La Poupée russe - Russian doll

La Poupée Russe de Wladimir Kokovtsov

4th of cover translated by Leila Dawood-Munier (Canada)

 

When a family's personal history meets up with History with a capital H, anecdotes abound ! Full of humour and artfulness they tell us the picturesque story of a Russian immigrant son an eccentric, impoverished aristocrat. International vents are subjectively narrated on a completely human scale. 

The book work paints a pertinent portrait of a epoch lived from within. Myriad memories honour in grandiose style the white nobility this archaic aristocracy whose peerless charm disappeared with its last representatives. 

A condensed depiction of the Russian soul in a turbulent and nostalgic account which espouses the feverish jolts of memory and makes us share the passion of a atypical   community born in a fold of History. 

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International reporter grandson of the Minister of Finance and president of the Council of the Empire under Nicholas II, the author Wladimir Kokovtsov spent his childhood amidst the emblematic personalities of the Russian community in Paris. Lulled by the sounds of the parties thrown by his parents where the likes of Charles de Gaulle, André Malraux, Lino Ventura and Henri de Monfreid rubbed shoulders he went through life in a delirious initiation smashing often against the reefs of existence. Particularly well placed to pursue the imaginary world thanks to his anachronistic education he derisively superposes his thoughs on the emotions inherired from the white Russians. 

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Page 23-25 translated by Taffy MARTIN

 

Having been suckled on anecdotes as picaresque as their hero's personalities I kept company with Monfreid, Kessel, Heminguay, Cyrano and Prince Kougoucheff, that absolute madman but a smashingspouse for my aunt Katia. He had a wealth of heroic feats to his credit and dutifully compasated for the rigors of their lives as Russian expatriates in Paris by creating a series of production societies, managing them with remarkable nonchalance and assuring his ruin with inimitable fin-de-siècle verve. 

Faced with the meager results of his efforts at assimilation he had determined to aim for the impossible so that aunt Katia might enjoy the luxuries essential to accomodating to destitution. 

That aunt Katia should rise at three at the morning have been wakened by the sound of keys fumbling at the lock and having maded her way to the door, should find her husband dead drunk on the landing was perfectly normal. That that same party might be accompanied by a rain-soaked bearded coachman was hardly exceptional in the Fall of 1958 since, at the time, the Countess d'Ornano was still renting four horse-drawn carriages at the Corner of Champs-Elysées and Clémenceau. Often enough, the last vestiges of Russian aristocracy, following aspree in the streets of Paris would succumb to nostalgia and have themselves brought home in grand style at dawn. 

Nonetheless, Aunt Katia was was all admiration when she realized that her husband had managed to persuade the coachman to take cover, horse and all since one could hardly leave the animal out there alone, at night, in the rain. His powers of persuasion were legend but Aunt Katia was impressed yet anew. She hurried to invite them all in and to waken their friends and acquaintances in order to celebrate the night impromptu, in the company of a horse on the fourth floor of a tiny street that led onto the avenue de l'Opéra. 

After several hours of revelry, complete with candlelight libations and rowdy songs to the tune of sorrowful guitars, the merrymakers reluctantly scattered. But while it is possible given the worst of intentions, to lead a horse up four flights of stairs, it is sonsiderably more difficult to lead him down. 

The affair came to an end two fire companies later, when the emergency services brought the horse out through the window, once having secured him in a sturdy sling. In order get to that point, they first demolished the balcony and the French window with a sledgehammer so as to accomodate the shaft of the crane which had been brought in for good measure in the interest of tethering the dumbfounded quadruped. The  entire scene was roundly applauded by the gleeful mob down below. The dramatic downfall, if such were possible, was that Katia and her fearsome spouse had to move and in the process lost all claim to deference from neighbors and tradesmen. 

To my mind, Kougoucheff attained mythic status the day Lino Ventura appeared in a film, playing a character drawn straight out of his life. 

When he returned to France, he gave my mother his own version of how he'd survived : 

"Sept away by the spell of the moment and hungry for adventure, the men lost their senses, turned savage and wanted to kill me, plain and simple. Every one of them had five thousand dollars, which bought them the right to slaughter me, once the referee who held the bets had turned off the lights. By sheer luck only a few ricochets actually hit me. My assasins had expected me to step asided quietly undercover of dark ness. If never occurred to them to aim straight ahead, where I'd resolved to remain, being certain of how they'd react. "

The tidy sum reddemed from the adventure served to transport Katia and her furniture from the small apartment where they'd been living near Etoile to a private dwelling, more suitable to her standing. The rest disappeared in a reckless spendind spree.  

 

 

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