We spend our lives in tense expectation

The Red Army enters Odessa, April 1919

In the midst of the Russian Civil War, April 1919 saw the city of Odessa plunged further into turmoil as the Bolshevik Red Army entered, leaving the future uncertain for the once-thriving port and its inhabitants. One person who found himself caught amidst the chaos was Ivan Bunin, a distinguished Russian writer and the first Russian recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in his diary weeks later he recalled that initial moment of panic. Bunin fled his home country in January of the next year, never to return. It would take another two years for the Russian Civil War to officially end, leaving the nation and its people forever changed by the devastating conflict.

The Diary Entry

April 25, 1919

Almost three weeks have passed already since our ruin.

I very much regret I did not write anything down. I should have taken note of almost every minute. But it was beyond my powers to do so. But we had absolutely no idea of what was going to happen on April 3!

On noon of that day our maid Anyuta called me to the phone. “Who’s calling?” I asked. “Someone from the editorial office, it seems,” i.e., from the staff of ‘Our Word’, the newspaper that we, the former collaborators of ‘Russian Word’, having gathered in Odessa, began to publish on April 1, since we felt fully assured that we would enjoy a more or less peaceful existence “until we could return to Moscow.” I picked up the receiver. “Who is it?” I asked. “Valentine Kataev. I’m rushing to tell you some unbelievable news: the French are leaving Odessa.” “How can this be, when are they going?” “This very minute.” “Have you lost your mind?” “I swear to you, it’s true. They’re fleeing in panic!”

I ran out of the house and grabbed a cab, but I did not believe my eyes. Donkeys loaded with goods, French and Greek soldiers in field dress, gigs with all kinds of military property. When I got to the editorial office I found a telegram: “Clemençeau’s ministry is falling apart. Revolution and barricades in Paris. …”

On this very day twelve years ago Vera and I came to Odessa en route to Palestine. What fantastic changes have occurred since that time! A dead, empty port; a dead, burned-out city. … Our children and grandchildren will not be able even to imagine the Russia in which we once lived (that is, what was it like yesterday) and which we ourselves did not value or understand—all its might, complexity, richness, and happiness….

It poured cats and dogs last night. The day was grey, cold. The little tree that has grown green in our yard has burst into flower. But some damned spring this has been!… I do not feel like spring at all. After all, what is spring now?

Rumors and more rumors. We spend our lives in tense expectation (just as we did all last winter here in Odessa, and the winter before in Moscow when everyone kept expecting the Germans to come and save us). And this waiting around for something to come and resolve it all, and always in vain. But we will not go unscathed, of course; our souls will be maimed even if we survive. But what would everything be like if we did not have even these expectations, these hopes?

“Dear God, in what a time you have ordered me to be born!”

Further Reading

In 1998, Ivan Bunin’s diary was translated into English by Thomas Gaiton Marullo and published by Ivan R. Dee with the title Cursed Days: A Diary of Revolution. Wikipedia has a page dedicated to this diary, and it’s worth a read.

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