Insouciance come what may
Teffi was one of Tsar Nicholas II’s favourite writers but, unlike the tsarina, was quite immune to the greasy advances of the loathsome Rasputin. A charming 45-year-old in 1917, she was widely read and much loved throughout Russia. Even Lenin took over from where Nicholas left off in the Teffi admiration stakes.
Thankfully her writings, both fiction and memoir, have been rescued recently from the deep sleep of history by Pushkin Press and a dedicated troupe of translators. Robert Chandler also introduces both books and closes them with helpful endnotes.
His most immediate issue is to explain the puzzling nom de plume chosen by Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, the second youngest of six children born into a distinguished St Petersburg legal family. Nadezhda married young but separated from her husband after a decade or so, and only then began to write. Quite soon she was using the pseudonym Teffi, a reference to a lucky clown or fool called Steffi, short for Stepan. “Fools are always lucky,” she explains in her short story My Pseudonym, adding in typical Teffi style: “Finding a fool, of course, was easy enough. I knew a great many of them.”
In the early years of the century before the revolution, she wrote verses both serious and satirical, short stories and brief articles, mainly for the Stock Exchange Gazette but also for other newspapers and magazines, as well as one-act plays, and songs that she performed on stage, accompanying herself on her beloved guitar.
Like most artists of that era, she was sympathetic to the freedoms promised by the Bolsheviks but soon grew hostile to their practice of harnessing art to party ends. She was happiest when she could ignore politics and devote her talents to making people laugh, publishing her efforts in a popular and successful humour magazine called Satiricon and in the most read newspaper in Russia, Russian Word, until it was closed down by the Bolsheviks in 1917.
In 1918 she moved to Moscow, which she described as “still alive”, if only just, and from there was allowed to embark on what turned out to be a heartbreaking odyssey, a fruitless search for normal civilisation beginning with a reading tour in Ukraine, not yet crushed by the Red Army.
Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea, which begins at this point, makes a brilliant feature of lacing hard facts with delightful, even frivolous, observations: the Ukraine escape route is presented by a squint-eyed impresario from Odessa who goes by the name of Gooskin.
Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, who wrote Rasputin and Other Ironies and Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea under the pen name Teffi