by Aleksandr Kolesov
Executive Editor, the Rubezh Press, specially for “V”
Vladivostok [“V,” the main regional newspaper] (Oct 24, 2008): 8-9
“June 28, 1924. A new day, and again neither a greeting nor an answer from you. Even from Vladivostok something is coming… I’ve received a book of poems from the Pacific Ocean. A package by mail, Arseny Nesmelov, good poems…”
This is from a letter by Boris Pasternak, the writer, to his wife in 1924.
At that time, when the poet Arseny Nesmelov (who had already planned his escape to China) was happily strolling along the Svetlanskaia and was about to send Boris Pasternak his new book Ustupy [Ledges], which had just come out at the Vladivostok publishing house of Iosif Korot--at this same time, two steps from the post office in a cozy and hospitable apartment on Post Lane, the American Eleanor Pray (who was not even considering leaving Russia) was getting down to her favorite occupation of writing letters. “Nobody ever loved this unkempt place as I do, I am sure,” she shared with her sister-in-law. “Everybody laughs at me for it but I can’t help it. It is dreadful to think of living somewhere where I can’t see one or the other of the bays…”
Eleanor Lord Pray (1868-1954), born in South Berwick, Maine, arrived in the Far East in June 1894 still a young, starry-eyed woman, recently married to a member of the merchant family of Charles and Sarah Smith, who owned the “American Store” in Vladivostok. Eleanor was a talented and observant narrator, and practically every day, sometimes several times a day, she would write and send letters to her correspondents in New England, Europe, and China. Collected into a book and annotated by Birgitta Ingemanson, a Slavicist from the State of Washington, this “family chronicle of the century” has now seen light in the publishing house of Rubezh, this October. And today, the exhibit by the same name as the book will open at the Primorie Museum Named for V.K. Arseniev. Today, too, “V” starts publishing excerpts from Letters from Vladivostok by Eleanor Pray.
This singular of its kind, indeed unique, epistolary heritage was miraculously saved by Eleanor’s grand-daughter Patricia D. Silver. Illustrated with photos from the family archives, these letters paint a lively portrait of the city: a whole epoch is recorded in them--a dramatic chronicle of Vladivostok at the end of the 19th century through the first third of the 20th.
The main inner reason for keeping any kind of diary, including one in letters, is (as is well known) not our external circumstances but an inner need. Touching base with oneself, as the English say.
The example of Eleanor Pray, who spent thirty-six years in Vladivostok and during that time wrote approximately sixteen thousand pages of letters, only confirms this. Another matter is that without the painstaking work of Birgitta Ingemanson, who analyzed Eleanor Pray’s archive for many years and prepared Letters from Vladivostok for publication, we might never have seen these letters published and revealed to the world (by the way, her Russian-language version is coming out before the English one).
“Early on, the spectacular panoramas over the central Bay of the Golden Horn and the Amur Bay to the west of the city become Mrs. Pray’s spiritual anchors…,” writes Birgitta Ingemanson, “Thanks to the location of her home in the center of Vladivostok, facing Svetlanskaia, the city’s main street, she is able to watch both ordinary and revolutionary events from her windows, and she is knowledgeable enough to understand what she sees. Indeed, Mrs. Pray is poignantly aware of the unique character of her perch and of her own responsibility on it; she must tell a truthful tale.”
Many bright and wonderful names are written into Vladivostok’s history on the border of the 19th and 20th centuries. Now one more has appeared, a remarkable and genuinely dear name--that of Eleanor Lord Pray. For the memory of our city, this ordinary American woman from New England has done as much as only few Russians.
“Even from Vladivostok something is coming…” One hundred years later, we may want to agree with Boris Pasternak, as we hold Eleanor Pray’s book in our hands.