My mother came to America from Russia a hundred years ago as a girl of six or seven. She and her family left comfortable homes to escape the pogroms that tortured innocent Jews. They landed in Galveston rather than New York, and became lifelong Texans. When Mother remembered nothing of those very early days, I concluded that nothing was what she wanted to remember. Neither did she wish for a trip back there.
But her rejection of the past didn't prevent a crowd of Russian genes from being passed on to me. From my early days I was drawn to Russian music and then to Russian literature and drama. Crime and Punishment became one of my favorite books and Raskolnikov, the handsome protagonist (and murderer) nearly a love object for me. Tchaikovsky -- can you relegate an artist to second rank because he composed beautiful music? No one else in my family seemed drawn to the Russians, but me, yes.
Eventually I traveled to St. Petersburg, twice, and once to Moscow. I cleverly timed the trips, in 2003 and 2005, for post-Soviet times. St. Petersburg is gorgeous, gilded, and people who lived well were living very well, albeit some, maybe many, from ill-gotten gains. The atmosphere was imbued with young people out to celebrate freedom and have a good time. Like Sasha, a young guide, they got jobs, bought cars and good clothes. If they knew about life twenty years earlier, it didn't mar their fun.
Although my mother swept away any feeling for her native land, I saw my trips as partly for her, maybe an effort to reconnect her to a land that only I wanted her to reconnect with.
Over the past decade, President Putin, formerly of the KBG, has become a modern-day czar. Bill Keller of The New York Times writes that Putin is turning back 25 years of history. Relations between his country and the West are strained. In my gay world, friends who are dedicated travelers want to go to Russia but stay away. "It doesn't seem like a good time to go," they say. Putin has legislated laws, Keller writes, "giving official sanction to the terrorizing of gay and lesbians." Gay men retreat into the shadows again.
I hurt for what has happened. Do I want to go back to Russia once more, as I thought I did? Maybe not. I don't seek a place where I need to hide; I want to keep in my memory the two trips that I loved and took after years of waiting. Were she still alive, my mother would find that her native country seems to have rewound the clock almost to the time she fled. Perhaps she was right in not wanting to return.
I've written both about my mother's birthplace and my trips there in my new book, Life Up Close, a Memoir, due out soon from Dog Ear Publishing and available from Amazon.