Samovar on the Table: A family memoir by Lana der Parthogh
By Marina Christofides
The late writer and polemicist Christopher Hitchens once wrote that politics has a way of forcing itself into our lives in a vicious and chilling manner. Veteran Cypriot journalist Lana Matoff der Parthogh’s family memoir illustrates this perfectly, as she weaves together historical facts with human stories to show how ordinary people trying to get on with their lives can suddenly find themselves at the mercy of unpleasant political events.
In this centenary year of the Russian Revolution, it’s interesting to see a book giving a Cyprus angle to the events of 1917. As a third-generation Russian on the island, Lana der Parthogh tells the story of how in March 1920 her grandfather, Nicolai Dimitch Matoff, first arrived on the British colony, along with over 1500 other White Russians. Politics had cut short his promising scientific research career, forcing him at the age of 35 to fight the Red Army. Seriously wounded, he found himself shipped out of Russia in a comatose condition on board the ship Kherson, one of three heading for Cyprus, leaving his wife, nine-year-old son, baby daughter and mother-in-law trapped back in Belgorod, his father killed, and his mother dying of hunger.
When the ships landed in Famagusta, the Russians were placed in a camp for former World War I prisoners-of-war. Over the next two years, some sought asylum in other countries, others died. By May 1922 Nikolai and just seventy Russians were left, having survived the internment camp, low-paid jobs, colonial bureaucracy and attempts to deport them.
The book describes some of the men and women who formed the core of the Russian community in Cyprus, the first-ever classified refugees in the world, whose existence few people know about or remember even here on the island. There was Dr Vroblevsky, a gynaecologist who worked at the Pendayia hospital, Dr Pavel Smitten, owner of a clinic in Nicosia, Anatoly Makedonsky and August Classen employed at the Imperial Ottoman Bank, engineer Ivan Popoff who set up Paphos’ first power generator and Casimir Shnell, an expert in leather tanning, to name but a few.
Choosing to stay in Cyprus primarily because it was British and offered safety and security, the Russians took any job they could find, offering French and German lessons, piano lessons, ‘commercial correspondence’ and dressmaking. In time, however, the desire for security gave way to a sense of belonging, as they found work that better suited their education and skills, bought property, made friends and became valued members of the community, some marrying Cypriots.
Nikolai Matoff at first found work at the asbestos mines in Amiandos, then at the Cyprus Mines Corporation (CMC), the American copper mine in Skouriotissa. He became a British citizen and bought a piece of land in Kalochorio near Lefka, with its railway station. There he built a house for his family, who he eventually brought over from Russia, as well as a tile factory to supplement his income. He created project after project for CMC, was instrumental in the building of the Pendayia hospital, and brought electric light to the village.
Kalochorio was where Lana grew up. Echoes of World War II filter through the descriptions of her bucolic childhood, as she continues to interweave the public with the personal. She remembers that items like sugar or newspapers were scarce, how the family would gather round the radio listening to news broadcasts or poring over maps on her grandparents’ bedroom wall, and that the English School was evacuated to Kyrenia ‘because of the war’.
Of the many life stories she describes, perhaps the most traumatic belongs to her maternal grandmother, Ksenia. From a carefree life married to a dashing young Cossack officer, she was forced to watch as the Bolsheviks shot her husband before her eyes, then found herself thrown into a prison cell, scrounging for food for her two small daughters, losing her eldest to diphtheria. She was eventually released, remarried and moved with her family to Latvia, where two years later her husband died, forcing her to eke out an existence as a seamstress as best she could.
When her daughter, Larissa, left for Cyprus to marry Sergei Matoff, Lana’s father, with whom she had started corresponding, war once again intervened, leaving Ksenia trapped behind the Iron Curtain alone for 17 years, before they managed to get her out. “I survived and that’s what’s most important,” is all she would say when asked what life had been like.
Lana herself did not escape the curse of living in ‘interesting times’. At 17, she joined the Times of Cyprus, working under the erudite Charles Foley, where she had a first-hand view of the ‘troubles’ on the island. One of her first jobs was the ‘humbling’ experience of being sent off to cover the funeral of middle-aged service wife, Mrs Cutliff, who was gunned down in Famagusta in 1958 as she shopped for a wedding dress for her daughter.
She was at the paper when a call came that a group of Greek Cypriots from Kontemenos had been attacked near Guenyeli, and witnessed the revulsion of the driver and reporter when they returned drained and pale at what they had seen – nine men and teenagers lying dead in the fields hacked to pieces.
“It was an innocent time as well as a schizophrenic one,” she writes, as on the one hand Britons mixed with Cypriots at parties, at home, on the beach, at night clubs, on the other, bombs went off, people were shot in the streets, in their homes, in coffee shops, whole villages were cordoned off, school children demonstrated and people were rounded up and sent to detention camps.
Her writing encapsulates the times, both the closeness of a small society where everyone knows everyone else, as it is packed with familiar names and memorable anecdotes, but also depicts the horrors with a frank and impartial journalistic eye.
It was at the Times of Cyprus that she met the Armenian photographer Georges der Parthogh (whose family was also afflicted by politics), and after a brief stint in London writing for Vogue, she returned to Cyprus to marry him. On their wedding day they accidentally hijacked Governor Sir Hugh and Lady Foot’s last Queen’s Birthday reception at Government House before independence, as everyone ended up congratulating the newly-weds instead.
She remembers 1960 as being the end of an era. Charles Foley shut down the paper, his last banner headline reading: “GOODBYE. GOOD LUCK!” After independence, politics forced its way into Cypriots’ lives, with those who could see the writing on the wall leaving the island while they could. “All over Cyprus the whole fabric of life was being disrupted and Greek and Turkish Cypriots drew in on themselves, creating dividing lines not just on the ground (…) but much more dangerously, in their minds,” she writes.
Georges, as a news photographer working for a number of international news agencies particularly United Press, was a familiar figure zooming around town on his motor scooter, always first on the scene of ‘incidents’. Lana herself moved into broadcasting, working for CyBC, and together they were at the forefront of news coverage of events in Cyprus and neighbouring countries, their home often being the place where foreign correspondents converged for a drink, a chat or to send off their dispatches.
Sadly the Turkish invasion resulted in the loss of her grandfather’s house in Kalochorio. Attempts to visit it after the checkpoints opened proved futile. A satellite image of the area on Google maps revealed that none of the houses her grandfather had built remain, the land having returned to the way it had been when in 1922 Nikolai Matoff first saw it. Likewise, she notes, few physical traces remain of the other White Russians who landed in Cyprus nearly a century ago. This book is her attempt to capture their existence and her memories on paper, “before they fade away altogether”.
This lively entertaining book is well worth a read, not just because of the fascinating lives that it depicts, but also because of the picture of a disappearing Cyprus that it describes in the process, a place of refuge and the good life, but also a place to seek refuge from when politics gets in the way.
Samovar on the Table: A Family Memoir (AuthorHouse UK) by Lana der Parthogh is available in hardback and paperback at Moufflon and Soloneion bookshops in Nicosia and Kyriakou Bookshops in Limassol with a recommended retail price of 20 euros for the softback and 30 euros for the hardback. Also available online (Amazon.com) with E-Book to follow soon.
Marina Christofides is the author of The Traitors’ Club, a memoir on the Cyprus problem, and the award-winning illustrated history of Cyprus, The Island Everyone Wanted. Both books are available online from her website www.thetraitorsclub.com and main bookshops islandwide