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A Russian Childhood (Yalta, St. Petersburg, Moscow, London) Memoirs of Tatiana Nancy GAUBERT

June 21st, 2005 · No Comments · Books, Diaspora, PEOPLE, Reviews

An Imperial Foundling
A Russian Childhood (Yalta, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Yalta, and early Womanhood (London, Paris, Dublin)

Tatiana Nancy (“Romanovna”) GAUBERT

What would a crocodile on a silver chain, taken for a walk on the streets of St. Petersburg, have in common with a kneeling British ambassador, vowing eternal love to a Russian girl, in a London taxi? or, for that matter, with Siamese Prince Birabongse plunging naked in a Cornish swimming pool, full of gorgeous nymphs ? Nothing, except their stimulating coexistence in the spacious sensibility of Tatiana.

Born in Russia, before the Revolution, Tatiana “surfaced” in the Gaubert family, owners of an industrial Mill at Ouglich, on the Volga. The Gauberts’ British and Cossack ancestors served the Tsars for several generations, with a great-great grandfather, Charles Manners – a gardener to Catherine the Great, a great grandfather, George Banister – a Governor of the Imperial Establishments and a favorite of Nicholas I and another great grandfather, this time the Cossack Krikounowsky – a Senator under Alexander III.

In these households, strong Imperial rumors and apocryphal stories would die hard and they would be as charming as inscrutable and impossible to verify: however, for the reader’s own purposes it should not matter sorting out fact from fantasy?! No more that it would not matter either if all Russian ladies, with a strong character, were called “Tatiana” and that, without exception, they all descended from a Grand Duchess!

The book has no claim to inventing a “new Anastasia”, nor does it dwell too strongly on the possible Imperial connection. Throughout the narrative, this vexed question remains discreet and conjectural, if somewhat contradictory, almost like the plot of a thriller, where all possibilities are left open for the reader’s own conclusion. Indeed, Tatiana may conceivably be the natural child of Nancy Gaubert and be brought up by her maternal grandmother – Elizabeth Gaubert, whom the child calls “mother” and the “mother”, in turn, inscribes her in her passport as “an accepted child”.

Or, may be Elizabeth Gaubert, by the First War a widow and a Mother Superior in a Russian Orthodox convent, “accepts” Tatiana as her child, knowing only too well that she was in fact the natural daughter of Grand Duchess Olga by an Imperial Guards officer Koussov. There is hearsay to corroborate the strange goings on at the Imperial Court, from Prince Maximilian Milikov and his aunt Princess Oberliani, a resident at the Winter Palace.

However, to complicate things further, or perhaps to thicken the plot, the Mother Superior herself has a “strong resemblance to the Grand Duchess Elizabeth,” sister of Alexander III… but she was too embarrassed about this case of mistaken identity, to be “saluted by all generals” as she was driven in a Coach to the Palace. So, with all generals bowing to her mother, Tatiana may hold this as her best claim to her imperial origins, or, shall we say – would secure a double insurance policy to this claim.
So, we see that it was not just Rasputin that spread wild oats at the Imperial Court, but that the Ossetian Guards too had their modest, if persistent input and that, inevitably, in the wake of the Revolution, hormones ran riot.

We are further reassured that Tatiana had been a “Godchild of the last Tzarina”, that she was “bearing a strong resemblence to the Grand Duchess Olga” and that she was “eligible to be educated at the Smolny Institute”, in St Petersburg, an exclusive school for nobility, but the Revolution stopped the course of History and obliged Tatiana and her “mother” to come to England, as penniless refugees.

But before we reach London, during the Depression and later on during the Blitz, the reader is introduced to a colorful childhood in the Crimea and Petrograd, prior and during the Revolution and thereafter to an early womanhood in Moscow under the Bolsheviks. These times coincide with the disintegration of the Imperial order and consolidation of the first Communist state.

Although the period of the book runs from 1915 to 1945, with an Irish and Parisian “coda” to 1973, the narrative spans over a much broader period of “borrowed memory” from Ivan the Terrible to Alexander III. This social backdrop introduces many historical characters in the narrative and, as one would expect, Princes and Dukes galore, bearded Patriarchs and Metropolitans, intrepid Cossacks, Tolstoyesque Russian nobility, eccentric revolutionaries and conspirators (Herzen, Kamenev, Zenoviev), ignorant but loveable mouzhiks, followed by the new children of the Revolution, the destitute Counts dressed in rags, the communist bureaucracy, spies, foreign correspondents and diplomats, not forgetting the NKVD & GRU satraps, interrogators and informers: in fact, all the colors of a riveting Russian panorama are present here, unfolding before our eyes, for this is a very Russian book, not just for its contents, characters and situations it describes, but especially for the directness and forcefulness of its presentation – for Tatiana has very strong views which stem from her early upbringing in the hands of a strict mother belonging to “Old Russia”. Because Tatiana is Old Russia and now she is growing up in deprived circumstances in a communist regime. Then, out of the blue, Tatiana brings all her cultural and sentimental baggage with her to London, a city under siege during the Blitz, which she describes, in a very gay manner, although she lives in restricted circumstances, as a young woman, adrift in a foreign land.
. – o 0 O 0 o – .

Tatiana Nancy “Romanovna” Gaubert was born in 1913, in Russia, where she was brought up by her adoptive mother – Elizabeth Gaubert, neé Krikounowsky, a British subject by marriage. In her widowhood Elizabeth took the vows of an Orthodox nun and formed a semi-religious order of St Nicholas, to look after the shell-shocked soldiers of the First War. At the time of the Revolution, between 1917 and 1920, both mother and child lived in St Petersburg then, during the Civil War, they fled to Anapa in the Caucasus, to reach Crimea in 1924.

At Yalta, Tatiana is enrolled at Prince Bektabegov’s Ballet School, where Tupolev sends her roses: this, the reader is expected to know, is no one else than the famous engineer whose planes bear his name and later on marries Tatiana’s sister (or, step sister? or mother?) Nancy.

Then, suddenly, in 1927, the past catches up with her again and she and her mother flee Crimea for the relative anonymity of a greater city – Moscow, where Tatiana joins the Bolshoy school. These are the years when the dreaded GRU is quizzing the young ballet dancer about her blood links with the Tzars, Nancy dies and her widower a pilot friend of Tupolev has a ‘crush’ on his teenage sister-in-law (or, step-daughter?, or step-sister-in-law, or foundling?).

By this time Tatiana and Elizabeth Gaubert just about had enough, so their foreign friends help them emigrate, in 1933, to England. Here they arrive destitute, save for a few Russian memorabilia, which they are allowed to bring with them. In London the twenty-year old girl finds a job as a Bank clerk which enables her to live modestly with her old mother. These are the Depression years and the world of the white Russian émigrés, soon to be joined by the Jewish wave of émigrés escaping Hitler’s Germany. Tatiana describes all these unfortunate uprooted, in vivid colors and brings them back to life. Then, suddenly London is burning, for which this Russian offers a fresh insight, from a completely new perspective. But no sooner she marries in the Orthodox church her (very English) army Major fiancé, he enrolls as a volunteer on the Trans-Atlantic convoys. They both survive the war to tell the story, start a new family and farm in England and Ireland.

If, at this point, the reader may expect this Saga to have come to a “happy ending” he/she risks being bitterly disappointed, for life is never a bed of roses for Tatiana, and… the past catches up with this Russian lady, over and over again… This time, in the 1970’s she is grilled, not by the KGB, as she is performing instead a far better act – in facing MI6, in the person of Peter Wright, the spy-catcher of Tasmanian fame. The Moscow cupboard is flung open and old skeletons come out and are suddenly revived – a motley collection of famous and infamous diplomats, press correspondents and a string of potential and imaginary seducers of some thirty years past.

But who said that Tatiana is not a fighter and a survivor? Now that she had overcome a Revolution, an economic slump and a German Blitz, surely she can survive Peter Wright! but in the process, she helps him, out of the goodness of her heart, to bag a certain Edith Tudor Hart, the Oxford spy… Well done Tanya and, as they say in the Orthodox chant, “Gospodin pomilouyeh!”, God bless! now that you are no more – you are the nicest Russian girl that ever was!

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