The diaries (in fourteen books, covering 1920–23 and 1930–40) of Vera Pavlovna Ziloti (née Tret’iakov, 1866–1940) contain poignant reflections of the Russian émigré’s life in New York City. With their detailed accounts of her day-to-day life with her husband, the pianist Alexander Siloti (1863–1945), these diaries provide insight into not only the topics of musical, theatrical and cultural life, but also international politics and war. The couple’s discussions and correspondence with high-status members of Russian émigré and international society (including Igor Stravinsky, Serge Koussevitzky, and Pablo Casals) are documented. The diaries also provide commentary on news stories of the time from the perspective of Ziloti’s salon in the Ansonia Hotel, New York, including musings on Soviet politics and society. When published, the diaries will form an important complement to the various editions of her classic posthumous memoir V dome Tret’iakova [In the Home of Tret’iakov] (New York: Izdatel’stvo im. Chekhova, 1954).
The first entry is dated February 4, 1920, and describes Ziloti’s arrival in Terijoki, Finland, (now Zelenogorsk, Russian Federation) after what must have been an exciting—if not harrowing—illegal border crossing from Soviet Russia. She describes the Kronstadt searchlight as a “cursed Soviet eye” constantly scanning the horizon. But unlike other émigrés, Ziloti had the Finnish national composer Jean Sibelius petition on her behalf, so after about two weeks in Finnish quarantine, she and her relatives were released to freedom. Diary entries recall how, in Finland, Ziloti attended a memorial service for Russian admiral Aleksandr Kolchak and otherwise spent her time sewing while her husband traveled the country concertizing. But they soon moved farther afield: Alexander had been invited to tour Europe as a concert pianist, and by June 10 they were in Antwerp. These early diary entries alternate between emotional responses to events in Russia and musically oriented interludes mentioning the pieces her husband was playing as well as the popularity of the shimmy, which Ziloti found “amusing.”
The second book of the diaries begins the family’s period in New York, where they arrived in December 1921. Vera Ziloti describes her husband’s musical tours and concerts across the United States, as well as in Europe, where they returned from time to time. Many of the entries also relate to Russian émigré cultural life more generally, as Ziloti relates meeting or dining with figures such as artist Leon Bakst, composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Bertensson, and others. In time, her husband transitioned from concert pianist to professor at the prestigious Julliard School, and Ziloti mentions some of his students. The final entries date from early January 1940 and again refer to Finland, with an ailing Vera Ziloti describing her and her husband’s shock at the news reports (with clippings included) of the Soviet-Finnish War. Vera Ziloti died in 1940; her husband died in 1945.
There is a gap in the diaries from May 1923 through December 1929, but beginning in 1930 there is a small bound diary volume for every year up to 1940. Altogether there are thirteen bound diary volumes, many of which contain various inserts: postcards, photographic prints, newspaper clippings, telegrams, and letters and notes from prominent figures such as president Franklin Roosevelt.
Researchers will be challenged in identifying the many figures mentioned in the diary because Vera Ziloti often uses only first names or even just initials or nicknames (hint: Sasha is the author’s husband, Alexander Siloti).
This set of diaries is a brilliant complement to the professor Charles Barber research papers related to Alexander Siloti held by the Department of Special Collections of Stanford University Libraries. It is an important resource for the study of exiled and displaced Russian cultural figures and for the development of cultural life in the United States as well.
Anatol Shmelev PhD
Anatol Shmelev is a research fellow, Robert Conquest curator of the Russia and Eurasia Collection, and the project archivist for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Collection, all at the Hoover Institution.