Although E. M. Almedingen protests that this is not a translation or even an abridgement of her great-aunt’s much longer work, she says she has followed the “landscape” faithfully and has used much of the dialogue, as well as the incidents and characters of the original, all of which were based on diaries kept by Catherine Almedingen since childhood. The tone reflects nineteenth century attitudes toward children. Katia’s occasional lapses from good behavior are recounted frankly, and it is easy to understand why she might have had a tantrum or been tempted into some childhood fault. Yet such incidents are usually followed by a reproving comment, and the decisions of the adults, some of which may seem unreasonable to the modern reader, are not questioned.
This picture of the disciplined life of children amid the lavish extravagance on three great estates is the most interesting aspect of the book. While wealthy women such as Aunt Marie are waited upon at every turn, not even deigning to put on their own stockings, Katia and the young Mirkovs are expected to wash in cold water, dress themselves, and exercise outdoors no matter what the weather, as well as being required to study diligently and eat without speaking unless addressed by an adult. While the estate has immense orchards with many acres of fruit trees, the children are allowed only one pear and two plums each day. This restriction leads to the most memorable incident in the book. Katia came upon a porcelain basket of fruit in the drawing room and, being alone, extracted three plums and ate them. Although she confessed and repented with tears, she was punished some weeks...
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Because only specialists in Russian children’s literature are likely to have heard of Catherine Almedingen apart from this book, and because her adult achievements are not part of the main narrative, Katia commands a place in biography for young people mainly through the portrait that it provides of nineteenth century life among the wealthy upper class in Russia.
The daughter of a Danish mother and a father of Austro-Bavarian parentage, Katia fit into the cosmopolitan culture that prevailed in the isolated society of Trostnikova and among many of the educated in Russia. At five years of age, she spoke four languages—though her Russian, learned mainly from servants, was not always acceptable to Sophie. The governess at Trostnikova was German, Nadia’s governess was English, Sophie had traveled widely, and even Aunt Marie read French novels. Dubky, though much nearer to Moscow, ironically presents another aspect of Russian society: a narrow provincialism and lack of intellectual interest among some of the gentry.
Although the narrative is easy to read as a story, it lacks the climax that is expected of a novel. Nevertheless, for younger readers who are not yet ready to tackle the great nineteenth century Russian novels of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski, Katia furnishes a simple but authentic introduction to the society that they may meet later in more demanding works.