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Kaleidoscope for Nastya

Nastya is seven, and she wants to learn something about the history of our family, but not just as a sequence of events. She wants something bright and memorable. And she is right. History as a string of happenings and dates is extremely boring. She prefers a good yarn, like the time when I was still a babe in arms and fell out of my bed and broke grandfather’s spittoon with my head. The spittoon was smashed to bits. It seems my head was harder. That was the first time in my life that I took a fall—but, of course, not the last.

The Grandparents’ Love Stories

My forefathers were not quite
The same: a rabbi and a knight.
One was a hero of his time,
By way of drinking seas of wine,
The other sought his inspiration
In sacred books and contemplation.

                   Alexander Tokarev

Because of an outrageous cocktail of heritages, fates, and somersaults in the history of the twentieth century, the only god left for my family was Apollo, the god of the arts. Once at the Odessa Art School I played the part of Apollo in an amateur film production. There was a scrawny “god” sporting a corn silk wig and swimming trunks with a maple leaf attached to them for some reason. He ran down some old corridors and embraced the antique statues.

Both of my parents are brilliant and yet very different artists. Art provides an endless source of argument. Even though my father has been gone half a year, the dialogue continues by means of Papa’s canvasses, discoveries, and missteps.

They both studied at the Leningrad Fine Arts’ Academy, and they both had something to hide from the Soviet authorities. My father’s aristocratic origins as well as my mother’s rabbinical lineage were taboo items. Many years later my father would recall how they lived in their Teterki village on the Krasivya Mechi river in the Tula district. My grandmother would gallop headlong to visit her cousins who lived on the neighbouring estate. Wearing an Amazon riding outfit she would spur the black steed that grandfather had given her, and the peasants’ grins would follow along. “Alexandra is hightailing it somewhere again!”

Grandma was devoted to her siblings but most of all to her cousin Vera. She even got married because of her. When Granddad Vassili, who was 25 years older, proposed to her, Grandma agreed at once because Vera was marrying his brother. There were two weddings in one day. Grandma thought she and Verochka would never part!

But in 1924 they did part. Granddad and his family had to abandon the estate, and they set out for Moscow with 70 horse-drawn carriages bearing all their essentials. He had decided to set up his own hauling firm. But he didn’t have much of a head for business, and in any case his timing was not quite right. The NEP soon ended, and business ended with it. For about a year Granddad worked as a groundskeeper at the Union of Writers, and then because of his aristocratic background, he was exiled from Moscow along with the family.

He did not survive these troubles. Grandma was forced to forget about the beautiful Amazon outfit and worked the day shift at the collective farm. By this time Papa was already a student at the Ryazan College of Arts and had won a part in the film “Ranks and People” directed by Yakov Protazanov. He played the heroine’s brother, a student who shed tears and pleaded with his father to stop drinking.

When I was in my thirties I quite accidentally happened to see that silent movie on television. Papa by that time was well over sixty. I was struck by realisation that he had hardly changed at all.

My other grandmother, my mother’s mom, lived in Balta. She was seventeen when she met my grandfather. He proposed to her with an open heart and was unequivocally rejected, because he was far too old for her (that is, ten years older) and besides was a widower raising a child. None of this fitted in with my grandmother’s idea of a happy marriage. So he pulled out his pistol and declared that if she wouldn’t marry him, he would shoot her and then himself. Grandmother was frightened and gave in.

They lived a long and difficult, but overall happy, life full of caring for each other.

Grandpa ran a penny newspaper in Odessa called the “Odessa Leaflet”. His press would put out subversive pieces, and later he served as a commissar in Kotovsky’s squadron. In the early 50s his former brothers-in-arms would drop in to go over the memories of their heroic exploits. For whatever reason, they all smoked pipes and supported themselves on canes with rubber tips. My childish imagination couldn’t connect these reserved old men with Kotovsky, that bald and dashing cutthroat.


The war brought German occupation to Odessa. Grandfather was confined to the ghetto. But Mama did not have to stay there. She didn’t look Jewish and had her first husband’s Russian surname. She would hide Grandma behind the wardrobe. They made enough to feed themselves (after sending half to the ghetto) by taking in sewing. Most of the family perished in the ghetto, but my grandfather miraculously survived. When the war was over and he suddenly appeared in the doorway, Grandma did not recognise him. Only my mother through some kind of intuition guessed and threw her arms around his neck. But that was later. In wartime, women remain women and retain their clairvoyance.

An aged Bulgarian fortune-teller once told Mama that her husband had died. “Calm yourself down. The war will end and you will have another husband. Everything will be all right. You will have two children: a boy first, and after about three years a girl. The boy should be kept away from water until he is forty.” And that’s how it was. My childhood was marked by Mama’s fear of water and the sea.

When I was seventeen, my friend and I took a “cultural” voyage to Leningrad. Peterhof was deserted and it was drizzling. In one of the lanes we ran into a gypsy. We crossed her palm with a ruble. She read palms using a small looking-glass to double-check herself. Among the usual banalities she repeated the Bulgarian’s forecast: “At forty there will be a serious illness, but you will survive.” She did not mention water. To protect itself my youthful understanding suppressed this alarming information.

When I had plenty of time in the intensive care unit, it all came back to me. Everything took the form of a prophecy that was imparted to me, but in vain.

Thirty-eight years old. Near the sea in Odessa at half past two on an August night, I was hit by a car on an otherwise empty street.

But after that there was good fortune.   Volodya, the head of the intensive care unit, was wonderful and brilliant. We are friends to this day. They scraped me off the asphalt and turned the pieces over to him. He put them all back together. And he dragged me back into this world so that we could make jokes. A cheerful intensive care unit. In this world you have to be cheerful.

The Gypsy also said: “Your second wife will beget you a daughter after you are forty-five.” That confused me. (That I would have not one wife but two did not seem surprising.) “What about my first wife?” I asked, following the strict laws of logic. She looked away and said as if in passing, “You’ll have a son. He will become very ill. He will not live past six.”

And all of it came to pass.


My father would say that he never understood anything about that war. He was a private on the Leningrad front. A private’s got to go wherever they say—on reconnaissance, at night, crawling through the snow. The enemy saw them and opened fire. My father was wounded. After spending some time in the hospital in Leningrad when it was under siege, he was right back on the frontline. During a battle he suddenly noticed that his leg was wet, and the trouser-leg was missing. He couldn’t walk. Fortunately, an orderly was galloping by, and Papa’s mates cried out, “Take him to the infirmary!” The orderly swore, but let my father hold on to the saddle girth. He did not remember how they got to the infirmary. Then he was driven somewhere for a long time. Gangrene set in, and they wanted to amputate his leg. But the surgeon turned out to be a decent chap who said, “That leg might still be some use to you.” The leg was spared, and my father was decommissioned for good.

When I was a kid, my father and I would go to a public bath, and I would examine with admiration the scars on his thighs and mutilated rear.

– Have you ever fired at anyone, Papa?

– Yes, I have.

– Did you ever kill anyone?

– I doubt it… 

Muddled Paths

As a child I disliked drawing. There was neither a reason nor an urge to do it. I did have a natural curiosity about what my parents were doing, but I have to say that the neighbour’s dress uniform dagger–he was a lieutenant colonel–with its black gilded sheath attracted me much more. The dagger had a button that one had to press in order to unsheathe it and a furrow running along the blade which was meant to serve as a conduit for blood, as they explained to me. How could jars of linseed oil that were lined up on the window-sill for bleaching in the sun ever top that? Or squashed tubes of oil paint? Never!

The shoulders of colonel’s wives were adorned by silver fox pelts complete with eyes of glass and tiny claws on their little paws. My parents would also dress respectably, but there was always something wrong about their looks. They didn’t show the sort of style that would appeal to my childish taste. After all, we struggle all our lives to understand a true sense of style.

Nastya is not that way. She was less than two months old when she first took in an exhibition at the Pushkin Museum.   She gazed with great curiousity out of her sling (that brilliant invention of civilization), and she attentively studied the display of Dutch miniatures. Then she took some milk and contentedly fell asleep. That year I was working for a long time on a four meter canvas. She was hanging at my chest in the sling. I was pleased to see that she was curious about what I was doing, so I turned her face out so that she wouldn’t twist her neck. Paint was brought up off the palette and set down on the canvas, and she was following the whole process. She was less than a year old when she took up a brush, put out her hand and began to paint a portrait of the wall.

That language comes easier to her than the language of words.

I would love to set up an exhibition called “The Tokarevs—Family of Artists.” My sister and niece are also artists. We wander along muddled paths, each of us pursuing our own truth, but these paths constantly intersect. How nice it is in the tale where a stone marks the beginning of three roads! On it is clearly written where you will go and what will happen. Our paths do not have such stones. Nothing is ever certain.

The Captain’s Daughter

In Odessa there is a street called Primorskaya, which means “by the sea”. It starts almost at the port and runs all the way to Peresyp, along the shoreline. The whole city seems to press toward the sea and the port and slithers down toward them by a series or narrow and awkward stairs. In a small courtyard with a stone wall lapped by the sea, there lived a girl. Her name was Natasha. Her father was a real captain. He was in charge of a miserable-looking boat and wore a white jacket with gold buttons. The captain’s daughter was a student at the College of Arts. She was everybody’s dream date, including mine. My sister was friends with her and told me that there was no way Natasha would go out with me. I wanted to know why but was given no explanation. My passion grew even stronger. The dream had to be fulfilled!

I finally went up to her to find out why she wouldn’t go out with me. She answered that she had never said such a thing. I was all ablaze, and it took me some ten years to cool down. We loved each other so madly that it was unbearable. We argued constantly, shaking as if in an epileptic fit. Whenever we spotted each other at a distance, our legs would turn to cotton, and we would head for each other as if to the scaffold.

She got married and so did I, but it went on and on. When my first wife and I came to Odessa, she used some mutual friends to invite me to her birthday party. It would be awkward not to be there, but keeping up appearances was impossible. The captain’s blood in her was steering the boat into open and turbulent seas. Friends tried to smooth things over. But they wouldn’t be smoothed over. Fortunately, in two days we had to go back to Moscow. Many years have gone by and she is now living in New York. I tried to find her just to have another look at her, but with no success.

On Crutches

After the accident I had to learn how to walk again. Do you know the worst thing about learning how to walk on crutches? It’s when your mother or someone accompanying you constantly looks under your feet. And at the least little unsteadiness, they shriek. My friend Edik never looked down when he was walking with me. But when I really stumbled, he immediately managed to take hold of me. He was ready and in control of himself. And I relied on him the same as I did on myself.

I learned how to walk all over again and even to run after a bus without slowing myself down by watching my feet. For this I have to give special thanks to a brilliant artist named Misha Ivanov, who was the son of Isaac Babel and was later adopted by Vsevolod Ivanov. He lived nearby, at the celebrated House of Writers on Lavrushinsky, and all his life he painted Zamoskvorechye. A year ago he died. He told me that the most important thing for someone learning to walk again is to overcome the fear of falling, and that advice came at just the right time.

The Orange Cylinder

I gave Nastya an orange cylindrical kaleidoscope and hoped that it would mean as much to her as it did to me in my childhood: a wonderful, intricate, ever-changing world of colours. However, my kaleidoscope had a cardboard cylinder. I turned it constantly and with bated breath expected some completely new turn of events or combination of colours. And the soft rustling of the little bits of glass as they tumbled around seemed to me an amazing cosmic sound. My hopes were dashed. Television won out over the kaleidoscope. At least for the time being…

Alexander Tokarev

(Published in the March 2002 issue of “Ah…” magazine)