“Moscow. Autumn. Cold. My Petersburg life has been liquidated.”
If Twitter had been invented 100 years ago, perhaps Teffi would have had quite a following. She is certainly concise, doesn’t appear to take herself and her craft too seriously, but shares highly entertaining vignettes, seemingly on the spur of the moment. Perhaps only later, you realise how acutely observed and painful they really are. Her Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea, is published in English by Puskhin Press. It is a “series of goodbyes” to her homeland, to which she will never return, because it will no longer exist.
The year is 1917: As the Bolshevik revolution spreads south, emigrants move out of the Russian Empire, always just ahead of it, and Teffi moves with them:
She is extraordinarily lucky. As a celebrated writer, she is asked to give readings in Odessa, and an agent arranges her travel. She clearly has money to spend, at first. And she is not the only one who at least pretends to be coming back. Crossing the border then, as on so many borders now, is no easy task. It may require ingenuity, wealth, flattery, and a large portion of luck. Few people have all of these at their disposal.
Teffi’s luck holds, perhaps because she also has some idea about why some survive the journey, and others do not. You can see her initial sympathy with the socialist cause in her sketches of the characters she meets along the way.
Teffi is no more merciful in her observation of herself than of others. When she makes it to Ukraine, their own war for independence has begun. She is scared of the gunshots and tired of being on the run. She is not able to organise her own travel, and is nearly left behind in an empty hotel in Odessa when the Red Army arrives. Most sharply of all, she outlines the transformation from wealth and privilege to refugee status.
Memories was first published in instalments to the people just like that; Russians now settled in Paris. And that is where Teffi stayed, from her arrival in 1919 to her death in 1952. You can read more extracts from the book, in English translation by Anne Marie Jackson, Irina Steinberg, Elizabeth and Robert Chandler, in the New Yorker. Let’s leave her looking back, as her ship sets off for Constantinople, and she leaves the Russian Empire behind: