History: Russian Blood, Part 1 Shideyevo
New Yorker, April 26, 1982
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IN 1820, at the age of thirty-six, Andrei Fyodorovitch Lukianovitch left his regiment (the Hussars) to become the governor of Simbirsk, a sleepy province on the Volga. After six uneventful years there, he retired to his land on the Orel, in the Ukraine, where he built a large house on the site of some old earthworks that had been constructed in the seventeen-thirties to deter Tatar invaders from the south. He called the house Shideyevo. The name came from shado, the old Tatar word for ramparts. The architect was Michael Korinfsky. The style was a neoclassical variant known as Russian Empire. The west fac;ade was supported by a dozen white columns, the east fac;ade by six-almost mandatory props for the house of a grand seigneur in retreat. A large green cupola with a belvedere gave the structure a Slavic character, and sometimes attracted itinerant pilgrims, who from a distance mistook it for a monastery. One wing was a church, of classically simple lines, modelled on the Church of the Imperial Stables, in St. Petersburg. The walls of the house were whitewashed stucco over brick and were four feet thick. The rooms were huge, with parquet floors. Footsteps echoed in them. Andrei Fyodorovitch had their walls painted with sepia frescoes of bacchanalian scenes. Since his days as a young officer, he had been addicted to practical jokes, and he boobytrapped the house with secret closets, hidden doors, and trompe-l'oeils of receding corridors and enticing flights of stairs. His favorite prank involved a big haystack next to the house. When visitors arrived, he would take them immediately on a lengthy tour. He would lead them into the dining room, so they could see that nothing had been prepared for them to eat. After a complete inspection of the house, he would start on the grounds. "And you must come and see my haystack," he would say, and they would follow along. Slyly, triumphantly, he would fling open a door in the haystack. Inside, on a long table, would be a fabulous feast, candles blazing, a liveried serf standing behind each chair.
Andrei Fyodorovitch's joie de vivre became well known in that part of Little Russia, as the Ukraine was then called, and numerous poets, artists, musicians, and entertaining parasites enjoyed his hospitality, but by 1845 twenty years of boisterous revelry had caught up with him. He was so crippled with gout or, as he insisted, rheumatism that he was confined to a chair, his legs wrapped in a plaid blanket. Having exhausted his governor's pension, he had been forced to mortgage the estate, with its two hundred and fifty-five registered souls, and only the personal intervention of the Minister of the Interior, an old friend, saved him from ruin. A year later, he died, and Shideyevo passed to his only son, Nicholas, who seemed to be pursuing a fairly sober career in the capital as a military historian-he had formerly served with the Preobrazhensky Guard-and the head of the Ministry of Salt Mines and Mineral Resources. Nicholas was much too busy to get down to Shideyevo, and he left the estate in the charge of his maiden aunt.
In 1854, when he was forty-eight, Nicholas married a woman named Alexandra Vladimirovna Panayev. She was just eighteen, and a good catch. The Panayevs were a cultured and talented family. Alexandra's father, Vladimir, had collected butterflies; at the University of Kazan he had been shown how to dry and mount his specimens by the eminent entomologist E. F. Eversmann. Vladimir had tried his hand at poetry, but his idylls were too academic to attract much of an audience. He had entered the Civil Service, and had headed the Department of Appanage in the Ministry of Court in St. Petersburg; Gogol had been one of his clerks. By the time of his death, in 1859, he had been a Privy Councillor and Secretary of State under Alexander II. In charge of acquiring art for the Hermitage, he managed to amass for himself a large collection of oils by European masters. There is a portrait, done in 1841, of Panayev's children in the Tretyakov Gallery, in Moscow. The youngest ones, including Alexandra, are in the foreground, holding toy swords, with the glazed, self-absorbed look of little children.
Now that Nicholas was married, he began to spend his summers at Shideyevo. In a photograph of his wife taken when she was around fifty, she is wearing a white bonnet. Her face has great strength, and at the corners of her mouth there is a slight smile. Her granddaughter Elizaveta Nicolaevna -my grandmother, who died sixteen months ago, and who was always called Mopsy by her children and grandchildren-told me that Alexandra Vladimirovna was a de~ply religious woman, almost a fanatic, and that this fanaticism was a Panayev family trait. One of her cousins had not exactly pushed his brother through some ice but had not done all he might have to pull him out, either. The brother died, and the cousin felt so guilty that he vowed to stand on all fours for a year. The penance was performed in the yard of his house. Servants fed and cleaned him and, during the winter, sheltered him with a tent. When he was told that the year was over, he tried to get up, but found that he was completely paralyzed, Alexandra Vladimirovna herself, while she stopped short of wearing hair shirts, gave all her clothing away except two dresses (the bare minimum that a woman of her station could get by with), and just before her death she made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, from which she returned distressed by how the Holy Land had been commercialized.
Alexandra Vladimirovna's first act on taking possession of Shideyevo was to have the racy frescoes painted over, Only the tearful entreaties of her little daughter, a few years later, saved the false perspective in the entrance hall, which looked like a long passage with a series of diminishing arched doorways. Alexandra brought up her daughter, who was also named Alexandra, as a Christian of the first century. Mirrors were removed, so that little Alexandra Nicolaevna could not be distracted by her reflection. The girl became deeply religious, and gave up all social activities. Surrounded by votaries of the church except for a few young friends from equally pious families, she prepared to take the veil, But one day in 1879 an old schoolmate of her mother's at the Smolny Institute, Anna Avinoff, came to tea at their house in St, Petersburg, bringing her younger brother Nicholas, who was an officer in the Preobrazhensky Guard. It was difficult for the sheltered young Alexandra not to be impressed just by Nicholas Avinoff's uniform: the green tunic, the white trousers, the black jackboots, the helmet with white feathers cradled under his arm, Avinoff, an old boyar name dating back to the previous millennium, comes from the Russian word for barn, ovin, which may, in turn, have derived from ovis, the Latin word for sheep, The Ovins and the Ovinoffs had been a leading family in Novgorod, which became an independent boyar republic in 1136, The seal of Ambassador Felix Ovinoff appears on a diplomatic document dated May 7, 1338. The Avinoff family icon-a Madonna and Child standing before the sunken city of Kitezh-was said to have been given to an ancestor by two angels in 1433. Nicholas's father, Alexander Avinoff, had been present as a visiting ensign of nineteen at the Battle of T rafalgar; in 1819, as captain of the Discovery-a Russian counterpart of the Beagle-he had mapped the unknown Alaskan coastline.
a few more visits, Nicholas Avinoff proposed to Alexandra Nicolaevna. She
accepted. Her mother was beside herself. Her father was no longer alive,
but perhaps he would have been happier to see his daughter married, and
to a member of his own regiment, than condemned to be a nun. "I don't think
it was a very romantic union, but it was a smooth one," Mopsy recalled
of the marriage that produced her.
MOPSY was born
on December 18, 1888, in Kharkov. Her father commanded an infantry regiment
there. She was the third child. Her brother Nicholas (Nika) was seven when
she was born. The middle child, Andrei, was four. Years
Life in Kharkov for the Avinoffs was very gay. "Games, dancing lessons, parties at the house of an extraordinary hostess, Mme. Kharina" -this was Mopsy talking of ninety years ago. "We had a French governess called Madame and an old nurse, Tatiana Ivanovna. Uncle had a collection of queer articles. He kept them in a glass jar that he called a museum. It was the first time I recall hearing that word, which played such a big part in his life. The articles in his museum were a very hard yolk of an egg, a claw of a chicken, and a hook from a corset. Each was carefully placed on cotton. I was tp°st impressed by this collection-and, as a matter of fact, by everything Uncle did."
In the autumn of 1893, their father was promoted to lieutenant general and named commander of a brigade of sharpshooters in Tashkent. The trip to remote Russian Turkestan took several months. First, the Avinoffs went by train to Vladikavkaz. Then they went by stagecoach over the Caucasus, whose snow peaks and gorges were stupendous. A detachment of soldiers escorted them the length of the Georgian Military Road, to Tiflis. The mountains had not been pacified, and there was danger of being set upon by bandits. From Tiflis, they took a train to Baku, then a ship across the Caspian to Krasnovodsk, then a train across the black sand desert (KaraKum) of Khiva and Bukhara to Samarkand, the city of Tamerlane, whose glamorous mosques, inlaid with turquoise and lapis lazuli, had given rise to a saying that in other places the light descends but in Samarkand it ascends. At Samarkand, the railroad ended, and they hired a tarantass to take them across the red sand desert (Kyzyl-Kum) to Mirzarabat. The tarantass was a large carriage that rode on poles instead of springs, with a high seat in front for the coachman, then an open section, then a coupe, and then a small booth in back for the maids. Soon after crossing the Syr Darya, they reached their destination. Tashkent was half European, half Oriental. Most of its roofs were of mud and were smothered with poppies. At a certain time of year, when the poppies bloomed, the whole city turned red.
The Avinoffs took a house on Kauffmann Boulevard. In the summer of 1894, they suffered terribly from the heat. My father remembers hearing, as a child, how his grandparents sat in barrels of water in Tashkent and played cards. The game ~as vint. Among their new acquaintances were the Kerenskys. Fyodor Kerensky was director of education for the province of Russian Turkestan. His son Alexander (Sasha), a schoolmate of Nika's, was destined to head the Provisional Government after the March, 1917, Revolution and the abdication of Nicholas II. But in Tashkent he belonged to a conservative, almost monastic family who were such staunch monarchists that when Alexander III died, later in 1894, Mopsy recalled, she saw them all walking along the Salara Boulevard in deep mourning.
Sasha had a younger brother, Kolya, who was Uncle's age. Later that summer, the A vinoffs took Kolya with them when they went to the Tchimgan Mountains, about sixty miles northeast of Tashkent, to escape the heat. Like the local nomads, they all lived in a felt yurt in a lush pasture above the tree line. The smoke went up through a hole in the roof. The air outside was crisp and was filled with butterflies. Uncle began to collect butterflies seriously. He had caught his first specimen when he was five and the family was spending the summer at Shideyevo. His cousin Lila was making a watercolo~ of some flowers and asked him to bring her a butterfly to copy. He ran into the garden and came back, breathless, carefully holding a beautiful white one, a cabbage. The next morning, not having finished the painting, Lila asked him to catch her another one. It had to be white, she said. This was no easy task, but at last he saw another cabbage and caught it with his hands. As he presented it to Lila, he noticed that its markings were di~erent from the first-a remarkable observation for a five-year-old. "That's all right. I'll manage," Lila said. But Uncle was puzzled. A few summers later, when he was eight, Uncle had read Sergei Aksakov's enchanting boyh,ood memoir "The Butterfly Collectors"-one of the collectors was Uncle's greatgrandfather Vladimir Panayev-and had been moved by it to start his own collection. His tutor, who had an interest in natural history, helped him assemble the necessary equipment. The first day, they caught twenty specimens. Now he was nine, and he found willing accomplices in Kolya Kerensky and the son of his piano teacher, a man named Pfaff. The three
boys spent hours running up and down
the slopes of the Tchimgans, disregarding time and space. Uncle had only
one book with him, Berge's "Butterfly Book," and it didn't show the numerous
satyrids and lycenids of alpine Russian Turkestan. One morning, he netted
a day-flying sphinx moth that looked almost like the Macroglossa croatica
in the book. That evening, in the yurt, he painted over the discrepancies.
After he grew up, he realized that he had caught a great rarity-Macro glossa
ducalis. This was the only deliberate falsification of his scientific career.
eighteenth century followed, painted under the influence of subjects that his mother was doing in oils on pale-blue satin pillows, which were in fashion. Even as a child, Uncle was acutely nearsighted, but for close work his myopia was an advantage: he could immediately distinguish the minutest details of a butterfly's anatomy. Landscapes, though, appeared as a blurred suffusion of pattern and color. Visitors were enchanted by him: his conversation was precocious, he had long golden curls, and his features were so delicate that his mother dressed him as a girl until he was four. His grandmother Alexandra Vladimirovna was an accomplished pianist, and not long after she died, in 1888 (she was only fifty-two), Uncle astounded everyone by sitting at the piano and playing from memory his grand~other's favorite piece, "Si Oiseau J'Etais." "He was very quick in mind and body," Mopsy recalled. "A great tease and a real pest at times to Nika and me. Sometimes with Nika it would end in a fight." Nika had a violent temper, and once beat up Uncle so badly he couldn't sit for days. The brothers were diametric opposites, as if they had early divided the spectrum of behavior and each were committed to defending his part of it. Just as Uncle was socially brilliant and uninhibited, Nika was silent and serious. Nika seemed to
have inherited the Panayev piety.
He had been Alexandra Vladimirovna's first grandchild, and she had doted
on him. Instead of giving him conventional toys, she had dressed him in
priests' robes and recited to him not nursery rhymes but the lives of the
saints. Nika would wander solemnly through the rooms of Shideyevo swinging
a censer and casting incense. When he was seven, his mother found him in
the pantry pretending to administer the last rites to a playmate-the butler's
daughter-laid out on a table.