‘What did Russia’s best loved humorist in the run-up to 1917 make of the two men who encapsulated the extremes of the Russian revolutionary experience?
Before Teffi, (aka Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya) fled the October Revolution and made an émigré home in Paris, this witty, prolific and perceptive writer of poems, plays, stories, satires and journalism came across both Rasputin and Lenin in her years in Imperial Russia.
Pushed into a series of blackly funny encounters with the Empress’s favourite holy man before his murder in 1916, she was unimpressed by Rasputin’s “naïve and straightforward” attempts to mesmerize her into becoming a groupie. “It was like looking through a microscope at some species of beetle. I could see the monstrous hairy legs, the giant maw—but I knew it was really just a little insect.” She found the Bolshevik leader unprepossessing, too — slightly bald, rather short and untidily dressed, “he could have been a minor official from some remote local council”. All the same she was unwillingly impressed by his purposefulness: keeping “a keen watch, with his narrow, Mongolian eyes, to see who could be used, and how.” The way Lenin used people had no particular malice in it, Teffi wrote, since to him they were “no more than the material from which he pulled out threads for his own cloth”.
Teffi’s acute observations about them, and the many other characters and situations catching her attention, are told with a wry pleasure in the fantastical that is reminiscent of Chekhov and Gogol. This is part of the pleasure of rediscovering a writer who was “lost in emigration” for much of the 20th century and whose work has only recently started regaining a broader audience. Teffi’s emigration memoir, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, published last year in English in a sparkling translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Irina Steinberg, is shortlisted for this year’s Pushkin House Book Prize. Two of the translators, Robert Chandler and Irina Steinberg, with author Vanora Bennett, will look at (and beyond) the revolutionary strand of Teffi’s work to celebrate the re-emergence of a great Russian writer. Part of the Pushkin Book Prize 2017 Shortlist Programme.’ (PH)