New Yorker, April 26, 1982
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.
After 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
later, Mopsy and her children and grandchildren always referred to Andrei as Uncle.
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.
At nine, Uncle was painting accurate watercolors of butterflies. These paintings were a far cry from his first effort, which his mother kept in the old Karelian birch bureau at Shideyevo -a drawing, made when he was four, of three hills with three disproportionately large birds sitting on them. U ncle saw that something was wrong with the birds, and that observation led him to discover perspective. In a little copybook bound in marbled pressboard, he painted landscapessunsets, woods, mountains-and they got better and better. He did some butterflies with long tails which Mopsy thought a real artistic achievement. A portrait of Mozart was satisfactory except for one eye, which was out of control. A few marquises of the
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.
During his teens, Nika gravitated to responsible subjects like politics, economics, and agronomy, while all that Uncle cared about was his butterflies -“the painted toys of an aristocrat,” his tutor called them. Nika was very restrained, and Mopsy, being seven years younger, was always a little afraid of him. Nika also became interested in photography. His photographs of Shideyevo document an existence that Uncle described years later as “a patriarchal state-lyrical, mellow, and nostalgic,” adding, “It was like an extension of the time of Turgenev. Nothing was rocking under the earth.”
Alexandra Nicolaevna couldn’t take the heat of Tashkent. After a year, she returned to Shideyevo and waited there for her husband to finish his tour, about a year later. She took Mopsy and Uncle with her. Nika stayed with his father. Shideyevo was Alexandra’s personal domain-she had lived there more than in any other place in the world. The peasants called her Generalsha-the General’s wife. She had a set of big keys that was meant to be worn about her waist but was always getting lost, and she rode around the estate in a wicker cart drawn by two AnglichaniniShetland ponies-with bells in their ears. She was six feet tall, “an unusually tall and handsome woman, her face. ..quivering with nervous quickness and kindness; her whole frame full of life and energy,” we learn from a novel based on the Avinoffs at Shideyevo. “If she had Aot been so tall, she might have been called stout, but now she seemed in perfect proportion. Her eyes were brown; her forehead was white; her hair and eyebrows were black, and her profile was beautiful.”
The novel is “Rolling-Flax; or, Summer Days in Little Russia,” by Sinclair Ayden, and was published in London in 1902. Rolling-flax is a Ukrainian variety of tumbleweed. Taras Shevchenko, in his poem “Doomki,” compares the footloose plant to our lives. Weare driven about by fate, as balls of rolling-flax are buffeted across the steppe. The wind drives one to our feet. We stoop to pick it up, but the wind catches it and carries it beyond our reach. “Such is fate,” Shevchenko concludes. Sinclair Ayden was the pseudonym of the children’s English governess, Frances B. Whishaw. The daughter of a Dover banker, she came to Russia when she was twenty-seven to learn the language. A cousin in Moscow, married to a Count Putiatin, suggested that she apply for a position with Mrs. Avinoff, who had just returned from Tashkent with two of her children. Miss Whishaw was hired in 1894, and stayed with the family for five years. (Mopsy’s childhood was filled with a succession of nurses and governesses.) It happened that Miss Whishaw was an extremely cultivated woman. She soon had Mopsy reading the English children’s magazine Chatterbox from cover to cover, and speaking English without the extravagantly thick accent that later compounded the pathos of many emigres. At seven, Mopsy wrote her first poem in English. She had just been punished.
I do not care what people say.
I know they always lie.
I only wish I was away
Somewhere where I could die.
Miss Whishaw’s father was a collector of geometrid moths, so she understood Uncle’s obsession, and, being herself a gifted watercolorist, she could give him and Mopsy tips on technique. Miss Whishaw was a plain, spunky product of. Victorian England. Once, she joined several dozen peasants who were making a pilgrimage to the catacombs in Kiev, where a number of saints were buried. On foot, it took three days. Her nemesis was the boys’ tutor, Nicolai Ivanovitch. He had been thrown out of the University of Kharkov for subversive ideas and membership in a secret group of radicals. Mopsy recalled him as cia typical future Bolshevik.” The children’s mother had engaged him. Their father probably would not have approved of the choice; he had a low opinion of university students. “Education makes. ..a Russian noisy,” the general in “Rolling-Flax” says. “If I had my way I would close the Universities for good now-abolish them altogether. They are yearly turning out a mob of hungry, lawless discontents, who will not work.” Squared off around the samovar, Nicolai Ivanovitch and Miss Whishaw would sit on the balcony and argue endlessly about topics like Home Rule in Ireland. Mopsy remembered thinking it strange that they kept calling each other “my dear” when they were supposed to be quarrelling. Nika, when he came back, took a photograph of the two of them with his mother, against some foliage. Nicolai Ivanovitch, leaning on the palings of a fence behind them, is quite handsome, in the style of Lenin, with peculiarly brilliant, narrowed eyes and a pointed beard, and is wearing a white collarless jacket with a double row of brass buttons. Miss Whishaw is vigilant under heavy lids. She looks like someone who is probably never going to marry, and, in fact, she never did. Mopsy visited her after she had gone back to Dover. She was working on the book then, but she wouldn’t let Mopsy see it. Years later, her sister sent it to the family. “You might be interested in this book,” the covering note said. “I think your lovely house is described in it.” Everyone read it, and agreed that it contained a lot of truth.
Alexandra Nicolaevna, who is about thirty-five in the photograph, conforms closely to that description of her in “Rolling-Flax.” She busied herself with planning the meals; there were seldom fewer than twenty ‘people at her table. She tried to interest the peasants in learning to read and write, with little success. They seemed determined to remain illiterate, perhaps out of spite, and only reluctantly went to her school. She also ran a dispensary for the peasants, administering turpentine, iodine, boric acid, and quinine, the last for the “swamp fever”-possibly malaria-with which they sometimes came down. One of her patients was old Pindy, who had helped build the house in 1826. His age was estimated to be a hundred and ten. Pindy lived ten miles away and came once a week for his medicine. Getting off his wagon, he would walk his old horse up the final rise to the house. He seemed to have forgotten that serfdom had been over for thirty years. “And how much did they pay for you?” he would ask, slapping the behind of a pretty girl in the kitchen. Nika photographed him sitting on a stone wall, with his white beard, and his perfect bowl of white hair, coming down almost to his eyebrows, and with his gnarled hands folded humbly in his lap. Like most of Alexandra Nicolaevna’s patients, Pindy thought that if he drank off the whole bottle of medicine at once he would feel better faster, and he had to be persuaded to take it in daily doses.
When the peasants felt really sick, they went to old Karakutsa, who looked after the sheep, and who was said to be able to stop bleeding with whispered incantations. Karakutsa’s remedies, which relied heavily on the local flora and fauna, had been in use since the days when Perun was god of the steppe, and the fact that Karakutsa himself had lived to such an old agehe, too, was said to be a centenarian -was a good advertisement for them. Reviling modern medicine, he would seize the arm of his patient, feel his pulse., and then locate precisely between the wrist and elbow a second, fainter throbbing, which he called the brain pulse. The brain pulse, he said, was an infallible index of the condition of the body. “Your brain pulse is dead,” he would tell his patient. Holding the arm tightly and swaying back and forth with his eyes closed, he would murmur his incantation so quicklythree times in one breaththat the patient couldn’t make out the words. For payment, he accepted hens, shoes, vodka whatever he was offered.
There were three thousand dessiatines of prodigiously fertile land on the Shideyevo estate (a dessiatine is 2.7 acres), of which two thousand were cultivated. Sometimes the crops ripened so quickly that dessiatines of rye and oats, and even of wheat, were left to rot because nobody had time to get them in. The wheat harvest of 1906 was exceptional. The Avinoffs invited forty people to help them celebrate their good fortune. Tassels of wheat were placed among the flowers in vases around the house. After a sumptuous banquet, everyone toasted “His Excellency the Harvest” in champagne and danced until dawn. With some of the profits from the harvest, Alexandra Nicolaevna had a set of jewelry made up by Faberge. The necklace, bracelets, rings, earrings, and brooch were made of golden spikes of wheat, with tiny diamonds as kernels. Mopsy wore the jewels when she was presented at court the following year.
At the emancipation, in 1861, each serf had received a small allotment of land. But the peasants still needed cash, and the only way to get it was to work for the Avinoffs. They got three meals and wages-about fifty cents a day. In summer, the muzhiks worked six days a week. In the winter, there was little to do, and they stayed home and made articles-wooden snow shovels, twig brooms, felt boots, unglazed milk pots, crafts of carved wood and bark and of silver-to sell in the nearby markets of Poltava and Y ekaterinoslav. (Poltava, the provincial capital, was thirty-five miles away; Yekaterinoslav, the present Dnepropetrovsk, was about fifty miles away.) The busiest month was August. With every horse, wagon, and driver in use, it was a bad time to travel. Everyone, even mothers with newborn babies at their breasts, took to the fields, and flashing sickles, accompanied by thrilling songs, hacked down the wheat and corn. The work began at dawn and ended after dark. Sometimes the muzhiks would make a bonfire on the open steppe, and while one told stories the rest would sit and finally fall asleep in its glow.
There were two villages below the house-Novoselovka and Homohivka, joined by a road and separated by the lower garden. Their combined population was about three hundred, and there were several large peasant families-the Moshuras, the Kolnechenkos, the Oleshkos. The cottages, nestled together in the sha’de of willows and poplars, had bright-white sides, and the roofs were thatched with tall reeds from the marsh. The walls were made of clay plastered on a willow frame. Inside was a stove built up in tiers called lezhankas, on which members of the family slept. Strings of shrivelled mushrooms and bundles of dried herbs hung from the ceiling. The krasny ugol, or “beautiful corner ,” where icons glimmered behind a perpetual flame, was at the eastern end of the room. On Saturday, their day off, the peasants came up to church. The bells played a lively little tune at four-thirty to summon them. The bells also tolled across the valley at ten on Sunday morning, for the special service on each of the thirty saints’ days that were celebrated on the estate, and during blizzards, when they were rung, on Alexandra Nicolaevna’s orders, to help travellers keep their bearings. The Saturday vespers lasted an hour. The peasants came in through the main entrance and stood at the rear of the church, dropping to their knees and crossing themselves. For many years, the services were performed by the old batyushka Father John. Another bearded hundred-yearold, he had been in residence since the time of Andrei Fyodorovitch, but he was so timid that he hardly dared address the Avinoffs, unless it was to compliment Mopsy on her painting. “The brush of Raphael,” he would say. Once, at Easter, the batyushka and his acolyte went down to the villages to bless the peasants’ eggs. At each cottage, they were offered a glass of vodka, and when they had made their rounds they returned, reeling, through the lilac allee in the lower garden. The lilacs had been trained to grow together, forming a canopy. For some reason, the batyushka and his acolyte decided to climb into the lilacs, and there they passed out. Mopsy found them s1eeping there the next morning.
Besides the field hands from the villages, around a hundred dvorniki, or yard servants, were attached to the house and the numerous outbuildings, where a variety of activities went on, making Shideyevo practically self-sufficient. Most of the dvorniki were landless. Not all of them had been recruited locally. By the end of the century, a significant number of dvorniki were leaving estates and drifting into the cities, where they got work in factories, lived in slums, and became ripe for the teachings of Karl Marx. The outbuildings formed a courtyard with the south side of the house. Mopsy made me a sketch to explain the layout. The first outbuilding, linked to the southeast corner of the house by a connective bridge, cqntained the kitchen, the laundry, and quarters for the cooks and the two coachmen, Jacob and Terence. Then came the ice house. Ice was brought up by oxen from the liman-a small, hourglass-shaped lake made by the river Orel as it flowed through the marsh below-covered with straw, and kept there over the summer. Next was the carriage house. It held a number of now extinct conveyances. The landau was an open wagon with two facing seats and a capacity of eight. Nika took a picture of everyone heading off for a picnic in the landau. Uncle is wearing a white cap with a big visor and is holding upright, like a slack wind sock, a long-handled butterfly net. Two lineikas were used for bathing expeditions and as backup transport for larger picnics. (The bathers swam nude in the river, one sex at a time.) Nicholas N abokov, the composer, has described the lineika as “a Russian cross-breed between an English brake and an American covered wagon.” There were also two sizes of coach, a kareta and a kolyaska, and a chetvyorka, which was like a troika, except that it was drawn by four horses instead of three. With a purported top speed of twenty-five miles per hour, it was the fastest rig at the Avinoffs’ disposal. And, finally, there was Alexandra Nicolaevna’s wicker kar:<;inka- “little basket”-which was drawn by the Shetland ponies.
After the carriage house came the stables, with about thirty horses. Then the piggery. The pigs were looked after by a Cossack, who, it was joked, through long association had come to look like a pig himself. Then the barn, where more than fifty oxen were kept. They were for plowing and bringing up the water and the ice, and they always travelled in a double yoke. Then the sheep shed. Karakutsa’s vicious sheepdogs had a standing feud with the hunting pack, which occupied the house end of the courtyard. There was an imaginary line in the middle of the yard, and terrible fights broke out whenever a dog went over it. Then the black bakery, where dark bread was made, and where the field hands got their meals. Then the dairy. Then the white bakery, where bubliki and bublichki, loaves and buns of bread, were made. The baker Pyotr Ivanovitch lived there, with his wife and masses of children. Then the blacksmith’s shop. Then the shop of the shoemaker, who was also the tanner, harnessmaker, and bookbinder. Then the machine shop, where engines were fixed and grain was ground. The next building was rented to Yavorovsky, the Honest Jew. He was a rabbi and attended to the commercial needs of the community. In his store, you could buy cloth, sweets, needles, kerosene, and other basic items. Because the Yavorovskys were the only Jews around, they were spared the pogroms; Jews as nearby as Yekaterinoslav, however, were persecuted. The last building in the courtyard was the Winter Wing, or the Fliigel, as it was called-a large brick house with four apartments, where the butler Roman Vasilyevitch lived, as did Father John and the cabinetmaker Vasily Bartolemevitch (who also made frames for Mopsy’s paintings); where guests were put up; where the Avinoffs stayed in the winter, when the main house was closed; and where the estate manager, Frederic Augustovitch Brauns, had his office. “You see, we
were fully equipped,” Mopsy told me with a sigh. “We didn’t depend on anything from the outside.”
Miss Whishaw suggests, and Mopsy confirmed, that while the General was still in Tashkent, Alexandra Nicolaevna was paid an unusual number of calls by a general practitioner in Poltava, Dr. Wolkenstein. He was a Tolstoyist, and, like Tolstoy, wore a rubashka, or peasant shirt. His wife had been deported to Siberia as a revolutionary. He was bald and not particularly handsome but, Mopsy recalled, “a great charmer,” who spoke with feeling and had dark, searching eyes. Alexandra Nicolaevna, we are told in “Rolling-Flax,” “enjoyed a gentle flirtation, and vibrated sensitively to the opinions of others.” The four of them-Alexandra Nicolaevna, Dr.. Wolkenstein, the tutor Nicolai Ivanovitch, and Miss Whishaw-spent hours on the balcony arguing about the fate of Russia. According to the novel, there was a hectograph in the basement of the house, on which Alexandra and the Doctor ran off seditious pamphlets. If this was true, Mopsy knew nothing about it.
Alexandra Nicolaevna’s liberal episode ended, in any case, when her husband came back from Tashkent. Life returned to normal with the General at the head of the table. In a passage that Mopsy dismissed as “complete nonsense,” Miss Whishaw describes mealtime at Shideyevo with the family reunited:
Dinner was usually a very long, and a very trying meal. Everyone was placed according to rank; the women sitting near [Alexandra Nicolaevna]. and the men near the General. Conversation flagged, because half the people were admitted to the table as a favour, and were not supposed to spl’ak. Amongst those who were below the salt was the Kharkov dressmaker; she had especially stipulated in her contract that she was to dine with the family. Fraulein Anna was expected to be seen, not heard; and the G~neral thought it was quite unnecessary for [Nicolai Ivanovitch] to make a remark. He disapproved of students and universities, and thought the education of the masses was a mistake.
Occasionally Father John, the batyushka, dined with the family; owing to the excessive respect he felt for [Alexandra Nicolaevna], he used to rise like a little boy in school, whenever she spoke to him -frequently spilling his soup as he did so. As a rule she did not attempt to keep up a conversation with him. Lastly, out of politenl’ss, and for the good of the children, the conversation was carried on in English; and a bored look settled down upon the faces of thos~ who were destined to sit for more than an hour, listening to what they could not possibly understand.
The General had always had a beard. In a photograph from around this time, it is shorter and more scraggly than it was in his Preobrazhensky days, and comes to two points, which were probably trained by thoughtful stroking. He is massive, in his fifties now, leaning forward in his chair as if short of breath, and staring with a wild, hard look. Nicholas was a collector-of old coins, old buttons, old silver, old firearms, old lace, Persian rugs, fine porcelain, and all sorts of stuff that he had picked up on his tours of duty. He was especially proud of some carpets he had bought in Bukhara in 1878, during one of the wars between Russia and Turkey. He had gory tales of that campaign, and recalled arriving at the only water hole in a day’s ride and finding an Arab with a knife in his back floating in it. Most of his collection was gathering dust in a huge room in the basement called the kovrovaya, or “rug room.” It was like a museum, and was a perfect ghost habitat. The children knew there was a ghost down there. Some of the choicer items cluttered his office. Mopsy remembered a trunk that was filled with documents from old lawsuits, all of which seemed to have been instigated by a lawyer named Trischov. Several generations back, his mother’s ancestors had feuded bitterly. Another trunk was filled with seedsfuture dessiatines of rye, barley, and melon. From his desk, the General made a show of running the estate, but most of the details-the bookkeeping and the daily assignments of workwere left to the full-time estate manager. The General had a big letter “A,” with a crown over it, tacked up on the front and back of the house, over the pillars. After he retired, in 1904, he continued to wear his uniform, including his medals and his visored cap, and took several newspapers with which he could keep track of comrades-in-arms’ promotions, retirements, and deaths. He told funny stories to his children.
The children adored him. Uncle acquired his father’s passion for collecting, his subtle brand of humor, his lavish attentiveness to guests. Uncle lived in the church wing, in what was called the Archbishop’s Room. There, in spurts of nervous energy, he darted from project to project, littering his chaos with husks of sunflower seeds, which he was constantly eating. His collection of Little Russian butterflies was representative by 1898. He had the cabbages, the blues, the sulphurs, the wood nymphs, the checkerspots, and the fritillaries. He had the European swallowtail, which is smaller and chunkier than the American. He had four species of the genus Vanessa: the red admiral, the peacock, the tortoiseshell, and the painted lady. He had the eastern festoon, a small, intricately mottled Old World species with deeply scalloped brown lunules along the edges of its wings. He had several species of Parnassius, which Vladimir Nabokov has described as “strange butterflies of ancient lineage, with rustling, glazed, semitransparent wings, and catkin-like flossy abdomens.” The ramifications of the genus Par~lassius would consume Uncle’s attention until he died.
Mopsy remembered the General as a wonderful father, who taught her to embroider and cross-stitch, encouraged her painting with little prizes, and supported everything she got interested in. Some of her earliest artistic efforts were menus he asked her to paint for dinner guests. She also remembered drawing something, maybe a bird, when she was two or three, and being taken bawling to her crib before she could finish it. She went through a period of drawing only noses. Then she discovered mouths. Her first full portrait was of a Chinese doll with beady black eyes. Uncle, who became a skillful draftsman when he was still a boy, was her main teacher. Miss Whishaw was a great help, too, and the house was filled with dozens of fine oils, which Vladimir Panayev had picked up when he was collecting art for the Hermitage. Crowding the walls in the sumptuous, close-packed decor that was typical of the period, they were a silent inspiration. A place of honor in the largest room, the blue drawing room, was given to a portrait of Catherine the Great by Dmitri Levitsky. Beside her was a portrait of Empress Anne by Louis Caravaque. Then, in three tiers, the family. The wall was lined with high-backed chairs that had massive mahogany arms. A chandelier of Venetian-glass morning glories hung down. On the other walls were landscapes by the Flemish masters T eniers and Jordaens, a Madonna by Memling, a flower painting by Mignon, a Venetian scene by Guardi. Among these works, Mopsy dreamed of becoming another Mme. Vigee-Lebrun, who had painted the aristocracies of Western Europe and Russia a century before.
In the winter qf 1905, she made a snow statue of Marie Antoinette in the garden while Uncle made one of Voltaire beside it. They were so lifelike, down to the buttons on the philosopher’s frock coat, that the night watchman was terrified when he happened on them, and knocked them down when he realized they were only snow. But Nika, to my family’s lasting gratitude, had managed to photograph them. Noone makes such elegant snowmen anymore. The A vinoffs did not go to St. Petersburg that winter, because there was trouble in the capital -a small revolution. It was quickly crushed, but the ripples of discontent spread into the countryside. Several estates in Little Russia were burned, and their owners killed. A detachment of Cossacks was stationed at Shideyevo, and the winter passed quietly.
Mopsy painted little portraits of her friends, and they received them as presents for their patience. Her best friend was Tanya Maksheyev, who lived on an estate a dozen miles away. In a picnic photograph, Tanya is a pretty, self-possessed fourteen-year-old in a sailor suit. Mopsy would pick her up in the karzinka, and she would visit for several days. They baked pastries and took them to Schekuchin’s house, beyond the estate’s brick factory. It was a beautiful walk, almost a mile along the marsh. Schekuchin was a cultivated man living in seclusion. His cottage was in a grove of old mulberry trees that were the size of oaks. He would serve them tea and jam, in his faded dressing gown. His parents had owned a big estate not far away, but they had disowned him after he fell in love with his mother’s chambermaid and took her to Paris. Now he lived with his homely daughter and a large library, most of whose volumes were about homeopathic medicine. He was always persuading his daughter that she had some ailment, so he could try one of his cures on her.
Tanya moved to France in 1912, and after the Revolution she and Mopsy lost touch. For sixty years, neither knew what had happened to the other. Tanya married a man named Vladimir Smirnoff, who had got out of Russia with little more than a document showing that he had once owned a famous vodka firm. He sold the rights to his name, and they lived on the proceeds until his death, in 1934. One day a few years ago, Tanya learned that Mopsy was living in America. They had a joyous reunion by letter. She was living in Marseilles. On her bed table, she wrote me, was her portrait by Mopsy, done when they were seventeen.
In 1898, General Avinoff had received a brigade in Helsinki. (Finland had been annexed by Russia in 1809.) After three winters there, he took his last command, a division near Kiev. Uncle entered a Gymnasium in Kiev, and Mopsy took lessons in oils from a young art student who would let her use only two colors, burnt ochre and black. Though she was happier with watercolors, she worked hard at oil painting, because Mme. Vigee-Lebrun had painted in oils. In 1904, when the General retired, they went for the winter to St. Petersburg, where they had an apartment on the Liteiny Prospekt, and where Mopsy took lessons from the Polish portraitist Alfons Karpinsky. Several winters later, she went to the Encouragement des Arts and studied with the court painter Alfred Eberling, who was famous for his portrait of the ballerina Karsavina. He told her not to worry about the outline of the face but to concentrate on the shapes of its highljghts and shadows. One summer, in Florence, she took lessons in miniature painting.
When Mopsy was twenty, she fell in love with her cousin Leo Panayev. They met in St. Petersburg. He was five years older and, like every officer in the Oktirsky Regiment, wore a gold earring in his left ear. After four days, he proposed. Mopsy was ecstatic, but Uncle and her mother, who recognized in him the fanatical piety for which the Panayevs were known, warned her not to be hasty. The romance lasted about a year. Finally, Uncle made her write a letter breaking it off. Mopsy was miserable, and Leo volunteered for duty in Mongolia. When war broke out in 1914, he and his two brothers rushed to the front. Fighting from their horses, like Knights of the Holy Grail, they were all killed in the first two months, and immediately became legends. The Czar posthumously awarded each of them the Cross of St. George. A book was written about them and distributed to the troops.
IN 1908, Serge Avinoff, the General’s only brother, died childless, leaving a real-estate fortune to Nika and Uncle. Uncle had graduated from the Imperial Law College in 1905 and was working as an assistant secretarygeneral in the Senate-an administrative body that functioned as a Cabinet-monitoring correspondence from suspected revolutionaries abroad. One letter he carefully steamed open was from a man in England named David Gruen, who later became David Ben-Gurion. Uncle’s salary, even with the addition of a small allowance from his parents, who were richer in land and works of art than in cash, hadn’t enabled him to progress very far with his butterfly collection. But now, with this inheritance, he could move into high gear. That summer, during the long vacation that the government took, he went to the Pamir Mountains with a young entomologist from St. Petersburg, Alexander Kirichenko, and on its alpine prairies and rock slides they netted thousands of specimens. Several were new to science. The prize catch was a splendid aberration in the genus 1’1 pollo
nius, with black ocelli, or eyespots, instead of the usual red ones. Most of the butter flies of European Russia had been classified, but in Central Asia there were-and still are-many discoveries to be made. It is not lust that the region is so remote and imperfectly explored but that in its isolated mountain valleys butterflies develop characteristics of their own; new forms are continuallyevolving.
Between 1908 and 1914, Uncle sent out forty-two collecting expeditions across Asia. His agents were mostly students at the University of St. Petersburg. They brought him material from the Caucasus, from Armenia, from Persia, from the Hindu Kush, from Tien Shan, from Bhutan and Sikkim. In 1912, with Alexis Jacobson, an experienced entomologist, and Michael Mamayeff, an enthusiastic young sportsman, he traversed the western slopes of the Himalaya from India to Russian Turkestan. He was twenty-eight, and would be pondering the data and impressions from his trip for the rest of his life.
Mamayeff and he arrived by steamer in Ceylon (as he recounted in the Pittsburgh Record nineteen years later) and passed through the grand old cities of India-Madras, Agra, Delhi, Benares. They saw the mighty wall of the Himalaya from Darjeeling. Permits were procured from the government of the Viceroy for them to collect in remote parts of Kashmir. In Rawalpindi, they met Jacobson and, with seventy coolies, proceeded in primitive vehicles called dongas to Srinagar. From Srinagar, a family took them in their houseboat on the river Jhelum to Ganderbal, where they hired horses and started the ascent into the Himalaya. Foothills smothered with irises gave way to a balmy zone of fir trees. In a high valley where they camped for several days, they met another party of travellers- Mr. and Mrs. Bullock Workman, of Philadelphia, who were on their way to explore the glaciers of the Karakoram. Wading through deep snow in the Zoji-la Pass, they entered Ladakh. For several days, they rode through a desolate, treeless moonscape. One evening, Uncle caught a field mouse and dropped it into a special jar that had been given to him by Lord Rothschild. The year before, he had visited Tring Park, Lord Rothschild’s zoological museum in Hertfordshire. The flea collection there was unrivalled. Many of the specimens were mounted under individual magnifying glasses. Of the thousand or so known species, Rothschild lacked only a few. One was said to parasitize a rare Tibetan field mouse. Hearing that Uncle was going to the Himalaya, Lord Rothschild
asked him to try to get it for him. Having ascertained that this was the right mouse, Uncle dropped it into the jar, which was filled with kerosene, and waited hopefully for the flea to float to the surface, but none appeared. “I got the carrier, but it was clean,” he reported to Lord Rothschild. “I couldn’t get the infestation.”
Uncle made many sketches of the barren land and the lamaseries that clung to the cliffs like colonies of coral. In Leh, the capital of Ladakh, a Moravian missionary took Uncle, Jacobson, and Mamayeff to meet the country’s ex-king, who had recently been deposed by the Maharajah of Kashmir and was living as a private citizen in the city where his ancestors had ruled for centuries. His left eye was crossed-he had trained it since childhood to focus on his nosebecause the king of Ladakh was considered too exalted a being to look on ordinary people with both eyes. Uncle made a paintilliste portrait of him with a stipple pen. The king gave Uncle a beautiful jade cup, and Uncle reciprocated with his flashlight, which the king accepted as something bordering on the miraculous. Leaving Leh before the batteries gave out, the explorers trekked into Rupshu, a high tableland southeast of Ladakh and on the Tibetan frontier. Rupshu proved to be an El Dorado for butterflies. Uncle netted several new species and subspecies, including a Parnassius that no one had ever seen before. He named it Parnassius maharaja. They saw kiangs-wild asses. About the only people they met were travelling shepherds. The sheep carried specially constructed bags of salt, which had come from several highly saline lakes in the vicinity, and were headed for Tibet, where salt was like money. From Rupshu, Uncle’s party headed north on yaks, which they traded for twenty-two horses, and they rode the horses through a succession of passes into Chinese Turkestan. As they neared the top of the Karakoram Pass, at eighteen thousand feet, they passed many horse and camel skeletons, and stopped often to save their mounts from a similar fate. Even at that high elevation, there were butterflies, and Uncle and Jacobson, though their lungs were ready to burst, ran down a few that were extremely desirable.
There was an awkward moment at the border when the Chinese authorities asked to see the visas required for entering the country. By showing them all sorts of irrelevant documents, Uncle managed to convince them that they were on a mission of such importance that it would be undignified for them even to show their passports. His performance was so impressive that when they got to Kashgar the governor-general of the district was waiting for them with a sixty-course dinner. Most of the branches on the tree of life were represented in this banquet. There were even some wormlike invertebrates, dipped in a bright-indigo sauce. When it was over, Uncle asked the governor if he might take his picture.
“I am afraid I am so ugly that the lenses of your camera will crack,” the man replied.
“On the contrary,” Uncle assured him. “I shall make a thousand copies and paste them allover my room.”
The governor blushed, and asked Uncle how old he was.
Uncle knew how age is revered in the Orient. “A sparrow like myself is in his teens,” he said, “but you must be well over a hundred.”
The governor searched for a self effacing comeback. “My head may be bald,” he stammered, “but it is completely empty.”
“Nothing of the sort,” Uncle protested. “It is only transparent, like a beautiful crystal.”
Thoroughly charmed, the governor made Uncle a mandarin, third class. This title enabled them to pass safely through the torrid basin of the Tarim, where strangers were regarded with suspicion, and reach the eastern edge of the Pamirs, where they entered Russian Turkestan. From Osh, the intrepid explorers caught a train to Tashkent, where years before, when he was a boy, Uncle’s association with Central Asia had begun.
WHILE Uncle was diverting himself on the Roof of the World, Nika had joined what was often called “the conscience-stricken nobility.” During the year he stayed on with his father in Tashkent, he had got mixed up with a radical element that included Sasha Kerensky and was led by an older student in his early twenties, called Kolashnikov. When he returned to Shideyevo, Mopsy noticed that he was even quieter and more serious than before. He refused to take part in frivolous gatherings with the adolescents on neighboring estates, and, even stranger, he and his father, after spending nearly a year together, seemed to have little to say to each other. Before she could make out what was going on, though, Nika went off to the University of St. Petersburg, where he did brilliantly in economics and grew a beard, which made him seem even more remote to her.
In 1901, there were riots at the university. Kolashnikov surfaced briefly to incite the students, then mysteriously disappeared. Nika’s best friend, a student named Volyansky, who had done something terrible, committed suicide. Nika himself, Nhen he came to Shideyevo that sumner, was worried that the Okhrana, he secret police, were on his heels. He worked outside all summer with the peasants, and refused to talk about events at the university. In the fall, he transferred to the University of Moscow, and fell in with the Moscow liberals: Prince Serge Troubetzkoy, the dean; Paul Milyukov and Fyodor Kokoshkin, both history professors; Dmitri Shipov, the chairman of the City Council; Vladimir Dmitrievitch Nabokov, a jurist, whose son would become the last great voice from that culture, and who would himself be killed in 1922 by a bullet intended for Milyukov at an emigre political rally in Berlin. These men would found the Constitutional Democratic, or Kadet, Party in 1905, and confront the Czar with a manifesto for a parliament. The best hope for Russia, they felt, was to make it either a republic or a constitutional monarchy, like England.
There had already existed, since the reforms of 1864, a democratic institution called the zemstvo. It operated on a local level, building hospitals, schools, and lunatic asylums, keeping roads and bridges in repair, providing transport for the police, watching the crops, and taking appropriate steps in years of famine. The zemstvos had begun to do great things, but after 1881, in the wave of reaction that followed the assassination of Alexander II, their power was sharply cut back. Nika became deeply involved in the movement to bring them back tc life. Between 1904 and 1912, he wrott five monographs on local self-government.
Nika became good friends with fellow-student named Igor Demidov. There is a photograph of them both in front of some trees at Shideyevo, looking very thick and conspiratorial in their beards and long coats. Demido, has a walking stick and a hip flask. A pamphlet is tucked under Nika’s arm Demidov had married a woman name( Katya Novossiltsev, whose mother was a Scherbatov. The Scherbatovs were one of the great Russian families They were the Scherbatskys in “Ann: Karenina”: on the steps in their palacc in Moscow, where Katya’s grandfather lived, Kitty stops to adjust thc black velvet ribbon around her neck Tolstoy himself was a friend of the ol( prince and came sometimes to the house in his dirty rubashka. Katya’s older sister Masha once told me how the man who stood at the door with a golden staff came in one day to announce Count Leo Tolstoy, then asked, with a sneer of disgust, “Shall I let him in?” Masha, who was more spirited than beautiful, was so well educated that her conversation was almost intimidating. The old prince was a liberal, and the Moscow dissidents would often meet at his home. His dance hall became a weekly politicallecture hall, and the speakers often protested against the Czar and his policies; after the pogrom at Kishinev in 1902, for instance, Nabokov advertised in the newspaper that his court uniform was for sale. The Kadet Party met frequently at the Scherbatov palace. Katya and Masha would type minutes of the meetings. One evening, Demidov took Nika to a meeting and introduced his sister-in-law. Masha was captivated by this “intelligent, benevolent panther with the kindest eyes on earth,” as she later described him. He seemed to like her, too, and returned often, but was so shy that Masha began to wonder if he was ever going to propose. The match was finally arranged by their governesses, who got together and practically forced Nika to ask for her hand. After honeymooning on Lake Como, Nika and Masha came to Shideyevo in August, 1906. The newlyweds were met by a welcoming committee from the village, who all shouted “Long live Nicolai Nicolaevitch and his bride!” The family was waiting on the balcony. “My father-in-law, in general’s uniform, held a silver icon,” Masha wrote in a memoir many years later. “My mother-in-law, tall and stout, carried the traditional Russian plate of bread and salt used in welcoming a bridal couple. Nearby were my young brother-in-law, Andrey, whose pale face showed great sensitivity and intelligence; and my sixteen-year-old sister-in-law Ellie, with large dark eyes like Nika’s.” In reality, Alexandra Nicolaevna had been filled with foreboding about her son’s marriage, and had refused to give it her blessing for a year. Not that it wasn’t a brilliant match socially, but Masha’s family was so liberal. “You’ll both end up being hanged in prison,” Alexandra predicted.
Masha noticed that the peasants of Shideyevo seemed much gayer and more self-assured than the ones on her family’s estate, in central Russia. They seemed to look up to Nika, who them the latest laborsaving machinery-threshers and harrows-from England and had taught them to improve their breed of cattle. “Prosperity was evident from the moment we entered the village,” Masha noted. She was impressed by the collection of Old Masters and by Mopsy’s portraits. Mopsy was still painting in oils. She had been slaving over a portrait of a peasant girl holding some lilacs, and it wasn’t working out. Masha asked Mopsy to make her a copy of Largilliere’s oil of Mme. de Maintenon, in the long hall. The result was so close that when Masha later showed it to the critic Igor Grabar he exclaimed, “This young lady is a genius! For the life of me, I couldn’t tell her copy from the original.”
In the evenings, they played cards on the balcony. Mopsy would bring out her pet finches for some air. The smell of jasmine and acacia from the garden was overpowering. Uncle would set up a telescope and show Masha flies on the backs of cows grazing in the marsh, and cupolas of churches in villages so distant that they weren’t visible to the naked eye. She and Nika stayed at Shideyevo through the fall. “One golden day followed another,” she wrote, “like amber beads on a string.”
ONE evening the following winter in St. Petersburg, Uncle brought to dinner a colleague in the Senate, convivial, blue-eyed Leo Schumacher -my grandfather. Leo was a bright young Baltic German. At twenty-five, he had already reached the rank of Collegiate Assessor, which was the civil-service equivalent of an Army major. He was a solid man of about Mopsy’s height, and had a fund of amusing stories. His family had lived in Russia from the time of Peter the Great. One of Leo’s ancestors, Johann D. Schumacher, had been director of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg during the early eighteenth century. Leo’s grandfather Alexander Danilovitch had served on Alexander II’s commission to liberate the serfs, and Leo’s father, Arkady, had recently been appointed president of the commission for liquidating the government’s debts. “After paying his own debts, Arkady Alexandrovitch now pays the debts of the government,” Nika would joke. There were about two million BaIts in Russia, and many of them held high positions in the government or controlled the banks and large businesses. The indigenous nobility, who considered it bad form to work for a living, had little aptitude for commerce. Leo told the Avinoffs how a few weeks earlier he had met Grigori Rasputin on a train to Yalta. After blessing a huge crowd, Rasputin got on the train and entered Leo’s wagon-lit. He was wearing his usual black velvet caftan with a red silk shirt. His hair was long and straggly, his beard was filthy, and there was dirt under his fingernails. His eyes-pale blue, almost white-were unsettling. Women had fainted just from looking into them. Leo, by contrast, was fastidious in the extreme about the way he looked. If there was a spot on his suit, he wouldn’t wear it; he had a special little brush for his mustache.
“May I join you?” Rasputin asked.
“Why, certainly,” Leo said, with a shudder of disgust. He kept on reading his paper.
Rasputin was slightly miffed at Leo’s lack of interest in him. “Don’t you know who I am?” he asked.
“Of course I do,” Leo said, still reading.
Perhaps egged on by Leo’s coolness, Rasputin launched into his life story. He was on his way to Livadia to join the imperial family. “I’m always with them,” he boasted, “wherever they go.”
“How is it that you, a simple peasant, got into this entourage?” Leo asked.
“I lived in Siberia and was the worst sinner,” Rasputin said. “But one day, in a field, I realized the beauty of nature, and fell to my knees and repented. After a long pilgrimage, I came to St. Petersburg. The Empress heard of my healing powers and summoned me. I’ve been with her ever since.”
“How is it, if you’re so holy, that I hear of all these scandals in night clubs?”
“Well, I repented, and I can sin again and repent again,” Rasputin said. He proceeded to analyze shrewdly the important people at court, and predicted that with his death the imperial family would be in danger. “I am their protector ,” he told Leo.
What a capital fellow, this Leo Schumacher, Uncle kept telling his little sister. But Mopsy was still sick about her cousin. “I didn’t care who I married after that,” she told me. In November, 1913, she and Lyova Schumacher (he was known from then on by the affectionate diminutive) were married. It wasn’t an affaire de CiXur. Marriage in that world often wasn’t. When they returned from their honeymoon, in Italy, Mopsy was pregnant. The following summer, the World War started. Their first child, a daughter, was born in St. Petersburg on October 2nd. They named her Sophia, but her nanny called her Zoric, which means Morning Star in Ukrainian, because she kept waking everyone up before daybreak with her crying. The nickname stuck. Soon afterward, Lyova was stationed in Starokonstantinov, a town a hundred miles from the front. They were there two years, in constant earshot of exploding shells. As the marechal de noblesse, Lyova was in charge of recording the noble births in the district, and as chief of the local zemstvo he was in charge of local administration and caring for the wounded.
In the beginning, morale was high. The Czar’s popularity was greater than it had been in years. Russians forgot their discontent and concentrated on hating the Germans. In 1915, there was a three-day pogrom against the Germans in St. Petersburg. People with German names were hunted down, and some were lynched. The name St. Petersburg itself was Russified to Petrograd. It was a bad time to have a German-sounding name like Schumacher. On January 18, 1916, Collegiate Assessor Leo Arkadyevitch Schumacher and all his descendants were permitted by imperial decree to use the name Shoumatoff. According to family legend, the Czar, looking over the document, which is now in my father’s safe, exclaimed, “Shoumatoff-how nice it sounds!” There is a princely line called Shakhmatoff, and in Leningrad in 1979 I heard on the radio that a heart transplant had been successfully performed by a surgeon named Shoumakoff, but as far as I know we are the only Shoumatoffs in the world: my parents, my brother and sister and I, my wife and our two children.
Lyova’s parents stayed Schumacher. They were too old to change, they said. They lived in St. Petersburg in a large apartment house belonging to the government, on an intimate square whose buildings had lilac or cadmium washes and lacy white trim. Arkady Schumacher was a small, energetic man. Unlike most of the Baltic bureaucrats, he was not a stuffy, hidebound reactionary; he did not shave his head or wear a monocle. One of their daughters, Olga, lived there with her husband, Thomas de Hartmann, who was a young composer of such promise that the Czar, after attending one of his ballets, had personally exempted him from military service. The de Hartmanns would become disciples of the Georgian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff and would escape with him to the Caucasus.
Lyova’s mother, Olga Konstantinovna, was, on her mother’s side, a great-granddaug h ter of Josephine Emilie-Louise de Beauharnais, whose heroic act of saving her husband is familiar to most French schoolchildren; she was Empress Josephine’s niece and her dame d’autour, the lady-in-waiting in charge of her wardrobe. She was disfigured by smallpox while her husband, Antoine-Marie Chamance de Lavalette, fought with Napoleon in Egypt. Napoleon rewarded him for his loyal service by making him postmaster general. On July 18, 1815, during the Bourbon restoration, he was arrested and condemned to the guillotine. His wife went to him and, removing her clothes, hid behind a screen while he, dressed as her, was escorted to the entrance of the prison, where a horse was waiting. By the time the trick was discovered, de Lavalette had a good start to Luxembourg. The soldiers gave chase but lost him in a thick fog. Respecting women and valor, they let her go. Not long afterward, she went insane. Her daughter, also Josephine, married a governor of Warsaw named Phillipeus. Their daughter married a man named Wolfert, who was said to be a son, by a Polish woman named Labounsky, of Kaiser Wilhelm I. Theirdaughter was Olga Konstantinovna, who told Mopsy the story.
There was a small, exquisite portrait of Josephine Phillipeus in the Schumacher apartment. She had been a great beauty. Her hair was in an enormous chignon, interwoven with strands of pearls. Diamonds sparkled at her ears, and her bare shoulders were draped with a filmy stole. Mopsy recognized the artist, Peter Sokoloff. He had painted the prominent families of Russia during the reign of Nicholas I. His portraits were enlarged miniatures, in watercolor on paper rather than on the alabaster, porcelain, or ivory that most miniaturists preferred. Mopsy, who had already been asked by Masha to copy a Sokoloff portrait of her Scherbatov grandmother, had come to admire his work more than anyone else’s. Sokoloff’s work proved to her that watercolor didn’t have to runny, blotchy, or thin; it could be controlled and vibrant, like the complexion of a young woman.
Mopsy copied the portrait of Josephine Phillipeus; the two paintings seemed to be done by the same hand. She also painted an enlarged miniature of her mother, who had to sit still for seventy hours. Every hair of her sable-and-ermine wrap stood out. It was a wonderful likeness. The style of Mopsy’s early portraits was evolving. It was derived from Sokoloff, but soon her colors were richer and closer to real skin tones than his, her figures better proportioned and not as stiff.
WHEN Uncle returned from Tashkent, he had ninety percent of the known butterfly species in Central Asia-eighty thousand specimens in all. Twenty thousand were in just two genera, Parnassius and Colias, and there were some twenty new forms to describe. He kept his specimens in cabinets lining his St. Petersburg apartment. After the Revolution, his butterflies were impounded, like all private property. They were taken to the Zoological Museum, and there I arranged to see them one morning in 1979. I was met at the turnstile by the curator of beetles, a robust man of about sixty called Dr. Kryzhanovsky, who wore in the lapel of his loose-fitting suit the Order of the Great Patriotic War. He showed me two beetles that had been named for Uncle by the celebrated Russian entomologist Andrei Semenov Tian-Shansky. Carabis avinovi Sem., with a coppery-red pronotum and an iridescent green-and-black elytron, lives in the mountains of southern Sakhalin Island, north of Japan, Dr. Kryzhanovsky told me. C olpostoma avinovi Sem., a nondescript black one not more than a quarter-inch long, inhabits the upper soil surface of forests east of Tashkent which are between two and three thousand metres above sea level. Uncle and Semenov had often collected together before’ the Revolution. While Uncle caught the butterflies, Semenov caught the beetles. “He was the teacher of my teacher, and died at the age of seventy-five, during the siege of Leningrad, from starvation,” Dr. Kryzhanovsky told me. We looked at tray after tray of Uncle’s Parnassius but could not find the unique specimen of Parnassius autocrator, well known in entomological circles, which Uncle had named for the Czar in a defiant gesture of support not long before he was dethroned. A German had caught it for him in northeastern Afghanistan. Many of the specimens in the museum had Uncle’s labels or those of another prerevolutionary collector,
Prince Nicolai Mihailovitch Romanoff. I got the feeling that not many butterflies had been caught after 1917.
Speaking in excellent English at a meeting of the Entomological Society of London on February 5, 1913, Uncle described his Himalayan expedition and passed around a box that contained his rarest trophies, which stunned the assembled company. In Rennes, France, he called on the celebrated lepidopterist Charles Oberthur, and in a villa north of Florence he saw the fantastic collection of Roger Verity. I remember being taken by my father when I was eight to see Dr. Verity, the retired doctor of the English-speaking colony in Florence, and, in the dappled light of his wooded h,illtop, gaping at’ his trays of Parnasszus.
Back in Russia, Uncle wrote a series of monographs on the biogeography of Central Asian butterflies. The Imperial Geographical Society gave him its gold medal, and he was acclaimed a great traveller. At that time, too, he was experimenting with certain techniques in his painting to replicate insect wings and luminous shafts of light. There were two exhibitions in Moscow-one of his entomological studies, the other of his mystical landscapes, which were strongly evocative of Tibet. In one gallery, his rainbows, strange clouds, and sketches of the Pamirs were hung beside the tumultuous abstracts of Kasimir Malevich and Vasily Kandinsky. But his philosophy of art had little in common with that of the two avant-gardists: his “phantasmagorias,” as he called them, celebrated the beauty and intricacy of nature. His people and objects were recognizable, while Kandinsky and Malevich had virtually rejected the external world except for line and color. Uncle attended solemn meetings of the Geographical Society and, with other dabblers in the occult, dimly lit seances of a clairvoyant named Gusik, a frail Pole who spoke incoherently and was always in a somnolent state. Uncle played delicate improvisations on the piano for the composer Scriabin. He watched the empire’s final, extraordinary cultural flowering, and gave himself to it.
In 1911, which was the year his father died, Uncle had resigned from the Senate to become a Kammerjunker, or gentleman-in-waiting, to the Czar. Nika was mortified by his little brother’s decision to become involved with the court, but Uncle’s politics, for all the wildness of his imagination, had always been deeply conservative. The court position was unsalaried, and called for three thousand dollars’ worth of uniforms, including a cape with a sea-otter collar, a gold-embroidered tunic, and a fore-and-after cockaded with ostrich feathers. Mopsy remembered seeing him in full regalia on April 1, 1913, at a huge reception in the Winter Palace to celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary of the Romanoff dynasty. Every lady had to carry the train of the lady ahead. Mopsy held her mother’s. Behind her was the widow of Admiral Makharov, who had died at Tsushima in 1905, when in an hour the Japanese sank most of Russia’s Baltic fleet. She refused to hold Mopsy’s train. “But, Madame, it is etiquette,” Mopsy said. At last, with majestic disdain, the woman picked it up. “I looked back, and all I saw were her nostrils,” Mopsy recalled. “Uncle was in the gallery, with all his gold and feathers, looking like a rare butterfly.” When it was her turn, she approached the Czar and curtsied deeply. She thought his eyes were beautiful, his face appealing, and his Russian excellent, but she could not help regretting that a Czar as weak as the last Louis had come at such a bad time.
Uncle was installed at the court on the same day as Prince Felix Yusupov, who would murder Rasputin six years later. The list of gentlemen-in-waiting in the Court Calendar for that year-a little red book the size of a psalter-reads like a roster of the famous names of the empire: Obolensky, Troubetzkoy, Davidov, Tolstoy, Volkonsky, Dolgoruky, Tatischev, Sheremetyev, Pouschine, Golitsyn, Lamsdorff, Berg, Lermontov, Scherbatov. Because of his attentiveness and his fluency in several languages, Uncle was put in charge of receiving foreign guests. Late in July, 1914, he took part in the presentation to the Czar of an envoy from one of the Czar’s cousins, the new Lord Marshal of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. The ceremonies were followed by a lunch with the Czar, his four daughters, the envoy, and the Oberhofmeister, or Grand Marshal of the Russian Court, Count Paul Benkendorf. “We had botvinia,” Uncle recalled much later, “a complicated cold soup into which you are supposed to slip a side dish of sturgeon, crayfish, eggs, and chopped greens-a sort of iced bouillabaisse. The envoy had some difficulty with this dish, and the Emperor showed him how to handle it. Conversation was animated and general.” After lunch, Count Benkendorf took Uncle aside and told him to get the envoy out of the country. “Russia is preparing for war against Germany,” the Count whispered. “Nicholas signs the mobilization order tomorrow.” The envoy knew nothing of these plans, and the Czar, who hated unpleasantness, wouldn’t have dreamed of telling him directly. On the way to the railroad station, where a special train was waiting, Uncle explained the situation. “The envoy thanked me profusely for having saved him from internment as an enemy alien. He said he would send me a Star of the Griffin of Mecklenburg, making me a knight commander, but, of course, he didn’t.” On the way home, all that Uncle could think about was that the collecting trip he had planned for the following year to southeastern Tibet and China, from Sadiya to Tatsienlu, was probably off.
Because of his bad eyesight, Uncle was excused from military service (it would have been hard to imagine him in the trenches) and worked for the Zemsky Union, an organization similar to the Red Cross. At one point, at a railroad station in Lodz, he and a stationful of casualties were surrounded by the Germans, but he managed to get them all aboard a hospital train, which then broke through. Early in 1916, the Zemsky Union sent him to America to buy medicine and other supplies. He arrived in New York City in April. He had expected to find the New World in blossoming springtime, but instead New York was having one of the worst blizzards he had ever seen. Some American businessmen met him at the dock and took him to his hotel. They had tickets for the “Ziegfeld Midnight Frolics” that night, they said. Uncle had already noticed in the Times that the New York Entomological Society was having a meeting that evening at the American Museum of Natural History. Of course, that took priority. “On the very first day I set foot on American soil,” he would recall, “I found myself in the familiar and congenial company of fellow entomologists on the premises of an institution of which I myself was to be a trustee many years later .” He was called upon to give an impromptu talk on the relationship between the butterflies of Central Asia and those of North America. When he got back to his hotel, there was still time for him to see the “Frolics.” Will Rogers delighted him immensely. A cowboy with a lasso fitted perfectly the picture of American life that he had got as a boy from the novels of Fenimore Cooper and Captain Mayne Reid. A latecomer arrived and settled himself with two showgirls at a neighboring table in the front circle. “But to my amusement,” Uncle wrote long afterward, in a passage that is a good specimen of the rococo prose of his later years, “it was the portly old gentleman who outshone his feminine companions in bejewelled splendor. He had perfectly tremendous studs scintillating with diamonds. ..and cufflinks that displayed solitaires of prodigious caratage. It was Diamond Jim Brady in person. I admit an unexpected revelation of an America I had heard of but never thought was credible.” Uncle made a sketch of “this grotesque personage” on his menu card and gave it to a woman nearby, who thought it was very amusing.
Nijinsky was in town, and Uncle watched him perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. Nijinsky was at the peak of his career. “Le Spectre de la Rose” lasted just twelve minutes, but the curtain fell to thunderous applause. “Scheherazade” was so powerful that it left the audience drained and clapping weakly. Uncle went backstage-he had met Serge Diaghi- :I
lev in St. Petersburg-and made a ~ portrait of Nijinsky, still in costume and glistening with sweat. Then he went back to his hotel and painted a macabre watercolor of his “Reminiscences of the Ballet.” Nijinsky, in a costume of curled petals, is slowly, like someone stretching awake, bursting into blossom. A horrible caricature of Kaiser Wilhelm threatens the audience, which consists of Diaghilev in his beaver hat, a poodle, and a matron peering through opera glasses. Behind them, a hansom cab is going down a street in a strange pastel light.
When Uncle returned to Russia, in early 1917, he found that the mood of the country had changed. With the number of casualties in the millions, there was no longer any enthusiasm for prosecuting the war. People were openly speaking against the Czar and his German wife; revolution was in the air. Three days before the imperial family were arrested, Uncle left Petrograd and went to Shideyevo, and there, during the brief existence of the Provisional Government, he served as the last marshal of nobility for the district of Kobelyaki. One evening in July, he was examining the reeds below with his telescope and discovered a small flock of gray cranes wading stealthily after frogs. There was a distant rumbling of thunder. The cranes, frightened, took to the air and flew low over the house. At that moment, he had an intuition that the old Russia was about to disappear forever, and that on his next trip to America-the Zemsky Union was sending him again in September-he would be going there to stay. He went into the house and wandered from room to room, touching objects whose grace and
beauty had informed his sensibility. He went into the library and wondered which of his seven thousand entomological titles he should take. Hubner’s, monumental work, with its large engraved plates, was tempting, but it was much too heavy to carryon the trans Siberian express. The situation had so deteriorated by then that there was no way for anything to be shipped. Whatever he took with him he would have to carry himself, and be unobtrusive about it. At last, he settled on just one volume-the original hundred plates for a work contemplated, but never published, by the late-eighteenth-century American lepidopterist John Abbott. He had paid a small fortune for it at an auction in London, but it was really priceless. It would be the nucleus of his new library.
Before he left Shideyevo, he tried to get it all into one painting, ten inches by fourteen, and nearly succeeded. In it is the blue drawing room-or, rather, its reflection in a large oval mirror, originally from the Winter Palace, that had been given to Vladimir Panayev. There are the paintings, the white marble columns at the door, the row of mahogany chairs, whose seats are upholstered in shiny white chintz with blue bachelor’s buttons (a detail that can be verified only with the help of a magnifying glass). Through an open window, the liman, with its whimsical crook, can be seen beyond the line of Lombardy poplars in the lower garden, whose tips are illuminated by the end of a rainbow. A porcelain man in eighteenth-century dress, playing a flute, is standing on one of the General’s Bukhara rugs. In the center of the picture is a swirling vortex made up of flowers-delphiniums, peonies, irises-and leafy vegetables, topped with a spiralling green ear of corn. In the upper right, the chandelier of Venetian-glass morning glories hangs down. There are glimpses of an ornate doorway, a blue Venetianglass vase, an arching white ceiling painted with octagonal frescoes, a peacock feather from the estate of neighbors named Eius. Forty-five opalescent soap bubbles are rising in the picture, which itself seems like an unobtainably pulent dream on the verge of dissolvmig.
ALIKA, who has known five generations of us and taken care of three, enters the story now. She was born Olga Romanovna Alekseevna on a farm in Lithuania, in January, 1889, a month after Mopsy. Alika is simply an affectionate diminutive of Olga. Though she has lived in America for more than sixty years, her English is still fractured, her accent thick Eastern European. “During war, I work for nice people in Petrograd-Dolgenovs. Friends of Schumachers. Big apartment. Sixth floor on street corner. One day in February, I take Dolgenov boys in park. Student says, ‘Take children home. Revolution starting.’ I see through window Cossacks riding. General is shooting from fourth floor. Bullet from street comes in through window, sticks in my pillow. Drunk soldiers break in, looking for guns. Then Cossacks come in, say Czar’s brother is coming to put down revolution. Dolgenovs want to go to Finland. I don’t want. Schumacher’s son married to rich lady in south. They have girl. In south it is quiet. I go.”
While Mopsy and Lyova were living on an estate near Starokonstantinov, they were called to the local church for important news. As the priest read a statement in which the Czar said that he was abdicating, everyone in the church wept. The Shoumatoffs returned quickly to Petrograd. At the Schumachers’ apartment, they met Alika, a handsome woman of twentyseven, with jutting cheekbones and an air of dependability, and decided to take her to Shideyevo. “We was three days on the train,” Alika continues. “Then horses brought us twenty miles from Poltava. Big house. So many halls, halls. I used to get lost. So many help.” Alika’s job was to take care of two-year-old Zoric. She was a wild child and wouldn’t let Alika comb or dress her. Picking berries in the garden, Alika was amazed at the fertility of the soil. Having been worked to the bone from childhood, she was amazed, too, at how carefree the peasants were. After putting Zoric to bed, she would go down to the village and listen to the women singing Ukrainian songs. The air was so clean it made you want to sing. For ten years, Alika had worked in a dress factory in Riga, and had almost died of tuberculosis. There were thirty Austrian prisoners of war working on the estate. They were just as glad not to be fighting. They would join in the songs and dance gallantly with Alika and the peasant women.
Uncle kept saying how wonderful America was, and after he left, at the beginning of September, he started sending cables urging them to join him. Early in October, Alexandra Nicolaevna came to Alika and told her they were going to visit her son in America. Alika wondered what to do. Lithuania had been overrun by the Germans. She didn’t even know what had happened to her family. What could she do but go with these people? In the hurried days before their departure, Alika helped pack the trunks and baskets. Mopsy made a pilgrimage to the Kozhelschina Monastery, about forty miles away, and bought a small travelling icon of the Virgin, painted mother-of-pearl, to protect them.
They left Shideyevo in three carriages and a wagon: Mopsy, Alexandra Nicolaevna, Zoric, Alika, Lyova, his secretary, Stepanov, and a maid named Mila, who would turn Bolshevik during the trip and be deported as a Communist soon after they reached America. The leave-taking was not as emotional as it might have been, because they thought they were going only for eight months. The estate was left in the charge of Brauns, the manager. He was to take the paintings for safekeeping to a house the family owned in Poltava. What happened to them afterward-whether they were nationalized and are sitting in the basement of an art museum in Moscow or Leningrad (much of the art seized from the nobility has never been displayed) or made their way into private collections abroad-is unknown. Maybe they were destroyed. The Memling alone, if it exists, is worth a fortune. Years later, in the postwar forties, a black Cadillac pulled into my parents’ driveway in Westchester County. They were raking leaves. My father had just got out of the Navy and was working in New York. He had bought a small frame house that had quartered the servants of the turreted mansion on the corner. I had just been born. The man in the Cadillac introduced himself as the son of Frederic Augustovitch Brauns, the manager of Shideyevo.
In 1912, Nika had spent an hour alpne with the Czar, showing him around a zemstvo exhibition, and had found him shy but engaging. The Emperor had been equally taken with Nika. “Your brother is a brilliant man,” he had told Uncle at a function the next day. “He has such a charming manner, too. Very natural and simple. I felt quite at ease with him.” Whether Nika, in his longing to see Russia a democracy, supported the deposing of Nicholas in March, 1917, is not known. He did serve as Under-Secretary of the Interior in the government that took over, first under Prince G. E. Lvov, then under his old schoolmate Sasha Kerensky. Bruce Lockhart, the British observer in Russia, knew Nika then. “I was in almost daily contact with the men who, sorely against their will, formed the first provisional government after the abdication of the czar: Prince Lvoff, Chelnokoff, Manuiloff, Avinoff, Maklakoff, Novikoff [Nabokov], Kokoshkin,” Lockhart wrote in his memoir, “British Agent.” “From intimate personal intercourse I knew that they were appalled by the problem which confronted them as Russian patriot. The problem itself was very succmctly put by Maklakoff …in one of those parables in which, owing to the censor, Russians were experts. A motor-car is going down a steep hill. At the bottom there is a yawning precipice. Your mother is seated in the front seat next to the driver. You yourself are in the back seat. Suddenly you realize that the driver has lost control. What are you to do!”
Nika kept an extensive diary through 1917, but during a raid of his Moscow flat in the thirties the Soviet secret police found it, hidden in a samovar.
The Provisional Government became, as a friend of Masha’s has put it, like one of Uncle’s soap bubbles, reflecting every color of the spectrum and eventually bursting. Kerensky was a masterly speaker, who could modulate his voice from a boom to a whisper, but, as events quickly showed, he was unequal to the task of uniting the country in a democracy. In Mopsy’s judgment, he was “a pompous actor who did more harm than anything.” Once, in the Russian cathedral in New York, Kerensky ran up to Mopsy and kissed her hand. My brother Nick met him, too, in 1960, when he was a freshman at Stanford University. Kerensky gave a talk about the Provisional Government at Nick’s dorm, and afterward they sat and talked for about an hour. When he realized that Nick was the great-nephew of Nicholas and Andrei Avinoff, Kerensky’s eyes started to glisten. “Nika was a beautiful man,” he said. “A saint.”
Early in March, 1917, Nika was made chairman of a commission to draw up the procedure for electing the long-awaited Constituent Assembly. The assembly was to decide Russia’s future form of government. It was to be a real parliament, with representatives from every part of the country and every segment of its population. Russians had been waiting for such an assembly for over forty years. But when it finally convened, early the following year, the Bolsheviks were firmly in power, and it never had a chance. Between the seventh and the sixteenth of November, Lenin had directed his successful coup d’etat from headquarters at the Smolny Institute. Nika’s commission nevertheless continued preparing for the elections, which were to begin on the twentyfifth. On November 23rd, a Bolshevik ensign entered the Tauride Palace and in the name of the Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets ordered the electoral commission to disband. Lenin by then had no interest in the Constituent Assembly, though he had been one of its loudest supporters a few months before; he had no desire to work with the Kadets, the Mensheviks, or anyone else. “N. N. A vinoff was in the chair,” Vladimir N abokov -the novelist’s father-wrote in his memoir, “The Provisional Government,” “and his reply, on behalf of the whole Commission, was a categorical refusal. The officer left, went to the Smol’ny for instructions, and came back with a document signed by Lenin and containing an order-very badly worded-to arrest the Kadet Electoral Commission and send its members to the Smol’ny Prison.” The commission was kept for five days in a cramped little room with a low ceiling. “There were from twelve to fifteen of us,” Nabokov continued. “‘Among those present’ I remember Avinoff, Bramson, Baron Nol’de, Vishnyak, Gronsky. ..” While they were in prison, the elections took place. Of the 41.7 million votes cast, only 9.8 million were for the Bolsheviks. On January 19,1918, the day after the Constituent Assembly finally convened, Lettish soldiers were sent by Lenin to break it up with fixed bayonets. Some of the deputies fled south and joined the White Army; others left Russia for good.
So Nika had had nothing less than the last hope for democracy in Russia on his mind when the Shoumatoff party arrived in Petro grad in October of 1917. It was Nika who had arranged for Lyova to go to America as a representative of the Ministry of Supplies. The United States had entered the war, and had been sending arms to Russia through Vladivostok since May 29th. Contracts worth a hundred million dollars were being negotiated. Nika knew that it was not good for his mother and sister to stay in Russia any longer; he also knew that he was staying. Masha and he had already fought about it. She had demanded that Nika think of her, and take her away before the country fell to Bolshevism. She was not about to be a martyr. From what she had already seen of the masses in action, she was beginning to agree with Flaubert that universal suffrage was the curse of mankind. Nika had only looked at her sadly. Mopsy had begged him to leave with them, too, but had had no better luck. “He was stubborn and impossible,” she said when she recalled her efforts.
The bitter northern winter had already fallen. It was dark from three in the afternoon to ten in the morning. There were shortages of candles and kerosene, and the use of lights was discouraged for fear of attracting zeppelins. In the darkness, all civilized order was falling apart. Looting and robbery were widespread. The American Ambassador, an elderly plutocrat from Missouri named David R. Francis, had to give up his nightly constitutional on the Furshtatskaya, which he was in the habit of taking with a cigar in one hand and a portable bronze cuspidor in the other.
The Shoumatoff party left Petrograd on the night of October 28th, on what was almost certainly the last trans-Siberian express to get through. There was a good deal of turmoil at the station. Nika, with Zoric in his arms, led the way through the crowd. This was the last they would ever see of him. Stopping only at major stations, like Baikal and Irkutsk, the train took three weeks to reach Vladivostok. Its corridors were packed with soldiers and civilians. Another train, with its windows smashed, and full of mutinous soldiers, chased them into Manchuria. Mopsy, who was five months pregnant with my father, suffered throughout the crossing. The woods of Siberia seemed endless. They were already filled with snow. Sometimes for the whole day there was not even a house. Zoric became very sick. An Army doctor aboard diagnosed her illness as pneumonia and wired ahead for medicine. Alika soaked towels in turpentine and hung them in their compartment. In Manchuria, they lost the Bolshevik train by pulling off on a siding. Farther on, the track was demolished, and they stopped for two days while it was repaired. Zoric’s fever broke, and by the time they reached Vladivostok she was much better. In the station, they napped on their baggage until the steamer to take them to Tokyo was ready, and in Tokyo they were transferred by rickshaw to an overnight train to Yokohama. Alika recalls that the Japanese women on the train scratched their heads with long sticks, so as not to spoil their coiffures. In Yokohama, they were taken, again by rickshaw, to the Tanya Maru, a steamer bound for Honolulu. On Hawaii, Alika saw her first banana tree, and was shocked to discover that pineapples grow on the ground. Lyova bought a paper and read that the Provisional Government had fallen. That meant that the several hundred thousand imperial rubles ill he had with him were worthless, and that his sponsor, the Ministry of Supplies, no longer existed. Their total assets now, as they embarked on another steamer for San Francisco-a train would take them to New Y or k, and Uncle would meet them at Pennsylvania Station-were what they had with them: some dresses, linen, siverware, diamonds, around fifteen thousand dollars in American currency, five pale-blue satin pillows painted on
by Alexandra Nicolaevna, about a hundred glass negatives of Nika’s photographs, and six icons, including a copy of the family icon.
SINCE October, 1917, no one in the family had been back to Shideyevo. Mopsy had heard a rumor from a neighbor who got out of RussIa in the early twenties that the house was destroyed in the civil war. Sixty two years later, when I went to, the Soviet Union in the hope of visiting the site I didn’t know what I’d find or whether I’d even be allowed to drive out there. It would depend on whether the local Intourist officials in Poltava would permit an excursion beyond the city limits. Leaving Kharkov, my wIfe and I and our baby son headed west, toward Poltava, in the beginning of October. The steppe, at least, could not have changed much. It stretched in every direction like a dusty black sea, so flat we could see the earth curving. It already had languorous and idyllic connotations for me. I had read Gogol’s early stories. How intoxicating, how magnificent is a summer day in Little Russia!” he wrote In one. “How luxuriously warm the hours when midday glitters in stillness and sultry heat.”
In the Poltava region, seventy per cent of the steppe is used for agriculture-corn, sunflowers, and white sugar beets, in the main. Seven percent is wooded-mostly along the rivers-and the remaining twenty-three per cent is of clay or sand, which is used to make bricks, tile, glass, and ceramics. By now, he crops were all in, and there was a white icing of frost until midmorning. We passed people walking in rec,ently, harvested cornfields and collecting mIssed ears in burlap bags. Some of the fields were chartreuse with mustard that had already flowered since the harvest. But most of them were strips of bare black earth-the famous chernozem, which lies as much as five feet deep and is one of the world’s most fertile mediums. We felt dust in our nostrils, even though the windows of the car were up. In Mopsy’s day, people had shielded the lower half of their faces with dust protectors, called pylniki, when they were out on the steppe. Occasionally, a flatbed truck loaded with greens would roar past us, with bits of its cargo flying off. We saw groups of men and women lying on the road bank or on piles of straw and roasting potatoes. They wore drab quilted clothing and hats with earflaps pulled down. Those who had potatoes for sale had one displayed on the end of a stick, and sat eating them while waiting for business. They were like latter-day Potato-Eaters.
The villages of the open steppe are different from those in the north. Because of the scarcity of wood, the log or clapboard izbas give way to halas, whose roofs are thatch or corrugated tin, and whose walls are brick or whitewashed stucco. In one village, we stopped at a tearoom, whose patrons were mostly truckers, and had galushki-pieces of dough in a fatty bouillon. The Avinoffs had served galushki to their hands at the day’s end. After lunch, I bought and savored a fine Cuban cigar. In front of the cottages of another village, kerchiefed babushki were sitting behind buckets of apples. We stopped, and I asked one for half a dozen. (I speak rudimentary Russian, having heard it often as a child and studied it in college.) She said she was selling them only by the bucket. I asked how much she wanted. “Pay whatever you want,”
In Poltava, I went to the Intourist office. The people there were very friendly-not full of protocol, like their Moscow counterparts. The excursion to Shideyevo was arranged on the spot. Unfortunately, my son had fallen ill, and he and my wife would not be able to accompany me. That morning, I set out in the car with a picnic basket and with a handsome young woman from the Intourist office named Tanya, whose round face and narrow eyes were perhaps a sign of Tatar blood. Tanya and I would spend much of the next few days together in the archives of libraries and museums. She was a natural, friendly person and would touch me on the arm when she got excited about something.
We headed south, toward the Dneiper, through little villages that were just as Gogol had described them more than a century before, each with its central mud puddle that never dried, and blinding-white geese waddling in it but never seeming to get dirty. Although I’d never seen these surroundings before, I felt as if I’d been born with a sense of them within me. The feeling of deja vu started to get really strong when we reached Nekvorosche, where Mopsy had got her mail. Nekvorosche was a particularly cozy hamlet. Its main street was cobbled and was lined with whitewashed hatas that stood in the shade of old oaks and poplars. We went into the one official-looking building and shook hands with the secretary of the village soviet. He knew who the Avinoffs were. “My great-great-grandmother Anna Sobuta worked for them,” he said. “One winter, when they were in St. Petersburg, she found a bundle of money they had left in one of the rooms. When they returned in the spring, she turned it over to them. The General peeled off a twenty-fiveruble note and gave it to her for her honesty. It was more oney than she’d ever had.”
I asked how to get to Shideyevo, and what was there.
He said it was a kolkhoz now-the Maxim Gorky Collective Farm. The big house and its outbuildings were long gone-all except one of the barns, which had been a school for many years and was now the central office of the kolkhoz.
Not far from Nekvorosche, we came to a high ~bluff that plunged into a marsh in which a gleaming band of water-the Orel-twisted. We took the road that went along the crest of the bluff, the same road, Mopsy had told me, that Catherine the Great had used during her tour through Little Russia. After several miles, we met a man driving a cart with wooden wheels. The harness, whose tugs were connected to a thick wooden hoop that arched over the horse’s neck, was typical of rural Russia.
I asked the driver what kind of wood the hoop was made of.
“Willow,” he said, taking a pipe from his mouth. “You soak it in hot water until it bends.”
When I said that I was an Avinoff, his jaw dropped. “Seriozno?” he asked. “Are you kidding?”
I recognized from Nika’s photographs the broad, straight approach to the house, but the cherry orchard on either side was gone, and instead of a six-pillared portico at the end there was a small post office. We parked and went in. A woman of about fifty, with an orange scarf about her head and shoulders, and a mouth brimming with silver, was gossiping with the postmistress. When I explained who I was, she got very excited. We practically hugged each other. She led me outside, to the edge of the ramparts. I recognized the Ii man in the distance and could tell from the alignment of its two pools that we were standing exactly where the house had been. But there was no trace of it-no rubble, not even a depression in the earth. Except for an area that had been cleared for a playground, the site was smothered with tall grass and wild flowers-
campanula, clover, and yarrow, mostly. The village below looked clean and prosperous, but much smaller than it had been in Nika’s photographs; there were only a few hatas at the road junction, where dozens had been before. “Come,” said the woman with the orange scarf and the silver smile, skipping down the ramparts like a child and beckoning. “The vineyard was there. This was the nobles’ garden. I heard from Mama that it was beautiful but, ooh, a lot of work.” Tanya and I waded after her through the overgrowth, flushing a nettle wren. A smell of burning straw and dung came from the houses below. We entered a yard. Huge sweet potatoes, calabashes of assorted shapes and colors, and a wooden pitchfork and other homemade implements stood against the house. A small barn was filled to the roof with hay, and there was a good supply of straw-and-dung bricks, called kizyaki-the main fuel of the steppes-piled against one of its walls. An old woman was sweeping the yard with a twig broom.
“You’re old enough to know, Auntie,” the woman who had brought us there said. “This is the grandson of Elizaveta Nicolaevna. He has come from America.”
The old woman looked scared, uncertain how to respond to such an unusual event. “No, I wouldn’t know,” she said, shaking her head emphatically. “I didn’t come from here.” Then her husband came out, in his bare feet-he had been taking a nap and stared at me through a milky veil of cataracts. He asked us in and sat us at a table covered with a checked cloth. The interior-the shrivelled herbs and strings of dried apple slices hanging from the rafters, the stove, with its lezhankas, the icon in the corner-was right out of “Rolling-Flax.” Tanya translated his patois into Russian and squeamishly refused a glass of milk from their cow. It was still warm.
“I don’t think I ever spoke with Elizaveta Nicolaevna,” he began. “But I used to watch her drive by in her karzinka. She married a stout man. Her brother Nika was good to us. He brought us plows and winnowing machines that made our work easier. Andrei never did a thing for us. I can still see him running down the brick path in the garden after butterflies. What more can I say? I was only fifteen when they left. I took care of the pigs, then the cows. There were many herds. They asked one of the servant girls to go with them to America, but she didn’t want to. She still lives in the district, but not in this village.”
“My grandmother is still alive, too,” I said.
“She must be a hundred,” he said. “No. Almost ninety-one.”
“You don’t say. And what of her brothers? ”
Andrei died in America in 1949. Nika stayed in Russia. He was arrested in 1937. We don’t know for sure, but he was
probably shot in prison.”
“After they left,” the old man went on, “the manager, Frederic Augustovitch, took most of what was in the house to Poltava. The villagers took some. My father got one of the General’s old flintlocks, but that got sold long ago. The books were taken to Kobelyaki in fifteen cilrts. One of them weighed three puds, my Uncle Afanasy told me. A few months later, the Germans came.” A pud is thirtysix pounds avoirdupois.
Between 1918 and 1920, the Ukraine was a turbulent limbo. The estates there, as in all of Russia, had been nationalized on November 8, 1917, but on the following January 28th the Ukrainians, taking advantage of the chaos after the Revolution to break away from Russia, declared their territory a republic. Its independence was short-lived, however; the Bolsheviks took Kiev on February 9th, and were themselves ,driven out by the Germans within the month. In the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on March 3rd, the Ukraine received a second independence, which was in effect a German occupation and lasted until the Central Powers were defeated in the West and the Armistice was signed, on November 11th. By the end of 1918, five separate armies were fighting on the Ukrainian steppe. The old man remembered a brief period in 1919 when anarchic peasant bands under the semi-legendary guerrilla leader Nestor Makhno took over the big house. This was after the Germans had come and gone twice. Ukrainian nationalists, with yellow-and-blue flags, also passed through that year. There was a savage civil war in which the Bolsheviks, helped by Makhno’s bands and the Ukrainian industrial working class, crushed both the nationalist government of Petlyura in Kiev and the White Army of General Anton Denikin. The territory became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which it still is, although the yearning for independence, both at home and among exiles, is as strong as ever. That summer, the old man said, he and the other villagers watched Red partizani put the big house to the torch. “They burned it so the Germans wouldn’t come back and shoot us,” he explained.
Word of my arrival had reached the president of the kolkhoz, a man of about forty-five named Boris, and he was waiting for me on the ramparts. He took me into a building that Mopsy later recognized from my photographs as the old machine shop. In his office, he told me that after three years and nine months the current five-year plan for the Maxim Gorky Collective Farm was one hundred and two per cent on schedule. There was a knock on the door. A boy came in with a brick that had the letter “A” stamped on it. It was from the old brick factory near Schekuchin’s house. Boris wrapped the brick in a copy of Komsomol Pravda and gave it to me. “I understand A vinoff was a retired general from St. Petersburg,” he said. I gave him some photocopies of Nika’s photographs. He had never seen what the area looked like in the nineteenth century. We went to his house- I had asked to visit the home of a typical kolkhoznik-and he showed me the modern wall system in his living room. It was made of Formica that looked like laminated oak, and had a drop-leaf bar and a television-audio section. There were about six hundred television sets on the kolkhoz, he told me. We went to see the monument commemorating the two hundred and twenty men from the village who had been killed in the Second World War. Fresh flowers were strewn beneath it. Whole clans had been wiped out. I counted ten men in the Oleshko family, eight Kolnechenkos, fifteen Moshuras. An old man with a bad leg, who had been leaning against a wall of the nearby House of Culture-a sort of recreation hall-hobbled over and shook his fist at me. “You go back to your country and tell them we want peace,” he said. “I was wounded in that war. Look how many died from our village. We don’t want that ever to happen again.”
Tanya was getting eager to return to Poltava. I took a final walk to the edge of the ramparts and decided that I had probably learned all I was going to learn. As we were getting into the car, the woman with the silver smile ran up and gave me a watermelon. I was very grateful for it. In Leningrad, I’d stood for half an hour in a watermelon line.
I threw the brick out the car window on the way back to Poltavasomething I now deeply regret. It seemed at the time a perfect example of useless baggage from the past. But I had taken a lot of pictures, to show Mopsy when we returned to America. She was distressed as we looked at my slides. “It’s so sad,” she said. “Everything is a kind of wilderness.” She couldn’t understand how they had destroyed the house so thoroughly. The walls had been four feet thick. They must have not only burned it but blown it up. It had not just been destroyed; it had been destroyed with a vengeance. I wondered if partisans who were merely passing through would have gone to all that trouble. Certainly the people there now had seemed to share none of my nostalgia. “Before, we didn’t have the right to walk in the forest and the fields,” an old woman I met on the ramparts, carrying a bundle of reeds on her back, had said to me. “It was the nobles’ land. Now it belongs to us.”
For the rest of that evening, Mopsy was unusually quiet. But gradually she recovered her spirits, and we heard again her resonant, resilient laughter. “It is as it says in the Psalms,” she said, at last. “Man is like grass. It was there, and nothing remains.”
(This is the first part of a two-part article.)