There’s a Moscow inside of me. Perhaps it’s existed for a long time, but I didn’t know it. In my subconscious, a balalaika plays. I hear the language and remember my grandparents’ names: Witkowski, Vachie and Dobrovsky. “Put on your babushka, Katrina,” Nana says. Ta-Ta’s gold teeth flash in the light; he looks like many of the old men I see today in Moscow. It’s May 1992, and the city has openly welcomed Americans for only a few years, but I don’t even think of the Cold War. Why don’t I feel conspicuous or out of place? I like embankments, prospects and ulitsas—and flats, dachas, garden circles, squares, the feminine endings of street names: Smolenskaya and Tverskaya. With babies in swaddling, gypsies beg. Street violinists play for extra rubles. Kiosks line the street like rows of larch trees. Bananas and chickens for sale attract long queues. Everyone carries cloth shopping bags in both hands. People walk fast. Russian women carry themselves regally in spiky high heels. They float down the street in these shoes. Exactly how?
This is my first visit to Moscow. I’ve rented a two-room flat on the 14th floor of a run-down apartment building near Old Arbat Street. Walking through the city, I notice that no one laughs out loud. Outdoor conversations stay muted. Women talk to other women in hushed tones, not in the loud American style. They wrap their arms together. Fuchsia lipstick—I see lots of fuchsia lipstick.
Moscow is on the verge of change, quiet stillness still found. An old man leans over the wrought-iron fence near the Moscow River with his brown leather tote bag near his feet and his old-fashioned fishing pole dipped down to the river. A weekday morning, but this pensioner, he has no other place to be. Behind him, the
Mezhdorovnaya Hotel swells with Western businessmen exchanging cards, making their new business deals. Another Moscow altogether. Life is what you make it.
It’s June 2003. Eleven years after my first trip to Moscow for my job with the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, I finally return. It’s nothing like it was in 1992. I think Moscow’s worst transitional pains have passed, but I remember what it was like before, how unkept and colorless the city’s streets and parks were, how I couldn’t find a cup of coffee anywhere, not even near the Kremlin. Now coffee bars have sprung up all over, as good as any in Seattle or San Francisco. They serve black, Amerikansky-style coffees and fancy lattes. The long lines to enter Red Square have vanished; foreigners can freely walk through most any time, unless there’s some special holiday celebration like Russian Independence Day. Independence from what?
“Take your pick,” my friend Olga says. “The tsar, communism, Napoleon, the Nazis, the Mongols. You decide.”
Workers rush to their offices, and everyone’s talking on cell phones. Moscow’s streets, clogged with cars, include more women drivers in American SUVs and new Audis than I remember. Despite the expensive cars, the traffic patterns are insanely chaotic. In Moscow, if you obey speed limits, or if you’re polite and won’t tailgate, you will be run off the road. Olga’s brother Igor tells me, “We drive almost according to the rules.
“Katya, it’s good. Don’t worry. Keep praying while I drive.”
Across from the Hotel Belgrade where I’m staying, fancy, international, 24-hour grocery stores sell every conceivable delicacy: king crab legs, French cheeses and Bordeaux, precious Russian black caviar in locked refrigerators and a surprising number of grocery items labeled in Costco’s Kirkland brand. Producti signs hang on storefront after storefront. Shoeless refugees and beggars on city sidewalks hold cardboard signs. Kind people, please help me, they say in Russian.
Igor and Olga were lucky to be born into the Soviet elite. They spent part of their childhood living in Canada, where their father, Boris Alexandrovich Rounov, a highly decorated World War II veteran and official Hero of the Soviet Union, was posted as an agricultural attache. They received excellent educations. Olga, who is in her late 40s, a few years younger than Igor, graduated from Moscow’s
Institute of Foreign Languages. She studied English and all the British classics, such as “Canterbury Tales” and “Beowolf.”
“You know I’m lousy with figures, geography, numbers and religion,” she likes to remind me. But Olga has sat me down and diagrammed her special perspective on all the tenses of the English language. She excites easily, given the chance to explain how she taught herself to decipher “phraseological units.” Olga makes me practice my Russian.
“Remember, how Russian looks is exactly how it’s pronounced. We don’t write Manchester and speak in Liverpool,” she explains.
Until she became a university student, she couldn’t officially study anything about the United States. It was impossible for her to take a course in American literature or film. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, when permission to travel abroad was greatly relaxed, Olga and her husband have visited America three times, including one visit to Alaska.
I grew up, as Olga and Igor did, in the Cold War era; it spanned my entire childhood and much of my early adult life, which is why it’s so strange for me every time I travel to Russia. Stranger still when I consider Alaska’s history, how the Russians once staked their claim to it. This time, I came to Russia not for business purposes, as I used to, but just to see it again, especially for the chance to visit St. Petersburg, where I’ve never been, and to spend time with Igor and Olga and the rest of their family.
I began public elementary school in Pittsburgh during the early 1960s, and one of my most powerful memories of that time involved Russia and the constant fear instilled in us by teachers and parents that Russians might secretly be planning to take over America.
While we sat in our first-grade classroom listening to our teacher, loud sirens blasted across the school grounds. Red lights flashed through the hallways. “Children, you know what to do. Come, come, come,” the teacher yelled while clapping her hands. We were told to run for cover but to do it in an orderly fashion. Dutifully, we jumped off our chairs to crouch and kneel beneath our little wooden desks. No detailed explanation about why we were required to do this was ever offered. We rehearsed it over and over. Time to hide because the Russians could be coming, they said. We want to be safe, don’t we? School lessons were often disrupted for mandatory security practice. We needed to be prepared and alert in case Russians really did push the button and fire nuclear missiles to kill us all.
The 20th century had already proven to be an age of extreme violence, killing and horror, exacerbated because now Americans were living under a global nuclear threat with very real fears. At any moment, humanity could be annihilated. Years passed, and the school air-raid drills eventually subsided after the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the anti-Soviet political rhetoric increased. America and Russia went back and forth between political thaw, detente and fear over mutual destruction. Pundits in Washington, D.C., and the Kremlin debated behind closed doors, with reams of CIA and KGB intelligence. Political leaders on both sides constantly speculated and argued about the effects of Soviet Five-Year Plans, the fluctuating levels of wheat imports and exports, who was trying to grab power and who was installing listening posts and missile silos in Kamchatka, on Russia’s Pacific coast, and in the remote, far-off icebox of Alaska.
If Russians were mentioned on television news, there was usually a tank somewhere in the picture. People were quick to describe them as Commie pigs, a vile, despicable society brainwashed and controlled by an evil regime. When I was growing up, we had to beat the Russians at everything: the exploration of space, scientific advancement, world cultural prestige, economic and military strength, Olympic gold medals. But mostly we had to conquer their repressive ideology. We were taught to hate Russia because its every political intention was to undermine freedom-loving, capitalist America.
J. Edgar Hoover saw the Soviet threat to Alaska. In 1948, he sealed off Alaska’s border with the Russian Far East, just a few years after Russia and America fought as allies in World War II. The Alaska Territory, which the Russians sold to the United States in 1867, had taken on new military importance during World War II. Alaska had to be secured against a possible invasion by the Germans or Japanese. But during the Cold War, we had a new enemy to worry about: It might be those sneaky Russians who decided to invade the Alaska territory.
Thanks to Hoover, native people—Yup’ik Eskimos and Aleuts, who had openly and traditionally visited one another between Alaskan and Russian coastal villages across the Bering and Chukchi seas—were stopped from ever doing so again. All cultural communications and exchanges were squashed. Past ancestral ties no longer counted. Indigenous people from both countries who considered themselves blood cousins were bureaucratically forbidden to have contact.
Decades passed, and on both sides, political fears intensified. KGB border guards, trained in infiltration, stalking, martial arts, map-reading, dog handling, interrogation and electronic surveillance, protected the Russian Far East’s 800-mile coastline from wayward Japanese trawlers, Chinese spies and unwelcome foreigners who might spread information about America that would be harmful to the Soviet Union’s prestige and authority.
Alaskans felt the real chill of the Cold War in 1983 when Korean Air Flight #007 departed Anchorage en route to Seoul. A paranoid Soviet military shot down the Boeing 747, which had, for unknown reasons, veered off course somewhere over the Kamchatka Peninsula. All 269 passengers and crew aboard the Korean jet died.
My first impressions of Russia were formed long ago, before I migrated north to Alaska and before I ever met Igor Rounov and Olga Pokravskaya.
I remember my early impressions only as half-dreams now, those childhood fantasies I had when riding through Pittsburgh with my mother sitting silently behind the wheel. Her driving route never varied. As soon as we exited the Liberty Tunnels, Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers, wedged between rivers, dominated the view. Turn-of-the-century brick warehouses, steel-mill smokestacks and office buildings were packed along the dirty Monongahela River at every bend and turn.
Each time we delivered my little sister to her boarding school for the deaf, we sped across the Liberty Bridge. Beneath the bridge and to my right, eight onion-shaped domes sparkled in metallic gold and deep, rich turquoise, all shiny and bright within the billowing gray. Each dome was topped by a strangely shaped cross. I tried as hard as I could to keep this mysterious image in sight, bending and straining my neck to hold it in view through the rear window. At 10 years old, I had convinced myself this building held magic power. “It’s just an old church,” my mother said, but I had never seen anything like its mysterious, bejeweled presence. I felt a strong physical sensation, like the one you have when you see a rainbow as a child.
From those car rides, a permanent mental picture formed, as if the image of this Ukrainian church in Pittsburgh’s South Side had leapt out somehow to engrave and burn itself into my spirit.
I never forgot the church’s unusual silhouette, the explosion of color in those fantastic gold-and-turquoise onion domes, the way they projected some essential sense of purity and beauty that, perhaps, I had been missing.
On a Saturday in June of 2003, Igor and Olga surprise me. We drive to Peredelkino, the writers’ village where Boris Pasternak once lived. We don’t have much time. Our visit to the famous writers’ colony will be rushed. We’re already running late for lunch as special guests of Mikhail Shatrov, a writer who has lived, off and on, in Peredelkino for the past 23 summers. Under the Soviet system, Peredelkino existed for the cultural and artistic elite who needed to escape from Moscow’s urban noise, to have privacy and a place to work in a natural environment. Top artists and writers were permitted to build and keep summer homes (dachas), a highly coveted privilege approved and granted by the central government.
We’ve driven 25 kilometers southwest of Moscow, and after several fast but wrong turns, Igor finally finds the very narrow country lane that leads to Shatrov’s dacha.
I am nervous. I’ve never heard of the writer, Mikhail Shatrov, this man who’s about to host us for a full-course lunch at his very private dacha. It’s his summer house, but it looks more like a year-round residence: large, stately and painted in an impressive teal color with a veranda. Most of the Siberian dachas I’ve seen in Irkutsk or Magadan are more hodgepodge, as if their owners had cobbled them together using spare parts, ancient woodstoves and leftover gulag plywood.
We pull into the driveway and park inconspicuously around back near a shiny, black Mercedes. All that I do know about Shatrov I’ve pieced together in the car on the way here.
“I should tell you,” Igor said,” Shatrov, he’s not just a playwright; he is a famous Russian playwright.”
Igor works as the head of the International Road Transport Union and constantly travels to Geneva, London and other major European cities. As an economist and businessman, he defines what I imagine is today’s version of a Moskovite mover and shaker, a man with a privileged past and present, whose network of contacts extends from Alaska to Uzbekistan. He is a man obsessed with bringing people and organizations from business and cultural spheres together, a mastermind behind the scenes who never gives up, who will go to his grave expending every last drop of his diplomatic, trade-loving, optimistic blood. Since I’ve known him these past 13 years, he’s never stopped believing that real change happens when people share meals and conversations around a table.
When Igor worked as vice president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, part of his job was to attract Western companies to invest in Russia. For years, Igor tried to establish a major exhibition that would call attention to the 70 years of diplomatic and cultural relations, however shaky, between Russia and America. Igor cooked up one goodwill Russia-U.S. exhibition after another in those early days of perestroika, and he met the famous dramatist at one of the chamber’s many social functions. Shatrov was part of the Russian-American Association. As a playwright, Shatrov enjoyed those times and the new liberalism Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy was creating in Russian theater. Without government interference, Shatrov wrote many popular plays, some performed by Vanessa Redgrave or produced at the Eugene O’Neill Center in Vermont. The plays often featured unflattering portrayals of real figures in history—Stalin, Lenin, Brezhnev, Trotksy. A new spirit of openness had arrived, relieving Shatrov of the burdens and fears of government censorship.
“Don’t worry, Katya. We will have much to talk about,” Igor says. “You can ask Shatrov about his famous trilogy, ‘Dramas of the Revolution.’ This he quickly tells me as we’re making our way past the iris patches to the dachas back door.
“Oh, and there’s something else you should know. Two years ago, at age 69, Shatrov fathered a child. His wife, Julia, is very young. I don’t know how young. Maybe she is 22 or 25, who knows? I think she is at the dacha, too. And so is Shatrov’s little daughter, Sasha.”
Shatrov immediately beckons us up the staircase to the banquet table in a room lined with windows. The leafy tops of maple and birch trees fill each windowpane. The table has been set in lavish
Russian style, which means that there is food enough for Putin’s army. Cucumbers and tomatoes are neatly sliced and arranged on a platter, as if they were delicate pieces of expensive sushi. Daisies burst from a red-tinted glass vase, and crystal wine glasses are placed next to each china plate. An original oil painting, a still life of lilacs, decorates one of the dining-room walls.
I watch the playwright shuffle across the wooden floor in his brown slippers and loose-fitting jeans. Igor whispers that, lately, Shatrov’s health hasn’t been good. This explains why his welcome seemed strained and less boisterous than the usual Russian hospitality. Everything about Shatrov exudes roundness—his shoulders, his belly, his eyeglasses and his distinctively round cheeks—and everything about him seems to be running slowly. He gives off the impression that he’s been bedridden for a week and only now rose to put his slippers on. His uncombed, white hair sticks straight up in the back, as if he has been blasted by wind through an open window.
We sit down to a robust meal of dark bread, sausages, wine, smoked cheese and succulent, fancy cakes. Igor has brought two bottles of French wine for Mikhail, a bouquet of yellow and pink lilies for Julia and some Russian chocolates for Sasha.
I listen to Olga speak Russian to Julia, but out of politeness, they switch to perfect English. Shatrov, however, isn’t fluent in English, and Igor begins translating some small details about my background: how I come from Alaska, the “other Russia”—this makes Shatrov smile briefly—and how we’ve been friends since we worked together on joint trade missions between Alaska and the Russian Far East in the early 1990s.
A few days earlier, soon after I arrived in Moscow, Igor had another project to tell me about. “What do you think of this? The old Silk Road, it has a rich history as a major trading route. You know of this, right? The old Silk Road, it went through Central Asia and China. I’ve been trying to interest various sponsors in a cultural celebration of the old Silk Road. This project has global possibilities. The big European trucking companies might participate,” he explained with his usual promotional enthusiasm.
Shatrov’s walls are filled with photos of famous people, snapshots of him with Nikita Khrushchev and the industrialist-millionaire Armand Hammer, and a photo with Mikhail Gorbachev. In recent times, Shatrov has been lecturing and teaching and not writing much at all. He has little to worry about. No one need complain about the political controversy in his plays. The vice mayor of Moscow has recently given him an honorary post overseeing some of the program development for the Red Hills cultural complex currently under construction in Moscow. The city government endowed him with a beautiful office overlooking the Moscow River, on an exclusive embankment where Shatrov meets with various artists and theater professionals to keep them current on the plans for new, elaborate, state-of-the-art theaters and symphonic halls at Red Hills.
Shatrov invites me to tour the Red Hills site while I’m in Moscow, and Igor warmly thanks him for his offer. Da, da, da, we will try to do that. But today, now that we’re in Peredelkino, we must take Katya to Boris Pasternak’s dacha museum. We will go right after lunch, Igor says, as he glances at his watch.
“Katya, this will be easy to do. Pasternak’s dacha is close by. It is right next door to Mikhail’s, in fact.”
“This is the other part of your surprise,” Olga says softly.
It was 1968. Richard Nixon was president of the United States. Leonid Brezhnev was general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Cold War stereotypes and fears continued. Television flooded the evening news with stories about America’s social unrest: massive student protests, civil-rights marches. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April. A race riot broke out at my Pittsburgh junior high school; we were locked inside our classrooms until the trouble ended. The following year, we moved to a rental house, and my mother’s boyfriend, Chuck, helped pay our rent.
Everywhere I went by streetcar in the city, I looked for batik-skirted, fringe-vested, psychedelic hippies like the ones I saw daily on television reports from California. I wanted to be a flower child and go barefoot and listen to street musicians play guitar. A neighbor boy played a Jimi Hendrix record for me. I was enthralled with this kind of raw, electric music. The Beatles released “Abbey Road.”
At 14, and for some reason alone on a Saturday afternoon, I wandered into a Pittsburgh movie theater to see a film I knew nothing about.
Crimson velvet curtains opened to a panorama of silver birch trees and a pale moon. The birch trees and moon stretched across the Technicolor screen like a super-wide museum oil painting. As soon as the musical overture ended, the theatre filled with violins and strange-sounding but soothing instruments—balalaikas.
From the film’s opening scene, I was mesmerized. Who was this little boy standing at a gravesite, and why wasn’t he crying? It seemed that his mother had died, yet he only watched as dirt was shoveled onto her casket.
Two birch trees towered over him. Golden leaves blew off their branches, skipping and mingling with dust and dirt. In his buttoned-up overcoat and fur cap, he listened intensely. An arctic wind howled and cut across barren land—land so vast and bleak that at any moment it seemed everyone on screen might be swallowed up. I folded my arms across my chest, cold.
And it was at that exact moment I saw the silhouette again—the soft outline of onion domes and white crosses.
I barely understood the movie’s plot. The solemn-faced, black-haired boy, Yuri, would grow up to be Dr. Zhivago, a physician and a poet. I’d never seen a movie before where one of the main characters was a poet.
Much later in the film, while his lover slept in the middle of the night, Yuri Zhivago hovered over a small table to write. At any moment, he and Lara might have been captured by revolutionaries and arrested, but none ofthis mattered when Zhivago wrote his poetry. Russia’s severe winter had turned Varykino into an ice palace coated in hoarfrost, with snow that shined like tinsel. Zhivago’s sparsely furnished room was bitter cold. He wore gloves and a heavy coat while he dipped his pen into ink and slowly moved each sheaf ofpaper. From his blue-tinged lips, his every breath froze and hung in the air. No matter, he insisted. His poetry must be written. He must forget the cold to keep his inner strength, to keep words flowing, to preserve something of the history that was.
I had no knowledge then ofthe Bolshevik Revolution or Boris Pasternak;” Doctor Zhivago” raised many more questions for me than it answered. Why was Zhivago’s poetry considered too personal, too dangerous? During the film, I tried to figure out something about why the doctor and Lara were running, why his family life and country were falling to pieces. Newly developing political times brought nothing to him except great pain and suffering.
When I viewed the film again years later, I saw that in much of “Doctor Zhivago,” Russia symbolized a cold, dark cellar; yet, at the same time, it was a warm hearth surrounded by an enduring life force. The characters experienced hardship after hardship, but Russians wrote their poetry. They gathered around tables and clutched porcelain teacups in cold flats. They planted and dug their potatoes. They trekked through Siberia as Yuri Zhivago had during the Civil War, half crazy and half dead, but their poetry could be neither decreed nor taken away.
I felt something about Russia, but as a young teen, I couldn’t begin to comprehend much of it.
Little did I know that someday I would grow up and move to another land of long, white winters and amber birch trees, another land where Russian onion-domed churches were strung across the vast horizon—Alaska.
Pasternak, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsveteyeva, Blok—big names in Russian poetry, but only Pasternak and Joseph Brodksy were well known in the United States beyond scholarly and academic literary communities. We learned nothing in school about Russian poets and the fearful circumstances under which many artists wrote during Soviet times. Most of what I learned I’ve since read on my own.
I have visions of Anna Akhmatova. It is 1942. She is holed up in her borrowed flat with no heat and no food except bread and tea. No music or children’s voices. The Nazis have stormed Leningrad. Ahkmatova is surrounded by dreariness and a sense of doom, her future nothing but veiled sadness.
Yet she wrote, because, like Pasternak with his novel, she had to. Her first husband was shot in 1921 for anti-Soviet government activities several years after they divorced. During Stalin’s reign of terror, her only son was falsely imprisoned for seven years, but she wrote. Puskhin’s spirit walked in her bones. The muse spoke clearly and forcefully. At 16, she knew her destiny was to write about life, plain and simple—the encounters, the loves, the losses, the “storm cloud over darkened Russia,” the tragic lives of her fellow poets and the abyss that stole so many of her “dear ones.” Akhmatova somehow found strength to plod on. She wrote illegally and illicitly after her poetry was banned in 1946, not knowing if she would be sent to a labor camp or to a mass grave. She wrote under a regime that desperately wanted to snuff out her last poetic breath. Her range of poetry was utterly individualist. They mocked her.
A harlot poet. That’s what the Soviet authorities called her. Why, she’s nothing but an overwrought, upper-class woman who frantically races back and forth between boudoir and chapel, they said, a poet who clings to the distant past, to the old, lyric Russia.
But we need the poet.
The poet needs us.
We don’t want to be left alone.
We want human connections to vision and truth.
The past doesn’t haunt us; it wakes us up.
“No one loves poetry like a Russian,” a line I remember from “Doctor Zhivago.”
Russia, a society that drowns itself in verse.
When our luncheon with Mikhail Shatrov ends around 3 p.m., Igor takes Olga and me for a walk down Shatrov’s long driveway, back to the narrow country lane where we will make a right turn to enter the Pasternak property.
Pasternak’s family built their dacha in Peredelkino in 1937. His father, Leonid, was a famous painter; his mother, a concert pianist. In 1990, the government turned his dacha into a small museum without changing much of it. This may be a museum, but it doesn’t resemble one at all: no concrete, no metered parking lots, no glass ticket booths or patron queues. The brown-and-white dacha, nestled under tall fir and birch trees, sits behind a green, iron fence. From the front, it curves into a cylinder, like an ocean-liner smokestack. Twelve identically shaped and sized windows wrap around the dacha’s curvy structure on the second floor, and the same symmetrical pattern repeats below.
When Pasternak wrote “Doctor Zhivago,” it had to be smuggled out of the country to Italy, where it originally appeared in print in 1957. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 but was forced to renounce humanity’s greatest literary honor because acceptance meant he would have to leave his beloved Russia and live in exile. Even after he refused to accept the Nobel Prize, the Soviet government stripped him of his prestigious membership in the Union of Soviet Writers.
Pasternak’s poetic impulse was driven by his strong desire to preserve the beauty and spirituality of pre-Revolutionary Russia. Through his fictional character Zhivago, Pasternak reminded Russians they were poets first, before they were physicians, Communist party members and zealous revolutionaries. He felt it was his duty to make a statement about his epoch, to record the past, and to honor in “Doctor Zhivago” the “beautiful and sensitive aspects of the Russia of those years.” There will be no return to those years, he once said, or to those of their fathers and forefathers. “But,” he added, “in the great blossoming of the future, I foresee their values will revive.”
Outside the Soviet Union, Pasternak’s novel quickly became popular. An Italian film producer, Carlo Ponti (husband of Sophia Loren), hired David Lean to direct the film. Omar Sharif played the role of Dr. Zhivago, and the movie won five Academy Awards in 1965, competing with “The Sound of Music.” David Lean’s cinematic love story became the first visual introduction to Russian history and culture for many Americans, among them, me.
As an Alaskan, I live in a Russian-soaked land and hear Russian names all around me: Shelikof Strait, Baranof Island, Kalifornsky Road, Ninilchik, the Pribilofs, Chichagof Island and Nikolaevesk. When great forest fires spread across the Lake Baikal region of Siberia, plumes of smoke travel east across the Bering Sea to darken Alaska’s skies. The Alaska Volcano Observatory regularly monitors erupting volcanoes on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula; the regions are connected by the Pacific Rim of Fire. At the closest geographic point, a mere 24 miles separate Russia’s Big Diomede Island from Alaska’s Little Diomede Island in the Chukchi Sea.
Russia’s claim to Alaska began in 1741 and continued for 126 years, until America purchased the territory in 1867. History from this period teaches us that Russians pillaged and plundered and stole and wasted Alaska’s resources, especially in the “Wild West” days of early Russian contact when, it’s estimated, almost 80 percent of the Aleut people vanished due to wholesale slaughter and disease. Under
Russia’s reign, the Aleut population decreased from an estimated 14,000 to 2,000.
By the time the Cold War ended—historians today pinpoint the 1986 Iceland summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbahev as one of the pivotal events—it was time to change the stories we had been telling about each other. Russia, the country whose history had always teetered between bloodshed and glory, would, within a few short years, cast off 72 years of Communism. One of the most monumental changes of the 20th century, the demise of the Soviet Union, began peacefully. Alaskans and Russians celebrated together.
By the time I met Igor in Anchorage in 1990, through our chamber of commerce connection, a kind of Russian euphoria had started sweeping through Alaska. I was part of it. I worked as a team member on the Alaskan-Siberian Gateway Project in 1988. The following year, in my job at the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, I helped organize a week-long public event in Anchorage we affectionately dubbed Soviet-American Reunion Week (the Soviet Union did not legally dissolve until 1991).To kick off the event, an Aeroflot jet carrying 150 Soviets touched down at Anchorage International Airport for the first time in history.
We held a Soviet-American rock concert featuring Soviet rock star Stas Namin and, from the American side, Eddie Money. We sang songs everyone knew, but when Stas Namin played The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR,” the crowd went hysterically jubilant. Even the Russian men who now called themselves biznessmen—they came to all their official trade-delegation meetings dressed in shabby, smelly suits they probably bought at state-owned stores, where Lenin’s portrait still hung from Soviet-style buildings projecting all the architectural charm of concrete block—even those gold-toothed biznessmen were up and out of their seats singing, “You don’t know how lucky you are, boys, back in the U.S.S.R.”
Part of the festivities included a downtown trade show at the Egan Civic and Convention Center. We charged curious Alaskans a small entry fee to see displays of original Russian arts and crafts: leather goods; hand-painted Matryoshka dolls; Palyk lacquer boxes featuring Russian fairy tales; various pelts, like silver fox tails; shapkas (Russian mink hats); women’s flowered shawls; and many items made from birch, such as hair clips and baskets similar to the birch-bark baskets made by Native Alaskans. After the trade show ended, we helped the Russians open local bank accounts. For hours I sat in the local bank and helped two tellers count the $93,000 in cash we collected from the show. We held press conferences all week long and brought Alaska’s governor together with the governor of the Magadan Oblast.
Alaska was not like the rest of America; we were ready to do business with the Russians immediately, even if federal commerce laws and central governments hadn’t quite caught up with the grassroots momentum. Alaskans became experts in back-door diplomacy.
The media joked that the Ice Curtain and the Evil Empire had melted into the Bering Sea. Alaskans bragged about being reunited with their “brothers of the North.”
I had lived in Alaska for almost 10 years by that time, and like everyone around me, I felt that a new historical era was being ushered in, that we would never again return to bomb shelters. As Alaskans, we were living smack in the middle of the great Communist switchover, but to what, no one could quite say for sure. Unlike other Americans, who took their interpretation of world events from reading The Washington Post and whatever news bits television networks reported, we were experiencing the end of the Cold War firsthand. Alaskans and Russians crisscrossed borders as if the Cold War had never happened. Military installations were forgotten; onion domes were repainted.
Like other Alaskans, I had a severe case of Gorby fever. Proper paperwork and special permissions for all our joint business ventures and cultural exchanges—well, all that red tape could wait. It seemed that every elementary school in the state had invited Russian schoolchildren from Magadan or Yakutia to fly to Alaska and be hosted by Alaskan families. From 1992 to 2002, over 30,000 Russians traveled to Anchorage for project-management and business training at the University of Alaska’s new American Russian Center.
Most of the time, we don’t think of history as something we’re moving through, as something that we, in our ordinary, unremarkable, everyday lives are helping create. As for the notion that we, as individuals, could have any say-so in the grandiose movements of human history, we are entirely oblivious. I’m sure the Russian promyshlenniki, the adventurers and fur traders who first trekked across Siberia to create small settlements in Alaska, never considered that they were actually changing history; they were merely entrenching themselves in their own private enterprise. Their goal was to take as many seal and sea-otter pelts as they could find and sell them for big profits.
Growing up in public school, I learned history as a long, unbroken timeline that stretched across the blackboard, a timeline notched and intersected by all the important chronologies, the dates we should memorize all neatly told in this accepted historical continuum. This was literal history, void oftone and short on meaning. But how we view history—whether countries are closely connected or mortal enemies, whether our perceptions of one another are accurate or mostly lies—expands and contracts over time, like a cultural bellows.
We don’t really feel history, intuit history, until we are personally connected to it, the way Pasternak connected to the old, more “lyrical” Russia.
The Russians hold the past in their laps like a warm blanket they can’t let go of because, as Olga says, Russians believe history will put everything in its right place. To future-oriented Americans, Russians are hopelessly trapped by the past. What do we tell ourselves? History’s over; that was another time.
Daniel Boorstin once wrote that historians are seekers and that what they seek is a vanished eternity. Of vanished eternities Russians have intimate knowledge. For much of the 20th century, their history was erased, hidden, or lied about. After the Soviet Union fell, Russians turned to history once again, the history that had been forcefully taken away, and they began to retell it.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Alaskans felt as if the Bering Sea Land Bridge had suddenly risen out of the sea again. They saw the link established millennia ago, when bands of early humans crossed from Africa to Central Asia to Siberia to Alaska and then to North America, as a link that had been geologically resurrected. The propagandized worldview had split wide open. Russian people from the Motherland’s sacred Far East frontier were coming over to reunite with America s last frontier, and they were just like us.
And that’s how Alaskans saw it in those heady days of perestroika and glasnost. It was like an acupuncture point in history. They knew special, historical times had struck, that the world was changing. Aeroflot’s first-ever landing in Anchorage was simply history repeating itself: the Russians were migrating eastward again, coming back to the Alaska they had given up so long before.
Pasternak died at his dacha in 1960 of lung cancer. A small notice appeared in the local papers, yet 4,000 attended his funeral. The poet never saw his novel appear in print on Russian bookshelves.
It took 30 years—until 1988—before “Doctor Zhivago” was finally published in Russia. Americans had long since stopped talking about the book’s novelty and its film adaptation, and younger Americans hadn’t heard much about Boris Pasternak or what he had risked to write it.
A small Russian tour group is being escorted around Pasternak’s dacha when Igor, Olga and I enter through the kitchen door, the way all visitors must enter. Most of his home remains as Pasternak left it. On Sundays, whenever he held open house (as was the literary custom of the day), Pasternak would have greeted his guests through this same kitchen door.
We walk through the first floor and admire the charcoal drawings of Tolstoy, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and other famous cultural figures that Pasternak’s father drew to decorate their walls. Fresh flowers, mostly roses, cover the crisp, white duvet on the bed where Pasternak slept. Museum visitors often bring remembrance flowers.
We hurry upstairs to the second floor, to Pasternak’s private study, and skip the docent’s mini-lecture. While we skirt the tour group, I hear the matronly interpreter speak in drone-like tones about the poet’s life.
Igor points to Pasternak’s desk and directs me to sit down while he quickly snaps a photo before the tour guide catches us. The oak desk is completely bare except for a small lamp with a yellowed, cracked shade. I stop for a second to look out the desk window. I imagine it’s the same view Mikhail Shatrov sees. Pasternak must have
spent half his life staring out that window to the empty field across the narrow lane. I’m told that this desk is exactly where he sat while writing” Doctor Zhivago.” Just like Yuri Zhivago, his fictional doctor-poet, Pasternak also wrote poetry at his utilitarian desk while his woman slept.
Poetry and novels fill Pasternak’s bookcase: “The Collected Poetry of Robert Frost,” poetry by Dylan Thomas and plays by Shakespeare. During the Stalinist era, Pasternak made his living translating Shakespeare. In the winter of1960, when Pasternak granted an interview to the Russian-American writer Olga Carlisle, he told her how much he admired the work of American writers, especially William Faulkner.
Igor smiles and directs me once more. “Katya, pozhaluysta” sit for a moment at Pasternak’s desk. Maybe he will send you good inspiration, Igor says, and so I decide to sit with my red leather Russian notebook in hand. I move the heavy, wooden, unpadded chair, and carefully, I sit at Pasternak’s desk … Boris Pasternak, the writer who lived and died here, who’s buried in Peredelkino, not far from his dacha. Two simple Russian words appear under his name to help mark his grave: Ne Zabutka. Never forget. And my memory flashes back to my Pittsburgh birthplace, to the movie theater, to onion domes and to my home in Alaska. How did I arrive at this moment? I am sitting at Boris Pasternak’s desk, and I have dear Russian friends, and one ofthem is about to take my photo, and I can see my whole life in an instant, how everything melds together and fits—the Siberian steppe, the Alaskan tundra, how we share long, cold winters and history— and I don’t question it anymore, because there’s no explanation, really; it’s what happened. I became an Alaskan, but then I also became like a Russian inside, connected by a need for beauty, and now here I am in Pasternak’s dacha, jotting a note at his desk and smiling for the camera, knowing I will record this history.
Igor snaps one photograph, but the museum guide seems to sense that we’re up to mischief. She quickly returns to the study to check on us. Nyet, nyet, we’re not permitted to sit at Pasternak’s desk, only to touch it. Quickly, I get up and move to the next room, which has a grand piano, hand-embroidered pillows and an oval mirror. On the way out of the museum, we see stacks of coffee-table books for
sale, Pasternak biographies, souvenir poetry editions, copies of “Doctor Zhivago” in Russian. Igor wants to buy something for me, but I decline and tell him that he’s done more than enough.
We leave through Pasternak’s kitchen door and start walking down the driveway toward the narrow lane again. We need to retrieve our car from next door at the playwright’s.
As soon as we’re outdoors, Olga lights a Virginia Slim. We both watch Igor bend and stoop low to the ground. He starts digging his fingers into some of the damp soil near the driveway’s pavement. We watch him move grass blades and press his fingers down into the earth.
“Katya, you must take this.”
In his hand he gently cups a small birch seedling, no more than 4 inches tall.
“Our mother will keep it in water for you until you leave Moscow. Think of it! You will plant this in your Alaskan yard, and someday, you will have a Pasternak birch tree.”
I promise him that when I return to Alaska, I will plant my Russian birch tree under the long, July sun.
And I do.