Wednesday 27 December 2017

Tamara Karsavina & Henry Bruce, Part Three by Janie Hampton

Tamara Karsavina aka Mrs Henry Bruce in 1923. 
Karelia, Russia. July 1918. The British diplomat Henry Bruce, his lover the ballerina Tamara Karsavina and their 19-month-old son Nikita are fleeing for their lives. But having left their home in Petrograd to escape danger, the further they went, the worse it got. Here is the final part of their epic journey.  Read Part One of their adventure  here,  and Part Two here.
Half way between Petrograd and the White Sea, Henry and Tamara discovered they had unwittingly crossed the front line of the Russian civil war and were now among the Red Army Bolsheviks. The commissar of Sumozero village believed they were foreign spies and told them they would be rowed to the next village across the lake. But his men were drunk and there was a storm brewing. Tamara’s patience ran out and she screamed at him. She was sympathetic to the communists but she could not tolerate bad behaviour in a drunk commissar, not even in the name of  "Peace, Bread and Freedom".
Tamara as Pimpinella in Pucinella
The commissar ordered them to be locked overnight in a barn, from which Henry knew they were unlikely to emerge alive. Then he remembered he had an old permit to travel to Moscow, signed several months before by the Bolshevik leader Georgy Chicherin. Gambling that the commissar was unable to read more than Chicherin’s name, Henry showed it to him, and then threatened to report him for disobeying government orders. It worked, and the commissar declared they could, after all, continue round the lake on their hired horse cart, but under armed escort. They still had to cross the River Suma by raft.
Map of their route by cart  from Lake Sumo , to Murmansk by steam train
and through the Arctic Ocean in a coal-boat.
The next day, at Xvornii village, they were handed over to another Red Army commissar who recognised Tamara. Much to Henry’s surprise he issued them with a pass to continue. But it was for only twelve hours, not nearly long enough to reach the White Sea. Henry protested, and the commissar simply told them to get moving. Heading towards the Arctic Circle, the nights remained light.
Twenty-four hours later, they reached the fishing village of Sumsky Pasod on the White Sea and realised they had crossed back into friendly territory. But the Red Army was closing in and the villagers were leaving. They leaped into the last boat and a fisherman rowed them up the White Sea to Kem harbour. From there they walked seven miles across the marshes to the railway line.
At Kem station they found a throng of refugees, unsure from whom they were escaping – was it the Germans, Whites, Reds, or Finns? The railway line had been built in 1916 to transport arms and food from the Arctic Ocean to the German-Russian front. Now that Russia had made peace with Germany, the single track between Murmansk and Petrograd was being commandeered by both Whites and Reds to move their respective troops and supplies, north and south. When Henry asked to buy first-class tickets to Murmansk, the station manager told him, ‘I shall be obliged to close this conversation, Comrade, if you speak in tones unworthy of a socialistic state. And it is useless to bring the Lord into it. The rules state there is no Lord, but our saviour Lenin.’
The train steamed out of Kem just days before the small town fell to the Red Army. Progress was slow: on orders from the Czar, the track had been built in only a year by Chinese labourers and 10,000 Austrian prisoners of war, without a proper survey. At bends the locomotive tilted precariously and at weak bridges everyone clambered out and walked across behind the train. The approach to the watershed between the White Sea and the Arctic Ocean was so steep that the train had to take a second run. The exhausted family travelled into the Arctic Circle past the snow-capped Khibiny Mountains and beside navy-blue lakes. It was a beautiful but terribly remote landscape, unchanged when my daughter Daisy and I travelled the same route 80 years later to the nuclear submarine city of Murmansk.
In 1918, Murmansk, 850 miles north of Petrograd, was then only one year old, a single dusty street of wooden barracks called Pall Mall. Hugh Walpole described it as: "Simply the end of the earth. There are a few vessels, and nothing else save wolves and ptarmigans". The local forces were continually changing allegiance and that month Murmansk’s commissar was in alliance with the British general. Tamara and Henry found a railway carriage to sleep in but it gave little protection from the relentless sunlight, stifling heat, mosquitoes and stench of reindeer. When they heard that Tsar Nicholas II and his family had been assassinated in Ekaterinburg, they realised that they would not be returning to Russia soon.
Two weeks later they boarded a British collier as ‘Purser’ and ‘Stewardess’ and steamed up the Kola Inlet and into the Arctic Ocean. For two days and nights, a storm raged. For Tamara, the fiercer the wind blew, the more her memories of the past months diminished, as she vomited repeatedly over the rail. The crew and their exhausted passengers felt their spirits rise as they threaded their way through the islands of Norway and out into the North Sea. Near the Orkneys, a German submarine fired a torpedo which missed their hull by a matter of yards.
Tamara, Henry and Nikita arrived on the east coast of England at Middlesbrough in late August 1918. It had been a journey of two thousand miles by steamer, horse and cart, on foot, in a rowing boat, by train and by collier boat. That same month the Red Terror began in which over a million Russians were tortured and killed. In November the World War officially ended, although British, French and American armies continued to fight, and on the losing side, until 1922.
Tamara Karsavina aka Mrs Henry Bruce,
in her kitchen in London in 1948.
Tamara Karsavina, formerly wife of Vasili Moukine, was now ‘Mrs Bruce’. How this came about we do not know. Under Russian orthodox law, divorce was impossible, and after the revolution the Bolshevik government abolished marriage. Did Tamara marry Henry in Petrograd, as they both claimed? Or perhaps the captain of the collier married them somewhere in the Arctic Ocean.
Henry’s employers at the Foreign Office posted him to Tangiers, ‘a quiet posting away from it all’, but only on condition Tamara stopped dancing. When Diaghilev pleaded with her to rejoin the Ballet Russe, Henry chose to leave the diplomatic service and the family settled in London.
With the Ballet Russe, Tamara worked with Matisse, Nijinska, Picasso and J.M. Barrie. She appeared in silent movies with Leni Riefenstahl and Johnny Weissmuller.
 In 1930, shortly after Diaghilev died, Tamara helped start the Royal Academy of Dance and her autobiography, Theatre Street, was published. An abridged edition appeared in the Soviet Union in 1971, with all references to Henry, Nikita and their escape from Russia deleted.
Tamara looks at a portrait of herself painted by
Sir Oswald Birley in 1920, The Tatler, 1951.
Until her eighties Tamara choreographed and taught ballet to leading dancers including Margot Fonteyn. She never returned to Russia and died in London aged 93, nearly 30 years after she had buried her beloved Henry. Tamara and Henry had led one life that was only known in the Soviet Union; and another life after their escape in 1918 that was only known in Britain. It was a strange fate for one of the twentieth century’s greatest dancers.
Henry James Bruce, British diplomat, 1934.
Nikita went to Eton College, served in the Intelligence Corps during the Second World War, married and became an advertising executive with Schweppes. In 1971 he attended my wedding – one of many distant cousins in tail coats. If only I had known to ask him about his parents and early childhood.
Tamara and Nikita shortly before their escape from Russia in 1918.
Henry's cousins were surprised that he had recently married a dancer, and
that their child was already walking. Tamara's good nature soon won them over.
Here is a silent movie of Tamara in 1923:
Tamara Platonovna Karsavina (1885-1978). Henry James Bruce (1880-1951). Nikita Bruce (1916-1993)

1 comment:

Leslie Wilson said...

Gosh, how fascinating! I read about Karsavina when I was a teenager and read obsessively about the ballet, having graduated from ‘Drina’ etc. But never heard this story till now. Another ‘migrant ‘, eh? Where would we be without them?