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.

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