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 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.”

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