“My mood was grave. I was troubled by the fate of my wife and son, who were left behind in Minusinsk, and by the fact that I had to leave my motherland. I remember, as if it were yesterday, that my torment grew worse when we started ascending into the Sayan Mountains. When we reached the mountain pass, my torment turned into pain.”
— Excerpt from Yakov Zvereff’s Memoir. Summer of 1920.​​​​​​​
When I was a child, my father would tell the story of our family’s escape from the Bolshevik revolution in Russia of 1917. To escape the chaos of the internecine warfare that engulfed the Russian landscape, my great-grandfather fled south by caravan from Siberia through Mongolia, braving starvation and roving bands of marauders. Shortly before reaching the Mongolian capital of Urga (Ulaanbaatar), as luck would have it, my great-grandfather separated his family and a small group of people from the caravan and went ahead, thinking a smaller group would attract less attention. Although detained for a short period, his group was released to continue their journey. Shortly thereafter they received word that the caravan they’d just left was attacked by Chinese irregulars and that everyone in it had been killed. Although my great-grandfather and his family lost all of their possessions, which were with the main caravan, they survived the rest of the journey and eventually settled in Peking (Beijing), living and prospering there for over 30 years. My great-grandfather founded businesses in China; my great-grandparents were married there, and everyone in the family spoke fluent Mandarin.
At the end of WWII, the victory of the communist forces of Mao Zedong over the Nationalist forces of the Western-backed Chiang Kai-shek and their assumption of governmental power in China made it untenable for any foreigners (European, Russian, or otherwise) to stay in China. Europeans were easily repatriated to Europe, but, although it was always the intention of every Russian refugee living in China to return home to Russia, the Soviet government had no use for the “traitors” who had fled Russia during the revolution and sat out World War II. When Chinese communist forces were about to approach Peking, my family got on the last train for foreigners out of the city, taking only what they could carry, later travelling by boat to a displaced persons camp for stateless refugees in the Philippine island of Tubabao, where they lived for a year or so before being accepted into the United States, landing in San Francisco.​​​​​​​
As a new American family, we combined Russian, Chinese, and American traditions into our daily life: we played Mahjong with the family on Thanksgiving, and my mother would bake me traditional cakes known as kulich during Russian Orthodox Easter. 
Later as I transitioned into a young adult, and the process of self-awareness and a search for purpose took hold, it became clear that my identity was partially defined by this puzzling foreign history embedded in me. Even though these events transpired a long time ago, and far from my home in America, they lived in the back of my head, like an unreachable itch, or a book with missing pages.​​​​​​​
When I was 24, to scratch that itch and fill in some of those missing pages, I flew to Moscow. Together with my Leica M6 and a lot of Fuji Neopan 1600 I embarked on a 4000-mile voyage of discovery on the Trans-Mongolian railway to retrace my family’s epic journey and see firsthand some of the places they could have passed through, thus creating my own memories and incredible experiences that I, too, could pass down to friends and family and other future generations.  
Since that first trip, I became obsessed with this new potential, and in the last decade have visited Russia and China somewhat regularly. Through my existing family members on my mother’s side, who still live in Russia, I have been able to hear their memories as well, slowly compiling this abstract puzzle into a family mosaic.
My mother was 21 and attending university in Leningrad when she met my father, an American. She was studying English and he was studying Russian. They were married shortly thereafter. In the beginning, she hid her marriage plans from her parents. Her brother even went as far as to hide the wedding rings in a locker at a train station. Her family, having heard all the horror stories of what could happen to their daughter in the West (including being sold into slavery), did not approve.
Eventually, when the administrators at her university learned of her marriage to an American, she was expelled; she was followed around by the KGB, including on public buses and into cafeterias. In 1981 she began to gather all of the proper paperwork in order to be granted permission to get a Soviet exit passport — it took one year. The most difficult hurdle was needing her father’s signature in front of a notary to allow her departure from the USSR. It was her pleas and then, finally, a bottle of vodka she purchased him that convinced him to at least visit the notary. Struggling heavily with the thought of consenting to his daughter going into the unknown, he signed the form, but then he stormed out of the notary and told her she had tricked him into going there.
In August of 1982 my mother boarded an Aeroflot flight to Canada where my father would meet her and take her to her new home in San Francisco. As a result, her brother, Sasha, lost his job in Moscow and was sent to the army where he would clear forests in a remote region of Russia for two years as punishment
When I was 6 years old, I lived in Los Angeles and loved Ninja Turtles and Peter Pan. I have a vivid memory of jumping into our apartment’s swimming pool without water wings on my arms and sinking to the bottom peacefully before being rescued. It was then, in 1991, that the Soviet Union collapsed. Everything in my mother's family city 'Unecha' fell apart. All the major processing plants were disassembled and sold. The railroads that led to what is now the Ukraine and Belarus fell to the same fate. If you could steal– you stole, which added to the high murder rate. The money that my mother’s family had saved disappeared, but they were just able to feed themselves from their small family farm-plots called dachas. Twenty years later, as the economy and private sector have stabilized and increased, some of the plants and production facilities are running again, albeit as shadows of their former selves.​​​​​​​
It has been four decades since my mother left Russia, and now I am much older than she was when she left her homeland. When visiting her family  I ride the night train from Moscow to Unecha. I have lucked out: this train is newer and has AC.
My Uncle Sasha, who now travels around Russia and inspects the wheels and undercarriages of trains, picks me up at 5 AM from the station. We don’t say much because my Russian is not very good. I rest for a few hours and wake to the smell of fried fish. Lunch starts with a shot of vodka, then fried fish, potatoes, and cucumber salad. After the meal ends, I am full of food and a lot more vodka. We step outside into the cool afternoon and walk towards my grandmother’s apartment, the same one my mother and uncle were raised in.
Unecha, has always inspired a feeling of nostalgia for me, even though I have never lived here. There is a familiarity deep in its foreignness to me. I can’t help but think about all the events that took place in order for me arrive here as a stranger: the Russian revolution and WWII (which sent my father’s side of the family first to China and then, finally, California) and my mother’s chance meeting with my father. I don’t feel like I am of this place, but I also don’t feel completely severed from it.
My grandmother’s apartment is small and railroad style, having been fitted with a gas heater, toilet, and running water only in the last decade. It is a museum of our family. Every single space on the wall is covered with photographs of her children and grandchildren. There are photographs of me that I’ve never even seen. In an instant I can see my entire childhood and young adult life. Even though she wasn’t there for it, she watched me grow up.
Sasha can barely stay awake inside her apartment. It is dark and warm in a comfortable way. I can’t stop yawning myself, so we go outside to wake ourselves up. My grandmother looks up at the sky, sizing up the clouds and the weather, deciding if she will take an ancient soviet bus to her small farm-plot in a neighboring village where she plants garden vegetables and herbs. We walk to the bus and ride it to my uncle’s house where he and I get off and she continues on alone to her farm-plot.
Three days later I pack my belongings and hug my grandmother for what may be the last time. My two uncles walk me to the train station. Fueled by my impending departure and some vodka, our interactions are lighthearted: we crack jokes in a mixture of broken English and Russian. I board the train in the few minutes before it departs. As it sits still, you can only just stare out the window at one another and wait. There is then a big jolt, and the train slowly starts creaking forward. I quickly look at Sasha and he looks back– we smile and nod goodbye, both happy and sad.
Spectral - 2019
Dedicated to the memory of my grandmother Raya Polonitskaya 
August 27, 1932 - July 7, 2019
Willow charcoal on paper and vellum
Music by Porches
The neurons within our brains are programmed to absorb information and then predict what may occur— at this fundamental level, the way we perceive “time” as a past, present, and future is an evolutionary tool for survival. It is for this reason, along with our sensory functions inability to absorb more than a microscopic portion of the events occurring in the space each of us occupies in the cosmos, that make time feel like a hard linear line moving permanently in one direction. Life and death are often synonymous with a beginning and end, yet when wood burns we do not say it dies. Its state has simply changed. As the universe ages, its entropy increases, as fire burns its entropy increases. We are all part of the same fascinating pulsating blob. Simply put, we are all in a chaotic state of constant change, there is no beginning, and there is no end.
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