A Little of All These An Estonian Childhood, by Tania Alexander (Jonathan Cape, 12.50).
ALONG the eastern shores of the Baltic, south of Finland, lie three territories whose inhabitants have been fought over, ravaged and ruled by the neighbouring powers of Poland, Sweden, Russia and German mercenaries for centuries past, but which had managed to maintain despite all contrary odds their own very real ethnic identities.
Among those odds probably the most powerful not unlike the situation in Ireland was the presence of an alien ruling class drawn from every nationality in Europe, but mainly German by culture, which owned most of the land and controlled the bulk of economic life in the cities. "I am not a Dane," wrote the philosopher Hermann Keyserling, "not a German, not a Swede, not a Russian nor an Estonian, so what am I? A little of all these."
It would be easy enough to dismiss the existence of the "Baltic" lands or states as a freakish and marginal phenomenon were it not that ever since the Middle Ages and right up to the present moment they have provided a channel of communication between Europe in the West and Russia on the threshold of Asia. From Estonia in the north, geographically and ethnically close to Finland, through Latvia and Lithuania, this is where most Russians discover an alien world that many find more disturbing, yet more attractive than their own.
All this provides sufficient reason for a book that reflects life in the Baltic States during the brief interval between the two World Wars when they were genuinely independent, democratic, self-respecting entities, even though the local ex-ascendency from which Tania Alexander originates refused to come to terms with the new order of things.
But A Little of All These lives
up to its title and is vastly rewarding on more than merely this level. For one thing, the contrasts of a world seen through the eyes of a very young girl, whose father is murdered very nearly in her presence, yet where a genuinely pristine, almost pastoral existence survives unbroken lends the story a sort of fairy tale character. Then there are the echoes of the great world outside, starting from the last, apparently brilliant days of the Russian Empire, in the elite of which the author's parents and other relatives played a prominent part, down to the sordid latter days of Hitler and Stalin.
But even this almost, one suspects, against Tania Alexander's own intention is not the centre of gravity of this fascinating record. Over it, from start to finish, broods the formidable figure of her mother whose place in the history of modern literature is assured under the name of Moura Budberg.
Who could have guessed when the enchanting, vivacious, brilliantly intelligent and wealthy Moura Zakrevskaya married a rising diplomat, Count Djon Benckendorff, in 1911 that she would fall for Robert Bruce Lockhart, a British representative and agent who came near to changing the course of the Russian Revolution; become an intimate friend, guide and business manager for Maxim Gorky, the founder of contemporary Russian Socialist literature; be involved as deeply with H G Wells as their respective characters allowed; and go on louring, somewhat terrifyingly, over the London literary scene for what seemed like the whole of an era.
This extraordinary tale unfolds clearly, modestly, without either lack of candour or lapse in filial piety, in all its strange ramifications. It is a slim book a mere 160 pages.