When Canadian journalist Stephanie Williams set out to discover her Russian grandmother’ s long-lost history, what she unearthed was this stunning, sprawling portrait of a life lived on the grand stage of the 20th century.
Born in remote Siberia in 1900, Olga Yunter was the youngest of five children. As a teenager during the Revolution, she was a courier and arms-runner for the White Russians. After learning of the execution of her brother at the hands of the Red Army, which drew nearer every day, her father sent her to China with rubies and gold sewn into her petticoats. She would never see her family again.
The life of a Russian exile in China meant poverty and fear. But Olga was lucky. She met and married Fred Edney, and gave birth to their daughter, Irina, the author’s mother. But the creeping Japanese occupation and invasion of China forced Olga to flee with Irina to Canada, leaving Fred behind to continue working. For five years she heard almost nothing of her husband, save that he was alive in a Japanese prison camp. At the end of the war she returned to China to find him broken by his internment. The family was driven out of the country for good by the Chinese Revolution in 1949. They settled in Oxford, where Olga and Fred lived out the rest of their days.
Drawing on letters, diaries, government documents, and interviews, Stephanie Williams brings to life this gripping historical drama, sweeping in scope and illuminated by the intimate details of one woman’s extraordinary life.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
July 1900: Far away from anywhere, in a village in southern Siberia, a black banner tied to a high wooden gate was drifting in the light summer breeze. It was a warning to all those who passed the rough wooden house in the small hamlet of Yelan that someone with diphtheria lay within. The villagers who passed the house--the sons and daughters of Cossack families who had lived there for generations, peasants who had come to escape the famines of the southern Volga, and elderly Polish revolutionaries who had been exiled there some thirty-five years before--crossed themselves and murmured expressions of dismay. But two-year-old Anya Yunter was already dead.
Poor child. Some said that it was just a case of croup and sometimes croup killed you. But diphtheria--who could do anything about diphtheria? In any case, as everybody knew, a child was lucky to live to grow up. The Yunter family was fortunate. The father, Semyon Vassilyevich, worked for one of the richest men in this part of Siberia. He already had four healthy children, and, what's more, there was another on the way.
The white coffin was tiny. It stood on a small table in a corner of the long, low room, two fat candles at its head and feet. Above it, clouds of incense rose from a small hanging censer. On a rough wooden shelf nailed into the wall, the red glow of the lampada illuminated the Yunter family's most treasured possession: the precious face of Saint Vladimir, shrouded in a heavy silver frame. Beyond it, a portrait of His Majesty the Tsar stuck out unevenly from the wall of whitewashed logs. Outside the sun was shining, but in the room the windows were closed and the curtains were drawn. Within the coffin, framed by the wild flowers placed on her pillow, baby Anya's tiny moon-shaped face lay closed to life, as pale as the linen sheet tucked beneath her chin.
The heat of the day intensified, but still people from the village came. One by one they passed in front of the coffin, making the sign of the cross and muttering a quiet prayer over her body. Several of the women, their heads covered in dark scarves, bent to kiss the forehead of the dead child. As they did so, the faces of their own dead children materialized before them and sobs rose in their throats. Incense mingled with the fragrance of flowers and the odors of poorly washed bodies, tobacco, and drink. For a time the room in the small log house was crowded; then people drifted away, out into the light of the hot July day.
Olga never remembered who told her the circumstances of her birth. Perhaps it was her godmother, Yevlampia Semyonovna. Most likely, it was Filipovna, the family housekeeper and her old nurse, who first told her the story. How her mother had cried and cried when she first knew she was expecting another child. And how the days surrounding Olga's birth were terrible.
First her sister Anya had come down with what seemed to be a cold; she had pointed to her throat and said it was sore. But the next day her glands had been so swollen she could not move her neck. She was feverish, and began to cough. Filipovna pushed the other children--her sister Lydia, and brothers, Vasya, Volodya, and Kolya--outside, and mounted a curtain around Anya's bed. Her mother, Anna Vassilyevna, ponderous and heavy with her pregnancy, disappeared behind it to sit and nurse Anya. The children were forbidden to see their little sister. That night Anya's breathing was deep and rasping; it grew worse, and the sound filled the house and kept them from sleeping. Early the next morning her father, Semyon Vassilyevich, came out from behind the curtain after seeing his wife and daughter. By now Anya's breath was whistling. His big wide head was lowered, and his eyes looked grim.
Within hours it was clear that Anya's illness had taken a serious toll on her mother. The child she was expecting was not due for another four weeks. But now the first pains had begun to overtake her. Protesting and weeping, she withdrew to her bedroom. Semyon ran to fetch the midwife.
On his return from the village, Semyon found his wife, her face white and pinched with pain and her forehead beaded with sweat, propped against pillows in the middle of the bed. "Semyon Vassilyevich," Anna's voice was weak, "you know that I never wanted this child, and after this, I promise you I will not have another. But I have done what I have to do many times before. I will do it again now. But you must look to Anya. Guard her with your life. Swab her throat with kerosene. It is our only hope."
From that moment on Semyon sat beside the sick child, holding her hands, bathing her hot face, and waving a pillowcase above her to create a current of air. From time to time she fell into a doze. When she awoke and while she lay calm, he tried in a clumsy way to swab her throat. But every time, Anya gagged and choked.
Many years later Semyon told Olga how he remembered that day. How late that afternoon, exhausted and drenched with sweat, he had stepped out into the yard for a breath of air. But there was no relief. The sun was still high, and heat rose from the ground. Particles of dust hung in the air. The other children were nowhere to be seen. In one corner Petya, the Cossack stable hand, sat bare-chested, his fingers damp and grimy, stripping bark from saplings of birch. Petya came from a village on the Mongolian border called Kudara, where his family were descendants of a soldier, from the Don Valley in the Ukraine, who had been called up, generations ago, to bear arms in the conquest of Siberia.
Semyon told Olga how he had watched the boy as he pulled at the bark, peeling long strips to reveal the pale of the wood, and how he caught the fresh scent of sap in the air. After a few moments he went to lean on the rails of the fence beside the gate. High above him, the blue sky was broken by cloud. Across the track was a long, sloping meadow. In the distance he saw the Tomakov family, still at work, bending and sweeping, cutting the long grass with scythes. The headscarves of the women shone bright in the sun, their wide skirts tucked up above their knees. Far away toward the northwest, along the long straight track that came from Okino-Klyuchi, he could see a tiny cloud of dust approaching. He wondered who might be on the road at this hour.
"You know, Olgusha," he said, using the pet name from her childhood, "days could go by before visitors came in this direction. Standing at the edge of a valley, there was nothing between that village of Yelan and the border except stony mountains covered with forest. I was in despair. I did not dream what salvation that tiny cloud of dust would bring to us."
It was an hour or so later, as the sun was sinking over the hills to the west, that the sound of horses was heard drawing up at the gate. The children appeared from the stables, clambered up on the fence, and leaned over to see who was in the carriage. Petya swung back the high wooden gates, and a lightweight phaeton swept into the yard. A plump middle-aged woman wearing a black silk cloak covered in dust stepped down.
"Tyotya! Tyotya!" The children had circled around her, and she bent to give each one a hug. To them, Yevlampia Semyonovna was like a favorite aunt. She had known Anna Vassilyevna since she was a little girl. At the age of seventeen, Yevlampia, the daughter of a successful merchant engaged in the tea trade with China, had married Pyotr Martinskevich, a doctor from Poland who was twenty years her senior. For years Martinskevich had been the regional doctor in Troitskosavsk, one hundred versts to the southwest of Yelan. A year before he had died, leaving Yevlampia with little more than his name. Not long afterward Anna had written to tell her of her pregnancy, and how much she did not want this child. Alarmed, Yevlampia had promised to come and stay in good time to see her through her confinement. She had not arrived a moment too soon.
Yevlampia wasted no time assessing the situation. She unpacked the herbs and clean linen she had brought with her, and prepared an infusion to slow Anna's labor and a warm poultice to ease Anya's breathing. All through the night Yevlampia moved from one end of the house to the other, her felt slippers padding softly on the wooden boards, working to save Anya and her mother. Each time she passed the shelf of icons she offered a brief prayer. But Anya could not be saved. Not long after midnight, she gave a last strangled wheeze and faded from life.
At the same time the pace of Anna's labor quickened. Her new baby, a girl, was born just before dawn. She was so thin and sickly that she was not expected to survive. Anna Vassilyevna lay spent, eyes closed, unable to speak. Yevlampia dared not tell her that death had taken Anya. Silently, the women bathed her, gave her fresh linen, and took the newborn baby from the room.
It was Yevlampia who told the midwife to find a wet nurse, then broke the news to Semyon that he had a daughter. But the baby was very frail, and his wife was dangerously ill. She told him how, after the birth, Anna shut her eyes and looked away, refusing to acknowledge her child. When Filipovna wrapped the infant and laid her down beside her on the bed, Anna clenched her teeth and pushed her away.
"As soon as she has rested," Yevlampia told him, "you must go to her. You must tell her about Anya. And you must remind her of her vows. She cannot refuse to look after this child. As I have said, she, too, may not live."
Later that day Semyon emerged from the bedchamber. The last rays of the sun filtered into the whitewashed room, falling in pools of light on the polished boards of the floor. Anna would see the baby now, he told Yevlampia. And as today was the Feast of Saint Olga so the new baby would be named. Because of the danger to her life, the christening would take place at once. He was off to find the priest.
Late that evening three tapers were lit beside the icon of Saint Vladimir. Alone with the priest, holding a candle each, Yevlampia and the eldest son of the family, nine-year-old Vasya, stood as godparents to the child. In the dim light, they watched as he anointed her fragile breast with holy oil, the her tiny ears, hands, and feet. Holding her up in his hands toward the East, the source of light and spiritual joy, he declared Olga, the youngest child of the Yunter family, baptized. Two days later, at the Church of the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, the Yunter family buried Anya.
The Yunters originally came to Russia from the region around Riga in Latvia. According to Olga, her great-grandfather came to Russia as a doctor toward the end of the eighteenth century--possibly at the time when Catherine the Great was offering special incentives for German doctors to come to Russia to boost the profession. How it was that her father, Semyon Yunter, came to be born in Troitsk, a small town in the southeastern foothills of the Ural Mountains in the province of Orenburg, is unknown. Troitsk stands on the ancient border with Turkestan, and was then a Cossack stronghold and a gateway to central Asia. It was surrounded by a high wall built to withstand the wilder incursions of Kirghiz and Bashkirs, nomadic herding peoples from central Asia--and endless, open steppe. It was so far from the centers of civilized Russia, so flyblown and alien, that officials posted there regarded being sent there as being as bad as being sent to the farthest reaches of Siberia.
From its beginnings Troitsk had been a trading post for the Kirghiz, who brought to the Russians honey and wax, cattle and horses. They in turn supplied iron and copper, cashmere shawls and fabrics, mirrors, rouge, tobacco, and bread. Depending on the time of year, skins came to the market: the furs of beavers, squirrels, wild cats, and wolves; the feathers of swans and other exotic beasts. There were the carcasses of wild boars, and sturgeon and caviar, and hawks and falcons for hunting. The surrounding land, while flat and featureless, was rich and fertile, covering vast deposits of salt, copper, and iron. Early in the nineteenth century gold had been discovered to the northeast of the town. Apart from the vast wealth of the Lena and the Yenisei river basins in Siberia, by the time Semyon was born in about 1857, the Miask fields were reputed to be the richest in Russia.
Semyon came from a family of small merchants. He was defined by the Russian civil code as a meshchanin--a petit bourgeois, a member of the minor trading classes. There is a portrait of him later in life seated by his mother, a grim-faced, bulky woman, and his younger brother. Their clothes are new, provincially cut. His mother is wearing a kapot, the gown traditionally worn by provincial merchants' wives. There is an unmistakable air of assertion in the photograph. Semyon was strong and well built, a good-looking man who, with his air of distinction, a well-trimmed beard, and receding hair, resembled the future Tsar Nicholas. He was a hunter, a man with an instinct for reading landscape, understanding habitats, and gauging the quality of the furs he traded. He knew the richest deposits of gold were to be found on the hillsides where the incline was not too great, or where the current of a river slackened to form wide flats. He had an excellent head for figures.
Every year in February Semyon took his best pelts to the annual fair in Irbit, in a river valley east of the Urals. Second only to the world-famous "All Russian" fair held every year at Nizhny-Novgorod, Irbit was the principal marketplace for the vast unknown territories to the north and east. To Irbit came the most fabulous furs of Siberia to be exchanged for the necessities of life from European Russia--everything from machinery and tools to cigarettes and canned goods. Here tens of thousands of frozen pelts were stacked in piles in the open air or heaped high in makeshift stalls that littered the market: foxes, squirrels, and, finest of all, the sables, the skins of small martens with long, soft, glossy black hair. Every day, as he huddled in his sheepskins at the fair, stamping his feet to keep out the cold, Semyon heard buyers outbid one another for the superior skins, the best of which would be shipped to Moscow and London, the most important distribution point for furs in Europe. He saw those who had brought the furs from Siberia: men of apparently astonishing wealth and confidence, in high boots and huge bearskin coats, who, having disposed of their furs, went on to purchase vast quantities of merchandise that they shipped eastward in great caravans, and then on by barge and steamship on the rivers of the Lena and Amur, to the remotest places in Siberia. He learned that these men also owned great enterprises farther east: land holdings, gold mines, grain mills and distilleries, steamship lines--and acted as moneylenders.
From the Hardcover edition.
The daughter of an army officer, Stephanie Williams was born in Canada, and has lived in the United States, Hong Kong and England, where she worked as a journalist for such publications as The Sunday Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Statesman. Williams lives in North London with her husband and two grown children.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
“Mesmerizing . . . truly exceptional.”
— The Vancouver Sun
“An epic tale of resilience and courage.”
“Compelling…Well written and passionately researched, Olga’s Story raises the intriguing question of how many of us could hope to match her guts and loyalty in such circumstances.”
—The Sunday Times (UK)
“[Olga’s] extraordinary journey through life has now been superbly rescued and reconstructed by her granddaughter, Stephanie Williams, who has written a heartbreaking story of disaster and survival through some of the worst conflicts and upheavals of our benighted age….Williams . . . colourfully evokes the sights and sounds of a way of life about to be erased forever….moving and brilliant.”
—Sunday Telegraph (UK)
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel