The most recent event in the Revolution17 series, organised by Dash Arts, took place on 24 May at Rich Mix, focusing on the fate of Russian émigrés who fled the country after the October Revolution.
The organisers chose to shape the evening around the figure of Teffi (Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya), a famous satirical writer and poetess of her time who, after emigration from Russia, settled in Paris, and whose book Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea was published by Pushkin Press in 2016. The evening consisted of Maria Rubins, senior lecturer at SSEES, and Bryan Karetnyk, a London-based editor and translator of Russian literature, reading excerpts from Teffi’s writings. They also had an informal discussion with Josephine Burton – Dash’s artistic director – about the fates of Teffi and other prominent Russian intellectuals, such as Vladimir Nabokov and Ivan Bunin, who like her rejected the Bolshevik regime and left Russia, unable to see a future there.
The discussion revolved around these creative individuals forced to confront life in a radically new setting, where they no longer held ‘celebrity’ status and where their audiences became suddenly limited to fellow émigrés. They had to face existence too under the new, imposed status of ‘refugee’. Yet many did not see this label as permanent, convinced the Bolshevik regime was temporary and that they would eventually return home. This, in many cases, explains the reluctance among many in the first Russian émigré wave properly to assimilate. In this respect, Nabokov was singled out by our hosts as an exception – one who reshaped his identity and started writing in English, the better to relate to, and be understood by, his new non-Russian audiences.
Particularly poignant on the ambivalence of émigré life was an excerpt from Teffi’s story about visas (‘Visas, Cabins, Currencies’, first published in Poslednie novosti, No. 77, 25 July 1920). In a tone mixing irony with desperation — speaking from her own experience — Teffi describes the way of life in Odessa in 1919 as tediously defined by the bureaucratic process of getting an exit visa, and gives us a world where the preoccupation with obtaining one has taken over people’s lives and became the abiding focus of their conversations. The story highlights the dehumanising nature of these procedures, where individuals are reduced to a number of documents they have to get hold of, in order to leave the country. Teffi refers to this process as ‘taking steps’ (khlopotat’): ‘All this is called ‘taking steps’ — and only Russians do it. People from other countries simply travel around; Russians take steps merely in order to be able to leave a place. People from other countries study; Russians take steps in order to be able to study. People from other countries are treated for illness; Russians take steps to get treatment. And finally, people from other countries live, whereas Russians take steps to receive the right to exist.’
The fascinating discussions and readings were combined with a few songs, performed by Belorussian songwriter Sasha Ilyukevich and assisted by Rochele Swanson. These perfectly captured the nostalgic mood accompanying the lives of many uprooted Russian intellectuals, who were, on the one hand, suffering in exile from their beloved country but, simultaneously, were slowly coming to terms with the fact there was no country to return to – Russia, as they knew it, had ceased to exist.
The only downside to this otherwise wonderful event was the absence of Robert Chandler, whose insight into Teffi’s life, as co-translator of her memoirs, would undoubtedly have enriched the discussion further. This reviewer would also have liked to see more in-depth discussion of what was happening in other émigré centres, such as Prague and Riga.
Today, Teffi’s words sound particularly topical, putting into historical perspective the events shaping today’s refugee crisis. They allow us to relate to the many individuals forced to flee their homes, whose lives revolve solely around making it to a destination: one providing – perhaps – a secure future for them and their families.
Dash Cafe: The Émigré Flight from Russia was part of the ongoing cultural programme of concerts, performances, dance nights and talks at Dash Arts, Rich Mix, Bethnal Green.