The Denied Home



It’s the idea that connects people all over the world. Some live in their home all their lives, while some lose their home and are forced to find a new one. However, the most unfortunate grow up without a home altogether. As I’ve found out, my paternal grandmother Zoya belongs to the latter category.

Even though I’ve known my grandmother Zoya my whole life, I’ve never really asked her about her youth. I was only aware that, after the Russian Revolution, her family, like many others, was forced to move all over the country to escape persecution. As a result, I felt a little nervous when my grandmother called me on Skype to start the interview.

Truth be told, I didn’t expect that call. I was planning on calling her next morning, not on a dark and quiet San Francisco evening. Needless to say, the change in schedule didn’t calm me down.  Nevertheless, my nervousness subsided when I saw my grandmother. She was energetic as always, her gray hair cut short and contrasting with her dark eyebrows and olive skin.

She sat in front of her computer, diffused morning sunshine traveling through the curtains and lighting up her living room in Volgograd, with a big, ornamented carpet visible on the opposing wall. Even though I couldn’t feel it, I knew that it was much colder in Volgograd than in San Francisco, despite the sunlight suggesting the opposite.

In the beginning, we just made small talk in Russian. I asked my grandmother about her wellbeing and found out the reason for the change in schedule that it was simply more convenient for granny Zoya. Then the interview started.

To start the interview, I asked my granny about her father. I knew little about him, except that he fought against the communists in the Russian Civil War and for that had to travel far away from big cities to avoid pursuit by Soviet officials.

“He was a White officer, but when they lost he joined the Red Army until he retired in 1925,” she said.

That sentence caught me off-guard as it contradicted what I fought I knew about my great-grandfather. After all, he not only was an army officer, but also managed to switch sides, an undoubtedly difficult move considering that the Red Army was a communist force, while Whites were patriotic anti-Communists, which made them the biggest enemies during the Russian Civil War. While a simple soldier could have changed sides relatively easily, the officers had more power and were thus assumed to be more loyal to the cause, meaning it was harder for them to be accepted by the other side.

“He worked as an accountant,” she continued, “because he was educated. He had to, to be an officer in the White Army.”

She explained to me why her father had to run. “It was dangerous to be a former White officer. When you went to work, you sent your papers to Cheka [USSR’s security force]. When they checked then and learnt you were a former White officer, they chased you. So we had to move all the time. We lived in Noviy Oskol, and Kursk, and Karmak, and Nijni Tagil ….”

Here granny listed many places in Ural, some of which I knew, but most didn’t. Grandmother was unsure how long they stayed in one place, but she thought it varied from a couple of months to a year.

I felt a great sympathy towards my grandmother, as well as doubt about how I myself would have lived through that situation. I tried to imagine a life like that, always on the run, afraid that the next time you would be too late to move and you would be imprisoned and your family left with no way to support itself, but I knew that everything I imagined was just a shade of the real experience my grandmother and many others had to live through.

My grandmother explained to me that, while her father’s former position as an officer made them refugees, his talents allowed them to survive. “He was educated and had really neat handwriting,” she said. “At the time it was really rare; most people were ignorant and uneducated, especially in villages. So my father wrote letters for them to the government. They liked him for that and that’s why, when the papers arrived asking for him to come for questioning, they would always tell him and we were able to safely escape.”

Luckily, her father survived the pursuit. “In 1940, he travelled to Moscow to plead for the end of persecution. He was admitted to Kalinin [important Soviet functionary], who signed the papers that allowed my father to work freely. Thanks to that, we were able to settle in Talica.”

Unfortunately, her story didn’t end on that happy note. “We lived in Talica until 1947, when my mother died. Then we travelled to Belorusia to our relatives, but my father was sick with tuberculosis and died soon after, in 1949. On the bright side, we weren’t really affected by WWII, as we were far from the battlefront.” Grandma smiled, trying to put a positive spin on her misfortunes.

I was shaken by this, as even though I knew that my granny’s parents died when she was young, I didn’t know the details and was extremely surprised by grandmother’s fortitude, calmly discussing such extremely traumatic events and even finding strength to smile about the small successes. Still, I continued the interview and asked her about some details. “Do you remember when the persecution started?” I asked.

“It started before I was born,” she replied. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you much, but I was just too young to remember most of it. My elder brother could have told more, because he was born three years earlier.” Suddenly, that sentence ignited her memory. “He was born in 1927, and it must have been just when we became refugees. Yes, it all started in 1927 and ended in 1940, when I was six, soon after my younger brother was born in Karmak.”

I later found out that the start of the family’s persecution wasn’t accidental, even though it came after the end of Civil War in Russia. That year corresponded with the rise of Joseph Stalin to power as a leader of the Soviet Union. He was famous for his paranoia and tendency to repress everyone he fought was against him, so it certainly made sense to start with those known to disagree with the USSR policies.

Finally, I asked my grandmother whether she had anything from her time as a refugee.

“How could I? We were too poor,” she remarked. “We had only what we could carry, just clothes and pillows and beddings. Even if we had kept anything, we would have had nowhere to put it. In Karmak, we lived five people in a single room.”

Still, she ended the interview on a high note. “It became much better when we settled in Talica. Even though there was war going on, we had a cow and chickens and gave their milk and eggs to help the army during WWII.”

The interview provided me with a lot to reflect on. My grandmother spent her early childhood on the run, with no place to call home and no possessions to treasure. Remembering her first real home filled her with joy, despite her stay there ending in tragedy. However, even today many are forced to live the same way my grandmother once did, lacking any home and unsure whether they’ll ever find one. The testimonies of witnesses such as my grandmother reveal not only the tragedy of children born and raised without a home, but also the ease with which just one signed paper can bring salvation to whole families.

Welcome to Hollywood


At 7:45pm, I arrived at the Taft residence, excited to begin the interview. I knew this would be an easy interview for me because Vladimir, a former Russian citizen, is the father of Ben Taft, one of my best friends from school. I used to visit the Taft house every weekend when I was in middle school, but when Ben switched high schools (to the Menlo School), we began to spend less time with each other. This would be a great time to catch up.

I rang the doorbell and was greeted by Rasia Taft, Ben’s mom. She gave me a warm hug and welcomed me into the kitchen. I felt at ease by now.

I explained to Vlad, “Do not worry about answering the questions abruptly. Just respond with whatever you like. I’d love any information you give me.”

We sat down at the dining room table and began the interview.

We sat across from each other, still very close, as I asked, “When and where were you born in Russia?”

“I was born in Moscow in 1953,” he said, “but back then, it was the Soviet Union, not Russia. It was a tough place to live.”

I acknowledged his answer. I remarked, “It must have been rough living there during the Cold War, right?”
“Correct,” he responded. “Luckily, I was ten years old when I first decided I wanted to leave the Soviet Union, and I had just became a pioneer, the Russian equivalent to a boy scout!” He was very excited on the matter.

“Fantastic!” I responded. I then asked, “So if 10 was the first age you wanted to leave, at what age did you act upon the matter?”

This question seemed difficult for him. He leaned forward in his chair and put his hands on his head thinking. I fixed my posture as I was slouching for the duration of the interview.

“I had just received my degree from the university in the Soviet Union, and I asked my father to help me receive an exit-visa, for I wanted to begin a new life outside of the Union.”

“What made you want to leave so spontaneously?”

“It wasn’t spontaneous,” he retorted. “I had been waiting to leave since I was ten. The oppression of the people was disgusting to me, and I wanted to live in a place where I had freedom. Plus my Aunt Miriam was in New York at the time, so I knew I would have family there waiting for me.”

I was impressed by his answers.

“How did you get your exit-visa?”

He responded, “My father helped me get the document because he was the head of the Academy of Sciences and on the board of the university. Unfortunately, he knew and I knew that if he signed my visa, he would lose his position on the board, which was emotionally and mentally challenging for him.”

I frowned and slouched back into the chair, taking this in for a moment. I then asked, “What made him go through with it, knowing he would lose his position?”

Vladimir explained, “Well, he knew that family came first, and he knew I wanted to start fresh in a different country. So after some turmoil, he agreed to sign them. So I applied for my visa in 1978 and received it a year later in 1979.”

I took a short break to write down notes. I admired his father’s courage and will to help his son succeed.

I finished the notes and asked him, “Where was the first place you arrived in America?”

He riposted, “Well, actually I had to stay in a small town near Rome, Italy, for two years before I could make the journey to America. Luckily after two years, my father’s colleague, who was the head of the department for immigration, signed paperwork and got it processed and I was on my way.”

I wondered, “So did you arrive in Ellis Island or where?”

“Well, actually,” he began, “It was simply JFK airport in New York with a connecting flight to Los Angeles.”

We both laughed over that. Vlad is a genuinely funny person.

“Was it hard making the move to Los Angeles?”

“Of course. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my entire life.”

He took a pause, probably reflecting on the situation he had been in. I gave him some time to think and formulate an answer. He straightened himself in the chair and continued, “When you leave Russia, it is almost like a psychological attack on yourself. They stripped me of my citizenship. They told me I would never be able to come back, never to see my family, friends, childhood pals, etc. They gave me two minutes to change my mind before I left. But obviously I did not change my mind. I withdrew 1000 dollars, which was the maximum amount, and left.”

I took a minute to explode through notes. He had so much to say, but I didn’t want to keep him waiting.

“What was it like when you arrived?”

He explained, “When I arrived in Los Angeles, it was like landing on Mars. Everything was completely different from Moscow, and my English was near terrible. I could read and write but not understand spoken language at all.”

I continued once more, “Did you have anyone in Los Angeles with you to support you?”

He quickly answered, “Luckily, I had a family sponsoring me and helping me stay afloat in tough Los Angeles life. The father of the family was Phillip Harter, who now works at Stanford researching medicine. The Harter family saved me for the first eight weeks, giving me a home and directions to a city radically different than Moscow.”

“What did you do after those eight weeks?” I was curious.

“I actually began my time at the University of California at Los Angeles. I studied there for two years then took an academic leave to stay in a job with the future co-founder of IBM. He gave me a choice. He said I could stay at UCLA and receive my PhD or travel with him to Sunnyvale and work for his company. I moved up to Sunnyvale, and I have lived up in the Bay Area ever since. That was 1982.”

My final question: “Did you or do you have any regrets with leaving your entire family in the then-Soviet Union, or do you think it was worth it?”

He took a second to take it in. He then responded, “At the beginning, I didn’t think it was worth it because I had left my entire family and friends from Russia, but over time I realized how important it was to leave. I now have no regrets, because It has been wonderful for myself to start a family, and wonderful for my kids to have opportunities.”

I concluded the interview with a handshake and a warm hug from both Vladimir and Raisa. I learned so much from the night, and I promised I would be back soon. My first-hand experience with Vladimir provided me with some sympathy for all refugees around the world leaving their families in an effort to better themselves and their life.