Anything But Bland

 

Mark Mazower, What You Did Not Tell:

A Russian Past and the Journey Home (Other Press) 

            Mark Mazower, the Ira D. Wallach Professor of History at Columbia University, is one of contemporary America’s most eminent historians of modern Europe, the author of several books on Greek and Balkan history, along with others on 20th century Europe generally.  Born in Britain in 1958, Mazower grew up in the Golders Green neighborhood of North London.  His home environment bordered on bland: it was thoroughly stable if unflashy, but most assuredly not a place where his parents dwelled upon the family’s past.  Before writing this affecting family memoir, What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home, Mazower probably did not realize the extent to which his family background, at least on his father’s side, was anything but bland.

            Mazower’s quest to learn more about his father’s family history led him to surprising revelations about his paternal grandparents, Max and Frouma, both Russian Jews.  Grandfather Max, the memoir’s main character, had been a leader in the Bund, the underground Jewish labor movement that flourished in late 19th and early 20th century Russia and played key roles in the anti-Tsarist uprisings of 1905 and 1917.  Grandmother Frouma saw her family entirely uprooted by the civil wars that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917. 

                By the early 1920s, Max and Frouma had both left Russia for England.  Max never returned after leaving for the last time in 1923; Frouma did not return until 1959.  Max too left family members behind in Russia who were caught up in the civil wars that ravaged Russia in the aftermath of the Bolshevik takeover.   Some family members on both sides who survived the civil wars perished later in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, and in World War II and the Holocaust.  Max and Frouma settled in North London, far from the tumult of Russia, where they lived lives of bourgeois respectability as part of a thriving Russian-Jewish immigrant community concentrated in and around their neighborhood of Highgate, not far from the cemetery where Karl Marx is buried.

            Mazower also uncovered much new information about the two older half-siblings his father had grown up with: half-brother André, Max’s son by a relationship with Sofia Krylenko, herself a leading anti-Bolshevik Leftist on the European Continent in the 1920s; and half-sister Ira, Frouma’s daughter by an earlier marriage to a swashbuckling soldier in the Tsarist army who died fighting the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s.  André and Ira, spectacularly different in personality, both led eccentric lives that included turns to political conservatism as adults.

             In the first two thirds of the memoir, Mazower shares his insights into Max and Frouma, André and Ira, and the families Max and Frouma left behind in Russia, along with fascinating detail on the Bund.  In the last third, in the most personal and heartfelt portion of the memoir, he turns to his father William, referred to as “Dad” throughout.  Here, Mazower explains how his Dad had the quiet, nurturing childhood that had been denied to both his parents, and to André and Ira.  His mother,“Mum,” enters the story only briefly, and only at the end. 

            As he links the turbulence of early 20th century Russia to the tranquility and stability of mid-20th century Highgate, Mazower poses and tries to answer for his grandparents broader questions about assimilation and place – how and why do we come to feel that we belong to any particular location?  What psychic struggles were involved for his grandparents to leave Russia behind and make Highgate home? What did it mean for Max never to see his birthplace again after he left in 1923?  How did Frouma come to terms with being separated from her family for 30 years?

              Mazower never knew his grandfather, who died in 1952, before he was born; and barely knew his grandmother, who died in 1964, when he was six years old.  He began thinking about writing a family memoir around 2009, the year his father was ill and died.  It was a time when Mazower returned frequently from Manhattan to Highgate and his own boyhood neighborhood, nearby Golders Green, feeling “acutely nostalgic for my native city” (p.5).   The “Journey Home” portion of the subtitle applies more to Mazower than to any character in his memoir.  The  title, “What You Did Not Tell,” is directed at his grandfather and his father.  Both seemed congenitally incapable of talking about their pasts.  But Max’s silence, unlike that of Mazower’s father, “had hidden real secrets” (p.6).  

* * *

               The oldest of three brothers, Max was born in 1874 in Gradno, in today’s Belarus, a town in the Pale of Settlement, that “vast swath of western Russia to which the empire’s Jews had been almost entirely confined by imperial order” (p.21).  Max was of the same generation as Vladimir Lenin and future Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, and almost certainly crossed paths with each during his younger years (Litvinov later lived for a while in Highgate, where he also crossed paths with Max).  Little is known about Max’s early life except that his father died when he was 14.  But he seems to have been involved from his teenage years onward in the “General Jewish Workers Union in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia” — shortened simply to the Bund.  More than any of the other intriguing and endearing charcters in this memoir, Max is a figure of genuine historical interest because of his role in the Bund.  

             Although only barely remembered today, the Bund in the first decade of the 20th century had become, “by some considerable margin,” the “largest and best-organized socialist movement in the [Russian] empire, dwarfing Lenin’s quarrelsome band of followers.  Unlike the Bolsheviks, the Bund successfully combined revolutionary agitation with organizing workers to improve wages and working conditions” (p.37).  The Bund wanted no single leader, and it aimed to speak mostly for Russian Jews, not all Russians.  National, cultural, and linguistic differences needed to be acknowledged, not ignored. 

               Although the Bund “rejected the terrorist tradition of Russian revolutionary activism,” it was “certainly neither pacifist nor prepared to allow the terror unleashed by the authorities go unchecked” (p.38).   Bund members hailed the initial revolution that ousted the Tsar in the spring of 1917.  Many were elected to new workers’ councils.   But the November 1917 revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power split the Bund apart.  Some Bundists went over to the Bolsheviks, but the majority did not, “believing they were dictatorial and dangerous.  The Bolsheviks reciprocated their suspicion”  (p.59).  By the mid-1920s, the Bolsheviks had largely wiped out the Bund

              Max was the Bund’s “organizer par excellence” (p.51), a behind-the-scenes man who lived a double life in which caution, silence and mistrust were keys to survival.  Outwardly a conventionally bourgeois salesman for a Russian shipping firm in Vilna (today’s Vilnius, Lithuania), Max was simultaneously a revolutionary activist who wrote, translated, published and distributed seditious tracts.  But he was “neither a rhetorician nor a lover of the limelight” (p.51).   He published nothing under his own name.  He forged passports and purchased guns. When the 1905 anti-Tsarist uprising broke out, Max was assigned to coordinate the Bund’s activities in Łódź, in today’s Poland.  He never spoke again about this experience, but it formed the “climax of his life as an agitator” (p.42).

              Max was arrested in the aftermath of the 1905 uprising and imprisoned in Siberia.  An escape in 1907 led him all the way from Siberia to Dresden, Germany, at a time when he seems to have concluded that the possibility of overthrowing the Tsars had been foreclosed.  Eager to put his semi-clandestine existence and constant police surveillance behind him, while in Dresden he responded to an ad of the London office of Yost Typewriter Company.  An American firm, Yost was anxious to expand into the Tsarist Empire and was looking for a marketing manager with knowledge of Russian. Yost offered Max a job as a “glorified salesman” (p.55), charged with opening up the Russian market.  Over the next decade and a half – the tumultuous period that spanned World War I, the 1917 Revolution, and the post-revolution civil wars in Russia — Max lived in rented North London rooms while he spent much time back in Russia selling typewriters.

              During a  visit to Petrograd (today’s St. Petersburg) sometime in the early 1920s, Max met Frouma Toumarkine.  Born in 1892 and thus 18 years younger than Max, Frouma was one of eight siblings, five girls, three boys, members of a close-knit clan of moderately prosperous Russian Jews.  Her father was a Moscow timber merchant.  Unlike Max, Frouma had a formal secondary school education, and had entered Kiev University shortly before World War I.  When the war broke out, she left university to sign up as an auxiliary nurse.  

             In her capacity as nurse, Frouma met her first husband, Alexander Batlermanants, a medical officer in the Tsarist army, more than 20 years older.  From a wealthy family of Jewish origins, Batlermanants liked to gamble, the “characteristic vice of the Russian upper classes” (p.170-71).  He was self-centered, with “suspect charm” and a “complete lack of dependability” (p.171).  The couple’s daughter Ira – officially Irina – was born in 1912.   Batlermanants died fighting for the anti-Bolshevik Whites in the civil war that broke out after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. 

               Mazower was unable to discover many details about Max and Frouma’s courtship.  But he learned that Max returned to England in the summer of 1924 from one of his trips to Eastern Europe with Frouma, then a 32-year-old Russian widow, and eight year old Ira.  Frouma was pregnant when she arrived in London and spoke almost no English. The couple married in London in December 1924, and Mazower’s father William – William was supposedly the only English name Frouma then knew — was born the following year, 1925.

               Shortly after their arrival back in London, Max had a house built in Highgate, at 20 Oakeshott Avenue. Bordering Hampstead Heath, Highgate was full of recently constructed single-family dwellings, built along shade-filled streets — the “epitome of affordable bourgeois comfort” (p.189).  Max and Frouma never again moved from Highgate area.  “There is a privilege in being able to stay put, in choosing when to move,” Mazower writes, and the “upheavals, fears, and deprivations of their early lives had equipped Dad’s parents to appreciate it” (p.9).  For years, Max and Frouma opened their doors to other Russian émigrés, especially old Bundist comrades, including many Max had not known personally, “as though the domestic space he had never really known as a child emerged late in his life to help shelter the remnants of a movement that had found history against it” (p.86).

                 Frouma, the memoir’s most endearing character, transformed the Oakeshott Avenue house into a home with her warmth and intuitive affection.  Her “vitality invigorated the home of the Mazowers” and her “energy kept the family together” (p.166).  Throughout her time in London, Frouma sorely missed her family back in Russia.  She toyed with the idea of returning to Russia.  To preserve and nurture ties with loved ones and her homeland, Frouma wrote  letters, the “lifeblood” of her family’s continued existence “after it had been sundered” (p.196).  For Frouma, the nurturing of family ties was a “way to withstand the pain of history” (p.6).  Her son William was the anchor that kept her in England.

                 But Frouma and Max’s household also included William’s half-siblings, André and Ira.  André, born in 1909 and 16 years older than William, was a “shadowy and constantly shifting presence” (p.102) at 20 Oakeshott Avenue, rarely seen as William grew up.  The story of André’s mother Sofia Krylenko, and her relationship with Max, was at the pinnacle of Max’s most closely guarded secrets.  But Mazower was able to learn that Sofia had been a prominent Russian revolutionary in her own right, a woman of “culture and independence and means, a modernist, a free spirit” (p.133), whom Max probably met when both were exiles in Germany.  Unlike Max, Sofia never made the turn to familial life.  She “remained an activist and castigated others for their compromises” (p. 135).  She was institutionalized during World War II and probably died during the war.

                Mazower established that Sofia’s son André came to London in 1913, when he was not yet four years old, but was able to uncover little else about the boy’s early years.  He considers the possibility that Max was not André’s father, a possibility that André encouraged as an adult.  At a minimum, Mazower concludes, Max acted as if André were his son.   André went on to attend Cambridge University, where he tried his hand at poetry and came under the influence of the poet T.S. Eliot.  As he moved into adulthood, he remained financially dependent upon Max for long stretches of time.  Otherwise, there was little contact between the two.  He would show up in Highgate unannounced, and recounted little about where he had been or where he was going next.  Frouma wrote of on-going tension between Max and André.

                  André wrote The Red Thread, a controversial tract that indulged in discredited anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.  He converted to Catholicism, moved to Spain and, much to Max’s chagrin, supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War.  Despite his tilt to the right side of the political spectrum, André shared with his revolutionary mother Sofia what Mazower describes as a “propensity for ideological extremism, an attraction to secrecy and the conspiratorial worldview, and perhaps too the combination of self-pity, stubbornness, and self-romanticization that often accompanied them” (p.162).  His repudiation of the leftist views of Max and Sofia was in Mazower’s view André’s way of dealing with the sense of being “unmoored by the storms of history, his form of reaction to living the aftermath of revolution”  (p.162).  André died at age 95, in 2005.

            In sharp contrast to André, Frouma’s daughter Ira was omnipresent in the Mazower family’s life as William grew up.  Born in Russia in 1912, by the time she was five, Ira had lived through a world war, a revolution, a civil war, mass epidemic and famine.  In what for her must have been “insufferably tranquil” North London, Ira became a “sardonic, self-absorbed, willful English-speaking teenager with an artistic temperament” (p.219).  Throughout her life, Ira pursued an ideal of “beauty and glamour as if seeking to wipe out her earliest memories and revive what they had effaced” (p.223).  In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Ira first married at age 17, in 1935.  The marriage lasted just weeks. 

                After World War II, Ira turned to clothes and fashion, initially a “source of fantasy,” her way of “turning life at home into something stylish and stylized” (p.226).  Her big break came when she took a position as art editor of a popular fashion magazine.  She proved to be a talented writer who demonstrated an “easy way with words” and did not “take herself too seriously” (p.227).  Ira wrote The Glass of Fashion, a “paean to glamour” (p.227) for austere post-war Britain, in which she argued that fashion was a good escape for women, reflecting the “daydreams of millions of women” (p.227).  The book received good reviews.  She went on to write several modestly successful fantasy novels, “packed with court intrigue, noble gamblers, dashing rakes, illegitimacy, mad passion and fatal attractions” (p.231).

                While living in Highgate with Max and Frouma and working in central London, Ira fell in love with the family’s neighbor, Richard Jeffries, known as “Jeff,” a banker in the City who was married with several children.  Max and Frouma considered Jeff “very English,” i.e., native born and not Jewish.  After Jeff left his first wife to marry Ira, the couple lived a lavish lifestyle, featuring fancy hotels, a Jaguar, luxury cruises, and lots to drink.  Ira wrote a memoir “designed to turn childhood pain into 1950s cocktail entertainment,” a sort of “Ballets Russes fantasy” with a “lighthearted style” which kept at bay the “fears, knowledge, and memories that lay close beneath the surface” after her life had become prosperous and comfortable  (p.221-22).  Like André, with whom she otherwise had very little in common, Ira too became “quite reactionary” as an adult, given to “making outrageous statements about peasants and workers” (p.218).

                In 1985, Jeff had a heart attack while driving, and was killed.  Not yet 70, Ira died of an overdose three days after Jeff’s funeral.  To Mazower, Ira’s death almost seemed as if she was living out one of her novels.  He describes his father’s half-sister as a woman who sought to “banish the memory of revolutionary deprivation, re-creating in the safety of an English suburb something of the comfort that had been snatched from her in childhood” (p.220). 

                 After the turbulent lives of Frouma and Max, and the unconventional lives of André and Ira, the memoir switches gears when Mazower addresses his father William.  William’s childhood was characterized by a “high degree of tenderness and gentleness,” along with the “omnipresence of his mother’s affection” (p.244).  Although Max was aloof and distant, “more or less incapable of demonstrating physical affection” with his son, Mazower’s Dad “never questioned that his father loved him, and felt both protective and proud of him as Max aged” (p.49).  Like his father, William was “not a talkative man, and he shied away from the personal like a nervous horse” (p.1).   

            William was a 14-year-old schoolboy when World War II broke out.  By war’s end in 1945, he was a “trained soldier with multiple technical skills.”  Although he never saw combat,  he had been through “bombing and air raids and knew about weapons and had seen the devastation they caused” (p.279).  After the war ended, he spent time with the British Army in occupied Germany.   He had been admitted in 1942 to Oxford’s prestigious Balliol College — the “powerhouse of the British political elite in the mid-twentieth century” (p.298) – but was not able to complete his studies at Balliol until several years after the war. 

              William spent his entire professional career as a middle manager in a multinational company, showing “no interest at all in climbing the greasy pole to executive glory” (p.333). He married in 1955, with children coming quickly thereafter: four boys, of which our author was the oldest.  William chose to be more present in his sons’ lives than his father had been in his.  But the responsibility he felt as the son of immigrants never left him.  His settled upbringing helps explain the “gratitude and respect” Dad “always felt to his parents, and his sense of obligation to them” (p.238-39). 

* * *

            The turbulence and upheavals of the twentieth century that had altered his grandparents’ lives and robbed his father’s half-siblings of normal childhoods had an impact on his father as well, Mazower concludes, “insofar as he understood the relationship to the place of his birth in a very specific and deeply felt way and because he knew what good fortune was whenever he looked at his family tree” (p.347).  As he journeyed physically and emotionally from New York to London to piece together this beguiling memoir, Mazower too must surely have recognized the good fortune he discovered in his family tree.   

Thomas H. Peebles

Prospect, Kentucky USA

July 21, 2019

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2 Comments

Filed under British History, Eastern Europe, English History, European History, History, Russian History

2 responses to “Anything But Bland

  1. David Gross

    That’s all very interesting. Max and Frouma must have been sorely disappointed in the Russian revolution. They did what they could, and knew when to leave. It’s great that Mazower preserved the interesting family history. Max and Frouma might not be widely remembered, but they were heroic. It’s a shame about Andre and Ira though.

  2. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Sounds an important and interesting read.

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