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From Russia to Radcliffe

By William J. Dean / September 2, 1986

MOTHER was Russian-born. How immeasurably this background has enriched my life! Because of her, Russian history and literature were never mere abstractions; rather, they became a part of me. More than any teacher, she advanced my education. On occasion, Mother would talk about her own education, undertaken in the midst of war and revolution, and the necessity of adapting to life in a new country.

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She was born in 1903 in St. Petersburg, the capital city of Russia, which became Petrograd in 1914 in an effort to Russify its German-sounding name and later, Leningrad, to honor the leader of the revolution. She was, as Nabokov once described himself, a perfectly normal trilingual child, her three languages being Russian, French, and English.

Her Russian-born father had traveled extensively in the United States, where he acquired a mastery of English to such a degree, that toward the end of his eight-year stay, he worked as a court stenographer. He was imaginative and energetic. His knowledge of English helped him immensely in business, enabling him to represent British and American companies in Russia such as the Gillette Safety Razor Company in Boston.

My grandmother was a talented, high-spirited woman who assisted Grandfather in business. A gifted linguist as well, she translated English books into Russian, including Barrie's ``Peter Pan.''

As conditions in Petrograd deteriorated -- for in 1917 Russia was both at war with Germany and in the midst of revolution -- Grandfather moved his family to Finland, then a duchy of the Russian empire, where he owned a summer house at Terijoki on the Gulf of Finland.

The house, previously owned by an American, had a library filled with books by Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, and Scott. These Mother devoured, for she loved reading.

Mother's last glimpse of Petrograd was when her father brought her by train from Terijoki to take the end-of-school-year examinations, as she and her sister and brother regularly did, to test their progress in the studies they undertook at home under the direction of tutors.

Then came the harsh realities of civil war. The house at Terijoki shook to its very foundations as Reds and Whites exchanged artillery fire. Grandmother hid food from marauding soldiers in the house-high snow in the garden and concealed money and jewelry in flowerpots.

Grandfather decided that Mother's further education, she being the eldest of the three children, could not proceed under such strife-torn conditions, and so he arranged to send her to the United States where his business colleagues could assist her.

Mother arrived in Boston at age 16 in the autumn of 1919, having traveled alone by ship from Copenhagen. She enrolled in a secretarial school in Boston and then went to work at the State House for the parole board. The top, right-hand drawer of her desk contained a revolver for subduing unruly parolees. Fortunately for both Mother and the parolees, use of the revolver never became necessary. The typewriter aside, mechanical dexterity was not one of her strengths.

During this period William E. Nickerson, an officer of the Gillette Safety Razor Company, proposed to Mother that Gillette underwrite the cost of her college education, her father having been of such value to the company in Russia.

Mother joyously received this generous offer. Her enthusiasm, however, was not shared by the Radcliffe College admissions office, for she had no documents to establish her academic credentials, these records being in Petrograd and, therefore, unavailable. After considerable discussion, Radcliffe relented and allowed her to enter.