Nikolay Andreyev (Hodgson Press, £12.99)

Nikolay Andreyev had a singular life. He was born in Russia in 1908, left at the age of 11, lived as an émigré in Estonia and Prague between the two World Wars, and was arrested in 1945 by the Soviet counter-espionage organisation Smersh. He spent almost two years in Soviet transit jails in Czechoslovakia and Germany, before his eventual release and arrival in Berlin as a ‘displaced person’. He came to England in 1948 with tenpence in his pocket. The only English phrase he knew was ‘Kiss me quick’ – a phrase he was taught by a British officer on the plane.

Andreyev had been invited to join the Department of Slavonic Studies at Cambridge, where he lived for the rest of his life. He married, had children; his daughter, Catherine Andreyev, lives in Oxford, and has overseen the publication and translation of his memoirs A Moth on the Fence.

The title phrase comes from a description of Andreyev when he was trying to obtain the documents he needed to survive in occupied Berlin, and emphasises the fragility of his position at the time. Indeed, Andreyev used to describe himself as being blown about by the winds of history, and his vivid memoirs give the impression of calm within storm, and making the most of whichever direction he might be buffeted.

The memoirs have the spontaneity and vivacity that characterised Andreyev’s life. They were dictated in his later years, when blindness prevented him from reading and writing, and exhibit an astonishing recall of detail. As his daughter points out in her Introduction, Andreyev was never at a loss for words; he retained a strong sense of the comic (even when arrested); and he combined an excellent memory with the ability of a historian to place his experience in a wider context.

All these elements, in addition to the facts of the story being told, lead to a readable and informative account of a turbulent time in Russian and Western European history, and of one man’s path through those turbulent times.