This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. This photograph was taken seven years before “the events that shook the world,” in a studio in a Ukrainian town with the consonant-crammed and barely pronounceable name of Medzhybizh—a center of Jewish culture since the sixteen-hundreds and the site of several bloody pogroms over the centuries. This is a photograph of my father (on the lower right, his hand on his mother’s knee) and his family, taken on the eve of their long journey to America. It’s a grim and deeply poignant family portrait. Nobody is smiling. The sad trompe-l’oeil backdrop, with its flimsy illusion of prosperity, is thoroughly undermined by the random wooden board that encroaches at left.
The photograph was undoubtedly made for the one left behind—my father’s grandmother. That’s her in the white babushka, with her gnarled fingers caught in mid-fidget on her lap. Her expression is absent and sad, eyes gazing in two directions, as if she is looking simultaneously at a past filled with family and a future with none. Or maybe she is just bewildered by the whole photography thing, since it’s possible that this was the first time she had ever seen a camera. My great-grandmother appears to be in her sixties or seventies, meaning she had lived through the Crimean War, the emancipation of the serfs, the pogroms that followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the devastating famine of the early eighteen-nineties, the Russo-Japanese War, the revolution of 1905. When I look at her, I experience something that I first experienced as a boy, on a field trip organized by the American Museum of Natural History to visit the oldest tree in New York City, planted, we were told, around the time the Dutch purchased Manhattan from the Lenape. When I touched the bark of that tree, I felt the thrilling sensation of time travel—of being in direct, tangible contact with the distant past.
Throughout my father’s life, he maintained an impenetrable silence about his past, refusing to volunteer any information about his childhood in the shtetl, his time living as an impoverished immigrant in Brooklyn, or virtually anything at all about his family. His mother, my grandmother, lived a mere subway ride away until her death, when I was ten, but I never met her. My grandfather, who is absent from the photograph, is a total mystery; all my father ever said about him was that he “wasn’t a good provider.” (He might as well have called him a serial killer.) I know the names of my father’s brothers, but little else. His sister visited now and then, but almost never when I was around.
A few years after the family settled in Williamsburg, my father cut ties. I never found out the cause of the break—when my father didn’t want to talk about something, he simply didn’t answer. You got the message: don’t ask. Questioning my mother was useless; she would look away and tell me to ask my father. What I did know was that my father was driven by a fierce desire to assimilate. All he ever wanted was to be an American and make his fortune in the shining city on the Hudson. While still a teen-ager, my father moved to Manhattan and never looked back. Every time I glance at the family photograph—these days, it hangs above the desk where I draw and write—and encounter my father’s serious, determined, five-year-old face, I imagine that I can see that single-minded intention to escape already decided.
I discovered the photograph when I was eleven, during a snooping expedition when my parents were out to dinner. It was hidden in an old hat box in the back of a closet. This was at the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union seemed poised to bomb America—and me personally—out of existence. My response to scary stuff has always been to hit the books. I began spending time at the Amsterdam Avenue branch of the New York Public Library, reading everything I could find about Russia and the Communists. (My other favorite research topics were the Mafia and the Nazis.) I was captivated by the story of the Revolution—the hapless Tsar, the crazy monk who was killed five times and still wouldn’t die, the protests and riots and blood in the streets, the fiery orators, the cruel and murderous Bolsheviks, the heartless assassination of the Romanovs and the possible survival of Princess Anastasia, the evil tyrants Lenin and Stalin, their ruthless, all-powerful secret police known as the Cheka (later the K.G.B.), the brutal civil war with Reds versus Whites. I read whatever I could find about pogroms and marauding Cossacks and forced conscription into the Tsar’s army—anything that might explain the long faces in the family portrait.
As I continued to read about Russia in high school, history became my obsession. This pleased my father to no end, especially since my other boyhood obsession, drawing cartoons, infuriated him to no end. Defying my father was unthinkable, so when it came time to apply to college, my fantasy of going to art school remained just that. In college, I majored in Russian history and confined my funny drawings to the margins of my notebooks. In my senior year, I produced a three-hundred-page thesis titled “Dynamics of Futility—Dilemmas of Political Authority in Russia, 1861 to 1917.” As graduation approached, in June of 1968, the terror of the draft left me with little choice—I opted for an educational deferment and the safe, familiar refuge of academia. I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, that fall and began a master’s program in the Department of Soviet Studies. My father was overjoyed. His own education ended in the fifth grade, but now he could tell anyone who would listen that his son was going to Harvard.
At Harvard, for the first time in my life, academics became a struggle. Antiwar demonstrations, free tabs of LSD every Sunday on the Cambridge Common, women (I had attended an all-male college)—all were successfully competing for my attention. The one course that held my interest covered the student revolutionary movements of the nineteenth century. (I wrote a paper on a group that proselytized free love.) I made it to most of my classes, but the funny drawings were spilling over the margins now, sometimes obliterating the lecture notes. By the end of first semester, I was feeling trapped in the wrong life.
Even so, I looked forward to a second-semester course on the Revolution, taught by the eminent historian who had attracted me to the program. A week before classes began, however, a note in my mailbox informed me that he would not be teaching the course. No reason was given. His replacement was an unknown (at least to me) historian, on leave from a university in Yugoslavia.
The replacement professor—wearing a gray suit, white shirt, and narrow black tie—loped into the first class of the semester and dropped a huge loose-leaf binder onto the desk. He was tall and gaunt, with short, spiky gray hair, a large forehead, prominent cheekbones, a thin, dark mouth, and small, pointy ears. He wrote his name on the board and then, in a heavy Eastern European accent, said, “Welcome to course on Russian Revolution. This will be lecture course only—means, no questions.”
Hands shot up. “I repeat once again,” he intoned, “rule is, no questions. Be sure to take excellent notes.” He ran his palm across the cover of the binder, as if he were stroking a cat. Then he flipped it open and began to read.
His authoritarian teaching style immediately earned him the nickname Uncle Joe. For the next twelve weeks, he droned on uninterrupted, advancing his theory that economic factors were the root cause of the Russian Revolution, and every other major event in human history. No great-man theory for Uncle Joe. He inundated us with statistics about the size of kulak land holdings and tonnage of steel produced in Ukraine between 1900 and 1917. The reading list was as dry as an actuarial table.
At noon before the last class of the semester, a group of us met at the Hong Kong restaurant, in Harvard Square, to discuss what to do about Uncle Joe. This was the year 1969, after all. We decided to force him to answer a question—any one would do. We cut cards. I can still see the three of clubs that won me the job. So, that afternoon, as Uncle Joe closed his binder for the last time, everyone in the class turned and looked my way. I sheepishly raised my hand and said that I had a question. Uncle Joe ignored me.
“Louder!” one of my classmates hissed.
“Professor!” another demanded. “Someone has a question.”
Uncle Joe turned and stared at me. Then he looked down at his list of students and asked, “You are Mr. Sipress, no?” I nodded. “I think your question must be very urgent, Mr. Sipress, to break the rule.” I nodded again. “O.K.,” he said, “in that case, proceed.”
Having never believed that things would reach this point, I hadn’t bothered to prepare an actual question. I said the first thing that came into my head: “Anti-Semitism, Professor,” I began, “I have noticed that you never mention anti-Semitism—you know, under the Romanovs—the pogroms and such. Do you think that the history of anti-Semitism played a major role in shaping the course of the Revolution?”
Uncle Joe raised his eyes to the ceiling. Then he grabbed some chalk and quickly wrote a list of books on the blackboard. “Please read these, Mr. Sipress,” he said, his back still turned. “All are excellent for your purposes.” He picked up his binder and walked out the door.
That night, a few of us held a party to celebrate our victory over Uncle Joe. After two hours of bong hits and Boone’s Farm, something strange happened. Several of my classmates in Soviet studies started coming out about their secret identities. One was Air Force Intelligence. Another disclosed that he was “affiliated with law enforcement” and “here on the government’s dime.” Three others exchanged sly smiles and said they worked for a government agency that they were not at liberty to name. As I stumbled home that night, I asked myself over and over, “What the hell am I doing here?”
I spent the next two weeks studying my excellent notes. Uncle Joe’s exam was held in a large lecture hall where several other finals were happening. Professors wandered up and down the aisles looking for their students. Uncle Joe smiled when he spotted me, something I had never seen him do before. My stomach did a back flip. As he placed a blue book with the exam tucked inside it on my desk, he said, “Mr. Sipress. Because you are so urgently interested in the question of anti-Semitism, and have no doubt done the reading I have recommended”—he tapped the blue book with his forefinger—“this is special examination, just for you, entirely on that subject.” He smiled again and walked away.
My fingers and toes went numb. For a moment, I thought that I might faint. Once I collected myself, I picked up my book bag and left. I was free—my graduate school career was over.
Three months later, I received my draft notice; thanks to a sympathetic psychiatrist, I scored a richly deserved psychological deferment. Not long after that, my first published cartoon appeared in the local alternative paper. My father was very angry. Eventually, he got over it, although twenty years later he was still asking me, “Do you think you might some day go back to your Russian history?”
Ironically, in 2017, I have gone back to Russian history. These days Russia is once again posing existential threats, with cyber warfare, election meddling, and fake news. Russia is once again ruled by a tsar—twenty-first-century style—a former Communist secret policeman who has zero interest in acknowledging the anniversary of the Revolution. And that anniversary, along with Putin and all the rest, has me once again hitting the books. In Victor Sebestyen’s superb biography of Lenin, “Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror,” I came across the startling, reverse-anachronistic factoid that Putin’s grandfather was Lenin’s cook; it’s the kind of thing that makes me feel that the past is sneaking up on us, that the events that shook the world a hundred years ago—or terrified it fifty or sixty years ago—are shaking it again.
Not unexpectedly, my reading has me thinking as much about my own country as about Russia. I get a shiver when, for example, I read about Lenin’s cynical use of populism to further his authoritarian agenda, of his willingness to say or do anything to further his ends (including the exact opposite of what he intends), his exploitation of the worst reactionary and violent instincts of his supporters, his impatience with, and disdain for, representative democracy and the rule of law, his branding of those who criticized him in print as “enemies of the people,” his hatred of liberalism, his ability to take and hold power with the support of only a narrow segment of the population, and, above all, his playing fast and loose with the truth until truth itself lost all meaning. Every time I watch a reporter attempt to get to the truth about something, only to be rebuffed with propagandist obfuscation, or a cutoff with that familiar phrase, “no questions,” I swallow hard.
Of course, the Trump Administration is no dictatorship of the proletariat. And Trump is no Lenin or Stalin—those guys were smart, educated, physically fit mass murderers. But he does seem to be half in love with the grandson of Lenin’s cook.
This year, two descendants of my father’s siblings have sent me Facebook messages, wanting to make contact. I haven’t replied. Perhaps I’m turning into my father. Or maybe I’ve decided that I don’t want to know more. At the very end of his life, my father began to open up a little about the distant past. One afternoon, he told me that his house in Medzhybizh had a dirt floor, but it was always “clean as a whistle.” He said that his mother worked day and night, taking in sewing, just to “keep a little food on the table.” “Life was tough,” he told me. “But everybody helped out. And you were never lonely.” Then he described the pride he felt watching his mother refuse to take no for answer when an official at Ellis Island threatened to send the family back to Russia because one of her sons was a “hunchback” (as you can just make out in the photo—the boy on the left). “She was so brave,” he said, smiling, his eyes shut tight behind the thick lenses of his bifocals. “She was like a queen to me.”
Not long after my father died, in 1999, I was looking up at the Medzhybizh photograph, and came up with this cartoon, later published in The New Yorker: