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Pilgrimage To Russia

Posted on January 8, 2014 at 6:05 AM


By Alex Shoumatoff


I think of myself sometimes as the last of the wandering White Russians—one of the last full-blooded descendants of the so-called Russian "nobility," which was liquidated or driven into exile during and after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. All but a handful of my generation, the grandchildren of the émigrés, have been absorbed by the gene pools of our adopted lands. My two older boys are half-Brazilian, and the three younger are half-Rwandan. They will not be plagued, as I sometimes am, with a vague longing for what Nabokov called "a hospitable, remorseful, racemosa-blossoming Russia" that hasn’t existed for decades.

But now, here in Novgorod, an ancient, lovely city of 250,000 about 100 miles south of St. Petersburg, I was home. My son Nick was at my side, and we were being led by my cousin Alex Grigorov—my 21st cousin, our family lines having separated sometime back in the late 15th century—a man whose existence I’d only recently discovered and whom I’d come to Russia to meet. We crossed the bridge over the ¬Volkhov River to a long wall of white arches, which was all that was left of the old marketplace. Historically, foreign traders were only allowed to be on this side of the river. An oarsman in a scull pulled himself under the bridge, through the crystalline afternoon air, with broad, sweeping strokes. Behind the market was a cluster of onion-domed churches—the Yaroslavsky Court, which flourished from 1045 through the Middle Ages. The churches were locked; today, there aren’t enough believers to make up congregations for them.

We walked down Ilina Street, which was lined with gracious but rundown prerevolutionary houses. Novgorod was heavily bombed by the Nazis, but this side of the river is mostly intact. As we passed linden-lined side streets, it was like going back in time, to somewhere in the mid 19th century. I felt totally at ease, as if the last of the wandering White Russians had finally come back to where he belonged, to the source of his vague longing for a Russia that had not entirely vanished after all. This was where our ancestors—Alex’s, Nick’s, and mine—had ruled, and this was where they were killed.

In 1982 I wrote a book called Russian Blood. Both of my grandmothers— one living in Locust Valley, Long Island, the other in Baltimore—were in their nineties, and I wanted to get their stories about who we were back in the old country and how they had "gotten out" and established new lives in America, while there was still time. I learned that my paternal grandmother’s family, the Avinovs, had been the doges, or posadniki, of Novgorod, one of the oldest cities in Russia, from the 12th century until 1477, when Ivan III of Moscow conquered the city-state and they were put to death. One person who managed to escape into exile was Ivan Zakharievich Ovinov (the O was later changed to A). It was from this man that we were descended. We were the senior line, an unbroken succession of male Avinovs, generation after generation, that had enjoyed an exceptionally long run of about eight centuries, from before 1200 until 1949, when my great-uncle, Andrey Avinoff, who was gay, died childless. I had always thought the name died with him—until a year ago, when I received an intriguing e-mail from Moscow.

The message was from a doctor named Alex Grigorov, who had come across The New Yorker’s two-part excerpt of Russian Blood, which I had posted on my Web site, and learned of my existence. "How glad I am to learn that members of the senior branch of the Avinovs somewhere have survived," he wrote. Grigorov explained that he was also a historian, and had been working on a history of the Avinovs for several years, and that the two of us were distantly related: he, too, was descended from Ivan Zakharievich Ovinov, but his line had changed its name a few generations after Ivan’s escape. We were 21st cousins, our two lines having diverged when Ivan Zakharievich had children, sometime around 1477.

Grigorov said that he had collected the names of more than 3,000 Avinovs so far. Eighteen hundred of them were still alive, scattered all over Russia. Grigorov told me about his research into the Ovinovskaya Icon, which two angels were said to have given to one of the Avinovs in the early 15th century. He also sent me a list of 29 Avinovs who had been killed by Stalin in the 1930’s, including my great-uncle Andrey’s brother Nika, who had remained in Russia, and complicated genealogical charts of Avinovs cascading down the centuries that were a study in the lottery of survival. So many had been picked off by war or disease or had failed to reproduce for other reasons. Many more lines, actual and potential, had been extinguished than had carried on. That Grigorov and I, two Alexes, had run the genealogical gauntlet and found each other across an ocean through the illusory medium of cyberspace seemed perfectly amazing.

After a flurry of subsequent e-mails, Grigorov and I decided to meet and tour the ancestral sites together. I flew to Moscow with my second son, Nick, 25 years old and eager to connect with his Russian side. We spotted Grigorov standing at the exit of Sheremetyevo Airport with a sign: SHOUMATOFF. He was a bearded, balding, bespectacled 40-year-old with a gold upper incisor, obviously a member of the intelligentsia; he looked like a Russian D. H. Lawrence. Grigorov had a grueling itinerary planned for the next 10 days. He was like a man obsessed. He wanted to show us everything, to transmit everything he knew.

In Moscow, we went to the Scherbatovsky Palace. It’s now a concert hall at the Bolshoi Theater; before the Revolution it was where my great-uncle Nika and his wife, Masha, lived. Soon they would be sharing it with dozens of other comrades. Nika could have gotten out with the rest of the family, but he was sympathetic to the Revolution’s professed goal of eliminating social injustice and stayed to do his part for the new Soviet state. He designed coal-fired power plants for the accelerated industrialization program and was rewarded for his patriotism by being executed, on December 10, 1937.

Grigorov had learned the details from the KGB’s archives, some of which were opened after the collapse of Communism. He led us to the apartment on Povarskaya Street where Nika was arrested by Stalin’s secret police. Then we took a train to Butovo, outside Moscow’s city limits, where, two weeks later, he had been shot by a firing squad, one of the million killed during 1937 and 1938—a forgotten footnote among the 20 million Russians that Stalin is estimated to have killed. "Somewhere here lies your Nika," Grigorov said, as we wandered in a field crisscrossed with the ditches the condemned had dug to be thrown into—more than 20,000 in all. Roses had been planted there. We lit a candle in a small log church that had been built on the site for the deceased, including eight members of Grigorov’s own family. I collected some dirt in a plastic bag to bury beside Nika’s brother and sister in our family plot on Long ¬Island.

The descendants of our exiled common ancestor, Ivan Zakharievich Ovinov, gradually made something of themselves, and in the 17th century they were given an estate by one of the czars in the province of Kasimov, 150 miles southeast of Moscow. I rented a car and drove out there by myself. Nick had met a beautiful young Russian woman at our hotel and wanted to stay in Moscow, and Grigorov had to work. My cousin had been the head of the department of resuscitation in a hospital, but after perestroika he was only being paid $60 a month, and so, adapting to the new reality, he went into private practice treating narkomani, drug addicts. He had more business than he could handle.

The road to Kasimov ran for 50 miles through a deep forest of pine and white birch. Every 100 yards I saw a kerchiefed babushka sitting behind a basket full of chanterelle mushrooms, and jars of blueberries and raspberries. I passed through one village after another of centuries-old izbas, log huts with intricately stenciled, gaily painted gingerbread window casings. Kasimov itself proved to be a sleepy provincial town of 35,000 on the banks of the Oka River, visited only by the occasional busload of German tourists, and little changed since the 19th century, with beautiful 300-year-old churches whose gleaming gold cupolas caught the sun, and columned prerevolutionary mansions and bureaucratic buildings.

Descendants of the Tatars who invaded in the 14th century still live in Kasimov (some Muslim, some Christian, some atheist), and a community of gypsies has been here for generations, and everyone gets along, I was told by the delegation of local officials that welcomed me. In the morning I was taken to a high school that had a tiny museum celebrating the career of my great-great-grandfather, Admiral Alexander Pavlovich Avinov (1786–1854), one of Kasimov’s most illustrious native sons. Distinguished military careers are the rare thing from the czarist period that kept their luster through Communism and perestroika.

The next day, Nick and I caught the overnight sleeper train from Moscow to Galich, 250 miles away. In the 14th century, Galich was more important than Moscow, but it has fallen on hard times and is now like a depressed town in upstate New York. Half of the buildings are derelict. Thousands of villages in Russia have been abandoned in recent years, and the population has been shrinking by a million a year because no one can afford to have children, Grigorov told me. But six of Galich’s 60 churches have been restored since perestroika and are full of resplendent icons encrusted with precious stones and silver, recycled from jewelry that locals, believing they had been cured by the icons, had given in gratitude over the centuries. The icons were hidden by the faithful during the Communist years.

We went to the Paisiev Monastery, built by my relatives on their land in the 14th century, and saw the Ovinovskaya Icon, which depicts the Virgin and Child, with Galich in the background. The icon disappeared during the Revolution and was found in the woods by some children in the 1940’s and placed in another church in town, where, three years ago, Grigorov saw and identified it and returned it to the monastery. The monastery itself was newly restored. Five years earlier it had been a ruin with chickens running in and out of it. There are 20,000 churches in Russia, a priest in Galich told me; the main task of the country’s remaining clergy has become restoration.

In St. Petersburg, we visited the Voskresensky Novodevichy Convent, also being restored—a huge, magnificent complex on Moskovsky Prospect. Grigorov took us to Admiral Avinov’s grave, a monument draped with an anchor and chain. His wife and five of their 10 children were buried around him, but the children’s headstones had been made off with (Grigorov knew this because he had found a plan of the cemetery). He told us that he loved nothing better than to spend hours in archives, poring over obscure documents. "It isn’t just my hobby, it’s a kind of personal mission," he explained. "The archives stop at 1918, so there’s a gap of 70 years. Eighty percent of Russians don’t know anything about their family history. They want to connect with previous generations, but they can’t."

Suddenly, it started to rain. It almost seemed as if our ancestors were trying to communicate, in a liquid shower of applause, their gratitude to us for remembering them. All these people live on in us, I said to Nick, and he said he was going to have "Avinov" tattooed in Cyrillic on his arm.

I had been in Novgorod once before, 25 years earlier, when I was researching Russian Blood. The local historian had been floored to meet an actual descendant of the posadniki. But that had been a quick visit, at a time when it was not a good idea to ask too many questions about the czarist past. This time, there were no such restrictions.

Novgorod’s story begins in 862, when a Viking named Rurik, who belonged to a tribe called Rus—hence Russia—was invited by the local people to put order into their lives. According to family legend, one of the three men who went to Sweden to get Rurik was an Avinov, but the verifiable family tree doesn’t start until the 12th century, with a man named Misha, who became one of Novgorod’s rulers. By 1136 Novgorod had become a boyar republic and one of the most influential city-states in Europe. It belonged to the Hanseatic League, along with Cologne and other cities on the Rhine. Ships came sailing up the Volkhov River from Holland and England to trade for amber and furs. At its height Novgorod spread north from St. Petersburg into what is now Finland, even up to the White Sea, its influence extending east beyond Vologda and as far west as Pskov—covering a good part of modern-day European Russia. This area contained some 200 estates belonging to boyars, or noblemen, from among whom a group of posadniki were elected. Misha and his descendants, who were known as the Mishinichi, were head posadniki.


In time the Mishinichi acquired the surname Ovinov, which eventually became Avinov. Grigorov took us to Pruskaya Street, where Misha had lived, and we walked along the crest of an earthen wall from where, in 1170, the city repelled an invasion by neighboring Suz¬dalians, supposedly zapping them with the powerful Znamensky Icon, for which a special church was later built: the frescoes were commissioned by our 14th-century ancestor Felix Ovinov.

We proceeded into Novgorod’s kremlin, a 30-acre inner city surrounded by a high, thick brick wall with periodic guard towers, plus a moat on three sides and the Volkhov River on the fourth—some of the most advanced and formidable fortifications of the time in this part of the world. The main attraction inside the kremlin’s walls is the Cathedral of St. Sophia. In its dim, high-vaulted, candlelit interior, babushkas were prostrating themselves before the Znamensky Icon, which was moved here from its own church in the 20th century. We saw a 14th-century bronze door on one side of the cathedral, blackened by the centuries, with embossed panels representing various important people and events. The panel in the lower right corner depicts a centaur turning back and firing an arrow. This, Grigorov said, was Felix Ovinov.

A hundred and fifty yards from the cathedral, under the kremlin wall, was a yard where Felix’s great-nephews Zakhary and Kusma were decapitated by an angry mob in 1477 (Zakhary was the father of Ivan, Grigorov’s and my common ancestor). Ivan III was about to descend on Novgorod, and the mob wanted the head posadniki to ask the Lithuanians for military help, but the two brothers wanted to negotiate. This was the beginning of the end of Novgorod’s independence.

On the other side of the cathedral was the museum, which has a monumental collection of medieval icons, many of them four or five feet high. Not far off was the 17th-century Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign.

This is a place for churches: we visited the Yurievsky Monastery, whose cupolas, on tall white towers, you can see from the bridge, gleaming five miles upriver. To Nick they seemed like rocket ships ready to take off to paradise. The flatness of the landscape was broken every five miles or so by one of these celestial launchpads.

Near the monastery was the Vitoslavlitsy Museum of Wooden Architecture, to which centuries-old log churches, masterpieces of wooden construction, some four stories high with seamless dovetailed corners, and beautiful log izbas had been moved from the surrounding villages. We took a boat trip up to Lake Ilmen, passing Gorodische, the original settlement where Rurik was welcomed (hence Novgorod—the "new city" that he founded). The banks were crowded with willows, white terns swooped and dived after fish, and fishermen in inflatable rafts snoozed at their poles.

We visited the outlying Khutynsky and Viazhischsky monasteries—the former on the site of a viper den (the snakes were expelled by a saint who attracted so many pilgrims that he had to turn bread crumbs into loaves), the latter nestled in beautiful woods. Our last stop was Kolmovsky Monastery, a nice but not particularly impressive place of worship next to the abandoned psychiatric wing of the main hospital. But this was where Zakhary, Kusma, Yuri, Grigory, Mikhail—the whole clan—were buried. Somewhere in the overgrowth between the church and the river is where our people lie, Grigorov told me.

"Now I have shown you everything I wanted to," he said when we returned to the hotel. The last I saw of my dear, long-lost cousin, who had really put himself out for us, reconnected us with our severed rootskis, was him hurrying to the train station with his Adidas bag slung over his shoulder, at his customary double-time clip. Our distant lines had briefly intersected, and now we two Alexes were going our separate ways, resuming our lives in the very different countries where the lottery of life had cast us. I wondered if we would ever see each other again. But even if we didn’t, we would be comparing notes for the rest of our days. We had become part of each other’s story.


Article originally from Travel and Leisure

Categories: Europe

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