Life in the Soviet Union between the World Wars

ReviewDeath of a Past Lifesoviet union

By Robert N. Reincke
©2008, Robert N. Reincke,
Published by Spunky Books, West Hollywood, CA. 484 pp.
Reviewed by John Dougherty




The history of Russia in the first half of the twentieth century is marked by so much turmoil and upheaval that it seems to speak of another world. Having grown up in the relatively peaceful milieu of middle-class America in the last decades of the twentieth century, I find it difficult to imagine a life that knew revolution, world war, another revolution, civil war, domestic political terror, another world war, and exile to an alien land. I continue to be fascinated with, and drawn to, the questions of how such events come to be, and how ordinary people manage to carry on in such circumstances. I was happy to find in Robert Reincke’s book, Death of a Past Life, some insight into this last question. This book traces the lives of the author’s grandmother and mother, from the end of Russia’s “belle époque,” to their escape from the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

Another book I reviewed on this site—Former People, by Douglas Smith—illustrates the fate of those people who were members of the nobility under the rule of the Tsars; the very class against which the October Revolution was ostensibly fought, and the class that the Communist Party was determined to eliminate. Death of a Past Life gives insight into the fate of another social class in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution: the emergent middle-class of non-noble, educated professionals. This point of view interests me especially in that it highlights a paradox that Communist Party ideologues faced in their efforts to create a “classless” society. Members of this class were identified as “bourgeois,” or “petty bourgeois,” and thus the embodiment of capitalist values, which were anathema to the regime, but at the same time, the Soviet Union desperately needed the knowledge and skills of these people in its efforts to modernize and industrialize the Soviet Union.

This story begins in 1911, with events in the life of five year-old Nina Siewert, daughter of Leonid and Josephine (nee Krümmel). Nina’s life seems fairly comfortable: an extended family of successful and wealthy entrepreneurs and professionals, apartments in St. Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo (a suburb noted for the presence of one of the Tsar’s residences), and summers spent at the family dacha. Things get a little shaky in Nina’s world when war with Germany starts in 1914, but three years later things fall apart when the Tsar abdicates, the Bolsheviks seize the power of the state, and civil war ensues. From here we see young Nina coming of age in an era of political, economic and social chaos. Her parents are dispossessed, they move away from the city, and eventually her mother and father separate, with Josephine immigrating to Germany, where she has family. This German connection provides another curious twist. The Krümmel’s and the Siewerts are hyphenated Russians—born and bred in Russia, but with some German ancestry. This was quite common in Moscow and St. Petersburg as the Tsars had, since at least the time of Peter the Great, actively recruited and encouraged educated Europeans, especially Germans, to settle in Russia, and help in her fitful efforts to catch up with the rapidly industrializing West. Karl Krümmel, Nina’s grandfather, had in fact started one of Russia’s first automobile manufacturing operations in St. Petersburg before the revolution. This, like many other nascent industries, collapsed after 1917.

Between the world wars we see Nina adapting quite well in a society that was itself trying to adapt to new, post-revolutionary realities. She moves back to Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was renamed in 1924), finds a career, meets and marries Nicholas Katchalin, and in 1938 has a daughter, Anna.

Anna is born into a world about to explode yet again. Within just a few years the Germans will invade her homeland, and lay siege to the city that is her home. The siege of Leningrad lasted more than two years and was brutal for those trapped by it; continual bombing by the Germans and starvation were daily concerns. When at last a way is opened to escape, Leonid, Nina and Anna head south to the Caucuses region, where Leonid’s family were still living.

The war with Germany is not yet over, and the family follows Hitler’s retreating forces to flea the Soviet Union. Making their way to Berlin, they connect with Nina’s mother Josephine. But fearing the retribution of the Soviet regime, they are forced to leave Berlin, too, toward which the Red Army is rapidly advancing.

soviet union

Nina, Anna and Nicholas Katchalin. In Marburg, Germany, after World War II


The story concludes with their ultimate escape from the Soviets, and eventual settlement in the United States—in Michigan. A family there that belongs to a Methodist church in which an acquaintance of Nick’s is active sponsors their emigration.

This edition of the book has a few proofreading oversights: for example, a “he” where a “the” should be, and the sentence, “After servings of tea and lunch, the visitors, determined to make their way to Tsarskoe Selo, begins to gather their assortment of packages.” But these rare snags do not take away from the affect of the book, which is to make these events, and the people who lived them, very real. The perspectives of the main characters sound true in their focus on what is important to them, without, as some stories do, trying to give them awareness of, and responsibility for, the broad scope of historic events in which they operate. This is especially true of Nina and Anna as children. While World War One is raging and Russian society and government is collapsing, Nina is focused on a bird that was unfairly taken from her by her cousin, and on her grandfather’s walking stick, which she identifies with her salvation from “drowning” at the dacha. During the siege of Leningrad, as their apartment building is being regularly shelled and they are slowly starving, Anna is mostly concerned about her doll and the family’s cat.

There are two things I feel this tale is missing, though: first, some more background, especially regarding the families; for example, a more detailed account of how and when the Krümmel’s first came to Russia from Germany would be good; and second, some mention, however brief, of the fates of Nina, Nicholas and Anna in Michigan (though perhaps this is to make room for a sequel). But the story works by making some of the most traumatic episodes of the 20th century more accessible by reminding the reader that as intriguing as the political, social and military machinations were, the importance of these events lay in their impact on people, families and communities. Death of a Past Life makes ordinary people bigger than the extraordinary events happening around them, and that is, to my mind, as it should be.

John Dougherty


©2015, John Dougherty, All rights reserved.



Preface to an English Translation of ‘Master and Margarita’

A Preface to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, Master and Margarita:

English translation of Master and MargaritaI’ve been translating Master and Margarita for a while now, and have just completed Part One (of two). Before I started translating from Russian to English I imagined it would be something of an exotic pursuit, and I had no expectations about how I would go about it, or what doing it would feel like. I find though, that for me it is not a whole lot different than reading. Sure, it makes for a really slow read, but when I read something I want to get it all: the nuances, the references, the subtext, the word-play, etc. I believe that, if the writing’s good, every word is there for a reason. So I end up looking up a lot of words.


In the case of this novel, my translation started with me beginning to read the novel. This turned into me looking up some words; then me looking up all the words I wasn’t sure I knew all the conotations of; and finally me deciding that if I was going to do all this work, it would be helpful to write it all down. While I may not have expected translating to involve so much time and effort, I also never imagined that it would be as much fun as it turns out to be. I love “reading” (i.e.-translating) this novel; it is entertaining, engaging, satisfying, and the kind of challenge that really grabs me.

Having arrived at the end of Part One, I started thinking about what would be involved in putting it into book form. I have already made an EPUB file of it and sent that to a friend. The process of putting that together got me thinking about proof-reading, editing, writing a table of contents and designing a cover. This eventually led to the question of whether or not to write a preface. Since early on I’ve considered adding an appendix to discuss the importance of names used, and the meanings of their Russian roots, but it wasn’t until I started to imagine my friends reading this that I gave thought to providing them some background information. The following is the result of my attempt to do just that. I try to explain some of the features of life in Moscow in the 1930s, as far as I understand them, that are integral to the story, but would not necessarily be known to the average 21st century English reader.

Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov

English translation of Master and Margarita

Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov


Translator’s Preface

Continue reading

Russian News- RIA Novosti Reports on America’s Human Rights Record

Russian News:

I would like to try and add to this blog a weekly Russian news feature. In the beginning this will include my translation of, and brief commentary on, a contemporary Russian news piece. These articles will be chosen fairly at random, and from an array of sources. This first article was released last week on the RIA Novosti website. RIA Novosti is a state-run media outlet in the Russian Federation.


Report: The press in the U.S. is limited in its access to power, and its freedom of speech.
18:52 25 November, 2014 updated- 19:07 25 November, 2014
РИА Новости

A report by the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, made available to RIA Novosti, states that “the reality of contemporary America supports the contention that it is the deliberate policy of the executive branch of the U.S. government to create impediments to the work of reporters.” Continue reading


 translation problem

An example of the kinds of puzzles I encounter when translating Russian to English.

As I translate, things often go pretty smoothly. I may have to look up a few words in a given paragraph, but once I decide on a particular connotation, and appropriate English equivalent, I can move on pretty quickly. Sometimes, though, I run into a particular phrase or construction that demands extra effort. I might end up spending fifteen or twenty minutes trying to puzzle it out. The following is an example of such an instance. Here I was stuck on the seemingly uncomplicated three-word phrase—“на то и” (English transliteration= “na toh i”). I will outline here the process I went through to come up with a solution.

The original sentence:

“Однако умные люди на то и умны, чтобы разбираться в запутанных вещах.” –from Мастер и Маргарита, Глава 18-Неудачливые визитеры (Master and Margarita, Chapter XVIII-Unfortunate Visitors). Continue reading

Dreams, Dreams, Dreams

With two dreams, one after another in Master and Margarita, Bulgakov touches on some risky subjects.

As mentioned at the beginning of my last post (“Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature”), my efforts to translate Chapter XV of Master and Margarita, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream,” led me to become fascinated with the use of dreams as a device in Russian novels. My first avenue for delving into this topic further was Dostoevsky’s use of it in The Brother’s Karamazov, specifically the chapter titled, “The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare.” This provided not only another example of a dream sequence, but also another depiction of the devil, so I devoted that last post to a comparison of Dostoevsky’s devil with Bulgakov’s.

Dreams of Nikanor Ivanovich

Soviet Show Trial-

I remained intrigued, however, by the dream thing. As I began translating the next chapter of Master and Margarita, “The Execution,” I was delighted to find that I was dealing here with yet another dream—this one dreamt by Ivan (Bulgakov’s Ivan, not Dostoevsky’s); two dreams in a row! Continue reading

Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature

Satan the pitiable victim in Bulgakov and Dostoevsky.

prof Woland mephistophelesUncle Vanya Guthrie








While translating Chapter 15, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream,” of Master and Margarita, I was reminded of another chapter in Russian literature devoted to one character’s dream—“The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare”, from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. On revisiting this old favorite, however, I was inspired to reform my purpose of comparing dreams in Russian literature to comparing depictions of the devil there. While far from identical, both Dostoevsky’s Devil and Bulgakov’s Satan are portrayed in ways that invite the reader to feel some compassion, pity and sympathy for them. Continue reading

The Power of “THE”

The Seemingly Most Trivial Word Causing Some Nagging Translation Problems.

the power of "the"

the power of theAs mentioned in some earlier posts, there are aspects of the Russian language that leave the translator to her or his own devices in coming up with coherent, true and comfortable equivalents in English. One of these is the fact that the Russian language does not use the definite articles “a”, “an”, or “the” (see post-Banned Articles as Translation Problems). In most cases this a simple matter of judging from the context which, if any, of these needs to be added to the literal translation to make it work in English. In a simple sentence like, for example – “Он уехал в магазин,” which reads literally- “He went to store,” one can safely put a “the” before “store” without compromising the meaning of the original.

But it isn’t always quite so easy. I am currently bugged by the Russian lack of articles in a specific instance in regards my efforts to write a translation of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. This problem presents itself immediately in the title; the English given above is just as it appears in Russian, but the question remains: should it be, as it is in most translations- The Master and Margarita (my emphasis)? And if yes, why? If this title gets an article, why not others: A War and The Peace? The Crime and The Punishment? Continue reading

Praise for Alina Simone’s Views on Russian/American Cultural Differences

On Alina Simone’s New York Times op-ed piece about the cultural disconnect triggered by the seemingly, to an American, polite question, “How are you?”.

I just had the pleasure of reading a piece on The New York Times website entitled, The ‘How Are You?’ Culture Clash, by Alina Simone. In this article, Ms. Simone—born in Ukraine to Russian parents, but raised in the U.S.—speaks to how the common question often asked, even of strangers, by the average American,  “How are you?” can highlight differences in cultural outlook when asked of someone raised in the Soviet Union or some its successor states. She brings to this discussion a perspective from both sides of this cultural gap, as someone often faced with the task of smoothing over, as she puts it, “the bafflement of my American friends and the hurt feelings of my Russian expat family as a result of this innocuous inquiry.”

I appreciate her insights for what they say about not only culture, but also about language: how it used, how it is informed by, and informs, the outlook shard by the people who grew up using it, and how it can spotlight differences in outlooks among societies. I am also impressed by Alina Simone’s combining of personal experience with the views of others and with her scholarly research. She compares the inane formality of the knee-jerk American response, “fine,” with the equally disturbing tendency of Russians to give an honest answer, full of intimate details to explain why they are doing how they are doing. Continue reading

Fagot-Korovyov: Bassoon-Cow?

To Translate, or to Transliterate? That is the Question: The Curious Case of the name, Fagot-Korovyov, in translating ‘Master and Margarita.’

Going further with my translation of Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, I have hit on a puzzle regarding how best to put into English the names given to one particular character. In an earlier post I had discussed the varying levels of meanings attached to the names of characters in this novel, and decisions about whether to translate or transliterate. The case of this one figure is complicated in a number of ways: he is actually given, at different points in the story, two names, but single names and without any explanation as to how they relate to each other; and both of these names have clear connections with fairly common nouns in the Russian language. So what shall we call him? Korovyov? Cow? Fagot? Bassoon?


This fellow first appears in chapter one as an hallucination, floating in the air before Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, editor of a literary journal. Soon after this he is encountered by the same Berlioz at the park at Patriarch’s Ponds, and is described as tall, thin, wearing a checkered jacket, a jockey’s cap, broken pince-nez and dirty socks. Continue reading