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By John Helmer, Moscow

The grand house domestic serial which has been one of the staples of British television is quite impossible in Russia. That’s not because pre-revolutionary Russia lacked the aristo palaces and gilded families, or that nostalgia isn’t popular on television. It’s because the gap between the upstairs family and the downstairs servants was always too wide in Russia – and always too cruel.

It’s not different today. The recent promotion in London and republication of the stories and memoirs of Teffi (lead image), the short-story fabulist, memoirist,  poet and playwright who left Russia for Paris in 1919, illustrates the point – and not much else.

“Upstairs, Downstairs” was the creation in 1969 of two actresses, Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who had in mind a comedy. Then producer John Hawkesworth and script writer Alfred Shaughnessy turned it into a drama. The plot line follows an upper-class family of a Tory member of parliament, his wife a earl’s daughter, their son a Guards officer,  and socialite daughter, served by a butler, cook, valet, nanny, parlour and scullery maids,  and coachman from 1903 until 1930.

The London Weekend Television management took a year before they started the run, and even then they didn’t expect it to be noticed, let alone become the extraordinary hit it was, and on DVD still is. The five original seasons of 68 episodes ran on ITV from 1971 to 1975. Two sequels have followed – one in 1979, and another in 2010-2012. There have been many imitations, the funniest of them “You Rang M’Lord” (1990-93); the most fatuous of them, “Downton Abbey” (2010-15). The fact that only “Downton Abbey” exported successfully across the Atlantic to US audiences is testimony to the style of interior decoration favoured by the Trump family, and to snobbism.

The only Russian family and house serial of comparable popularity and longevity is Svati (“In-Laws”), which Google calls “a Ukrainian comedy”.  It started in 2008, and is still running after six seasons and 64 episodes; the seventh season is in filming now.  There are no servants for the obvious reason that the characters do the household work for themselves. One is a philosophy professor at a city university – the same rank as Teffi’s father – and his wife the chief accountant of the university. Their foils, the second couple,  work at a rural bakery where the husband is the driver of the bread delivery lorry; his wife a foreman on the production line.

The mainspring of the British drama is the inequality of the household, and the harsh, miserable fates determined for those failing to keep to their “place”.  It’s the reverse in Svati – it is the equality of the Russian characters that is the trigger for comedy.  The popularity of the television show is growing just as the inequality of Russian society has accelerated, according to the statisticians, towards the tsarist extreme.  Russian audiences don’t wish to switch that on for an evening’s entertainment.   

In his 1839 memoir of Russia,  the visiting French aristocrat Astolphe De Custine illustrated the cruelty of inequality in his observation of the master, his coachman and their horse arriving at a St. Petersburg reception one evening. Angry at the coachman for a reason De Custine didn’t understand – he didn’t speak Russian – the master took the coachman’s whip and thrashed him around the head, before striding off into the street. As soon his back was turned, the coachman, who had absorbed his beating without murmur, began whipping the horse with same force as he had suffered,  but with less cause. De Custine wrote the story as an illustration of the gap in Russian society which he was convinced could not be bridged without extreme, mass and uncontrollable violence. Unabridged, his book was banned in Russia until 1996. For more on the violence which materialized as De Custine expected, read this.  For the contemporary reprise of De Custine’s master, coachman and horse story, start here.  

Teffi was born in St. Petersburg in 1872 and died in Paris in 1952. Teffi was her nom de plume; her real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya.   The Lokhvitskys were from the professional intelligentsia. The scant details about them available in her newly published English translations fail to identify the source of their domestic affluence apart from their father’s law practice, which ended with his premature death in 1884. A noblemen’s title and landed estate near St. Petersburg appear to have provided Teffi, her brother Nikolai a military officer, and her sisters, especially Mirra Lokhvitskaya, a well-known poet, with the money and social entrée to sustain their membership of salons and tusovki of writers, theatricals, publishers, and impresarios, and their titled  patrons. Brother Nikolai Lokhvitsky (right) married into the aristocratic Golovin family and ended up a lieutenant-general on the Balkan and French fronts of the First World War; then in the White Army in the civil war; and finally, like Teffi, in exile in Paris.

Published in English translation last year by Pushkin Press in London, Teffi’s collection of stories is entitled “Rasputin and Other Ironies”.  That’s a misnomer with an irony of its own, because none of the stories has ironies, except for the one about the Bolsheviks and Teffi’s meetings with Lenin.  About them Teffi is ironical – about everyone and everything else, not at all. That’s because Teffi was a nostalgist. Her conviction was in the past – her aristocratic past, the past of the émigrée looking eastward from Paris, backward in time. So unshakeable was that conviction that no irony was possible, except toward those she blamed for ending the good times.   

There are as few servants in Teffi’s domestic stories as ironies. In “Staging Posts” — a memoir Teffi wrote of herself as a girl of ten in 1882, publishing it in 1940 — there was a nanny “who would have cream with her coffee”, and a housekeeper who “smelt of vanilla”. In “New Life”, there’s Yegor, “the old manservant [who] doesn’t approve of the latest tendencies”. In “My First Tolstoy”, there’s Avdotya Matveyevna, who possesses “a trunk with pictures glued to the top”; she was Teffi’s grandmother’s former serf. C’est tout — servants in Teffi’s Russia had no character at all, at least not ones she recognized, or considered fit for the feuilletons she published before she fled.

Her flight book is also short of folk from downstairs, but then they were the ones Teffi was running away from, and her brother was shooting. Titled “Memories – from Moscow to the Black Sea”, it was first published in instalments between 1928 and 1930 in Vozrozhdenie (“Renaissance”), a magazine published by and for Russian émigrés in Paris. The Moscow impresario and the customs official who arrange Teffi’s exit papers to Kiev are caricatured as bumptious Jews with, yes, prominent noses. The first peasants to appear are women Teffi sits next to in a crowded third-class compartment of a train. Teffi starts by identifying them as “malicious-looking…with pale eyes… They clearly don’t like the look of us.” She’s oblivious to the reciprocal she started with.

She also mocks the pockmarks and wart on one of the women’s faces; the “duck-like nose” on another. She mimics their speech mannerisms for what might have been the comic reaction of her émigré readers 90 years ago. To fresh English translators and publishers this year, that is the stuff of “the greatest Russian prose writers of the last century – Ivan Bunin, Vladimir Nabokov, Andrey Platonov, and Varlam Shalamov…”

Pushkin Press is a London publisher of books translated from other languages into English. Apart from Alexander Pushkin himself and Teffi, of the 175 authors on its roster only three others write in Russian.  In the promotion of Teffi, however, Pushkin Press collaborates closely with Pushkin House. The latter, founded  in 1954 by Russian émigrés like Teffi herself,  says it’s “an independent charitable foundation funded entirely by donations from people who want to support Russian culture”. The principal corporate sponsor is Petropavlovsk, the notorious goldmining company until recently run by Peter Hambro and Pavel Maslovsky; for their less than charitable record, read this

London-based, Pushkin House also describes itself as “politically independent”;  That was truer in Soviet days than now when the leaning of the Pushkin House board of trustees, panels and partners is decidedly on the side of the Anglo-American war for regime change in Russia. Anne Applebaum and Peter Aven as this year’s book prize judges make certain of that.  They short-listed Teffi’s Memories, the latest of Teffi’s collections of stories to have been published in English.

“Teffi’s genius with the short form made her a literary star in pre-revolutionary Russia, beloved by Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin alike,” according to Pushkin Press,  in a line that has appeared in advertisements in London and New York.  It is impossible to believe Lenin thought so. The publisher puffs, repeated by critics who haven’t read the stories, are contradicted by what Teffi actually wrote about Lenin.

He first appears in the story called “New Life”, published in 1950, two years before Teffi died. She was writing about meeting Lenin in 1905, at the St. Petersburg editorial office of New Life magazine, then a legal publication of the Bolsheviks. On first appearance, Lenin was “plain…with small crafty eyes and jutting cheekbones.” What turns out for Teffi to be not so plain, she repeats, four pages later, when Lenin “squinted at me out of his narrow, crafty eyes.” Later on, after six more pages of disagreeing with Lenin over whether music and book reviews should continue appearing in a publication aimed at working-class readers, Teffi gets racist, reporting that Lenin “kept a keen watch, with his narrow, Mongolian eyes.”

THE EYES HAVE IT, ACCORDING TO TEFFI

Teffi blames Lenin for causing the closure of New Life after he had published an article in its pages which Teffi claims was “something about the nationalization of land…which terrified us all.” She doesn’t blame the secret police or the tsar’s censor for arresting the editor and cancelling the publication licence. Instead, Teffi wrote: “Lenin simply battered away with a blunt instrument at the darkest corner of people’s souls, where greed, spite and cruelty lay hidden…Naturally, he had no friends and no favourites. He didn’t see anybody as a human being. And he had a fairly low opinion of human nature. As far as I could see, he considered everyone to be capable of treachery for the sake of personal gain… Possessed maniacs of this kind are truly terrifying.”

This might have been the stuff Tsar Nicholas II loved to read from Teffi, but not Lenin. This isn’t even irony on Teffi’s part. It’s caricature. But Teffi waited for a quarter of a century before publishing her version of Lenin. 

Rasputin she also treated without irony, but with a great deal more literary respect. This had something to do with the fact Teffi discloses that on the two occasions they met he tried to take her to bed.  Her version of Rasputin first appeared in print in 1924, almost eight years after he had been assassinated by a group around Prince Felix Yusupov, whose circle appears to have included both Teffi and her brother. Lenin, too, was dead by then.

Teffi thought it safer to publish her memoir of Rasputin more swiftly. She also started with the eyes  — in Rasputin’s case, also on the small side. “His close-set, prickly, glittering little eyes were peering out furtively from under strands of greasy hair. I think these eyes were grey. The way they glittered, it was hard to be sure. Restless eyes.”

Rasputin tells Teffi to drink more wine. She refuses, claiming “I don’t care for wine.” Rasputin insists; she is adamant. “Rasputin’s sharp, watchful eyes pricked into me”. That’s a lot less Mongolian than Lenin’s eyes. Further down Rasputin’s anatomy Teffi found the unironical feature she wanted to reveal to her readers.  After Rasputin made another attempt at getting Teffi into bed,  she reported: “howling inside him there was a black beast.”

They met again, he tried again. “I’ve missed you”, Teffi claims Rasputin told her. “I’ve been pining for you.” She replied, and maybe this was an irony she thought up on the spur of the moment twenty years before she wrote it down. “You’re just saying that to be nice.” If Teffi wasn’t being ironic, Rasputin might be forgiven for interpreting her remark as a coquettish come-on.

He kept drinking; Teffi kept putting him off. Then, she says, he jumped to his feet and started to dance. Compared to Lenin the music-hater, Rasputin was scoring in Teffi’s esteem, even if “his movements were frenzied; he was always ahead of the music as if unable to stop” She admits “the spectacle was compelling – “so weird, so wild, it made you want to let out a howl and hurl yourself into the circle, to leap and whirl alongside him for as you had the strength.” The score is even — one howl to Rasputin, one howl to Teffi.

A few minutes later, after Rasputin had stopped dancing and the musicians packed up, he told Teffi “I’m pining for you to come. I’m pining so badly I could throw myself down in the ground before you!” She says she tried “to lighten the atmosphere”.  Then he confided: “You see, everyone wants to kill me…Remember, my clever girl: if they kill Rasputin, it will be the end of Russia. They’ll bury us together.” Teffi continues her story: “He stood there in the middle of the room, thin and black—a gnarled tree, withered and scorched.”

No Mongolian, Rasputin, but a patriot  Teffi might have gone to bed with for the sake of Mother Russia — and wanted everyone (in Paris) to know,  without the slightest irony,  eight years after he had been shot, dumped in the Neva, buried at Tsarskoye Selo, exhumed after the tsar’s abdication and torched to prevent his corpse becoming a shrine.   Here are the last three lines of Teffi’s Rasputin memoir.  “Burn me?” she quotes him again. “Let them. But there’s one thing they don’t know; if they kill Rasputin, it will be the end of Russia.” “Remember me then! Remember me!” I did.”

If you think this is the stuff of Russian literary greatness, there’s something wrong with you — and that’s no irony.

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