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My adventures in bolshevik Russia by Odette…
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My adventures in bolshevik Russia

by Odette Keun

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Odette Keun seems rather to have slipped through the cracks of 20th century history, despite having lived a very colourful and varied life. She occasionally gets a mention as the woman who lived with H.G. Wells for most of the 1920s, but otherwise she seems to be practically forgotten. Simply too much sui generis to have caught the attention of historians of women's writing, left-wing politics, the Middle East, or whatever, I suppose. Not having a clear national affiliation probably makes it worse: she's too French to be claimed by the Dutch or British, but not French enough really to be treated as a "French writer". She's a lively and entertaining writer, both in French and in English, and occasionally a very clear-seeing one, but I don't think anyone would claim her as a genius. Like many travel writers, she's interesting because of the places she went to and the times when she went there. This book, of course, is mostly about her involuntary trip to the Soviet Union.

The British occupying forces in Constantinople arrested Keun and summarily deported her to Russia in June 1921. She never got an official explanation, but it seems fairly obvious that they had been annoyed by her support for the independent bolshevik republic of Georgia, where she was acting as a kind of PR consultant for the government (a bit like Graham Greene in Panama). The British were still scheming to try to keep the Russians out of the Caucasus at the time, and the presence of even a relatively obscure western communist journalist in Tiflis must have been an embarrassment to them.

Since all her papers, including her Dutch passport, had been confiscated by the British, Keun had a hard time explaining herself to the Soviet authorities when she arrived in Sebastopol, especially since post and telegraph services were basically inoperative and there was no Dutch diplomatic representative in Russia at the time anyway. She thus found herself being passed on from one Cheka outpost to the next over a period of three months, never quite a prisoner but never quite at liberty either, and got the chance to see a side of Russia in the immediate aftermath of revolution that was hidden from most visiting left-wing intellectuals. It's an odd mix of Doctor Zhivago and Nancy Mitford. She can be cool and analytical when she's describing the brutality of the system, the all-pervasive corruption, the ubiquity (even then) of the Cheka and the grinding poverty, dirt and hunger of a society that was still trying to sort out how to get industry, agriculture and public services working under communism. On occasion, her account descends to sheer comedy — intentionally when she deploys her rubber folding bathtub in the Sebastopol prison and takes a shower under the startled gaze of the guards and fellow-detainees, unintentionally when she lists the lack of domestic servants among the deprivations that make women's lives a misery in Kharkov. But there's always a lot of sympathy there for the Russians, and she herself comes over as very human when, tough as she obviously must have been, she has to admit that her experience brought her close to despair. There's a marvellous scene where she turns the full fury of an outraged French bourgeoise on a young Cheka interrogator in Moscow: she knows it's a stupid thing to do, but she's just so fed up she can't stop herself. Maybe that was what finally convinced them she wasn't a spy...

Keun wrote the French version of this book first, then adapted it herself into English: I read it in French. The first third of this is a wonderful tirade against the British authorities in Istanbul. I would imagine that "le capitaine H." and "le colonel M.", if they read it, must have felt they had been been reduced to two pairs of gently steaming army boots. It would be interesting to see how much it's toned down in the English version. She also has a go at the French mission in Tiflis before the revolution that must have had the libel lawyers rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation...

Hindsight shows that she was pretty close to the mark with her analysis of the endemic weaknesses of the Soviet system, even though she didn't predict that Stalin and Hitler would between them manage to give it the impetus to keep going another sixty-odd years. She wasn't the only communist intellectual to lose her faith after exposure to what was happening in Russia, but she must have been one of the first. And there weren't many women of her generation who would have had the nerve to go off to the Caucasus on their own in the middle of a war. An interesting and intrepid character, definitely. ( )
  thorold | Mar 26, 2012 |
Book Description: 320pp frontis. 1923. *Imprisoned by the Cheka for her Menshevik views, she left via Georgia in 1921. Useful for general conditions of life & for the operation of the Cheka (Grierson).VG. Bookseller Inventory # 080671
Book Description: New York: Dodd, Mead. Hardcover. Book Condition: Good. No Jacket. 1st Edition. 1923 1st Am. ed. hardcover. 320pp. red cloth sm 8vo: near Very Good/no dj [bookplate; else nrVG] An eyewitness view of revolutionary Russia originally written and published in French under the title "Sous Lenine." This edition was translated (or "virtually rewritten" in English) by the author herself. Although a French writer, Odette Keun (1888-1978) was a Dutch citizen, her father having been charge d'affaires of the Netherlands legation in Constantinople (Istanbul) where she was born. During the journeys described in this book "Bolshevist Russia [broke] her heart" while she "acquired knowledge of British brutality and Russian madness" in the unsettled political climate of the era. A fascinating contemporary account of the confused origins of the Soviet state and what appeared to many at the time to be a Brave New World. She was a mistress of the famous English writer H. G. Wells. Bookseller Inventory # 4815
$81 -$102 in same cond. May 2007
  LarsonLewisProject | May 16, 2007 |
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