed less-than-iron resolve: the sub-editor was a jolly ladies’ man who sighed at the loss of a secret arms shipment, then invited Teffi to lunch at a fashionable literary cafe .
Returning to this period, in one of the sketches of “Tolstoy, Rasputin, the others and me”, a new collection of the writings of Teffi, published by The New York Book Review and edited by Robert Chandler and Anne Marie Jackson, Teffi writes that she feels “like someone has shuffled the pages of a diary, mixing tragic entries with stories so ridiculous one can only raise one’s shoulders in disbelief”.
In his account, Lenin returns from exile and spoils all the fun, treating his revolutionary activities as work rather than a theatrical production. “He didn’t pose,” writes Teffi. “People usually pose because they want others to like them, because they yearn for beauty. Lenin had no sense of beauty. He revises New life, explaining: “These days, we don’t need theatre. We don’t need music either. We don’t need articles about art or culture of any kind. Teffi resigns along with the rest of the literary section, shortly before the paper is shut down by the authorities. According to Edythe Haber’s introduction, Lenin had gone too far, publishing an article titled “The Dying Autocracy and the New Organs of Party Government”. This altercation with Lenin was the beginning of Teffi’s enduring hatred for the Bolsheviks (but not for socialism). She couldn’t stand a movement with no respect for culture and no sense of humor.
Thirteen years later, Teffi leaves Russia. In “Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea”, recently translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Irina Steinberg, and published by The New York Book Review (an excerpt from the translation appeared on our website, in 2014), Teffi describes her 1918 journey. The memoirs would be fascinating under any circumstances, but they are particularly poignant now, when millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by a conflict that is half tragic and half farce. At one point in the memoirs, in the fall of 1918, on the dangerous Ukrainian border, a local “arts commissioner” orders Teffi’s band to entertain the proletariat in his Enlightenment and Culture Club. He wears a magnificent beaver coat pierced with a small round hole in the back, surrounded by a stain: blood. The front row of the club is occupied by revolutionaries in leather jackets, with bullet belts and revolvers. After the revolutionaries leave, sad and tired women urge Teffi to leave town as soon as possible. She does. At a border control office, she is moved by a gift of warm champagne from an admirer and she finds a chocolate bar in a shtetl. At that time, chocolate and champagne seem like relics of a lost world.
Though frightened and repelled by the plundering Bolsheviks, Teffi can understand why someone once destined for a life of boredom and drudgery would be intoxicated by revolution, by the taste of blood. When she arrives at kyiv train station, still under German and White Guard control, she sees a man scolding a waiter for taking out his steak before his fries. “This whole little scene is a gift to the Bolsheviks,” she wrote. Doesn’t the man know how lucky he is to eat steak and fries, in any order? When Teffi leaves the station, she is delighted to see a White Guard officer standing in front of a bakery, eating a fresh cake. This sequence is typical of Teffi’s approach: it starts from what she observes, rather than from a political program. She’s not ashamed to appreciate good food, but she understands why a waiter would want his own steak dinner. His human and impartial approach, with his attention to the details of everyday life, adds a dimension to our sense of the moment: we know more about what he smelled, tasted, looked at, felt.
At first glance, German-ruled kyiv looks like a festival, with writers and actors from Moscow and St. Petersburg eating ham, sausages and stuffed suckling pig. But Teffi soon concludes that kyiv is more like a train station waiting room, full of travelers waiting to get to their next destination. As the Ukrainian socialist army approaches, the refugees move south. Teffi stays long enough to see the Ukrainian Socialists patrolling the streets: “Incredibly polite gentlemen in army greatcoats clicked their heels and told us which streets to avoid so as not to get caught in one of their raids. With “proud humility and heavy Ukrainian accents,” the men explain to Teffi: “We are the groups of peasants you were all talking about.
Its next stop, Odessa, is under the nominal control of the White Army, with the support of the French, but everyone knows that it is the gangsters of the thieves’ district who really rule the city. As the Bolsheviks approach, the gangs grow bolder, knowing that the appropriation of property will soon be legal. Teffi manages to secure a place on a steamer bound for Vladivostok, from where she hopes to return to Moscow, but the crew has deserted, apparently wishing to give the ship to the Bolsheviks. Passengers are content with their engineering and marine experience to navigate. Young dandies transport coal and ladies clean fish. In order to prove that she isn’t shirking her fair share of work, Teffi cleans the deck, but an acquaintance soon orders her to stop. “Your friction is abominable,” he said. “And also, you look way too happy.” People might think it’s some kind of game. She’s wearing silver shoes; like many other refugee women, she saves her more practical clothes for her next life, whatever that may be.