Interview: Sue Carscallen, A Countess in Limbo

CountessToday I am delighted to welcome to my blog Sue Carscallen, co-author of A Countess in Limbo: Diaries in War and Revolution. If you’re interested in history or personal memoirs, I’m sure you’ll find Sue’s answers to my questions absolutely fascinating and a tantalising glimpse into this wonderful book.

About the Book

Countess Olga “Lala” Hendrikoff kept diaries chronicling her life through some of the most turbulent times in modern history. Her personal writings have been collected and translated by her great niece, Sue Carscallen, to form A Countess in Limbo: Diaries in War and Revolution. A Countess in Limbo showcases Hendrikoff’s transformation from a privileged woman of society to a stateless émigré. Her unbreakable will, combined with razor-sharp wit, provide a fascinating voice to narrate the day-to-day life of those living through World War I, World War II and the Russian Revolution.

Buy a copy of A Countess in Limbo:
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Q&A with Sue Carscallen 

What is your first memory of your great aunt?

Before I ever met my great aunt LaLa I knew that she was a kind, loving person. My mother would send her bits of leftover wool from her knitting projects and voila! at Christmas a large box would arrive containing hand knitted hats, sweaters, scarves and mittens for us four children. They all fitted perfectly since my mother provided the measurements. My family could not find an affordable graduation dress for me in Calgary so aunt LaLa scoured the next to new shops in New York and sent me a fabulous dress which I was so very proud to wear. The first time I saw her was when she made her first visit to Calgary when I was 10. I remember her regally walking down the steps of the airplane. She had such a straight posture.

What was she like as a person?

There are many adjectives to describe my great aunt: highly educated, private, reserved, observant, wise, generous, mentally strong, a survivor, calm in a crisis, politically astute, kind and talented.

Can you tell us how you first learned about your great aunt’s journals?

I learned about the journals from my mother who thought they were interesting but nothing special. She only alerted me to the French diary about World War II which was written in French. Neither of us knew about the Russian journal, which was written in Russian longhand detailing World War I and the Russian Revolution. I did not really discover these treasures until after I opened aunt LaLa’s old Russian trunk after my mother had passed away.

What made you decide to publish the journals?

Two reasons. Firstly, I was the only one left alive that really knew aunt LaLa as well as many of the characters who passed through her life. If I didn’t do it, no one else would. Secondly, my French translator was really intrigued by aunt LaLa’s voice in her story.

How did you go about selecting the material to be included in the book?

The material selection was easy. I published every word she wrote with no additions other than the first chapter, a transition chapter in the middle between the two wars and the last chapter.  I also included the photos she had pasted into the World War II diary which she took herself. I included much of the memorabilia that she had saved.

Did anything in the journals surprise or shock you?

I was shocked to realize how many times she was so very close to being put in prison or killed. How matter-of-factly and calmly she dealt with crisis. She never talked about any of this to us.

I understand you undertook additional research to supplement the journals, including travelling abroad. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Yes, a lot of research went into this book as I wanted to do my best to present her life as accurately as possible. Thank goodness for the internet as this book would still not be finished! I had the help of many to identify people who were only mentioned by initials. This was done on purpose as aunt LaLa did not want to incriminate anyone should her diaries be found.  I went twice to the famous Russian cemetery ‘Sanite-Genevieve-des-bois’ outside of Paris and photographed headstones with the idea that it would help me identify those only mentioned by an initial and a last name. It helped, but what was really beneficial was the discovery and translation of the Russian journal.  Some of those who were in her life in Russia turned up again in Paris. I did not know about the Russian journal when I began the project. The initial idea was to do the French diaries as a standalone book. I also went to Russia to our family’s estate (in ruins) in backwoods Russia and was chased off by the mafia, as well as to see the beautiful family home in St. Petersburg. Today, it is an expensive apartment condo.

For those who haven’t yet read the book, can you give us one or two of your favourite stories from it?

There are so many stories. I love the sad, poignant story of aunt LaLa going with her mother to the train station in St. Petersburg to see her brother, Nicholas, off to war. How he joked with them, then the priest saying prayers, the troops singing hymns as the train rolled out of the station, their singing fading in the distance.  Nicholas survived the War but stayed in Russia on purpose to help change the system. He died a prisoner in the Gulag about 1940. Aunt LaLa never ceased trying to get him out of Russia!  In WW II she went with a chamber maid, who was to be deported probably to her death.  Aunt LaLa realized that a man standing off to the side was the Gestapo and really had the power and not the others doing the questioning. Aunt LaLa went right up to the Gestapo and speaking to him in German told him that they could not take the maid as she was desperately needed. This worked and the maid survived.

How do you now reflect on what your great aunt’s generation went through?

It is humbling to realize what they went through. I am the first generation of women in our family for at least 200 years who has not been directly involved in a war. My generation in Canada has had a wonderful opportunity to live freely. They did it for us and we stand on their shoulders. By publishing this book, I have also had an insight into my great grandparents’ lives. Aunt LaLa’s father was the Russian governor of Riga, Latvia . He also had a large estate south and east of Moscow far off in the Russian Steppes.  He gave up much of this land to the local population when there was a mini-revolution in 1905. I gained much respect and understanding for his position when I travelled to this remote estate. I realized that nothing has changed in Russia . How carefully he had to step between the Tsar who was an absolute ruler and the peasants. Displease either and you would never be seen again. The mafia has control of the estate now and we were asked ‘to get the hell out’ fearing I was back to claim the land!

What message would you like the reader to be left with from reading your great aunt’s journals?

My great aunt’s message is one that resonates universally today. It is a timely message: “All war seems absurd to me anyway. The victors only lose in the exchange and the vanquished think only of revenge.”  Long before the term ‘fake news’ she was well aware of its dangers.  She always got her news from many sources such as the BBC when it was illegal, German, French, English and Italian newspapers and radio. She did not believe the rumours that often swirl around in turbulent times. The final message to women that she would want to say is that women are stronger than they think.

Thank you so much, Sue, for taking the time to answer my questions and for providing such fascinating answers. Your great aunt was clearly an amazing woman.

About the Authors

Olga Hendrikoff was born in 1892 in Voronezh, Russia, and attended the famous Smolny Institute. In 1914, she married Count Peter Hendrikoff just as World War I began. In the ensuing years, Hendrikoff lived in Constantinople, Rome, Paris, and Philadelphia. She spent her last 20 years in Calgary. She died in 1987.

CarscallenSue Carscallen spent 20 years with Olga Hendrikoff, before her great aunt’s passing in 1987. Carscallen stumbled upon Hendrikoff’s diaries hidden in a trunk at her great aunt’s Calgary home. Over time she unraveled the mysteries hidden in the manuscripts, traveling to France and Russia to supplement her research into Hendrikoff’s life. Today, Carscallen resides in Calgary.


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