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Pilgrimage to Russia

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Photo: Andrea Fazzari

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.


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