The White Spirits: From Bolshevism to Belfast, a Work and Life in Progress

By Daniel Edelstyn

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The story of my grandparents’ dramatic arrival in Britain wasted no time in establishing itself as the legend at the heart of our off-beat family identity. My grandmother Maroussia came from a fabulously wealthy Jewish family in the Ukraine before the 1917 Russian Revolution. They had thousands of acres and a sugar factory, and she was a dancer, a painter, a writer and a marvellous violin player, not to mention an incurable romantic who ended up a Republican sympathiser buried in the Catholic cemetery on the Falls Road in Belfast. Early on my mother introduced us to the story, leading us to the mysterious cupboard under the stairs with the creaking door, home to my grandmother’s dusty old violin in a bid to encourage the continuation of her exotic and creative legacy.

When the Revolution took place the family stayed on in the Ukraine, hoping that Lenin and the Reds were just a temporary aberration. Even when their factory and mansion were smashed and looted they refused to give up. But Maroussia fled, finding love in the arms of Mordekai Edelstajn (or Mordka to his friends) - a Jew of more humble origins fighting for the imperial forces (the Whites).

Fleeing the chaos and leaving their families behind, the pair drifted through Europe before coming to London, then Hull and finally settling in Belfast. Maroussia’s narrative became one of painful integration, impoverishment, conversion to Catholicism, radical Republicanism and a tragically early death. Compared to the fate of her family this was a fortuitous tale. Her brother, Fred disappeared in 1941 when the Nazis invaded the Ukraine and killed thousands in Babi Yar; ‘Mimi’, the youngest sister, was never heard of again; Irene (younger sister by one year) made up a fictional back-story and survived in a one-room apartment. The parents simply disappeared and I can find no trace of them after 1942. The whole story always had an epic quality and from my earliest days I always imagined it as a film – all my previous attempts to create short films and documentaries have been leading to this moment – where I turn my family’s story into my first feature film.

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Ever since my mother’s early and vastly impressive performances of Maroussia’s story, I’d longed to travel back to the Ukraine and find the place where she grew up. This impetus was amplified because my father, George (Maroussia’s son) died when I was only three – taking the details of the story to his own tragically early grave. George never had a chance to answer the call set out for him by Maroussia’s final letter to him, written in the early days of the Second World War: “when peace will be restaured [sic], you must go with daddy to Russia and try to find all about my people. Think how nice it would be for you to find suddenly people who love you even without knowing you. Anyhow, you must visit Douboviazovka, and walk about the park.”

On my thirtieth birthday I felt the time was right to embark on this long awaited journey. I phoned my mother and asked for more details. She remembered there was a suitcase with some papers and photos in the attic. Inside was a manuscript typed out on thin paper, yellowed with age. Dusting it off, I flicked through and it opened a portal into a world long disappeared and a narrative beyond all my expectations. There were lavish ballroom interiors, chandeliers shining on dances populated by nobles and officers, swooning girls in pure white dresses hoping for love, a vivid past inflected with the urgency and immediacy of youth. Her story sprang out like a jack-in-the-box.

The past shed its deadness, and my grandmother leapt back to life, galvanizing me to create a stage on which she could dance again, and tell her story. Since that moment in the attic she’s been my collaborator – the great screenwriter of my family’s story, the Russian Revolution and the intervening years of migration and adaptation.

In February 2008 I set off for the Ukraine in search of the traces of Maroussia’s life before the Revolution. Expert historians warned me that the manuscript was to be taken with a pinch of salt. Indeed, it was dismissed as a work of romantic fiction by one particularly sceptical academic. Who could blame him – after all, the story had the atmosphere of a romantic novel and was populated by towns known only by their first letter and character pseudonyms.

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With a characteristic zeal for fictionalising the truth, Maroussia anglicized the name of her family estate to “Oakoviaz”. However, scouring further notebooks and letters that had been scattered after the death of my father, I came across the name of the estate as ‘Douboviazovka’. This one clue was to prove critical to unlocking the mystery and opening a new chapter in the story…

In Kiev we made an appointment with Olga Muzychuk, director of the city’s National Archive. She was as imposing as the Soviet building itself but warmed to this story of romance and revolution. She picked up the phone and after a brief conversation confirmed that Douboviazovka was indeed a sugar factory. It was four hours outside of Kiev by train, the nearest stop being a place called Konotop, the last outpost of the Ukrainian railway, before the border with Belarus.

Outside Konotop station we found a driver waiting for a fare, his orange Lada easily the oldest and most beaten old car on the lot - the perfect vehicle in which to continue the adventure. We veered off along a bleak icy road across the white Ukrainian plains. Cars sped past us seemingly oblivious to the blizzard and the black ice. We chugged along, our driver’s hands shaking at the wheel until we passed the Cyrillic road sign spelling out Douboviazovka. Industrial buildings, a huge chimney, dogs barking, horse and carts driven by men in military attire - my head was light with excitement.

In the three days we spent in the village and more specifically in the village shop, with a bottle of vodka and Youri the owner, we made our most important discoveries. The sugar factory was owned by a man called Kandiba, whereas the spirits factory at the other end of the village was owned by my great-grandfather Ilya Zorahovich. We heard how the village was slowly dying since the closure of the sugar factory four years earlier. Youri, like many of the people we met in the countryside, laid the blame for the demise of his village on the modernising zeal of Gorbachov and Perestroika. Prior to that, the people were protected and local industries were alive – the village had full employment. Now the rich black earth which once won the Ukraine its reputation as the ‘bread basket of Europe’ is uncultivated, the factories are closed, stripped of all their valuable machines and metal and the workforce from Douboviazovka poisons itself with alcoholism or has simply moved away. House after house in the village lies empty and less and children are being born there.

We were granted an audience with Andre Alexandrovich, director of the spirits factory. An initial cloud of suspicion hung between us but once I had allayed his fears of any intentions to reclaim the family business he opened up. He confirmed that the factory had been expropriated during the Russian Revolution from a ‘Zorahovich’. The factory has remained in state possession ever since 1917. We were given a tour of the vast and Dickensian complex and met two labourers who guard ‘Zorahovich’s box’, a blue safe which used to harbour my great grandfather’s money and important papers and, so the story goes, contains a secret compartment which remains locked to this day.

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We also met the oldest woman in the village, a 103 year old who remembered my grandmother. She had bright blue eyes shining out of a delicate face framed with a yellow floral headscarf. She had worked under ‘Pan Zorahovich’ and remembered the family, telling us that scientists and chemists used to come and stay in the big house, developing the factory in the early days. Every walk down the snowbound street heralded a new discovery and our final piece of evidence came in the form of an old man brandishing an official Communist text-book which retold the story from the perspective of the state, and in which the factory had been liberated from the hands of the evil capitalist Zorahovich.

This journey has changed the course of my film and in some ways my life. I’m now developing my own vodka brand, importing the spirit from my great-grandfather’s factory into East London. It is my way of completing the circle of migration and, if the project proves to be a success, it could breathe more life into the dying village at the heart of my family’s story.


In addition, through the process of making the film, I’ve devised a manifesto for making films that deal with history:

History is in fragments, so filming history is about stitching uncertainty into the garment you think it was. But don’t let this make you timid and reductive.

You can use a historical narrative to make a positive intervention into the future of the world.

History is alive, it is full of sex, madness and broken hearts.

The feeling of history is vastly neglected but just as important as the facts of history. Let these two dance together.

What the hell is wrong with docudrama? Why is it such a safe and staid medium?

History has many aesthetics and it’s an open treasure chest. Plunder the one which is most appropriate for your story.


The story and the film are developing on a daily basis, so please visit our website and join the list to get on our Bolshevism newsletter. You can see the trailer for the film How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire on our website.

Daniel Edelstyn studied history at University College London, leaving in 1999. He’s been making films since his debut Jesus of New York in 2000. In 2005 he made a series of Three Minute Wonders for Channel 4 called Subverting The City.