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The Russian Countess: Escaping Revolutionary Russia

by: Edith Sollohub
published by: Impress Books
pp: 282
ISBN: 0955623952

Book's frontpage

Countess Edith Sollohub, born Edith Natalie de Martens, was well known in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg for accompanying her husband Alexander on shooting and riding trips and for being outstandingly accurate with her gun. She was the daughter of a high-ranking Russian diplomat, and the mother of three young sons, destined to join the social and intellectual elite of imperial Russia. The Revolution of 1917 changed the course of these lives. By December 1918 her husband was dead, her children separated from her by the closing of the frontiers, and her own life was in danger. This is her account of how she faced these traumatic events, revealing the courage and determination she had shown in earlier times that helped her endure hunger, imprisonment, and loneliness. Her reunion with her sons in 1921 makes the months of danger and deprivation worthwhile. Illustrated with original family photographs this account will interest the serious academic and general reader alike

 

Reviews

When I received this book out of the blue, I sensed a sudden breath from the past. An image came back of the tiny figure of the author, an elderly Russian countess clothed in black with an ancient fox-fur stole. She looked majestically out of place walking down College Street in Winchester, nodding to young Wykehamists as they stepped off the narrow pavement and raised their boaters to her. I was one of them. Her son Nicolas, who taught me French, kindly invited me to tea with her one day. I was entranced when, sitting with our cups poured from the samovar, she showed me family albums of pre-revolutionary Russia. They showed her, standing over bears and elks she and her husband had shot. Yet the story I longed to hear was of her escape from Bolshevik Russia. At 13, I was too shy to ask. Half a century later, I have the whole tale in front of me. The daughter of a professor and diplomat, Edith belonged to the highly educated minority of the Russian aristocracy. Yet she loved shooting and was a fearless horsewoman. Descriptions of her childhood and early married life, hunting wolves on horseback with borzois, and listening to peasant superstitions about the spirits of the forest, seemed part of an eternal Russia which could never change. When I look back upon that Christmas [of 1916], she writes, the last that we were destined to spend in happiness, it seems incredible that it was the prelude to such a disaster. Edith witnessed the mutiny of the Guards regiments in St Petersburg (already renamed Petrograd) in February 1917. She described the march on the Duma: They looked so grey, so slow, so sinister in their uniformity; they were cold, the women huddled themselves up into large kerchiefs over their coats, the men had frozen whiskers and let the earflaps of their Finnish fur caps flop about loosely over their ears. In the late spring, as chaos and hunger became worse, Edith took their three sons to their estate, but soon soldiers deserting the front arrived in the region to loot. The intrepid countess armed herself with two Browning automatics and her hunting rifle, and their English nurse grasped a hatchet. Although that crisis passed, Edith had to deal with the new revolutionary authorities when her estate was nationalised. After the Bolshevik coup d etat, she walked into Lenin s headquarters in the Smolny Institute and wandered round, providing us with a wonderful description. With charm and luck, she obtained passes and certificates for her firearms. After the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, Edith managed to take her young sons to German-occupied Estonia. They began to run out of money, so she returned to Petrograd alone to retrieve more family items to sell. It proved a terrible mistake. The first world war ended abruptly in November. German forces in the Baltic states returned home, and, in the power vacuum, the Russian civil war began in earnest. All those applying for passports to leave the country were arrested as counter-revolutionaries. Her husband had left to join the White armies in the south, where he was killed. In great danger, she just managed to evade arrest in Petrograd. Desperate to return to her boys, she tried repeatedly to escape. By a miracle, her old coachman had been appointed block commissar by the Bolshevik authorities, and he acted as her guardian angel. As famine haunted the city, she survived on food provided by former servants bringing produce from the estate at great risk. During the famine winter of 1918-19, when horses that collapsed in the street were butchered in moments, she found work as a sledge driver. Hearing that she might get out with a group of Poles about to be repatriated, she moved to Moscow, but was caught by the Cheka and imprisoned in the Lubyanka ...
- The Sunday Times review by Antony Beevor

The Russian Countess... is the story of an intensely full and eventful life, one played out against the backdrop of revolution and war. It is a gripping chronicle, writ through one woman's life, of the replacement of Russia's leading class by a vicious dictatorship. Separated from her family in Petrograd in 1918, Edith must use guile, cunning and the fruits of her cultured noble upbringing...to escape a Soviet Russia that sought to annihilate all that her class owned and stood for. Assuming multiple identities, enduring prison, hunger and poverty... she makes her way out through Poland in an escape that is as daring and unlikely as it is vividly told. Indeed, what is remarkable about this dense, well-paced memoir is the astounding detail of Sollohub's memories- of conversations, people or places- making this work of immense value as a historical document accessible to a wide reading public.
-Review Mania

Local reviewers often make allowances for books written by local authors. This book needs no such indulgence. It is a masterly account of an extraordinary experience.
- Tommy Cookson- The Trusty Servant

About the Author

Edith Sollohub taught herself to type in order to support herself and her sons in their one-room apartment in Paris. She typed some of her account of her life in Russia in snatched moments, and added to these in later life. The manuscript was left to her youngest son and daughter-in-law after her death in 1965, who have lovingly deciphered handwritten notes, edited the collection and unearthed photographs to ensure that her wish - that her memoirs might one day be published - be fulfilled.

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