Siberia and Sobranies

Perhaps because it is a lost civilisation, the Russian empire seems to exert an almost magnetic attraction on the children and grandchildren of the people who left. In recent years a notable number have traced their families back to Polish villages or Tsarist palaces, pieced together the histories of those places using family memoirs and old photographs, and written books which describe what, if anything, still remains of their ancestors’ past.
Geoffrey Elliott, a British banker who writes at one point that he has lived an easy, “marshmallow” life, felt the same kind of attraction to the story of his grandfather David, a Russian socialist who met his grandmother, Manya, in a Siberian prison. Later, the two of them lived in central Siberia, before the Revolution forced them to flee across China to London. There David founded a company that produced fine cigarettes – the famous, gold-tipped “Balkan Sobranie” brand – and aromatic pipe tobacco.
It is easy to see why this story had so much appeal for Elliott, who has meticulously re-created his grandparents’ world, using memoirs, books, travel and the Russian language-skills he learned not from his family, but from the British government at the Joint Services School for Linguists.
He describes David’s birthplace in Bessarabia, at the time a mishmash of Jewish, Moldovan, Russian and Turkish cultures; Odessa, where David, a contemporary of Trotsky, studied and grew attracted to the revolutionary socialism that drew in many young men at the time; Nerchinsk, where Manya was born, a distant East Siberian town which was largely populated by the indigenous Buryats. Most memorably, he describes their flight out of Russia, which began with Manya and her children desperately clutching on to the roof of the train bound for China. Later, Manya remembered “men and women being dragged off the train to be shot, and others killed when random bullets smashed through the windows”.
At one point she hid her elder daughter in a laundry basket so that she wouldn’t be seen by any of the marauding soldiers. Afterwards, they lived for months in a train car in Harbin, almost completely destitute. All they had taken with them were a few pieces of jewellery and some gold coins, hidden in the underclothes of their smallest child.
Geoffrey Elliott has done his research, and re-creates all of these scenes with great care. Unfortunately, the characters at the centre of the book, David and Manya, remain impossible to fathom. Neither wrote extensive memoirs, and neither spoke very much of their experiences to Elliott himself. As a result, most of their memories come through other people, and he is forced, again and again, to guess at what they might have thought or felt.
He cannot explain, for example, why David was really attracted to revolutionary socialism in his youth: “No one will ever know when and why his heart tuned in to dreams of change.” He doesn’t know whether David actually met Trotsky in Odessa, although he speculates that he “must have come across the man who might have led Russia”. He doesn’t know much about David and Manya’s happy marriage either, or how they felt about their religions, Judaism and Russian Orthodoxy: “Did David and Manya pray to their respective Gods, and for what?”
These frequent, unanswered, rhetorical questions ultimately intervene in the story, as does the author’s occasional weakness for tired metaphors. Through the first part of the book, he talks about uncovering new aspects of his grandfather’s life like so many Russian matryoshka dolls, and at one point he says his grandparents feared their cigarette business would disappear “in a puff of smoke”.
Reading this well-intentioned book, it is impossible not to conclude that writing about one’s own family is, in the end, much harder than it seems. However amazing their stories, a daughter or a grandson will always feel much more passionate about a father or grandfather than the ordinary reader. Geoffrey Elliott has succeeded in transmitting that passion, but hasn’t quite managed to convey who his grandparents really were, or what motivated them to live as they did.

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