To Russia, with Love

Why one woman traveled to Moscow to introduce the man she married to the man he never met: his father.

by Deborah Copaken Kogan
COMRADES: The Kogan clan (from left: Paul, Sasha, Deborah and Jacob) at Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square.
Photograph: Photographed by Katherine Wolkoff

Six months after losing my father to cancer, I boarded a flight to Moscow with my two eldest children to introduce them to the one grandfather they still had. We left our toddler back in New York with friends. My husband had tickets on a different flight: not because we’re one of those couples who never fly together, but because by the time Paul decided that he would finally face the man who’d abandoned him at birth, our flight was already fully booked.

“I don’t care if Dad doesn’t want to meet his own father,” my 12-year-old daughter, Sasha, announced soon after my father’s funeral. “He’s my grandfather, and I share his genes, and I want to meet him before he dies, too.”

Her curiosity about this phantom grandfather was first piqued when she found photos of him in an old album of mine and couldn’t understand why she’d never met him. I explained that he lived in Moscow, that her father had never met him either, and that I’d met him only once, at her father’s behest, when I was on a business trip to Russia. She also knew that after I’d located her grandfather and shared an hour and a bottle of vodka with him, he then reached out and met her uncle George, Paul’s identical twin, who was living and working in Russia at the time. He also sent an eight-page letter to her father in New York, to which Paul never responded.

“Why do you have to go and open that can of worms?” said my husband, when I told him about Sasha’s wish.

“Because it’s no longer just your can of worms,” I said. It was his children’s too and, by proxy, mine. In fact—though I didn’t say this out loud—that can of worms has been mine ever since the moment my husband and I met and decided to become a twosome. A twosome, that is, with this massive, unresolved elephant between us: the missing father.

Pavel Sokolov, my husband’s biological father, was 24 years old in 1965, the year he had an affair with 41-year-old Rachel Kogan, my husband’s late mother. Rachel, who had been widowed and childless until then, suddenly found herself pregnant with this much younger man’s twins: my husband Paul (né Pavel) and his brother George (né Yegor).

The affair was brief. As Rachel eventually told the story to her boys, her lover’s mother was upset that her son had impregnated a Jewish woman and therefore forbade him to continue the affair or acknowledge paternity. That left Rachel on her own as the single mother of twins, a difficult situation for a middle-aged woman in the Moscow of the late 1960s, as the Soviet economy was disintegrating into a state of Brezhnevian stagnation.

One of Paul’s favorite anecdotes from this era involves his mother asking people in a long breadline, in a blizzard, if she could cut in because she had had to leave her infants home alone. A disbelieving customer, angry that Rachel was asking for special treatment, demanded that she prove it. So Rachel brought this stranger back to her apartment and showed him the two tiny creatures wailing hungrily in their shared crib, unattended. The man felt so guilty afterward, he started stopping by now and then to share whatever food he’d managed to scavenge for himself.

The story after that turns tragic. Rachel applied for political asylum but was tagged a refusenik—meaning, she was both refused authorization to leave the country and subsequently stripped of her livelihood for the crime of asking to leave. A few years later she was finally given permission to emigrate, and she traveled to the United States with her twins, who were then nine.

The three settled into a tiny apartment in the far northern reaches of Manhattan, and Rachel, who had been a scholar of Russian art in her former life, found a job sorting diamonds. Six years later, she died at 56, of complications from open-heart surgery, orphaning her adolescent sons.

So my husband and his twin brother were unofficially adopted by the couple who had been assigned to their case by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Paul lived with them until he left for college. Then, at 24, he moved in with me. Now we were on our way to Russia together, only on separate planes.

AFTER A nine-hour overnight flight, we made our way to my friend Cliff’s apartment, located in central Moscow a few floors above his office at the New York Times bureau. Formerly a complex strictly for foreigners, the building had been my lifeline back when I was a photo­journalist working in the city.

As we approached Moscow from the airport, I was floored by what I saw. “Oh my god!” I said to the kids. “Isn’t that amazing!” They stared out the car window and saw nothing out of the ordinary to Western eyes: giant billboards, massive shopping malls, restaurants and coffee shops and grocery stores offering all manner of food and beverage. I, on the other hand, looked out the window and saw the complete transformation of the leaden city I once knew into a Technicolor smorgasbord of capitalists gone wild. The disconnect between what I saw and what the kids saw felt not unlike being the only one of the group on acid.

I tried explaining the time warp in which I found myself. “You don’t understand,” I told them. “When your father and I lived here in 1991, there were no functional stores, never mind shopping malls.” On every block, I said, there was a purse repair shop but no shop that sold purses. If you wanted to cook dinner or, heaven forbid, throw a dinner party without spending your life savings at the foreigners-only grocery store, you’d have to spend days hunting down black market contacts for meat, cheese, everything. You’d have to stand for hours in breadlines, hoping the bread truck happened to show up that day.

“Come on, Mom, really?” said Jacob. He’s 14, that testy age when kids question the veracity of every statement their parents utter.

To put it in terms he could grasp, I explained that, aside from when I was pregnant, I’ve weighed about 112 for my entire adult life, except for two distinct periods: during college, when I gained, then lost, then regained the proverbial freshman 15; and during the year Paul and I worked as journalists in Moscow, when I dropped down to a bone-jutting 95 pounds. I wasn’t anorexic, I told him. I was hungry.

My husband’s flight wasn’t scheduled to arrive for another two hours, so the kids and I made our way on foot from Cliff’s to Red Square, stopping near Pushkin Square at one of the dozens of Shokoladnitsa (pot of chocolate) cafés that have sprouted in Moscow the way Starbucks shops have elsewhere. I was awed by the idea of being able to stop for hot chocolate in the middle of Moscow, but my brooding teenager wasn’t moved until he spotted Saint Basil’s at the edge of its massive cobblestone plaza.

While he and his sister sketched the cathedral, I ran interference with the Russian grandmothers who kept coming up to tell my daughter she would freeze her ovaries by sitting on the ground. Time suddenly felt slippery.
Hadn’t those same babushkas just finished warning me that I’d freeze my ovaries in that exact same spot back in 1991? I wanted to shout, “Look, I’m the mother of three, the last of whom was a fortieth-birthday surprise! You were all wrong about my ovaries.”

MY HUSBAND and I met in Paris when we were both just out of college, and we moved in together almost immediately. It was as romantic and immaturely impulsive as it sounds. That our partnership has survived the 19 years since is a testament to love, no doubt, but perhaps more critically to perseverance, conflict resolution skills and a couple of excellent therapists.

When we transplanted ourselves from Paris to Moscow a year after we met, it was for all of the obvious reasons: work, a new adventure, a means of transitioning away, at least for me, from my peripatetic war-to-war existence. I would then concentrate on one city, one story: perestroika, Gorbachev’s attempt to ease the centralization of Soviet economic controls in order to improve the economy. But lurking beneath the surface were our ulterior motives. I was trying to wean myself off the photojournalist’s adrenaline addiction to a life spent chasing conflict; I wanted to begin a new, saner chapter of my life, a life I was suddenly hoping would include children. As for Paul, then a freelance videographer, he wanted to introduce me to the physical place from which he sprang and possibly to his missing father, though the latter motive went unsaid.

But our idea of Moscow as a place to start anew dissolved on August 19, 1991, the first day of an attempted coup by hard-line communists who opposed Gorbachev’s decentralization plans. The coup would fail in three days, but as the tanks rumbled down Gorky Street (now Tverskaya Street) and occupied Red Square, I thought, oh my god, here we go again, and I threw myself, camera locked and loaded, into the messy vortex of history. Paul, who was freelancing for ABC News, disappeared into the crowd with his video camera and didn’t reappear until three days later, when we ran into each other late one night outside the Russian parliament building.

We had walked no farther than a half mile when we found ourselves trapped in a firefight between an angry mob and a column of tanks. Three bystanders were killed in the melee, one with a bullet to the head; he was no more than a few feet away from me. Another of the victims was trying to give aid to the first casualty of the battle, a man whose skull was crushed under the grinding treads of a tank. My husband caught all this on videotape; I took photos.

It was that night during the chaos, as I lay flat on the pavement with my head in a puddle to avoid getting shot, that I said to myself, enough. I no longer wanted to cover armed conflict to earn a living. Paul’s reaction was to set out, the next day, to try to find his father in the apartment complex in which he assumed the man still lived. He aborted his plans, however, when the first random woman he approached with his question, “Do you know Pavel Sokolov?” answered, “Yes, he’s my son.”

“Why didn’t you tell her you were her grandson?” I asked, incredulous.

“She was the one who told him to stay away from us,” Paul said. “Plus I suddenly realized I have no desire to meet him.” He kissed me. “You’re my family now. I don’t need anyone else.”

“DADDY!” Sasha yelled, spotting her father on the edge of Red Square. Then she ran over to greet him.
Paul put down his cup of kvass—a street-vendor beer of sorts, made out of fermented rye bread—and hoisted his daughter in his arms. He has turned out to be a spectacular father, the kind of engaged, fun, camp counselor dad I had, but he wasn’t always this way. After our first two were born, Paul reenacted the emotional version of his own father’s abandonment, arriving home from work after midnight every night, disappearing before dawn. I told him if such a schedule continued, our marriage wouldn’t. “At least if we divorce,” I said during a particularly low point, when the first notes of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” could make me weep, “you’ll be forced to have a relationship with your kids when they’re in your custody.”

So my husband went into analysis for three years, and we stayed together, but this dark period in our normally sunny relationship was a wake-up call. My husband is one of the most resilient people I know, but no matter how well the abandoned child externally adjusts to adulthood, internally a hole remains.

The morning of the big reunion, we were joined by George, Paul’s twin brother, who still travels back and forth to Moscow for work and had helped me orchestrate the meeting between father and son. In the taxi to the Sokolov dacha (country house) in a small town outside Moscow, Paul and George abruptly asked the driver to pull over. They wanted to get out—only for a few minutes, they promised—to check out Poklonnaya Hill, which the Soviet government originally erected in the 1960s to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon but now stands as a monument to every victory and fallen soldier since.

“Hey, look, a T-72!” said Paul. He’s an armaments freak—every city we set foot in we’re forced to pay a visit to whatever war memorial has been erected—but his current interest in the tank on the hill was, I realized, more about avoidance than tourism. “Here, let’s climb up and see it.”

“We’re going to be late,” I said. I was worried that Paul would chicken out, as he had with his grandmother 18 years before. Then there was the afternoon two years after that, when we were living in New York and I had to return to Moscow for a story. Paul helped me into a taxi to JFK airport with this odd request: “You should go ahead and find my father if you have time,” he had said, before kissing me good-bye, using a tone that would have been appropriate for suggesting I try to squeeze in a visit to the Bolshoi Ballet. In that instant, as the door of the taxi slammed, I realized my husband had been saying one thing all these years—“I don’t want to meet my father”—while secretly wishing to do the opposite. And it was my duty, as the sole representative of his new family, to help him reconnect with his old one.

I thought, simply by finding his father, I had succeeded, but when Paul never responded to Pavel’s long letter of apology after our brief meeting, I did what I could to bridge the gap. I sent my father-in-law birth announcements for all three kids, and a holiday card every December, so Pavel could watch his American grandchildren grow. Meanwhile, my husband bonded with my own father, who’d raised four daughters but had no sons. Their relationship fed them both in places neither knew they’d been starving, until Dad’s early demise at 67 left us both grieving.

Paul, his brother, George, and my kids were now mounting a tank that looked like the one I’d scaled the first day of the coup to get a better shot of the crowds, only to be photographed by the Associated Press myself and subsequently splashed across the front sections of USA Today and the New York Times, erroneously identified as a brave patriot.

I was about to play the killjoy again when my daughter stepped in. “Come on, Dad, I don’t want to be late.”

my hand as we pulled up in front of the modest dacha that has been in the Sokolov family
for four generations. The rough-hewn cabin stood in stark contrast to some of the newer dachas built in the same region by Russian oligarchs and their ilk: vast, over-the-top monstrosities that have sprouted like the wild mushrooms native to this Tolstoyan countryside.

After meeting his half sisters, Nadia and Katya, my husband came face-to-face with his father in the dacha’s tiny vestibule, both of them glancing at their feet while shaking hands. Sasha broke the ice by giving her new grandfather the kind of bear hug she used to give my dad while adorably mangling the Russian word for “hello,” zdrastvooitye.

“Let’s go outside,” Pavel responded in Russian, grabbing Sasha’s hand. “It’s too cramped in here.” Pavel, a retired hematologist who now works at the Russian equivalent of the National Institutes of Health, has Parkinson’s, but his shaking hand grew steady in Sasha’s.

The three-hour reunion, for which my children had developmentally appropriate high hopes and for which Paul and I had more sober, world-weary expectations, smashed all of our preconceptions. The children, who’d expected to instantly bond with their biological grandfather, found instead that, because of the language barrier, they were bonding more meaningfully with their new first cousins, Nadia’s children, who all spoke English. As Nadia and Katya laid out the lunch they’d spent days preparing, the four children sat around a campfire, toasting pieces of bread and marveling over cultural differences. (“You’ve never toasted marshmallows or eaten s’mores?” my son exclaimed.)

Meanwhile Paul, who’d expected to feel nothing toward “this stranger,” as he’d previously referred to his father, now huddled close to him, away from the group, getting to know the man whose eyes had instantly welled up at the sight of his son. My Russian is adequate enough for the exchange of information and banalities, but where nuance is concerned I had to rely on visual cues, intuiting this new bond between father and son through body language: the way the two of them stood close together on the porch, mirror images of one another, grinning the same knowing, bemused grin; the animated way Paul’s hands gestured when he was telling Pavel, his namesake, a story. Now the two were thumbing through some of the books my husband’s grandmother had written.

“My mother had, shall we say, a strong personality,” Pavel explained with a sly, rueful smile and a quick arch of the eyebrows. It was both excuse and mea culpa rolled into one.

“Very strong,” Nadia added apologetically. I broached in English what we’d heard about her grandmother’s anti-Semitism. Nadia cocked her head and scrunched her nose in confusion. “But my grandmother was a Jew!” she said, drawing the family tree in Cyrillic letters for me on a piece of paper.

This was, to say the least, shocking news. Granny Sokolov, a Jew? All of her ancestors, Jews? Paul pushed Nadia to elaborate: Why then had Pavel’s mother been so determined to keep him away from his lover and his newborn sons?

Nadia explained that her mother had been engaged to be married to Pavel when his affair with Rachel took place. Furthermore, Rachel ran in the same social circles as Pavel’s mother, and it was this Mrs. Robinson aspect of the relationship that was most likely responsible for Granny Sokolov’s wrath.

In fact, the twin boys and their “shameful” existence had been so well hidden from the Sokolov side of the family that Nadia only found out about her half brothers the day I showed up in 1993 to meet her father. She was eager, she said, to make up for lost time.

We made a plan to meet two days later with our kids, in the old Muscovite neighborhood where she and her sister had attended the same elementary school as Paul and George, never knowing that the four of them shared a father.

“It’s OK,” Paul told me he said to Pavel in private, when his father tried to apologize for abandoning him. “I forgive you. You were 24, Mom was 41, I get it.”

“DEB, I’m so glad we did this,” my husband said as we drove back into Moscow.

“See, I said you’d regret it for the rest of your life if you never met your father,” Sasha said.

Our daughter, it should be noted, wants to be a shrink when she grows up.

Later that night, as we were lying in bed, my normally unsentimental husband held me tight, growing very quiet and emotional. “Thank you,” he said, “for orchestrating this whole thing.”

“You’re welcome,” I said. “But you should really be thanking your daughter.”

“I already did,” he said, pausing for a few seconds to try to form a new thought. “I feel like, like . . . ” He was, uncharacteristically, at a loss for words.

“You can move forward?” I offered.

“Something like that.”

Meaning, I thought, we can move forward. I suddenly saw the entire arc of our 19 years together projected inside my head like a silent film in fast-forward, as if all of it, every wonderful, difficult second, had been a prelude to this moment.

The elephant in our marriage . . . was gone.

A FEW DAYS LATER, Paul had to head home to New York to start his new job at an online gaming company and reclaim our toddler from friends. This left Sasha, Jacob and me on our own to explore. We took the newfound cousins on the roller coasters of Gorky Park, a place I had once dreamed of bringing my as-yet-unborn kids; we ate at Café Margarita, the quaint restaurant across from Patriarch’s Pond. And we visited the street near the parliament building where protesters had collided with Soviet tanks as their father and I documented the melee.

“There it is, that’s the spot,” I said to my kids, pointing to the place on the newly chic Novinsky Boulevard where I’d lain in a puddle believing I might die. There, in the presence of my two eldest children, in the place where their father and I and, therefore, every future generation of Kogans almost ceased to be, I found myself suddenly gasping for breath, past, present and future collapsing in on themselves until my eyes were moist. I’m as guilty as the next person of complaining about the burdens and mundanities of marriage, work and family life. But there in that spot, I felt such gratitude for my children, my husband, the 42 years I had with my father, I started to weep. And I wondered how Pavel, who had missed the love and the narrative threads of his long-lost son for more than four decades, could have even remained standing the day the two finally met.

OUR LAST NIGHT, we had a farewell dinner with Pavel, his daughters and his grandchildren. We exchanged e-mail addresses, promising to stay in touch. Then my daughter stole one last hug with her grandfather, which caused him to cry anew. We’d told him the trip had been Sasha’s idea, that she’d wanted to meet him before he died.

“Do vstrechi,” he said to her, kissing the top of her head: Until we meet again.

Deborah Copaken Kogan is the author of Shutterbabe, Between Here and April and Hell is Other Parents.



First Published Tue, 2010-02-23 16:39

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