The Young Alexandra
The Youth of Alexandra Teploff, née Meyendorff
as told to
The scribe thanks Ken Nelson for advice on Russian history, and Adrienne Bliss-Brown for the image of Alexandra's grandmother Hélène Meyendorff.
"You should call Alexandra Teploff." That was what people of Tewksbury Township—in Hunterdon County, New Jersey—told me when I was asking about for a language tutor to help me with French. The suggestion came in a tone hinting at surprise that I did not know of Alexandra Teploff. In retrospect I am also surprised, for as I learned soon afterwards the eighty-five-year-old had been an esteemed teacher and a power in Tewksbury arts and theater for almost fifty years, and showed little sign of slowing down.
So I called Alexandra Teploff, and immediately found myself engrossed in a pleasant chat in French (Fractured French from my side). Alexandra spoke the language fluently with a provincial accent—a Swiss accent, I learned later—that is slower and easier to understand than Parisian, while preserving the musical intonation that is the chief beauty of the language. And yes, bien sûr, she was ready to help me with French—all I had to do was show up at the local library for a French-oriented get-together on Wednesday mornings at ten.
Those weekly meetings were relaxed affairs: maybe five or six attendees spanning the gamut of language ability attempting to converse in French. There was no charge or obligation, no formal agenda, no textbook, very little actual teaching—but a great deal of good-natured laughter.
For Alexandra’s joy in speaking French was infectious. As a rule she set the conversation rolling with some prepared topic, and she kept a few fresh topics ready for those moments when the conversation became irretrievably tangled. She answered questions and she tactfully corrected grossly unFrench locutions—the mon femme sort of thing—but aside from that she simply let people carry on and strive to catch the speech rhythm of one of the world’s most intriguing civilizations.
Alexandra’s réunions were certainly an effective way for people to brush up on their French. But no one came just for that. Mainly, I think, they came out of personal regard for Alexandra, in recognition that here was a person profoundly happy, one who had mastered the art of living.
With the passage of time the attendance at Alexandra’s meetings gradually declined as people died or moved away and fewer came forward to replace them. As a result it often happened that I was the sole attendee. Alexandra did not seem to mind this in the least. "Now we’ll have a really good chat," she said on these occasions. And so we did, often nattering away for a couple of hours with hardly a pause.
Alexandra is a superb conversationalist, with the wit and easy confidence to enter into topics unfamiliar to her—science, for example—as well as those drawing on her deeply ingrained appreciation of art and literature.
But what I found most fascinating in my meetings with Alexandra were her recollections of her childhood in pre-revolutionary Russia and of her youth in Estonia and later in England and America. She is not especially keen on talking about herself and her experiences—she is more apt to inquire how you feel and what you think about things—so her personal background tended to come out in disconnected fragments. Little by little, however, and with Alexandra’s help, I pieced it together and set it down in this little biography.
Before I could fully understand Alexandra’s story I had to fill in some gaps in my knowledge of Eastern European history and geography, gaps I suspect many readers will also admit to. To help keep track of the important background facts I preface the story with a timeline chart tracing Alexandra’s youth in the context of history.
Alexandra’s Youth in the Context of History
Relevant Historical Events
Russia: Serfdom has been abolished since 1861 but enormous social inequalities persist. The political system is increasingly strained as workers seek more freedom.
Estonia: Through the 19th C the country has been ruled by Russia while language, church and the legal system has been mainly German. With a resurgence of Estonian nationalism there is widespread agitation for freedom from Russian domination.
Since the Middle Ages, branches of the Meyendorff (M) family have accumulated wealth and influence in Central and Northern Europe, especially in Estonia and in Russia.
Alexandra’s grandfathers, brothers Théodore and Théophile M, between them own substantial properties in the Ukraine, in the vicinity of Tallinn in Estonia and in St Petersburg (St P) Her maternal grandfather, Théophile M, having served as an aide to the Tsar Alexander III until his death in 1894, continues as aide to his successor Tsar Nicholas II.
Russia: workers organize, form soviets (workers’ councils), press Tsar Nicholas II for reforms.
Estonia: Nationalistic uprisings are brutally repressed by the Russian authorities (1905).
Russia: Trans-Siberian railroad completed. Russo-Japanese War (1905). Russia suffers defeats by Japan.
The Tsar accepts significant internal reforms.
Estonia: Continued resurgence of nationalistic aspirations.
Russia: the Tsar attempts to reverse reforms, thus inspiring increasing popular opposition to his rule.
Vassily M, a railroad engineer, marries his cousin Sophia M in St Petersburg (St P). The couple make their home in St P in the house owned by Sophia’s mother Hélène M.
Alexandra M (AM) is born in St P (1907).
Her sister Maya is born in St P (1909).
In both Russia and Estonia a tense social stability prevails in the years leading up to World War I (1910-1914)
Start of World War I (1914). German forces push eastward, invading Baltic states, Russia.
Russia: Army suffers defeats to Germany. Food shortages and economic collapse follow throughout the country.
Russia: War effort flounders. Economic collapse complete.
Russia: The Tsar abdicates. A provisional government takes over (1917).
Estonia: National autonomy is granted by the Russian provisional government (1917). An Estonian Elected Assembly is formed but it is forced underground by political extremists.
Russia: Radical Bolsheviks overthrow the provisional government, seize control of the major cities (1917). Civil strife spreads throughout the country.
End of World War I (1918). Russia: Civil War 1918--1921.
Estonia: After withdrawal of German forces, fighting continues between Estonian troops and Bolshevik forces (1919). Estonia adopts sweeping property reforms. Estonia and the new Soviet Union sign a peace treaty (1920).
AM spends her early childhood in St P, enjoys family parties and excursions especially with grandmother Hélène.
AM learns to read.
She starts lessons in dancing, other skills needed for her anticipated debut in society.
Vassily is sent to the war zone to work on restoration of damage to Russian railroads.
Vassily is reassigned, and Sophia and the two children follow to Sochy (Caucasus), then Rybinsk.
With a Swiss governess, AM learns to speak French and also read a little.
In lieu of pay, Vassily accepts a small parcel of railroad property ("Station No 5") near Rybinsk.
AM frequents an abandoned library, "La Bibliotèque Rose," perfects reading knowledge of French.
The family subsists by farming at Station No 5.
Hélène joins the family at Station No 5.
Railway construction has come to a halt but Vassily retains a responsible position in the national railroad system.
The family flees by train to Estonia (1918), where they live on the rural estate "Kumna" formerly entirely owned by the Meyendorffs. Later they divide their time between Kumna and Tallinn.
AM learns German with a tutor, attends a German-language elementary school starting in classes with much younger children.
She attends an Estonian secondary school in Tallinn.
Russia: The Bolsheviks gain control of the entire country (1923).
Estonia: The country enjoys peace, independence, democratic government (1919-1939).
USA: Stock Market crash (1929) marks the beginning of the Great Depression.
She enjoys outdoor activities in the Estonian countryside, including horse riding and caring for horses.
She completes secondary school with her age group.
Her parents send her to England to live with relatives near London.
AM learns English, English customs.
While in London she serves as nanny in the family of a visiting Amherst College faculty member, Professor Bradley.
AM visits her family in Tallinn.
Still in the employ of the Bradley family, AM accompanies them on their return to their home in Amherst, Mass.
USA: Widespread unemployment persists through the Great Depression (1930-40).
Start of World War II (1939).
AM enters an education program at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
She graduates from Smith with bachelor and master degrees in Education (1934), becomes a US citizen, seeks a teaching position in a public school.
Unable to find a public-school position, she teaches in a private girls’ school (1934-39).
She loses touch with her family in Estonia.
Estonia: Soviet occupation, installation of Stalinist socialist system. (1940). German invasion (1941)
AM takes a position of governess and factotum with the Dubonnet family at the Savoy Plaza Hotel in New York City.
She resigns her position with the Dubonnets and returns to teaching, finding at last a position in a public school (Bronxville NY).
Estonia: Germans retreat. Soviets regain control despite resistance by Estonian guerrillas (1944-1946).
End of World War II (1945). Soviets occupy Eastern Europe including Poland and East Germany. Start of the Cold War between USA and Allies, Soviet Union.
AM serves in a US Army Intelligence Unit in Frankfurt, Germany (1945-46).
She strenuously seeks permission to travel in the Soviet Sector in search of news of her family, but is denied.
1. Family Background and Early Childhood
1. Family Background and Early Childhoodin St Petersburg
Alexandra Teploff, née Meyendorff, was born in St Petersburg in the period of gathering social and political foment foreshadowing the outbreak of the Russian Revolution.
Since Alexandra’s grandfathers were brothers, she had Meyendorff blood from both parents. The name itself, Meyendorff, was already well known and respected in the Middle Ages. Its most celebrated bearer served as Bishop of Bamberg, as Chancellor to King Henry III, ruler of the region now known as Germany, and ultimately as Pope Clement II before he died only ten months into his reign—assassinated by poisoning, according to family lore—in 1047.
[Scribe's note: The above is Alexandra's account. An internet check shows shows that Clement II was born Suidger von Morseleben, and it is unclear how this name morphed into Meyendorff. Clement II died of poisoning with sugar of lead.]
Over the centuries Meyendorffs went on to flourish throughout Central and Northern Europe, but perhaps mindful of the fate of their famous kinsman, they built up their wealth and influence slowly and in relative obscurity. At the time of Alexandra’s birth, closely related branches of the family had already been established in Estonia and in Russia for several generations. Between them they owned vast tracts of farmland and forest in Estonia and the Ukraine area of Russia, as well as property in St Petersburg. The Meyendorffs of St Petersburg had long attained the social standing required for acceptance at the court of the Tsar, though they did not mingle socially with the Tsar or his entourage.
Both of Alexandra’s grandfathers were career cavalry officers, but Alexandra’s father, Vassily, did not follow that military tradition. Nor did he take the other vocation that would have been conventional for a young man of his aristocratic background, namely that of landholder. From his father, Théodore Meyendorff, he was heir, jointly with his sister, to a large tract of farmland and forest in the Ukraine, and it would have been natural for him to take up the management of that property. In fact Vassily felt a strong leaning to such work. Though a citified young man with an eye for feminine elegance, and something of the dandy who stepped neatly in the muzurka, he also enjoyed the outdoor life and rural diversions like horseback riding and hunting. But he also had a zest for science and technology, and he dreamed of a career as an engineer.
At the time, early in the twentieth century, Russia was straining to catch up with the nineteenth-century technological advances of Britain and Western Europe, particularly in rail transportation. The nation’s rail system was being enlarged greatly by the ongoing construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad as well as other rail lines all over Russia, and this development promised great economic benefits in tapping into the produce of the country’s heartland as well as strategic advantages in a long-simmering dispute—eventually, in 1905, war—with Japan.
Perhaps in large part for that reason, Vassily’s inclination to engineering won out over more bucolic pursuits. He studied civil engineering at St Petersburg Polytechnic Institute, and upon graduation he obtained a position as a planning engineer in the national rail system.
Alexandra’s maternal grandfather, Théophile Meyendorff, served as an aide of the Tsar Alexander III and his successor, Nicholas II. Notwithstanding his military background, Théophile had little taste for warfare, but he loved the theatrical trappings of war, beautiful horses and smart uniforms. Himself a dashing figure astride a white charger, he took great pride and pleasure in discharging his duty as overseer of ceremonial parades on the vast esplanade opposite the Winter Palace in St Petersburg.
Alexandra’s maternal grandmother, Hélène Meyendorff (née Countess Schouwaloff) was a woman of intellect and artistic talent and zest for life, and she ultimately came to play a key role in Alexandra’s development. She owned the family home, a three-story brownstone townhouse located at 10 Pervaya Linia, Vasilevskiya Island in St Petersburg. (The street name Pervaya Linia, meaning First Line, comes from the survey line to mark the first of several boat channels across the island that were part of Peter the Great’s original plan for the city but never excavated). Théophile and Hélène lived in the townhouse and all thirteen of their children, including Alexandra’s mother Sophia, were born and brought up there.
Though not nearly so imposing as many other residences in the city, 10 Pervaya Linia nevertheless testifies to domestic life of a complexity and opulence difficult for us to imagine nowadays. The depth of a city block—from First Line to Second Line—the house required for its functioning dozens of servants including a chef, a butler, a seamstress to sew and maintain the ladies’ gowns, sundry maids and footmen, nurses to care for the younger children, and governesses and teachers for the older ones’ schooling.
All the children were educated at home, and one subject was compulsory from the start—French. Fluency in that language was needed to function in society—people customarily switched back and forth between Russian and French depending on the particular thought they wished to express—and French was always used in conversation when servants were present. For that reason every household with children required at least one French governess.
There were also a number of personal attendants for different family members. For example Théophile had two such menservants, and their personalities and relationship to their employer throw an interesting light on Alexandra’s life as a young child.
The senior servant, a man of about Théophile’s age who had been working for him for many years, took responsibility for his employer’s most important accouterments such as his linens and dress uniforms. Somewhat stout, deliberate in manner and impeccably dignified, this man conveyed to five-year-old Alexandra an air of infallibility that placed him on a plane only slightly below that of the deity. The other manservant was a personable young man whom Théodore had plucked as a starving orphan out of a life of squalor, educated and installed as a servant in his own household. The protégé’s gratitude and eager mastery of his duties as a valet were of great satisfaction to Théodore.
Incidentally—to take a quick leap a dozen years ahead of the story—the younger valet survived the Revolution and Civil War, and when Alexandra last spoke with him he was happy and doing well as a citizen of the new regime.
The St Petersburg branch of the Myendorff family owned also a country estate in Estonia, and every summer for many years the family moved there with most of their servants for a two-month vacation.
Kumna, as the estate was called, was located about 250 miles from St Petersburg near a small town, Keila, about 20 miles south-west of the capital, Kallinn. Kallinn is a small city with a population at the time of roughly 140,000 (town and city populations at the time are assumed about one-third present-day figures).
The estate was established in the early nineteenth century by Alexandra’s great-grandfather Friedrich Meyendorff. It consisted mainly of rich agricultural land, enough to support about a hundred peasant families. It also included a large residential area with a pond and magnificent ornamental trees such as oak, fir and a tree similar to the North American maple that was similarly valued for its sap. In that park-like setting stood two-story timber house with ample space for the St Petersburg Meyendorffs and their guests and entourage. Near this main house stood a smaller one in the style of a Swiss chalet with a balcony all round. It was owned by a relative known to Alexandra as "Uncle Golitskin," who opted to spend his summers with his St Petersburg kinfolk. Also there were stables and other outbuildings, and sundry workers’ cottages—for a gardener, a blacksmith, a coachman and so on.
Alexandra’s childhood impressions of the family’s arrivals at Keila are a delicious meld of fact and family legend: sun shining on a fresh spring day; year-round residents crowding the little station, greeting the owners with smiles and exclamations at the growth of the children, the new babies in their nurses’ arms….
From this account it might seem that members of the Meyendorff and other aristocratic families lived an easy life, but that was not generally the case. Certainly they were free from the unrelenting drudgery that was the lot of the great majority of people before labor-saving machinery became commonplace, and just as certainly they felt they had a perfect right to wealth and privilege that was theirs by inheritance. But in Alexandra's firm belief and recollection, at least her own immediate family held themselves to high standards of education and decorum. They accepted responsibilities some of which may have been irksome, and on the whole they strove to do their duty, as they saw it, to promote the well-being of their country. There were some who abused their privileges, lived for pleasure and vied to outdo each other in lavish balls and spectacles, but the Meyendorffs distanced themselves from such excesses.
Like other Russian and Estonian families in their social milieu, the Myendorffs embraced French culture, and nearly all of them spoke French as fluently as they did their native languages. That Alexandra’s grandparents bore French given names was another expression of the same cultural bias. The grandfathers went also by native-language names or nick-names—Théodore by the German Fritz (the German language has been widely used in Estonia since that country was conquered by Teutonic knights in the fourteenth century) and Théophile by the Russian version, Feofil.
Because they were first cousins, in order to marry in the church Alexandra’s parents were obliged to seek dispensation from church rules against such alliances. They eventually succeeded, and their church wedding went ahead after a one-year delay.
The couple took as their principal home one floor of 10 Pervaya Linia. Alexandra was born there in 1907, and her sister Marie—usually called Maya—two years later.
Alexandra recalls from her early childhood a succession of storybook images of events in St Petersburg—pretty dresses, parties, dancing lessons, military parades.
There were family-based parties for Christmas and Easter and lesser church festivals, and the name days of family members. Because of her respected position as matriarch, Grandmother Hélène had an especially festive name day.
Those events were sometimes held at the home of Alexandra’s favorite aunt—"Aunt Lily" as Alexandra called her—her mother’s sister Countess Helen (Lily) Sheremetiev. The Sheremetievs resided in a splendid mansion in the center of the old city south of the Neva. A place of imposing columns, glittering chandeliers and elegant high-ceilinged salons, the mansion served occasionally as the venue for the most select social events in St Petersburg. But Aunt Lily, like her parents and other members of the Meyendorff family, did not much care for grand formal affairs—family gatherings were much more to her taste.
Alexandra’s took dancing lessons starting at age five. The lessons were conducted by a dance master for the children of four or five families, and they were held in Aunt Lily’s mansion—specifically at one end of the zàla, a long hall that served in the grand houses of St Petersburg as a gallery to display portraits of the owner’s august ancestors. The youngsters learned polkas and waltzes, and for a vigorous change of pace at the end of each session, the galop. Alexandra adored the galop, especially when she had as partner her cousin Peter, Aunt Lily’s eldest son. The pair turned the dance into a boisterous game whose object was to run and slide, over the master’s half-hearted remonstrance, the entire length of the zàla.
Most exciting of all for Alexandra was to ride in Tsar’s own carriage, a large, comfortable, rather utilitarian conveyance driven by a coachman in a crisp blue uniform or, on Sundays, a red one with gold buttons. The monarch frequently gave the vehicle to Grandfather Théophile to use on official business in St Petersburg, and from time to time Grandmother Hélène accompanied him on his rounds, along with one or other of her grandchildren. Hélène turned these excursions into mind-expanding experiences for the children, always ready to supplement the sights and sounds of the capital with books and stories and drawing lessons.
Alexandra saw relatively less of her paternal grandparents, Théodore and Marsha Meyendorff, but she recalls family visits to them at their homes in Kiev and in St Petersburg. Grandfather Théodore was a favorite of Alexandra and Maya because he let them sit on his knees and tug the twin branches of his forked beard.
From the start Alexandra had a happy childhood.
Théodore and Hélène Meyendorff, Alexandra's maternal grandparents
Théophile Meyendorff, Alexandra's paternal grandfather
Number 10 Perveya Linia, Vasilevskiya Island, St Petersburg Alexandra's birthplace.
While 10 Pervaya Linia was the permanent home of Alexandra ’s parents, Vassily’s work called him away from St Petersburg for long periods. Following the German onslaught on Russia after the outbreak of World War I, he spent several months in the war zone working on the repair of Russian railroads and equipment, while Sophia and the girls remained in St Petersburg. Then he was reassigned to the Caucasus, in Southern Russia east of the Black Sea, where he worked on the planning not only of the rail track itself but also the many railroad tunnels and bridges required in that mountainous area. Sophia and the two girls joined him in there, and they lived for a year near the town of Sochi, a resort town (population 100,000) on the Black Sea coast.
After that the family moved north to a work location near Rybinsk, a town about the same size as Sochi, located some 300 miles north-north-west of Moscow.
When Alexandra turned six her parents hired a French governess—not actually French but French-speaking Swiss—to supervise her schooling and at the same time lay the foundation for the mastery of the French language that was necessary for an aristocratic young lady to function in society. Alexandra admired this young woman—"Mademoiselle" as she called her—feeling she must have been very brave to venture from orderly Switzerland to the wilds of the Caucasus. With Mademoiselle’s help, Alexandra picked up French rapidly, and she loved the new "grown-up" language. She even begged that her arithmetic lessons be conducted in French.
With the unrest foreshadowing the Russian Revolution and military defeats inflicted on Russia by the Germans in 1914 and 1915, the nation’s fortunes went into a steep decline. Within a few years its currency collapsed and its social institutions crumbled catastrophically. Among those institutions was the privileged status of the old aristocracy.
At the beginning of this period, Vassily and his colleagues were overseeing construction of a rail line extending westward from Rybinsk, and intended to link up with an existing north-south line to St Petersburg. Part of the track had been laid, and the five stations planned for the completed section of the line were being built. Vassily’s particular responsibility was for the section of track between stations numbered 4 and 5, counting from Rybinsk. This section of track and both stations were located in rural farmland, the property of a landholder who had sold the right-of-way to the state. Station Number 5 was located about ten miles from the nearest village, but there were hamlets within easy walking distance.
For the Meyendorff family in Rybinsk the first signs of impending trouble were occasional shortages of funds for the railroad project. In time the shortfalls deepened, the work slowed accordingly, and Vassily often worked multiple pay periods without compensation. Eventually the government announced that it was unable to cover the engineers’ salaries, and in lieu of pay it offered a one-time deed of property along the right of way. Vassily accepted a grant of two buildings making up Station No 5, together with several acres of the surrounding farmland.
At this point Vassily and Sophia could have opted to move away altogether, perhaps to live on their estate Kumna in Estonia, or on the property to which Vassily was co-heir in the Ukraine. (Sophia was also heir to another estate in the Ukraine, another though less attractive option). However, these possibilities all had serious disadvantages for them. At this time Estonia wasn’t quite a safe haven; towards the end of World War I the Germans had already withdrawn, but fighting was still going on between Estonian troops and Bolshevik forces as the Baltic peoples struggled for national independence. In any case the Meyendorffs felt a strong attachment to their native land, and couldn’t bear the thought of fleeing to Estonia while there was still a chance that the political climate in Russia might clear up.
As for the properties in the Ukraine, they knew that if Vassily were to take charge of the estate in this time of turmoil, he would automatically become a prominent person in the area, hence inevitably a target of violence. Indeed, a few years later three of Vassily’s kinsmen in just that social position were ambushed and murdered by Bolshevic thugs.
For those reasons the Meyendorffs elected to continue living in the Rybinsk area. For a while they remained in their home in the town, but with the increasing danger of Bolshevik violence there—and not only in Rybinsk but in towns throughout Russia—they decided to move to their property at Station No 5 and live there inconspicuously as subsistence farmers.
Critical to the success of the plan to convert Station No 5 to a family farm, the line from Rybinsk had been completed ready for use before the work came to a complete halt. This meant that livestock, building materials and so forth could be transported to the site by rail. It also meant that if the worst came to the worst and the family had to flee Russia, they would be able to do so by rail via Rybinsk. Ultimately the "Railroad to Nowhere," as the truncated line came to be called, came to serve both purposes.
Though he’d had no experience of farming, Vassily was by nature well fitted for that occupation. He enjoyed outdoor work and caring for animals. In a passion he shared with Sophia, he loved raising German Pointers—beige and liver hunting dogs—and he was an excellent horseman. With his affable personality he easily made friends with farmers and benefited from their advice. His experience as an engineer came in handy, too; he was a meticulous planner, and well used to handling the practical problems that came up when things didn’t go according to plan.
One of the first difficulties that beset the family in their reduced circumstances was that of education for the girls, particularly for eight-year-old Alexandra. They could no longer afford the services of the governess, who wished in any case to return to Switzerland to escape the turmoil in Russia, and Sophia did not permit the girls to go to school in Rybinsk for fear of the infectious diseases rampant there. Alexandra sorely missed her daily lessons with her kindly "Mademoiselle." However, the difficulty was overcome through a serendipitous discovery—a disused school library containing a trove of French-language children’s books. In the solitude of that place, "La Bibliothèque Rose," Alexandra, already fluent in spoken French, acquired a good reading knowledge as well.
While the move to Station No 5 was still in the planning stage, civil institutions in Rybinsk broke down more and more quickly, and Vassily and Sophia sent the girls to live with their grandparents in the relative security of their home in St Petersburg. This was occasion for Grandmother Hélène’s most decisive influence on the two girls, and especially over eight-year-old Alexandra. With her tremendous verve and erudition, Hélène transmitted to the girls her passion for art and literature and for life itself.
One of Hélène’s lessons made a particularly strong and lasting impression on Alexandra. Fluent in English as well as in French, Hélène enjoyed the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott, and it was through her retelling of "Quentin Durwood" that Alexandra conceived a life-long admiration of the French King Louis XI. Short of funds and of unprepossessing appearance, this fifteenth-century monarch succeeded in uniting France with a minimum of bloodshed despite the resistance of the bellicose Charles, Duke of Burgundy. As portrayed by Scott with his characteristically careful attention to historical accuracy, the Louis XI is one of the most constructive figures in European history, emblematic of the superiority of shrewd, patient diplomacy over military might.
Once Vassily and Sophia had set up their home in the bucolic safety of Station No 5, the girls were sent from St Petersburg to join them, and the family set about adapting to a life very different from the one they had been brought up to.
3. Station Number 5
The Meyendorffs took over as their residence the greater part of the one substantial building at Station No 5, allowing another couple, strangers, to occupy the remaining couple of rooms. They converted a railroad storage building to house the farm animals—cows, pigs, horses, chickens.
While Vassily was the driving force behind the transition to the countryside, Sophia gamely took on the multitude of chores about the place—feeding and caring for animals, milking a cow, slaughtering poultry—that she had previously known only as the duties of servants.
Following their parents’ lead, Alexandra and Maya adapted to the peasant life. In the house they did a share of cooking at the big Russian stove, they did the washing, they sieved grain. Outside in the fields they helped their father cultivate the ground and bring in crops. One of Alexandra’s most vivid memories is of standing on the horse-drawn harrows to drive the tines into hard ground.
Along the way the girls learned to care for and handle horses, and Alexandra became a good rider.
Vassily took on the heavy work of the farm, but he did not quite become a farmer. He held over too many echoes of his earlier life for that. He was still an engineer dedicated to his profession, and out of his work-a-day routine he was still given to such non-rustic pursuits as collecting costume hats and wearing them on special or contrived occasions (in a photograph reproduced in Section 4 he sports headgear seemingly befitting an admiral). And though the work on the railroad had slowed greatly if not halted altogether, he continued to go every week day to his railroad office located in the village about ten miles from home. This way, he kept in touch with his engineer colleagues and his superiors in the Russian railroad hierarchy.
Civil strife continued to grow throughout Russia. With the complete collapse of the nation’s currency and the ascendancy of the Bolsheviks in the major cities, Sophia’s parents were no longer able to maintain the family home in St Petersburg. Hélène Meyendorff and several members of her family moved to Estonia, where they divided their time between the main city, Tallinn, and the country estate Kumna. Hélène, then about sixty years old, also came to live for a time at Station No 5.
Hélène’s robust good humor went far to boost to the family’s spirits in their relatively gritty life by the Railroad to Nowhere. And perhaps without planning to do so, Hélène left a vivid account of their struggle.
This story of an aristocratic family’s travails came to be recorded this way: for a long time Hélène had habitually communicated with distant friends and loved ones by postcard, not so much by words as by spontaneous a hand-drawn images. In the chaos of the times she continued to put her thoughts on postcards, but as the postal service was no longer operating reliably many of those postcards were never sent. Eventually a cache of them fell to Alexandra, and they are reproduced on the following pages. (Captions in capitals are Alexandra’s translations of Hélène’s Russian-language titles, while captions in lower-case type are Hélène’s French-language titles with translations).
|ON MY WAY TO EXCHANGE||DISAPPOINTED|
|A ROOSTER FOR A HEN|
Maya is walking along the Railroad to Nowhere towards a barter center where she hopes to make the swap…then returning, crestfallen, with that same rooster.
Cabinet de lecture (Reading room)
Maya (left) and Alexandra are reading at the kitchen table
|GUESTS FOR TEA A. K. KANSHIN F. F. ROMANOVSKY||GRANDFATHER"S GREATCOAT RECYCLED|
|At left, the girls set up a tea party for the guests named, their
father’s immediate superiors in the National Railroad hierarchy. In
comparatively modest circumstances the family still entertained in some
style—note the large samovar to Maya’s right.
At right, Maya is on the Railroad to Nowhere, clad in one of Grandfather Théophile’s military greatcoats cut down to her size.
|OKAY, COME WITH ME!|
The girls tend Station Number Five's animals, and not just the girls (see below).
Le père nourrissier Father, bringer of food
Oh! Ces bêtes! Il faut les nourrir, et qu'en avons nous Oh! These animals! We have to feed them, but what with
LET THE FAMILY HAVE EXERCISE
|GOING TO CHURCH DURING THE FIRST SNOW||Gentleman fermier Gentleman farmer SUNDAY REST|
In the postcard above right, Vassily is depicted taking a day off from his work at the office--his Sunday rest day--to be a "gentleman farmer." In using this term Hélène did not mean that Vassily's efforts on the farm were in any way those of a dilettante. Rather she alluded to his gentle manner with animals. It was a family joke that he used the Russian language polite form of address when he spoke to cows and pigs.
A MORNING VISIT TO MR GOLINISHCHEV
The surname commemorates the inventor of the Russian version of the privy. It was located upstairs, accessible from outside by a ladder.
|TODAY, LEPESHKI||PREPARING THE "RUSSIAN STOVE" FOR BAKING|
Wood-burning stoves of essentially the same design--fuel door at one side, oven door at front--were used throughout Russia in households both grand and humble. Lepeshki is a traditional unleavened white bread.
IN FREEZING WEATHER WARM INSIDE
|TODAY IS WASH DAY|
Vénus sortant des eaux Venus emerging from the waters
THE LATEST FASHION
Venus emerging... and THE LATEST FASHION are wry allusions to the disparity between the gritty reality of family's situation in rural exile, compared with life in St Petersburg with its abundance of classical statuary and elegant gowns.
Even Alexandra could be a little touchy at times
In 1919, the fourth year of the Meyendorff’s sojourn on the Railroad to Nowhere, the Russian Civil War attained its full fury. The institutions of civil society broke down completely. The Bolsheviks opened the jails and indiscriminately released all the prisoners. Desperate starving people wandered the countryside, and reports of pillage and murder by roving bands of brigands became commonplace. Few people—and no one with an aristocratic background—could feel safe anywhere in Russia. Most aristocratic families with the necessary means and connections had already fled Russia, most of them to Estonia, whence a substantial minority, including Alexandra’s "Aunt Lily" Sheremetiev, went on to settle in Paris. Vassily and Sophia reluctantly decided it was time to put into effect their own, long-nurtured plan to find refuge on Kumna.
In Estonia fighting was still going on between Bolshevik and Estonian troops, but the country remained relatively calm compared with the turmoil in Russia.
Two years earlier, and just before its ouster by the Bolsheviks in 1917, the Russian Provisional Government had granted autonomy to Estonia, and the newly empowered Estonian government soon after enacted reforms that led eventually, after initial setbacks, to a long period of prosperity and social progress.
On Kumna, the result of these reforms was that the peasants and other workers on the estate became owners of the land they were working and their cottages. However, Hélène retained title to the main house, as did "Uncle Golitsin" to his chalet. Vassily subsequently bought the chalet, and "Golitsinka?" (Golitsin’s House) eventually became the family’s new home.
Vassily’s escape plan tapped his connections in the Russian railroad system, disorganized now but still extant. He arranged to have two freight cars hauled by steam locomotive from Rybinsk to Station No 5—by this time a modestly thriving farm—on the Railroad to Nowhere. Then with the family on board with all their possessions including horses, cows, pigs, chickens and dogs, the train puffed back to Rybinsk, thence to Tallinn and finally Keila.
[Scribe's comment: Station No 5 to Keila via Rybinsk and Tallinn with a load of farm equipment and livestock—quite a feat, given the rickety state of the railroad system. How did Vassily pull it off? Alexandra didn't have a clue, so readers will just have to use their imaginations. Most likely Vassily acted in collusion with others like tea guests A K Kanshin and F F Romanovsky.]
The family’s lived a new life on Kumna very different from their summer vacations of the past. As year-round residents working a small plot of land on the estate formerly owned by them, their social status was now more nearly on a on a par with that of the local people. It was natural for them to have closer contact with the traditional way of life and communal activities.
To Alexandra much of this was new and interesting. Most fascinating was the preparation of sauerkraut, fermented cabbage, and its preservation for sustenance through the winter. Sauerkraut contains a number of essential nutrients—notably vitamin C—not otherwise abundant in traditional winter diets, so it was important to keep good supply on hand until fresh vegetables came on in spring.
The methods used to preserve sauerkraut differed in detail, but they all used a pit—a big hole in the earth—as a refrigerator. One method started with a pit like a wide, shallow well, lined with timber retaining walls. The pit was located in permeable soil so that little water collected in it, and it was used year after year by the same group of families. At the end of the garden growing season and the approach of cold weather, the people came with vats of fermenting cabbage and lowered them into the pit. When the pit was full up to the frost line, they covered everything with hay up to ground level. After that, every week or so during the winter they lifted the hay and removed a portion of their most important winter vegetable, perfectly preserved.
At the time they arrived in Estonia neither Alexandra nor Maya had ever attended school. They were not backward in their studies, for they’d both had lessons at home and both were avid readers. But early on the girls were held back in their education by a language problem. Their native Russian was spoken in parts of Estonia, but German, Estonian and Hungarian were the main languages, and only German was used in the schools. To deal with this their parents hired a tutor to give the girls a crash course in beginning German, then had them placed in school the lowest grade and allowed to catch up with their age groups as they became fluent.
Alexandra was initially embarrassed at this situation, particularly since at age twelve she was growing fast and already twice the size of her classmates. In a short time, however, along with fluency in German she gained a feeling of empathy for small children, a feeling she retained long after being promoted to the grade of her own age group.
After spending a year or so at Kumna and having established the farm on the estate, the family divided their time between the estate and the capital, Tallinn, and Alexandra entered the equivalent of a high school there.
Summers were different, though. Those dreamy lazy days they always spent at Kumna—Hélène with some of her children and grandchildren in the main house and Vassily and Sophia and the girls in the chalet Golitinka. These were halcyon times when the upheaval in Russia, now reaching its climax, could be set out of mind for a time.
A good student, Alexandra graduated from high school with her age group. That was in 1924, and Alexandra was seventeen. The academic standards in Estonian schools were relatively advanced, so that completing high school there was equivalent to between one and two years in a good college in America.
Those early years in Estonia were happy ones for Alexandra and her family and the several members of their extended family who had fled to Estonia. They loved the quiet surroundings of Kumna, and even when they lived in the capital, a town less than twice the size of Rybinsk, they were never far from open country. Horse sports were their main diversion. Alexandra polished her riding skills, and she learned the art of driving a troika—reins in two hands, outer fingers controlling the outer two horses, index fingers and thumbs controlling the central lead horse. In winter she and her cousins loved to ski the flat snow-covered fields, hauled by a horse with Vassily in the saddle.
These were happy years, but it was a happiness with an ominously hollow ring as the Bolsheviks tightened their grip on Russia and began to look covetously outwards to their small-nation neighbors.
Vassily and Sophia Meyendorff, Alexandra's parents, with German Pointers. Estonia, 1925
In 1928 Alexandra’s parents thought the time was right for her to experience another culture—that of England. She didn’t want to leave home, but Vassily and Sophia were adamant. So she found herself packed off to stay for two years in the home of an aunt in Wellyn Garden City near London.
This "English aunt" was of actually a more distant relation than "aunt" might suggest, and she was Russian rather than English, the daughter of a prince from Georgia in Southern Russia who had made contact with her St Petersburg relatives while attending college in the capital. She was an eccentric lady, a hypochondriac given to making all sorts of unreasonable demands and projecting from her sickbed the power to see her wishes were carried out.
Her husband was no more engaging. A professor at the London School of Economics and a man of scholarly distinction deeply involved in his work, he rarely spoke or laughed, and he paid no attention to Alexandra beyond the minimal requirements of etiquette.
Feeling an intruder in this glacial household, Alexandra suffered the pangs of homesickness. Especially at first, she longed for the warmth of her family and the freedom and good cheer of life in Estonia. Later in her stay in England her aunt introduced her to other distant relatives, another girl and two young men near her own age, and with them she savored the pleasures of the city—riding the tube, the tops of the red buses, Hyde Park, theaters, art galleries. But those early months under her aunt’s supervision was an experience of England at its most dreary.
Of all her aunt’s demands, the most painful to Alexandra was that she sing in a choir—an essential part of English culture, proclaimed that imperious lady. Alexandra had never sung, had no idea how to sing and did not dare try. Fakery—hiding behind the music or lip-synching—went against her nature. Neither was it easy to bring off, since the choir mistress, a paragon of petty virtues, always made her stand in the front row.
To Alexandra with her open-hearted Russian temperament the choir members seemed a glum and dowdy group, unwilling to accept outsiders. But there was an exception, a pleasant and lively young woman with a good voice, a mainstay of the choir’s sopranos. And this person was also shunned by the others.
She and Alexandra became friends. They shared confidences after choir practice in a neighborhood tea parlor and eventually in the other’s cozy, well-appointed flat. Little by little Alexandra learned about her new friend’s life. It involved a number of charming, wealthy gentlemen acquaintances, every one of them notable for their amusing—and, it seemed to Alexandra—bizarre desires and interests. When she eventually tumbled to the realization that her friend’s interest in those gentlemen was of a commercial nature, Alexandra was flabbergasted—she had never dreamed of such a thing! She maintained the friendship, but with redoubled care that her aunt did not find out about it.
This bleak period in Alexandra’s life at Wellyn Garden City came to an end with the arrival from America of the Bradley family—a young Amherst College faculty member on a sabbatical at the London School of Economics and his wife and their four young children. The Americans with their cheerful polite manners lit up the scene like a warm ray of sunshine. They needed part-time help to look after the children, and Alexandra took the job eagerly.
Six months later Professor Bradley took up a temporary diplomatic position in Geneva, and Alexandra went with the family and lived with them there in the capacity of nanny or governess or, as she thought of her position, as a "glorified baby-sitter." This worked out well, and soon it was settled that Alexandra should accompany the Bradley family upon their return to America and continue to live with them in their home in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Her family in Estonia had never been far from Alexandra’s thoughts, and now she would be so far away from them—of course she had to see them one more time before leaving for America. She made the trip from Geneva, and the reunion was a happy one. But now that she had a wider experience of life and dazzling expectations of her future in America, her family’s affairs seemed modest in comparison. Indeed, only one detail of that last visit stayed in her mind—the Estonian ship on which she crossed the Baltic put on a splendid smorgasbord.
6. Arrival in America: Smith College
Alexandra at age 23 had no clear idea what she wanted to do with her life. It would be natural to suppose that from her experiences living with the Bradley family, and going back even as far as her early schooling in Estonia, she might have wanted to make a career of work with children. But if that had been her plan, it was an unconscious one. Consciously, she simply drifted from one thing to another as the fancy took her, without any plan at all.
It was Professor Bradley who set her on course for her life’s work. In the first place he and Mrs Bradley introduced her to other Amherst faculty families and students, and through these contacts Alexandra quickly perfected her English and adapted herself to American customs. Subsequently Professor Bradley helped her get an Exchange Student Visa for study in America, and a scholarship to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
So in 1931 Alexandra entered Smith College in an education program. In recognition of the superior standard of her high-school education in Estonia she was permitted to begin her tertiary education as a junior. Her four years at Smith College were happy. She enjoyed her studies there, and though a few years older than her class mates she enjoyed the camaraderie of living in a dormitory. In the mid-1930s she completed a Bachelor’s degree in Education, and shortly after that a Master’s as well, which the College awarded on the basis of a thesis alone. She left Smith College with a clear purpose—a career in teaching in the United States public school system.
Though well prepared academically for public-school teaching, Alexandra still needed one other qualification: a permanent-residence visa, or "green card." To comply with the immigration authorities’ rule that green cards could be given only to people entering the country from abroad, Alexandra took a trip to Nova Scotia, and reentered in Maine. This seemingly pointless travel was not a burden—far from it. Eager for new experiences, Alexandra reveled in its kaleidoscope of novel vistas. And she was aware that, for thousands of people in Europe and Russia, the United States was a haven from Nazi and Soviet oppression, and for them a green card and ultimately US citizenship could mean the difference between life and death. From the day of her naturalization as a United States citizen, her gratitude and affection for America never wavered.
Alexandra Meyendorff at 26. Smith College yearbook, 1933
7. The Ecole Française
In the mid-1930s the United States as well as much of the rest of the world languished in the depths of the depression. Jobs were hard to find, and despite her excellent credentials Alexandra was unable to find a teaching position in the public-school system. She was obliged to go to work in a private school.
Her first place was in Virginia—chosen above other more convenient locales in New England for no reason but that it promised travel and new experience in another part of the country. The school was a private girls’ school with a French theme, the "Ecole Française" in rural Virginia near Washington DC. Catering to some forty girls, all from very wealthy families, it consisted of several handsome buildings set in surpassingly beautiful grounds. Alexandra’s job was to teach French.
On her first visit to the school Alexandra noticed that the head mistress seemed more interested in the grounds and gardens than in her students, and she soon realized that this superficial attitude extended to education as well. Never mind teaching the girls to read Balzac or carry on a conversation in French—the aim of the Ecole Française was to give them a veneer of French culture just thick enough to impress their parents.
Instead of learning the girls had to submit to discipline like that of a penitentiary. They had to wear a uniform of a sickening mauve color, and for even the briefest excursion outdoors they had to put on a mauve pèlerine, a cape of a long-outdated style. Most disturbing to Alexandra was a Friday assembly period in which the head mistress went over one by one the girls’ shortcomings, infractions of rules and so on, during the week.
The whole system went against Alexandra’s idea of what teaching and learning should be—hard work, yes, but also joyful celebration of expansion of the mind. There was no joy at the Ecole Française, and for the girls any expansion of the mind had to wait until graduation.
Alexandra’s happiest recollections of this period were of her Mondays off work. Free for a short time from the poisonous atmosphere of the school, she sauntered about museums and libraries in Washington, and sometimes attended music performances. In art and music, she found freedom from banality.
8.With Madame Dubonnet at the Savoy Plaza
After four years Alexandra needed a break from the Ecole Française, and she found it in employment as a governess—a real governess now—for the ten-year-old daughter of the Dubonnet family. As she soon found out, however, she had entered another mean-spirited situation—but mean-spirited in a relatively entertaining way.
Monsieur Dubonnet was the heir to the fortune resulting from the success of the apéritif bearing the family name, and in 1939 he had fled France with his wife and daughter just in advance of the Nazi invasion. His plan—or rather his wife’s plan, for Mme Dubonnet was the force behind all family decisions—was to wait out the war, in safety and comfort, in New York.
There was one catch—the Dubonnet fortune was frozen in a Paris bank, and the heir to it had arrived in America comparatively penniless. He was a plump, retiring little man accustomed to an easy life, and his reaction to finding himself broke in New York was one of vague bewilderment.
His wife, however, was more than equal to this parlous situation. For a start she was not French at all, but an American from Kansas, well used to living by her wits and particularly to playing on her compatriots’ susceptibility to the supposed mystique of French manners. A brazen spendthrift with a record of financially advantageous marriages and other liaisons with a succession of affluent gentlemen in America and Europe, she was possessed of good looks, a quick mind and a superficially pleasant personality—attributes perfectly fitted to cashing in on the credit of the Dubonnet millions. And cash in she did, most audaciously by persuading the management of the Savoy Plaza that it would be to their ultimate advantage to allow the family the use of an entire floor of the hotel for the duration of the war.
So Alexandra became a member of the Dubonnet household at the Savoy Plaza. She quickly established a rapport with the child, but otherwise her situation proved difficult. The ten-year-old was devoted to her father, and in his vague way he may have returned the child’s affection. But he made little effort to seek her out, and she often seemed too sad and anxious to attend to her lessons.
But Mme Dubonnet was Alexandra’s main burden. The lady from Kansas was perennially short of money, forever hatching shady schemes to get by in the style to which she was accustomed, and Alexandra served unwilling but inevitably as her accomplice.
Madame Dubonnet’s longest-running expedient was the card party. She lured ladies with names familiar in the society columns to high-stakes bridge games, where she contrived to win regularly. Perhaps she won with her guests’ complicity—or perhaps not; an excellent cards player, fast and accurate, with scant respect for the rules, she was perfectly capable of winning unassisted.
For these affairs it fell to Alexandra to purchase the refreshments, and this had to be done on a skimpy budget because the Dubonnet household was often down to its last pennies. Madame Dubonnet regularly reprimanded Alexandra for not driving a hard enough bargain at the pastry shop.
With her social credentials and her flair for fashion, not to mention her imposing address, Mme Dubonnet quickly became a New York celebrity. Hardly a week passed without a photograph of her in the newspaper society columns, smiling brilliantly as she flaunted a dazzling new costume. The columns named the suppliers of her outfits, but never inquired how she paid for them—which is a pity because in fact she didn’t pay for them at all. After wearing a dress, she simply tossed it to Alexandra and told her to take it back with some excuse—"too short," or "didn’t like that horrid shade of puce." Ritzy stores made it their policy to outfit Mme Dubonnet on credit—she compensated them in the coin of publicity, after all—but for Alexandra returning the goods they had nothing but contemptuous frowns.
In addition to these difficulties Alexandra often had to beg to be paid her agreed-upon salary. When begging didn’t work she packed her bags and threatened to leave—which she hated to do out of concern for the lonely Dubonnet child. On several occasions Mme Dubonnet somehow scraped together the necessary cash, but in the end she resorted to another tactic. Alexandra, going through her packing routine, had just stepped inside one of the hotel’s walk-in closets when Mme Dubonnet suddenly slammed the door shut and turned the key. Well, Alexandra happened to know that a duplicate key was to be found inside the closet in case of just such a situation, so she had no trouble escaping. And this time she really did leave for good.
9. Frankfurt (1946)
After leaving the employ of Mme Dubonnet, Alexandra returned to teaching, and she continued in that capacity through the war years. She served first at another private academy with 12 boarders and 20 day students(1941-44) and then at last at a public school, this one in Bronxville New York (1944-46).
Throughout this period Alexandra was consumed with worry at the fate of her family. She lost touch with them soon after the war broke out. Later she heard that her parents and her sister had been dragged off to Poland. When the war in Europe ended in 1945, she resolved to go there in the hope of finding them.
This was a daunting prospect. To go to Poland she first had to find a way to go to war-devastated Europe, still completely off-limits to all Americans except military personnel. Her only recourse was to join the US Army. This she did, and on the basis of her language skills she secured a posting to an Intelligence Unit in Frankfurt in Southern Germany, a city that had been largely reduced to rubble by Allied bombing.
Along with dozens of other multilingual workers her job was to read letters that had been intercepted in post offices throughout Germany, seeking information likely to prove helpful to US occupying forces such as the locations of arms caches, for instance. Whenever she came on a letter or other document of possible interest she had to pass it on for evaluation.
This was as far as she went, however; she was refused permission to travel anywhere in Europe, let alone to a Soviet-occupied region. She never saw her family again nor learned what happened to them.