Russian at Heart
Born into the Crimean gentry, young Sonechka Balk is left orphaned and destitute by the Russian Revolution that destroys her idyllic life. In 1924, aged just 19, she flees to Shanghai, one of 30,000 White Russian diaspora seeking refuge from the Bolsheviks . Surviving some of the 20th century’s greatest upheavals, she finds love in war-torn Shanghai and eventually refuge for her family in America. More
From revolutionary Russia to exile and love in war-torn Shanghai, then eventually refuge in America, is the true story of a remarkable woman’s survival against the odds during some of the twentieth century’s greatest upheavals.
Sonechka Balk was born into the Crimean gentry in 1904, the youngest of four children. But World War One and the Russian Revolution tear her family and its idyllic life apart, and relationships are destroyed by events beyond her control. Now an orphaned teenager, Sonechka is forced to work for Lenin’s secret police, the Cheka, counting the bodies of those who have died of starvation and those murdered by the Bolsheviks.
After many narrow escapes, and chased by the Cheka, Sonechka flees to China on the Trans-Siberian railway. She dreams of going to America to join her White Army officer brother, Sasha. But her dream is shattered by new US immigration restrictions and she is left stranded in Shanghai, one of the world’s most fascinating and cosmopolitan cities between the wars.
Among the people who help Sonechka is Duncan Kerr, the brother of a British officer whose life Sasha saved when they were fighting the Red Army in Siberia. Sonechka’s future husband arrives in Shanghai in 1929. Vladimir Rossi is a multi-lingual ex-Imperial Horse Guards officer. He had attended the elite Corps des Pages military academy in St Petersburg and during the Romanov dynasty’s tercentenary celebrations in 1913, had served as an equerry to Tsar Nicholas’ daughter, the Grand Duchess Princess Tatyana. His eventual journey to Shanghai begins when he is badly wounded in the Civil War and evacuated from the Crimea to Constantinople (Istanbul).
Sonechka and Vladimir marry in Shanghai and raise their young family there. A remarkable resourcefulness enables them to survive in this war-torn city during the 1930s and, in particular, during the brutal Japanese occupation.
This book, illustrated with 70 historical photos and maps, comes out of the rich storehouse of memories and stories that daughter Olga heard from Sonechka and Dora, her aunt, and from the diaries Sonechka kept throughout these fascinating and dangerous times. It is a unique account of how a family survived some of the twentieth century’s greatest upheavals.
About the Authors
Russian at Heart is co-authored by Olga and John Hawkes. Aged five, Olga fled Shanghai for America in 1948 with Sonechka, her widowed mother, and sister. Olga was educated there, then went to Europe. In Paris she met and married John Hawkes, a New Zealand doctor, in 1962. For thirty years they lived in the south east of England where John was a consultant rheumatologist. They now live in Auckland, New Zealand.