From Russia to Radcliffe
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.
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.
Actually, she had had a superb education in Russia and was leagues ahead of most of her fellow students. She found it amazing that in a class on modern European history, when the professor referred to Mazzini, the student next to her leaned over to whisper, ``Who is this Mazzini?'' Why, even in darkest Russia the Italian patriot was well-known!
Mother adapted very well to her new situation. She was fortunate to be young, talented, and resilient enough to make a new life for herself after the separation from her family.
Fifty years later, she wrote of this period: ``Alone in a hospitable, but still strange land, torn away from the moorings of family life and accustomed surroundings, I suffered profoundly from an inner loneliness even while surrounded by colleagues and fellow-students.''
Mother chose political science for her field of concentration. As a child she experienced a persisting dream of what she would do when she grew up. She saw herself as a member of some parliament; a strange idea in czarist Russia, where the parliamentary experience was yet in its infancy. ``I was standing at a rostrum,'' she wrote, ``no doubt reconstructed in my mind from what I had heard about the English parliament from my father and some of his English friends, and delivering speeches which moved my fellow politicians to action.''
This seemingly wild expectation was translated into reality in the United States, for later she often stood on platforms, not of any legislature, but at colleges and universities where she lectured on world affairs.
Grandfather certainly influenced her choice of study. A constitutional democrat, he hoped that the relationship between czar and Duma, the representative assembly in Russia, would evolve along the lines of monarch and parliament in England. He discussed with his family the future of Russia, inculcating in his children the principle that each one of them, whether boy or girl, must prepare for service to their country.
Another strong influence on Mother was her Russian tutor, a young woman born into an illiterate peasant family who had put herself through school and university. She was a hunchback. Mother described her as having ``the radiant face of an angel, for whom higher mathematics had the beauty of music.'' From first-hand experience she knew of the unhappy conditions in czarist Russia. She wanted to help the poor by building dams and hospitals. In 1917 she left Mother's family to join the revolution.
From time to time Mother would report to Mr. Nickerson on her progress at Radcliffe. When she expressed her embarrassment about Gillette paying her expenses, Mr. Nickerson would smile and reply, ``We consider you a most promising investment.''
In the final weeks of her senior year, a single hurdle stood in the way of graduation: the Radcliffe swimming test.
Unfortunately for Mother, the waters of the Gulf of Finland being exceedingly cold, she had never learned to swim. Somehow the swimming instructor got her from one end of the pool to the other, perhaps by using a pole with a hook attached to her bathing suit and pulling her across. In any event, the necessary certificate was duly issued. Mother never swam again.
In June 1925, the Russian-born Vera Micheles, a gamble of the admissions office, graduated from Radcliffe College summa cum laude. She went on to pursue graduate studies at Yale and Radcliffe in international law and relations. Twenty years later, she was to be offered the presidency of Radcliffe. But this is a story for another occasion.