Giving back the lost voices of Russian women @Dedalusbooks


Slav Sisters (The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature)
Edited by Natasha Perova

Surprisingly for someone who reads a reasonable amount (ahem!) of Russian literature, it’s only struck me relatively recently that much of what I read has been written by men. Particularly in the era before the revolution, the big names are male – Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov et al – and the women’s voices seem to be either non-existent, or possibly just not translated. I think the tide is starting to turn a little nowadays; the translations of the Columbia University Press’s Russian Library (Sofia Khvoshchinskaya already issued, and Karolina Pavlova forthcoming) are doing much to redress the balance when it comes to authors from the 19th century. The 20th is perhaps a little better represented, though mainly with poets; so I was pleased to be alerted by a post on translator Boris Dralyuk’s excellent blog to the existence of “Slav Sisters”, which had somehow slipped underneath my radar.

Dedalus Books are a publisher of literary fiction with an impressive backlist, which includes much translated literature. Laudably, Dedalus has declared it will celebrate women’s literature from 2018-2028 by publishing six titles a year for the decade to celebrate the anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK in 1918. Apparently most of these will be translated from other European languages, and “Slav Sisters” is a fine entry into that list of books.

This anthology focuses on Russian women’s writing in the 20th century, and the range of writers featured is impressive – in fact, let’s have a list of the contents and translators and celebrate them all:

1. Kishmish and Solovki by Nadezhda Teffi, translated by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler.
2. My Jobs by Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Jamey Gambrell.
3. Autobiographical Sketches by Anna Akhmatova,translated by Andrew Bromfield.
4. Delusion of the Will by Lydia Ginzburg, translated by Boris Dralyuk.
5. The Lady with the Dog and The Death of an Official by Galina Scherbakova, translated by Ilona Chavasse.
6. What a Girl by Ludmila Petrushevskaya, translated by Joanne Turnbull
7. The Stone Guest by Olga Slavnikova, translated by Marian Schwartz.
8. The Gift Not Made by Human Hand by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Arch Tait.
9. Philemon and Baucis by Irina Muravyova, translated by John Dewey.
10. Landscape of Loneliness : Three Voices by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by, Joanne Turnbull.
11. The Jewess’s Farewell by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Arch Tait.

That’s a staggering amount of talent, both in terms of the authors *and* the translators, to have featured in one volume! And indeed the contents make gripping, absorbing, moving and memorable reading.

People of my generation are in no danger of being saddened by returning to the scenes of our past – we have nowhere to return to…. (Akhmatova)

The content ranges from the factual (Alexievich’s heartbreaking interviews with Soviet women about their lives and loves; Tsvetaeva’s humorous yet dark memories of her attempts to work and survive in the wake of the Russian Revolution and Civil War) to the fictional (Scherbakova’s cynical and realistic take on Chekhov; Ludmila Ulitskaya’s sardonic tale of idealism meeting with reality). Slavnikova’s story brings us into the world of Russian gangsters before veering off into allegory; Muravyova cleverly opens her tale with an old couple’s mutual hatred and co-dependence, which is eventually revealed to result from a dark and truly horrific past. Teffi, of course, is as dry as ever, yet once again there is sadness and human suffering at the heart of her stories. Ginzburg’s genre-defying piece on the psychological landscape of guilt lingers in the mind. And Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova should need no introduction to readers of the Ramblings…

Teffi by Pierre Choumoff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, I could go on and on about the jewels in this collection, but in fact each story is a gem. Editor Natasha Perova (who has an impressive pedigree, including starting the small press Glas) has chosen what I think is a perfect selection of works to not only show the variety of women’s writing from the last century, but also to tell women’s stories. That latter element was what stood out for me most strongly after reading “Slav Sisters”.These are voices that would have been silenced under Soviet rule, and it’s only with the collapse of the Communist regime that they’ve been able to find an outlet.

The human memory is constructed like a searchlight, so that it illuminates separate moments while leaving all around in impenetrable darkness. Even a person with a magnificent memory may and should forget some things. (Akhmatova)

Interestingly, I was reminded when I set out to write this post about the women authors who *were* published during the 20th century; I refer of course to those writing in the science fiction field. I’ve read a number of these authors in recent years and maybe that was one genre women could tell a story in, although many of these works were in coded form, with the actual meaning hidden under the narrative to avoid the censor’s eye.

Has anyone ever seen the place that love goes when it’s run its course? Maybe it isn’t a place at all, maybe love dissipates into molecules and atoms inside one’s own body, and the most searing of the passions turns into a horny toenail? Or maybe it all scatters like ashes, so there’s no use looking for any trace of those hungering, searching hands, or the ardent lips that kissed yours until pleasure mingled with pain. Scattered, like the white bloom of apple trees. (Scherbakova)

I could go on and on about how good these pieces are; how heartbreaking in many places; and how it’s a crime that all of these women have not been better known before. I was aware of many of the names already, of course – Teffi, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova from the early years, plus Ulitskaya and Petrushevskaya from more recent times. However, several were new to me which makes the anthology especially valuable; I was particularly taken with Galina Scherbakova and Olga Slavnikova. The works are presented in what I assume is roughly chronological order; I *would* have liked to see a little more information included about original publication date and location for the pieces just to provide context. However, if nothing else the anthology proves that women all over the world have the same needs, desires, problems and everyday issues to deal with. We certainly are all sisters under the skin and this exceptional collection really is essential reading.

Review copy kindly provided by Dedalus Books, for which many thanks!

Shiny New Teffi!


A quick heads-up that the latest issue of the newly-streamlined, every-two-months Shiny New Books is live today!


I have a few reviews featured in this edition, and for today I shall point you in the direction of my Teffi coverage which is in the Reprints section.



First up is Teffi’s wonderful memoir “Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea”. I said of this:

Teffi is never anything less than a captivating narrator, and reading this I couldn’t help wishing she was somebody I had been able to make the acquaintance of.

To read more of this review, pop over to Shiny here.






The second Teffi I covered was her marvellous collection “Rasputin and other Ironies”. As I say,

Teffi was a master of the short form, and the pieces gathered here are arranged chronologically to build up a picture of her life.

The rest of the review can be found here.





So do pay a visit to Shiny New Books – you’ll have a great read, and your TBR mountain can only get bigger….. 🙂

Fleeing the Russian Civil War


Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi

As I mentioned in my review earlier today, when I covered the wonderful “Rasputin and Other Ironies”, there is a second Teffi book arriving today from Pushkin Press, in the form of her stunning memoir, “Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea”, translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Irina Steinberg. Teffi left Russia for good in 1919 and this volume, first published in instalments in Paris between 1928 and 1930, tells of her flight from her homeland.


The story opens in an autumnal Moscow, cold and suffering from food shortages. As people scavenge to survive, Teffi is offered temporary relief via a rather elusive impresario nicknamed Gooskin. The latter has a plan to take Teffi to Kiev and Odessa, doing public readings, as there is reputedly more food there (and they’ll also be in less immediate danger from the conflict). However, getting out of Moscow is not so easy in the middle of Civil War and the obtaining of passports takes some wangling. However, Teffi is a much-loved figure in Russia and the necessary permissions are eventually obtained. So in the company of Gooskin and some fellow performers, Teffi takes leave of Moscow and begins a long and tortuous journey that will eventually lead her into exile.

And it’s a journey that’s fraught with problems; Civil War Russia was a dangerous and insecure place to live in, with vicious and cruel fighting taking place. Those on both sides were not just conscripts or regular soldiers; they were people deeply committed to their cause, who had come through the horrors of the first world war and were now battling for an ideology. So the country was desperately unstable, with pockets of conflict everywhere, and the traveller never quite knew whose hands he or she would fall into next.

Now that something had been arranged, I realized just how much I wanted to leave. Now that I could gather my thoughts, I felt frightened. I could see what life would be like for me if I stayed. It wasn’t death itself that I was afraid of. I was afraid of maddened faces, of lanterns being shone in my eyes, of blind mindless rage. I was afraid of cold, of hunger, of darkness, of rifle butts banging on parquet floors. I was afraid of screams, of weeping, of gunshots, of the deaths of others. I was tired of it all. I wanted no more of it. I had had enough.

In engaging prose, Teffi takes us on the journey with her, as the troupe carefully make their way to Kiev, and then Odessa. There are run-ins with troops and border guards; encounters with fans; ghastly lodgings and influenza; and all the time the spectre of pursuit and troops. Because make no mistake, despite Teffi’s light tone, she’s travelling through a very dangerous landscape where brutal and unspeakable things have been, and are still, happening and where humanity is losing its grip.

Teffi during WW1

Teffi during WW1

Teffi is never anything less than an engaging narrator, and reading this I couldn’t help wishing she was somebody I had been able to make the acquaintance of. She’s always resilient, trying to put the best spin on everything, but the moments of humour and irony are counterbalanced with the horrors being experienced in Russia at the time; and Teffi is clear-eyed enough to know exactly what is happening in her beloved homeland.

And then there I was, rolling down the map. Fate had pushed me on, forcing me wherever it chose, right to the very edge of the sea. Now, if it so wished, it could force me right into the sea – or it could push me along the coast. In the end, wasn’t it all the same?

Eventually, Teffi reaches the end of the road; in Novorossiisak, despite trying to hang onto some normality and making appearances at a nearby town, it becomes clear that there is nowhere else to go but abroad. Constantinople is the next stop for Teffi and we take our leave of her as she bids an emotional farewell to the homeland she would never see again. It’s a poignant moment, especially for the reader who knows that Teffi will travel on, eventually spending the majority of the rest of her life in Paris. In essence, the whole of the book is a long farewell to her former life and it’s quite obvious that she never really managed to accept the loss of her Russian life or the fact of Bolshevik rule.

I close my eyes and gaze into the transparent green water far beneath me…. A merry shoal of tiny fish is swimming by. A school of tiny fish. Evidently they are being led by some wise fish, some fish sage and prophet. With what touching obedience the entire shoal responds to his slightest movement. If he moves do they all. And there are large number of these fish. Probably about sixty of them. Circling, darting this way and that way, wheeling about… Oh little fish, little fish, can you trust this leader of yours? Are you sure your foremost philosopher-fish is not simply a fool?

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough; if you want a glimpse into the chaos of the Russian Civil War through the eyes of a great writer, this book will give you that. It will also show you the highs and lows that human beings can reach, how friendships can come from unexpected sources, and how fragile the thread holding our lives is. Teffi’s writing is vivid and evocative, and while I was reading “Memories” I was living the experiences alongside her, both good and bad. Thank goodness she survived to tell her tale….


As an aside, kudos have to go to Pushkin Press again for producing yet another perfect book. A beautiful object to look at and read, printed on quality paper with a lovely jacket, it also has a map showing Teffi’s route, exemplary notes by Robert Chandler and an excellent foreword from Edythe Haber, who’s apparently working on a biography of Teffi (squee! very excited!). Additionally, there’s a fascinating list of other memoirs from the era that are worth reading (and I might just be investigating those at the moment….) Really, this is exactly how a book should be – other publishers take note! 🙂

Glimpses of a lost world


Rasputin and Other Ironies by Teffi

One of my highlights from 2014 was the discovery of the writings of the wonderful Teffi. I reviewed her “Subtly Worded” collection when Pushkin Press brought this out and was swept away by her wonderful, evocative prose. So as you might imagine, I was very, very excited to discover that the publisher was bringing out two more Teffi volumes; the first, a collection of autobiographical pieces entitled “Rasputin and Other Ironies”, is out today – and it’s a treat!


Isn’t the cover beautiful????

Teffi was a master of the short form, and the pieces gathered here are arranged chronologically to build up a picture of her life. As one of the translators, Anne Marie Jackson, points out in her introductory note, much of her writing harks back to her past and all through her life as an Ă©migrĂ© she had a longing for her lost homeland. The book is divided into four sections, covering aspects of her work, her early life, her experiences during the revolution and civil war, and finally her portraits of other writers and artists. Two of the pieces were previously published in “Subtly Worded” and an earlier version of one in Robert Chandler’s exemplary collection, “Russian Short Stories: From Pushkin to Buida”.

Teffi has the reputation of a humorist, but there’s really so much more to her than that. Playing the buffoon, supposedly writing light-weight prose, actually allows her to get many sharp observations across. Her prose is quite beautiful and evocative, and she conjures up her life as a child wonderfully.

The morning of each long day began joyfully; thousands of small rainbows in the soapy foam of the wash bowl; a new, brightly coloured light dress; a prayer before the icon, behind which the stems of pussy willow were still fresh; tea on a terrace shaded by lemon trees that had been carried out from the orangery in their tubs; my elder sisters, black-browed and with long plaits, only just back from boarding school for the holidays and still seeming strange to me; the slap of washing bats from the pond beyond the flower garden, where the women doing the laundry were calling out to one another in ringing voices; the languid clucking of hens behind a clump of young, still small-leaved lilac. Not only was everything new and joyful in itself but it was, moreover, a promise of something still more new and joyful.

She’s also a very astute observer of character and her memories of time spent working on left-wing journals and meeting with Lenin are priceless. As for her recollections of Rasputin, they’re really fascinating and it’s chilling to see him trying to exercise mesmeric techniques on her. Fortunately, our Teffi is strong-minded enough to resist, but she paints a clear portrait of what can happen when someone like Rasputin gains influence over weak-minded rulers and everyone else then crowds round trying to curry favour. But there is humour, too, and Teffi’s turns of phrase are wonderful – for example, she describes one gent’s rather spectacular sounding beard as being “like a bush of Austrian broom. Each of the curly dark hairs on his head grew in a distinct spiral, and one half-expected these spirals to chime together in the wind.”


However, Teffi doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and one of the most powerful pieces in the book is “The Gadarene Swine”. Here, she lambasts the powerful fleeing Russia during the Civil War to save their own money and skins, and laments the fate of the ordinary people, the refugees unable to survive or find food and shelter during the conflict who leave with nothing.

“Rasputin and Other Ironies” was a real joy to read; the translations were in the capable hands of Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Rose France, edited and with introductory material by R. Chandler and Jackson. A helpful glossary of historical characters appears at the end, as well as informative notes. The rediscovery of Teffi has to rank high in the achievements of Pushkin Press, alongside their championing of Stefan Zweig and Gaito Gazdanov. Let’s hope there will be more Teffi volumes in future – but at least there’s another to look forward to next week…. ! 🙂

Recent Reads – Subtly Worded by Teffi


Sadly, despite the huge piles of books on Mount TBR, the lure of new volumes doesn’t get any less – and this rather lovely book is really something special. I first came across Teffi’s work in “Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida”, a nice Penguin Classic collected by translator Robert Chandler, and which featured two of her stories: “Love” and “A Family Journey”. So when I saw that a selection of her work was coming out from Pushkin Press I was naturally *very* keen to read it!

subtly worded

Teffi’s real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya and she was born around 1872. Labelled a humourist, she had the distinction of being a favourite of both Tsar Alexander II and Lenin – which not many people could claim! She survived war, revolution and civil war, finally escaping to Paris where she spent the rest of her life, until her death in 1952. All through her life she wrote and published, her last stories being written not long before she died. She’s become unjustly neglected over the years but luckily Pushkin have brought this wonderful collection of pieces to us so she can be rediscovered by a whole new generation of English-speaking readers.

“Subtly Worded” contains a variety of pieces ranging from early pre-revolutionary stories through recollections of Rasputin to later stories and finally her last, thought-provoking works. And what wonderful works they are!The early pieces are gems; short, human stories with a sting in the tail and a hidden nugget of truth. “The Lifeless Beast” is a particularly powerful tale, telling the story of a young child whose world falls apart because of marital strife. Her only joy is in her toy ram, the beast of the title, and as her parents’ marriage disintegrates they are menaced by drunken women and rats in the cellar – the latter perhaps a metaphor for the circling evil in the world. It’s a striking and moving story. Even the slighter pieces, like “The Hat” which comments quite tartly on how much a person’s attractiveness is enhanced not by what they wear but on how they feel and project themselves, has a point to make. These are not just flimsy stories – Teffi always has something to say. The title story itself is a clever little masterpiece about the impossibility of communicating with friends and family left behind in Russia without endangering them or talking gibberish.

Some of the pieces are autobiographical and “Rasputin” in particular is intriguing. Teffi recalls her encounters with the mysterious monk who had so much influence on the Russian royal family and in many ways was a cause of their downfall; it’s a vivid, fascinating memoir and the monk comes across as a chilling personality. But the shorter piece, “Petrograd Monologue” gets across in a few pages the hardship and starvation suffered by the Russian people, which in the hands of a lesser writer would have taken more words and to less effect – it’s clever and subtle and very compelling.

The later stories, written when Teffi was an Ă©migrĂ© in Paris, have a stronger sense of melancholy. She tells the tales of the ex-pats, struggling to adjust to life away from their homeland, trying to make a living in a strange and hostile city. These are funny and poignant at the same time, and you can tell that Teffi misses her Russia, the Russia of the past, in stories like “Ernest with the Languages” where she conjures up a Russian estate from her youth. There is also a section of magical tales, and some of these are quite chilling. The last few stories, from Teffi’s last years, are particularly moving, the last one in the volume relating her hallucinatory dreams under morphine as her life ebbs away.

“If a person in pain gazes  up at the stars as they ‘speak of eternity’, he’s supposed to sense his own insignificance and thus find relief. That’s the part I really can’s understand at all. Why would someone who’s been wronged by life find comfort in his complete and utter humiliation – in the recognition of his own insignificance? On top of all  your grief, sorrow and despair – here, have the contempt of eternity too: You’re a louse. Take comfort and be glad that you have a place on earth – even if it’s only the place of a louse.

Teffi’s work has been mainly translated here by Anne Marie Jackson, along with Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase. Whoever chose the stories has made some wonderful selections, spanning the entire breadth of her works, and Jackson has done a grand job in giving Teffi a distinctive voice in English; in fact, all the translators have, because the tales work together seamlessly and it’s impossible to tell which translator did which story without looking.


There is an art to short story writing, and Teffi possessed it in spadefuls. Comparisons are being made with Chekhov but they’re odious (comparisons, that is). Teffi doesn’t need to be compared with anyone – she’s a great storyteller in her own right. As Jackson points out, Teffi is particularly good at capturing the voice and thoughts of children and really is a master of the short story form, capturing the essence of things in just a few pages.

Pushkin Press are doing such a wonderful job bringing us lost European authors, and they’ve performed a sterling service with this one, as Teffi has been unjustly neglected. She deserves to be known outside of Russia and thankfully we have wonderful translators and publishers who can bring her work to us! Highly recommended! And now I’ve just got to try to find where I’ve hidden my copy of “…from Pushkin to Buida”!

(Review copy kindly provided by Pushkin Press – for which many thanks! And as always with Pushkin, this is a beautifully produced volume, with French flaps, a lovely textured cover and quality paper – well done for producing books that are intrinsically objects of delight!)

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