Throwback Thursday: The Russian Countess

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Impress Books published the memoir The Russian Countess by Edith Sollohub, who died in 1965, in 2010. It received positive reviews by Robert Chandler in the Spectator and Anthony Beevor in the Sunday Times among others.

Edith’s account of her life takes the reader back to the twilight of Imperial Russia, the violent transition to communism with the October Revolution of 1917, and the founding of Soviet Russia; the centenary of which we’re now approaching.

The book begins with Edith’s description of her life growing up on her family estates, as the daughter of an important diplomat.

Edith’s passion is for the outdoors. As an adolescent, she seems most contented out hunting squirrels, and later larger animals, with her dog Kars.

Able to indulge this passion on her family’s large estates, Edith learns to rely on herself with just Kars and her gun for company. She teaches herself to shoot accurately and continues to hunt even after marriage at 20 to Count Alexander Sollohub. Edith herself describes quite how unusual hunting was for her a woman at this time:

The beaters and the gamekeepers were waiting at the spot where the sledges were to be left. All eyes were turned on me, and all mouths gaped open wide, for here was the new mistress, who went shooting with her husband – a thing almost unheard of – and who even used a gun. This was something really new.

We realize early on that Edith and her family, as members of the titled aristocracy, have a lot to lose in any coming political upheaval: ‘estates, houses and capital’, as well as ‘position’.

After the Revolution, one especially personal loss for Edith was her collection of photos from her youth. Although there is perhaps a silver lining for the reader in the absence of a photographic record, since it compels the author to re-imagine the period in her writing and present her memories all the more vividly.

Indeed, Edith’s depiction of her childhood on country estates is full of charm and the picturesque. She has a careful eye for different kinds of dress worn at the time, in particular, the sumptuous clothes worn by the nobility. But she also describes the military uniform worn by her husband when he was a boy in a cadet group:

When meeting in the street, the boys gave the military salute; they were never allowed to wear civilian clothes…had to wear white gloves, button up all the buttons on their uniform coats, and were only allowed to wear their small winter caps if the thermometer went below −15°C.

When the revolution arrives, Edith documents the way in which the fabric of the military’s discipline has begun to fray. Instances where the transformation of social order are conspicuous by dress abound: when a group of soldiers appear ‘without caps and belts’ it is a clear sign they’ve mutinied; an officer’s uniform is transformed from a symbol of authority into a target of aggression; Edith contrasts the ‘uncouth’ revolutionary soldiers, caps pushed to the back of the head, with more admirable troops who have their ‘buttons buttoned’.

More ominously, aspects of the revolution’s violence present a grim, subverted reflection of the earlier tales of hunting.

With the threat of communist uprisings, guns are no longer sighted on wolves or bears in the forests for sport, but on the lookout for a feared band of belligerent revolutionaries, called, ironically enough, the ‘Wild Division’.

When the Bolsheviks have finally taken control, Edith arranges for the destruction of her beloved and substantial gun collection, lest the weapons fall into Red hands. Edith is quite the gun enthusiast, which of course makes the revolutionaries all the more suspicious, even fearful, of her.

Eventually, the chaos of the early stages of the Revolution gives way to slightly more order; communists begin to take hold of all aspects of daily life, and target any supposed threat to their newly acquired power.

At one of her lowest points, Edith is in prison, separated indefinitely from her three young sons, unable to leave Russia, and trying to pass herself off as a Polish orphan (the first of two identities Edith must adopt to survive) in order to gain entry to Poland as a refugee.

She also remains completely unaware that her husband Alexander died fighting for the Whites soon after they last parted.

Yet, her perseverance prevails. Edith’s telling of her experiences after release from prison, still trying desperately to flee the ‘prison world of Bolshevism’ her country has become, depict a brutal and often bleak world. But they also present the reader with the exhilarating story of her escape across the frontlines of the chaotic Polish–Soviet war and the voice of a remarkable and exceptionally resilient character swimming against one of the largest tidal waves of modern history.

Read previous Throwback Thursday posts here:

On Love for Now by Anthony Wilson

On non-fiction




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