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

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.

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