My future was a matter of complete indifference to me. I felt neither anxiety or fear. In any case there was nothing I could do. In my mind I retraced my strange journey from Moscow, always south, always further south, and always without any deliberate choice.
Teffi is the pen name of the Russian humorist Nadezhda Lokhvitzkaya whose stories, poems, and plays appeared in numerous Russian publications in the early 20th century. This book, translated from Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg, is her account of leaving Moscow after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918. Although she’d been initially supportive of the revolution, she was disturbed by how it was playing out, and when given the chance to travel to Odessa to give readings of her work, she decided it was a good time to leave the city for a while. She never returned.
Although the book is set in a time of political unrest, Teffi concerns herself less with the politics and more with the experience of the people. As a public figure, she has some privilege, but she runs into one difficulty after another as she makes her way to Odessa, and eventually out of Ukraine to Constantinople. There are checkpoints, inscrutable rules, shortages of housing and food, and general instability. She is well known enough to find friends at the various cities she stays in along the way, but those friends are having as much trouble as she is, and making sure she’s able to find a room or get on board a ship is not necessarily their top priority.
Our days were indeed at the mercy of a whirlwind. It tossed us to the left; it tossed us to the right.
One of the things that struck my most is that the only real constant Teffi encounters is instability. Whenever she’s able to stop and breathe for a bit, maybe even get a writing job and a comfortable room, it doesn’t last. And the shifts are sometimes breathtakingly fast. One day, everything is fine. And the next, evacuation is essential and there’s no way out. It is sort of terrifying.
This past week, there was a brief discussion on the Pantsuit Politics podcast about the spell of solidity, the idea that the world that we know it is sturdy. I’ve been thinking about that a lot in the past few years and possibly even more in the past few months. And this book shows what it can actually look like when all the previously reliable structures slip away. It’s rough, but it’s also not without hope. It’s interesting to watch Teffi and those around her adapt. And that’s really what this book is about. It’s more observational than meditative. Teffi does not often step back and really consider the political landscape and Russia’s future. She lives and observes each moment as it is presented to her. Perhaps that is what gets her in trouble, because she doesn’t always see what’s coming. But perhaps it also gives her the flexibility to take what comes. And it certainly keeps readers there in the moment with her.