Русская версия


'I hope that someone, someday will read this and know what I have suffered'
Sonechka Balk

The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 shattered the lives of all Russians. Russian at Heart is the story of one such family set in an era made famous in the novel and film, Dr Zhivago.

Sonechka Balk was born into a gentry family in the Crimea in 1904. She is the youngest of four children. World War I and the revolution tear her family apart; relationships are destroyed by events beyond her control. An orphaned teenager, Sonechka is forced to work for Lenin’s secret police, the Cheka, forerunner of the KGB, counting 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 on the Trans-Siberian railway to China.

Her dream is to go to America to join Sasha, her White Army officer brother. This is shattered by new US immigration restrictions passed in 1924. She is stranded in Shanghai, the world’s most cosmopolitan city between the wars. Several people help her, including Duncan Kerr and Lara von Schneider. Sasha had saved the life of Duncan’s brother, a British officer, when they were fighting the Red Army in Siberia.

Sonechka’s future husband, Vladimir Rossi, a multi-lingual ex-Imperial Horse Guards officer, arrives in Shanghai in 1929. Badly wounded towards the end of the Civil War, he was evacuated from the Crimea to Constantinople (Istanbul). He had attended the elite Corps des Pages military academy in St Petersburg. In 1913, during the Romanov dynasty’s tercentenary celebrations, he was an equerry to Tsar Nicholas' daughter, the Grand Duchess Princess Tatyana.

Sonechka and Vladimir meet and marry in Shanghai where they raise their family. Their remarkable resourcefulness enables them to survive in this war-torn city during the 1930s and, in particular, the Japanese occupation during World War II.

The rich storehouse of stories that Olga heard from Sonechka, her mother, and Dora, her aunt, along with their memoirs form the basis of this book. It is a unique account of how a family survived some of the twentieth century’s greatest upheavals.

This book contains 75 b/w family photographs from Russia and Shanghai.

Read an extract from chapter 1 to 6 of the book here...(adobe PDF file 192KB)

Book Reviews


Russian review of the book available here...

Reviewed by Lucy Vaganova, 2014


This attractively produced and illustrated book chronicles the extraordinary life of Olga Hawkes’ mother, Sonechka, against a background of dramatic world events. Born in 1904 in pre-Revolutionary Russia, Sonechka survived the revolution, moved by way of many adventures to Shanghai, and ended her life in the United States.

Reviewed by Sir Anthony Figgis, chairman Royal Over-Seas League (ROSL), issue 2 June 2010, ROSL magazine


From Revolutionary Russia to refuge in America, this gem of a book (by Sonechka’s daughter and Kiwi son-in-law) also provides a fascinating window on a tragic sweep of Russian history, but through the life story of a woman born in 1904.

Sonechka’s comfortable middleclass world was torn apart by World War 1 then the terror of revolution and she witnessed the absolute worst of human behaviors, before finally escaping to Shanghai.

There she found herself stranded in the White Russian refugee community, facing even more challenge, especially during the Japanese occupation.

Recommended reading for anyone who thinks their life is difficult and stressed.

Reviewed by Rosemarie Smith, Invercargill, NZ, Southland Times April 2010


Fascinating Historical Story of Flight for Life- a true story.

Written by Sonechka’s daughter and son-in-law, Russian at Heart is the story of a remarkable woman but it is also a fascinating historical snapshot.

An eyewitness to terrible atrocities in the name of the Revolution, Sonechka also describes how it was for a long forgotten group of people, the large contingent of White Russian emigres in Shanghai. The book is rich in detail, but it is Sonechka herself, her strength of character, beauty and her intense Russian ‘heart’ that makes this story a compelling one.

Reviewed by Judith Mc Kinnon in Hawke's Bay Today, NZ, January 2, 2010


'A Hard Life' was the horror faced by Russians who suffered as a result of the 1917 Revolution. It was a dark episode in a remarkable life of a remarkable woman, one which spanned four countries and the best and worst of the 20th century. More than seven decades before, the 19-year-old Sonechka, the unwilling servant of the Cheka, smuggled herself on board the Trans-Siberian Railway and began the long journey to China and a new life.

The White Russian community in Shanghai led a precarious existence on the fringes of the International Concessions, hovering between exploited or ostracised. What they all shared was an experience which had taken them from old Russia to the fringes of China in one of the world's largest human displacements.

Sonechka's daughter and son-in-law, Olga and John Hawkes of Christchurch, have now written her biography as a tribute to an individual who had survived and seen so much.”

Chris Moore, The Weekend Press, Christchurch, NZ, December 19, 2009


The Balk family, Crimea, 1909

The Balk family, Crimea, 1909. From left: Liza (11); Sonechka's mother, Anastasia; Sasha (15); Sonechka (5); Sonechka's father, Lev; Mishka (9)