Monday 27 November 2017

Tamara Karsavina & Henry Bruce, Part 2, by Janie Hampton

Tamara Karsavina in Le Spectre de la Rose
choerographed by Fokine, costume by Bakst, in Paris 1913.

Continuing the story of the British diplomat Henry James Bruce and Russian prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina, who fell in love in St Petersburg in 1913. Eight months after they had witnessed the October Revolution in 1917, Lenin declared Britain an enemy of the Bolshevik government. Henry’s British Embassy colleagues fled from Moscow to Britain via the Crimea. But Henry went in the opposite direction, north to Petrograd, to rescue his lover and their 19 month old son, Nikita.
Read Part One of their adventure  here. 
Petrograd had been Tamara’s home all her life, but now she agreed with Henry that it was time they left. Although she had no political objections to the new order, communal life was stressful. The apartment in Millionaya Street, where she lived with Nikita and their cook, nanny and maid, was now shared with five families. Life was chaotic, with children playing in the shared passage, its ceiling criss-crossed with washing lines. Tamara’s cook Liza had been elected onto the house soviet committee but nobody knew who owned the house or to whom they should pay rent? 
Henry James Bruce at Eton in1899
Tamara had been with handsome, clever Henry for five years but now that Lenin had made peace with Germany, her dull husband, Vasilii Moukine, might return from fighting. He had agreed to divorce Tamara but the Bolsheviks had abolished both marriage and divorce. 
Postcard sent from Berlin in 1912 to Tamara,
written in French, the address translated into Russian
The chaos extended far beyond Millionaya Street. When Moscow became the capital in March 1918, Petrograd, formerly St Petersburg, was of little national or international importance and was now bankrupt. The canals, once busy with barges bringing food and fuel, were collapsing and choked with rubbish and sewage. Cholera and typhus had already killed several thousand people that winter. Although the population had halved, there was not nearly enough food. Most of the cab-horses had starved to death, and the electric trams no longer ran. Henry was compelled to walk to the former British Embassy where he found Captain Cromie, the Naval Attaché, the only British diplomat left. Cromie showed him coded telegrams which revealed that all routes south to the Crimea, east to Japan and west to Finland and the Baltic Sea were closed. Their only way out of Petrograd was north via Murmansk in the Arctic Circle, where British troops were stationed to reinforce the White Army. 

Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky in Jeux, by Debussy, in Sir Thomas Beecham's
Grand Season of Russian Ballet at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, June 1912.
However, they couldn’t tell where the front line of the civil war between the White and Red armies was located, only that it was getting closer every day. As a foreigner, Henry needed a permit from the Foreign Ministry in Moscow to travel; and even Tamara needed permission from the workers’ soviet that now controlled the Marinsky Ballet. Another problem was that Tamara’s face was even better known than the Czarina’s or Lenin’s. For 15 years she had appeared to two thousand people at each performance in the Marinsky Theatre and she had toured all over Russia and Western Europe with Diaghlev's Ballet Russe. Postcards were sold of her posing as Giselle and Salome; and with Nikita on her lap. His thick curly hair and his mother's large dark eyes were unmistakable. If a reward was posted for their capture, they might easily be denounced to the authorities in exchange for a meal or a few logs of firewood. 
Famous all over Russia and Europe, Tamara Karsaviina
as  Zobeide on Sheherazade  by John Sargent, 1913.
After a tense week of enquiries, an unidentified woman telephoned the apartment. She had passes for a steam-ship departing the following morning. It would take them along the River Neva and through Lakes Ladoga and Onega north to Petrozavodsk, which was beyond the front line on the railway to Murmansk. Tamara packed two trunks, which was the most they risked taking without arousing suspicion. She found it a nightmare choosing what to include and after a desperate search failed to find the key to her bureau containing her personal letters and photos. They waited until three in the morning when it was dark enough not to be seen. Liza the cook and Katiousha her maid put aside their new revolutionary status and marked an ancient custom. They all sat in a circle in silence, then crossed themselves and quietly said goodbye. Tamara’s neighbour Prince Dolgorukov accompanied them to the pier on the Neva embankment. Henry spoke fluent Russian, French and German, and both he and Tamara had travelled all over Europe. But neither of them had travelled incognito, with a child, through enemy country before. 
Portrait of Tamara Karsavina by Henry J. Bruce, 1918.
The steamship was crowded with families anxious to return to their homes around the inland lakes before they were cut off by civil war. There were also young men eager to join the fighting – wherever the front line was now. A young Count told them that he planned to join the White Army, though it already had a surplus of officers and not enough soldiers. The Red Army had the opposite problem – too many private soldiers, who decided military strategy by vote. 
After five days the boat arrived in Petrodovask on the west coast of Lake Onega, where they planned to catch the steam-train north. Henry and the Count disembarked cautiously. The road leading up from the empty harbour to the railway station was shrouded in drifts of willow seed, stained with blood. A French officer told them that the streets were overlooked by snipers and the trains were full of Red Army soldiers, whose few officers could not control them. He advised them to return to Petrograd, even though the situation there had deteriorated even further. Count Mirbach, the German ambassador, had been assassinated in Moscow and Lenin had laid the blame on Britain. As a result, Captain Cromie had been killed defending the former British Embassy in Petrograd. They decided to remain on the boat which was heading to the north of the lake. The young Count went to search for food but was shot by a sniper within sight of the steamer. He managed to crawl back to the boat, his plans to join the White Army in ruins. 
Map of the route from Petrograd by steamer and cart to Lake Sumo, July 1918
Five days later their boat arrived in Povenetz, a village at the far north end of Lake Onega. There they were told of a disused post-road leading north-east for about 200 miles to the White Sea, and they hired a horse and cart. Tamara was forced to reduce their luggage to a few pictures, some blankets and a teaspoon which had belonged to the dancer Taglioni. She gave away most of Nikita’s clothes, and asked the captain to return their trunks to Petrograd. From Povenetz, they travelled slowly through the forest, crossing marshes and rounding lakes. Mosquitoes rose in huge clouds and swarmed around their heads. For several days they saw only the occasional peasant, shrouded in muslin, working in an isolated clearing. At night, they shared the floor of rough window-less huts, lit by rushes. They drank weak tea, and ate hard sausage. The local people were friendly, but knew nothing of politics or the movements of the Red Army. Twenty years of dieting and dancing with bleeding feet, had taught Tamara to ignore both hunger and pain, while Henry had been toughened up by British boarding school. Nikita, a pampered city child, clung to his mother and screamed. 
After six days and nights in the forest, they arrived at a slightly more prosperous village on the edge of Lake Sumo. They had just let the horses go for the night when they learned that the village had a soviet committee. Without realising it, they had crossed the line into Red Army territory. Worse still, a consignment of vodka had just arrived. In an effort to improve productivity in both factories and farms, the Tsar had passed a law, which the Bolsheviks had upheld, against distilling vodka. But with the increasing anarchy, it had been impossible to enforce. After a short, fitful sleep in a hut, the leader of the soviet, Commissar Solkov woke them and announced that rather than let them continue round Lake Sumo by cart, his men, who were all drunk, would row them across. He obviously didn’t trust this well-dressed man with a strange accent, his beautiful wife with soft hands, and their child who wore shoes. If they did not agree, then he would lock them up in a barn. Henry remained outwardly calm, guessing that the commissar would almost certainly set the barn on fire.

Postcards of Tamara Karsavina were on sale in Russia.
Here she is with Louloushka, her King Charles Spaniel.
Tamara pointed out that a storm was brewing, the lake was already rough and Nikita could not swim, whereupon he said, “It matters not if the little cur drowns.” At this Tamara was enraged and flew at him, screaming. She could cope with the new social order, but not with insults to her son. Henry thought it was all over. Despite their luck and fortitude so far, their escape seemed to be ending in disaster.
Will they get away? Find out next month.
Part Three, December 27.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a cliffhanger! Another month to wait...