I have mentioned on several occasions that this book began as a letter to my children which I eventually assembled into a fifty page story. At some point, I learned that “there were too many documents at the National Archives for us to send them to you,” so I traveled to Maryland, where I was blown away with what I discovered. That was when I decided that maybe this was a bigger project than I had ever envisioned. Thus, a book was born. Here is the original letter:
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 words in a textbook or 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 to 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 two diaries from his sister, Helen, which gave me some insight into the early lives of his family.
I read the letters and the diaries, viewed the video over and over, and decided to go on a journey of discovery on Grandpa’s history. I wanted to understand exactly why his father abandoned his hopes and dreams of living in freedom here in America to migrate to a country with decreasing personal freedoms for its citizens.
I stumbled upon a book which answered some of these questions and even mentioned his sisters by name. Uncle Dave and I contacted the author of that book.
I located a Russian history professor at the University of South Carolina who has answered many of my questions about Soviet History during his years there. I 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 in his stories. Certain liberties were taken as I wrote his story in which I added my own interpretation as I imagined what may have happened. But most of the story is factual, down to the weather on any days where a specific date is mentioned.
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 and loss. 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 story to believe and which to question their validity.
Reading his letters, listening to him talk and doing research has provided me with the reasons that Grandpa was so content to sit in his chair for hours on end, with no desire whatsoever 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 happy 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 length. He 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 think life is just too hard.