After my grandfather retired in the 1980s, he and my grandmother devoted themselves to working on the family tree. In the days before the internet with its quick online database searches, this meant filing cabinets full of meticulous notes, phone bills for long distance calls to records offices all over the world, and, most excitingly, trips around the globe to ferret out existing relatives. They loved it. When one family tree was done, they’d move on to another branch of the family and so they continued for years, happily gathering and recording stories before they were forgotten. For them, this was important work. It was important to them that they know who came before and that they pass that knowledge down to their children and grandchildren so that we too would know. I took that to heart as a child. I already loved history but it became more important to me when I considered events that I knew had impacted my family. It made it more personal and, because of that, far more exciting.
The Russian Album by Michael Ignatieff feeds directly into my fascination with family history; it is the story of four generations of the aristocratic Ignatieff family, focusing primarily on his grandparents, Princess Natasha Mestchersky and Count Paul Ignatieff, who leftRussia in 1919 with their sons, moving first toEngland before settling inCanada. Ignatieff never met Natasha or Paul – both died before he was born – but he had their memoirs to work from as well as the recollections of his father and uncles. The result is a thoughtful, intimate book, absolutely worthy of all the praise that has been heaped upon it since it was first published in 1987.
This is a strange review to write at this time. When Michael Igantieff wrote this book he was a Canadian ex-pat author and academic living in theUK. Now, he is the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, the official opposition to the current Conservative government, campaigning across the country in preparation for Monday’s federal election. It feels strange to be writing here about a person who appears every night on the news, who shows up every day in my newspaper. This book has absolutely nothing to do with politics and nor does my reaction to it but the upcoming election does make me hesitant to offer an opinion on Ignatieff that goes beyond his writing ability. I shall do so anyway but please, my few Canadian readers, do not think I am attempting to influence your vote by doing so. This is not an attempt at political propaganda; it is just a simple book review.
The first chapter is rather daunting, full of Ignatieff’s academic musings on ethics and methodology, but it also contains some of his most personal and thoughtful passages, the ones that made me warm to him. In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys Hector says: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone who is even long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” That is why I read, searching for moments, for writers, who can do that. And Ignatieff does, distilling what I have perhaps always thought and felt about my own family and my own situation but never been able to express, in just the way I would have wished to have said it:
Between my two pasts, the Canadian and the Russian, I felt I had to choose. The exotic always exerts a stronger lure than the familiar and I was always my father’s son. I chose the vanished past, the past lost behind the revolution. I could count on my mother’s inheritance: it was always there. It was my father’s past that mattered to me, because it was one I had to recover, to make my own. (p. 10)
My father’s family, full of farmers and teachers, librarians and ministers, has always provided stability for me. That part of my identity is clear. They are Canadian just as I am, they grew up in surroundings I can relate to, spoke a language I speak, were part of the history I was taught in school. My mother’s family is different. Alien and alluring, I cannot remember a time when I did not want to know more about them, to see the cities where they lived, to hear the languages they spoke- anything to try and understand these foresters and executioners, dilettantes and opera singers who I am descended from. But I have their photos and painted portraits, can stare into their faces in an attempt to know them. There is something so reassuring about having a visual record of your past:
For many families, photographs are often the only artefacts to survive the passage through exile, migration or the pawnshop. In a secular culture, they are the only household icons, the only objects that perform the religious function of connecting the living to the dead and of locating the identity of the living in time. I never feel I know my friends until either I meet their parents or see their photographs and since this rarely happens, I often wonder if I know anybody very well. (p.2)
This idea of not knowing anyone well without knowing or having seen their family really resonated with me. It is not something I had ever thought to analyse before but I am definitely not entirely comfortable with anyone until I’ve met their family or, if their relatives are too far away or no longer alive, seen their photographs. I can know people for years but as soon as I meet their parents there is suddenly a new level of intimacy in the relationship.
However, let me be clear, this is a book primarily about Ignatieff’s ancestors and not his relationship to his family’s past (even if that is what I found most interesting about it). I cannot claim any great knowledge of Tsarist Russia – you’ll notice it has not come up in many of my previous reading choices – but it is fascinating to see how the Ignatieff family served their homeland as soldiers and, far more interestingly, diplomats and politicians. If nothing else, one must hope that after four generation an immunity to insult would now be inbred. Certainly nothing said today can equal Lord Salisbury’s style back in 1877 in describing Ignatieff’s great grandfather Nicholas as a “brilliant and fluent talker who adorns his conversations with fictions so audaciously unconvincing as to become a constant source of amusement.” If politicians could construct such well-phrased insults today then I should be pleased to listen to them!
Though it is his male ancestors who spent their time doing things that would later see them remembered in history books, Ignatieff does not ignore his female relatives. It feels as if more attention is given to his grandmother Natasha than to her husband Paul and she is spoken of almost with awe. Though not a warm woman, she comes across as brave and determined, more than able to face the many challenges that awaited her after the Revolution began:
That autumn of 1918 the boys first became aware of how much the times had changed their mother. She was no longer the frail, vague, comical and retiring figure of their childhood inPetrograd. Hardship had weathered her. During their father’s arrest, she had been like a tigress, enraged, tenacious and unafraid. Now that most of the servants had gone, she took over the housekeeping. She had never so much as boiled water in her life before. Now they watched her leave the house in the morning dressed in a shabby black overcoat, with her hair in a peasant woman’s shawl, to queue at the baker’s for crumbling loaves made out of corn, potato flour and bran. One of the boys went with her when she travelled out into the villages to bargain for mutton, cooking far and honey. She had become sharp and shrewd and resilient. And she never railed at fate. (p. 136-137)
My only quibble with the book is the limited glimpse you get into the family’s life once settled in Canada. While his uncles and his father were still alive, perhaps it seemed too intimate to discuss in more than the barest of details. Or perhaps I am just being greedy because I desperately want to know more about George Ignatieff, Michael’s father, who was a contemporary and friend of Lester Pearson (Prime Minister) and Charles Ritchie (the noted diplomat and diarist). I read Charles Ritchie’s The Siren Years as an impressionable adolescent and ever since have had a growing passion for the Canadian diplomats of his generation, particularly the ones, like Pearson, Ignatieff, and Ritchie, who worked out of Canada House in London during the war. But then the purpose of this book wasn’t to chronicle a new beginning. It is not a narrative that can be neatly wrapped up and given a happy ending. The purpose was simply to remember:
I have not been on a voyage of self-discovery: I have just been keeping a promise to two people I never knew. These strangers are dear to me not because their lives contain the secret of my own, but because they saved their memory for my sake. They beamed out a signal to a generation they would never live to see. They kept faith with me and that is why I must keep faith with them and with those who are coming after me. There is no way of knowing what my children will make of ancestors from the age of dusty roads and long afternoons on the shaded veranda deep in the Russian countryside. But I want to leave the road marked and lighted, so that they can travel into the darkness ahead, as I do, sure of the road behind. (p. 185)