Umm-El-Banine Assadoulaeff was born in 1905 into one of Baku’s wealthiest families: her peasant-born great-grandfather had discovered oil on his land. She left in 1923, after the Revolution, for Istanbul and then Paris, whence she never returned. Days in the Caucasus, originally published in Paris in 1945, is her memoir of those years.
We all know families that are poor but ‘respectable’. Mine, in contrast, was extremely rich but not ‘respectable’ at all.
Banine, the non-de-plume she adopted in France, was very young for much of this time: her life revolved around a Baltic German governess (Banine’s mother had died in childbirth), an imperious (and corpulent) grandmother, a largely absent Germanophile father with a “martial moustache, which became more vigorous every trip [to Berlin], growing longer and standing up straighter”, her sisters and extended family.
The book is replete with notable character sketches. Of her grandmother, whom Banine seems to have wrapped around her little finger, she writes
Almost immobilized by her monstrous weight, like Louis XIV she found it practical to spend much of her time on a commode, a jug for ablutions within reach. Sitting regally on this throne, she received her supplicants, including men, before whom she modestly covered her face, as became a good Muslim woman. It should also be noted that she looked not only very grand but also perfectly respectable, since her traditional, richly pleated skirt fell all around her chair. Thus installed, Grandmother would reduce to dust some trembling, grovelling gardener.
This regular life is upended when her father returns from Moscow with a new, and glamorous, wife, who packs the family off to a luxuriously-furnished house and, more scandalously, entertains. Banine thinks she’s wonderful.
The drama comes about half-way in. Banine has just entered her teens when the family needs to ride out the chaos of the October Revolution and crosses the Caspian to Persia. They returned to an ephemeral Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, in which her father was named Minister of Industry and Trade. “The very young capital was cheerful and lively,” although still filled with contradictions:
This exclusion [of women from public life] sometimes took surprising forms: for example, at the National Theatre of Baku, which often staged operas in Azeri, a muscular Desdemona would tread the boards, her face blue from a stubborn beard and her eyebrows bushy; she would reply in a vigorous male voice to Othello’s passionate declarations, while only the curls cascading over her shoulders and the artificially generous breasts made an exaggerated attempt to compensate for the lack of femininity.
This relatively halcyon period ended in 1920. Her grandfather died, leaving fortune to the four granddaughters:
This ironic legacy made me a multimillionaire at the age of thirteen, but only for a few days, for I was soon woken at dawn by ‘The Internationale’ sung in the street. I got up and saw soldiers who neither resembled nor wore the uniform of Azerbaijani askaris. It was the Russians.
“With my own eyes.” she writes “I had seen the end of a world.”
It was however a world she did not entirely shrink from. Despite Bosheviks commandeering their house and imprisoning her father, she allows herself to be convinced of the immorality of the old order, takes a job as a music teacher, and sports a Lenin pin. She, with the flexibility of youth, adapts to the reduced circumstances without missing a beat; a more serious complaint is that her step-mother, sister and half-brother had been able to make it to Paris before the upheaval without her.
Banine falls in love with a Bolshevik named Andrey Massarin, whom she—having read perhaps too many novels—christens Prince Andrey Bolkonsky.
‘Do you think you’re Natasha?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I cried passionately. ‘I would never have betrayed you.’
But it is not to be: her father is in prison and the man working the system to get him out has asked for her hand. Still in her teens, she marries him; her father gets a passport and goes to Paris.
The denouement is quick: in 1923, she and her unwanted husband also leave. She dumps him in Istanbul; the book ends as the Oriental Express pulls into Paris.
This story of a family between tradition and modernity, filled with exotic and eccentric characters, of a multi-cultural place on the verge of a momentous transition in which both the traditional past and an increasingly cosmopolitan present are swept away, will be familiar to readers of such other memoirs as those of Andre Aciman or of pre-War Shanghai.
The book treads some tricky ground, notably Turkish-Armenian enmity:
It should be emphasized that while one-sided massacres of Armenians by Turks had occurred in Turkey, in Azerbaijan the Armenians had also massacred the Azerbaijanis (Christians against Muslims) before the indifferent gaze of the Russian authorities, who may have been thinking that the famous colonial formula ‘divide and rule’ made effective politics.
A half-Armenian girl, Tamara, was tortured piteously: they
played at massacring Armenians, a game we loved above all others. Heady with racist passion, we would sacrifice Tamara on the altar of our ancestral hatred.
Yet the Armenian family across the street sheltered them when the Dashnaks, partisans of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation terrorized Baku; their house was ransacked.
The book is nonetheless a product of its time. There are references to stereotypes, admittedly self-employed, that a writer a half-century later might have avoided: when describing the four sisters, she writes that
the four of us had brown skin, black hair and a markedly oriental, hirsute appearance. We made a fine group when … in photographs, all hook noses and close-set eyebrows…
Days in the Caucasus has charm by the bucketful. Yet it seems that Banine had not yet entirely come to terms with the contradictions of her pre-Parisian life; Days in the Caucasus reads as if there were much left beneath the surface.