“It was as if we were living in the tale about Zmey Gorynych, the dragon that required yearly tribute of twelve fair maidens and twelve young men. One might well wonder how the people in this tale could have carried on, how they could have lived with the knowledge that a dragon would soon be devouring the finest of their children. During those last days in Moscow, however, we realized that they too had been rushing from one little theater to another or hurrying to buy themselves something from which to make a coat or dress. There is nowhere a human being cannot live. With my own eyes I have seen sailors taking a man out onto the ice in order to shoot him – and I have seen the condemned man hopping over puddles to keep his feet dry and turning up his collar to shield his chest from wind. Those few steps were the last steps he would ever take, and instinctively he wanted them to make them as comfortable as possible.
We were no different. We bought ourselves some ‘last scrap’ of fabric. We listened for the last time to the last operetta and the last exquisitely erotic verses. What did it matter whether the verses were good or terrible? All that mattered was not to know, not to be aware – we had to forget that we were being led onto the ice.”
The quote is taken from the first chapter of Teffi’s account, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea. Teffi, the pen name of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was a well-known and celebrated humorist, satirist, and author in early 1900s Russia. Memories is her personal account of her last months spent in Russia and the Ukraine as she fled from the collapse of the Tsarist regime and the Bolshevik revolution, along with most other intellectuals and artists of the era. What makes the narrative unique is that Teffi is largely reticent on political statements and instead puts journalistic focus on the personal narratives and stories of everyone she meets during her harrowing journey. Along the way, she always believes she will make it back to Moscow within a matter of months, but that dream ends years later as she stays in exile in Paris. Memories is described by one reviewer as, “A vividly idiosyncratic account of the disintegration – moral, political, strategic, – of Tsarist Russia after the Revolution, as alive to the farcical and the ridiculous as it is to the tragic.” I am just diving into the book myself and expect to pull many more such powerful and vivid depictions of what life must have been like for Russians in these perilous and harrowing times. Thus far, Memories is the indispensable book that I am currently reading that I can’t put down.