I have been reading ‘Olga’s Story’ by Stephanie Williams[published by Viking in 2005 and subsequently by Penguin in 2006].It is a detailed and very readable account of the life of her Russian grandmother, Olga Yunter, who was born in Siberia in 1900. She was brought up in a large, lively and educated family, her father being a merchant who traded in goods from all over the world, with the Cossacks and the Chinese. Olga just managed to escape to China during the Russian revolution. Two of her brothers were killed during the violence that followed as the revolution swept through eastern Russia. She met and married an Englishman, Frederick Edney, in Tientsin in 1923. They survived the political upheavals in China and escaped the worst atrocities of the Sino-Japanese war. Olga managed to get to Canada with her daughter in 1941, but her husband was interned by the Japanese. [He was a civilian working for a British/American company in Shanghai.] He survived, and was released when hostilities ended in 1945, but his physical and mental health had been badly affected by the harsh conditions in the camp.
It is a powerful and moving account of how one woman managed to survive some of the most violent upheavals of the twentieth century, set against the background of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the Second World War [especially events in the Far East].
With the aid of photographs and letters, as well as detailed archive research, Stephanie Williams managed to rediscover her lost maternal grandmother’s Russian family, and to find out what happened to them during the terrible years of Stalin’s rule, the spread of communism and the descent of the Iron Curtain across Europe.
Starting with the author’s own memories of her grandmother telling stories about her childhood in Siberia, it took ten years to research and write this moving and rewarding account. The historical research is meticulous, and the range and scope impressive – yet it remains at heart a moving family history and one which I can recommend highly to anyone embarking on such a project. However, the sheer scale of the research involved is a daunting prospect for any aspiring writer, and makes Stephanie Williams’ achievement all the more remarkable.