Saturday, November 29, 2008
Masha Lieven, Paris 1959 just after defecting from communist Bulgaria
Her Serene Highness Princess Maria von Lieven, more commonly known as “Aunty Masha” was born in Sofia on 21st September 1927. She was the beloved sister of my Mother, Elena and the youngest of 6 brothers and sisters; Alexander (Sasha), Olga, Dorothea (Dara), Helene (Lena), Nicolai (Kolya) and Maria (Masha). She was vivacious, extremely beautiful, glamorous, a total adventurer, somewhat bohemian, a great saver of people in distress, a lover of life but also a very unlucky woman. She was the Mother of Sasha, her only son but also of a daughter who died one week after birth in Germany many years ago and whom, of course, she never forgot. I just wish now I could remember her name. I think it was Sophie, after her Mother.
Aunty Masha died yesterday, 28th November 2008 at a hospital in Villjoyosa in Alicante in her beloved Spain at 06.05 am of acute anaemia and probably of a lack of will to live as she suffered from that dreadful disease Alzheimer. I was given the news by a distraught Sasha on the phone when I was in the middle of a conference in Stockholm and I have not been able to get her out of my head since. Needless to say there has been little joy in my trip with Eladio to Sweden this week.
Maria Lieven (Masha is the diminutive of Maria in Russian) was born in Sofia into a Russian aristocratic family which became poor when they fled Russia at the end of the Revolution. Her Father, my Grand Father, Prince Andrei Lieven, became a priest and the upbringing of the 6 Lieven children was very strict and very religious. My Mother, Lena, had the misfortune of being the black sheep in the family because of her rebellious nature and was sent off to France at the age of 6 to study. The next time she saw her parents was at the age of 11 when she returned. I always remember her saying that the day she did she found her last letter to them crumpled in the waste paper basket.
Aunty Masha, on the other hand, was the darling of the family and the only one who was spoiled. My grandmother, Sophie Stachovich, simply did not know how to run a house hold and bring up children as these things had always been done by servants back in Mother Russia. But probably when Masha was born she had either softened or her patience had run out.
Elena and Masha became thick friends upon Lena’s return from France and this friendship and closeness remained all their lives. So close were they that Lena became her surrogate Mother as their Mother on her deathbed asked Lena to “look after” Masha when she was gone. Lena fulfilled this promise until the day she died.
They were very close and adored each other but I must admit they had their bad moments too and could sometimes fight like cat and dog. I remember Aunty Masha always winning. She had a much stronger character than my Mother.
Masha was strong and brave and nothing frightened her. World circumstances marked her life though. The Lieven family fled Russia to escape the communists. They went to Bulgaria and life was difficult but peaceful until the Second world war broke out and the Russians came and Bulgaria became communist. Elena, Sasha and Nicolas got out and became refugees in Germany. Dara had already gone to London to become a nurse. After the war each of them went a different way; my Mother to London, Dara to Canada from where she eventually moved to the USA, Sasha to Canada and Nicolas to Paris.
My Mother said goodbye to her parents at their house in Sofia in 1944 at the age of 24 and never again saw her adored Father Andrei. The war and communism tore the family apart forever.
Masha stayed at home in Bulgaria as she was only 15 as did Olga who by then had become a nun. Olga remained in Bulgaria all her life and died just a few years ago as the Mother Superior of the Russian Orthodox Convent in Sofia. I never met her. The sisters, however, did meet once in 1990 as old women who had last met when they were in their teens and 20’s.
The 4 sisters reunited as published in the Telegraph and Argus in 1991 from left to right, Masha, Olga, Lena and Dara who also became a nun
But this story is about Aunty Masha. When the war broke out, my brave Aunt, at the age of 15, left home in secret and went to Yugoslavia to fight for Tito! My Mother always said she did that on high heels (because of her beauty). She soon returned to Sofia and after the war was the only one of the 6 to remain at home. She took a degree in engineering, as a surveyor (is that really possible?) at Sofia University, but never used this knowledge. Unsurprisingly she became an actress and actually she was very good at it. She married another actor, Boris Manov, a Bulgarian with whom she bore a son, Sasha. Sasha was born at the wrong time and place. This was communist Bulgaria in the 50’s.
Meanwhile, my Mother, was doing her “refugee apprenticeship” in London to get residency and this consisted in working as a cleaner for 2 years before she could be allowed to have a “proper” job. Apparently the hospital she worked at was full of other Eastern European poverty stricken princesses too. My Mother sent nearly everything she earned to her parents and sister in poor and lacking communist Bulgaria. She always told me she knew London very well as, in order to save money, she went everywhere on foot.
Masha’s other brothers and sisters were all “safe” in the west and she wanted to be there too. But it was nearly impossible to leave a communist country in those days. Masha’s marriage went sour as Boris began to drink. Eventually she found a way of sending Sasha to the west. He was sent to Paris. She soon followed illegally by defecting and risked her life to be reunited with Sasha in Paris in 1959. It was very difficult for her to settle down and they lived like nomads, eventually ending up in Germany.
Another wrong partnership, this time to “Zvonka”, the wrong type of Yugoslav, sent her looking for escape and I well remember Aunty Masha and Sasha arriving homeless and penniless at our house in Bradford in 1968 with just two suitcases. Between them they knew quite a few languages (Russian, German, French, Serbian and Bulgarian) but not English.
They settled in England and Sasha who was 14 at the time soon learned English and studied well and ended up with a degree at Edinburgh University in various languages. He speaks them all perfectly, unlike his Mother who spoke them all pretty badly except Russian and Bulgarian. She did, however, have an amazing knack of making herself understood to anyone of any nationality.
Through my parents, Aunty Masha got a job as a teacher of Russian, first at my school, St. Joseph’s College and latterly at the University of East Anglia. This was probably the happiest period of her life. Here she met another wrong partner, Denton Burkinshaw, an apparently decent enough Englishman but just not the person for her. He liked her exoticism but also expected her to behave like an English housewife, which, of course, was never possible.
Those were the Norwich days. Here Masha came into her own and flourished. At the UEA there was a very famous international Russian course every year where my parents and Aunt taught every summer. I would go along for the ride and in fact I was probably there every year from the age of 11 until my late 20s when Susana and Olivia were born. I loved going. We used to stay at the residences on the campus and made so many friends. I remember Issy, Andy, Sophie, Janet, Pasquale, the course Director, Tony Cross, the course secretary, Beryl and a host of other people.
At these 3 week courses Masha would run and put on the course concert on the last night every year. She single-handedly created a first class Russian choir out of 100 unknown people not one of who was a professional singer. She would put on superb sketches and the actress in her would bloom and she looked magical and beautiful on the stage as the audience applauded wildly.
Those were also the days of Callosa and Bolulla and our Spanish summers. In 1973 Masha bought a ruin of a house for a few hundred pounds in Bolulla, a small village in the mountains of Alicante. My mother bought a slighter bigger place in nearby Callosa. We would spend every summer there and take all our friends. Those were very happy times. We all learned Spanish and fell in love with Spain. It is because of Aunty Masha I live here now. But that’s another story.
Just around the time Aunty Masha was going to retire, Denton announced, right out of the blue, that he wanted a divorce. This destroyed my Aunt. She really loved him I think, in her own way and certainly could not envisage retirement on her own. She retired in Spain and lived alone in a small flat overlooking the sea in Benidorm. I think she couldn’t take the loneliness and slowly went to seed.
She had one moment of joy at this time when she visited Russia in 2003, for the first time in her life even though she was a native Russian. She went to an event together with my Father, organised to celebrate the life of the Lieven family, called “The Lieven Readings”. My Aunty Valya, Nicolas’ wife, also attended. There she was wined and dined as a true Russian aristocrat and visited some of the mansions which had once belonged to the family.
Aunty Masha (in blue) at the Lieven readings in Moscow 2003, my Father is on the far right
She became a little unbalanced but that’s not surprising after the life she had led. She would stay with us at Christmas sometimes. We would visit her too in Benidorm every now and again when we would revisit Callosa and Bolulla together and have lunch at Algar.
In Callosa in 2006 on one of our visits to see Aunty Masha, with my Father and I.
But slowly that dreadful disease Alzheimer crept up on her and last Christmas she wanted to return home just after arriving. We saw her again in August and she was in a bad way. However the twinkle in her eye was still there and she knew immediately who we were and switched seemlessly between Russian, Bulgarian, English and Spanish! As she walked with us to the lift she told me not to forget her. That tore my heart. In September I sent her some flowers for her birthday and the nurse, Zhania, a wonderful Bulgarian lady who looked after her night and day right up until her death, God bless her, rang and Aunty Masha thanked me for the flowers in a very confused state.
I have been living with the threat of Sasha’s phone call and it came on Thursday lunchtime. She had been taken into hospital with acute anaemia. I agreed with Sasha we would go this Sunday to see her for one last time. However that was not to be as he rang yesterday morning, to say she had taken her final breath just after 6 am. Now we will be going, but to the funeral.
It is very sad as her death, to quote my cousin Zuka, Nicolas’ daughter, pointed out yesterday, symbolises the last of the family, the end of an era. Now they are all gone and all we can do is mourn.
Goodbye darling Aunty Masha. I loved you, you know that. You were a difficult woman but you were my beautiful young Aunt from abroad who had been an actress and spoke broken English. You took us in your old cars all over Europe and life was an adventure. I just wish your life had been a happier adventure. However you lived it to the full and the Aunty Masha I will remember is the one on the stage at Norwich in her high heels and evening dress, the centre of my world.