My trip to Russia began 56 years ago, when I was born in Munich, West Germany to Russian Displaced People. Coming to the United States in 1949, I was already bilingual, speaking Russian and German as fluently as a 3-year-old can. Once in the U.S., I retained my bilingual ability, switching my German in less than two months to American English.
The one constant in our family was that Russian language, culture, traditions and religion were maintained in our home and within the Russian community of Southern California. Only Russian language was allowed in our household. When my sister Tanya and I went to American learning institutions, whether elementary, junior and senior high, or university, naturally we spoke English.
After graduation from university, I met and married a Russian girl who had been raised in similar circumstances to mine. Marriage, children (first Gabe, then Mike), Gabe's graduation from high school and subsequent Russian major at SDSU, led eventually to his job with Russian Sunbirds. In a short time, his boss, Paul, sent him on assignment to Russia, to do research for a book about Fedoskino, Palekh, Kholuy and Mstera, and the lacquer box art the four villages were engaged in.
All my adult life, I studied the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. In the early 70's, I acquired a book about Palekh and the wonderful boxes produced there. Over time, I acquired several more books, and the impression I gathered from reading these books was that something approaching the mystical was occuring in Palekh. I was unaware of the other three villages.
Since those years, during the height of the Cold War and existence of the Evil Empire, not only did I feel the mysticism of Palekh, but I also felt its absolute unattainability. I knew the USSR was going to exist beyond my lifetime, I had no desire to travel there, so I knew I would never see Palekh. For many years, it remained a mystical construct in my mind.
Unbelievably to me, 1991 saw the implosion of the Soviet empire. I began to sense a new breeze of freedom and hope, heretofore unknown, in the newly renamed Russia. The possibility of travel to Russia became a reality. Many of my friends in the Russian community were traveling to Russia and coming back with mostly positive views about the newly-free country. But travel to Russia remained a distant (nearly impossible) hope for me. I had too many family, career and personal commitments that precluded my ability to travel, i.e. more often than not, I was not in a position financially to go.
Eleven years later, in 2002, after Gabe had spent an adventurous six months in Russia living with various artists in the four villages, he suggested in a telephone conversation I visit Russia while he was still there. Serendipitously, Russian Sunbirds was organizing a Lacquer Box Tour, and although I hemmed and hawed about going, one fine day found me on an Aeroflot 767 flying to Moscow.
I was not going as a lacquer box enthusiast. My knowledge was limited to my books from the 70's and what I had picked up by osmosis from Gabe. Although I was traveling with the tour group, I was really going to Russia, ostensibly to visit my son. Russia was, and remains, the land of my forefathers. Was I ready for something I had only read and dreamed about all my life?
The reality I finally saw was not shocking, nor was it overwhelming. Moscow looked modern, with many of the trappings we are accustomed to America. I spoke the language like a native, I saw and understood the same mannerisms I had seen all my life in the Russian community of Southern California. Even though I considered myself a Russian, my body language, the manner in which I looked at people, identified me in Russia as a foreigner, in particular as an American. People would approach me attempting to speak English, and would be startled when I responded in fluent Russian.
Staying briefly in Moscow, we embarked for Fedoskino in short order. Everyone helping with the tour, Gabe, Alyosha, Seryozha and others, did a sensational job. I may sound like a proud father, but observing my son from a neutral perspective allowed me to see how much he had matured and the self-confidence he had strengthened living in Russia. Everyone assisting with the tour can take tremendous credit for the difficult task they had undertaken. Again, from my neutral (but proud) perspective, I can say that Gabe kept the tour focussed and on-task.
Many times, unknown to others, he would go the extra kilometer, or verst, to untangle a problem or to smooth over a seemingly insurmountable bump in the road. I watched as people in all four villages greeted him as one of their own. I could see the genuine respect the artists had for this young man from America.
Jim, whose wife Nancy accompanied him on the tour, was able to keep the Sunbirds office end of the tour running smoothly. Both he and I were able to assist Gabe on occasion when the need arose for language translation. I enjoyed this part thoroughly, because not only was I helping my son, I was also communicating with Russian people on a personal level.
Gabe having smoothed the way, I was welcomed with open arms into the homes of many of the artists in all four villages. I was able to share many hours (and consume much food and vodka) with them, answering their questions about life in America, and in turn asking them about life in both post-Soviet Russia and in the USSR. I say this with a bit of tongue-in-cheek that they were not 10 feet tall, they were normal, ordinary people with pretty much the same desires for peace and prosperity as any of us might have in America.
I was saddened to leave the villages, because I felt I was seeing the true Russia, what the villagers call "glubinka," the true breadth of the country. The tour was coming to an end, and airline connections needed to be made for tour-members returning to the States. In the meantime, Gabe, Jim, Nancy and I took the train to St. Petersburg to spend the remainder of the days we had planned after the Lacquer Box Tour ended.
St. Petersburg was pleasant. I thought I had accustomed myself to walking while in Moscow, but the amount we did in the Northern Palmyra was incredible! I think we traversed the city from one end to the other on No. 11, our legs. I admit to being exhausted our last day in St. Petersburg. which I spent resting.
Upon returning to Moscow, I gave up all pretense of bravado, and continued to rest in Gabe's apartment. Soon, too soon, it was time to leave, and Jim, Nancy and I boarded the airplane back to Los Angeles. The weather had been impeccable for the entire 17 days of the trip, but as we waited to board, it began raining on the other side of the windowpane, in Moscow.
I had first arrived in Moscow as a member of a tour group, but I was really visiting my son in Russia. I had seen a little bit of the country of my ancestors, and I had spent quality time with Gabe. I had seen a mature young man keep a group of lacquer box enthusiasts and collectors headed in the right direction, and he had come out of it none the worse for wear. I came back to America a proud father. And yes, I was happy to be back in my country, the United States of America.