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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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