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Pilgrimage to Russia

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Photo: Andrea Fazzari

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.

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