Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea

Teffi

MEMORIES

FROM MOSCOW TO THE BLACK SEA

Translated from the Russian by

Robert and Elizabeth Chandler,

Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg

Introduction by

Edythe Haber

BEFORE A MAP OF RUSSIA

In a strange house, in a faraway land,

her portrait hangs on the wall;

she herself is dying like a beggar woman,

lying on straw, in pain that can’t be told.

But here she looks as she always did look:

young, rich, and draped

in that luxurious green cloak

in which she was always portrayed.

I gaze at your countenance as if at an icon…

“Blessed be your name, slaughtered Rus!”

I quietly touch your cloak with one hand;

and with that same hand make the sign of the cross.[1]

—TEFFI

translated by Robert Chandler

INTRODUCTION

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… [1]

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[2] (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.[3] The second youngest of six children (five girls and one boy), she recalled that all her siblings wrote poetry[4]—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.[5] 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.[6] 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, Birzhevye vedomosti (The Stock Exchange Gazette), as well as in other broad circulation newspapers and magazines. In 1907 her activities spread to the theater when her one-act play, The Woman Question, was successfully staged at St. Petersburg’s Suvorin Theater.[7] It was followed by many more theatrical miniatures, which enjoyed great popularity over the next decade in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and throughout the Russian Empire. In addition, Teffi’s talents extended to music. She wrote many songs—sometimes both words and music, at other times only the lyrics. These she sang to the accompaniment of her guitar (which she tenderly eulogizes in Memories) and many became part of the repertoire of well-known performers.

It has been said that Teffi invented her own genre—“the feuilleton that got by without politics”[8]—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, Vpered (Forward).[9] In October, after the tsar issued his manifesto guaranteeing certain civil liberties including freedom of the press, Teffi wrote for the first legal Bolshevik newspaper allowed in Russia, Novaia zhizn’ (New Life). The newspaper’s literary contributors included a diverse collection of contemporary writers, ranging from the Symbolist Konstantin Balmont, to the realist Ivan Bunin, to the revolutionary Maksim Gorky, but Teffi was more deeply involved than most. She served as one of three non-Party members on the editorial board, who all, according to one of the Bolshevik participants, “made themselves out at the time to be Marxists or Marxist-leaning [marksistvuiushchikh].”[10]

In the first issue of Novaia zhizn’, Teffi’s sketch, “October 18,” vividly depicts—using visual iconography common in revolutionary art—the masses united in a “mighty and triumphant procession,” their red banners outlined against the sky “like gigantic dark streams of resurrected triumphant blood.”[11] She pictures the unity of all classes: “A soldier, a lady in white gloves, a worker, an officer,” etc., and at the end returns to the banners, which “lead their people, their great host, forward, through the black night, to a new dawn, to a new life.” Teffi published several more pieces in Novaia zhizn’, but relations between the literary staff and the Bolsheviks, strained from the start, became worse when Lenin arrived from exile in November 1905. Finally, when Novaia zhizn’ became no more than a Party organ, the entire literary section, including Teffi, resigned. This negative experience left a permanent mark, and accounts for her hostility toward the Bolsheviks—and Lenin in particular—in 1917.[12]

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!”[13]

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 Satirikon (Satyricon), the best Russian humor magazine of the early twentieth century, conceived of in 1908 by Arkady Averchenko (who in Memories is Teffi’s traveling companion from Moscow to Kiev). With its very talented staff of writers and artists, Satirikon was a resounding success, and Teffi and Averchenko became its most celebrated writers. Her popularity grew still greater in 1909 when she became a feuilletonist for the Moscow-based Russkoe slovo (Russian Word), the most widely read and highly regarded newspaper in Russia, whose circulation reached over a million by 1917. Her Sunday columns—which included both topical feuilletons and stories—appeared in Russkoe slovo until it was closed by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

Teffi published her first books in 1910 ...

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