Eugenie R’s story

Escaping the Russian Revolution by the skin of her teeth may have been a defining event for Eugenie, but she also lived a truly international life that was shaped by the twists and turns of the 20th century. Add in several love affairs (at least one of which that went wrong), a search for various missing family members, the ability to speak and conduct business in several languages, and a knack of always falling on her feet, and you have a woman able to call many places home.

Eugenie was born at the tail end of the 19th century in Naples, one of four known children of an Italian/Polish couple. However, she identified as Russian. Her father was the harbour master of the Black Sea port of Odessa, now in modern Ukraine but at that time emphatically part of the Russian Empire, and the family were based there for her whole childhood and beyond.

The harbour at Odessa during Eugenie’s childhood

Odessa, at that time, had a sizeable population that was historically Italian, even if by this stage they identified as Russian. Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, had founded the city with a large number of Italian immigrants in 1794, having taken the area from the Ottoman Empire, and their descendants and relatives had remained. At this time, nationality and loyalties were often taken historically in the eyes of the authorities, and groups of people with similar backgrounds were lumped together.

Odessa was also, in addition to being an important port, quite cosmopolitan. As well as the historical Italian-descended population, there were Swiss, Greeks, and about a third of the population of the city in Eugenie’s time was Jewish. There were cafes, coffee shops, bakeries, merchants and artisans throughout the city, which at this time was the 4th largest city in the Russian Empire. Jews, while Eugenie was small at least, had fewer restrictions and discrimination in Odessa than elsewhere in Russia, leading to a vibrant city in which to grow up.

As the daughter of the harbour master, Eugenie and her family would have lived close to the busy port and could see boats and cargo arriving and departing every day. Her father’s job was probably relatively well paid, meaning they could experience some of the culture around them, but they would not have been in the higher or richer echelons of local society.

Events and strains in wider Russia did reach Odessa, however. When Eugenie was around nine, in 1905, a pogrom against the Jewish population took place in the city. Over 400 Jews were killed, and many more injured. Although it was unlikely Eugenie was directly involved in these events, as she was a child, this would have dramatically altered the atmosphere of the city.

Eugenie, second from left, in Odessa during her youth

In her early adulthood, she worked in Odessa as a school teacher. She spoke Russian, French, English, and some Polish and Italian. She could play the piano, so must have been taught in childhood, and was known as an expert seamstress. Religiously, she was a devout Russian Orthodox believer, and kept their festivals.

The Russian Revolution, which began in 1917, was the next big event to affect Odessa – and also changed life completely for Eugenie. Although the unrest had started in February 1917, and continued in the October of that year, but reached Odessa in mid-January 1918, when Eugenie was around 22.

The city’s revolutionary committees were elected on 17th and 18th January, and the uprising began in earnest on the 27th. For Eugenie and her family, whose sympathies were with the empire (indeed, her older brother Paolo was even in the Tsarist army), this meant they had to leave and fast. Battleships arrived in her father’s port, and the family fled. Eugenie remembered being pulled aboard a leaving ship by a sailor, and in the resulting confusion she completely lost her family.

Bolsheviks entering Odessa, during the revolution

The climate for Jews and citizens not of Russian origin changed in Odessa as a result of the revolution, so returning was not an option. In the aftermath, she found herself in Baghdad, at that point in Mesopotamia but modernly the capital of Iraq. The area had been part of the Ottoman Empire until the year before, but had been put under British rule as the British Mandate of Mesopotamia. Here Eugenie met and married another misplaced Russian, whose first name has been lost to history. His surname, Filaratoff, indicates that he was probably Russian-born, and was likely also misplaced due to the Revolution. Baghdad, at this time, had a large Jewish community – Jews made up a quarter to a third of the city’s population – and others with the surname Filaratoff have followed the Jewish faith, so this could be an indication of his background, but his religion was never discussed in later life. After the unrest of the flight from Odessa, this may have seemed like a safe haven for Eugenie and her new husband.

There was a revolt against British rule in 1920, but this was supressed. Not long afterwards, Eugenie’s first child – a son, Volek – was born in Baghdad.

Revolution in Baghdad in 1920

Sadly, Eugenie’s marriage was marked by domestic violence, and did not last. She took infant Volek and left, forming another relationship with a British man, George. Volek’s father later found his way to Palestine, and died there during the second world war.

George was a British engineer likely in Mesopotamia as part of either the British forces, or as someone who had served in the country during the First World War and had decided to come back and settle. He worked in communications, linking up desert areas. Their daughter Diana was born in 1924.

Baghdad in the 1920s

George died of natural causes, while undertaking his work in the desert. His spinster sisters in the UK asked to take care of Diana, but Eugenie refused and instead brought up Volek and Diana alone for a time.

Eventually Eugenie got together with the widower of her friend Xenia. Xenia, someone else of Russian background, had died after childbirth in 1922, leaving her husband Thomas to care for their newborn son Peter. Therefore, Peter became part of the family alongside Volek and Diana, and Thomas and Eugenie brought their family up close to Baghdad.

Thomas ran a dairy and farming business in the Baghdad area. He had come from a farming background in Worcestershire, and had been posted to Mesopotamia during the First World War. After the war, he had discovered that his first wife had possibly had another relationship while he was away, so returned to the Middle East to make a new life for himself. It was there in Baghdad that he had met and married Xenia, Eugenie’s friend. Given his background, dairy farming would have been an obvious choice for a business to begin with. They supplied the British Forces with dairy products, alongside anyone else local who wanted them.

His first farm was in Alwiya, just outside Baghdad. There he kept horses alongside his dairy cattle. Eugenie had visited him there, while he was married to Xenia, and had initially thought of him as rude and angry, as he’d walked past her and ignored her while she was there as a guest. Later, after they had got together, she lived with him at this farm, and assisted him in the business.

Eugenie and Thomas with Diana and Volek, and a farm hand, on the farm at Alwiya

Iraq achieved independence from British rule in 1932, but Eugenie and Thomas decided to stay put. Despite him being married to Xenia in the Presbyterian Church in Baghdad, and officially a widower, they did not marry straight away. Under British law, the marriage between Thomas and his previous wife could have been dissolved. Either party could have proved adultery. However, this did not happen. This may have been a refusal to accept the societal stigma of divorce on her part, or a complication with Thomas not being resident in the UK.

In Iraq, Eugenie had friends in a wider Russian community, and kept the Orthodox festivals – like Easter – with them. She would bake for the occasion, cooking different large cakes, beautiful pastries and tarts. Her son John says: “Every year she would buy different multi coloured cheap floral material pieces and use these to sew onto raw eggs very carefully and tightly. She would take hours doing this and when completed hard boil the eggs. When dry, remove the material and the dye from the coloured patterns were imprinted on each egg beautifully. All these lovely looking eggs were displayed in a large bowl and looked so attractive. On Easter Sunday, Eugenie would invite all her Russian friends to a party to celebrate the occasion. Each visitor would take an egg and crack it against another visitor’s egg, saying in Russian “Christ has Risen” and eat the egg.”

Eugenie had two more children with Thomas, George and Gladys, who didn’t live. Family tales say they both died of tuberculosis. Then her final child, son John, arrived in 1934. Later on, they moved to a second farm, just outside Fallujah, between Baghdad and RAF Habbaniya (a British military base, built in the 1930s), close to the River Euphrates.

Peter, and later Volek, were sent to Worcestershire to be looked after by Thomas’s sister, and educated in a British school, at some point in the 1930s, but Diana and John stayed with their parents. Their lives included trips to the cinema, and to hotels for dinner twice a week. Eugenie also had fur coats – a mark of wealth at that time, when the ethics of creating those garments were not called into question. At one point their house had five members of staff.

They held card playing parties for government ministers, and moved in exclusive circles. They were members of the Alwiyah Club, an exclusive institution which had opened in 1921. This had regular social events, a ballroom, swimming pool, and tennis courts. Baghdad had various clubs at the time, one for each established profession, plus those for different religions represented in the city. The Alwiyah was the most exclusive, and was known for having prominent citizens in its ranks.

A modern view inside the Alwiyah Club

Then, out of the blue, in 1937 Eugenie discovered that her family had survived the Russian Revolution, and had settled in Naples. She took her son John with her, and went to reunite with them. Her father had passed on, and one of her sisters had married and was living in France, but she was able to reconnect with her mother, other sister and brother.

Eugenie with her son John, reconnecting with family in Naples
Eugenie with daughter Diana and husband Thomas, in the 1930s

During the Second World War, both her son Volek and step-son Peter served for the British forces. Peter went into the army, while Volek was a radio operator in the air force.

A coup d’etat in Iraq in April 1941, in favour of the German and Italian forces, meant they had to move in a hurry. The story goes that the family were having breakfast when a soldier on a motorcycle arrived, who was in favour of the coup, and held the family at gunpoint. Eugenie attempted to reason with the soldier, crying as her husband was being held against an outside wall.

In the nick of time, a police officer arrived and ordered the soldier to leave. He was a family friend, so filled them in on the new political situation. Later that day, on his advice, they left their house and joined other British families in a barbed-wire surrounded ex-military camp on the outskirts of Baghdad. Eugenie and Diana were segregated from Thomas and John. The children made friends immediately, and John in particular treated the month-long experience as a grand adventure. Eugenie and Thomas, however, were worried about their farm and their business, as well as their long-term future.

An image from the coup d’etat in 1941

When released, it was discovered that their house had been bombed by the RAF, as the rebels involved in the coup had used it as headquarters from which to attack RAF Habbaniya. The furniture and carpets had been destroyed, and then anything that was left had been looted by the rebels and some inhabitants of the nearby town.

The success of the previous business enabled Eugenie and Thomas to rebuild their life, however. They moved the family to a hotel on the banks of the River Tigris for a few months, then rented a new large, detached house in an upmarket district called Karadah. Thomas began a new farm across the river, and travelled over every day on a small round boat.

Elsewhere during the war, Eugenie’s brother Paolo was placed in the concentration camp system by the Nazi-allied Italian forces, as he had previously been part of the Russian army and retained political sympathies. He survived the experience.

Her son Volek was not so lucky. He did not return from a mission on a Lancaster bomber near Leipzig in February 1945, and was declared missing and then dead by the British forces. Three members of crew from this mission remained unaccounted for, however, but as far as the official record was concerned, Eugenie’s first son was dead.

Volek, c1940/1941

After the war, her daughter Diana – who had fallen in love with a British man stationed in Iraq – married him in Baghdad, then moved with him to Chippenham in Wiltshire. Youngest son John went to England with her, to be educated. This left Eugenie and Thomas in Iraq to run their business, with no children around them. They remained in their rented house, and Thomas gave up the farm in favour of an import/export business with a couple of partners. This did not do as well as the farm had.

In 1947, Thomas’s first wife died in England. This meant that any barrier to their marrying had ended, and they formalised their union as soon as possible. This took place at St George’s Church in Baghdad, according to the rites of the Church of England. This is the only Anglican church in Iraq, and was built in 1936. Eugenie used the surname Dmitrieff at her marriage, but it is unknown where she took this name from.

However, there was a further twist in the tale of her eldest son Volek. In around 1948, a Russian woman – the friend of a friend – approached Eugenie and Thomas saying that she had a message from Volek, who was apparently alive. The woman had come to Iraq from Turkey, heading for the USA, and said that she had received a message from Volek at the border of Turkey with Russia. Though Russia does not modernly share a border with Turkey, the USSR and Turkey disputed territory in the area at this time.

Volek reputedly had said to tell his mother that he was alive, but captive, but not to make enquiries as it would cause problems. Eugenie and Thomas attempted to find out more, but found nothing, and as far as the British record is concerned the story is as presented to them when Volek was declared dead.

One tale is that the Russians at that time would consider releasing German Prisoners of War, but not captured British or Americans, so if the story Eugenie’s visitor told them is true it may mean that Volek was held in a prison camp for the rest of his days. To this day, the family do not know whether this account was truthful or not.

Eugenie with son John in Iraq in 1953
Dining with Thomas in Iraq in the late 1950s

By 1960, Thomas had a medical problem, so he and Eugenie returned to the UK. He had a severe foot wound, exacerbated by diabetes, which required treatment. He believed that an English doctor would not amputate his limb, as the doctor he had consulted in Iraq had wanted. However, this wasn’t the case. He received treatment in Kent, where his leg was removed, and sadly died a few days later after suffering complications.

This meant that Eugenie had been widowed again, for either the second or third time depending on the eyes of the law. She returned to Iraq to wind up the farming business, gathering what funds she could from what remained. Furniture and Persian carpets were sold. She then came back to the UK. She settled in Chippenham, close to her children, and became part of the local community. She lived in Eastern Avenue, on the Monkton Park estate, in a semi-detached bungalow, and in later life her siblings came over from Italy to visit her.

Eugenie, right, with brother Paulo and daughter Diana, in at home in Chippenham’s Monkton Park.

She missed her husband dreadfully. She made friends with the woman next door, still baked (a layered chocolate sponge cake is remembered by family), and regularly attended bingo with her daughter. Her son John, who also settled in Chippenham, bought her a Persian kitten whom she doted upon.

She died in Chippenham in 1978, and is buried next to Thomas at the town’s St Paul’s Church.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s