A Russian Emigre’s Life


Destination: Russia and the United States

Book: Émigré: 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count by Paul Grabbe with Alexandra Grabbe

 

Until I read Émigré, despite my knowledge of Russian history, I tended to think of the nobility surrounding the Tsar as characters in a novel. Their fantastic homes, elaborate costumes and their expulsion from their country were appealing to read about, but not quite real.

That image was only confirmed by a visit my husband and I made to St. Petersburg, the glorious city packed with reminders of the glory of the Tsars. Amazingly, the Soviet government restored and protected the gilded palaces and the magnificent art works. As an aside, I finagled my way into the boyhood St. Petersburg apartment of Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favorite authors. The building, just off Prospekt Street, the area where the Grabbes lived, was closed to the public, since it was under construction, but still gave us a flavor of the life of Nabakov as a young boy, and Paul Grabbe and his family. Nabokov’s Speak Memory tells of his life as a boy–very closely paralleling Paul Grabbe who was nearly the same age.

Paul Grabbe

Paul Grabbe poses in front of his family’s second home, near Smolensk  about 1910. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Grabbe.)

However, Paul Grabbe lived that storybook life as a young man, and had to cope with all the problems of becoming a person without a country when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, the tsar and his family were executed and all the upper classes were banished.  It is a heart wrenching tale and one seldom hears about it from the point of view of the Russian aristocracy.  Perhaps  because of the truism that history is written by the victors or perhaps because Americans have a difficult time warming up to royalty, we know much more about Lenin and Trotsky and the Red Army than we do about the uprooting of a whole class of people from Russia. A quick refresher on the Revolution  here.

If you watch Downton Abbey, you caught a glimpse of these exiled Russians and their grief for a life that disappeared.

Russian royal emigres
Russian èmigrès portrayed on Downton Abbey

The beginning of this book paints that life in appealing detail.  Paul’s adored, if rather cold, father dresses in extravagant uniforms. Servants at their St. Petersburg apartment become some of the young man’s best friends. The family travels frequently, but always come home. Until the Revolution.

When the teen-aged Paul Grabbe and his family fled, they were convinced it was a temporary inconvenience.  Whatever country they went to, they had wealthy friends, so their way of life continued to be one of privilege. However, wherever they landed, there was the threat of danger.  Grabbe’s father, who had been a right-hand man to the Tsar, turns up on execution lists drawn up by the Revolutionaries back home.

The country was weary from the devastation of World War I. We learn from Émigré that even the lower classes had something on their minds besides idealism.

“Lenin emerged victorious because he realized what the masses wanted and provided it: the soldiers yearned to go home; the peasants desired land.”

Their stop in Latvia is typical of the ups and downs of their experience. By the time the fleeing family reaches Lativia they see Germany, up until now the enemy of their country, as their ally.  And they appreciate the orderliness of German rule.

“When we reached the capital of Latvia on September 3, 1918, the German Army had occupied the city for almost a year, and order prevailed.  The streets were swept.  The trains ran on time.”

But the Red Army marches on neighboring Estonia and threatens Latvia. The Grabbe family learns that their names are on a list of “undesirables to be liquidated.”  Temporarily helped by the British, that salvation disappears when the German troops pull out. Tired of fighting, the Germans refuse to honor the treaty that ended WW I in which they promised to fight off the Red Army. The British follow the Germans, and the Grabbe family flees once again.

Eventually, the young man is on his own, first living in Denmark for several years and then sailing to America, like so many before him, hoping for better opportunities.

Later trying to adjust to becoming an American father, Paul Grabbe realizes that his image of a father–his own–is a man in resplendent uniforms who shows up once in a while, but shows little warmth.

Grabbe truly believes the adage, “you can’t go home again”

I used to think going back to Russia would be dangerous because of my father’s association with the tsar, but gave up that idea as the years went by.  Now I’m sure visiting the Soviet Union would be quite safe.  Safe, but not without pain.  I’d find my home occupied by strangers…I would probably want to avoid certain parts of the city, like the Moika Canal, where my uncle was stoned to death.  There is something else, too, besides troubling associations.  I know all too well that losing one’s homeland leaves a wound that is slow to heal.

Paul Grabbe 1986
Paul Grabbe 1986

Reflecting on glasnost when he was writing in 1997, at the age of 95, Paul Grabbe said:

…I am not convinced that the revolutionary pendulum has ceased swinging.  There is no guarantee that it will not reverse itself again.”

What would he think of Putin?

The book’s first part was published during his lifetime, but the concluding portion was left as notes.  His daughter Alexandra Grabbe, who lives in the house that her mother and father settled in on Cape Cod, is a writer who decided to complete her father’s work. We can be glad that she did. The Russia section of the book is a fascinating look at a world that has disappeared. And the American section sheds light on the life of immigrants–a world that increasingly begs for our attention.

Alexandra Grabbe
Alexandra Grabbe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ms. Grabbe provided me with a copy of the book for review. In full disclosure, I have known her as part of an online group for several years. Neither of these facts affects my opinion.

The author photos were provided by Ms. Grabbe.

I have included a link to Amazon for your convenience. Although it costs you no more to buy through the links on my site, I do make a few cents. THANKS!

 

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Somalia Capture Makes Unlikely Travel Inspiration


Destination: Somalia, Africa

Book: A House In the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

 

When I was asked to review this book, I said no thanks.  After all, a book about a woman captured and held by rebels in Somalia is not exactly the best book to inspire travel.  Is it?  When the publicist mailed me the book anyhow, I set it aside while I reviewed books that better fit  A Traveler’s Library criteria.  Finally, I read A House in the Sky.

Time to confess. I was wrong.  In fact, if you read my list of Best Books of 2014, you saw  A House in the Sky at the top of that list.

This beautifully crafted memoir, despite its unnerving and repellant parts, is a good book to inspire people to travel and experience the world.

The outline– journalist held hostage in Somalia for 460 days in 2008–definitely does not tell the whole story.  Amanda Lindhout, who grew up in Alberta, Canadian always longed to be “out in the world.” In her twenties, she became a traveler and journalist who experienced this harrowing experience. Her co-writer Sara Corbett joined her in telling the story by presenting to us in a deceptively casual tone a deeply moving and inspiring and sometimes even humorous story.

Why would someone even BE in the most dangerous country on earth by choice?  Isn’t that just asking for trouble?  We learn enough of LIndout’s backstory to see her insatiable love of the discoveries made when traveling.  We see how her passion for getting beneath the surface of a culture leads her to more and more “forbidden” places.

Then she convinces an ex-boyfriend to go to Somalia with her to cover one more war.  In retrospect, she can see she was naive and unprepared.  Just as she is honest and unsparing in looking at her own actions leading up to that decision, she dredges up and relives for her co-writer and her readers all the uncomfortable, devastating, horrific days of being a prisoner.

The writers depict the situation with such sharp reality that we experience something totally outside our own experience.  The reader comes away feeling that they know exactly what it is like to be held in captivity in one run-down house after another by a gang of mostly adolescent boys. Of course we do not know.  Not really.

But that is the art of the writing in A House in the Sky.  Without glossing over the horrors, the authors present the day to day despair of the captives with enough selectivity that we think we know what they went through.

Amanda Lindhout was resourceful in captivity and never allows the captors to change who she is.  Even after all this, more than a year of not knowing what the next day would hold, until privately raised funds ransom her and her fellow captive, she continues to travel.

Instead of shunning the country that was the site of her most horrendous experience, she has established an education fund for Somalia youth, Global Enrichment Foundation. She returned to Nova Scotia to study international development. Instead of focusing on the young men who tormented her, she says:

My course of study was chosen in service to another vow, one made from the depths of the Dark House–that somehow I’d find a way to honor the woman who charged into the mosque to help me after Nigel and I tried to escape, who literally threw her body over mine and fought until I was dragged out of her arms.

When I think about Somalia, I think about her.

In this interview,filmed in October 2013, Lindhout explains why she still travels, including to Somalia. Lindhout says “Travel has always been a vital part of myself…the world is at its essence a good place.” The excellent interview is 19 minutes long, but you may want to set aside time. (And it does not spoil your experience of the book.”

Note:  The publisher provided the book for review, but this never influences my sharing my honest opinion with you.

I have included links to Amazon.com because it makes it easy for you to purchase the book. You need to know that although it costs you no more, I will make a few cents with every purchase through Amazon links on this site. THANKS!