Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village

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Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village

By Serge Schmemann
Alfred A. Knopf, 1997
350 pp. $27.50
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Even the reader who cares little about Russia will get great pleasure from this book. Everything about it is remarkable. Schmemann, a New York Times correspondent, does not just trace his Russian roots, he enlarges the family portrait to reconstruct the life and fate of an entire locale. His ancestors on his mother's side were landed gentry, and the centerpiece of his study is the family manor at Koltsovo, a village 90 miles south of Moscow. Around it he re-creates in sensuous detail life in nineteenth-century rural Russia -- the days at the manor, his relatives' social and intellectual life and interaction with peasants, and the way events elsewhere in the country visited this existence. He then traces the impact of the 1917 revolution on the manor, the village, and his family, who were summarily driven from their homestead and left to their own devices. Some eventually made their way to Western Europe. Some, like Schmemann's grandfather's youngest brother, who died in the late 1920s in the first of Stalin's gulags, did not. Schmemann worked not only from the artful memoirs of his great-grandfather and grandfather, but also from a remarkable range of notes, photos, letters, and recollections drawn from every corner, including the one-room museum in the manor's former parish school, lovingly maintained by an old woman from the village. Ultimately it is Schmemann's quest, the people he met and came to know, and his many excursions to the village itself (once the authorities, after ten years of refusing, at last let him travel there) that give this book so much life, color, and warmth.