While reading some books, I'm compelled to keep a pen or pencil in hand and underline particularly wonderful passages. I don't want to lose them. They're pearls of wisdom, and I know my poor memory and how quickly the content of such quotes melts out of my brain, leaving none of the excellent ideas -- only the awareness of something lost.
White Road by Olga Ilyin is such a book.
I'll begin with three quotes the author gives from an elderly friend who also fled across Siberia in the winter in a sleigh, being chased by murderous Bolsheviks. The elderly lady was the Countess Cygnen. She said:
"There is nothing as hard as undertaking a struggle with one's baser nature, but nothing as stimulating as carrying on the struggle once you have undertaken it." (61)
And regarding the difficulty of accepting their very changed way of life:
"Acceptance is never passive. It is a creative act, in which renunciation and sublimation merge." (61) This concept reminds me of a well-known Emily Dickinson poem called "Renunciation."
And contemplating that she still lived while so many of her young family members had been killed:
"If you tell me that I have no future, that at my age of 74 my life expectancy is nil, I shall have to smile, because life is practically nil if measured in length instead of in depth." (91)
Aren't those wonderful? The White Russians among whom these women traveled and lived were the intelligentsia. They were not royalty, but were wealthy, and they'd tried to change Russia more gently after the czars were removed. They fought valiantly against the Red Russians, and lost as their forces disintegrated in Siberia.
Olga now understood the different brands of poverty:
"To be starving among the starving was merely physical torture, while to starve among the surfeited was a soul-corroding degradation." (106)
On their killing journey that winter she had horrible dreams:
"It is only through a dream that you can measure the force of your love and pain." (22)
Even as a young woman she was a thinker:
"I have come to my own terms with time, you know. The passage of time used to terrify me so . . . the fact that it folds up like an accordion while death hides behind it." (18)
Witnessing brutality and murder on such a scale changed her view of the world and evil:
"The hard realist in me, the twin of the dreamer, knew that, once unleashed, the forces of destruction and hatred became the conquerors of the world." (28)
Olga Ilyin had a deep, personal faith in God, but she didn't express it in our blunt American lingo. She was a poet, and her staunch belief rested on an almost magical protection and guidance through her life, and she noted repeatedly that rescue and help always arrived for her in the barest nick of time. Amazingly, she generally did not fret when danger was so near. She held firmly to the wonder of a rich inner, spiritual life. It sustained her in the darkest days.
"There I knelt in the dusk by my mother's grave, where the purity of silence had been repeating to me year after year, in her firm, tender voice, that true life could not die." (30)
"How was it possible that again the stars should reassure me of the wonder of life, telling me that nothing great could be really broken or vanquished?" (75)
"When a certain pattern in our experience repeats itself again and again and can't be explained logically, then we call it miraculous." (85)
Beauty and art play important roles in this rich life of the soul:
"Don't you think that if a man is deprived of the sense of beauty he stops being really human? Don't you think that where there is no poetry there is bound to be frustration? This is what I miss in Vladimir. This is what he lacks. He knows poetry, quotes it. I mean, he's always doing something with it instead if it doing something with him." (107) [I really, really like that fine distinction at the end. These people were excellent thinkers and diced their thoughts so well.]
"Then we spoke of how easy it had been to lose our material possessions compared to losing the sense of beauty, the awareness of some higher imperishable level of life that at times burst through this crude and perishable one to let us know it existed. . . . Art, we said, was our link with that higher level of being, and what, we wondered, must be the life of those who had no such link?" (107)
She loved to discuss such ideas, but did not assume she could convince others. A person's credo is very individualistic:
"Lorinov probably would not have shared my beliefs, for when all is said and done people understand only what they themselves have experienced." (93)
And now, my favorite quote from her. I wish I could live out this assurance as she did, and she said this when she was down to only pennies to feed herself, her child, and her companion:
"Such is my conviction, my faith: as long as we don't jerk things out of God's hands by worry, and trust Him implicitly, He will take care of everything." (300)
I loved reading this book. It's full of action and danger, elegant prose descriptions and fun-to-dissect characters. I learned much about Russia I'd never known.