Alexander Vassilieff

Odysseya — an Epic Journey from Russia to Australia
(Extracts)

Vassilieff


Chapter 1. Reminiscence

I love you, work of Peters warrant,
I love your stern and comely face,
The Broad Nevas majestic current,
Her bankments granite carapace,
The patterns laced by iron railing,
And of your meditative night
The lucent dusk, the moonless paling;
When in my room I read and write
A. Pushkin. The Bronze Horseman

Now that the future which I used to dream of is in the past, my memories of past and former future have merged in the sea of life gone by. But, the past is like a ghost it never goes away. Now in the autumn of my years the question that I most often ask is: What legacy will my generation leave for the next? Closer to the point, will my grandchildren know what we left them and what our grandparents left us?

Life is sweet now and I have experienced great times and met some extraordinary people who by their example influenced my life. In fact, both my wife and I were blessed living in perhaps the best country in the world with a good, healthy, happy and relatively secure life. Yet it was not always like this.

I was too young to remember my birthplace — Shanghai. However, I have some recollection of Harbin, where I went to school for a while. It was a newly built city in Manchuria, where my parents and grandparents lived a significant part of their life. But what were they doing there? They were not Chinese, they were Russians.

I remember the stories my mother and later my aunts and grandmother used to tell me, as well as many other people with a similar background to ours. My paternal grandfathers past is sketchy at best. His father brought his family to Harbin probably to work on the then construction of the China Eastern Railway (CER). My maternal grandparents, who belonged to the aristocracy, were colonists in the Ukraine near the Black Sea and their immediate ancestors were believed to have come from the northern part of Russia. So in effect my familys journey of about 200 years had started in the Russian north, went on to China and ended up in Australia. Hence, our: Odysseya2 — From the Far North via the Middle Kingdom to the Land Down Under or for brevity — An Epic Journey from Russia to Australia.

As my grandchildren, like most people in Australia, do not know much about Russia and the Russians I have decided to devote a brief but concise section to Russian history and the 20th century Russian Diaspora, the largest in its history, as an introduction to the reader to help to understand our ancestry better. In doing so I hope to make my contribution to the history of my family and to the unique cultural and national identity that Australia, like the United States of America, is developing through the assimilation of its indigenous and immigrant populations in this Southern Land under one language, one government and one flag. However, we all have ghosts; English, Irish, Chinese, German, Indian, etc. My Ghosts from the Past are the Russians. So who were they?


Chapter 6. Time Travel — the Marriage

I recall a quote that goes something like this: When we are young we dream of the future. At what point in time do we begin to dream of the past? Perhaps when the future that we were dreaming of becomes the past. Put another way: We look forward to the future and then the future becomes the past. This theme of time is associated with the most widely admired and highly honoured American poet, Robert Lee Frost (1874-1963).

For as long as I remember, I have been fascinated with time travel. If we could time travel, there is so much history that we could substantiate. Without time travel, to learn how people lived throughout history we must rely on written testimony, man-made objects of the period, and living remains. However, the best witness to history is speaking to the person who lived it. In trying to fill the missing pieces of my family history, I have had to rely on all three methods and have often still come up against a blank wall. One such dead end was Ivan. Until one night something happened to me, which even now is hazy and perplexing to me. So this section I leave to you the reader to judge for yourself.

 

It was about midnight on 5 November. My wife and I returned from an outing — our sons birthday. Trying to unwind, I went to my study and sat down at my desk. After a night of discussion about our ancestors I was still attempting in my own mind to define or bring into coherence my grandparents experience and my still unproductive research into my great-great grandfather Ivan. Who the heck was he? I loosened my coat and tie and was about to take off my cuff-links to place them in my trinket box on my table — as I often did — when I picked out of the box a ten rouble gold coin, some other smaller coins, my grandfathers gold pocket watch and my grandmothers gold wedding ring. Recently, I had toyed with these things to help me collect my thoughts when writing my family history. On this occasion, however, I was drawn to them like to a magnet and an eerie and buzzing feeling went through me. I felt hot, cold and dizzy; my immediate thoughts were that I should have avoided that last glass of vodka. As if this was not bad enough, I then began to feel as if I was being drawn through a funnel and fell to the floor.

I came to, not on our floor, but on a grass patch alongside a pavement next to a wide stone cobbled street across which I saw a beautiful Orthodox timber-built church with couples silhouetted against a bright blue sky. It was broad daylight.

Good Lord, I said. This must be heaven and I didnt even realize that a bus had come for me.

Suddenly from behind, a voice said to me: Are you all right, sir? That was a nasty trip. I did not even see you fall. Here, let me help you on your feet, Your Honour, I will help you across the street. You look a little shaky. You dont want to miss the wedding do you?

As my eyesight cleared, I noted that the man who was helping me was dressed as a coachman and the ringing in my ears was in fact the church bells chiming. I realized that he was speaking to me in Russian. Turning to him I said: Where am I and what wedding are you talking about?

Oh, you have been celebrating, Your Honour. Are you from out of town? This is the Vajinsky wedding. Its the biggest wedding of the month here in Odessa, particularly since peace was declared in the Far East; its even mentioned in todays Odessa-News.

Here, look, Your Honour. The coachman saw that I was still dazed and said Oh! That must have been a really bad fall, Your Honour. Here, you better sit on a seat inside the church courtyard and collect yourself before you go inside, the wedding is still only half way through.

I thanked him and gave him the smaller coin of 20 kopeyeks that I found in my pocket beside the ten rouble coin. He graciously accepted the silver coin and hurried back to his coach. I quickly looked at the front page of the Odessa newspaper and saw the date — 23 October 1905. One of the front-page headlines read: Travel to the Far East has resumed once again and passengers can proceed in all safety and comfort as far as Harbin in Manchuria since the signing of the Portsmouth peace treaty in the United States of America.

As I was still not sure what was happening to me — it was like a dream but seemed so real that I did not think I was dreaming — I thought I might as well go along with the situation and see where it took me.

On entering the church, by habit I crossed myself and at that moment I saw the archpriest walking the newly married couple on their final circle around the wedding altar with the gold wedding crowns1 held above their heads by the two groomsmen. Soon after, the couple was taken to the steps in front of the Iconostasis2. The archpriest announced to the congregation that they were welcome to approach and congratulate the newly-weds — Boris Nikitich Vajinsky and his new bride Efrasinia Stepanovna Vajinsky. As is the custom, the first two couples who approached were the parents of the bride, then the groom, followed by the rest of the congregation joyously congratulating the newly married couple.

Still partly stunned, I too approached the couple, kissed them warmly and expressed my delight on this important occasion. As I began to walk away, mesmerised by their youthful beauty and happiness, an old man asked me to help him out down the steps. Once outside we began a conversation.

My name is Ivan Vassiliyich. You look as though you are on your own, can I offer you a lift to the reception?

Still taken back by the events I gladly accepted, giving him my full name and patronymic. We chatted on about the wedding, the lovely day. He asked me if I was related to the couple. Before I could answer, the carriage pulled up in front of an attractive sandstone building where the reception was being held. As we got out of the carriage, I helped the old man up the short wide stone stairway and past the beautiful Greco-Roman columns, then through a lobby into a reception room where the guests were gathering and champagne was being offered.

The old man introduced me to a couple of guests and excused himself. The middle-aged couple, Mr. and Mrs. Orloff, with whom I exchanged formalities, pointed me into the direction of the large French windows, through which I saw the most spectacular view.

A sunset over the Black Sea is absolutely divine, would you not agree Alexander Vladimirovich?

Absolutely spectacular, Mrs. Orloff, I answered.

Call me Gutya, Mrs. Orloff responded. After all we are practically all related here.

Before Gutya could ask me how I was related, I led the conversation into a different direction.

The sunset is rather early, is it not? I asked.

Oh no! I would say its right on time. She pointed in the direction of the clock on the wall, which showed five oclock. I then remembered my grandfathers gold pocket watch and took it out of my pocket, setting the right time. Gutya immediately remarked, There are very few of these around. It bears the imperial trademark of Pavel Bure, the supplier of His Majestys clocks and watches. It is usually presented to people of distinction.

I was getting deeper into hot water and looking for a way out.

Ah my dear chap, there you are.

Saved by the bell, I thought, as Ivan Vassiliyich reappeared.

I think we are just about to be seated. Look, the bride and groom are being greeted with bread and salt by the parents, said Ivan Vassiliyich excitedly. Yes God bless them, he murmured. Come along, Alexander Vladimirovich, and sit next to me. You seem to be an interesting companion.

But… I said.

No buts, I know we have much in common to discuss. Ivan Vassiliyich began our conversation almost immediately after we were seated and the archpriest blessed all present and said a brief prayer for the coming meal.

You must be related to us, I can see it in your face, your ears and your chin but you must be from some distant land. Your accent appears to be a mixture of St. Petersburger and something foreign, not French or German, maybe English. Your clothing is different to everyone elses. A good quality suit and tie, your shirt looks as

though you have been travelling in it all day in a hurry to get here. Am I right so far?

You are very observant and quite right on every count, Ivan Vassiliyich, almost as though you are a detective.

Thank you for the compliment, Alexander Vladimirovich, but no I am no detective. However, I do believe that a gift of memory is what makes us truly human!

I have lived a long time — 80 years you know, travelled somewhat, I participated in the Crimean Campaign as a supply officer and I love to read foreign and local news, novels, science and politics. He then looked at me for a response.

You are right, Ivan Vassiliyich; we do have a lot in common. I am a distant relative of yours and I have lived in a far away land for a long time. Its a relatively new country called Australia.

Ah! That explains the unrecognisable accent. English? And yet not quite English! You are now a Federation of States and no longer a colony. I think your Prime Minister is Alfred Deakin? You export merino wool and you have interesting animals like kangaroos and koalas. (He pronounced the last two words with a strong Russian accent.)

I am becoming more impressed with your knowledge, Ivan Vassiliyich. I personally had to think back a hundred years to who was the then Prime Minister and had he asked me I may have given the wrong one like Barton, Reid or Fisher, but Deakin sounded more correct when he said it. Yes I also like to read similar topics to yours.

Then he further amazed me by saying: You know,Alexander Vladimirovich, by the turn of the 19th century and at least by the end of this year so many new discoveries were made that they are now revolutionizing our age in so many different areas such as: Telephone and Telegraph, Electricity and Electromagnetism. They are already talking of lighting up all of St. Petersburg and connecting by telephone Moscow to St. Petersburg and maybe later down here to Odessa. Mendeleevs Chemical Periodic Chart and his prediction of future elements are making considerable breakthroughs in chemistry and photography. The recent Wright Brothers Flight suggests we will have flying ships in the not too distant future and just a few months ago, I read in a scientific journal that a new Swiss scientist, Albert Einstein, discovered a relationship between energy, matter and light and he called it the Theory of Relativity. So possibly, in the near future Jules Verne and H G Wells fantasies might become a reality of under water ships, flights to the moon and maybe even time machines. So people will be able to be transported underwater, through air, outer space and maybe even through time itself. Maybe these people — Jules Verne, H G Wells, Mendeleyev and now Einstein — are time travellers. For that matter you too could be a time traveller.

You know, dear Ivan Vassiliyich, you are more right than anyone could possibly know. During our conversation, time was flying and the bride and groom were being continually toasted. The atmosphere was jovial — love, kisses, food, wine and song overflowed in abundance at times making it difficult for us to stick to our conversation. On a couple of occasions we did tear away from our conversation and joined the rest in a couple of Russian and Ukrainian songs. A Russian wedding without singing is incomplete and no participant can remain immune to the atmosphere and/or abstain from joining it.

This has been a most splendid evening, Alexander Vladimirovich. I have enjoyed myself thoroughly, said my companion. Do you think our young couple will have a long and happy future with many children?

I am sure they will on all three counts, I responded without hesitation. Then as if by habit I placed my right hand into my coat pocket and took out the pocket-watch to check the time, which was about 11.00 p.m., not noticing that my grandmothers wedding ring had slipped on to my little finger. As I read the time, my companion observantly asked, You have a second wedding ring on your right hand.

That was my grandmothers, I replied.

May I see it? he said.

Uncomfortably, I gave it to him. He rolled it and read the inscription on the inside: 23 October 1905.

But thats todays date! He looked at me astonished. How can this be?

He gave me back the ring and said: That Pavel Bure gold watch you are holding, I have an exact one in my pocket that I am going to give my grandson tonight when they depart on their honeymoon.

As astonished and bewildered as he, I said, Then you are Ivan!

But of course, my dear fellow. Who else did you think I was?

I have been searching for you a long time.

Well now you found me, what are you going to do?

As if in response, we both embraced and then reached out to shake each others hand. But as our hands met with the pocket watches still in each others hand I felt the same funny sensation that earlier on came over me. I once again felt dizzy and began to be drawn through a funnel until I finally fell to the floor. As I tried to get up and get myself together, something wet was slobbering my face. On opening my eyes I saw my cocker spaniel, Toffee, next to me in my study where I was lying on my carpet with my grandmothers wedding ring and my grandfathers pocket watch in my right hand showing about 11.05 p.m. I then looked at my wall clock and it read five minutes after midnight. The wall calendar next to it still showed yesterdays date — 5 November 2005 (23 October old style).
Vassilieff


Chapter 22. Farewell our Russian Land

Firstly, Vasily organised to move his two daughters to Harbin. Although the details are unknown, it was possibly with the carers help — his new wife Natalia (Tasya) Ivanovna — whom he married at about that time in 1919 and in that same year he finally got his wish, a son Valentin. Secondly, he organised the escape of his brothers family after he received an urgent message from them, which read: SOS by tonight — Boris.

Preceding the message, Boriss situation was getting worse each day. By 1919, with the continually changing conditions in the Far East, Boris was arrested and interrogated twice by the local Soviet. However, they failed to pin anything on him. Even the released convicts when questioned considered that they were usually treated fairly by Boris Vajinsky. This time the local Soviet gave the orders to a new Commissar to get this white Bourgeois sacked3 as a Deputy Warden and his belongings to be confiscated after a fair trial by the local troika. That morning a number of chekists4 entered the Vajinsky home and were about to provoke him in order to make an arrest more viable. At that moment, through the door came a Commissar in the usual black leather jacket and black leather boots with a firearm at his side. He carried quite an aura of authority and signalled his men to wait outside.

Comrade Vajinsky, I am authorised by the new local Soviet to take you in for further questioning, said the commissar.

Why dont you just shoot me and get it over with, Boris answered back. By this stage, he was at the end of his tether.

Dont you remember me, comrade, I was one of your prisoners. A filthy Jew, a zhid5 as some called me. The commissar replied, Yet you always treated me decently. Why?

Because we are all equal in the eyes of our Lord and its not up to me to humiliate others for their beliefs, let alone a prisoner down on his luck.

Vajinsky, you just bought yourself extra time. I will return with my men after midnight to take you in if you are still around. Here is a pass for you and your family to get you over the border to Manchuria. It expires at midnight tonight. Go across and visit your family. Take only what you can easily carry. And dont come back.

Boris knew how to contact his brother in an emergency. This was a life and death emergency. He sent an SOS. If only Vasily could come through, before midnight. Franya dressed all the girls extra well. Likewise, she and Boris put on extra clothes. In Klavas coat, Franya hid some valuables and jewellery. Boris filled his fine hide port mannaie (wallet) with whatever money he had and put it into his inside coat pocket, his gold pocket watch into another. Franya, too, took some money and a little brown chequered bag that could easily fit into the palm of her hand, filled with some gold and silver coins. Boris took his favourite golden retriever — Duke — on a leash and the family went on a late afternoon walk to the promenade.

As darkness fell, Franya and Boris were becoming more tense and their girls more restless. Only the faithful Duke walked closely by his masters side as though without a care in the world. The contact came unexpectedly. A man brushed past them ahead and said, Do not respond, just keep on walking and turn at the next corner to your right.

As they turned the next corner, they were told to quickly mount the nearby carriage that would take them to a quayside. At about 10.00 p.m., they pulled up near a ramp where two men made them swiftly board a small rowboat, which the same two men rowed for what seemed to be at least an hour. The pier lights could just be seen in the dark as they came up to a motorised passenger ferry.

They quickly climbed up a gangplank and got inside a cabin as the boats motors kicked in and they slowly moved away from the Russian Mainland and towards China. After a couple of moments inside Captain Vasily Vajinsky appeared. All the Vajinskys immediately embraced and began to laugh and cry at the same time.

Vasily, I must put the girls to bed as soon as possible. They are exhausted, said Franya.

There is a cabin already allocated to you, Vasily replied. A Chinese deck hand took Franya, the girls and Duke to their sleeping berths.

Vasily began explaining to his brother that they were still not safe and that an inspecting Soviet gunboat checking for any unauthorised passengers, that is escapees from their motherland, could board them at any time. No sooner did Vasily inform his brother when an approaching powerful torch light from a gunboat letting out foghorn sounds lit up the ferry.

Prepare to be boarded for inspection, a voice resonated from the approaching gunboat.

Vasily, you old sea dog, didnt the Turks kill you? came the words from the boarding gunboat captain.

Well, Mitka, I see you have come up in the world, responded Vasily.

Its Dimitry Ivanovich. If you please, comrade, we are now equals, except some of us are more equal than others, or you may address me simply as comrade captain, caustically retorted the red captain.

I hope you are not too important to join your old comrade-in-arms with some vodka and zakuski (appetisers), together with some of my passengers. Knowing Dimitrys weakness Vasily tempted him with vodka.

You wouldnt be trying to bribe me, you old sea-dog, hoping that I wont find any contraband or comrades that you may be smuggling out?

Ah you are a suspicious soul but I do enjoy seeing you. Lets talk over some of our good times together in the Trebizond and after you have eaten go ahead and search my boat. I have nothing to hide and listen, give your boys a drink too, so they dont feel left out.

Boris, with a couple of crewmen, joined Vasily and Dimitry in the dining area where some light snacks were laid out and vodka was poured in large quantities. After a while, Dimitrys polytrook — political officer — joined them and privately whispered something to the red captain. A large glass of vodka was also poured for him which he immediately downed and received another refill.

My polytrook, who is very diligent, tells me your brother here has his family on board and that you are taking them across to Manchuria and onward to Harbin.

Thats correct, comrade captain. As you can see they have signed papers.

Well how come they have hardly any baggage with them? Where are they running to in such a hurry?

I am sorry, comrade, I should have explained earlier. Our father died recently in Harbin and his inheritance is going to be read out by the end of the week. So my brother with his family sought permission from the local commissar and left in a hurry for the reading of the will. They did not take anything because I will be bringing them back as soon as all the formalities are over. Good Lord! You dont think they would leave all their possessions and their beautiful cottage and stay in some outback Chinese village of Harbin. You probably havent ever been to Harbin or you would not be so suspicious. Its just a backwater village. No way would any of us stay there permanently. I tell you by the end of next week we should be back. Come on, comrades, lets drink to the revolution.

After another round of many Dimitry exclaimed, Hey, since when have you changed your colours, you old sea-dog? You were so pro God, Tsar, and fatherland back in Turkey.

So were you then, comrade, when we fought the Turks, Vasily interrupted. To the days of war and glory when we beat the Turkish foe He commenced an old naval war song and the others joined in as more vodka flowed until only the two captains remained seated as everyone else passed out. Finally, the red captain stood up and said: There is something fishy here which I cant put my finger on. Just as well I can hold my drink, he said slurring his words. I have to go now and check if there are any counter revolutionaries in our waterways. I will be looking out for you specifically next week. God will not be able to help you if you put one over on me. The two captains on to the gunboat helped out the staggering polytrook as the engines were revved up and the boats went all ahead full, in the opposite directions.

Proshay Nash Rusky Kray (farewell our Russian Land), said both Vasily and Boris, looking out on the distant Russian shoreline.


Chapter 37. The Escape

It was early winter in 1934 when Vladimir, with two other escapees, crossed the Russia/Manchuria border where the Amur River freezes and one can literally island hop from Soviet Russia into Manchuria. On the day of the escape, Vladimir convinced his two GULAG inmates that while they were delivering supplies to the camp with the aid of a packhorse, escape to the Chinese border and freedom was less than a day away. Thus with much hardship, hunger and danger of being shot if caught, they made it. However, Manchuria was not the same as he had left it three years before. It was now a puppet state of Manchukuo under the control of the Empire of Japan. Nevertheless, he was free and he would seek out the Soviet Consul and prove his innocence. After several days exhausting walk, hitching a ride when they could on horse-driven snow sled, they made it to a CER station. There, as stowaways, they sneaked rides how ever they could to Harbin and parted company.

Vladimir made it to his uncle Serges house, told him of his ordeal leading to his escape and asked for more information about the premature death of his father. Uncle Serge, a younger brother of his late father, also worked for the CER as a Russian/Japanese interpreter. Serge tried to console his nephew and gently told him the little that he knew.

As you may have heard by now, Volodya, shortly after you left for the USSR, in 1931 the Japanese began the take over of Manchuria. They desperately need the control of the CER, which is still in a peculiar position. The Russians, correction, our Soviet friends, own it! They lease it from the Chinese but the Japanese control it. Most of the staff are white Russians like your father and I. But, as you know, before you left, if we wanted to remain employed by the CER we had to take out Chinese or Soviet citizenship. Very few took Chinese citizenship, some left for Shanghai or Tientsin. They were the smart ones. Most, like your father and I, took Soviet citizenship. We thought it would be better for you also and our brother Nikolai, with whom you stayed in Stalingrad for a while.

But, alas it only brought us misery. The Soviets still sentenced you and the Japanese resent us. They can treat the Chinese as they like but they have to show restraint with us, as they do not want to antagonize the Soviets just yet. But every now and then the Japanese Gendarmes flex their muscles and overstep their boundaries.

So it was with your father. He, still with the CER, continued to lecture advanced mathematics at the Institute and was much admired by the staff and students. One day he told me he had had a disagreement with a Japanese official and that the Gendarmes wanted to see him. He thought it either might have been to demand more respect for the Japanese or to accuse him of spying as some relatives such as Nikolai and yourself were living in the USSR. It was in June 1932 — less than a year before the NKVD arrested you — that he was taken in by the Gendarmes and held for several days. I could not get in touch with him. They warned me not to make waves or they would take me in for questioning as well. Your father died at home less than a week after he was released. I believe the bastards tortured him and possibly infected him with something. When we buried him, we kept the casket closed during the service as he was badly beaten. We buried him at the Uspensky Cemetery and marked the grave with a monument. I will show you how to find it.

There are also rumours that outside Harbin the Japanese are experimenting with some biological germ-warfare. Your father mentioned this to me shortly before they arrested him. Who knows what he stumbled on? Yes, he was only 39; I loved him dearly just as I know you did. Apart from his state of mind that is all I can tell you.

Oh! And another thing; he frequently appeared depressed of late. He was lonely you know, what with our parents gone, his long separation from your mother, the family split between Manchuria and the USSR and you languishing in the homeland and then the bloody Japs — he had nothing to live for. Sometimes he buried himself in his work. Sometimes your father and I, and (our older sister) Lidia and her husband Nikolay would get together and talk, just as we had done in the old days. This would help us unwind and summon up the courage to go on for a while but not for long.

You know, Volodya, you need a new beginning and you wont get it here. Go to Shanghai maybe, make some money and then go to America. That is where I am going. I will not stay here much longer. For now, Russia and Manchuria are finished. Get yourself a nice girl and get married. Here, take some money. It will get you started, and dont forget to visit your mother.

Vladimir thanked his uncle and embraced him. Thank you for everything, Uncle. I will take your advice, but first I must do something.

So Vladimir visited his mother. Thank God you are alive and well, she said. I dont want to speak ill of the dead but your fool of a father should have stopped you from going back. He boasted that he could look after you better than I. Well did he? He couldnt even protect himself against the Japanese.

Mama! Let it go, I dont want to argue with you as soon as I return.

Yes youre right, Volodya. Look at you! Youre skin and bones! Come and have something to eat. And tonight we will have some friends over to celebrate your return; we will have some zakuski, pelmeni and vodochka. Now go wash up and change. I think I still have some of your old clothes in the back room.

After the homecoming celebration and a full stomach, Vladimir felt better than he had since his arrest almost a year ago now. The nightmare briefly reappeared in his mind, the set up by Haritonov — the rotten scoundrel, the arrest, the humiliation and then a Siberian GULAG. What a mess, with that record he could never return home. He had to clear his name.

The first thing Vladimir did that morning was to visit the Soviet Consul. Shaved, groomed and dressed neatly he sought audience with a Consulate official. He attempted to explain his story of the false accusation leading to imprisonment and escape. The official took Vladimir by the arm, led him to the door and threw him out saying; You young fool, be grateful that you are still alive, get out of here and dont ever come back. His pride hurt and, bitterly disappointed, he realized he could do nothing.

Find yourself a nice girl. He thought of what his uncle said, which made him reminisce. I wonder how Klava is? So he decided to seek out his childhood friend Michael Koliagin. His own parents separated and his upbringing alternating between his parents and other relatives and Michael not knowing his, since he was brought up from childhood by adopted parents. They made a good pair. He found Michael working on a car in a small garage.

So I see you are mechanic now.

Volodyka! When did you get back? God, what has happened to you? You look like death warmed up. What did they do to you back home? I am sorry about your father. And so the two friends caught up with each others lives. What miserable luck, Volodya. Never mind, maybe we could get you a job here in the garage. You are partly a mechanic. You have done your chauffeur — basic mechanic papers. Ill talk to the boss for you.

Thats great. Thanks, Michael. By the way, how are the Vajinsky sisters?

Well, the oldest Tina she is now married to Alexander Dobrovidov, the fellow that used to tutor you in Chinese.

Oh yes hes not a bad guy. I think our fathers might have known one another, through some teaching connection and the CER. Anyway, what about the other two, God they look alike.

Musya is my girl. I plan to marry her one-day, so hands off. Klava, the one you fancy, has a boyfriend, Igor Petrov. She sees him sometimes — dont think they are serious. Im going over next Sunday for dinner. Come with me. Ill warn Musya Im bringing you along. Her parents are very hospitable, real Russian nobility; the father is not well, poor circulation I hear.

Thanks again, Michael. You dont have to worry about Musya. Ill only steal a kiss from her when youre not looking. Yes its Klava that I fancy but I dont have much time for this nobility business. They got rid of it all back home and everyone is equal.

 

With the snow melting and Easter approaching, that Sunday afternoon Michael and Vladimir drove up in a car borrowed from Michaels garage. They entered the modest Vajinsky cottage and were greeted like old friends with typical warm Russian hospitality. The house was warm and cosy, decorated with the small, white flowers called podsnezhniki — snowdrops. An Icon of the blessed Virgin with the Saviour and a glowing lampada — icon lamp, hung in a corner. A white tablecloth covered the table and on it were a variety of non-meat zakuski (owing to the Great Lent) and other delicacies that Vladimir had not seen in a long while. Sturgeon caviar, herring and other variety of marinated fish, pirogi (pies) with cabbage, carrot and mushroom filling, several varieties of marinated vegetable dishes and of course salted gherkins, vodka and a number of home made liqueurs. The hostess, Efrasinia Stepanovna Vajinsky, was a master cook and her daughters good students.

The host, Boris Nikitich Vajinsky, greeted the two young men warmly, introducing the newcomer Vladimir to his wife, his three daughters and Valentinas husband Alexander Nikolayevich Dobrovidov, Sasha as most friends called him. But, of course I believe you two gentlemen have met before, Alexander Nikolayevich used to tutor you in Chinese, said the host, looking at Vladimir.

Yes, Alexander Nikolayevich intervened, he was a good student.

Ah, a student is only as good as his teacher, responded Vladimir.

Part of the credit must go to Alexander Nikolayevichs father, replied the host. Nikolay Nikolayevich is still considered one of the prominent Chinese language specialists in all Harbin and if we live here in the Orient we should all try to speak the native language.

Which native language do you recommend? said Vladimir with slight sarcasm. Chinese or Japanese?

Either, one, or both, said Boris Nikitich, and you are right of course, young man. Klava speaks basic Japanese and works as a cashier at the well-known Aspitians delicatessen and pastry store, which the Japanese frequently visit. Oh forgive me, young man, may I call you Volodya?

But of course, replied Vladimir, sounding perplexed.

Here we are discussing languages and the Japanese. I have heard of your sad loss. Please accept our deepest sympathy on the untimely death of your father.

Thank you, you are most kind, Sir.

Do not be judgmental of all the Japanese, the Gendarmes like the NKVD tend to attract the worst kind. My boss is a Samurai and he has treated my family with the utmost respect and now that my health is suffering he has displayed extra kindness to me.

Forgive me, Boris Nikitich, if I dont share your views, the Samurai and you are of noble birth and maybe there is some affinity there. But, my father who was an engineer and an academic highly respected at the CER and the Polytechnic did not receive the appropriate respect. On the contrary he died from disrespect, abuse and torture and for that I will never forgive the Japanese and if any one of them ever gets in my way I will show them some of my respect!

At that moment to break the tension, the hostess beckoned all to the table.

The rest of the afternoon passed — more light-heartedly. The plentiful and delicious meal washed down with home-made wine and liquors and vodka made every one very chirpy and as often at

Russian dinners everyone spoke at once. Even Vladimir lightened up, telling jokes and stories. So when Sasha asked him what he did in Moscow before his arrest, with a straight face and without the blink of an eyelid he answered, I drove Stalin around on several occasions, I was a chauffeur at the Ministry of Transport and that was part of my job. At that point, the table became very quiet until Michael burst out laughing.

He tells everyone that. The closest he got to Stalin was when the NKVD gave him a putevka — a free trip to a GULAG resort in Siberia; see how they fattened him up. And so the conversation became lively again, but the host glanced at Vladimir in an uncertain way as though trying to weigh him up.

Prior to going home, Klava and Volodya made plans to meet in town. As the weeks followed, the two met more often. Although, not often enough. Vladimirs job at the garage and Klavas long hours at the store gave little time for any get together. Sometimes they would snatch a brief moment to be together or Vladimir would go to the store where Klava worked to buy something as an excuse to talk to her. On rare occasions, they would go to the movies on a Sunday afternoon.

Late one Sunday evening after they parted company, Boris Nikitich sat down with his daughter for a chat. So Klavunka, as he would address her in an affectionate way, how do you find Volodya?

I love him papa, was her brief reply.

But what about Igor; your steady boyfriend?

Igor is a good man and I like him, but I dont love him.

Dear one, I dont want to run your life, you are getting to a stage where you will have to make these decisions for yourself. But, I do not think that Volodya is the right man for you. He may be handsome, funny, and a go-getter but he is also impulsive, unstable, comes from a broken home, he is without means and romanticizes Russia the way it is not. Precious, I ask you to reconsider your feelings for him or at least do not rush into anything for which you may be sorry later. If in a year or two you still have feelings for one another I will not stand in your way and you will have my and your mothers blessing.

Next time the two saw one another, Klava mentioned her fathers apprehension about their developing relationship and suggested that maybe they should not see each other quite so often.

We hardly see each other now, Vladimir protested, adding, He probably does not like me, because I am poor and he thinks I am a Sovietsky. Well I will make something of myself; maybe I will become an engineer like my father, a businessman or a top athlete to prove to him that I can look after you because I love you. You wait and see, nothing is going to keep us apart.

But fate stepped in. A couple of weeks later, coming home from work tired and angry at the world again, Vladimir spotted two Gendarmes beating up a drunken Russian. Visions of Gendarmes torturing his father flashed in front of him and Vladimir reacted impulsively. Without any hesitation, he ran to the rescue of the victim and making use of his school-time boxing lessons within a brief minute he knocked out cold the two Gendarmes. The victim thanked him profusely.

May God bless you, young man, for helping me, but now they will be after you. You must leave town now or they will kill you.

Thus having recently escaped from the Soviet NKVD GULAG he now had to flee once more, this time from the Gendarmes and Japanese-occupied Manchuria. After having said a quick good bye to his mother, then Michael, who drove him to Harbin Station and promised to pass on to Klava the message that Vladimir would send for her when he was re established in Shanghai. Meanwhile Uncle Serge helped to arrange a quick passage on the SCER to Tientsin from where Vladimir would make his way by boat to Shanghai.


(1) In Russian Orthodoxy the second part of the Marriage Service culminates in the ceremony of coronation; the crowns signify an outward and visible sign of the sacrament, the special grace that the couple receive from the Holy Spirit, before they set out to found a new family or domestic Church. The crowns are crowns of joy, but they are also crowns of martyrdom, since every true marriage involves an immeasurable self-sacrifice on both sides. At the end of the service the couple drink from the same cup of wine, which recalls the miracle at the marriage feast of Cana in Galilee: this common cup is a symbol of the fact that henceforward they will share a common life with one another.

(2) An icon covered screen that separates the sanctuary-altar from the body of the building.

(3) A nobleman appointed by the previous Imperial Government could not remain in such an important and sensitive position.

(4) Early Soviet secret police agency and a forerunner of the KGB.

(5) An off offensive term for a Jew.