Marsha Samoylenko Denison and Gregoire Ivanovich Samoylenko
Outskirts Press (2016)
Reviewed by David K. McDonnell for Reader Views (12/16)
“Grisha’s Loop,” also titled “My Slavic Saga,” is authored by Marsha Samoylenko Denison and her father, Gregoire Ivanovich Samoylenko. It is Samoylenko’s partially completed autobiography, completed to the extent possible by Denison. To the extent completed it is a fascinating account of a young man growing up in Imperial Russia, a witness to the Bolshevik Revolution, a participant in the Russian Civil War, and a refugee who ended up in America.
The book has three parts. Part I is Denison’s introduction to her father (known as both Gregory and Grisha), and the historical context for his autobiography. He wrote it in the 1930s and put it away in a box. Denison opened the box decades later, and even more years later wrote “Grisha’s Loop.” Part III is Denison’s story of Samoylenko’s life in the United States.
The gut of the book is Part II – Samoylenko’s autobiography. He was an ethnic Russian, but grew up in a predominately-Muslim region in southern Russia. His was an upper middle class family in an extremely poor village. He graduated from gymnasium and went to Polytech Institute in Petrograd as an engineering student. His description of life in rural Russia is rich in detail. This includes a vivid description of a mob killing of three gypsies accused of theft, and of a brutal “sport” played by the young men of the village. I particularly liked his description of a young girl he met (with Samoylenko referring to himself in the third person):
“She was dressed all in black, a soft clinging garment that reached to her feet, concealing yet at the same time molding itself to her slender form. Her garments were ornamented with fine embroideries in gold thread and about her neck was a chain of gold, composed of coins. Her face was covered by a long veil, fastened at each side so that only her eyes showed above it. It was these eyes that held Gregory. Never in his life had he seen such eyes before, dark and deep, deep as the river pools in the shadow of the pines, yet with a sparkle in them that enlivened their placid depths.”
Samoylenko was in Petrograd as a student and Imperial naval cadet during the Bolshevik Revolution. He witnessed, although did not participate in the street fighting, rioting, and other events associated with the revolution, all of which were described in equally rich detail. He went from a cadet in the Tsar’s navy to a soldier in the Bolshevik army, to a soldier in the counter-revolutionary “White Army.”
Unfortunately, Samoylenko never finished the autobiography. He did leave an outline for future chapters, which left many questions and mysteries. Outline entries for “arrest,” “fall from aeroplane,” “first battle,” “back to Ochakov with prisoners,” “fall of army,” and others, makes one wonder what he actually went through and witnessed. Denison attempts to fill in the blanks of her father’s story through family lore and other documents, but this cannot compare to Samoylenko’s own words.
Part III, Samoylenko’s life as an American, is the book’s weakest section, filled with photos and information, which only his family would appreciate. The book’s titles and subtitles are confusing, with “Grisha’s Loop” being Denison’s title and “My Slavic Saga” being Samoylenko’s. And two subtitles are a bit much.
Denison, though, does an admirable job of connecting the dots left unconnected by her father. Samoylenko’s voice, coupled with the historical events witnessed, makes “Grisha’s Loop” and “My Slavic Saga” much more than one man’s saga. It is indeed fortunate that Marsha Samoylenko Denison rescued the autobiography from her father’s box.