The life of a Russian grandmother, a woman in the wrong places at the wrong times.
Using family memorabilia, the recollections of friends and relatives, plus newspaper files and historical archives, British journalist Williams (Hongkong Bank, 1989, etc.) has pieced together a large portion of the life of her grandmother, Olga Yunter, who was born in 1890 in Siberia and died in 1973 in England. The homely details of life in Siberia in the early-20th-century fill the first chapters, but WWII and the Russian Revolution brought uncertainty, death and chaos, changing Olga’s life forever. After two of her brothers were killed in 1919, her father gave her a handful of rubies and gold nuggets to sew into her clothing, put her on a horse and sent her east to Vladivostok. Within a few months she was on the run again, this time to Tientsin, China, a city filled with Russian refugees also fleeing from the Reds. There, she learned English, and in 1923 married a young Englishman, Fred Edney, thereby gaining a certain security. Olga began transforming herself into a proper English housewife, one who was not, however, quite acceptable to Fred’s family back in England. Home leaves, granted every five years by Fred’s employer, were disappointing affairs. Still, life in the European sectors of Tientsin and later Shanghai was comfortable and relatively safe until 1940, when Japan signed a military alliance with Italy and Germany. Staying in China then became too dangerous, and once again, Olga was on the run, this time to Canada, where friends had offered refuge. The author gives scant coverage to the WWII years, to Olga’s 1945 reunion with her husband, interned by the Japanese, or to their subsequent life in Shanghai. By 1948, Communist forces were advancing, and Olga and her husband again fled, eventually finding sanctuary in England.
A blend of family history and world history that starts out strong—the Russian years are by far the most compelling—but runs out of steam long before Olga does.