During the January 2006 Canadian federal elections, Michael Ignatieff ' until recently director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University ' won the Etobicoke-Lakeshore seat to the House of Commons by a respectable margin. There are rumours of his being a candidate in the upcoming Liberal leadership nomination triggered by the resignation of the former Canadian prime minister, Paul Martin. Ignatieff is the son of Alison Grant and the Canadian diplomat, George Ignatieff, and the grandson of Count Paul Ignatieff, the last minister of education to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and his wife, Princess Natasha Mestchersky, while his great-grandfather was Count Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev, the Russian minister of the interior under Tsar Alexander III.
Some years ago, in The Russian Album, a book which ingeniously and seamlessly straddles that grey area between biography and fiction, Michael Ignatieff narrated his Russian family's history; but, as official handouts say, he 'is best known for his writing and scholarship on human rights issues'. The public face of political life requires a commitment to contemporary buzzwords and agendas. At the same time, life stories help locate individuals, stamp them indelibly with the ink of belonging. Ignatieff's work on human rights surely owes much to his personal legacy, one that he traces for us through his grandparents' memoirs, an album of precious photographs and his reading of Russia's traumatic years.
Ignatieff is, however, ambivalent towards the wealth of family photographs he has inherited. On the one hand, for those from an 'migr' background, 'photographs are often the only artefacts to survive the passage through exile, migration or the pawnshop'. At the same time, he feels that these silent reminders of one's past constrain the individual capacity to reinvent oneself: 'to look at an old photograph and to discover that one has inherited the shape of one's eyes, to hear from one's parents that one has also inherited a temperament, is to feel...a dawning sense of imprisonment'.
He writes that 'memory heals the scars of time' while 'photography documents the wounds', and accordingly, his narration of the family's fractured past and attempts at a life in the West is based on his selection of text and image. His great-grandfather's grave that he rediscovered in 1993 in Kroupodenitsa, the Ignatieff estate in the Ukraine had, in the Stalinist years, been used as a butcher's block. Count Nikolay's name as well as those of two treaties he had brokered on behalf of the Tsar, Peking in 1861 and San Stefano in 1878, are slashed through, the gashes clearly visible in the photograph. In another photograph of his grandmother's parents, the Mestcherskys taken at their family seat in Doughino, Maria looks at the photographer in 'lofty amusement', her stare direct, she herself 'massive, stout and ugly' and known 'in her heyday for the sharpness of her tongue'. Her husband's 'eyes gaze at her devotedly' though, as her great-grandson writes, she does not even spare him a glance. At least, not in the only photograph that remains of the redoubtable couple.
Ignatieff writes with engaging candour of his family's decline, his grandfather's miraculous survival at the hands of the Reds and the flight to England. After some years, when younger members of the family decide to move, it is to the New World that they go. And, in that melting pot of cultures, Ignatieff's father and uncles are educated, find wives and professional careers. In time, a generation of Canadians of Russian stock grows up in the fathers' land of adoption, who, more than the elders, skilfully meld the varied emotions of mixed identities.
Not many are as fortunate as Michael Ignatieff to have such a rich archive on their gene bank. Also, as his family held important positions in Russia, he could place the memoirs and photograph album in the appropriate time-frame and socio-historical context. Dating and identifying visuals are a problem that often beset not only amateurs but professionals as well.
Recently, a Tudor portrait in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge has been relabelled as being that of Lady Jane Grey, England's 'Nine-Days Queen' of the 16th century. For years it had been regarded as that of Mary I. Painstaking doctoral research by J. Stephan Edwards, based on textual material as well as detailed analysis of the painting, led to the conclusion that it was not Mary but Jane. That the sitter appears uncommonly thin tallies with the fact that Lady Jane had indeed been very ill shortly before the period of the painting. But what made the researcher sure of his revelation was the pendant prayerbook that the devout young woman held in her hands. Its costly binding and the letter 'D' in the middle was his clue: at that time, there were only two wealthy English families with names and titles with the letter 'D' who had marriageable daughters, and Edwards zeroed in on Henry Grey of Dorset, Jane's father who was known more by his title than by the surname, Grey. Thus, he deduced that the monogram stood for Dorset and that the portrait was of the Marquis's older daughter, Lady Jane.
Here, historical evidence supported visual analysis in confirming identity, era if not the actual year. In the case of photography, professionals can date by similar evidence as well as the evolution of the photograph (daguerreotypes, calotypes, albumen prints, ambrotypes and then the roll film of Eastman's Brownie), the history of studios, styles of dressing and so on. For the family archivist attempting a salvage operation before the kabadiwala is summoned, there are kinds and styles of clothing, hairdos, names of studios, studio props and the back of mounts that can provide clues to years and even identity. Often, relatives, and if lucky, letters, fragments of journals and certain memorabilia, like Jane's prayerbook, provide some pointers.
The size of photographs, whether it is a full-length portrait, three-quarter length or just the head and if only the head, whether the image fades to white at the edges (known as vignetting), are indications of the period. It is likely that the visiting-card-size carte de visite came to India in the 1860s, followed by the larger cabinet size. Both continued to be popular till the 1890s while the cartes de visite, with rounded edges, belong to the later period as did three-quarter-length portraits and vignetting that came with more advanced technology.
Thus, this full length portrait of a certain Russick Lall Mullick, from a well-to-do family, was possibly taken in the 1880s. In the West, by the end of that decade it was unusual to use head clamps, the base of which is clearly visible protruding from behind the left ankle in this cabinet-size portrait. Experts would surely be able to comment on the assemblage of Victoriana and sartorial style including the jamawaar shawl, vital information for dating this photograph, unearthed serendipitously in a Calcutta auction house.
Even when more 'reliable' sources are available, these tellers of memories and inheritors of the past make choices on what to remember, share and make public. Michael Ignatieff chose not to publish his grandparents' memoirs. His grandmother's he did not publish 'because what made them so alive also made them unreadable' (were they telling too many family secrets, one wonders) and his grandfather's were too impersonal a re-telling of well-known events in Tsarist history. But he did share carefully chosen photographs with the reader, interpreting as well as integrating them with his story as he went along, family matters merging with history, to remind us of the delicate yet undeniable link between private and public, fact and imagination.