Reviewed by Karen Langley
Speak, memory, that I may not forget the taste of roses, nor the sound of ashes in the wind; That I may once more taste the green cup of the sea. (Daubmir Nadir)
Born in Siberia by Tamara Astafieva has had an unusual genesis, to say the least: film-maker and writer Michael Darlow was visiting Russia in the 1960s whilst involved in the production of some documentaries for Granada TV. Tamara was assigned by the Novosti press agency to look after him and his colleague, Norman Swallow, during their visit and they all became friends. However, Tamara fell out of favour with her bosses and so after a final meeting in 1969, Darlow lost touch with her – until the fall of the Soviet regime, nearly 40 years later, when he received a letter from Tamara. As well as this letter, she sent a book of her poems and essays about her life and her family. The correspondence continued, and eventually Darlow decided that Tamara’s writings were building up a picture of here and her family’s life – covering several dramatic eras in Russia’s history – and so he, together with Debbie Slater, has edited together this remarkable book, which is translated by Tamara’s friend Luba loffe.
Tamara Astafieva was indeed born in Siberia, on 22nd February 1937, to loving parents who had survived the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and Civil War – in fact, they were pretty much the only survivors, as Tamara’s mother’s family had been hauled off to north, a place called Nadym, while her father’s had perished in Georgia during a period of famine and disease. Tamara grew up a much loved only child (after the death of her elder brother when he was a baby), and the family moved around a remarkable amount owing to her father’s work, but despite this constant motion she recalls a mainly happy childhood – marred by the loss of her favourite uncle, Tima, in the war. 1930s Russia was not really a very secure place to be, and in many ways the family were better off with this constant shifting around away from the main cities and the purges. We follow Tamara’s life through her meeting with Darlow in the 1960s, her marriages and love affairs, her relationship with her beloved son Sergei and all the vicissitudes of her life, right up to the current day, when Luba Ioffe brings us up to date with Tamara’s current situation.
The book features not only Tamara’s autobiographical writings, but also a selection of her poems; some lovely family photographs stretching right back to early snaps of her parents and Uncle Tima; and sensitive notes and commentary from Darlow. This gives a lovely scrapbook-like effect, as if this is a precious volume of family history we’re being invited to share. It’s a beguiling mixture, which builds up a picture of Tamara’s life, from its primitive beginnings in the 1930s Siberian wilds, through the war, the coming of modern trappings to her world, the full impact of living under Soviet rule, the difficulties of life and love and being a woman. I can’t recall another book that has this scope, covering such a long, changing period of time, and this makes it a compelling read. Darlow states that he felt that Tamara’s story was of a typical woman living through Russia’s troubled 20th century and it certainly is quite an eye-opener, reading of the bureaucracy, petty-mindedness and downright nastiness that she had to face!
The core of the book is perhaps the point where Darlow and Tamara’s destinies converge, in the meetings in the 1960s, and Darlow here provides extended commentary, including quotes from the letters he sent home at the time. These are lively and entertaining, and he paints a very vivid picture of the USSR of that era and the complexity of his dealings with it. It’s clear that he was very taken by Tamara’s strength and resilience, and also recognised the difficulty of her situation in Soviet Russia. At the last meeting they had, she revealed to him that her fall from favour was owing to an affair with a foreigner – Henri Brandt, a Swiss film-maker, photographer and writer, who seems to have been the great love of her life. Tamara is refreshingly candid about personal aspects, covering subjects like sex and abortion, her mental health issues and her relationships with her husbands in a frank way.
Despite all the horrors, and the ups and downs of her life, Tamara manages to stay optimistic. Her life is not all doom and gloom, as she has a huge zest for experience, taking every opportunity that comes her way to dance and enjoy herself. Despite the restrictions of the Soviet system, Tamara really did have an amazing life, moving from grinding poverty in the country to high-ranking and varied posts in several official agencies.
Her writing is simple but affecting, and her poems obviously heartfelt; she relates how she suddenly felt the need to write which resulted in the memoirs and poetry. The last pages of the book, dealing with Tamara’s ageing and her health issues, are very poignant and it is obvious from Ioffe’s comments that the process of remembering and recording her life is very important to her.
One of the many joys of this book is that its appeal is going to be wider than just to Russophiles like me (and I personally love books about the Soviet years!). But Darlow’s commentary and notes ensure that Tamara’s life will be accessible to a much more general audience and hopefully this will enable more understanding of other cultures. As she says at one point:
I am grateful to human memory which preserves things both terrible and great. Memory keeps its treasures in spite of all the losses, blood and horror. It works for the sake of friendship, love and peace in the world, joining generations and continents.
It’s clear that Darlow was deeply affected by his contact with Tamara, never forgetting her; and by putting together this book, he’s ensured that other people can share in her life and experiences so that she, and the many other ordinary Russian people who lived through such extraordinary times, will not be forgotten. It was a delight and a privilege to spend time hearing Tamara’s inspiring and touching story, together with the tales she had to tell of a life that began when she was born in Siberia!
Karen Langley blogs at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and is determined one day to actually visit Russia!
Tamara Astafieva, Born in Siberia (Quartet: London, 2014). 9780704373341, 221pp, paperback.