ASP Abridged: Autographs Don’t Burn: Letters to the Bunins by Vera Tsareva-Brauner

We are pleased to present the latest in a new series of blog posts, ASP Abridged, in which authors give readers a short and sweet introduction to their latest book.

Here, Vera Tsareva-Brauner introduces us to her new book, Autographs Don’t Burn: Letters to the Bunins.

Tell us what Autographs Don’t Burn is about in simple terms.

On the surface, the book is a collection of previously unpublished letters to Russian Nobel Prize-winning writer Ivan Bunin from a couple sharing his exile in France after the Russian Revolution. It’s a very timely book—it’s being published on the 150th anniversary of Bunin’s death—and a very necessary one, as it helps preserve the life and works of one of the country’s greatest writers, a man whose fiction and poetry retain a very special place in the hearts and minds of most Russians, even though his work is relatively unknown to most non-Russians.

But Autographs Don’t Burn is, I hope, much more than just a cache of correspondence involving a literary giant. It is about the rediscovery of history through personal experience, memories of pre-revolutionary Russia, the trauma of 1917 Russian revolution and its consequences, anguish of exile, the attempt to preserve pre-revolutionary Russian culture in the face of the perils presented by the monolithic Soviet regime, and it’s about bringing into the spotlight lives that history has unjustly neglected.

In the opening section of my book, I reveal how a chance discovery in the University of Cambridge Library led me on a voyage into the past. I found a first edition of one of Bunin’s classic books and it contained an autograph, or dedication, by the author to a married couple in Paris, whose biographies have been erased by time. This set me a dual task: to find out who these people were, people sufficiently close to Bunin to merit a personally autographed copy of one of his masterpieces, and to trace its journey to Cambridge. It seemed hopeless at first, to be honest. The couple were identified only as Nikolai Karlovich and Natalia Ivanovna—i.e. only by Christian name and patronymic with no surname, the date was New Year’s Eve 1925 and the dedication was plainly affectionate. As for the book itself, no cataloguing or provenance details existed in the library.

However, I was fortunate to discover that the couple’s surname was Kulman, and that was all I needed to embark on my literary and historical journey. Nikolai Karlovich was a scholar, an academic, well-known in pre-Revolutionary Russia and with connections to the highest aristocracy. Through working in Russian History Archives in Moscow I was also able to excavate details of the life of his wife Natalia and to reveal the startling fact that she was closely related to a leading figure in the Bolshevik regime, in fact one of the architects of GULAG system.

And then, as if by some stroke of serendipity, another visit to the same university library, indeed to the same section several months later, brought to light another autographed Bunin volume, dedicated to the same people, but this time confirming their surname.

So this first section of the book is an attempt to unravel a biographical and historical mystery. But it is also about memory as opposed to often politicized history. The unfolding of the historical process can be perceived so differently when one relies on personal accounts and memories rather than the unemotional archiving of factual events. I was able to show how the Kulmans’ lives intertwined with some of the most important figures of the time and how the couple were swept up in the upheaval of revolution. After their hazardous journey into exile, a journey that mirrored that of Bunin himself and his wife Vera, they became part of the Russian diaspora living in Paris, actively seeking to nourish their memories of their native land and constantly yearning for the chance to return.

The second part comprises the letters themselves, but this turned into an even bigger task than my literary detective work in the opening section. These letters contain a wealth of detail about Bunin and his trials, tribulations and triumphs in exile (including the notification that he’d won the Nobel, which came as he was attending a cinema show in Grasse, Provence), about the Kulmans themselves, about the friendship between the two couples and, equally interesting, about the life and struggles of the Russian cultural community in France. Name after name pops up in the letters and my researches uncovered a wealth of thrilling anecdotes and biographical details about a cavalcade of characters, their relationships, their aspirations and yearnings, their struggles and their lived experiences. It’s fair to say that the footnotes are almost as important to the text of this book as the letters themselves.

So I hope it’s turned out to be something more than a simple selection of letters to an influential literary figure uncovered for the first time and translated from the Russia. I’ve sought to deepen our appreciation of Bunin, to bring into the spotlight for the first time the fascinating Kulman family, to lay bare the hustle and bustle of the Russian diaspora, but also to contribute to a meditation on the nature of personal recollection and the crucial part it plays in our understanding of history.

How does Autographs Don’t Burn make a unique contribution to the field?

This is easier to answer than the previous question. I think it’s unique because, obviously, the letters I found in the Russian Archive in Leeds have never been published before. Not only that, but they have never been studied and systemized properly, so there are some surprises there. It’s easy to believe that they’ve ever actually been read before, except of course by the Bunins themselves. I think the detail surrounding the writers of the letters is unique. These were two influential people whose lives and legacy have been completely erased and forgotten. In particular, on this important anniversary of Bunin’s birth, the book shines a light into his experience as a Russian exile in France. The book also involves stories of Grand Dukes, Russian literary figures like Chekhov, Gorky, and A. Tolstoy, as well as one of the architects of the Gulag system, so I hope it’s much more than just a “Letters To…” and more even than just a memoir. My aim was to present a reflection of the microcosm of two private lives as well as the macrocosm of Russia Abroad.

Vera Tsareva-Brauner is a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, specializing in Russian language and translation studies. Born in St. Petersburg, she graduated from St. Petersburg State University, moving to Manchester, UK for her post-graduate studies. She edited the first full English translation of Yuri Tynyanov’s novel Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar and is currently editing a book on the challenges of translating from Slavic languages.