Except for the Old South, no subject has greater nostalgic appeal for Americans than Old Russia. For 60 years refugees from the czarist ancien re'gime fed this nostalgia with memoirs dripping with "Gone With the Wind" sentimentality. Few of these possess great literary or historical merit. Most are filled with stage-set props and lachrymose cliche's: the inevitably "vast" estates; the unvaryingly "dashing" guardsmen; the "dour" leftist students brought into the family as tutors; the "harrowing" escapes; and everywhere those icons, perferably in frames by Faberge'. It gets downright silly. Thankfully, the fad died down with the passing of the older generation of e'migre's.
Now Alex Shoumatoff has revived it, at least partially. The suburban-born grandson of Russian immigrants, Shoumatoff knew little of his family's past beyond what he picked up over the dinner table. But his remarkable grandmothers were present throughout his youth and their tales aroused his curiosity. So Shoumatoff decided to debrief them, and went on to do his own research on the world they described. This memoir is the fruit of those efforts.
The action centers on the two grandmothers, both of whom possessed that hardiness of spirit that only an unsettled life can elicit. The memoir also treats their immediate families, a lively and diverse band that included lepidopterists, courtiers, curmudgeons and esthetes. Several centuries of family history prior to the grandparents' era are also sketched in.
The plaster props and cliche's are there, to be sure, although Shoumatoff acknowledges that in the case of his family, the "vast" estates had been a handout from the government and were entirely mortgaged by the 1840s. And names drop like snow: There was a great-grandfather who was a senior bureaucrat in the same governmental office in which the writer Gogol briefly worked; and a great uncle whose paintings once hung in the same exhibition with canvases by Malevich and Kandinsky. One is reminded of the English children's song "Lloyd George knows my father, father knows Lloyd George . . . ." There are also just enough trivial errors of fact and spelling in the text to agitate the pedants.
But it is not enough just to note that Shoumatoff's memoir displays some of the negative features of the genre. For Shoumatoff is a writer of exceptional sympathy and grace. The world may be full of people like his grandparents, cultured folk uprooted from their cozy environments and thrown into alien and indifferent worlds. But few of them are fortunate enough to have a writer of Shoumatoff's gifts to trace their steps.
Shoumatoff is at his best with those of his relatives whose lives were hardest. His awesomely durable maternal grandmother, Nani, who was tossed around Yugoslavia with two young children before finding a post teaching French in Baltimore, is shown in a particularly convincing portrait. Even more poignant is the sketch of her estranged husband, the former colonel who was too proud to accept menial employment and ended his days as a recluse in the New Hampshire woods. In such passages--and there are many of them--Shoumatoff achieves just the right balance of objectivity and love.
What broader implications, if any, does this family chronicle contain? Many notions come to mind. One thinks of the story of Uncle Nika, an outspoken advocate of reform within the czarist system, whose father was one of the Russian generals who helped subdue Central Asia--the Afghan invasion of that era. One wonders whether somewhere in Moscow there are new Uncle Nikas in the making today. One thinks also of Alex Shoumatoff himself. If the perseverance and understanding he has shown in reclaiming his own family's past is any indication, the contents of America's melting pot are in no danger of turning into a bland mush.