In 1921, my parents and an as-yet-unborn me were forced out of Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution. My mother never lost her emotional ties to the country of her birth and the Russian component of my character has been a constant rhythm in my life ever since.
My mother always maintained the cord which attached her to Russia. Throughout the Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik days, World War II, and the Cold War era, she maintained an active correspondence with her mother, my grandmother Elena. Elena survived the Siege of Leningrad, in which a third of that city’s population starved to death. She received a hero’s medal for the things she did during that period.
As I was growing up, wherever we lived, Russian was spoken at home and among our acquaintances. Later, in college, in the U.S., I majored in Slavic Languages and Literature because I knew that I too would continue this communication and return to the land which I had never known but longed to know.
After my grandmother Elena died, my mother’s correspondence shifted seamlessly to her brother, my uncle Volodya. Then my own mother died and, just as naturally, I took over and kept the contact with Volodya, who also lived in Leningrad. On his demise I sought out his daughter, Natasha, and wrote to her and so the torch was passed once more and the contact was maintained.
It is amazing to me how continuous and meaningful this contact between our families has remained and how it was never interrupted in spite of all the upheavals in all of our lives, especially in the Soviet Union, where wars, purges, arrests, and famines disrupted so many lives.
In 1989, during Gorbachev’s Glasnost period, my husband David and I decided to take a trip to Russia and meet my family. It was the first of many such visits. Natasha was married to Semyon and they had a son, Ilya. I was very nervous about seeing them. What if they were ardent Communists who despised Americans? I need not have worried. They were warm and friendly people who somehow had managed to remain “human” in a robotic Soviet Union.
Semyon had a car in which he took us to see the sights, and then we walked around Leningrad which at that time was a dead city. We could not even find a place to sit down and have coffee. I asked Semyon how it was that we had not seen a single statue of Lenin, arm raised and pointing to a glorious proletarian future. He smiled with a twinkle in his eye and replied: “Because I have avoided taking you to those places.” On many other visits we got better acquainted and both my daughters met and loved their Russian relatives.