They’d have looked like regular vacationers had it not been for a slightly startled expression they all shared. They followed the waiters obediently. Suddenly, a whisper ran through the dining hall: “Chernobylskye.” People from Chernobyl. In a moment, we got new neighbors: a woman in her early thirties and a girl of five. By the meal’s end, we’d learned that Varya and Katya were from Gomel, a Belarus city about seventy miles north of Chernobyl. At the beginning of June, the plant where Varya worked had started distributing free vouchers to Black Sea resorts. The sea air was healthful and healing, the plant’s management had told them, though nobody would say what they might need healing from.
Once, my grandfather telephoned Shostakovich to say he was in Moscow, with two bottles of Novorossiysk’s famous Abrau-Durso champagne and—no less famous, though in narrower circles—some salted bream. “Why are you sitting there all alone?” Shostakovich demanded. “Haul them over!” The composer and the mayor demolished the meltingly oily fish in Shostakovich’s kitchen, washing it down, blasphemously, with champagne. He and Grandfather used to play film-score music four-handed, a homage to their youth, when both earned extra rubles by playing accompaniment to silent movies. While Shostakovich played, the nervous tics that habitually plagued his features disappeared. He seemed almost happy. And so I grew up with a sense of tantalizing proximity to genius and history and to the men who made it—one with music, another with the monument that enshrined it.
On the last day of 1980, the announcement came: our Pioneers’ Palace had been invited to perform at the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy in Moscow. My task was to announce the song numbers—“Bread Is A Land’s Glory,” “March of Pioneers,” “A Circle Dance of Friendship,” and so on—with “ringing optimism,” no small feat given that my voice, though loud, was naturally in a low register. When, at last, the day we’d prepared for over six long months had arrived, we lined up at 9 AM sharp, trembling with anticipation, in front of the Exhibition’s main entrance, a giant triumphant arch topped by the bronze “Tractor Man and Kolkhoz Woman” thrusting forward a bunch of wheat.
Almost all the Romanovs had an artistic bent: they painted, doodled, carved, embroidered, cut jewelry, or sculpted. For many Romanov exiles after 1917—hounded, stripped of their wealth, living under the constant fear of further reprisals—art became, in part, a coping mechanism. Later, as the memory of the massacre gave way in its immediacy, new generations of Romanovs took to art for reasons not so different from the rest of us: to meditate, to understand, and to express. Imaginative, often humorous, and at times fantastical, these artifacts paint a different, more authentic portrait of a family whose life and legacy continue to pique our interest, one hundred years after the Romanovs were swept off the world’s political stage.
In the morning, she wrapped the four limp fish in damp sheets of Soviet Culture and stuffed them into an oilskin hamper. It leaked, but the trolleybus taking us to the airport for her flight to Leningrad was empty at that early hour, so no one noticed. She carried the hamper in one hand and her suitcase in the other, while I bore her portable typewriter. The fish delivered, the defense of her thesis was a breeze. Mother passed with flying colors.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump praised Vladimir Putin’s “leadership,” called him “brilliant,” and said he would “get along” with him. For Russian-Americans like myself, this was when Russia came home. “Holy autocrats” and “Father Tsars” have ruled our motherland for centuries, so we can spot the type even when he comes in the guise of “Make America Great Again.” We agonized when our American friends told us Trump could not win. Our memories of totalitarianism were too fresh to discount gut feeling in favor of opinion polls.
Without mayonnaise, there could be no New Year in the Soviet Union. But you could never just buy mayonnaise. You could only get it, sometimes in a favor exchange, sometimes at a special distribution center for important people, like party members or employees of the commerce sphere, most of whom were party members also, so it was one and the same thing. Some trade union members could access mayonnaise, too, though I never figured out which ones; my mother’s union couldn’t.
Russia is no longer a country forged in the crucible of revolution; it is the land of the tsars and the Orthodox Church. Out went the relics of communism, with its mass demonstrations and portraits of Lenin; in came the relics of the Orthodox Church, with its miracles and icons. In the new lyrics of the national anthem, still sung to the old Soviet tune, “The unbreakable union of free republics” becomes “Russia, our sacred dominion.” In this revised version of Russian history, Vladimir Putin appears as the savior tsar.