Olga's Story, by Stephanie Williams


June 12, 2005

Russia: Olga's Story by Stephanie Williams

by Stephanie Williams

Viking £20 pp440



Olga’s Story reads like a novel. It seems to have borrowed images from a few works of fiction to bring life into the vanished world of Olga Yunter, Stephanie Williams’s indomitable grandmother, who fled from Siberia in 1920, with a price on her head for the help she had given her older brothers in defending their home town first from the Bolsheviks and then from the White forces. (Williams’s book is an eye-opener for anybody who still casts the White Russians as the virtuous in Soviet Russia’s bloody battle for power in the post-tsarist years.)

Fear and guilt have combined to set Williams a tough assignment in recovering the story of Olga. The area from which her family came, on the borders of the southern steppe, was — by the usual method of destroying all the evidence, written and physical — subsequently stripped of a history that politicians preferred to forget. In England, perhaps because he shared his wife’s fear that she might still be discovered and used to identify and punish surviving members of her Russian family, Olga’s husband destroyed all the personal records he could find after her death in 1974. Without considerable determination and an uncommon gift for evoking places that have now changed out of all recognition, Williams could never have brought off this triumphant work of . . . And here I grow hesitant. How much beyond the bare outlines of this vivid and enthralling work can be granted the title of historical truth; how much is the ornamentation of a retentive and image-seeking mind?

I do wish that Williams, writing as a conscientious, trained journalist, had done her more sceptical readers the favour of providing source notes to some of the brilliant and entrancing scenes that seem and perhaps do belong to her grandmother’s experience. Her introduction and acknowledgments indicate that the canvas on which she went to work was often threadbare.


Olga herself merely provided her granddaughter with a bouquet of romantic episodes from her haunted history; the Russian descendants whom Williams tracked down had only garbled memories of her, handed down by parents and cousins. How, then, does Williams know that little Olga lay lapped in fur in her father’s arms, listening to the tinkling fall of Siberian forest dew? From where did she take the eerily precise account of Olga’s visit to a Chinese wizard in the marketplace of her childhood — a man with a round, flat face “like the surface of a smooth white pond”? Are these Olga ’s words, those of a general source, or Williams’s own? We are not told. Certainly, the images are apt and powerful; in a work of fiction, they would merit unqualified praise.

There is no doubt that the outline story is authentic. Olga, the youngest child of a rich merchant’s right-hand man, led a privileged life that, luckily for her future, included an excellent education. She was born in 1900, and her sense of a world beyond the unexpectedly civilised Siberian trading-post in which she grew up was surprisingly broadened in 1918. Her brother Volodya, a war hero who had been rewarded with an icon from the imperial family when he lost an eye defending his country, came home, wounded and in disguise, to protect his home town from the Bolsheviks. Olga, who had helped bury the family silver and taken shooting lessons from her father, became Volodya’s secret ally and messenger, while still working hard enough to get top marks at the town’s top school. In 1919, Volodya and his youngest brother were captured and killed; urged by her father and conscious that her links with Volodya could put the whole family at risk, Olga left home for ever. Rubies sewn into her petticoat gave her enough to survive on as she fled, first to Vladivostok and then, as the Red Guards approached, to Tientsin.

Stories of the Russian émigré community in Paris have become a cliché; but reading of that same world as it came into being in rich, raffish, cosmopolitan Tientsin, the second most prosperous city in China in the 1920s, brings a fresh perspective to familiar scenarios. In Tientsin, the Russians were despised and exploited. Just as in Paris, the grandeur of their lost lives expanded as their current existence became increasingly close to that of an unwelcome underclass. Here, hungry for security, Olga married the Englishman to whom, after her fashion, she remained a loyal wife.

While Williams evidently admires her grandmother, she cannot make her lovable. The story she has to tell is of a battle for survival in which charm had no part to play. The unfolding adventure of Olga’s post-Russian years, of flight from Tientsin and Japanese invasion, of a fiercely anglicised style of life in Shanghai, of discreet relationships and a hunger for social acceptance, is a tale made compelling by its revelation of a formidable woman who made the best she could from a life in which the past is always present, but necessarily suppressed. Well written and passionately researched, Olga’s Story raises the intriguing question of how many of us could hope to match her guts and loyalty in such circumstances.


Olga’s trials did not end with escape from Russia. By 1937, with the Japanese advance across China, she was forced to move to Shanghai, where she was to endure the loss of her second child and the constant threat from the nearby Japanese army. Only in 1941, with her arrival first in San Francisco and then British Columbia, did she gain a measure of safety.


Great Trans-Siberian railway site



THE TLS n.º 5335, July 1, 2005

Out of Siberia

Catriona Kelly

Stephanie Williams

Olga’s Story

412 pp. Viking £20.

0 670 91376 6

US: Doubleday. $26.  0 385 50851 4

Olga Williams spent the end of her life in North Oxford, the domestic purgatory for academic families so caustically recalled by Nancy Mitford and, more recently, Charlotte Mendelson in The Daughters of Jerusalem. Here, according to her granddaughter, Stephanie Williams, she was a formidable presence: trim, mauve-haired, chic, and with a command of four languages, including Russian and lightly accented English.

A whiff of exoticism also emanated from her personal possessions - a camphor chest, porcelain ducks and other Chinese curios - and from her cooking, which included a genteel version of borshch (the vegetables “must be very fine, like matchsticks, and exactly even. Do them again”). Hints she dropped about the past escape from Siberia across the Chinese border during the Civil War - evoked for her grand-children the usual clichés about life in the Russian gentry before 1917. They imagined “a small country estate - like those of other Russian émigrés - where she spent the summer picknicking in the shade of a river bank, while peasants harvested rolling fields of grain”.

The truth, as Olga‘s Story shows, was very different, and considerably more interesting. Like many, perhaps most, members of the so called “First Wave”, the émigrés who left Russia during the Revolution and Civil War, Olga was not by any stretch of the imagination an aristocrat. The Yunter family, Germans from the Baltic who had, by the nineteenth century, become Russianized, belonged to the meshchane, the free, but plebeian, urban estate, who, before 1861, were not entitled to hold land. At some time before Olga’ s parents were married, her father, Semyon, had relocated to Troitskosavsk, in the far east of Siberia, which served the Sino-Russian trading post of Kyakhta. The financial manager for Ivan Goldobin, one of the richest and most successful merchants in Irkutsk, Semyon was a local notability in a settlement that was not much above village size, but extraordinarily rich.

The Yunters and their friends formed part of a local bourgeoisie that was at once thoroughly modern (young people, including girls, went to the local state high schools, and Olga’s sister studied on the Bestuzhev Courses of Higher Education for Women in St Petersburg) and distinctively Russian. Only one room in the house was plastered, but it was a museum of luxury items of all kinds, from velvet curtains to silver-mounted icons and Turkish carpets. The housekeeper, honorifically known by her patronymic, Filippovna, was a conduit for a characteristic mixture of folk belief and religion: consulting a Chinese wizard, but also raising the children in holy terror of a Christian kind. “The fear of God’s punishment hung like a cloud over our childhood”, Olga was later to remember.

In a sense this was prescient. Despite their lowly status in the tsarist estate hierarchy, the Yunters were instantly transformed, after 1917, to antagonists in the “class war”. In the eyes of popular Marxism, families of this kind were, without a shadow of doubt, burzhui. One of Olga’s brothers, Volodya, an officer in the Siberian Regiment, was shot down in the street on his return from interrogation by the Reds; another, Vasya, having prudently changed sides, spent the rest of his life in the Soviet Union. The warring sides in Siberia matched atrocity with atrocity, and flight became essential to survival. Olga found temporary refuge in Vladivostok, one of the last outposts of non-Bolshevism, and from there made her way to China, the rest of her life was passed outside Russia, and the book at this point switches from an evocation of long-lost Russian reality to an intriguing but more predictable portrait of an outsider in British expatriate society. Having married the gauche but devoted Fred Williams, Olga had to associate with the wives of tobacco company officials in Tientsin, and found herself the subject of suspicion and hostility. By her old age, as Stephanie Williams argues, “all this emphasis no behaviour and high standards and keeping up appearances [was] all that was left to root her, in help retain her sense of self-possession”.

“Russian grandmother stories” are something of au established genre, from Dmitry Blagovo’s Rasskazy babushki (1885) to Masha Gessen’s Two Babushkas (2004). Generally, books of this kind consist of what might be termed unsystematic oral history, with a hefty dollop of family folklore mixed in. They express naive chronological enthusiasm - one generation’s astonishment at being genetically connected with another whose experiences and mentality are so distinct - but their historiographical status is uncertain. Olga’s Story, on the other hand, is rather different. This is not so much a “grandmother tale” as a historical reconstruction, in which Stephanie Williams’s own shifting and rather ambivalent views of her ancestor are peripheral.

As well as relying on older relations’ memories of what Olga told them, Stephanie Williams has done a great deal of work with additional sources, including documents from local archives Yet the book is not annotated, though provided with a lot of sources at the end it is nuclear what material comes from where. Are the details of the Yunters’ household drawn from Olga’s own memory, and if so, how much could that he relied on afier fifty and more years? Or are these details, and the description of Troitskosavsk more broadly, extrapolated from contemporary sources, such as the local guidebooks and directories and the published memoirs in which Williams had recourse?

Questions of this kind won’t shake the success that Olga‘s Story is likely in have with readers looking for a variation on the themes of Doctor Zhivago. But they will wobble the authority of Olga’s Story as reference material for professional historians. A set of proper notes would have made ii a more useful contribution in the growing body of work on the Russian trading elite - the so-called “forgotten class” - now being produced by Russian and Western academics. Nevertheless, Williams has produced a gripping and, so far as one can tell, authentic narrative of a life that was at once ordinary (many millions of early-twentieth-century Russians endured experiences as vivid and terrible as Olga’s) and remarkable. Olga had no exceptional talents; she never had a career; she did not associate with famous people. But the vicissitudes of fortune that she experienced reflect with great vividness Russia’s economic and cultural renaissance before 1914, and the chaos and barbarism of war and Revolution that was to follow. And it is good to see a readership for which “Russia” has often meant Moscow, St. Petersburg and the great estates, introduced to the very different world of the Siberian middle class.




Among the Siberian gentry

Reviewed by Jonathan Mirsky

Olga’s Story
by Stephanie Williams
Viking, 412pp, £20, ISBN 0670913766

The first half of Olga’s Story is as good as Doctor Zhivago. If you recall, the backdrop to the love story of Zhivago and Lara was the end of civilised Russian bourgeois life, slowly and frighteningly, and the imposition of the horrors of civil war and the greater horrors of Leninism. Although none of the characters in this true story rivals Zhivago and Lara, we ‘see’ them, as Joseph Conrad demanded of great literature. Here, as vividly as in Pasternak, is the destruction by anarchy and Bolshevism, thousands of miles from the genteel Moscow salons of Dr Zhivago, of the rougher but cultured life of the Siberian gentry at the turn of the 20th century.

One of the treats of terrific literature is how it opens the doors to worlds we know nothing about. I knew a bit about Siberia’s political exiles (some of Russia’s most famous exiled intellectuals were deeply respected where Olga grew up), and of the Russian empire’s push eastwards, across its great lakes and rivers for furs and gold and for a Pacific seaport. There, in its Far East, Russia challenged China and was confronted, almost fatally, by Japan.

But what Stephanie Williams has done superbly in this biography of her Russian maternal grandmother, Olga Yunter, born in 1900, is to bring to vibrant life the world of middle- and upper-class Russians in Siberian towns. These remind us immediately of their counterparts in Moscow, as portrayed in Dr Zhivago. ‘The merchants’ own quarters were tastefully furnished. Paintings, tapestries and libraries were brought all the way from St Petersburg, London and Paris The women were dressed by Worth in Paris.’ Around that sophisticated upper class teemed Chinese, Mongols — Mongolia was just across the border — Kazakhs, Jews and Buryats, attending camel caravans and working as hunters, fishermen and miners. On that frontier, too, where Olga was born and grew into her teens, her school demanded the highest standards of academic work, deportment and discipline and sent its best students to university in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Without making it ‘enchanted’, Williams leads us into an admirable world just before the cataclysm of the Russian revolution. Olga’s family spent days every year preparing for the Russian Christmas by making the tree decorations and went by sledge through thick snow into the forest to choose and cut down the perfect tree. We see what foods were eaten at Christmas and exactly what happened at church services. In some places the air was cold enough to freeze one’s nose hairs, and mountains were so steep that when the reindeer pulling the sledges reached the top they ‘would have to be tied to the backs of the sledges to slow the pace of the descent’. Olga’s father, an adventurous merchant, heard that sables of unparalleled quality could be found in Kamchatka hundreds of miles away. The trip by horse and sledge would take eight months: ‘The danger from avalanches was so acute that the natives would not speak for fear of dislodging them.’ He carried a sleeping bag of ‘reindeer fur, lined with soft pyzhik, the skins of still-born reindeers; he would wear soft fur boots up to the knee, fur trousers, a kind of chamois shirt with the fur worn next to the skin, covered with a second shirt with the fur outside, and a large fur hat for exceptionally cold weather’. When Olga’s father returned he was so weathered she barely recognised him. But what a haul! Out tumbled ‘dozens of furs, long-haired fox, yellow, light brown and grey, black silky pelts and glossy white ones. The riches lay on the warm sand at his feet, their musky scent rising in the air.’

The 1905 revolution was greeted with happiness by the Siberian gentry, who despised the corruption of the tsars, but in 1914 the Great War began, Olga’s brothers entered the army to fight the Germans, and then came the Bolshevik revolution. The Yunters, for whom Lenin was a virtually unknown figure, so erratic were communications to Siberia, sided with the Whites — often as brutal as the Reds. Siberia’s gentry and their world fell apart. Young men were executed on the spot when caught, women were raped, houses were sacked and goods confiscated by thugs on both sides. Olga, already an acrobatic rider in the Mongol fashion, escaped — she never saw her family again — wrapped in a sack and slung over the back of a horse, then by hellish train to Vladivostok, a perilous place for a respectable Russian girl, and finally to Tiantsin in north China, where there was a sizeable, often impoverished, Russian exile community.

Stephanie Williams got some of this dramatic story from Olga herself, who finally reached England after many years in China. What she absorbed from that distinguished, proud, demanding old lady, always beautifully dressed and with a houseful of Chinese objects, was atmospheric. Olga rightly forbade her granddaughter to go to the Soviet Union to seek out the long-lost Yunter family: ‘They will find out about me and then they will find my family and then they will punish them or treat them badly.’ Olga burned most of her papers. She died in 1974 and Williams did not get to Siberia until 1994, where what she found ‘persuaded me that Olga’s stories were true’.

The absorbing detail about those years in Siberia comes from Olga’s surviving relations whom Williams met in Russia when she tracked them down, together with letters, diaries, local news- papers and archives. The Chinese, Canadian, and British parts of the story are rather pedestrian by contrast and rarely come thrillingly alive like the Siberian years, sad, depressing, romantic, and frightening though Olga’s life in exile plainly was.

Never mind. To write over 200 pages as well as Pasternak is a great thing. And what a tribute Olga’s sister Lydia, whom she never saw again after her hair-rising journeys, reportedly paid to her: ‘Olga’s flight saved not only herself but the rest of the family. She was the one the police would have arrested first, then they would have come to take the rest of us.’


Olga's Story

Stephanie Williams

Viking, £ 20, 412 pp


How Olga survived the century
(Filed: 17/07/2005)

Nigel Jones reviews Olga's Story by Stephanie Williams.

Olga Yunter came into the world during the same long Siberian night in 1900 in which her sister Anya left it, a victim of diphtheria. Olga's grief-stricken mother did not acknowledge her existence for weeks, and the circumstances of her birth turned out to be an ominous foretaste of the calamitous 20th century. Her extraordinary journey through life has now been superbly rescued and reconstructed by her granddaughter, Stephanie Williams, who has written a heartbreaking story of disaster and survival through some of the worst conflicts and upheavals of our benighted age.

Olga's family were Russian merchants of German descent who crossed the Urals to make their fortune in the Siberian badlands. It was a "wild east" world of lakes as broad as seas, rivers as wide as lakes, teeming wildlife, Chinese wizards, convict chain gangs, wooden shanty towns and Mongolian yurts, where caravans from the mysterious Orient would regularly pass through. Williams, an author unafraid of the old-fashioned purple passage, colourfully evokes the sights and sounds of a way of life about to be erased forever: the steaming samovars; the hairy peasants; the endless waving cornfields of the steppes and the equally vast brooding forests of the Siberian taiga where the Russian Orthodox Church rubbed shoulders with Siberian shamanism.

Williams's descriptions are all the more remarkable given the paucity of documentary evidence. Family records have vanished - many of them burned on a bonfire after her death by Olga's confused English husband. Other documents were swallowed up by war and revolution; street names have changed and whole towns have disappeared. Nevertheless, a seemingly complete picture emerges of a close-knit family going through their civilised rituals on the lip of a volcano. The first shock of the coming eruption was the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, followed by the abortive 1905 revolution.

By the time of the First World War, Olga's elder brothers were officer cadets in the Tsarist army. An icon, given to her wounded brother Volodya by the doomed Tsarina, is a symbol of survival that recurs throughout the story, and was presented to Stephanie Williams by her grandmother to wear on her wedding day. But no icon could save the Yunters from the savage forces that smashed their lives and snapped their family bonds. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution and subsequent civil war found the family on the side of the losing Whites. Olga had a rude awakening to the realities of the new Russia when she cleaned the festering, maggot-ridden wounds of Volodya and then found herself sheltering him from the vengeful Reds.

Soon after, she was separated from her family forever. With rubies sewn into her petticoats, she fled alone to China where she reconstructed her life through a happy marriage to an Englishman called Fred. But there was no escape from 20th-century terrors. In 1937 she had to flee again; this time from the invading Japanese. Once again, Olga re-built her life in the sophisticated surroundings of Shanghai's European enclave. And, once again, she was forced to flee the chaos of China's civil war and Mao's Communist take-over in 1948.

She finally came to rest in the very different environs of north Oxford, where, in the 1960s, a naive Stephanie Williams made her grandmother bowls of bortsch and sat down to hear the first glimmerings of her epic story. Williams describes her younger self as "sympathetic to Communism", presumably she sympathises no more, since Olga's Story, among many other good things, is a stark cautionary tale against revolution in any shape or form. One major black mark against an otherwise moving and brilliant book however: although it has excellent maps it lacks an index. In a work so crammed with names and places, this is unforgivable.






Three Continents, Two World Wars, and Revolution--One Woman's Epic Journey Through the Twentieth Century
Author: Williams, Stephanie

Review Date: APRIL 15, 2005
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 352
Price (hardback): $26.00
Publication Date: 6/21/2005 0:00:00
ISBN: 0-385-50851-4
ISBN (hardback): 0-385-50851-4
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.