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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Cultural Inheritance From the Dispossessed

Here I am, living in Russia -- something I've wanted to do since I was about 12. My reasons for this have never been in any way political, but, instead, condensed -- like droplets in fog -- from a metaphor of an entirely different kind. Over time, of course, many of my notions, confronting hard fact, metamorphosed or otherwise became radically different. Initially, however, they derived from listening to the generation of Russians then in New York -- refugees from the revolution, continually and painfully aware that there was no way to redress their primal loss or reconnect with the past that had formed them. And for many, any further wrenching away from the essence of "Russianess" that had been theirs by birth -- of the simple fact that whatever one did or said, whatever strange and foreign scenes or sounds might come to seem familiar, one was Russian, an identity others would recognize -- was unthinkably painful.


Be that as it may, my feelings for this country, which began in earliest childhood, has at its root a warm-hearted, soft-bosomed lady whose love for life was infused with the pain and nostalgia of traumatic uprooting. From our first encounter, she loved me because she loved all children. And I, responding to that love and to the warmth and depth of her feelings about so much of life, loved her.


I was first endowed with a sense of this country's qualities in New York City in the 1940s when I was less than 10 years old. And I use the word "endowed" deliberately in a quasi-sacramental sense because it was immediately apparent to me that Marya Nikolayevna entered such a mode whenever she spoke of her Russian past.


She was born on an estate near Moscow in 1900, and lived there, for the most part, until her late teens. "I can remember like as eef yesterday..." (I won't cling to suggestive spelling. Suffice it to say that in what follows from Russian mouths, a Russian accent should be assumed. In most cases, at that time, accents were quite extreme, and to my ear, evocative, suggestive, wildly attractive. In the case of remarks by Marya Nikolayevna, assume as well a habit of frequent emphasis, frequent rising tones that has always struck me as one of the appealing characteristics of Russian speech.)


"... When I was your age, at grandfather's house in country -- not far from Moscow -- we used to catch frogs in pond half way to weellage. To go there, we walk through small voood, with pigeons and nightingales who sometimes they sing even in day -- lovely noise -- and down we go to large meadow, very green, right in middle of forest, and in its middle, right in center, wonderful deep pond, and lots of frogs. Frogs, they love it ..."


As likely as not, this would become an anecdote, or a sequence of anecdotes, that included gypsies and bears, izbas and wild berries; the long, light days of summer, and the cold darkness of winter, with a background of glimmering ice-streaked snow and indoors, the heat of a porcelain stove.


Her eyes fixed on an indefinable distance, she seemed to be peering at incident and movement as if trying to discern the particularities she knew so well, as if she needed to abstract herself from the present to achieve immersion in that lost world she wanted me to know. She summoned for my instruction an entire ecosystem of sight and sound and smell, of tones of voice ... foot-falls on a graveled path ... a barking dog running down an avenue of lanes where the cuckoo was calling ... and the amazing aroma of those flowering trees filling the air with the scent of slightly chilled honey. She wanted me to know these things and to absorb with that knowledge the mesh of reflexes and assumptions, ideas and feelings that constituted the texture of her childhood. She wanted me to know, insofar as it was possible, a completeness of the circumstances that had stamped her for life as my circumstances then were doing for me. And it seemed that she wished to endow me with these things so that, insofar as it lay in her power, another echo might ring through the void of time, and the world she loved would receive yet another token against utter oblivion.


Marya Nikolayevna, I should perhaps explain here, was one of a set of people known collectively as "The Russian Element," consisting of three married couples and Marya Nikolayevna herself (whose husband had died in the war), all of them refugees from the revolution or its aftermath. They had charmed the members of my mother's particular social circle, and tended to be regulars at their social gatherings. Marya Nikolayevna was a particularly faithful feature of my mother's Wednesday afternoons, which is how I first came to know her and hear about this country, with effects that -- because here I am -- were perhaps fateful for me.


As for "The Russian Element," their presence initially affected me through its sonic repertoire. I loved listening to the rise and fall of their voices -- always passionately engaged, always in three or four languages -- each miraculously transformed by accent and intonation. But when in the throes of heated reflection they fell into spasms of Russian, the cumulative, kinetic tempi of their syllables, the growling, purring clusters of consonants, and the streams of sustained, sibilant sound invariably recalled for me the mellifluous calling exchanges of pigeons and doves in a light-streaked summer wood.


For me -- because she loved me, as she loved all children, and I loved her -- the leading figure of this set was Marya Nikolayevna. I always, on my mother's instructions, so addressed her. I found voicing those syllables a somehow pleasing experience. Their resolute progression seemed to augment a sense of presence -- both hers and mine. Marya Nikolayevna, of course, found it only appropriate.


I loved her for a variety of reasons, for her plump, rather pigeon-like person, to start with, generous in giving and receiving hugs. These had as their sustaining wall (so to speak) a soft, but firm and very round, gray bosom (invariably gray, a constancy -- I now surmise -- probably due to minimal refugee funds rather than some inter-tonal principle). I loved her brightly dark and darting eyes and, of course, I loved her voice.


So when people now ask me for an explanation (or explanations) to the question that many regard as puzzling -- namely, why exactly I chose to come and live in Russia -- my talks with Marya Nikolayevna are at the root of any answer.


So for me -- although as I grew up there were encounters with other Russian friends, Diaghilev's marvelous Ballets Russes, Russian music, the wonders of Russian literature and, later, studies of language and literature at Harvard -- the core of it, as is almost always true, lies in childhood and in my fateful encounter with a warm-hearted, nostalgic Russian enthusiast.





Lily Emmet is a translator living in Moscow. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.