‘Beyond the Samovar’ by Janet Hancock

‘A tale of escape, love and loss’ reads the strapline… against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War which followed. You know I have a thing for anything east European? Well, ‘Beyond the Samovar’ did not disappoint.

Livvy and Peter are an English couple, with a baby (George), living in Baku in independent Azerbaijan in 1919, he employed in the oil industry and she a full-time mother, having previously worked in nanny/governess/companion roles in imperial Russia. Baku has become dangerous, with frequent skirmishes between rival factions, the Bolsheviks and their hangers-on seizing houses and property, and committing cruel and random murders, including that of the Jewish family with whom Livvy used to work and to whom she is still close. Prone to severe sea-sickness, Livvy is adamant that that she will not leave Baku if this involves a long sea journey, so she, Peter and George set off on a long perilous land journey north, towards St Petersburg, largely by train. With ingenuity and cunning, changing their appearance to fit the colour of each neighbourhood, and speaking Russian, not English, they travel, on starvation rations, White Russian peasants often sharing with them what little they have. Only two out of the three make it on board a Royal Navy ship to Liverpool.

The second part of the book takes place in Birmingham, at the residence of Peter’s father, Thomas, a widower, who has suffered the losses of all but two of his five sons in World War 1. The events occurring in this section, although less dramatic, hold the reader’s interest, hurling us into the turbulent world of England immediately following the Great War, every family bereaved (often several times over), Spanish flu, the role of women in society, strikes and the lurking fear that Boshevikism might travel west. The author, Janet Hancock, must be commended for her even-handedness in her treatment of the political issues of the day, deploring the Bolsheviks’ violence and excesses in Russia, but refusing to allow her characters in England to take sides.

The reader has constantly to remind himself/herself that the action takes place over little more than a year. What I most admire about ‘Beyond the Samovar’ is how the author blends then and now, referring back from England to Russia – without those ghastly lines of asterisks across the page – and from Russia to backstory in England. As you can imagine from the storyline, this is a tale full of emotion, of two people madly in love, pitting themselves against a world in which they no longer have a place.

The list of references at the back covers two sides. This book has been well-researched but historical detail is incorporated on to the page with a light touch. You feel the Russian Civil War, through the smell of oil in Baku and the stale BO of the Bolsheviks, through scenes where the characters live in dirt and hunger.

Best book I’ve read in 2022.

Buy from Conrad Press

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