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Olga's Story: Three Continents, Two World Wars and Revolution-One Woman's Epic Journey Through the Twentieth Century

by Stephanie Williams
357 pages,
ISBN: 0385659865


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Journeys of a Russian
by Clara Thomas

The life of Olga Edney, the heroine of this book and the writer's grandmother, encompasses "three continents, two world wars and revolution-one woman's epic journey through the twentieth century." So claims the publisher's publicity, and the book fulfils its promise. Born in 1900, the daughter of a Siberian merchant, Olga survived several of the hot spots of the 20th century to spend her final years peacefully in Oxford, England, where her granddaughter, Stephanie Williams, knew her and determined to write her exotic story.
Williams began with a bare minimum of family facts, but from the memories of her grandmother and her Aunt Lydia, Olga's older sister, she carefully pieced together the story, adding to it and rounding it out with her own considerable research to produce a memorable saga of Olga's life. Olga was the ultimate survivor: "I have lost my home and everything I had three times in my life. Once in Russia in the Revolution, once in Tientsin when the Japanese came, and once in Shanghai when the Communists came."
For Western readers, the generally abysmal ignorance of Russian geography and history is at first a major hurdle. Beyond a certain minimal knowledge of the Revolution and the common abhorrence of the Communist regime, few of us have any knowledge at all of the sheer size and variety of Russia. Siberia, for instance-how could there have been prosperous merchants there? We know Siberia only as the frozen prison site of the popular press. To comprehend this book we first have to stretch our imaginations to picture the vastness of the land and the presence therein of all the gradations of Russian culture. Olga's father, Semyon Yunter, came from a family of small merchants. He worked for a wealthy merchant, Goldbobin, and moved from town to town as instructed, but always he and his family were part of a thriving and growing area where camel trains from the east brought oriental luxuries, and furs from the north were a staple of trade. Olga was brought up in a solidly middle class "petit bourgeois" society where great stress was placed on proper manners and deportment and where education for women was, for its time, surprisingly liberal. Her family was staunchly Tsarist in their loyalties, and Olga's three brothers were sad casualties of the Great War, its aftermath of Revolution and chaos, and the repressive regime that followed.
Once captured by the depth and density of the picture drawn of Siberian life, the reader is irresistibly led on by the detailed descriptions of daily life, of the rituals of the year's special religious and family occasions, Christmas and Easter, and of the progress of the household season by season, dominated and organized by Olga's capable and loving mother, Anna. During the upsetting but abortive people's uprising of 1905, and then through the chaotic years following the upheaval of 1917, the family were loyal, "White Russians" as they were called. Olga was at school and planning on university when her father, recognising the finality of the Tsarists' defeat, commanded her to flee eastward and gave her a few rubies and some gold pieces to sew into her clothes. It was a deadly dangerous and long, drawn-out journey, but she and Filipovna, a faithful old family servant, finally reached temporary safety. All too soon she had to leave again because the Red army was triumphing throughout Russia, and this time she and Filipovna set out by train for China. With other sad little groups of Russian emigrTs, they settled in Tientsin. There they managed a bare minimum of safety among hundreds like themselves who had absolutely nothing left of their customary ways of life or their security. Olga was twenty-one, a petite, attractive and lively young woman who resisted the common Russian emigrT lot of days spent in vain regrets and dreaming of a glorious return to the lives they had known.
As was the custom, Tientsin was divided into various concessions-English, French, Russian, American-each with its own laws and social customs. Fluent in French, Olga was fortunate to be taken on as a clerk in a French import-export company and to find a room to share in a boarding house in the British concession. Shortly after, Olga met and fell in love with Miles, a fair-haired, handsome Englishman who worked for one of the great shipping companies. Under his tutelage she began the process of becoming fluent in English, a process that was considerably hastened when he was sent by his firm to Yokohama, and Olga began to play tennis with another Englishman, Frederick Edney, an employee of the British American Tobacco Company. The craze for cigarettes was just getting underway in China and Fred's firm was flourishing. Fred told Olga that his father had been a solicitor in London who died when Fred was ten. His mother, two sisters and two brothers lived there. A third brother had been killed in the Great War. Very soon Fred found himself in love with Olga. Though she intended to remain true to Miles, Fred's devotion was strong, and he promised her a security that she had thought was lost forever. Moreover, he convinced her that she would have the kind of comfortable life that could be expected for the colonial English at the time.
They had their pictures taken and wrote to Olga's father for permission to marry. When it came, sorrowfully, because Semyon thought that Olga was about to marry much beneath her proper station, he also advised her to send home the faithful Filipovna who had accompanied her through her exile. She and Fred were married in the Russian Orthodox church in Tientsin in 1923, and after an idyllic two-week honeymoon at a beach resort, they returned to live in a flat in the British concession. Olga was an eager young wife: she was in love with Fred, adored the spaniel puppy he had given her as a wedding present and loved their own private space, with its very English garden. She practiced cooking Russian dishes and gloried in the security and peace. She carried with her for as long as she lived a presence and a strong sense of herself and her family that overcame the hurt that inevitably accompanied her outsider status amongst the expatriate Englishwomen. In 1925, after a long and agonizing labour, a daughter, Irina, was born, She speedily became the centre of the young Edneys' universe. However, a grave disillusionment awaited her when they journeyed to England for "home leave" in 1931. Far from being a solicitor, Fred's father had been only a clerk; furthermore, he had left the family when Fred was ten, sailing for America never to be heard from again. Mrs. Edney was left with six children to bring up. She had done well, and each of her children was a credit to her, but she was distant and cool, totally unlike the family Olga had known and always dreamed of, and resentful of even small changes to her routine. The marriage survived the blow, but China was now home to Olga, and Fred never had her complete confidence again.
They lived a comfortable life, the life shared by thousands of young people all over the globe in those twilight of Empire days, dominated by Fred's status as a British colonial, and by his job, his prospects and the ever-present promise of "home leave". In 1936, a much-longed-for son, Christopher, was born, but in '37 to Olga's despair, he was diagnosed as a Down's Syndrome baby. Furthermore, the years 1936 to 1938 were one prolonged nightmare as the Japanese invaded and steadily took over more and more of China. First the family was forced to move in Tientsin, leaving their house and all their precious possessions for miserable crowded rooms with a friendly missionary clergyman. Then Olga went on home leave alone with the children, hoping against hope that she could find medical help for Christopher's condition. Meanwhile, Fred and his company had been forced to move to Shanghai, which was already swarming with refugees. Olga finally joined him, but only a month after their arrival from England, their little boy, Kit, died of dysentery. Christopher's death was always thereafter to Olga a final punishment and humiliation from God.
The final weeks in Shanghai were another nightmare, with Fred trying daily to get Olga and Irina passage on a ship to Canada where their good friends, the Ritchies, had emigrated and urged them to come also. Though they finally found a ship and embarked safely, Fred, who had to stay with his business, was interned by the Japanese in 1940 and endured near starvation and ill-treatment until 1945. Irina finished her schooling and married in Victoria. When Fred was finally reunited with Olga, who returned to Shanghai after Irina's wedding, he was irreparably emotionally damaged and suffering from tuberculosis. Because of the disease, he was rejected for emigration to Canada and in 1949, when they were forced to leave China once and for all, they finally settled in Oxford where at last they lived peaceably until Olga's death in 1974. Fred died some years later, in 1980.
Stephanie Williams's ten-year quest for her grandmother's complete story has paid off superbly. "Olga loved people, loved to joke and gossip with good company. She had too much of a sense of humor to be described as 'grand'. Yet when I was growing up she had a formidable presence, there was an invisible cordon, like a ring fence around her, as if she were aware of playing a part in some kind of higher agenda, one that was somehow beyond the rest of us." Williams has done her the ultimate honour-she exists again in these pages, an indomitable survivor of the twentieth century's most virulent cataclysms.
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