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

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.

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