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The Riven Heart of Moscow


Sivtsev Vrazhek

Author: Mikhail Osorgin

Translator: Svetlana Payne

In 1914, the Russian Empire is at its peak of affluence. The future looks bright, and spring brings new promise with the migrating swallows heralding summer…

In 1914, the Russian Empire is at its peak of affluence. The future looks bright, and spring brings new promise with the migrating swallows heralding summer. Ivan Alexandrovich, internationally renowned professor of ornithology, lives with his granddaughter Tanyusha, an aspiring concert pianist, in their family villa in Sivtsev Vrazhek, a little lane in central Moscow. They hold weekly musical soirées, and entertain their friends ― dashing cadets, scientists, lawyers, and musicians. However, tectonic shifts are just around the corner and the ensuing catastrophic crisis will rip apart not only Russia, but also Europe and the entire world.

The First World War, the Revolution of 1917, the fratricidal civil war in Russia, and the subsequent rise of the Red Terror will destroy many of the things previously considered certain and eternal. There will be death, hunger and loss, betrayal of and by friends, courageous ― if futile ― attempts to intercede on behalf of the victims. Yet despite the prevailing cruelty and wickedness, common humanity will still strive to survive and shine. This is a story of a family living through impossible trials, of a society torn apart, and of the survival of the human spirit against all odds.

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Mikhail Andreyevich Osorgin (real surname Ilyin) was born in 1878 in the city of Perm in the Urals to a family of intelligentsia. His father a was lawyer while his mother, who spoke several languages and had received a good education from a school in Warsaw, dedicated her life to the family and the children. The family’s life was intense, and their cultural interests numerous and varied. They shared a typical set of values adhered to by the educated classes in provincial Russia at the time: the precedence of social interests over private, and an acute sense of justice.

Osorgin’s first publication was a tiny piece in the local newspaper, written in 1897 when he still a schoolboy, on the occasion of the death of his form teacher. Having received his degree from Moscow State University, he briefly worked as a barrister. It was then that he became involved with the party of Socialist Revolutionaries, a popular organisation at the time, rather militant in its methodology and a real rival to the Bolsheviks. However, he never made a career in the party, and shunned internal squabbles and rigid party discipline.

He did not take part in the revolution of 1905, but was nonetheless arrested and spent six months in jail. He was on the brink of starting to serve a five-year prison sentence when, due to a lack of coordination between various penal departments, he was released by mistake, and used the opportunity to flee to Italy.

It was there that he started writing in earnest, becoming a foreign correspondent of The Russian News and European Herald. In 1916, after 10 years in Italy, he returned to Russia, overcoming significant obstacles, and eager to sign up for the front. However, he was unable to join the army because of his criminal record (the five-year sentence had never been repealed).

In 1917, the Provisional Government invited him to become Ambassador to Italy, but he declined this flattering offer in order to become a full-time journalist and author. He stayed in Moscow during the horrific years immediately after the revolution and the “Red Terror”, like many other members of his class, was arrested by the secret police (Cheka), and spent time in the notorious Lubyanka Prison. He was released under the guarantee of Lev Kamenev, the then head of the Moscow Soviet, but was forced to emigrate shortly afterwards, leaving on the ignominious “Philosophers’ Steamer”.

After a short stint in Berlin (the initial capital of post-revolution Russian cultural emigration) he went to Paris, where he contributed articles, fiction, and book reviews to émigré papers. He was still holding onto his Soviet passport when in 1937, during a routine registration visit to the embassy, this passport was removed from him by force. He never sought or received French citizenship, and lived the remaining years of his life as a stateless person.

Unlike most of his colleagues and contemporaries, Osorgin never held extreme anti-Soviet views. Being highly critical of the system and the government, he believed that Russian literature, whether produced inside the Soviet Union or in the diaspora, was one whole; it was simply that the writers were working under different circumstances and saw the world in their individual way. Osorgin’s best known works were his novels A Quiet Street (1930) – Syvtsev Vrazhek in an earlier translation, and My Sister’s Story (1931), both translations into English never reprinted.

During the 1930s he spent much of his time in the village of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, in the province of Essonne, where he owned a cottage. Here he rejected urban civilisation, promoting a lifestyle that was closer to nature. He stayed in France during the German occupation and died in 1942 in the village of Chabris, where he and his wife had escaped as refugees. Living on the border of the Free Zone, he had been actively publishing anti-Nazi pamphlets until the very end.

About the Translator

Sveta Payne (aka Svetlana Dubovitskaya) was born in Ternopol (as it was called at the time when all toponymics were only spelled in Russian, nowadays it is Ternopil), on the western rim of the Soviet Union, in 1961. The territorial volatility of the region, Galicia, gave her a relatively cosmopolitan view of the world. She studied at the University of Lvov/Lviv, graduating with honours in philology, teaching foreign languages, and translation. The love of both spoken and written word led her to gain a command of seven languages.

Her earliest professional linguistic experience was taking parties of western visitors around the geographical and cultural diversity of the Soviet Union, under the auspices of the Peace Committee of the USSR. With Glasnost, Perestroika and the fall of the Wall, she found herself in an advantageous position, and through an ability for simultaneous interpreting, technical and literary translation between Russian, English and other European languages, she was able to work for western companies that sought to invest in the newly emerging state. During this period, she worked for many major global concerns such as the World Bank, UNDP, Morgan Stanley, OECD, and the European Union’s investment and development programmes. However, whilst engaged in bringing her use of languages into the working world, she was always acting on her determination to bring Russian literature to a wider audience by translating Russian poets, writers and film dialogues into English.

During the 1990s she spent progressively more time in the UK, and moved there permanently in 1997 when she married a UK scientist. For some time, she was the UK correspondent for the Russian weekly magazine, Ogonyok, writing features on British life and culture. Whilst she went on to work for a number of UK institutions such as the BBC Russian Service and Factiva (news service for Reuters), she also turned to publishing her translations of Russian poets. Her illustrated compilation of poetry by Daniel Kharms, The Charms of Harms, appeared in 2011 and is still selling today. As a reverse in the cultural tide, in 1997 Sveta produced a Russian translation of T. S. Elliot’s The Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which has now been through a sufficient number of reprintings to achieve a ‘Gold’ version. The year 2012 saw the publication of her translation of The World’s Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy – translated with a view to bringing this work to the attention of the assiduous reading public of Russia. In the same mode she was commissioned by one of the leading theatres of Moscow to translate the libretto of Jesus Christ Super Star, to enable a performance of this very popular musical in Russian.

More recently, Sveta has engaged with contemporary Russian writing, having translated a biography of Boris Yeltsin (Boris Yeltsin: The Decade that Shook the World, Glagoslav), a novel by Arseny Revazov (Loneliness-12, A&NN) and co-worked on two novels by the prize-winning Russian author Victor Pelevin (S.N.U.F.F. and Empire V, Gollancz).

Whilst still engaged with languages in the business sector, Sveta continues to promote her vision of international cultural understanding, particularly between the English- and Russian-speaking worlds. Her most recent work is a translation of The Riven Heart of Moscow (Sivtsev Vrazhek) by Mikhail Osorgin – a book written in the aftermath of the Revolution and the First World War and offering an eyewitness testament to these events as well as a cross-section of the chaotic changes to Russian society caused by them.

Sveta is now mainly based in London, and divides her residence between the UK and the south of France.

Dimensions127 × 203 mm

Mikhail Osorgin


496 pages

Publication date

14th August 2023

Book Format

Hardcover, Paperback, EPUB, Kindle

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