Nearly seven years ago, I wrote a letter to my children followed by twenty pages of what I believed to be a description of my father’s life. As I mentioned previously, I never imagined that years later, those twenty-odd pages would evolve into a 300 page book that involved a trip to the National Archives, genealogy research (which I had never done), and countless interviews with strangers.
Here is the letter which became my book—“Do Svidanya Dad.”
We all remember how Grandpa loved to shuffle into his room and return with evidence of his history and recount snippets about his early life in Russia and the United States. I admit I was always skeptical of these stories, because many involved assassination stories and World War II conspiracy tales, as well as accounts of his father serving as a palace guard to a Russian czar. These were the stories of spy novels and movies. They don’t happen to real people, especially my dad—your grandpa.
Then several months later, while I listened to President Obama’s Inauguration speech, he made statements that made me think of Grandpa. The President spoke of the hard journey our ancestors had endured coming to America seeking a better life.
“For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.” They did not know what to expect, but somehow they knew that despite the hardships getting here, life would be better. “Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life.”
I heard your annual complaints about the repetitiveness and monotony of your history lessons, which rarely excited any of you. It was only during the fifth grade trip to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and your trips to Washington, DC, that history became more than just words in a textbook or in a term paper.
Shortly before he died, we all saw the video which was made twenty years ago when Grandpa’s memories were sharper. You saw the old photograph album which chronicled his life from childhood through World War II.
After his death, I found countless letters from the State Department and American Embassy in Moscow, which detailed his relentless attempts to repatriate his family from Russia over a time period of sixteen years. I discovered a diary from his sister, Anna, which gave me some insight into the early lives of his family.
I read the letters and the diary, viewed the video over and over, and decided to go on a journey of discovery of Grandpa’s history. I contacted a Russian history professor at the University of South Carolina, visited several libraries, surfed the Internet, and even contacted the FBI to try to obtain his file from them. Many of his stories involved events which could be verified historically, so I was able to fill in some of the holes that existed.
We all have our own memories of him, but I want you to know the saga of your grandfather. His early life was that of adventure, love, mystery, and sacrifice. It was filled with heartache. That I could verify. The tales involving clandestine gatherings to plot an assassination, Pearl Harbor cover-ups, and meetings with the FBI were much more difficult to authenticate because there is little documentation. But a lot of history is the result of storytelling and diaries, so all we can do is choose which stories to believe and which ones to question.
Reading his letters and listening to him talk provided me with the reason Grandpa was so content to sit in his chair for hours on end, with no desire to venture beyond the confines of the modest three bedroom home where he proudly raised his five children.
He had been around the world, so he was content to conclude the final chapter of his life at home. He left with his family on the first leg of his journey to his parents’ homeland of Russia during the Great Depression at the age of twelve—a trip over 5000 miles in duration—and completed the final 14000 miles ten years later, this time alone, as World War II was spreading throughout the globe.
My journey made me regret that I had doubted his stories and had not learned more details about his early life. I decided that I wanted to share all that I learned with you because his history belongs to all of us. My discoveries about him made me appreciate my life in a way that is hard to put into words.
After reading about him, I hope that the next time you think, “I can’t do this” or “I shouldn’t ask that,” you should stop and think about how those thoughts never crossed Grandpa’s mind. For him, his persistence and positive attitude was not a choice, but instead, the only way to survive.
Grandpa and his family were one of the many families that President Obama spoke of in his inaugural address. For Grandpa, his family, and all the early immigrants like them who took “the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom”, this story is intended to inspire you to be strong, persistent, and goal-oriented in your life, even when you believe your life is just too hard.