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.