RUSSIAN BLOOD: A Family Chronicle by Alex Shoumatoff

RUSSIAN BLOOD: A Family Chronicle

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Decorative, sentimental leafings through a half-fascinating family scrapbook--as Shoumatoff (Florida Ramble, The Capital of Hope) uses his grandmothers' reminiscences to reconstruct his Russian roots on both sides. He begins with the recent death of famed portrait-painter Elizabeth ""Mopsy"" Shoumatoff (who was painting FDR when he suffered his fatal stroke), then goes back to tell the history of Elizabeth's family. These are the Avinoffs, who trace their ancestry back through centuries, who came to occupy the virtually self-sufficient Shideyevo estate in late-19th-century Russia. The siblings, circa 1910: gifted amateur artist Mopsy, who married Lyova Shoumatoff (nÉ Schumacher)on the rebound from tragic romance; Andrei (""Uncle"")--watercolorist, lepidopterist, entomologist, linguist, Himalayan explorer, courtier to the tsar; and Nika, a radical of the non-Bolshevik, Kerensky-ian school. So, when the bad times came, Uncle headed for the US, soon followed by the Shoumatoffs (on the last trans-Siberian express), while Nika remained behind to work with the provisional government--and to become a victim of the Bolsheviks. The book's second large section, then, is devoted to the ÉmigrÉs in America: early days on a dairy farm in the Catskills; Uncle's success as a Versailles interpreter, museum curator, artist, butterfly-collector (in Jamaica); Lyova's partnership with still-experimenting Igor Sikorsky; Mopsy's professional career; and the whole clan's adoption by society, by the rich and famous. Strangely, though, these talented, elegant people don't come across with much vividness in Shoumatoff's competent, affectionate chronicle. (The most engaging Avinoff here is Nika's widow Masha, a later refugee who was like a ""dowager hippopotamus""--insatiably hungry but impassive: ""She had seen it all. Nothing could possibly have fazed her."") And there's only intermittent drama in the book's last section: the story of maternal grandmother Nani, whose path to America was far more harrowing--as she followed her colonel-husband around in his hopeless White Russian battles (teaching school in Yugoslavia, suffering on a refugee ship); plus the courtship of Alex's parents--and his belated discovery of his colonel-grandfather's pathetic fate. Despite glimpses of a recent Shoumatoff trip to old family sites in Russia, however, the impact here is rarely directly personal or affecting. It's more a sedate pageant of names, places, and objets d'art--and, with 100 black-and-white photos, sure to give modest pleasure to a nostalgic, glamour-minded readership.

Pub Date: May 26th, 1982
Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan