Tag Archives: Russia

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!


Novelist from Russia Bridges Two Worlds

Book by Russian Novelist
Destination: Russia and Maine

Book: The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar

When I read books in translation, there is always the nagging doubt that the writer’s true intent has come through in the second-hand version. But Lara Vapnyar, a writer from Russia who lives in the United States and writes in English, handles her adopted language so adeptly that there is no need for translation.

Russia pine forest painting
Painting , Morning in a Pine Forest (1899) by Ivan Shishkin and
Konstantin Savitsky . From the Hermitage. In public domain.

Generally, at A Traveler’s Library, we read books that describe a particular country or region so vividly that the book makes us want to drop everything and go there.  But there is another way to “get inside the skin” of a country we want to know more about.  Read books by authors from that place, like Lara Vapnyar, novelist from Russia.

Maine pine forest
Wood canvas canoe on Munsungan Stream just above the falls, Maine. Photo by NIck Gallop

In The Scent of Pine: A Novel, we see both a cabin in the woods of Maine and summer camp in Russia,  in both cases the scenes focus on the people than the place. And for once, that’s okay with A Traveler’s Library.

Vapnyar tells us about the stages of her character’s adoption of life in America during thirteen years after coming from Russia.

Originally, she had imagined America as a land steeped in adventure, which filled her with panicky adoration.  Then there was the incomprehension and dejection which characterized her first months in America, when everything had seemed so strange and hostile: the scenery, the climate, the people.  Mostly the people.  Everybody seemed to participate in a complicated game based on very particular rules.  But eventually, she stopped looking at Americans as a unified mass. 

This is no doubt very personal, since the novelist had been in American 13 years when she wrote this.

While this section is setting up the dissatisfaction and loneliness that fuels the action of the novel, it strikes me as an accurate portrayal of anyone who tries to adapt to a new country, not just immigrants from Russia to the United States.  And that includes Americans who try living in a different land as several books about moving to Tuscany, Paris or Spain  have illustrated.

In The Scent of Pine, Lena goes to an academic conference and meets another academic, Ben.  She is married with two children. He is engaged to a long-time partner. But the two of them hook up, and Lena decides instead of going home to Boston, she’s going to go with Ben to his cabin in Maine for the weekend.  Along the way she tells him the story of her summer as a camp counselor in Russia.

Maine woods
Maine woods. Photo by Angi English

The Scent of Pine is a  novel about story-telling. Stories make time pass, but they also can elongate time.  Lena thinks

The story will be over sooner or later.  As will the story of Lena and Ben.  If only she could learn some of Scheherazade’s storytelling magic and make it last.

And as their weekend affair continues, we are kept in suspense by the present story of Lena and Ben, and the many complications in her story of summer camp. She weaves her story until, inevitably, past meets present in surprising ways.

Lest you think this story of two sad people will be a drag–Vapynar writes with a knowing wit that will have you chuckling in recognition of life’s foibles.

The thing that particularly struck me about the summer camp was not so much the cultural differences–well yes, American camps would probably not be next door to military camps and have the mixing of personnel–but the similarities. The teenage concern with clothes and music, the younger children’s homesickness and the bad food and boring activities. And the flying saucers.

Lara Vapnyar, it turns out, learned English from reading Romance novels and watching the movie Pretty Woman before moving on to more complex uses of the language. The makes it particularly striking that she presents this off-beat romance in such a lovably realistic way. The lovers are shy, bumbling, unsure and no one knows where their tryst is leading.

In my case, the novel leads to wanting to read more of Vapnyar’s books–particularly her debut There Are Jews in My House, a collection of short stories, and Memoirs of a Muse, which is described as a satiric coming-of-age novel.

New Book:Travel to Ukraine for Family History

Book Cover: family history
Destination:  Ukraine

Book: The Spoon from Minkowitz : A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands (New January 2014) by Judith Fein

Have you seen the play or the movie Fiddler on the Roof?  Judith Fein thought maybe her ancestors had lived the kind of life that Tevya and his family lived. She thought about the small clues to her family history that her grandmother, a Russian Jewish immigrant, had passed on to her about life in a shtetl, and tried to imagine what that life was like.  For years and years and years, she thought about it and her very active imagination built up a “Fiddler on the Roof” existence for her ancestors.

Family history in Minkowitz
In the fields around Minkowitz, animal labor is still employed. Photo by Paul Ross.

The fact that it took her years and years and years is somewhat amazing since Fein, a travel writer and her husband Paul Ross, a travel photographer, have visited most corners of the world. Not only that, but Judith specializes in digging out the most unusual and even exotic cultures and the most important spiritual connections wherever she goes. But her own family was at once familiar and exotic. Somehow she managed to avoid this little corner of the world, perhaps afraid she would be disappointed.  In The Spoon from Minkowitz,  she sets out to remedy that reluctance and encourage others to follow their family history.

Because Fein is a worthy successor to Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish story-teller who gave us the character of Tevya, readers are in for a real treat when they pick up a copy of The Spoon from Minkowitz. (If you need to brush up your knowledge of Sholem Aleichem, read this fascinating article in Atlantic.)

As a young girl, at a time when I was cowed by the admonition that little girls should be seen and not heard, Fein was boldly interviewing her grandmother, refusing to let the reluctant subject rest until she gave Judie some answers.  Fein’s mother was no help, because as the child of immigrants, she had no desire to recall the poverty and pogroms of her Russian Jewish family history. After all, those who had not fled to America or other countries, had died. But Fein, the budding journalist, refused to give up. Even though the small hints that her grandmother were very slight, she clung to them as a connection to her past.

Family history of Jewish emigrees
Dunca, “the last Jew standing” -from the chapter of the same name.

The first hurdle that Fein had to overcome, besides that inner uneasiness with confronting her family’s past, was that her grandmother lived in Russia, and Minkowitz, a town too tiny for most maps — let alone Google search–is now part of Ukraine.  Finally, a trip took Fein and Ross to Ukraine and they were too close not to visit Minkowitz.  Finally, she could learn whether her grandmother’s memories were real and perhaps see for herself what the small village that her ancestors fled for America was the way she pictured it.

Using her grandmother’s clues, her years of journalistic experience, and her instinct, she ferrets out the truth about her family history, some totally unexpected.

Family history holds surprises
The author’s husband (and- as it turns out possible relative) Paul is invited
by Minkowitz locals to partake of food and lots of drink.

In the process, we learn what life is like today in a small Ukrainian village. She introduces us to some interesting characters, like the Gypsy Baron of Moldova, a village big wheel who resisted a meeting.

This book will surely accomplish the goal of persuading people to seek their own family history.  More than that, like Fein’s previous book, Life is a Trip,  it is a primer for travelers on how to get beneath the surface of the place you are visiting. The lovely writing –moving and amusing by turn–pulled me through the story and I was sorry to see it end.  The descriptions of the journey also persuaded me that I should put eastern Europe on my travel list.  Now what more could you ask for from a book in your traveler’s library?

Family history nearby big town
The castle at Kamenetz-Podolsk, the closes big town to Minkowitz.


Note: Special thanks to Paul, Judith Fein’s husband and the photographer for The Spoon from Minkowitz for permission to use his photographs.

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