End of an Exile's Journey
`SHOEMAKER Martyn Avdyeich lived in the city. He lived in a basement, in a room with one window.'' So my grandmother's voice filled the parlor on that warm Sabbath afternoon as she read to her grandchildren about the Russian shoemaker, of his sorrows in losing his wife and son, of his dream, and how he entertained Christ unknowingly through his kindness to the poor whose feet he noticed outside his basement window.
As my grandmother read, my grandfather rested in the other room. Staring out the window, I focused on the pepper tree, its thin branches swaying in the California breeze.
I did not think of Leo Tolstoy's story again for 20 years. Then one day as I installed carpet in a farmhouse near Freeport, Maine - the radio on - I heard the resonant voice of Bill Cavaness of WGBH-FM, Boston, open the noon hour with ``Welcome to Reading Aloud.'' Beginning the story for the day, he read: ``Martyn Avdyeich lived in the city. He lived in a basement, in a room with one window.'' I put down my carpet knife, leaned back against the wall, closed my eyes and listened.
What was it I felt that day as I again heard the old story? What longing? And for what? Was I homesick? And for what home? Was it the ``home'' of Tolstoy, the spiritual Russia that flowed in such broad currents through its literature? That captured the imagination of the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke? That beckoned my ancestors to homestead in the Caucasus in the time of Catherine the Great?
Was it a longing for a geographical home I never had, I, who have lived in four countries and eight states, who find myself a little at home everywhere, but not really at home anywhere?
Was it the longing of an exile? Was it like the longing my grandfather felt, as in lifetime exile he remembered how the breeze made the yellow leaves of the acacia tree dance outside his grandfather's house in Russia?
Even as he was escaping the war-torn Russian empire 75 years ago, my grandfather, Ivan Bogdanovich, must have yearned for his home in the Caucasus. He must have pictured his father, Bogdan, working in the vineyard, or trading peaceably with the Tartars. He must have thought of his mother, Ekaterina, who strengthened him with chicken soup when he returned in ill health from studies in Germany.
Perhaps, in the winter of 1916, as he gathered strength in the home of Morgan Palmer in Chanchung, Manchuria, he, too, thought of Tolstoy's simple shoemaker, Martyn Avdyeich, and the kindness he showed to strangers.
Then a fugitive, Ivan Bogdanovich had survived the prisons of Russia, banishment to Siberia, the long trek east across to Manchuria, then the painful winter walk from Harbin, China. Now in the safekeeping of this generous government official, he prepared to journey to the third and fourth ``stars'' of his voyage: Mukden (renamed Shenyang) and Shanghai.
After making inquiries, Morgan Palmer arranged for Ivan Bogdanovich to be received at a mission in Mukden. He then loaned my grandfather his own pass, and sent a friend to accompany him on the Japanese railway.
From Mukden, Ivan Bogdanovich then rode south on the Chinese railway to Shanghai. Here he was welcomed at a mission run by his own church.
Believing it best to sail to America aboard a United States steamer - he was afraid ships of other nations might turn him over to Russian authorities - Ivan Bogdanovich now waited six weeks for the scheduled departure of the American passenger liner, the ``China.''
In preparation for his voyage, church members in Shanghai bought him a new blue suit and hat, and presented him with a small collection of gold coins, knowing he would need them when he arrived.
One day a warning came from the American consul that Russian agents might attempt to apprehend him as he was leaving Shanghai. So on the day of departure, his friends escorted him not to the Shanghai docks, but to the suburb of Woosung. From there he took a motor launch to the ``China,'' anchored several miles out in the bay.
That evening his friends, who had accompanied him on board, returned to shore. The next morning, when Ivan Bogdanovich opened his cabin door, he could see only water.
About 11 o'clock, however, an Australian warship under a British flag approached the ``China,'' fired two warning shots, halting the steamer, then dispatched a launch. Boarding the ``China,'' the Brit- ish soldiers stationed themselves about the ship and demanded to see the passenger list. Anyone with German or Austrian passports was put aboard the launch, and all others were required to show proof of nationality.
``I stated that I was a Russian, but as I could produce no passport, I was lowered into the launch, a prisoner of war,'' my grandfather later wrote.
On board the destroyer, Ivan Bogdanovich insisted on speaking with the captain. After listening to his story, the captain summoned his engineer, a sailor of Russian background. After talking with Ivan Bogdanovich, the engineer confirmed his Russian speech and knowledge. Still, because he carried no passport, the captain was suspicious, and ordered his lieutenant to take my grandfather back to the ``China'' and search his bags.
In his bag they found only the few clothes and personal items my grandfather had brought with him. But there was something else tucked in: a volume of poems by Mikhail Lermontov.
Satisfied, finally, that only a Russian would carry a book of Russian poetry, the British officer released Ivan Bogdanovich and returned to the warship.
It was now March. The ``China'' sailed on without incident to Honolulu. A few days later it resumed sail. Five days after leaving Hawaii, my grandfather gripped the deck railing in his hands and looked up as the steamer passed under the Golden Gate.
Met by church members in San Francisco, Ivan Bogdanovich was driven to a church-related sanitarium in St. Helena for rest and recuperation.
Settling in California, my grandfather rejoiced when Czar Nicholas II abdicated and Alexander Kerensky formed a provisional government. In a letter from home he learned that his family was well, and that his companion in Siberia, Elias Gorelic, had been released.
Then came the Bolshevik takeover, the civil war, and the brutality of the communist regimes. For many years my grandfather sent money to family members, helping them ward off the killing famines under Stalin. One day a letter came telling him of his parents' death. Then he heard that his brother had disappeared. Twenty years later his brother's wife would learn from a returning Siberian prisoner of her husband's arrest and sentence to 10 years of hard labor. In Stalin's Gulag prison camps, he lived only five.
In time, Ivan Bogdanovich took the English version of his name, John Godfrey, and married, taught school, started a family, then entered medical school. Planning to return to Russia, he believed he would be most useful there as a physician.
Occasionally he would drive into San Francisco to hear visiting Russian choirs. He wondered what had happened to the violin he had left in his apartment in Odessa the night he was arrested.
Perhaps he took down from the shelf the poems of Lermontov, reading again the lines from ``My Native Land'': I love - I know Not why - her rivers at the flood like seas, The voice of her boundless forest trees, The frozen silence of her plains in snow.
Gradually, however, came the painful realization that the communists' grip on the Soviet Union would not loosen. Decades passed. He traveled widely, speaking in churches. Finally in 1960, while Khrushchev was in power, he applied for a visa to the Soviet Union. The visa was granted.
Still in touch with his sisters and his niece, John Godfrey now planned a reunion, not at any of their homes, because that was too dangerous, but in the Black Sea resort town of Soshi. By letter they specified a meeting to take place on any of three consecutive days between 2 and 5 p.m. in front of the town post office.
Because he could speak Russian fluently, my grandfather was permitted to travel to the town without a state guide. What intense emotions must have accompanied him as he registered at a local hotel, then lay awake that night anticipating the next day's events.
He was to recognize his niece as a woman carrying a bouquet of flowers. The next day, all afternoon, John Godfrey walked up and down the street in front of the post office. He saw no one who might be his niece.
On the afternoon of the second day, he gazed intently at one woman waiting outside the station. She then turned and approached him. Could he be Cousin Ivan?
Talking discreetly, they agreed to meet again in a few minutes in the hotel garden, sheltered from the street. When his niece returned, she brought his two sisters with her. In tears they embraced. One sister fell to the ground, so overcome was she at the sight of the elderly American who now stood before her.
It was Friday. All that afternoon and the Sabbath to follow, brother, sisters, and niece met in the garden, putting the pieces of their lives together. After the Revolution, the communists had scattered the family and village members like grain across the Soviet Union. One sister lived near the Chinese border. The next day they parted and returned to their homes. It was my grandfather's only visit.
SOMEDAY I would like to visit Russia. I'd like to see the jagged Caucasus mountains, and the valley where my great-grandfather raised his family and his horses. I'd like to cross the Urals into Siberia - in summer, that is - and float on the mirrored Ob. I'd like to journey east across the long steppes.
This may, or may not, happen. Perhaps it has already happened. For in this life, I have learned there are physical journeys and spiritual journeys. There is physical exile and spiritual exile. There is a physical home and a spiritual home. Only for a few are they the same.
Last in a series. Previous articles ran June 13, Sept. 12, Sept. 26, Oct. 10, Oct. 24, and Nov. 7.