FROM MOSCOW TO THE BLACK SEA
Robert and Elizabeth Chandler,
Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg
TEFFI, commenting in 1918 on the savage civil war that was decimating the Russian Empire in the wake of the October 1917 Revolution, put the blame squarely on the devil. Russia had improbably held together for so many centuries, she wrote:
But suddenly some wily devil poked his stick somewhere near Moscow and began spinning Russia like a whirlwind top. “Whee-ee-ee!” The pieces are flying in various directions like sparks. The Crimea! The Caucasus! Poland! Little Russia! Lithuania! Finland! The Baltic region! Siberia! Kazan! Whee-ee-ee! More! More! Cities! Seas! Kingdoms! Principalities! Free lands! More! More! Soon only the stick will remain… 
Teffi was at the time one of the most widely read and beloved of Russia’s writers. As one émigré commenter asserted: “There was scarcely ever another writer in Russia who had such an enormous circle of readers as Teffi.” He added that, although she published almost exclusively in the liberal press, “both Russias” read her and she was a favorite of the last tsar, Nikolai II (as she was of his Bolshevik successor, Vladimir Lenin). Her celebrity reached such heights that there even existed Teffi Perfume and Teffi Candies.
Teffi (pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya) was born in 1872 into a distinguished St. Petersburg family. Her father, Alexander Lokhvitsky, was a professor of law and much published writer both in the academic and popular press, who, after the legal reforms of Tsar Alexander II in the 1860s, became a celebrated criminal lawyer. Teffi noted that he was “renowned for his wit”—a gift inherited by his daughter. The second youngest of six children (five girls and one boy), she recalled that all her siblings wrote poetry—and no less than four of the sisters became professional writers. One of them, Mirra Lokhvitskaya, achieved renown as a poet before her early death in 1905. Known as the Russian Sappho, she introduced unbridled female sexuality into Russian poetry and had close ties to the decadents and Symbolists. The only boy, Nikolai, pursued a military career and during World War I led the Russian expeditionary force to France, rising to the rank of lieutenant general.
Teffi’s own writing career was delayed by her short and unhappy marriage to Wladyslav Buczynski, a Polish graduate of the St. Petersburg Law School and a landowner. They wed around 1890 and separated less than a decade later when Teffi abandoned her family at her husband’s estate in the Mogilev Province (now in Belarus) and returned to St. Petersburg to pursue her literary calling. In 1901 her first publication—a serious poem that she herself judged “dreadful”—appeared under her maiden name, N. Lokhvitskaya. After publishing two more unexceptionable lyrical poems, at the end of 1901 her first satirical verses came out and for the first time she adopted the pseudonym Teffi. For the next couple of years she signed her serious work with her real name—usually her married name, N. Buchinskaya—and her humorous pieces Teffi, but by 1904 she used her pseudonym exclusively.
By 1903 Teffi was reaching a broader audience, her feuilletons, stories, and verse (both satiric and serious) appearing regularly in the popular Petersburg newspaper,
It has been said that Teffi invented her own genre—“the feuilleton that got by without politics”—but this was not always the case. She, like many writers and intellectuals, actively supported the 1905 Revolution and she had quite close ties to the Bolsheviks. In March 1905, her poem “Banner of Freedom” (later entitled “The Bees”) came out in the Geneva Bolshevik newspaper,
In the first issue of
Between 1906 and 1908 Teffi’s political satire continued to appear in other opposition periodicals, but with time it grew milder, due in part to greater government restrictions, but also, no doubt, to fading revolutionary fervor. Russia was tired of all that solemnity, she wrote in 1910, and was longing for laughter:
Laughter is now in style […] Books of humor go through three editions in three or four months and demand for them keeps rising. Humor magazines are alluded to even in speeches delivered under the bell of the State Duma. Theatrical entrepreneurs are longing for a good merry comedy and beg tearfully, “Why, write something, the kind of thing that makes your throat begin to tickle with laughter!”
The demand for laughter coincided perfectly with Teffi’s special gift, and it accounts for the renown she achieved during her final decade in Russia. The first print organ that spread her fame was
Teffi published her first books in 1910 ...