My Priceless, Intangible Legacy

My English surname conceals my Russian background. Father was from Kentucky, but Mother came to the United States from Russia when she was 16. Her Russian heritage became mine, enriching my life in numerous ways.

Each morning, when I look in the mirror, I recall my grandfather. He was a businessman who introduced the American razor to the czar's army. So grateful was the razor company that, when the Russian Revolution took place, it sheltered my mother in America and paid her college and graduate-school expenses.

Of all the world's literatures, I feel closest to the Russian, though I speak not a word of it. Chekhov is my favorite writer. I read and reread his short stories and plays. Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is my favorite novel. Chekhov describes a wretched train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg, saved only by reading "dear sweet Anna." I feel the same about Anna.

Mine was a third-generation trip to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's estate southwest of Moscow. In 1909, Grandfather spent several days visiting Tolstoy. To make the gramophone better known in Russia, Grandfather recorded the voices of major writers, Tolstoy among them. Profits from the recordings were turned over to the Artistic Club in Moscow.

Mother was at Yasnaya Polyana in 1964, and I visited in 1973, a year after her death. In the study was the gramophone Grandfather presented to Tolstoy.

In my living room hangs a drawing of Tolstoy with an inscription to Grandfather. Tolstoy is a presence as I read his works and those of other Russian writers.

On a recent bicycle trip in Russia, I stayed with Russian families. Our conversations soon turned to Pushkin. I told my hosts about Mother reciting Pushkin's poetry to my sister and me as children.

On this trip I saw several statues of Pushkin. At each lay fresh flowers. No other poet, anywhere, is so honored.

In Pushkin's house in St. Petersburg is a book-lined study. On his desk is an inkstand with a figure of a black man, a reminder of his African origins. Following his duel, the mortally wounded Pushkin lay in this room. Turning to the books, he said, "Farewell, my friends."

My Russian inheritance is more rewarding than any tangible wealth. It has opened my life to a wider world without making me feel less American.

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