This archive document includes both parts of this story, which ran on July 17, 1995 and July 24, 1995.

Part I (July 17, 1995)

The nursing home is a noisy place. Every time I visit I feel like I’m on a carnival midway. Patients are always shouting and laughing. One woman constantly bangs on the emergency exit and yells, “Can somebody here open the door? Can somebody here please tell me how to open the door?” Another lies in her bed all day calling out, “Hello? Hello? Give me a cigarette! Give me a cigarette! Hello? Hello?” Someone else is always whistling; it echoes everywhere, never the same tune no matter how long you listen. I’m always startled by the contrast: from the outside, the nursing home looks like just another placid, tree-shaded apartment building in the heart of Lakeview; inside it’s an endless cacophony of wails, cries, laughter, and chattering.

My father-in-law Nick isn’t one of the noisemakers. He’s a pacer. All day, every day, he walks up and down the corridor, between the nurse’s station and the big window at the far end and back again. Sometimes other residents tag along with him, and then a crowd flows back and forth through the ward like a tide.

If you asked him why he’s so restless, he wouldn’t be able to tell you. He has a hard time explaining or understanding anything about his situation these days–he’s simply afflicted by mysterious surges of nervous energy, like a lightning rod in an invisible thunderstorm. He jumps out of chairs, fusses endlessly with the objects on his nightstand, arranges himself in his bed with elaborate formality, and then, the moment he’s comfortable, bounds up to look out the window. He’s constantly wandering into the rooms of other patients, searching for things he can’t remember. His possessions–glasses, brushes, belt, shoes–turn up everywhere, scattered around other patients’ beds, in front of the nurse’s station, sometimes strewn down the corridor. One of his shirts was found once behind the big TV in the common room.

Sometimes I think he’s looking for clues to what sort of place he’s in. One day in the common room he looked around in sudden amazement at the other patients watching TV and said to his daughter Nina, “These people–how did they all come together like this?”

“They’re like you, dad,” Nina answered. “They’re all getting older and more confused, and their families can’t give them the help they need.” She didn’t use the word “Alzheimer’s”–that would only cause trouble. Nick will never admit he might have such a problem.

He thought about her answer for a moment. Then he shook his head. “Oh well, it doesn’t matter,” he said, with a grandly indulgent wave of his hand. “However it happened, it’s lucky they all found each other.”

Another day, when we were out for a walk, he said to me, “The people in that place where I live–they’re a little strange. Sometimes I can’t even understand them. But it’s a nice kind of strange. I like them.”

There are other times when we get an ominous call from the nursing home: “Nick is agitated.” It could mean that he had a screaming fit when the nurse tried to give him his medication, or that he got into a fistfight with the orderlies who kept him from escaping into the elevator–he’s in his mid-70s, but he’s still strong. Nina and I will ask to talk to him, hoping to calm him down, but often this doesn’t work because he doesn’t remember what it is he’s upset about by the time he gets on the phone. He thinks the nursing home staff are acting like lunatics for some reason he can’t imagine. Actually he thinks this even in his calmer moments; he says the orderlies inscrutably turn on him, or the doctors and nurses try to treat him for conditions he knows he doesn’t have. But he thinks that’s just typical of the way things always go for him. His current situation has served only to confirm his lifelong certainty that he’s surrounded by fools and madmen.

The technical name for his condition is “diffuse degenerative dementia.” This means that he hasn’t sustained a strong localized form of brain damage; rather his mental faculties are slipping from him in countless untraceable ways, steadily and irreversibly. Alzheimer’s disease is one common type of this condition. Another is called “multi-infarct dementia,” meaning brain damage caused by a lot of minor strokes. It’s not clear which one Nick has, since that usually can’t be determined without an autopsy. But the prognosis is the same in either case: untreatable and incurable. Nick still functions reasonably well compared to some of his fellow residents. He walks around, talks, and eats on his own. In the last stages people sometimes forget how to swallow.

It’s impossible to say exactly when Nick’s symptoms began, but they became unmistakable four or five years ago. That’s when he came to stay with us because his girlfriend threw him out. (“He’s turning into an old man,” she told us. “I can’t have an old man in my bed.”) He didn’t know what was happening to him or how bad it was. We weren’t sure either: he still passed most of the standard tests of mental acuity his doctors gave him. But he was painfully aware that something wasn’t right and wasn’t ever going to be fixed.

Yet in some ways his condition hasn’t changed him much. He’s always been a difficult man. In fact, I often think he’s the most exasperating person I’ve ever met. He makes a good first impression; even today he’s almost always pleasant, soft-spoken, and exquisitely polite. He carries himself with the kind of dignity and reserve that people used to call old-world. When I first knew him I thought he was like a music teacher from some European capital, someplace where schoolchildren are well behaved in public and the young give up their seats to the elderly on streetcars. But as I got to know him better, I realized that his dignity and reserve were covering something less appealing: a deep self-absorption and contempt for other people. I came to think that he was going through his life like a silent-film comedian, blithely oblivious to the trail of debris he left in his wake, self-righteously aggrieved at the slightest suggestion that he could ever be at fault. To this day he’s routinely infuriated by the self-evident stupidity of the people around him–even Nina, the only person he really trusts. When she corrects his mistakes or refers to events he’s sure didn’t happen, he lashes out with his old, familiar fury: “Don’t talk nonsense! You sound like an idiot!”

Soon after he came to stay with us he asked me if I would help him with his memoirs. I was reluctant. Since he came to this country in the 1950s, he’s never ceased being appalled by what Americans don’t know about world history, or for that matter their own history, and he’s seen it as his duty to lecture them about their shortcomings. I had the feeling the memoirs would be mainly an opportunity for him to revisit all the stupid and provincial remarks he’s heard Americans make over the last 40 years. He’s always had a prodigious memory for stupid remarks; he sometimes gets outraged all over again at something a hardware-store clerk said to him in 1955.

Still, I agreed to help him–partly because he was so obviously pained by the realization that he’d never be able to do it on his own, and partly because I wondered if his past would explain why he’d turned out the way he did. Yet I knew he didn’t want to explore his inner life (though he never set any conditions on what kind of story I could write about him, or what I could or couldn’t say). In fact, he usually denies that he even has an inner life; he’s always claimed that all his thoughts and actions emanate from a core of pure and transparent rationality.

Anyway, I plowed through his papers–his letters, his published and unpublished articles, issues of the political journal he used to edit, the transcripts of an oral-history project he took part in during the 1970s, and some autobiographical pieces he wrote for a small-town newspaper around ten years ago. I also read the letters of the other people in his family, who’d been telling me stories for years. When I thought I had a handle on the outline of his life I asked him to tell me whatever he wanted to about his past.

I wasn’t certain what to expect. But I needn’t have worried. His long-term memory was intact. He seemed to have forgotten no detail from his past: he could describe the exact layout of all the houses he’d ever lived in, the organizational chart of a southern California defense plant where he’d worked in 1962, and the brass buttons on the uniforms worn by the traffic cops in 1930s Shanghai. The slightest prompt set him off. One day he saw a poster in a liquor-store window for Tsingtao beer, and he began reminiscing about what the roofscape of the city of Tsingtao looked like just before the start of World War II. Another time, as we strolled along a beach in Evanston, he saw a little patch of clouds rise above Lake Michigan, and he described with hallucinatory precision what a typhoon looks like as it rises above the Pacific horizon.

The surface of Nick’s brain was racked by his dementia. He was tormented by doubts and inexplicable anxieties; when we dropped off his clothes at the local dry cleaner’s, he fretted endlessly that the building would be torn down before we returned. But his old memories were somehow preserved, with all their detail mysteriously exact, like a drowned city deep in the calmest waters of his mind.

Still, the dementia was gradually eroding his attention span. He’d once been undeflectable in conversation. He droned on while fire engines screamed by the window, phones rang, and pots boiled over on the stove–and if he ever noticed that someone was trying to interrupt him, he simply glared and raised his voice. Now for the first time he was having trouble keeping on track. He was so determined to recall every detail that he exhausted himself, and he would often cut a story short with a curt dismissal at the moment of maximum suspense. He told me several times, for instance, how his father had escaped from a POW camp during the Russian civil war. But just when his father got through the last fence and was about to make his dash for freedom, Nick would suddenly say, with a weary, dismissive sigh, “So that was it.”

“What did he do?” I’d ask.

“What did he do?” Nick would say testily. “Nothing. He did nothing. There was nothing he could do.”

At other times he would, without explanation or warning, launch into the second half of a story and leave me to guess what the first half had been. Once at a dinner party he turned to me and said, “Lee, I keep meaning to tell you–the soldiers forced the women to strip naked before they could cross the bridge.”

I recognized this as a story about the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the late 1930s, though I never learned, then or later, whether this was something he’d seen or had only heard about. Our other guests seemed nonplussed by our choice of dinner-table conversation. One of them said, with a sort of cautious sympathy, “That’s terrible.”

“Yes, terrible,” Nick said mournfully. “But what could they do? There was nothing anybody could do.”

Gradually his stories became more fragmentary. He started telling the same ones over and over again–but would trail off at an earlier point each time. Then too, he was having increasing difficulty remembering words. In the middle of a story he’d hit a mental roadblock and wouldn’t be able to think of some ordinary term, and he’d immediately go off on a long detour of paraphrase–a detour that would invariably lead to further detours when he forgot one of the words in the paraphrase and had to start paraphrasing that. For a while I was able to help him out; by then I knew most of the stories by heart and could unobtrusively supply the word that would get him back on track. But gradually his sentences began unraveling before I had any idea what he was talking about. That’s when we had to stop. The struggle to make sense was becoming too painful for him.

So I don’t know how much I got of his story, and I can no longer ask him what’s missing. But I still ask him questions now and then, and sometimes he surprises me. Most often he stares at me with sullen suspicion or else snaps, “I don’t want to talk about that. I’ve forgotten all of that. Ask me later.” But a year ago, in a surge of sudden energy, he began to tell me with his old photo-realist clarity the layout of a racetrack in Shanghai he used to bicycle past on his way to school. He remembered the banners and pennants flying, the horns sounding at post time, the unearthly roar of the crowd echoing down the tree-lined boulevard. And then he reached for a word, became distracted, and forgot the rest.

“The racetrack in Shanghai,” I prompted.

“What are you talking about?” he snapped. “There was one, but I never went to it.”

He wouldn’t talk after that. I felt as though I’d just seen a shaft of sunlight briefly illuminate a submerged line of rooftops.

The defining event of Nick’s life happened before he was born. The Russian Revolution was one of those vast historical calamities that most Americans have been spared: it was a time when people who never thought of themselves as political, who never thought they’d have to choose sides about anything, were forced to make political choices that could easily cost them their homes, their families, and their lives. This was how it was for Nick’s parents.

The Cherniavsky family is Ukrainian. As far back as anybody could remember, they’d been peasant farmers. Nick’s grandfather had risen in the world to become a shopkeeper in a village south of Kiev. Nick’s father, Nikolai, had an even grander goal when he was a child: he wanted to go to the big city and study engineering. But that dream was wiped out by World War I. Nikolai enlisted in the Russian army instead and was commissioned as a cavalry officer; he served on the eastern front in Austria-Hungary, until news reached the troops of the revolution back home.

The news put Nikolai in an impossible situation. On the one hand, he was a loyal military man who’d been decorated for bravery several times; on the other, he’d spent a lot of time in the officers’ quarters having earnest debates about politics and had come to think of himself as something of a socialist. And there was a third factor: as the fervor of revolution spread through the army, he was becoming uneasily aware that if he stayed on as an officer much longer he’d probably be shot by his own men.

One night, after many whispered consultations, he and the other officers in his regiment decided to solve their problem together. They all deserted. They took the officer’s insignia from their shoulders, solemnly threw them into the nearest ditch, then walked away from their posts. Over the following weeks they made their way eastward, hitching rides with interminable convoys and sneaking onto overcrowded troop trains.

When Nikolai got home he found that his father had died and his brothers were joining the various splinter armies that were already turning their guns on one another. His recent experiences had given Nikolai a taste for making bold, nonnegotiable decisions, and he came to one now: he would put his socialist beliefs into practice. He would go northward to Saint Petersburg, the epicenter of the revolution, and enlist in the Red Army.

It was a perilous journey; the train wound sluggishly past an endless succession of burnt-out villages and tense military checkpoints. His first night in Saint Petersburg, Nikolai heard Lenin himself address a huge open-air rally. Years later he loved to describe the surge and rush of passion in the crowd, the famous bald-domed head bobbing in the midst of the turmoil like a mine. But Nikolai was appalled by the cruelty and fanaticism of what he heard and decided right then that he was about to enlist on the wrong side. So the next day he left Saint Petersburg in search of the nearest encampment of the White Army.

I don’t know if he ever really believed the White Army had a chance. But he stuck it out to the end, as the confused and declining fortunes of his cause took him all the way across Russia. Everywhere he went he saw the chaos and brutality of the civil war: pointless battles, endless swarms of refugees, atrocities committed by all sides. The worst for him was when he was captured by a Red brigade and thrown into a prison camp on the shores of Lake Baikal. It was the middle of winter; the prisoners were sleeping in unheated barracks by night and working in an ancient coal mine by day. Nikolai met a few White officers, but most of the prisoners were Germans captured during the world war. The Germans were pleased, or so he later said, to help an enemy of the Reds escape, even if he’d once been their own enemy. So one moonless night a bunch of them obligingly created a diversion, a mock fight outside one of the barracks, while Nikolai made a break for it. He got through the fences and bolted across a wide snowbound meadow toward a distant line of trees he could dimly make out in the starlight. He always said afterward that those were the worst moments of his life: waiting for the uproar and gunfire when the guards discovered he was gone–noises that never came.

His luck held. He was discovered the next day by a White patrol, and he made his way back to his regiment. But by then he’d lost the will to go on fighting. The White cause was lost anyway. Except for a few remaining White strongholds, the Reds controlled Russia. The White armies still in the field were disintegrating; troops were deserting en masse, and the few that remained loyal kept waiting for orders that never came. By spring Nikolai was idly passing his days in the White city of Vladivostok on the Siberian coast. That was where he met Irina Spalwing.

She was the daughter of a university professor at Vladivostok’s prestigious Far Eastern Institute. Her father, Eugene Spalwing, was a passionate scholar of Japanese language and culture–an unusual preoccupation for a Russian in those days, because Russians weren’t exactly welcome in Japan. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 one of Eugene’s relatives had been beaten to death by a mob on the streets of Tokyo. But Eugene traveled through the country without fear and eventually became one of the first Westerners to be accepted by Japanese academics as a serious student of their country.

Irina grew up surrounded by the tokens of her father’s obsession. A photograph shows the Spalwing children sitting around a little black lacquer table having tea; they’re all wearing ornate kimonos and would look like a perfect Japanese family if it weren’t for their flowing blond hair. Irina was around ten when the photo was taken. I have to say she looks deathly bored. But then she never did have any use for her father’s enthusiasms; all her life, her son later said, she was much more inclined to boast about her family’s connections among the Russian aristocracy than about how much clout the Spalwing name had in Kyoto. She grew up to be snobbish, quick, willful, witty, and restless–just the sort of young woman who’d fall for a brooding, romantic cavalry officer like Nikolai.

Nikolai and Irina spent the spring and early summer strolling together along the quays and promenades of Vladivostok. They passed hours at a time watching ships glide through the harbor and clouds from Manchuria move over the Sea of Japan. They were in love, and it was a love like a classic novel: her parents bitterly disapproved of the match; his life would be in danger if he stayed in Vladivostok much longer. The dramatic crisis arrived in midsummer, when word reached the city that the remnants of the White Army were surrendering. Vladivostok could expect to be taken soon. Nikolai was out of time.

He and Irina decided to elope. Nikolai boarded a train headed for Manchuria. Irina followed a few weeks later, bundling herself up as a peasant woman to attract as little attention as possible. Under normal circumstances, a young upper-class Russian woman would never have traveled alone. But tides of refugees were streaming across the border, and she went unnoticed.

They were reunited in the city of Harbin, in northern Manchuria. A month later they were married. At the ceremony they exchanged wedding rings of pale Siberian gold. Each was inscribed around the inner rim with delicate Cyrillic characters: the ring he gave her read “Nikolai,” and the ring she gave him read “Irina.” Both rings bore the date 14 IX 1922.

Harbin was a strange place. I’ve looked through some 19th-century books on Manchuria, and none of them mention it. In those days it was a nondescript fishing village, one of dozens that have been scattered for centuries along the banks of the remote Songhua River. Nothing of note happened in Harbin until the end of the 19th century, when hordes of Russian construction workers came pouring into town to build the Trans-Siberian Railway; the Romanov government and the Manchu court–both impossibly exotic to the people of Harbin–had cut a deal to extend the last eastward leg of the railway across the flat terrain of Manchuria rather than the broken mountain ranges of Siberia to the north. This was how Harbin became a major junction connecting western Russia with the Pacific.

It quickly swelled into a sizable city, one of the biggest trading centers in northern Asia. Russian travelers passed through on every train, and soon Chinese traders came, bringing goods by boat down the Songhua from the Chinese interior. Then the Russian Revolution and civil war brought tens of thousands of refugees across the Siberian border. Millions of exiled Russians were spreading out around the world at the time, and Russian enclaves were springing up everywhere from Shanghai to Berlin. All kinds of people were caught up in the flood, from peasants whose villages had been on the wrong side in a factional fight to millionaires who came overland in long lines of limousines.

They must have been stunned by what they found in Harbin. Back then nobody talked about ideas like “indigenous architecture” or “site-appropriate design.” The builders of Harbin hadn’t created a Manchurian city but a Russian one. It had wide, radiating boulevards and big stucco buildings painted in bright pastels; the skyline was tangled with Victorian terra-cotta ornamentation and dotted everywhere by ornate onion-ball church domes. Refugees said it was like a mirage of Saint Petersburg floating amid the desolate grasslands of Asia.

They made the place a kind of substitute Russia without the Bolsheviks. By the early 1920s Harbin had downtown department stores crammed with more Russian and imported goods than the stores of Saint Petersburg or Moscow. Its cafes and corner newsstands sold newspapers representing the emigre community’s furiously contending monarchist, fascist, liberal, and radical factions. Its boulevards were lined with ornate tearooms and restaurants. There were theaters where great actors staged Russian classics and movie houses that showed the latest films of Chaplin and Valentino. There was even a yacht club that filled the Songhua River–soon Russified to Sungari–with bright European-style sails in the long summer afternoons.

When Nikolai and Irina arrived, the talk in Harbin was of the imminent fall of Lenin’s government. Everyone was daily expecting the news that the revolution had failed and they could all go home. During his first year or two in Harbin, Nikolai attended lots of urgent meetings about plans for post-Bolshevik Russia. He had some standing in the community because he’d been a White Army officer; many of the leading politicians in the city assured him he’d have an important role in the great counteroffensive that was expected to be launched any day.

He may have believed such talk at first. But in the meantime he had to support his family; Irina was already expecting a child. So he fell into one of the century’s newest trades: auto mechanic. The streets and the countryside surrounding Harbin were crowded with luxury automobiles, and they all needed a reliable garage.

Irina gave birth to their only child in April 1924. They named him Nikolai, of course. I’m calling him Nick here to keep the names straight–nobody actually called him that until after he came to America. His family and Russian friends always called him Kolya, the normal shorthand for Nikolai.

After Nick’s birth Nikolai began to wonder what sort of future his family could have in Harbin. The great reconquest of Russia was on indefinite hold, and in the meantime the situation in Harbin was growing more perilous. Those were years of revolutionary chaos in China, when Manchuria was a shadowy, shifty domain of contending warlords. The people of Harbin often saw interminable dusty armies of one or another faction march across the grasslands and heard gunfire in the distant hills on summer nights. Sometimes the armies swept through the villages along the river collecting conscripts; now and then officers entered the city to hire mercenaries. A lot of Nikolai’s comrades from the White Army, bored with waiting for the Russian invasion to begin, hired on with various warlords and went off to fight in the annual campaigns.

Then too, the city was changing. After the Reds solidified their hold on Russia the river of refugees across the border dried up; but with war and revolution tearing Manchuria apart, people from the surrounding countryside poured into Harbin for sanctuary just as the Russians had. At the start of the 1920s the population of the city was around 100,000, almost all of it Russian; by the late 1920s the population had doubled, and almost all of the new arrivals were Manchurian or Chinese. Nobody talked about Harbin becoming a melting pot; the Russians kept to their sections of the city, and they expected their new neighbors to do the same.

Yet during the long, bitterly cold winters the Chinese started a tradition of carving ornate ice sculptures in the public parks. Huge dragons and dreamy cloud spirits and ghost warriors silently bellowed and shouted and leered among the massed snowdrifts and thickets of bare trees. Sometimes the artisans would hollow out spaces in the sculptures where candles or even incandescent bulbs could be hidden, so that at night the milky ice would glow from within, in wavering and mysterious pastels. The Festival of the Ice Lanterns, they called it. Irina and Nikolai and the other Russians found the sculptures beautiful but somehow disturbing. It was as though a florid Asian dream world were seeping into Harbin’s strict European proprieties.

Was this what made Nikolai finally decide it was time to go? He never said, and there were other possible reasons. Maybe it was the rumor that the Japanese were going to invade and take over Manchuria. Or maybe he’d been to one political meeting too many and had convinced himself that he and everybody else in Harbin was going to spend eternity stuck in the middle of nowhere, debating a dream of revenge. Whatever it was, one day in the fall of 1926 he told Irina that they were leaving.

They packed up their few possessions and set off by train for the Chinese coast. There they booked passage on one of the tramp steamers that bobbed from port to port along the shores of Asia. For most of the voyage there was nothing to look at but the blank ocean and a featureless line of land off to starboard. Then one morning they came out on deck and found the blue water stained for miles around by a tawny yellow murk. This was the sign that they’d reached their goal, the point where the Yangtze River emptied into the East China Sea. The steamer turned west and made its way up the wide river delta to the mouth of one of the Yangtze’s tributaries, the Huangpu. The river was a gorgeous riot of freighters, junks, steamers, yachts, sampans, and warships. Upstream, around a slow, glittering bend, lay the vast sprawl of Shanghai.

“My very first recollection,” Nick wrote once in a newspaper article, “is of my father holding me by the hand as we walked down a street in the Honkew District of Shanghai. Trucks full of Chinese soldiers were racing up and down the street and there was sporadic gunfire.”

That was in 1927. The city was caught in the middle of one of the countless convulsions of the Chinese revolution; units of the nationalist army were fighting each other that season. It may seem strange that a young Russian man was strolling through such a dangerous scene with his three-year-old son. But tens of thousands of Westerners were in Shanghai, and they walked its streets as though in an inviolable bubble.

“Shanghai is not China,” says a tourist guidebook from 1934 (All About Shanghai: A Standard Guide). “It is everything under the sun and in population at least, it is mostly Chinese, but it is not the real China.” In some ways it was a city like Harbin: it had been built by foreign money for foreign interests. At its heart was a crowded zone of banks and stores and trading companies, factories and mansions, apartment blocks and warehouses. It was known as the “International Settlement,” and more than 100,000 Europeans and Americans lived there. They had their own police and fire department and utility companies and a local administrative council that operated independently of the Chinese government. (The French in Shanghai insisted on yet another separate set of city services under their control; their zone was known as the “French Concession.”) Surrounding the settlement were the Chinese districts, where millions of people crowded together; some estimates put the population density of Shanghai at two or three times that of Paris or London. If you surveyed the city from a high vantage–the roof of the glamorous 16-story Park Hotel, for instance, which billed itself in magazine advertisements as “the Tallest Building in Asia”–it looked like a doughnut: a central plateau of low, flat European rooftops encircled by an enormous broken mountain range of peaked and serrated Chinese tile.

Something of the character of the settlement can be made out from the ads in the tourist guidebook. There were French dressmakers, American beauty salons, German breweries, and a British doctor specializing in the treatment of “venereal complaints.” There were riding academies and dancing academies. A stop-the-presses ad announces that the Shanghai Art Store has just got in “1935-style shoes.” There are listings for brass-band concerts, movie theaters, and a municipal symphony orchestra. There are countless ads for nightclubs featuring “Charming Dance Hostesses” and “Lovely Dance Partners” and “the Prettiest Dancing Hostesses.” The main attraction that season at the Candidrome Ballroom, “the Rendezvous of Shanghai’s Elite,” was the music of “Buck Clayton and His Harlem Gentlemen.” It was a compacted world of European glamour; most of the people in the settlement could go their whole lives without bothering to learn a word of Chinese.

Thousands of Russians lived in the settlement. In his oral history Nick estimated that 10,000 had come with the initial flood during the Russian civil war; tens of thousands more would arrive in the early 1930s, after Japan invaded Manchuria and overran the Russian enclaves. Because the Russians were refugees with no political status, they became the lowest caste in the settlement, barely rating above the Chinese. They took the jobs the other Europeans wouldn’t touch. Russian men worked as ricksha bearers, which was unheard of for whites in Asia; young Russian women made up by far the largest percentage of the settlement’s prostitutes, and they had a virtual lock on the “dance hostess” trade. Yet their community was as thrivingly insular as any other in Shanghai. They had Russian-language newspapers, groceries, teahouses, bookstores, even a radio station. And, like Russians everywhere, they tended to treat any new acquaintance as a long-lost cousin, entitled to support. The moment Nikolai made a couple of Russian friends in Shanghai he had no problem finding a job or a place for his family.

In the spring and summer of 1927 he worked as a longshoreman on the docks of the Huangpu, and he and Irina and Nick lived in an old boardinghouse in the French Concession. That winter he got a job installing burglar alarms. It was steady work, as there were a lot of millionaires in Shanghai in those days, Western and Chinese. Nikolai worked in mansions that were opulent labyrinths studded with antique vases and tapestries. He would sometimes laugh and say the butlers were all snobbish and surly, whether they worked for bankers or gang lords. The next spring the Chinese laborers at the Shanghai waterworks went on strike, and the British owners fired them and brought in Russian scabs. Nikolai was hired as a mechanical engineer, mostly because he’d been an auto mechanic, and the job included a living space in the company housing complex.

The waterworks was a sprawling maze of dark turrets and grimy walls on the banks of the Huangpu. The silt and filth of Shanghai, the garbage from the floating cities of boat people on the Huangpu, the sewage and debris and the occasional dead gangster all came pouring through the plant’s vast system of filters and pipes and pools, and the end product was some of the cleanest tap water in Asia. Nikolai was proud of his work and was quickly promoted, and Irina liked their little row house. Only young Nick was miserable. He was trapped inside the waterworks–Nikolai refused to let him go to school or play with other children.

Nikolai had thought Harbin was a bad place to raise a child, but the thronging turmoil of Shanghai was even riskier. And while Nikolai still considered himself a socialist, he’d taken on increasingly aristocratic airs; he liked to think of himself as a man of culture and dignity and of his fellow Russians in Shanghai as too vulgar, too destitute, too desperate, too criminal. He particularly loathed their lax child rearing and thought the company of their children would be a disastrous influence on Nick. There was a good Russian school in Shanghai, but he was sure he could do a better job teaching Nick himself. In a way, it was a grand act of love and parental concern; it never occurred to him that keeping Nick isolated would do him any harm.

But Nick resented it bitterly and always felt that it had been a disaster for him. It marked him in ways he couldn’t articulate. He seems never to have picked up the cues most people absorb in childhood about how to read people’s faces and interpret their subtle signals. He has never been able to make small talk, never been able to tolerate being contradicted, and never been able to strike a balance in a conversation between sullen silence and interminable monologue.

His parents loomed over his childhood. He regarded his father with inextricably tangled respect, resentment, love, and fear. What stood out the most for him were Nikolai’s military manners and emotional aloofness; he had, Nick wrote in one of his reminiscences, “an air of near-Olympian omnipotence”–perhaps the last quality a lonely boy looks for in a father. Nick was awed by Nikolai’s strength–he could drive screws with his thumbnail–his determination, his air of exhaustive knowledgeability, and his pose of culture. He remembered him this way: “My father was a poet of above-average ability, and he frequently wrote invitations in verse to our friends for holiday or birthday dinners. He was composing for a couple of years, I think, a novel in verse based on the time when he served in the Russian White Army. Sometimes we would walk hand in hand up and down the alley at the employee housing complex and he would recite to me from memory whole chapters from his novel, occasionally changing a verse here and there.”

Nick was less impressed by his mother. In everything he wrote and said about her the dominant note is impatience. From an early age he considered her to be exasperating and irrational. In the oral history he described her this way: “She always spoke very fast, so fast that she made her words tumble over each other, and whenever she was at a loss for words she would just make up a term on the spur of the moment. The people who didn’t know her well found this confusing and perplexing. She was always very self-conscious of position in society, prestige, and popularity. Both her mother’s and her father’s families had coats of arms, and this meant a great deal to her. Her favorite saying in those days–she used to say it to me repeatedly–was, ‘Don’t you ever forget that your ancestors were nobles. They were not just common people.'”

This snobbery sometimes was too much even for Nikolai; Nick said in the oral history that he sometimes wondered if his father kept claiming to be a socialist only because it annoyed Irina so much. But Nick’s real grudge against his mother was that she was such a capricious jailer. Before Nikolai went off to work each morning he would set out Nick’s lessons for the day–he’d ordered stacks of schoolbooks from the Russian bookstore. Irina was supposed to supervise him, but she always had shopping to do–refrigerators were then a luxury even for the very rich, and most people kept only a day’s worth of food in the house. At the market she would often run into friends, and they’d stop off at the teahouse to talk–and Nick ended up being left alone for hours. After finishing his lessons, he would wander by himself along the grass plots behind the row houses or down the grimy brick alleys behind the filtration plant. He often sat at the little window in his bedroom, peering out forlornly at the waterworks’ intricate roofscape as it was washed by Shanghai’s winter rains or baked by the summer sunlight. A gap between two rooftops held a wedge of the Huangpu, and he could see fishing boats bobbing on the glinting water and now and then the steep side of a steamship sweeping past.

Like many kids who grow up in isolation, Nick retreated into a world of daydreams. He read Sherlock Holmes and Jules Verne, as most Russian children did, but his favorite writers were Jack London and James Fenimore Cooper. He loved stories of the Wild West and the gold rush. Almost as soon as he could read he began devouring Shanghai’s Russian-language newspapers and took a deep interest in everything from Mao’s Long March to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia–Haile Selassie was one of his earliest heroes. But his greatest enthusiasm was for American news. He followed the presidential elections closely–he supported Roosevelt–and read everything he could about the Lindbergh kidnapping and the assassination of Huey Long. It often struck him as a profound injustice that he was half a world away from such excitement, stuck in Shanghai where nothing ever happened.

When he was 12 Nick finally persuaded his father to send him to Shanghai’s Russian school. He had an easy time with the class work; Nikolai had done a good job devising lessons for him. But his schoolmates were merciless. Not only was he a newcomer, but he was tall, skinny, hopelessly unathletic, and socially incompetent. He couldn’t even understand them. He spoke the classically pure Russian he’d learned from his parents; the other kids had their own weird patois, slangy Russian mixed with English and a lot of garbled French. It took him months of patient listening to get the hang of it, and then he had to be careful not to let it slip out at home. If his father had heard a hint of slang, that would have been the end of Nick’s schooling.

Nick would never admit that he was bothered by the way his classmates treated him. He was developing his characteristic form of self-defense in difficult social situations: he simply refused to accept that he had a problem. (In later years he modified this strategy: if he had to admit there was a problem, he refused to accept that it could be his fault.) He wanted to be liked by the other kids–and so he was.

And he was dazzled by Shanghai. He bicycled through the swarming streets of the settlement and the tree-lined boulevards of the French Concession; sometimes he would venture beyond the ruler-drawn European districts into the tangled Chinese neighborhoods, with their an alluring glow of paper lanterns and neon signs advertising alchemists, herbalists, necromancers, radical newspapers, opera houses, and opium dens. He never worried about his safety. “The crime rate was extremely low,” he remembered, “and I could go into any neighborhood in the city, no matter how poor, without fear.”

However, the city was perpetually on the edge of catastrophe. The Japanese invasion was spreading, and by 1937 there was fighting in the Chinese districts of Shanghai. The area to the west of the settlement turned into a weird zone of savage street warfare–it came to be known as “the Badlands”–where the Japanese army, the remnants of the nationalist Chinese forces, the collaborationist Chinese police, and anti-Japanese paramilitary groups run by the Chinese gangs all contended. The settlement remained relatively safe; its neutrality and independence were guaranteed by America and the other Western powers, which kept gunboats patrolling the waters of the Huangpu. Yet as Nick recalled, “Machine-gun bursts, artillery salvos, and rifle shots became a part of our daily environment….Antiaircraft artillery and machine guns, Japanese or Chinese–we had no way of knowing–would open up, and the spent rounds would bounce off the roof of our house.”

As the fighting worsened, the city grew more surreal. One morning when Nick was on his way to school he saw a wild dogfight in the sky overhead that the busy crowds on the street mysteriously ignored. Another time he was awakened in the middle of the night by a strange light; from his window he saw that the refinery across the river had been bombed, and huge red flames were roiling over the black river. A few days later he rode a trolley car through the Badlands. “For blocks and blocks the Japanese put manila ropes around the utility poles and put straw on the sidewalks, and they used this area as stables for the cavalry horses. There were hundreds or thousands of horses. It was an unbelievable sight.”

One Friday a Chinese plane swooped down and–deliberately or not nobody ever found out for sure–dropped bombs on the settlement. One fell on an intersection in the busiest commercial street along the river; another landed in a public square that was serving as a holding camp for thousands of newly arrived refugees. Nick happened to pass by the square soon afterward. He described the scene in one of his newspaper articles 40 years later: “It was total chaos–blood all over, mangled bodies, torn limbs, dead, wounded, all in one bloody mess. Cars, rickshaw cabs, buses, streetcars all torn apart, smashed upside down, broken glass. Cries for help, groans.” Nine hundred people died. The day was known in Shanghai afterward as Black Friday.

But the most important thing that happened to Nick in those years had nothing to do with the grand events of history. He and his father had another gigantic battle, filled with desperate pleading and absolute refusals, over whether he could join the Boy Scouts. For Nikolai the scouts were another potential pool of dissolute company. But he finally relented, and Nick began attending meetings. And for the first time in his life he made a friend.

Victor Velgus was an unusual kid, even for Shanghai. He was half Russian and half Chinese, a rare combination–even rarer because his mother was Russian and his father Chinese. They had met in Siberia during the civil war, where she was a nurse and he was a laborer. In their long, meandering flight over the following years, into Manchuria and then southward to Shanghai, she had somehow strayed away, and Victor had no idea where she was now. He lived with his father in a big, crumbling apartment block in the Badlands. But he detested that arrangement and spent most of his time on the streets or hanging around the Russian teahouses and taverns in the settlement. He was fluent in Russian and Chinese (both Mandarin and the hissing Shanghai dialect that most Chinese professed to be unable to understand), and he’d picked up a smattering of English and French. He earned his pocket money as a bicycle messenger, taking letters and military dispatches from one sector to another through the Badlands and the International Settlement–dodging heedlessly through troop convoys and past checkpoints run by the police and the gangs. He’d joined the Boy Scouts to get the uniform, which made him look more official on his rounds.

Victor was everything Nick wasn’t. Nick was timid and priggish; Victor was a hustler, an adventurer, a carouser. “He always had one girlfriend after another,” Nick said in the oral history. “He was a good dancer and very good in company. He was a very enjoyable person. He was also a very self-centered person, very effective in promoting himself.”

Victor could charm anybody, particularly those, like Nikolai and Irina, who believed they were impervious to being charmed. They were at first furiously suspicious of him, but soon they were enchanted. After a couple of months of hearing his stories about how he was sleeping on the street after his latest fight with his father, they told him he could move in. He proved to be an unreliable houseguest–useless at chores, ostentatiously baffled when cash or little trinkets went missing–but Nikolai and Irina doted on him. They even enjoyed the innumerable ways he found to hit them up for loans; Irina still laughed years later over the way Victor had once danced around her on the street like an organ-grinder’s monkey, begging her, “Let me have a quarter, please let me have a quarter.”

Nick and Victor, with the profound taciturn devotion of teenage boys, spent every day together. Victor worked hard to bring Nick out of his shell. He had no luck coaxing him into sampling Shanghai’s adult entertainments, but he did get him to play hooky. The two attended the Russian school together until the fall of 1940, when the school had to close; it was right on the boundary between the settlement and the Badlands, and the street fighting in the Badlands was growing too anarchic. So Nick and Victor enrolled in night classes at a college in the French Concession. But the lectures were given in French, which neither of them spoke well enough to follow; so at Victor’s instigation, they started skipping classes and going to movies instead.

“Never have I seen so many movies as we saw that winter,” Nick remembered. “And Shanghai had beautiful movie theaters–elaborately constructed, huge, and richly furnished.” They showed the latest arrivals from Hollywood; when The Hunchback of Notre Dame opened, the Cathay Theatre hired dozens of real hunchbacks to go through the streets of the settlement wearing sandwich boards advertising the premiere. But Nick didn’t care much what the feature was. He loved the American newsreels: the congressional debates, the presidential election (he was still rooting for Roosevelt, though he had some doubts about the propriety of a third term), wacky doings in the heartland, and the latest ominous news from Europe–the fall of France, the London blitz, the Russian invasion of Finland.

Whenever Nick would talk about the issue that concerned him most–whether America should enter the war against Germany–Victor would snort in contempt. What did FDR or Churchill or Hitler matter in Shanghai, on the other side of the world? And besides, whatever big-shot government was in charge, there would always be some deal to be made. The real issue was whether Rita Hayworth was prettier than Norma Shearer, or whether the usherette was flirting back enough to be worth pursuing.

That’s how they would argue as they bicycled home, their voices ringing off the blocks of silent warehouses. The commercial district was always desolate late at night–there was no movement for miles at a time but the silent ships on the river and the occasional bright spill of revelers from a late-night club.

That winter was miserably cold and clammy. Toward spring Nikolai got a serious respiratory infection. He believed it was tuberculosis–he thought he’d had it once before but had cured himself with Ukrainian herbal medicine. This time he couldn’t get the right herbs. His doctor advised him to get out of the foul air of Shanghai and recommended that he take a long vacation in the resort city of Tsingtao. Nikolai seized on this idea: he decided to quit his job, buy land in Tsingtao, and become a farmer.

Tsingtao was on the coast a couple of hundred miles north of Shanghai. Like so many cities in China, it had been built by Westerners–in this case Germans. It had the Gothic architecture and tree-lined boulevards of a provincial city in the Black Forest–the German settlers had planted the ring of low hills that surrounded the harbor with tens of thousands of pine trees to remind them of home. It was a beautiful and peaceful place. It had been under Japanese occupation for years, but this weighed lightly on the citizens–the garrison was well-disciplined and allowed ordinary life to continue undisturbed.

Most of the population was Chinese, but several rich old German families lingered in mansions along the shore. There was also a small but thriving Russian enclave. Nikolai had what he thought was a brilliant idea: he would raise goats and sell their milk to the Germans and Russians as a luxury health-food item.

At first Nick was pleased about moving to Tsingtao. He would have to drop out of the French college, so his parents would never find out that he’d stopped attending classes. But he hated the idea of leaving Victor behind, and he dreaded the prospect of being trapped with his parents. Nikolai had no intention of living in Tsingtao itself; the whole point for him was to get back to the land. As soon as they arrived in the spring of 1941 he leased an unpromising acre of land on the outskirts of the city, then supervised Nick in the construction of a ramshackle cabin. Nick resented being ordered around, loathed the work, and detested the result. Nikolai also bought a herd of goats and leased grazing rights to a stretch of hillside above their land. While he and Irina cultivated their gardens, Nick kept watch over the goats.

He always remembered that summer as the most wretched time of his life. Each morning he had the difficult task of leading the goats to pasture. “Goats,” he later said, “are extremely obstinate, uncooperative animals.” As the herd drifted along the slopes and meadows, nibbling at acacia leaves, Nick would sit and feel sorry for himself. There was nothing to do all day but watch the cloud shadows move from the hillside across the town and into the shallow bowl of the harbor.

He learned by heart the roofscape of Tsingtao. Like Harbin and Shanghai, it had a core of blocky European buildings surrounded by a fanciful forest of Chinese tile. There was a big, steam-wreathed brewery, the forbidding maze of the Japanese garrison, and on the outskirts of town the airfield, where beat-up one-engine planes, new passenger airliners, and military fighters and transports–he saw more and more of those as the summer went on–buzzed and circled like dragonflies in the shimmering heat. But dominating the view was the China Sea, drawing Nick’s gaze to the horizon and to the world beyond, where interesting things happened.

One afternoon that fall he heard a low throbbing coming from behind the hills that grew louder toward evening. As he led the goats down the slope toward their pen the worst thunderstorm he’d ever seen rose above the hillcrests. It was a vast tidal wave of blackness, streaked with purple and crowned by flashes of yellow lightning. The rain was falling by the time he got back to the cabin. He and his parents spent the night huddled together as the roof sprang countless leaks and the rainwater streamed under the door and walls and turned the dirt floor into bubbling mud. Just before dawn a great roar of wind brought down one wall of the cabin.

It was the end of Nikolai’s dream of becoming a farmer. Within a day he put Nick and Irina in a boardinghouse in town, sold the goats, and found a job. On the edge of town was a big dairy farm run by a Russian-Jewish family, who’d gone to America and become citizens before moving to China to make their fortune. They hired Nikolai as a foreman and allowed him and his family to move into a little cottage next to the bunkhouse.

The first night in the cottage Nick barely slept. He couldn’t wait for morning, when he would be able to get away from the farm and spend some time in town. But when sunup came and he tried to sneak out unnoticed, he found a Japanese soldier guarding the main gate.

The soldier was young and nervous; he brandished his rifle at Nick and ordered him to stand back. A couple of farmhands came by, and the soldier waved the rifle wildly in the air and fired off a round. That brought everybody else running. Nobody wanted to rush the soldier, who was growing more and more panicky, so they just stood around, waiting to see what would happen. An hour later a limousine came up the road carrying a couple of Japanese officers and an interpreter. One of the officers explained the situation in Japanese, the interpreter translated into English, and the import filtered through the crowd in Chinese and Russian. As of that morning, the officer said, Japan and the United States were at war, and all property owned by American citizens in Tsingtao was being confiscated. That was how Nick first heard about Pearl Harbor.

The Russians in China weren’t legal citizens anywhere. The only official document most of them carried was a temporary passport issued to Russian exiles around the world by the League of Nations. This had barely given them legitimacy even in countries that recognized the league. Invariably the passports triggered bewildered consultations among customs officials, requests for bribes, curt refusals of permission to enter or leave, and threats of arrest. With the coming of the war the league was gone, and the passports went from being marginally useful to wholly worthless. The Russians were now dependent on the indulgence of local authorities for their survival.

Tsingtao’s Russian enclave believed its status might not change much. Japan and the Soviet Union weren’t at war with each other, and the local Japanese garrison had always left them alone. For a while ordinary life in Tsingtao went on as before. Even the dairy farm stayed open, though the Japanese ran it; nobody ever found out what happened to the American owners. But the war did mean that Nick got a job.

At the time mysterious organizations were springing up in Russian enclaves throughout Asia. They were called Russian anticommunist committees. Their exact purpose wasn’t clear, nor was the source of their financing. Mostly they served as a kind of semiofficial buffer between the Russian exile communities and the Japanese authorities. Their public activities were benign and philanthropic. They paid for teachers at the Russian schools, and they held fund-raisers and charity balls to keep the Russian theaters and music societies open. In Tsingtao they put out a weekly Russian-language newspaper. It ran a smattering of what little local news there was, but for the most part it was filled with wire-service stories approved by the Japanese censors. Despite the Japanese occupation, the wire services were still in English, which the editor didn’t speak. Nick had picked up some English in Shanghai from reading American newspapers, and he was hired to translate the stories into Russian.

Nick took this job very seriously. When the editor noticed his unfailing energy he gave him responsibility for the newspaper’s weekly half-page “Youth” section. Nick always called it the best job he ever had. (Forty years later he was still listing it on his resume.) He worried over every detail–the notices of concert programs at the local school, the date of the chaperoned dance at Tsingtao’s Russian church. When there wasn’t enough copy to fill the half page he wrote articles himself, with headlines such as “What Should Youth Do?” and “Youth Responds to the Current Crisis.” He took to conducting all his correspondence on the newspaper letterhead and signed every letter “Editor, Youth Section.” He even started smoking because, as he said afterward, “It befitted my new status as a newspaper editor.”

The newspaper office was on the second floor of an old German bank building, near the end of a dim corridor of pebbled-glass doors, between a Chinese accounting firm and a mysterious import-export company. Nick’s happiest hours were spent there–especially after the editor had gone home and he could stay late into the night, smoking cigarettes and reading the newest wire-service copy. He followed the progress of the war with a consuming fascination. It was difficult to make out exactly what was happening because the copy was censored, but the drift was unmistakable: the Japanese were winning major victories, the Americans were desperately falling back throughout the Pacific. Nick was rooting for the Americans, of course. He’d come to detest the Japanese for the way they were acting in China. He hadn’t seen anything happen in Tsingtao, but like everybody else he’d heard stories of atrocities; when the Japanese captured the city of Nanking in 1937, people said that tens of thousands of Chinese had been massacred. (The recently published The Rape of Nanking puts the number in the hundreds of thousands.)

Nick was particularly worried about Victor in Shanghai. When Nick’s family had left, the chaos in the Badlands was threatening to swamp the whole city, and with the coming of the war the neutrality of the International Settlement was at an end. The whole of Shanghai was under martial law. Most of the Americans and Europeans who hadn’t already left were taken off to internment camps; the Russians had been permitted to stay, but they were harassed and tormented by the Japanese occupying army. Victor didn’t mention these problems in his letters, which instead contained mocking allusions to dirty jokes that made Nick blush. But Nick was suspicious; if Victor had been all right he would have been boasting of his dangerous adventures.

One day Nick mentioned his worries to his editor, who surprised him by asking about Victor’s background and character. A couple of weeks later Victor showed up in Tsingtao, carrying a pass stamped by dozens of ideographs and an official letter stating in Japanese and Russian that his presence was urgently needed by the local anticommunist committee.

Nick remembered in the oral history, “There actually wasn’t anything for Victor to do at the newspaper or the committee.” But he and his parents were delighted to have Victor back, even if he seemed oddly subdued. He refused to say anything about what had happened to him in Shanghai. He was surprised though that Tsingtao’s Russians were so relaxed around the Japanese soldiers.

Nick was deeply impressed by his editor’s clout. It confirmed all his old daydreams about the glory and importance of newspapers. He didn’t stop to wonder how it was that the editor could have this kind of influence with the Japanese–until a couple of months later, when letters arrived for him and Victor from the chairman of the Tsingtao committee informing them that they were being drafted by the Japanese army.

They were sent to Tientsin, an industrial river port southeast of Peking, where the Japanese had set up a cadet school for Russian boys. The school was outside of town, where a factory district gave way to wide fields and rice paddies. The campus was nothing more than a battered barracks and a couple of derelict warehouses that had been converted to schoolrooms and a makeshift gym. There were a scattering of Chinese servants and a couple of bored Japanese guards. One of the teachers was Japanese; the other two, and the school commandant, were old White Army soldiers. Around 40 boys had come from Russian enclaves the length of the Japanese empire, from Harbin to Singapore.

The boys were drilled endlessly. Much of it was the training they would have got at any military school–parade, rifle practice, calisthenics. But they were also taught Japanese techniques of self-defense and hand-to-hand combat with bamboo rods. And the core subject, the heart of their routine, was learning Japanese, every day, three hours a day.

Their commandant explained to them why they’d been drafted. The school was a tiny part of Japan’s long-range plans for its new empire. Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union with the goal of capturing all its territory eastward to the Urals; once it had succeeded–and news of victory was expected any day–Japan intended to move in from the other direction and conquer Siberia and central Asia. It would need Russian officers fluent in Japanese to act as interpreters during a prolonged military occupation, which was why they’d told the committees to watch for likely cadets.

Many of the boys at the school were already committed to the cause of overthrowing the Soviet Union, with or without Japanese backing. It was a common daydream of young Russian exiles in those days, just as boys in the American south dreamed of refighting and winning the Battle of Gettysburg. A few boys thought the whole idea was a farce, and they would sometimes say so during the surreptitious nightly debates the cadets conducted. Victor seemed indifferent; he was mostly interested in figuring out how to sneak away from the school long enough to explore Tientsin.

Nick had no idea what to think. He saw the Russian Revolution as an event so vast and primordial that he couldn’t imagine what his life would have been like without it. He didn’t want to collaborate with the Japanese on this or anything else–he simply believed he had no choice about being at the school. “If I’d refused to go,” he said in the oral history, “I would have undoubtedly been arrested by the Japanese military police.” So he resigned himself to his situation and allowed himself to be carried along through the months of lessons and calisthenics and military drills. His chief feeling for quite a while was sheer relief at being away from his parents.

The boys heard little from home and nothing whatever about the war. During the summer and into the fall they spent hours clacking and slapping their bamboo sticks at each other on the wildflower-strewn fields at the edge of the school grounds. By winter they were being taught more elaborate tactical games, most of them military versions of hide-and-seek; they took great delight crashing along through the ice on the rice paddies and stalking and ambushing each other with unloaded rifles among the frozen reeds. In the dead of winter the games were often canceled, and the cadets instead had to police the grounds. The winds often came from the northwest during those months, bringing cindery black showers of frozen sand blown hundreds of miles from the remote Gobi Desert.

The second year was much the same. The only unusual event came one winter evening when soldiers arrived with a prisoner they locked in the brig overnight. They took him away the next morning without saying a word, but a rumor went around the school that the prisoner was a downed American pilot.

That year Nick himself was put in the brig for two days for being five minutes late for dinner. Then Nick and some of the other boys caught one of the cadets stealing, and Nick organized the punishment: after lights-out they pinned the thief to his bunk and lashed him with their belts. The thief was expelled, and Nick was sentenced to three days in the brig. This time he complained so bitterly about the bad food, the hard bunk, and the absence of blankets that the guards had to remind him he was being punished.

Still, by then he’d come to love being at the school and was becoming increasingly depressed that his time there was almost up. He idolized the school commandant and the Japanese teacher; perhaps it’s no coincidence that they were men like his father–aloof and imperious, with a regal military bearing. When graduation day came he was almost in tears at the thought of leaving them. The ceremony was held at the end of summer on the little parade ground between the barracks–a plot of cracked concrete fringed by weeds. Nick and Victor were both commissioned as lieutenants. They weren’t sure what to expect: a posting to some battle zone deep in Asia, perhaps. Instead they were simply told to return home and await further orders.

They rode the train back to Tsingtao together. It had been two years since they’d been outside the school grounds, and they were vaguely surprised to see how little the fields and rice paddies unfolding on either side of the railroad tracks had changed. The passengers looked no different–they could have been the same crowd of soldiers, businessmen, and peasants who’d ridden with them the last time. But then Nick noticed that at the other end of the car a Japanese soldier was drunk and causing a disturbance. Nick had never seen such a shocking breach of Japanese military discipline. He later recalled that it was at that moment that he understood why there had been no talk at the ceremony of the great crusade against the Bolsheviks, why the cadets had all been sent home without orders. Japan was losing the war.

Tsingtao had preserved its isolation from the outside world. There were no bombed streets or gutted buildings; the rooftops still glinted peacefully within the ring of the harbor. But Nick and Victor were disturbed to find decay everywhere. The familiar houses had all become shabbier, the parks were unkempt, and paint was peeling from balustrades. Nothing had been built or repaired since the war started. The people on the streets, both Chinese and Russian, looked scrawny and unhealthy. While the city was better off than a lot of China–by then there was famine across much of the country–food was tightly rationed and there were continual shortages. The soldiers from the Japanese garrison were the most alarming sight of all: they looked like undernourished children. When their superiors weren’t looking they sometimes begged the townspeople for food.

But the Russian enclave in Tsingtao was hanging on, and it welcomed the two new lieutenants back like heroes. Friends brought out hoarded food so there could be a proper banquet, everyone in the taverns bought them drinks, and within a day or two people had arranged jobs for them. The committee’s newspaper had ceased publication–there was a newsprint shortage–so Nick began teaching Japanese at the Russian school. Victor was hired by the biggest law office in town as an interpreter.

The next issue to be dealt with was their eligibility in the marriage market–they were good-looking, they had prestige, and they’d just turned 20. While Nick was away, his mother had picked out a bride for him. She was a pretty and sweet girl named Vera, the daughter of a local shop owner. A dance was arranged so that they could be formally introduced, and the young Russians in town were there. It was a disaster, as far as Irina was concerned: Vera had eyes only for Victor. Irina was furious and thought Nick should confront Victor about flirting so shamelessly. But Nick didn’t care. He’d met somebody else and had instantly fallen in love.

Her name was Maria Solokovskaya. Her family had been wealthy landholders in Siberia; her father and grandfather had owned gold mines. Since the revolution they’d followed the same wandering track through China as Nick’s family–several years in Harbin, where Maria and her brothers and sisters had been born, then Shanghai during the 1930s, and then Tsingtao. But Maria was a couple of years older than Nick and had led a much less sheltered life in Shanghai. She and her sisters had worked as dance-hall hostesses and movie-theater usherettes and had gone to all the glamorous parties. A photograph from the late 30s shows Maria in her most stylish clothes attending a party on a yacht at anchor in the Huangpu River; she’s surrounded by glittering European aristocrats, and hanging from the yacht’s rigging behind them are swastika banners.

Maria was beautiful and ferociously intelligent, but her family considered her odd–so odd they thought she was unmarriageable. She could be as flirty and charming as her sisters, but she preferred to stay in her room reading books. Sometimes she would refuse at the last minute to come to some party that had been arranged for her benefit; the guests would be waiting downstairs, and her father and mother would plead with her in vain to unlock her door. She had gone to this dance as proof that she could still be agreeable, but she’d quickly grown bored and was more inclined than usual to be tart to any young man who dared address her.

Nick was enchanted. He laughed uproariously at every insult and by the end of the evening was pestering her for a date.

What did she see in Nick? By the time I knew her, almost 40 years later, she never talked about him at all. She told me the one true love of her life had been an American soldier she’d known in Shanghai before the war. “His name was Billy,” she said, “and he had beautiful eyes.” When he disappeared she’d resigned herself to spinsterhood. But she must have been impressed by Nick’s implacable determination to court her. She once told her daughter Nina how Nick had persuaded her to accept his proposal: the first time they were alone together, a couple of weeks after the dance, he’d taken his revolver from his pocket, pressed it to his temple, and solemnly promised that if she didn’t immediately agree to marry him he would pull the trigger.

They were married the following spring in Tsingtao’s little Orthodox church. It was the same church where, a month later, Victor married Vera. As Nick and Maria and the rest of their wedding party emerged from the ceremony, a swarm of Japanese planes rose from the airfield and went roaring and sputtering across the sky directly overhead, on their way to bomb something just the other side of the hills. That, Nick later said, was the closest the war ever got to Tsingtao.

Nick was always an early riser, and it was his habit in the first days of his marriage to sneak out of the house at dawn and bring back breakfast for Maria. They were living in a beautiful apartment in one of the richest sections of Tsingtao, with a spectacular view of the harbor. They would never have been able to afford it ordinarily, but the war had created a lot of bargains; the landlady was letting them have it in exchange for half their monthly flour ration. Down the street was a little cluster of stores surrounding a German bakery. It was one of Nick’s favorite places; in the summer dawn the scent of pine sap and acacia leaves was suffused with the odor of hot sugared flour.

One August morning he was standing outside the bakery about to head home when his eye was caught by newspapers tacked up outside the Chinese grocery store that were flapping like banners in the wind. Nick still couldn’t speak Chinese, but written Chinese and Japanese are close enough that he was able to do a rough translation. “Thunder From Heaven Destroys Japanese City,” one headline read. He went home to wake Maria with the news of what had happened at Hiroshima.

A few days later American planes began passing over Tsingtao. Most of them flew so high they couldn’t be seen, but it was easy to recognize them. Nick had got used to the sound of Japanese airplane engines buzzing and knocking their way across the sky, barely staying aloft on their low-octane fuel; he was dazzled by the sweet humming efficiency of the American engines. Then one morning the town woke to find an American battleship sitting in the harbor. The next day there were a couple more, and by week’s end there was a bristling forest of them. They were waiting for the official surrender of the Japanese garrison. When the day arrived for the transfer of power, the people of Tsingtao lined the streets and rooftops to watch the Americans come ashore. Nick described the scene in the oral history: “We were flabbergasted. The endless lines of six-by-six trucks and jeeps and personnel carriers, artillery battalions, tanks which snaked through the streets of Tsingtao in never-ending columns–it was beyond description and beyond our comprehension. It was obvious the Japanese didn’t have a tenth the firepower and technical support the Americans had.”

The Americans took over the airfield and turned it into a major base. Soon the streets of Tsingtao were crowded with American marines, and the old placidity of the city was obliterated by honky-tonk sleaze. Nick remembered, “Every second business on the main street of Tsingtao became a nightclub. A few weeks before, it was a haberdashery, a five-and-ten store, a drugstore, a small family restaurant. Now it had a bar and a floor show. There were drunken fights on the streets and all kinds of troubles between soldiers and civilians.”

But soon even those who resented the Americans’ arrival were looking for a way to cash in. Irina and Nikolai put a sign up on one of the base’s bulletin boards saying they would serve home-cooked meals in their kitchen for any soldier who wanted a break from the military mess. “There was a little bit of a problem with that,” Nick once told me in a confidential tone. “My mother wasn’t really a very good cook.” Yet within a day they had eight seats filled and a waiting list. Nick quit his job at the school–he had no pupils, since nobody now had a reason to learn Japanese–and got a job at the base as a laborer. The Americans were always building something–a new runway or bunker or warehouse–and they were always willing to pay somebody else to do the work.

Nick did his job diligently–he was always a good worker, no matter who his employer was–and was soon promoted to foreman. This was his first real exposure to Americans. They perplexed him. He’d thought they’d be idealistic, happy, and honest, as they were in the newsreels. But they were cynical, vulgar, bigoted, and mysterious. They lived according to a code of etiquette he found inscrutable: they were constantly insulting and belittling you, and yet they were forever bristling at imagined slights. Where was the democratic pride and openness he’d so long admired? He decided that the soldiers at the base must not be typical.

About a year after the Americans arrived the Soviet Union offered to repatriate all Russians still in exile. Anyone who’d fled during the revolution or the civil war, or any of their children born in foreign countries, could enter the Soviet Union and receive full citizenship. The offer was furiously debated in Tsingtao, as it was in all the surviving Russian enclaves around the world. Most people assumed it was just one of Stalin’s lies. Anyone foolish enough to accept, they said, would be sent immediately to the gulag or else be shot. But a few were more hopeful. They were worn out by the endless uncertainty of the emigre life, by the decades of irrelevant defiance and useless hope and subsisting on the dubious tolerance of foreign governments. Maybe some of them just wanted to return to a place where everybody spoke Russian. Nick knew two people who decided to accept the offer. One was Maria’s oldest brother, Donat; the other was Victor.

Donat was the smartest of the Solokovsky children; he was also the most contrary and contentious. He was an engineer, a hands-on person who could fix anything around the house while simultaneously haranguing you about some stupidity he’d just read in the newspaper. The Solokovsky family liked to tell the story of a dinner party they’d once given for a distinguished old White Army general: as the guest of honor told several of his favorite anecdotes from the civil war, Donat began fuming over what he saw as inaccuracies and improbabilities, and at last, just before dessert, he burst out with the outraged cry “You’re a liar!” and stormed out of the dining room. The family joked that if he tried to get into the Soviet Union he’d probably provoke a fistfight with a KGB agent at the border.

Victor was bored with Tsingtao and wanted something new. His marriage was a misery. His wife had proved to be vague, useless, and timid–except when it came to his carousing; then she could be blazingly furious. His job at the law office was going nowhere. He detested the Americans; he thought they were so pervasively criminal they made him look like the soul of honesty. He began talking about the Soviet Union in terms he’d once mocked–it was the future of the world, the idealistic alternative to the corruptions of the West. Nick couldn’t believe he was serious. Besides, Nick later remembered, “I warned him he’d be in incredible danger if they found out what the cadet school was for.”

Donat and Victor set off together. They’d never met before the day of departure, but as they sailed away they looked to Nick and their friends and family like two old companions in an epic poem–the classically handsome Russian aristocrat and the exotic half-Chinese ne’er-do-well. The ship took them north to Vladivostok, where they were to cross into the Soviet Union. Nick and everybody in Tsingtao waited eagerly for word of them. But no word ever came.

Nick never said so, but I think he was relieved to have Victor gone. In the oral history he barely mentioned Victor at the cadet school, and he talked mostly about how irritating and irresponsible his old friend had become after their return to Tsingtao. He said he had no idea what had happened to Victor and plainly had no interest in finding out. But then his whole relationship with Victor was something of an aberration. He would never again have such a close friend, and he would go for long periods with no friends at all.

Nick’s relationship with his parents too had deteriorated after his return from the cadet school. His marriage only accelerated the process. Nikolai and Irina never liked Maria; they thought she was haughty and strange. She returned the favor, regarding them, despite their aristocratic pretensions, as ill-mannered peasants. Nikolai and Irina also subjected Nick to a steady drone of advice and complaints about everything else in his life. They thought it was ridiculous that he was working at such a menial job at the airbase, because it showed he lacked seriousness. They told him what clothes he should wear, what food he should eat, what books he should read. He never argued, but would simply stare at them with sullen resentment and then walk away.

Then Nikolai was offered a job back in Shanghai. The American navy was looking for mechanical engineers to work at a naval base they’d built near the International Settlement. Nikolai immediately accepted, and he and Irina left Tsingtao in the winter of 1946. Their harassment of Nick was reduced to a trickle of erratically delivered letters and strained phone calls.

Nick was alone with Maria, and for the first time in his life he felt perfectly happy. He loved being married to her. She was moodier than she’d seemed at first, but he admired her feistiness and intelligence. She had read more of the Russian classics than he had–he respected great writers, but fiction and poetry generally bored him–and she was always willing to argue with him about ideas. They spent whole days strolling together around the city and the surrounding countryside, debating and laughing. In the evenings they often took a blanket and picnic basket down to the beach and watched the light fade over the ocean.

But Nick knew their idyll would be short-lived. He was still a devoted reader of newspapers and was following with increasing concern the progress of the Chinese revolution. He’d never before thought he had any stake in what was happening in China. “China was just the place I happened to live,” he said in the oral history. “I never learned any Chinese or had any Chinese acquaintances. There was an insuperable cultural barrier between my life and theirs.” But he’d never thought this was a problem. “All my years in China,” he remembered, “I’d never felt any direct hostility from any Chinese person.” Now that was changing. He recognized that there must have been a lot of long-smoldering, unappeasable resentment toward the millions of foreigners who’d built their own cities on Chinese soil, ignored Chinese laws, and sneered at Chinese culture. As the communist armies spread from Manchuria to the inner provinces in 1947, Nick realized that he and the other foreigners in Tsingtao would be driven out.

By 1948 Tsingtao was cut off from the Chinese interior. The communists now controlled most of the countryside beyond the ring of hills; no traffic moved on the roads, and no planes flew in from the Chinese interior. The city’s residents depended for supplies on the neutral ships still trading among the cities of the coast. And then the Americans began to depart. One by one, the big transport planes flew eastward and didn’t return. The thicket of military ships in the harbor dwindled. Business began to dry up in the nightclubs and brothels of Tsingtao, and a lot of the townspeople sold out and left China for good. Nick kept going out to the base each day but was almost always told that there was no work for his crew.

At the end of the year the Americans officially announced that they were closing the base. Then the chairman of the long-moribund anticommunist committee came back to Tsingtao with the news that he and the other committee big shots had got the new United Nations International Refugee Organization to agree to evacuate all Russian exiles still in China.

In January 1949 one last American ship appeared in the harbor. It was a U.S. Navy transport sent to pick up the thousand or so Russians who hadn’t yet left Tsingtao. The scene was chaotic. The UN relief workers had set an absolute limit of 250 pounds of luggage per person. “Which is almost nothing,” Nick later said, “when you’re talking about a lifetime’s worth of possessions.” Countless mementos and treasures were abandoned on the docks–photo albums and heirloom silver and handcrafted furniture and libraries that had been saved from the wreckage of Russia. Nick didn’t own many such things, but he did have his mother’s beloved old china set, rescued from Vladivostok long ago. He’d carefully packed it in a steamer trunk for the voyage. Two sailors lifting it into the hold let it slip–it fell to the dock with a crash, then slid off the planks and vanished into the water.

The ship sailed south along the coast to Shanghai, where the refugees were given temporary shelter while the UN arranged for another ship to carry them out of China. They stayed in a deserted French army base. Nick and the others spent their days pacing around the grounds, peering through the barbed-wire fences at the desolate streets of the International Settlement.

The settlement was a sad remnant of what it once had been. Most of the mansions and big apartment houses had stood empty for a decade, and during the later years of the war the Japanese had gutted them for anything they could possibly use–furniture, wood paneling, plumbing fixtures, fabric. They’d torn out the radiators for the brass and dug the wiring out of the walls for the copper. Afterward few of the original owners had seen any point in returning and rebuilding–especially with the revolution gathering force. Even the Russians who’d lasted through the war had already been evacuated. For hours at a time nothing moved in the old, ornate streets but the last American military patrols.

In the middle of February the refugees were taken down to the docks along the Huangpu River, where an enormous chartered transport ship was waiting. It crawled down the Huangpu to the mouth of the Yangtze and into the open waters of the East China Sea. Nick said later he felt nothing as he watched the low coastline of China sink below the horizon. “I never really got interested in China as a place until years after I left.”

For days there was nothing to look at but empty water. But the weather grew gradually warmer, as though the seasons were passing, and green islands began to edge their way across the horizon. They were sailing through the Philippine archipelago; island after island glided past them, some of them almost close enough to touch. One morning a smudge appeared dead ahead, then widened and flattened into a tangled line of palm trees. It was the tiny island of Tubabao, just east of Leyte. There, on a derelict American naval base left over from the invasion of the Philippines, the UN had set up a refugee camp.

The camp held several thousand people–the last remaining Russian exiles from China. Nick always remembered the shock he felt when he got his first glimpse of the Russians already in the camp. He was from a culture that believed it was indecent for a man to appear in mixed company with his collar unbuttoned–and here were thousands of men and women walking around in shorts, sleeveless shirts, and rubber-tire sandals. Some of the men weren’t even wearing shirts. Nick’s horror deepened when he made his way through the camp to find his parents, who’d been evacuated from Shanghai a month earlier. They were sprawled in front of their tent in lawn chairs, dressed in little more than their underwear, complacently acquiring suntans.

Nikolai already had the situation well in hand. Like most of the refugees, he wanted to go on to America, but the UN workers said nobody could get in without an American sponsor. So he and Irina had immediately written to all the soldiers who’d come to their daily home-cooked lunches in Tsingtao. One of them had quickly written back to say that he and his parents in Rockford, Illinois, would be proud to sponsor them. Nikolai had taken the letter to the camp’s administrative office, and the surprised officials had told him that he and his family should expect to receive permission to enter America within two months.

For the moment there was nothing for Nick and Maria and the rest of the family to do but wait. That wasn’t difficult. The island was a beautiful place. The days were hot and serene, the sunsets ravishing, and the nights so glassy it was like being suspended upside down over a well of stars. There was a big lagoon on the east shore where everyone went swimming–you could see every pebble and darting fish 10 or 20 feet down. There were no hidden dangers, no hostile natives, no predators lurking in the jungle. The worst menace was a poisonous caterpillar, brilliant and furry red, that would sometimes creep across your exposed skin while you slept and leave a trail of angry welts.

And there were rats. Nick never found out if they were indigenous or had come as stowaways on the navy ships, but they had overrun the island. On calm nights you could hear them in the jungle, hundreds of thousands of them scrabbling up and down the palm trees and rustling the fronds. They got into everything–the tents, the offices, the warehouses. They ate their way into crates of rations and once devoured an entire shipment of badly packed soap. The one place they didn’t invade was Nick and Maria’s tent.

Maria had come up with a brilliant solution to the rat problem: she adopted one as a pet. She fed it regularly and allowed it to sleep in a little nest of ragged clothes underneath her cot. It was shy around her and Nick; they went for days without getting more than a glimpse of it. But it was fiercely territorial when it came to other rats and savagely defended the tent against them. The result was that Nick and Maria were the only people on the island who didn’t have to keep their food in a locked trunk. Maria recommended her solution to everybody, but there were no takers. Even Nick was uncomfortable about it. He thought it reinforced the general belief that Maria was crazy.

Months slipped by with no word about their entry into America. Partly out of necessity, partly out of boredom, the residents began elaborate projects. They salvaged wrecked trucks from the old motor pool and cannibalized parts to get some of them running. They built big communal open-air kitchens and installed rows of war-surplus propane stoves. They managed to recondition two abandoned electric generators and strung spiderwebs of wire; soon the tents were lit up from within at night like magic lanterns. They dammed one of the island’s freshwater streams and piped the water to tanks scattered throughout the camp. Nikolai was put in charge of that project because of his old job with the waterworks, and he ordered people about with great satisfaction.

Nick wanted to be put in charge of the camp newspaper. (One of the warehouses had yielded an ancient typewriter and a mimeograph machine.) He assumed he was entitled because he’d been a newspaper editor, but the posts were filled by a university professor and a couple of reporters from a big Shanghai daily, who snorted in contempt at Nick’s qualifications. Instead he was assigned to break rocks at the quarry for the new roads.

The camp was like a concentrated version of Nick’s past–virtually all the Russians in Asia were now crammed into this makeshift village. His parents’ tent was five rows east and six north; his in-laws, who’d been evacuated from Shanghai and Indonesia, were scattered in a narrow circle to the south. He bumped into classmates from the Russian school in Shanghai and his editor at the Tsingtao paper. Everybody knew everybody else, and they all loved to gossip–about who was having an affair, who had found American sponsors, who was a big wheel with the UN officials. They all knew that Nick was the one with the strange wife; they sometimes joked that she had some sort of secret fairy-tale arrangement with the rats.

Still, Nick wasn’t unhappy. As a society, the camp may have been a kind of mirage–its present circumstances precarious, its future unknown–but that was no different from any other place he’d lived. He didn’t mind working in the quarry; he’d always liked hard work. Back at the tent he became something of a handyman. In an ambitious mood he fashioned a private shower for Maria out of an old oil drum; it didn’t work very well, but she loved it anyway. And he came to enjoy the cultural life of the camp. Every week the relief workers brought in battered prints of old Hollywood movies, and the whole camp gathered to watch them. The professional musicians gave concerts, as did an amateur choral society. In a clearing that had been a basketball court in the days of the American navy, some of the refugees built a raised stage out of palm-tree planks and old oil drums, and there actors from the Russian theaters in Shanghai and Harbin put on plays. That was the first time Nick saw Hamlet, performed in Russian by half-naked actors slashing with wooden swords against a backdrop of palm trees on a starlit tropical night.

Toward the end of the first year the president of the Philippines, Elpidio Quirino, came for a visit and made a speech to the assembled refugees, officially welcoming them all as “honored guests.” But he said nothing about how long they would be his guests or what would happen to them afterward. A few months later U.S. senator William Knowland arrived for an afternoon and made a speech promising that a displaced-persons bill would soon be approved by Congress and they would be able to enter America. The next day UN officials posted notices informing them that America would not let them in and that they should make alternative plans.

A bitter joke went around camp: the Americans had become so paranoid and xenophobic they thought an anticommunist must be some particularly horrible variety of communist. Everyone’s mood was sour. Nor did morale improve when, a few days later, an official delegation from Australia arrived and announced that the refugees were welcome to come to their country–assuming they were willing to sign employment contracts as manual laborers at the big sheep farms in the outback. The delegation handed out color brochures describing the excitement and challenge of the Australian frontier; they’d even brought an hour-long movie showing the good life awaiting them. “It had a lot of scenes of farmers plowing fields with teams of horses,” Nick said. “It wasn’t very enticing to professional people from a big city like Shanghai.” The Australians got few takers.

After they left, a senior UN official arrived and made a speech accusing the Russians of being ungrateful and obstructionist. Nick said, “It was very rude, and it was finally too much for us. There was almost a riot. His aides had to hustle him into his jeep and drive him out of the camp as quickly as possible.” That was the last important visitor they got.

A month or so later Nick fell sick with dengue fever. He spent six weeks lying on a cot in the camp infirmary, too weak to move. His recovery was slow and dispiriting. “I sank into a depression,” he remembered. “A deep black apathy.” He didn’t go back to work at the quarry. Instead he spent whole days sprawled by the lagoon, idly watching the movement of clouds over the ocean. “There we were, stuck in the middle of that godforsaken jungle. Nobody cared about us. We were forgotten by everyone.”

That was where he was dozing one afternoon toward the end of his second year on the island, when he saw on the eastern horizon a thunderhead rise out of the sea. Little flickers of lightning illuminated its rose-tinted promontories. Platoons of small black clouds skimmed across the shadowy water. Showers began to ruffle the calm lagoon, and waves shattered on the encircling reef. Nick got back to the camp to find Maria upset that her pet rat had fled to the jungle.

The next day was overcast and blustery, and grumbles of thunder could be heard underneath the roar of the surf. That afternoon the UN workers ordered everybody to move into the few solid structures on the island–the old navy barracks, the hangar, and the warehouse. They all dragged in their cots and a few necessities, then spent the remainder of the daylight hours arranging the cots, boarding up the windows, and patching the rotting roof.

The leading edge of the typhoon passed over the island toward sundown. By morning the roar of rain on the corrugated metal roofing was so loud you couldn’t hear anybody speak. The generator failed, and the electric lights went out. Nick remembered, “I kept thinking it couldn’t get any worse than this, and then it would.” By nightfall the roof was leaking in countless places, and everyone sat hunched together holding big sheets of plastic over their heads. A big patch gave way and a ragged hole in the metal roofing began to shriek in the wind. Around midnight there was a loud roar from somewhere nearby that woke up everybody. Just a lightning strike, they told each other reassuringly.

In the morning the rain was still falling, and the palm trees in the jungle were still tossing in the wind. But the blackest of the clouds were now in the west. Everybody emerged blinking into the gray light.

The camp was gone. The thousands of tents had all torn loose and sailed off to sea. Only a stray torn panel could be seen here and there, dangling from a treetop. The open-air kitchens were a ruin; one of the propane tanks had exploded–that was the roar they’d heard–and had sent the stoves flying into craters of mud. The generators were useless. Everyone’s belongings, the 250 pounds each they’d rescued from China, were scattered in heaps through the jungle. Scraps of letters, wadded-up clothes, sodden photographs were tangled in the underbrush; trunks and suitcases had blown open and filled with rainwater. For days afterward people kept spotting gleams of gold and silver–antique watch chains or irreplaceable necklaces–half buried in the dried mud.

After that everybody seemed to catch Nick’s apathy. Nobody wanted to repair the dam or get the generators going again. They could barely bring themselves to stake out new tents. (At least there was no shortage of them; one of the warehouses contained an inexhaustible supply, left behind years before by a marine division.) For days everyone moved in sullen slow motion. But one morning they were roused by people shouting and calling in excitement. Everyone followed the noise down to the lagoon and discovered that a U.S. Navy transport ship had appeared beyond the reef, like a giant metal mushroom that had popped up after the storm. Nick was so lost in gloom he was convinced it had merely brought fresh supplies. But he was wrong. It had come to take them to America.

Part II (July 24, 1995)

The first sight Nick had of his new homeland was in the late autumn of 1950, when the ship sailed into San Francisco Bay. He’d been expecting a scene of swarming confusion as in the port cities of China. Instead there was nothing but stillness and darkness and fog. The ship glided slowly across the empty water, past remote hooting foghorns and clanging buoys. As Nick peered into the mist he could see only hints of the city–a distant blurred spangle, alluring and mysterious.

Then followed a weary wait of several hours in a dockside warehouse, where the customs and immigration officers had set up a makeshift receiving area. The night was thick with shrill bells, metallic thuds and crashes, grinding engines, inexplicable sirens. Nick passed the time by trying to imagine what was going on beyond the warehouse doors.

Just before dawn he and his wife and parents had their last papers stamped. Their sponsors had mailed them train tickets; the immigration officers gave them directions to the station. They stepped out into the night together. The city was deserted. The streets were silent tunnels of mist; the interminable house rows, mounting out of sight up the steep hills, were all dark. It looked to Nick like Shanghai after the evacuation.

By early morning they were on a train rattling across the country. Nick couldn’t believe how sparsely settled the land was. Hour after hour, the windows showed nothing but slowly shifting vistas of desolate forest and scrubland. Only at rare intervals was there any sign of human presence–an isolated farmhouse, a black line of telegraph poles strung along an immense tawny hillside, a battered road sign on a dirt track. In the evening he glimpsed, in impossibly remote valleys, villages shimmering like a few strewn pearls. The next day there were only mountains, enormous and cold. Beyond them were featureless plains of windblown snow. Nick felt as though he’d come not just to a new world but to an uninhabited one.

They were all dismayed by Rockford. They’d been expecting one of America’s fabulous cosmopolitan cities, gleaming with wealth and excitement; the train left them in an industrial town deep in a wintry countryside. Their sponsors were nice people but appeared to think that everybody in China lived in mud huts. On the first day they took their guests on a tour, plainly expecting them to be dazzled by Rockford’s corner drugstore and soda fountain, the little downtown movie theater, the car dealership near the main highway, the glass-and-steel roadside diner where the truckers ate. For once Maria spoke for the whole family when she kept saying in Russian, “Well, it’s just like some little peasant village, isn’t it?” No one could figure out a way to translate this without causing offense.

Within a few weeks Nick’s parents made plans to move on. They’d got in touch with other Russians already in America–here and there were city neighborhoods dating back to the first wave of emigration, comfortingly familiar places with Russian bakeries and teahouses and bookstores, where a distant relative or a friend of a friend could be counted on to come through with a job or an apartment. Most of the people they knew from the refugee camp were getting settled in these places; some of Maria’s family had gone to New York and some to Sacramento. Irina and Nikolai decided to return to San Francisco, where there was a big Russian enclave in the Richmond district.

Nick had always believed America meant a fresh start. He was 26, in good health–he’d fully recovered from his fever in camp–and eager for something new. He decided to make a go of it in Rockford. He didn’t like it any better than the rest of his family, but it had one big advantage–it would be as far away as possible from his parents. As his relatives found their way into jobs and friendships and supportive communities around the country, he spent his first winter selling encyclopedias door-to-door.

He must have been a strange apparition to his potential customers–fumbling with his sample case and speaking in a Russian accent so thick he came off like a comic-book spy. He was a hopeless salesman–simultaneously pushy, whiny, deferential, self-righteous, and incomprehensible. Unlike the other employees, he genuinely admired the product he was selling and was astonished to the point of despair that anybody would refuse to buy it. He had no idea that it was nothing more than a bad knockoff of the Encyclopaedia Britannica; he’d never seen anything to compare with it and would sometimes spend whole evenings reading to Maria from random pages of the sample volume.

His boss took a liking to him and tried to get him to adopt the more successful style he himself practiced. Here’s how Nick remembered it in an unpublished article about his life in America: “He browbeat working-class people. He said that obviously they didn’t care if their children grew up to be stupid, illiterate bums like their parents. He would rage and cuss, and he almost always made a sale.” Nick was just too polite for anything like that; he couldn’t imagine raising his voice with a stranger. So he went on haplessly lugging his briefcase from door to door; sometimes whole days went by without anybody letting him in.

He moved on to other jobs. He worked briefly for a company that repaired furnaces. But it turned out that they were sabotaging furnaces so they could inflate the repair bills. Nick quit two days before the sheriff arrested the whole crew. Then he got a job at a foundry: “A noisy, dirty, smoky place–I hated it with a passion.” He worked at a farm supply store, which he liked better, but it was six days a week, ten hours a day, for $45 a week. He couldn’t keep himself and Maria alive on that–and she’d become pregnant soon after their arrival in Rockford.

Then he got a job with a company called Woodward Governor, which manufactured prime-mover-control equipment–machines that regulate the operation of large mechanical systems such as power plants and hydroelectric dams. Nick worked in the deburring department and spent all day grinding tiny imperfections off newly made metal parts. It was exhausting work, but that didn’t matter. All he cared about was the utopian atmosphere of the place.

Woodward Governor was an anomaly in Rockford–in fact, it was an anomaly in 50s America–because of its progressive approach to employee relations. The owners were fiercely hostile to organized labor, and they believed they could keep the shop from unionizing if they offered their workers benefits no labor negotiator would dream of demanding. So while the pay was comparable to that at most factories, the perks were astonishing. The plant was maintained with fanatical care: the grounds were dotted with flower beds, the windows and factory floors were scrubbed down nightly, everyone arrived at work each day to find the machinery polished. The cafeteria employed chefs, and on Thanksgiving the CEO, wearing a puffy chef’s hat, served the turkey. Medical and dental checkups were free. There were even free monthly haircuts given on company time; Nick never tired of hearing the announcement over the loudspeaker, “Nick Cherniavsky, you have an appointment with the barber.”

He always said that it was the best company he ever worked for or ever even heard about. He grew to idolize the CEO, a man named Irl Martin, who in Nick’s mind took on the nobility and dignity of the commandant at the Tientsin cadet school. (One of Nick’s unpublished articles, written almost 30 years later, is called “Irl Martin–American Patriot, Industrial Genius.”) During Nick’s first week at the plant Martin gave him the company’s regular “welcome aboard” present–a heavy brass nameplate cut on one of the factory drill presses. Nick took it with him from job to job for the rest of his working life.

Nick’s only problem with the place was his fellow workers. (They were called “members”; the company had forbidden the word “employees.”) They never seemed to be as enthusiastic about the place as Nick was, and he was pained to hear them grumble about company policies he viewed as eminently fair and reasonable. But that was of a piece with their general air of sullen ignorance. He often had moments at Woodward when he thought his old boss at the encyclopedia company had been right–Americans really were stupid, illiterate bums. The other members never talked about history or politics or anything else that mattered to Nick; the only subject that seemed to spark their passion was sports. Then and later, Nick thought it self-evident that anybody who cared about sports was an idiot.

I once asked his daughter Nina, “What kind of conversations did he expect to be having? Did he think that people would sit around in the company cafeteria arguing about the founding fathers and the Bill of Rights?”

“That’s exactly what he thought,” she said. “It’s what he’d always believed America was supposed to be about.”

During their early years in Rockford, Nick and Maria were very happy together. They were profoundly grateful to America for welcoming them; they always spoke of the day in 1955 when they became American citizens as one of the proudest of their lives. They even came to like Rockford, in a way. Nick felt a lot of affection for the cramped apartments they lived in when they first arrived; he always enjoyed telling the story of a Murphy bed that was on so tight a spring that Maria was sometimes folded up inside it. Maria grew to be genuinely impressed by all the cheap modern products available at the dime store. A photo taken at their first Christmas in Rockford shows her exuberantly displaying a new set of cookware: she’s posing with two pots in the middle of the living room, her arms crooked like a flamenco dancer.

After she became pregnant they started looking for a permanent home. But they dawdled and nitpicked and quibbled; when Nina was born in the spring of 1952 they were still living in a two-room furnished apartment. They didn’t find the perfect place until Nina was three. It was a summer cottage, built of cinder block and paneled throughout with knotty pine, that stood on a couple of acres of uncultivated land along the banks of the Rock River.

Nick was determined to be happy there. He was reading a lot of Thoreau and was fired up with the idea of self-reliance; he liked to walk around the house declaiming his favorite passage from Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…” (His other favorite recital piece was from Shakespeare: “Now is the winter of our discontent…”) He disliked how isolated the house was, hated gardening, and was cast into despair every spring when the river rose and flooded them out, but he still felt satisfied that he was roughing it so well.

Maria was the one who really loved the place. All her life she’d treasured her own version of the American dream, one derived from her childhood reading, in Russian translation, of Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Zane Grey, and–her favorite–Captain Mayne Reid (unknown in America since his heyday in the mid-19th century, but beloved by generations of Russian children for Wild West romances such as The Headless Horseman and The Death Shot). She’d built up a paradisiacal image of a cabin hidden away from the world in the depths of the trackless American wilderness, where she could live unmolested by society. The house on the Rock River was as close as she ever came to it. While Nick went off to work each day she was blissfully alone, with no company except her infant daughter and the animals that lived along the riverbank. She had pet names for the raccoons, skunks, deer, snakes, and moles; she sometimes glimpsed a fox padding through the woods. She once raised a litter of newborn rabbits that her dog had found abandoned in a tree hollow.

The only regular contact the family had with the outside world came in the form of long-distance phone calls from Nick’s parents in San Francisco. One of Nina’s earliest memories is of Nick standing stock-still in the middle of the living room, speechless with rage, gripping the phone receiver so tightly his fingers were white. Maria would usually have to swallow her own dislike long enough to act as peacemaker. Nikolai and Irina told Nick what car he should buy, what classes he should take at night school, what friends he should cultivate, what kind of property he should be on the lookout for. They were particularly obsessed with how their granddaughter was being raised and would call to find out what clothes she was wearing and whether she was eating enough bread and whether her hair was properly braided.

They returned to Rockford for a visit during the summer of 1956, when Nina was four years old. A tremendous fight broke out when they learned that Nick and Maria were planning to send Nina to kindergarten. Nikolai thought he’d made the family position perfectly clear–if the schools in Shanghai had been unsuitable for Nick, the ones in America were out of the question for Nina. When he saw that Nick and Maria wouldn’t budge, he began bellowing that they must not love their daughter if they wanted to get rid of her so badly. Maria became hysterical with rage and stormed around the yard behind the cabin, seizing fallen branches and swinging them furiously against tree trunks. Nina remembers her shrieking over and over in Russian, “Nobody tells me I don’t love my daughter!”

Yet when Nikolai and Irina weren’t available to provide a common enemy, Nick and Maria more and more turned their frustrations on each other. The isolation of their lives brought out their worst qualities–or at least made some of those qualities intensely irritating. Maria, for instance, put her energies into the household, customizing everything they owned. Nina remembers, “My mother was excellent at altering cheap clothes–and we always had really cheap clothes–so that they would hang gracefully. She would take these cheap, garish white curtains and dye them in instant coffee and tea to give them a faded aristocratic elegance. She had a really uncanny gift with dime-store materials; she would use hobby-kit paint to blend the color palette of mismatched ashtrays and lamps and vases.” Nick watched with increasing exasperation, infuriated that nothing he brought home seemed good enough as it was. Sometimes when they were arguing he would brandish a freshly ornamented trivet or painted place mat, yelling, “Look! This was fine! People use it just the way they made it! There was nothing wrong with it, OK?” Once at the dinner table he seized a newly painted bowl filled with whipped cream and flung it out the kitchen door. It broke, and the cream spattered all over the porch shades. Maria was so incensed that she refused to clean it up. It was the middle of winter, and the dripping globules froze in place–and remained there until the first thaw of spring.

Nick had absorbed from his father the idea that it was a man’s duty to be the patriarch, the decision maker, the final authority–which meant he had to be the bulwark of rationality against what he saw as Maria’s increasing strangeness. Maria regarded this pose with amused scorn–less amused and more scornful as time went on. For all her eccentricity, she could be shrewd about people, and she found Nick’s air of forthrightness absurd. She knew that deep down he was even more impractical and dreamy than she was.

Their biggest fight began at Christmas in 1959 when they tried to decide how to spend his annual bonus from Woodward Governor. Maria wanted a clothes dryer; she said there was nowhere to string the clotheslines in the winter. (The truth was, she was growing frail with arthritis and finding household tasks like the laundry exhausting.) Nick thought this was preposterous. He told her that lots of people ran households without such useless gadgetry, and he expected her to do the same. He settled on what he regarded as an incontestably sensible purchase: a sit-down lawn mower. He explained to Maria that he could use it to keep up the property, demonstrating to their landlord what responsible tenants they were. So on spring weekends, while Maria watched resentfully from the kitchen window, he set out with great industry and self-satisfaction to mow the expanse of wild grass and weeds between the cabin and the forest.

By that summer Maria had had enough. She took Nina and went to live with her sister in Sacramento.

Their departure galvanized Nick. He decided that a grand gesture was in order, like the ones his father had made when he abandoned Harbin for Shanghai and Shanghai for Tsingtao. He quit his beloved job at Woodward Governor and turned in the key to the cabin. He loaded up his battered car with all the household belongings that would fit, then put the family’s dog and cat in the backseat, and set off. He phoned Maria at her sister’s house to tell her that he wouldn’t stop until he’d found a place where she would be happy.

Nick had been in America for almost ten years and had barely seen any of it outside of Rockford. This happened to be a good time for such a journey; in the summer of 1960 America was in the middle of a social transformation as vast as any Nick had lived through in Asia. Postwar development was engulfing the old America in a tidal wave of suburbs and freeways and franchise strips. But along the crumbling, snaking U.S. highways (fast being supplanted by the interstates) you could still get a glimpse of what was disappearing. Nick drove through obscure market towns and dusty state capitals that looked like they hadn’t heard from the outside world in decades–places that would soon become interchangeable phalanxes of chain stores and shopping malls and fast-food restaurants. He passed dingy little roadside museums and patched revival tents, “World Famous” haunted houses and exhausted traveling carnivals–the last relics of the America of camp meetings, medicine shows, and chautauquas.

But Nick couldn’t make much sense of any of it. Like a lot of travelers, he was defeated by the sheer size of the American landscape–everything he saw, new and old, seemed to be swallowed up by the oceans of wheat and corn and rye that only trailed away into broader expanses of scrubland and desert. The vistas along Route 66 were as alien to him as the endless rice paddies of Asia had been–and the life of the inhabitants, whether old-style provincial or new-style suburban, was just as inscrutable.

Nina says, “To get in touch with ordinary Americans, he really needed to take an interest in the lives of people much different from his own. He always had a lot of trouble doing that. You have to realize that he always saw himself as having more common sense than anybody else. The whole time I was growing up I never once heard him admit he was wrong about anything. So when he met people who weren’t like him–and that was just about everybody in America, no matter who they were or what they did–his first, reflex reaction was that they had to be fools.”

Then too, for all his interest in American history, he still had a naive schoolboy’s notion of what history was. America for him was a map of Civil War battles and Wild West gunfights. So as he drove he found only what he expected to find–an empty land dotted by historical landmarks. He was always a great reader of magazines such as Life, and his deepest satisfaction on the trip came in discovering that the Grand Canyon looked exactly the way it did in photographs.

He took a lot of photos of his own. He thought it would be funny to include his traveling companions, so he would arrange the dog and cat on either side of a bronze historical plaque or before a motor-court sign and snap them staring up at him like befuddled tourists. He photographed ghost towns and forest preserves, flagpoles and all-you-can-eat smorgasbords–all shining in the flat, brilliant sunlight. The last shot in the series may be the most archetypal, the most goofily resonant: the dog and cat sitting on a California beach, with the limitless blue ocean beyond.

The early 1960s were boom times for the defense and aerospace industries in southern California, so Nick had no trouble finding factory work. He was hired at the first place he applied, a big military contractor making parts for nuclear submarines. He at once sent for Maria and Nina, promising to buy them a house as quickly as possible.

Cautious and skeptical, Maria brought Nina down a couple of months later. The whole family, together with the dog and cat, crammed into the place Nick had rented when he first arrived–a cabin in a motor lodge on the Pacific Coast Highway outside of Santa Barbara. He tried to keep his promise; they immediately started spending their weekends house hunting around Santa Barbara and Malibu. But Nick and Maria couldn’t agree on anything. They were depressed by the new subdivisions going up everywhere, the row after endless row of short driveways and big picture windows. Nowhere did they find a house isolated from the world (as Maria wanted) or with some connection to California’s past (as Nick preferred). So they all lingered on in the cabin, for months and then years.

“That motor lodge,” Nina says, “was the symbol of my parents’ failure to get their act together.” The cabin had one small room with a double bed and a kitchenette, and another, smaller room that barely held a single bed. At first Nick and Maria shared the double bed, but toward the end of the first year Maria moved into the other room and slept in the single with Nina. She stretched sideways across its foot, her legs resting on a chair. She explained to Nina that she couldn’t stand the way Nick tossed and turned in his sleep.

Nick went off to work each day, helping America prepare for war with the Soviet Union. Just as at the cadet school, he was part of a grandly ambitious military venture against the communists. He never seemed to think much about that. His feelings about the Soviet Union hadn’t changed much since childhood; he figured he was going to spend the rest of his life in exile from a homeland he’d never seen, and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. What mattered much more than some illusion of a return from exile was finding a way to become truly American.

Besides, he liked his job–or anyway he did at first. He gave his new employers the kind of impassioned loyalty he’d learned at Woodward Governor. He was promoted quickly and soon discovered that he was just as good at bureaucratic paperwork as he’d been at manual labor. After a year he was chosen to serve on a joint committee of labor and management that was developing plans for a company-wide modernization project. The project was a success, and Nick got a lot of the credit.

But then he decided to take on what he saw as a more difficult challenge facing the company: low employee morale. He proposed a simplified adaptation of the principles that had succeeded at Woodward Governor. He wanted to put big posters up on every wall with the messages “Your Job Is Important” and “Take Pride and Joy in Your Work.” He was dumbfounded when his supervisors didn’t like the idea. One of them even told him it would make the place look like a Nazi work camp. In a fit of anger and disgust, Nick resigned.

It was a pattern he repeated at his next job and at the job after that: strong initial enthusiasm followed by sudden disillusionment over a matter of policy or principle, then abrupt departure. He was soon spending a lot of time unemployed. Often he fell into deep depressions and for whole days wouldn’t stir from his bed. Maria, who usually wasn’t speaking to him, would sit with Nina on the single bed behind the closed door, and at intervals they would hear him emit long, plaintive noises, something between a sigh and a moan. That was, they decided, his way of announcing that he was fully aware of the gravity of their situation and hadn’t yet relinquished his patriarchal responsibilities.

He passed the time by trying to become more American. There was only one way he could imagine to do this–by reading American history. Every few days, sometimes every day, he roused himself to go to the local library for fresh stacks of books about the Civil War and the Wild West and the California gold rush. He dropped historical references into his conversation with his American acquaintances at every opportunity, making clever allusions to Pickett’s Charge and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Nobody knew what he was talking about, and at first this pleased him; he took it as proof that he was succeeding. But then he began to suspect the truth: Americans knew less than he did about their history because they didn’t care about it.

“That really stumped him,” says Nina. “It was the first thing about America that he found profoundly discouraging. He talked about it all the time. He must have said it at least once a day, every day, ‘Americans know nothing about history.’ I think he probably said it more times than he said any other sentence in his entire life, more than he said ‘Good morning’ or ‘How are you?'”

Sometimes in the evenings when Maria was willing to speak to him, he would put aside his gloom and the two would take Nina for walks along the highway. Down from the motor lodge was a drive-in, and if they climbed up the low grassy hillside they could see the screen over the fence. They never once drove the car there; Nick wasn’t interested in movies, and he assumed unquestioningly that if he wasn’t interested in something, nobody he cared about could be either. (Nina never saw a movie in a theater until she went to college.) Instead they would stand together on the hill and watch the silent American images flicker against the darkening sky: car chases, love scenes, glamorous apartments, and dazzling gadgets–scenes from an unreachable life.

“After a couple of years,” Nina says, “the defense jobs all dried up. So dad moved us to Auburn, California. He picked Auburn because he was reading a lot about the gold rush and had some vague idea that it would make him happier to be in some part of the country that had a recognizable past.” He rented a house, a little cottage in an olive orchard. But he had no luck finding work in town. Eventually he came up with a solution of sorts: Maria and Nina stayed in the cottage, and he went to San Francisco and moved in with his parents. He came back to Auburn every weekend with whatever money he’d been able to make doing odd jobs. They lived that way for almost three years.

“I remember that as being an idyllic time, really the only idyllic time of my whole childhood,” says Nina. “I was discovering science fiction and adventure stories–the sort of books my father had no interest in. I was discovering boys. And my mother and I were very close then. We slept in the same room and would start talking to each other the moment we woke up–talking about anything and everything all day long.

“By then my mother had the attitude that it was her job to repair and customize every niggling little thing that was wrong with the world. There was this roadside hamburger stand we used to go to–we were very poor, and this place was our special treat. My mom customized everything about going there. She brought a picnic hamper with our own napkins and silverware and little jars of homemade condiments. It was great. The only trouble was, she was really bothered by the mistakes in spelling and grammar on all the signs. She was particularly annoyed by one in the parking lot. So one night, way after midnight, we snuck down there with paint and red Magic Markers and corrected its grammar.”

Nick hated most of his jobs in San Francisco. He spent a few months in a tire shop; “It was backbreaking,” he remembered. He even tried selling encyclopedias again–and was no better at it than he’d been the first time. It was during this period that he got into the habit of writing Nina long letters, describing everything that was happening to him during the weeks he was away and telling her how unhappy he was. He often asked her advice as though she were the wisest adult he knew. “In the summer of 1966, when I was 14, he and I went on a weekend camping trip together in northern California,” she says. “Just before we headed home he asked me with complete sincerity whether I thought he was wasting his life. I said absolutely not–the idea had never occurred to me. But the strange thing is, right afterward I started thinking that he really was wasting his life.”

At the beginning of 1967 Nick decided it was time for another grand gesture. He announced to Maria and Nina that they were going back to Rockford to start over. It was the only thing he could think of to do, and anyway that was the one place in America where they’d all been happy.

When they arrived in Rockford he at once bought the cheapest house he could find. Nina remembers it as “a tar-paper shack in a neighborhood of Appalachian fundamentalists.” Her walk to high school each day took her through a wasteland of ramshackle housing and light industry; the most prominent landmark she passed was a potato chip factory.

Nick reapplied for work at Woodward Governor, but they told him they weren’t hiring. So he went to work for a farm-equipment manufacturer just outside of town. He felt the return had been a fiasco, but it was the first real job he’d had in years.

Ever since he’d started reading the Shanghai papers, Nick had loved following American presidential elections. Once he arrived here they quickly became his reigning passion. Election day was always as important in his household as Christmas. When people ask Nina what her favorite TV show was when she was a kid she answers, truthfully, the Kennedy-Nixon debates.

Nick had started out in America as a committed Republican. That was typical of Russian emigres, whose anticommunism automatically put them on the American right wing, and besides Nick had somehow got the idea that the Republicans were the party of the intelligentsia. But when he made contact with actual Republicans he found them bland, mean-spirited, and provincial. So he became an equally committed Democrat (much to Maria’s amusement–she never took Nick’s interest in politics seriously). He was an indefatigable supporter of Adlai Stevenson throughout the 50s and an early, vocal Kennedy man in 1960. He was devastated by Kennedy’s assassination; decades later he would say that he felt as though he’d never recovered from it.

By the time he returned to Rockford he was pinning all his hopes on Bobby Kennedy. With the friends he’d made through the union at his plant he started a newsletter called “Citizens for Kennedy/Fulbright”; Senator William Fulbright was then famous for his stand against the Vietnam war, and Nick and his friends thought he’d be the perfect vice presidential candidate. (They didn’t stop to consider that Kennedy might have his own ideas on the subject.) The goal of the newsletter was to persuade Kennedy that it was his moral duty to run for president. The masthead had a little drawing of a trumpet and bore the motto “Now the trumpet summons us again…John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address.”

When Kennedy did declare his candidacy Nick was determined to take a direct role in the campaign. He was in luck–Rockford wasn’t even on Kennedy’s map yet. Nick applied to the Illinois headquarters in Chicago, and was promptly given an imposing title: coordinator, Northern Illinois Citizens for Kennedy. (It started popping up in all his correspondence, just as “Editor, Youth Section” once had.) Throughout the winter of 1967 and into the following spring he wrote and sent out mailings, looked for contributors, and gave speeches. He claimed to hate speaking before an audience–he said he had stage fright and was uncomfortable about his accent–but he never turned down an invitation, whether at a rally or a high school or a local TV station. He was profoundly moved by the Kennedy volunteers; though he never got to know them well, he felt he’d finally found Americans who cared as much about politics and social issues as he did. It was paradise for him–until the June night when he was awakened by a phone call telling him Kennedy had been shot.

The next day Nick withdrew everything from his savings account, which was just enough to buy a train ticket to Washington, D.C. He wasn’t sure why he did it; he just knew he couldn’t sit at home and watch the funeral on television. He got there the night before the procession was due to arrive, and he sneaked over a wall at Arlington National Cemetery and slept in a secluded grove. At dawn mourners began streaming in, and Nick spent the day wandering from crowd to crowd along the funeral route, talking with everyone about their memories of Bobby and saying what a calamity this was for America. The funeral train was late, and everyone waited for hours through the gray rainy evening, listening to reports of its progress on transistor radios. After dark, people began handing out candles. Nick was in the crowd near the Lincoln Memorial at midnight when the candles were lit. A choir sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and in the darkness, as far as Nick could see, tens of thousands of candle flames flickered and wavered. He said afterward that this was the moment when he finally understood that “all our hopes and dreams had been crushed.”

He came back to Rockford determined to find some way to carry on his political activism. He couldn’t bear the thought of giving up his feeling of connectedness with the people in the campaign, even if he never saw any of them again. So he dug out the mailing list and the little mimeograph machine left over from the Kennedy-Fulbright newsletter and began his own political journal. He kept the drawing of the trumpet and the quote from JFK. But he changed the name to “The Trumpet: Digest of Independent Liberal Thought.”

I’ve read through a couple years’ worth of the “Trumpet”–it’s in the microfiche archives at the Chicago Public Library. It was a monthly with eight half pages an issue, and the circulation was in the low hundreds–mostly acquaintances from the campaign and underground and alternative newspapers that agreed to exchange subscriptions. Each issue reprinted newspaper headlines and political cartoons Nick liked–he was constantly on the lookout for catchy things to clip–and it had a lot of boldface quotations from Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., most of them snipped out of Life magazine’s memorial issues. But the bulk of the paper was written by Nick.

There was always a lead editorial in Nick’s most grave and impassioned style. He would usually open with a curt declaration that the current situation–whatever it was–was bad and getting worse. The January 1969 issue, for instance, began, “We will not insult the intelligence of our readers by wishing them a Happy New Year.” Then he would survey the dismal state of the American scene–Vietnam, apathy, the plight of “Negroes in ghettoes”–and urge everyone to keep alive the ideals of Bobby Kennedy. “Only then,” he concluded, “will we truly overcome.” Other times he was moved to take up some specific proposal made by Democratic politicians and respectfully criticize it. Once he wrote about the idea of creating a cabinet-level secretary of peace, which he thought sounded Orwellian: “Reluctantly and with regret The Trumpet is compelled to raise its voice against a group of well-intentioned and sincere liberals who, in this particular instance, are in our opinion acting unwisely.”

Another regular feature was a column called Random Thoughts of NCR; the first two initials were Nick’s, but he couldn’t remember afterward if the R had any significance. NCR was supposed to be a wild polemicist compared with the sober editor, but his most dramatic excesses were undercut by Nick’s distaste for strong language. In one column about the corruption of Democratic machine politicians, the nastiest word he could bring himself to use was “rascals.” There was also an unsigned regular feature, Profiles in Focus, in which Nick would ostensibly subject some prominent person or organization to withering scrutiny. But again, any withering was undone by his bland judiciousness. Mayor Daley, he wrote, “basically is, perhaps, a good but simple man.” Richard Nixon “seems to be not entirely in touch with the nation.”

The editorial policy of the “Trumpet” was as Nick described it on the masthead: independent liberalism. He was against the Vietnam war and for civil rights; he detested Lyndon Johnson and loathed Nixon. These were unexceptionable views for those days, but the “Trumpet” still has an aura of eccentricity, of removal from the mainstream. It often reads as though Nick were talking only to himself. In any great crisis, from the riots of 1968 to the shootings at Kent State, he invariably urged moderation on the extremists–but he always wrote as though he hadn’t met any extremists and was relying solely on what he’d read about such people in Time and Newsweek. And while lead editorial after lead editorial built up to ringing phrases like “We call upon the leaders of our country to act now,” he never had any specific suggestions about what those leaders should do.

“The ‘Trumpet’ was my father’s own little world,” Nina says. “It wasn’t about persuading people to change their political opinions. It was really more of an expression of his longing for a community.”

By then Nick was living alone with Maria–Nina had left high school early and gone off to college–and he was commuting daily to the routine of factory work. His life was bounded by miles of chain-link fences and endless truck-lined parking lots. He had no close friends, and his political discussions were restricted to rare exchanges with his fellow workers, most of whom thought the convulsions of those days were as remote and bizarre as a dust storm on Mars. Nick’s urge to have political debates with everyone he knew earned him a reputation for being a wild-eyed radical, and in the cafeteria everyone avoided him.

Those were particularly unhappy times for him. His marriage had turned into a perpetual misery. He felt, or so he told me long afterward, irrevocably defeated by Maria’s irrational behavior; he said he couldn’t risk inviting guests over for dinner because she would lock herself in the bathroom whenever she heard strangers at the front door. Even Nina found some of her mother’s actions baffling. “Around the time I was going to leave for college,” she remembers, “my mother gave me a little plastic bottle and said I should guard it well because it contained her soul.”

But Maria believed that, whatever her private eccentricities, she was making her wants perfectly clear. She didn’t care about her marriage or her own emotional needs any longer; all she required was a cozy, clean, isolated house in a warm climate.

So in the summer of 1969 Nick gave in to her. They moved across the country again, and he rented a normal, modest house in the unincorporated suburban sprawl of Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara. Maria was immediately brighter than anybody’d seen her in years. She befriended the next-door neighbors, a couple raising six children, and the kids quickly came to think of her as a combination saint, witch, and surrogate grandmother.

But Nick was restless and bored. He got a job as a machinist in an aerospace plant, which he hated; he’d come to feel it was dishonorable to work for the military in the midst of the Vietnam war. He made no friends, and anyway, Nina says, “By that point my father’s idea of a close personal friend was some prominent Democratic politician who recognized his name.” He also seemed envious of Nina. In 1970, as soon as she turned 18, she’d left college and begun traveling. She hitchhiked through Europe, a place Nick had never been; she talked a British student magazine into giving her press credentials and used them to go to Belfast for several months; she worked on an underground newspaper in Baltimore (where she published some of her Belfast stories). During that time Nick’s only consolation was the “Trumpet,” which he worked at with a kind of despairing passion. The editorial headlines from that time suggest how edgy and frantic he was becoming: “Before It’s Too Late,” “Now or Never,” “The Time Is Now!”

In the late spring of 1972 Nina returned home for a visit. “Almost as soon as I came through the door,” she remembers, “my dad told me he never wanted to work in a factory again. He had a new dream–he wanted to work for George McGovern.”

She was able to help him. She had friends in the McGovern organization in Illinois who promised to hire them both. The only problem was that Maria absolutely refused to consider leaving California. “She packed a suitcase for my dad and a suitcase for me,” Nina says, “and she left them in the middle of the living room floor. She wouldn’t even come out of the bedroom to say good-bye.”

“My father’s whole life,” Nina says, “was a quest. I don’t even think he knew what it was a quest for–someplace where people thought the way he did, a feeling of belonging.” The McGovern organization was the closest he ever got to finding it. He threw himself into the campaign with a fervor that surpassed his enthusiasm for Bobby Kennedy four years before.

He was assigned to Alton and spent the summer and fall tirelessly driving around the state, from thinly attended rally to tepid registration drive. He was delighted to be around the young McGovern supporters. They baffled him much of the time–they seemed so wildly frivolous and irresponsible, and they were appallingly ignorant of history (unlike a lot of the Kennedy workers, who’d had ties to the old labor movement). But he was still dazzled by their energy and commitment. He learned from them too. He became a genuine fan of the Grateful Dead, and along with the words of Thoreau and Shakespeare he would often declaim, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

He loved the campaign’s atmosphere of crisis–the urgent strategy sessions, the shocking new developments on the wire services, the interminable wait for the candidate’s statement. He also loved the eroticism of political campaigns, their endless omnidirectional excitement. All day long he found himself in the presence of young, attractive women. He was almost 50, and his manner was ponderously gallant. But when he dared to flirt with them, he was delighted to discover that they’d flirt back.

He was having such a good time that he was blind to how McGovern’s candidacy was going. Most of his coworkers had been pessimistic about their chances from the outset, and they sank deeper into gloom as election day approached and the polls showed McGovern trailing Nixon by double digits. To the end Nick acted as though he genuinely believed they were going to pull off a miracle. In October he wrote Nina, who was working at McGovern’s Illinois headquarters in Chicago, a letter ending with the exultant proclamation, “We will win!”

After election day he was stranded. He had no job, no money, and no prospects. And he was permanently disillusioned about politics–he never worked in another presidential campaign and could barely bring himself to praise another Democratic candidate. It even became an effort for him to vote. Nor did the “Trumpet” resume publication; he’d put it on hold when he’d left for Illinois, and he couldn’t bear to revive it. It seemed a painful irrelevance now.

He had no idea what to do next. Nina had moved to Springfield (her boyfriend, whom she’d met during the campaign, had got a job as a state lobbyist), and he stayed with her for the winter. Toward spring he roused himself to get an apartment of his own. Then Nina brought news that Maria was coming from California to join them.

Maria had remained alone in their house in Goleta. Nina, who was working as a secretary in her boyfriend’s office, had been paying the rent. “My salary was $425 a month,” she remembers, “and I was sending my mother $380.” But Maria said she felt guilty about that arrangement; so over the winter she’d got out of the lease, sold all their furniture, and bought herself a plane ticket to Springfield. She hadn’t talked to Nick since he’d left the previous summer. A week before she came to Illinois she finally did have a phone conversation with him. “They had a standing joke that he was going to leave her for some young blond,” Nina says. “During the call she asked him whether he’d finally found that blond, and he said yes.”

Why did he say yes? “I don’t know,” says Nina. “He always claimed he’d been faithful to my mother, and as far as I could tell, he never did anything more than flirt with the women he met working for McGovern.” It may be that he hadn’t been telling Nina the truth, though I’ve never turned up any evidence of that, either in his papers or his conversations with me. More likely, he said yes because he simply couldn’t bear the thought of resuming his marriage.

It was too late for Maria to change her mind about flying out. She arrived in Springfield and was met by Nina and her boyfriend, who took her to their house for the night. She was supposed to see Nick the next day. But when she woke up that morning, she said to Nina, “Tell your father we have nothing to say to each other.” She returned to Goleta, and she and Nick never spoke again.

Nick began putting a new life together. He didn’t want to go back to factory work, so with the help of Nina’s boyfriend, he got a job with the state as an inspector enforcing the regulations of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It was a natural for him–after more than 20 years in factories he was an expert on plant safety conditions. And it meant being on the road all the time, which he found very congenial. He also liked living by himself, which he’d never done before; he had his own apartment, and he was able to furnish it to his own taste. Nina remembers his place as “completely anonymous and sterile–wall-to-wall shag carpeting and anonymous modern lamps. My dad told me with great satisfaction, ‘I’m never going to have another garden.'”

His job took him from old, smoky factory towns downstate to new, sprawling manufacturing districts outside of Chicago. He saw a kind of archaeological cross section of American labor and industry, and it rekindled his interest in history. He started reading again and was soon talking familiarly about Haymarket Square and Pullman and the Wobblies. He was even inspired to enroll in a class in labor history at a small college in Springfield. That was where he met a woman I’ll call Charlie, who was auditing some of the lectures.

They noticed each other right away. They were both in their late 40s, and everybody else in the lecture hall, including the professor, was half their age. Charlie’s interest in history was mostly personal; she’d married into one of the oldest, most aristocratic families in Springfield, the sort of people who still had strong opinions on whether Abraham Lincoln had mistreated Mary Todd. But she also wanted to do original research. After she heard some of Nick’s allusions to his past she asked if she could record his life story for the university’s oral-history archive.

The transcripts of these interviews make for curious reading. Nick was plainly enchanted to find somebody who took such an interest in his past, and he responded to Charlie’s questions with a kind of archaeological fervor. No detail was too trivial for him to remember. He inventoried the furniture in his childhood home at the waterworks and analyzed the administrative structure of the International Settlement; he reminisced about the times in the cadet school when he was thrown in the brig, and spent the better part of an hour on how hard the bunk was, how bad the food was, and how cold the cell was (“The temperature would be in the high 30s, I would venture to guess”).

At the same time he was plainly frustrated by Charlie’s ignorance of Chinese history and the politics of the Russian emigration. Whenever he hit some point he was certain she didn’t understand he would stop and lecture her–and since he often thought she still didn’t get it, he would expound on it again on a later tape. Here’s a representative sample, severely abridged: “You asked yesterday whether the five encirclement campaigns that I have mentioned, which were organized by Chiang Kai-shek’s government, were the so-called Salt Campaign, and I don’t think I have actually responded to that in any way. So let me give some additional information on this. The encirclement campaigns as such…” and so on, for several minutes.

At this rate it took him a long time to get through any of his favorite stories. Worse, his manner of speech had grown increasingly long-winded as he’d got older, and the novelty of being taped made him dreadfully self-conscious–and whenever he was self-conscious he became even more reserved and ceremonious. “I don’t know” came out as “I really could not say one way or the other, with any very great degree of assurance.” His school days turned into “the years of rather unexciting, and in fact somewhat boring, routine of going to school and things of that nature.” At one point he regretfully admitted, “I would not be able to venture a guess what the average admission ticket to a movie theater in Shanghai was in that period.”

And then there was Charlie’s infuriating habit of asking him questions he considered impertinent and inappropriate–such as about his personal feelings about the events he’d witnessed. That had nothing to do with history, as far as he was concerned, and he cut her off whenever she pressed him. When she asked why his father had kept him so isolated at the waterworks, for instance, he replied, “I don’t know whether I really should speak for him, because we haven’t discussed that since those days. My recollections might not be as accurate as they should be.” End of discussion.

Above all, Nick was frustrated because he’d fallen in love with Charlie and felt he had to find ways of correcting her without alienating her. The real charm of the transcripts is in the indirect and elaborate courtesies Nick had to summon when normally he would have snorted in contempt. At one point Charlie asked if, after he’d graduated from the cadet school, he was going to be put in command of Japanese troops. The notion that the Japanese army would ever allow a foreigner that kind of authority was so preposterous to Nick it left him aghast. He clearly had to work hard to think up this gallant answer: “I imagine that would have happened only under circumstances of the most dire emergency.”

The tapes cover most of Nick’s years in Asia but trail off as the Americans arrived in Tsingtao. This inconclusiveness wasn’t due to flagging interest. Instead Nick and Charlie had become inspired to do a bigger project. They’d decided to collaborate on another oral history, and the topic they chose was the great Illinois coal strike of the 1920s.

This proved to be a happy time for Nick. He’d found a way of getting in touch with a real past, the sort of rooted and traditional past he’d been looking for ever since he’d come to America. He felt he was doing important work, documenting a significant part of American labor history that was being forgotten. He took great pleasure in all the bureaucratic trappings of the project: the elaborate protocols, the careful cataloging and cross-referencing. And he loved being with Charlie. They spent all their free weekends and vacations driving around southern Illinois, following up leads concerning survivors who might agree to be interviewed, passing hours at a time talking to each other about whatever came into their minds. They spent their days visiting nursing homes in obscure river towns and their nights sleeping in anonymous motels on back roads. After a few months they began having an affair.

Charlie had a husband and four children, and she made it as clear as she could to Nick that she wasn’t going to leave them. But Nick was in love, in a way he hadn’t been in years or decades, and nothing she said could dent his passion. He confided all the details of the affair to Nina, putting particular stress on the unflattering things Charlie said about her husband. Nina warned him that these complaints didn’t sound like much and that he shouldn’t get his hopes up about the long term–advice Nick found absurd. He ultimately became so besotted with Charlie that he started spending every chance he could with her family. He crewed on their yacht with Charlie’s husband, and he house-sat for them when they went on their frequent vacations. Maybe he thought that somehow, eventually, he’d persuade her to go away with him. More likely, he simply believed that he had no choice–that when you’re in love, you hang on no matter what.

The affair lasted for a couple of years. When Charlie at last told Nick it was over in the spring of 1977, he was devastated. Long afterward he said the breakup was a wound that never quite healed. Though he never saw Charlie again, when he learned 15 years later that she’d recently died of cancer he was grief stricken. He wrote then to Nina, “You are the only person in the world who knows how much I loved her, and who understands what a horrible shock this was for me. I have calmed down somewhat, but I do not think I will ever fully accept this.”

After the breakup he was despondent. He immediately lost interest in the oral-history project; he couldn’t imagine going on with it if Charlie wasn’t involved. What made things worse was that he was also having a crisis at work. It was one of his most straightforward fights over principle: he refused to approve the safety of a concrete plant, and when it was approved anyway he resigned in protest. Now he was broke, unemployed, and alone, and his feelings of apathy and hopelessness deepened.

He began talking about suicide. He told Nina he’d decided to run his car off the road into a tree. He was constantly driving around the open country outside of Springfield on the lookout for the perfect spot. Nina didn’t know whether to believe him. But on one of these drives, on a dreary, rainy autumn afternoon on a deserted stretch of country highway, he gunned the engine and swerved off the road. He ended up in a roadside ditch that was filled with half-frozen rainwater. The car was totaled. Nick walked away without a scratch.

“I tried to give him as much help as I could in those days,” Nina says. “It was difficult, because he’d become very hard to get along with. By then he thought anybody who disagreed with him about anything at all was an idiot. I would get him ready for job interviews and implore him not to start any arguments. I’d say they didn’t want to hire somebody who seemed like trouble. ‘Oh, I can’t agree with you there,’ he’d answer. ‘They want employees who can think for themselves.’ And then he’d come back afterwards railing at that company for being full of morons, and it would turn out that he’d expressed his frank opinion to the people in the personnel department about their corporate policies. After a while I was tearing my hair out.”

Nina wasn’t the only one trying to help him. Just as he had during his separation from Maria, his affair with Charlie, and his directionless wanderings afterward, he had to endure his parents’ advice.

Nikolai and Irina still lived in the Richmond district of San Francisco, in a neighborhood they and the other Russians called “Fog Town.” They’d made a good life for themselves there. Soon after they’d arrived they’d got jobs as janitors, and for the next 25 years they’d worked the night shift cleaning schools and downtown office buildings. They belonged to a union, got decent pay and benefits, and lived comfortably. Their only real disappointment in America was their hapless son.

They still barely spoke English. All their friends were Russian, they read only Russian books and newspapers, and they rarely strayed from Richmond’s Russian groceries, teahouses, and bookstores. But they had a lot of connections–friends of friends in other Russian enclaves around the country who could be counted on for favors. So in the spring of 1979, when Irina finally got fed up with Nick’s drifting, she called someone who knew someone who was able to get him a government job. The Department of Defense ran a language school in Texas for military intelligence officers, and it needed people who could teach them Russian.

Nick didn’t want to work for the military, and he hated the thought of being beholden to his parents. But he was desperate; it had been a couple of years since he’d quit his job, and he hadn’t been able to find steady work. He agreed to go down to San Antonio for the interview–he was so broke he had to borrow money from Nikolai and Irina for the bus ticket and a new suit.

The Defense Languages Institute hired him right away. He rented a little apartment a couple of blocks from campus and showed up for work determined to make a fresh start. But his first day on the job he fell in love.

I’ll call her Raya. She’d been working at the institute for only a few months. She was an emigre from the Soviet Union, where she’d been a professor of linguistics (specializing in English) at Moscow State University. The circumstances of her arrival in America were mysterious. The way she told it to Nick, she’d got involved in Moscow with an American attached to the U.S. embassy–I’ll call him Sam. He may or may not have been with the CIA; at any rate, he knew people in a position to do unusual favors. When Raya became pregnant with his child, he’d had her smuggled out of the Soviet Union.

Raya and Sam got married as soon as they reached New York. But the marriage failed a couple of years later. When Nick met her, she was newly divorced and living with her small son–I’ll call him Erik. She and Sam had joint custody of Erik, who was just about to start kindergarten; he was going to live with Raya during the school year and with Sam, who’d moved to Minneapolis, during the summer. It was the sort of arrangement a lot of Americans had learned to accept, but Raya found it baffling and enraging. She was increasingly convinced that it was a swindle that had been foisted on her only because of Sam’s superior knowledge of the American legal system. As soon as she had Nick’s attentive ear, she vented her anger about Sam, about the judge in the family court, and about the trashy American culture that had ordered a child to be separated from his mother.

Raya lived in a state of perpetual crisis. She had an explosive temper and was abrasively arrogant; she was forever complaining about the stupidity and malice of the people around her. These were, in a way, exaggerated versions of the qualities Nick had once seen in Maria. He comforted her, supported her in every mood–and relentlessly egged her on. Though he was in a perfect position to calm her down and help her work out some sort of new compromise with Sam, it never occurred to him to try. He would have found such an idea impossibly ungallant. Instead he adopted all of her opinions and parroted them to anyone who’d listen; in the letters he wrote Nina he painted Sam, whom he’d never met, as a monster–a vindictive persecutor of Raya and a dangerously irresponsible father.

As the summer of 1979 approached, Raya confided in him that she’d decided to renege on the custody agreement. She knew this would mean trouble, though she wasn’t clear what form it would take; she vaguely thought Sam would be able to send federal agents after her. So she’d come up with a bold solution: she would take Erik and return to the Soviet Union. Nick instantly said he’d go with them.

He was caught up in a whirlwind of excitement, so he never explained his reasons. It’s possible that the idea of a journey to Russia had always been at the back of his mind; even after so many years there were Russian emigres who dreamed of little else. But I think this is unlikely. The real issue, I believe, was that nothing was keeping him in America. His attempts to assimilate had all failed; he’d ended up almost as unencumbered as the day he’d arrived. And, overriding every other consideration, he was in love, and when he was in love he believed he should be completely devoted. If Raya was determined to go, whether to the Soviet Union or Antarctica, he found it inconceivable that he would stay behind.

They made their preparations in secret–packing up their belongings, selling her car, closing out her apartment. One morning they called in sick at work, took Erik to the airport, and got on a plane to London. Their plan after that was nebulous. Before their departure Raya had used every contact she had, official and unofficial, trying to get permission to enter the Soviet Union, and she’d received the same answer each time: she would never be allowed back in. But she’d grown up in a system where the back-alley deal was the only one that counted; she was convinced that once they got to London she would somehow be able to buy, wheedle, or bully her way home.

For three days, as Nick and Erik sat amid their heaps of luggage at Heathrow Airport, Raya worked every angle she could think of to get them visas. She spent hours standing in line for a chance to see one minor Soviet consular official or another–only to have them listen for a moment or two and then curtly tell her to get out. She poured rivers of change into public phones to get in touch with friends of friends back in America; after a while everyone refused to take her calls. In the waiting room Erik grew increasingly bewildered, morose, and frightened, and Nick sank into a funereal gloom. As always, when the grand gesture didn’t work out he was helpless. The end came when airport security told them that if they didn’t make a connecting flight somewhere soon they’d be arrested as vagrants.

They returned to America. They didn’t even have enough money left to ship their luggage. They had to abandon everything Raya owned, all of Erik’s toys, and all the clothes and books Nick had been carrying with him in his wanderings.

After their plane landed at O’Hare Nick called Nina, who was living then in Chicago. She hadn’t heard from him in a long time and knew nothing about the flight to Russia. Nick spilled out the story and wound up by pleading with her to take them in. “You’ve got to help us,” he cried. “We’re wanted!”

“Well, if you’re wanted,” Nina snapped back, “you can’t stay with me. This is the first place they’d look.”

She was amazed when Nick replied, with perfect sincerity, “Of course you’re right–it would be out of the question. We can’t possibly risk it.”

Nina found a friend who agreed to take them in–who quickly found them another friend, who found yet another. They wandered from borrowed spare bedroom to living room floor, down a line of increasingly tenuous hospitality–received with cautious indulgence and expelled with weary relief. Raya was abrasive and demanding with each of her hosts (one says that her opening words were, “You must help me get public aid”). Nick was useless and woebegone. Erik, who had a bad ear infection, cried or screamed constantly.

In desperation Raya at last called her ex-husband and asked him to help, on whatever terms he wanted. He invited them up to his house in Minneapolis. Erik moved into the bedroom that had been waiting for him; Nick and Raya slept on mattresses on the basement floor. In a letter to Nina, Nick described it as “an unbelievably primitive and unorthodox lifestyle.” But he had one consolation–they were in the last place anybody would look.

The next part of the story is patchy. Nick never talked about his life in Sam’s basement, and his letters from that time are confusing and emotionally chaotic. As near as I can tell, he didn’t stay at Sam’s for very long, since a couple of months later he was in a cheap studio apartment in downtown Minneapolis. Raya stayed behind. She was still seeing Nick, but she was also reconciling with Sam–or trying to. Sam wanted Nick out of their lives for good. There were endless scenes, frantic phone calls, abrupt ultimatums. One night, or so Nick wrote in a letter to Nina, “Sam and I had a sort of confrontation at their house–a few blows were exchanged, we wrestled around a bit, fell to the floor, etc. He twice (before and after) called the cops and charged me with trespassing. The cops asked (not ordered) me to leave but didn’t arrest me.” Soon afterward Raya told Nick she couldn’t see him anymore.

Nick went into a tailspin. “Dear Nina,” one of his letters begins, “things are very bad.” Others say things like “My life goes from bad to worse,” “I’ve been through Hell,” and “My life is Hell on earth.” “My physical and mental state is very low,” one concludes, “and I really do not know how long I can last.”

It was in the midst of this crisis that he received a telegram from Nina, dated March 24, 1980. “your father is dying you must go immediately your mother is asking police to locate you if you don’t go i must let her know how to reach you.”

His relationship with his parents had been at a low ebb for a long while. They’d been furious with him over the teaching job, and they couldn’t believe he was still involved with Raya. Nick had responded to their barrage as he usually did, by withdrawing. But this time he’d stopped sending them his addresses and phone numbers, so the only way they could contact him was through Nina.

He wrote Nina that he wouldn’t go to San Francisco and wouldn’t write to his parents.”What is happening with my parents is, of course, a genuine human tragedy. But my going to San Francisco would not alleviate the situation but aggravate it…and I could not write anything to my parents that would be affectionate and reassuring and not be highly hypocritical.”

Nina insisted that he go anyway, and she forwarded a letter from Irina pleading with him to get in touch with her. He wrote Nina back, “Both my parents, in their own strange way, are wonderful people and had helped me on many occasions and had given me much love and caring. There is, however, a fundamental difference in our personality makeup–they are demanding people and I am not. They give something, whatever it is: love, money, attention, and always [underlined] demand [underlined twice] something in return. I have never demanded anything from my loved ones [entire sentence underlined]. For example, your grandmother writes to me–‘It is your duty to…’ To draw a parallel, I could have, but I didn’t even dream to tell you–‘It is your duty at this time of my personal hardship to give me room and board or whatever.'”

If Nick was on a seemingly irreversible slide into poverty and hopelessness, at least he would have the satisfaction of doing it unobserved. Nikolai was in the hospital with pneumonia for several months, and only as he recovered did Nick finally unbend enough to consider writing–and then only if Nina would forward it for him without giving any hint of where he was. In a cover note to her he wrote, “It might be a good idea to mail the letter from some small, not easily identifiable town–otherwise my mother would insist that since the letter bore Chicago’s postmark, I must be in Chicago and you must know my address.”

I first met Nick in the summer of 1982, when he was 58. Nina and I had been seeing each other for around a year then; and while she’d told me a lot of stories about her nomadic childhood and her otherworldly mother, she’d never said much about her father. “He travels around a lot,” she’d say, with a wave of impatient dismissal. “He works odd jobs.” By then she too had fallen out of touch with him, for the first time in her life. When Nikolai and Irina called to find out what their son was up to, she had to confess that she was just as much in the dark as they were.

He wrote out of the blue at the beginning of that summer to say he wanted to come to Chicago. From the few stories Nina had told me, I’d built up the image of a sad sack, a hapless ne’er-do-well. But he was self-assured, humorous, and pleasant. He was vague about how he’d been living for the last couple of years, though it was obvious from his shabby clothes that he hadn’t been doing very well. Still, he carried himself with a lot of dignity. And while he did seem subdued, which I put down to shyness (I later learned that he was still despondent about his breakup with Raya two years before), he enjoyed nothing better than sitting around the kitchen table talking and laughing at everybody’s jokes. I liked him enormously.

Yet he did display a couple of traits that weren’t so endearing. He quickly made it clear that he didn’t want to hear any advice about anything that mattered to him. He was also puzzled that anybody intelligent would take an interest in things that didn’t matter to him–novels, music, movies, sports. And he hated admitting he was wrong about anything, no matter how trivial. At the dinner table one night Nina corrected him on some small point of American history, and he made a great show of wittily deferring to her superior knowledge, while implying that only a pedant could possibly care about such a niggling detail. A little later he made an oblique reference to some of the problems he was having with his parents. “You even suggested I go out to San Francisco that time,” he said to Nina.

“I didn’t suggest anything,” she said. “I demanded that you do it, and I’m still certain you should have.”

He was taken aback. He made a rapid gesture of dismissal, as though he was willing to indulge her eccentricity on this point but wanted to change the subject as quickly as possible. “Oh, let’s not quibble about words,” he said. “Suggest, demand–that’s really all the same thing among friends, isn’t it?”

While he was in Minnesota he’d got a license to be a full-time caregiver for senior citizens, and now he figured he’d have an easy time picking up clients in Chicago. And he was right; that summer he found a job in Downers Grove that included room and board. But a month later his client went into the hospital. Nick quickly moved on to another, and then another. Sometimes they needed more care than he could give them; more often he couldn’t take what he saw as their irrationality and stupidity, and he quit in disgust.

By the end of the year the caregiver jobs were drying up–his resume was growing too spotty and sporadic for any new employer to have much confidence he’d stick around. The best job he could find was seasonal labor in the men’s department at Marshall Field’s. Nina went there one morning after Thanksgiving to take him to lunch, only to discover that he’d quit–he’d had a ferocious argument with his supervisor over how to ring up items on the cash register. By New Year’s he was living in a barely heated, roach-infested transient hotel near Halsted and Diversey, making a couple of dollars a day handing out free cigarette samples on downtown streets at lunch hour.

He left Chicago soon after that. He’d heard from Raya, who’d left Sam again, this time for good, taking Erik with her. She’d returned to Texas to try to get back her job with the Defense Languages Institute. Nick immediately decided to follow her.

He had nothing to lose. He had no job, no savings, and no future; he was almost 60 years old, and everything he owned fit into a suitcase. He told Nina before he went south that he feared the worst if Raya wouldn’t have him back. One more failure, he said, would surely finish him off.

In the end Ronald Reagan was his salvation. The early 80s were a growth era for anticommunism: America was pouring billions of new dollars into defense spending, most of it directed against the Soviet Union. Thousands of new spies were listening to the Evil Empire’s communications, which meant that the Defense Department needed every Russian teacher it could find. So Raya had little trouble getting her job back, and when Nick cautiously approached the institute’s administration he was rehired as well.

By May he was in a big apartment in San Antonio, with a new car, a new wardrobe–he favored maroon and brown polyester suits–and the best paying, most prestigious job he’d ever had. He was back together with Raya, the woman he considered his true love, and they now regarded themselves as husband and wife–Nick had never divorced Maria.

The years passed, and Nick and Raya and Erik settled into becoming an ordinary American family–or their version of one, anyway. They went to the mall every weekend. They took time-share vacations in Hawaii and Bermuda. They bought lots of new fake-leather furniture on an installment plan. They had a glass display case in their dining room filled with Hummel figurines. They watched daytime talk shows together and hooted in derision at all the guests. But Nick and Raya never quite got the hang of contemporary American culture. Raya in particular was bad at keeping her slang current and would shout things like “Oh, brother!” at the latest development on Donahue. But their lives were essentially no different from those of any other family in their sprawling housing complex. To a casual observer, they might even have seemed happy.

But Nick had grown miserable. For one thing, he’d never been at ease with Raya. “I know he was deeply in love with her,” Nina says. “But to this day, I don’t have the slightest idea whether she was in love with him.” Raya’s anger hadn’t dimmed over the years, and she often treated Nick as a target in a free-fire zone. At the slightest provocation she would go on tirades for hours at a time, which left her raw throated and weeping uncontrollably. He would endure them with sullen stoicism, then erupt in a self-righteous fury over some triviality. Then he would call Nina and me to tell us about the latest cataclysm. “This is it,” he’d always say. “It’s really over.” “Like last time?” Nina would ask. “No, not like last time,” he’d snap. “You’re not listening. It’s really over.” A few days later he’d call and chat cheerily about the latest vacation they were planning to take. Once he sent us a letter that began, “Yes, Raya and I are back together”–we hadn’t known they’d split again.

Then there was Erik. Nick did make a halfhearted effort to be a good substitute father–but by then he was in his 60s, and the mental world of an American teenager was unimaginable to him. He despised Erik’s love of comic books and video games; he thought he ought to be reading history instead. He once said to Nina that all the boy needed was a good biography of Theodore Roosevelt to motivate him properly. An even bigger issue was Erik’s shyness. Unlike Nina, who’d been a strong, self-reliant child, Erik was withdrawn and socially awkward–in many ways rather like Nick as a boy. But if Nick noticed the resemblance it only made him more impatient. When they were at the mall he would sometimes shove Erik toward groups of teenage boys and order him to make friends with them. He’d say, “Just do what I did when I was your age. Go up to them and say, ‘Hi! My name’s Erik!’ They’ll be your friends right away.”

Another problem was San Antonio. Nick loathed it. All his life he’d loved reading about the Alamo, and he’d initially been enchanted by the prospect of being so near it. He was bitterly disillusioned to find it ringed in and virtually obliterated by modern shoddiness and commercial blight. The city was caught up in a big oil and real estate boom in the early 1980s, and when it went bust the wreckage was everywhere; Nick’s condo was surrounded by a wasteland of unfinished office complexes, boarded-up mini malls, and row after row of empty ranch houses. It was a kind of hell for him to commute through this modernist ghost town and see nothing but untenanted “Alamo” restaurants and department stores and dry cleaners.

As for his job–“It is what it is, alas,” he wrote Nina. A couple of years later he wrote, “The job at DLI goes from bad to worse.” There were several problems, mostly related to the Reaganite military mentality of the teachers and students and the bureaucratic incompetence of the administration. But the real issue was that Nick had never wanted to be a Russian teacher, didn’t think he was particularly good at it, and was bored and depressed by the thought of doing it for the rest of his working life. He went on with it only because he was growing increasingly worried about money–he dreaded the prospect of a return to poverty. Under ordinary circumstances, he still would have found a way to pick a fight on principle and resign, but now he passed up provocation after provocation. In the end he would stick with DLI for more than a decade–the longest he spent at any job in his life.

Nina sometimes told him that if he was so unhappy at DLI he should look for other work, and she offered to help him learn to use a computer. He found that suggestion absurd. There was no way he could accomplish such a feat at his age, he wrote her. “I think that even though you have seen me rather recently and are aware that I am crowding 70, you might be still influenced by your recollections of your dad, the way he was way back, when he organized the Citizens for Kennedy. Those were the days! But not any more! Now I am a forgetful old man who has to ask a number of times which class he is supposed to teach, misplaces his keys, etc. I am old and there is not much that I can do.”

That was another problem he hadn’t expected. He hated getting older and never stopped complaining about his faltering health; no letter from him was complete without the announcement of some mysterious new physical ailment, some ominous new foretaste of the ultimate calamity. “My bad eye was diagnosed as having ulcer of the cornea.” “For no obvious reasons, I had an acute diarrhea a week ago and another somewhat not quite as bad this morning.” “Your old man is falling apart.”

Underlying all his complaints was a more pervasive problem: he felt defeated. Nina says, “It had always been part of his quest that he knew he could move on–there were always more places in America to try, there’d always be another factory job. But when he was living in San Antonio he thought he’d gotten to the end of the line. It was the first time he realized that he might have to spend the rest of his life trapped in the middle of nowhere. And San Antonio in those days–it really was nowhere.”

Those were the years when Nick’s most difficult behavior became fixed. Before he’d always had a kind of resilience, a backhanded, inadvertent charm; his good humor and courtesy often made you forgive his most exasperating failings. But now he was turning into a bad-tempered, intolerant old man whose conversation was nothing but a spew of complaint and disdain. The quickest way of getting on his bad side was to suggest that any of his problems–from the unpleasantly spicy food at a restaurant to the bad reception on his cable-TV hookup–could be solved.

The only solutions he was interested in were magical. For a couple of years he was obsessed with winning the lottery. He sent away for all the lottery-winning systems advertised in the back pages of tabloids, and every couple of months he would forward to us a thick packet containing elaborate quasi-occult instructions for picking numbers. He grew irate when we suggested, with dwindling politeness, that he was wasting his money. Then he gave up on lotteries and moved on to chain letters and pyramid schemes. Once he called us in great excitement because he’d at last found what he thought was a surefire winner. He sent us a sheet of typewritten chain-letter instructions, together with a stack of dimly photocopied political manifestos, from a white supremacist group somewhere in Latin America. “We can’t operate inside the United States,” their cover letter explained, “because our financial system is so good it would break the Jewish hold on the economy!”

He also began sending floods of letters to anyone he thought might listen to him about anything at all–politicians and newspapers, mostly. “I am still politically active,” he wrote us once. “I’ve just sent letters to 1/3 of the members of the House of Representatives and 1/2 of the U.S. Senate.” He neglected to tell us what he’d written about, but it was probably one of his sardonic criticisms of Reaganism or a passionate defense of the Nuclear Freeze movement–the sort of thing he sometimes got into letters-to-the-editor columns, which he began noting proudly on his resume under “publications” (beginning with “Joyner Condemnation of Mondale Extreme and Unfounded,” Minneapolis Star Tribune).

But mostly he just sulked. “I more and more am tired of the daily routine of living,” he wrote Nina. She remembers one of her visits to his condo: “My dad and I were having a totally innocuous conversation, and suddenly he went over to this big recliner he had in the living room, put his feet up, closed his eyes as though he were in unendurable pain, and refused to speak another word all evening. Raya and Erik just shrugged, as if to say, he’s like this all the time.”

He never did settle anything with his parents. It’s true that Nikolai and Irina were strange, difficult, intransigent people who’d nagged him remorselessly and made his life miserable. But on their own peculiar terms, they could be loving and attentive in a way that had always been beyond him. The happiness of their marriage was something he could only envy; they sniped and bickered constantly, but no one who saw them ever doubted that they were profoundly in love.

They were married for 62 years. In all the time they were together they had only one serious fight. That was in the early 1980s, when Irina learned that Nikolai had taken out a life insurance policy. He tried to explain that it was a union benefit and would provide her with a little security in case he got sick again. “How dare you do such a dreadful thing?” she shouted at him. “You know I don’t want to live without you!” They had the policy canceled.

In 1984 Nikolai went into the hospital again with pneumonia. One night the nursing staff persuaded Irina to go home and get some rest, and the doctor called the next morning to break the news that Nikolai had passed away peacefully just before dawn. Irina collapsed on the spot; she never even hung up the phone. Two days later she died without regaining consciousness. The official cause of death was a brain aneurism.

The memorial service was held at a Russian Orthodox church in the Richmond district. Most of the people who attended were friends from the neighborhood; some had known Nikolai and Irina in the refugee camp, and a few remembered them from Shanghai and Harbin. Nick and Nina were there too. It had been decades since Nick had been in a real Russian community, but he had an easy time falling back into the old social forms. Nina says, “He was always at his best in those times–that is, situations where he knew how to behave correctly. He knew how to act at a traditional Russian funeral.”

I ask her, “Did he talk about his parents at all or what he felt about them?”

“No, no,” she says. “He would have thought that was improper. But he did keep repeating, like it was his mantra: ‘What a long, strange trip it’s been.'”

Irina and Nikolai were cremated together. They left behind two heirlooms: a pair of rings of Siberian gold. These were the rings Nina and I exchanged when we were married a year later, in the spring of 1985. I wear one of them now as I write this. It’s plain and unremarkable, but sometimes it seems to me like a relic from Atlantis.

In the late 1980s the Defense Languages Institute moved to Monterey, California. Nick was suddenly happier and more at ease than anybody could remember him being in years. Compared to San Antonio, Monterey and Big Sur had a strong aura of connectedness to the past; he could drive around and feel as though he was in touch with an ongoing history. He joined a local historical society and started reading John Steinbeck’s books; soon he was talking with some of his old assurance about the fishermen and the canning industry and the struggle between the old labor movement and the modern corporations.

He also became interested in writing his memoirs. The Monterey newspaper set aside a page in its Sunday edition for local residents to tell their most memorable experiences, and Nick was suddenly seized with enthusiasm about publishing some of his favorite anecdotes. The average contributor to the page could come up with nothing better than a dim recollection of a school prom or a schmaltzy elegy about the day a cannery closed. Nick wrote about Black Friday in Shanghai and the typhoon hitting the refugee camp, about his father’s adventures in the Russian civil war and his own memories of the funeral of Robert Kennedy. He had no trouble making his past sound like a tapestry of excitement; he took over the page for weeks at a time.

These pieces are the best writing Nick ever did–in part, no doubt, because they’re the only writing he ever did that was reworked by professional editors. (There’s no telling how much editing was done because his first drafts haven’t survived, but his unpublished pieces from those days are almost unreadably wooden.) He got tremendous satisfaction out of seeing them in print, arrayed beneath dignified headlines and illustrated by some of the photos he’d inherited from his parents. It was a triumph for him that at last he could think of himself as a real newspaperman.

Still, the pieces are odd. Partly it’s Nick’s style–even heavily pruned, it’s flat and affectless. The tone is so remote he felt he should apologize for it; his childhood in Asia, he writes, “now seems to me like a movie I saw long ago.” He’s also extremely reticent about anything that’s emotionally complicated. He describes the splendor of Shanghai but says nothing about his friend Victor; he writes about his hard times early on in America but doesn’t mention Maria. It’s as though he’d closed off those relationships in his mind and didn’t want to think about them anymore. He was like that in conversation as well; he said once to Nina that Victor had never been his friend in the first place, that Nikolai and Irina were the ones who’d really liked him. And he told me that Maria had always been crazy and he never should have married her.

The strangest quality these articles have is a kind of frozen finality. When I compared the articles to the oral history (which he hadn’t looked at since he’d recorded it–his copy of the transcripts was pristine) I found that he’d retold the same stories in the same way, drawing the same comparisons and making the same allusions. Evidently he hadn’t had a new thought about his past in decades. It was all fixed and nonnegotiable.

Here’s a typical example, concerning how his father’s brothers had chosen sides during the Russian Revolution. In the oral history he put it like this: “One of his brothers was on the Red side, and one was on what was known as the Green Army, which was a local, populist type of a movement within the Ukraine. I would like to bring a parallel from American history–something in the way of the Quantrill Irregulars in Kansas would be comparable, perhaps, to the Green Army in the Ukraine in those days.”

This is the corresponding passage in the newspaper series: “One of Father’s brothers joined the Red Army, and another the Green Army (also known as Mahnovtsi, the name of their leader, a huge guerrilla band similar to the Quantrill band of the American Civil War days).”

Even after everything that had happened to him over the past 40 years, he was still certain he would someday find Americans who knew as much about their own history as he did.

Maria died one morning at the end of May 1991. She was alone in her apartment in Goleta. She’d moved into the place right after her return from Springfield in 1973 and over the years had gradually fixed up, customized, and tweaked it to her satisfaction. By the time I first visited it, in the mid-1980s, she’d painted and ornamented every lampshade and place mat and trivet, and so many plants twined around the windows that when I sat in the living room I felt like I was inside the root system of an enormous tree.

In her last years she never liked to talk about Nick or her life since she’d come to America. When she reminisced she usually went back before the war, to the American soldier who’d been in love with her and had promised to take her away from China. (This had become a habit of hers; no matter what the subject, she always talked about the road not taken.) She liked reminiscing about her life in Shanghai. Once she brought out an album from those days and showed me some of the photographs where she was posing glamorously in fashionable outfits. “Maria, you were hot back then,” I said in surprise. “Oh, no, no, no,” she answered quickly. “Not hot. My look was always cool.”

She’d lived alone ever since she’d moved back. Nina once suggested she get a cat. Her answer was, “I couldn’t take care of a cat. But I do sometimes want a rat. But then the problem is that I wouldn’t want it to be lonely, so I’d have to have two rats. And then I’d hate to keep them in cages, so I’d have to let the rats out in the apartment. And the problem with that is, the landlord doesn’t allow pets.” She did still have the occasional odd encounter with the animal world. She told us she once found a fly feebly twitching on her windowsill and put out a little plate of sugar water for it; the fly revived and for the next few weeks followed her around the apartment, sitting for hours on her arm peaceably cleaning itself.

She rarely went out, but friends often came to visit–and within their little circle she had a reputation for being a saint. Whenever they went on a journey, or entered the hospital, or faced any other crisis, they’d ask her to light a candle for them. Other people’s candles would burn out overnight, one of her friends once told me–Maria’s would stay lit for weeks.

She hadn’t worked since the few jobs she’d had before Nina was born; in later years she was so frail that employment was out of the question. Nina paid her rent, and she got a disability check from social security. There was always a mystery about this. She’d applied for physical-disability benefits because of her arthritis, but she’d been turned down; instead she was granted benefits for a mental disability. Nina once asked her, “What mental disability, mom?” “I don’t know,” she answered. “They wouldn’t tell me. They said it would only upset me.”

She distrusted doctors and hated hospitals; her growing fear as she got older was that she’d have some sort of major health crisis and be trapped inside the medical system for the rest of her life. But she was spared that. She was killed instantly by a heart attack, between the time she finished breakfast and the time she started doing the dishes.

When Nina flew out to make the funeral arrangements, she called Nick from the plane and told him the news. Nick and Maria hadn’t spoken in almost 20 years, but they’d never filed for divorce. Once in the mid-1980s, unbeknownst to Maria, he’d rather grandly agreed to help Nina pay her rent; he’d just as grandly reneged a month later, pleading extreme poverty. But Nina’s call galvanized him. He immediately got in his car and drove all night from Monterey to Goleta.

It was his last grand gesture for Maria, as sincere and useless as all the others. Nina remembers, “None of my mom’s friends really knew who he was. But they invited him to dinner, and he spent the whole time lecturing everybody on Chinese history and the Russian emigration. Then he told stories about mom that were all about how crazy she was and how long-suffering he had been. And then the night before the funeral he suddenly said to me that he had to go, and he got in his car and drove back to Monterey.”

Nina thought for a long time about Maria’s headstone. In the end she chose a simple epitaph. It reads:

Maria Cherniavsky.

Harbin 1918 – Goleta 1991.

I often wonder whether anybody who passes by her grave is ever puzzled by that curious name “Harbin”–maybe puzzled enough to look it up in an atlas or an encyclopedia. But what would one learn? Harbin is a large city in the industrial region of Manchuria; its urban core is an old district of Russian-style architecture surrounded by a limitless expanse of factories and cheap modernist apartment blocks. The occasional tourists report that the city does have one intriguing custom–a winter ice-sculpture competition known as the Festival of the Ice Lanterns. The artists used to carve huge sculptures of ghosts and dragons, but in recent years their subjects are more often Darth Vader and Mickey Mouse.

One summer night in 1993 Nick couldn’t get to sleep. He was tormented by the urgent need to urinate; he was in the bathroom 10, maybe 20 times before dawn came. In the morning he was disoriented and shaky, and his eyes were bloodshot. Raya had him call in sick and told him to go to the doctor. He left, still acting befuddled, and he returned without a word a couple of hours later. When Raya asked him what the doctor had said, he just shrugged and smiled weakly. At last she managed to get out of him that he hadn’t seen the doctor; he’d sat for a while in the waiting room but couldn’t remember why he’d come, so he left and rode the bus home.

The next day he seemed better; he went to school and taught his classes with no problems. After work he saw the doctor, who conducted a thorough examination and found nothing wrong. The verdict was that he’d had a transient and harmless episode; after all, he was 69 and could expect to suffer the sort of mysterious cerebral glitches that sometimes trouble people as they get older.

The day after that was Saturday, and as he always did on Saturdays, Nick drove Erik to the comic-book store at the mall. While he was waiting for Erik to finish shopping, he grew worried that he’d forgotten something at the apartment. He couldn’t think what it was and decided he had to go home and check. Raya got a frantic call from Erik a few minutes later. The car was in the parking lot with the door open and the engine running, but Nick was nowhere to be found. He’d started walking home along the highway.

His problem became obvious to everyone–except his doctor, who said that he could find nothing organically wrong and that Nick still passed all the standard tests of mental acuity. But if he dropped his notes in class Nick was helpless, and he would simply walk out of the classroom rather than admit to his students that he was having a problem. After a month or so of this he agreed to take retirement.

His condition maddened Raya. She couldn’t trust him to carry out the simplest tasks. If he went driving he immediately got lost; if he set out to wash the dishes he would stop midway through, unable to tell the dirty dishes from the clean. If he was told to keep an eye on dinner as it was cooking, he would grow distracted and leave–and wouldn’t realize anything was wrong until the smoke detector went off. And then he would become enraged at the suggestion that it was his fault.

His letters to us became more difficult and curious. They were strewn with misspellings and grammatical mistakes–many the kind anyone might make, but Nick had come to take a lot of pride in his faultless English. It was a shock to see him write “anfortunatly” and “Ilinois” and “Could you please explore all of this problems?” Worse, he sounded bewildered, helpless, and out of touch. He proposed goofy solutions to their ongoing financial crises: “Today I am going to look for a job as an usher at one of our local movie theaters. Who could ever dream that in a couple of years it would come to this.” He wrote once only to say that he had lost Nina’s most recent letter but had found it again. He wrote several times to ask for stamps: “Please do not forget to enclose some postage stamps with your next letter. I have right now only one stamp, which I will have to use to put on the envelope I will send this letter in.”

When we talked to him on the phone he sounded morose and uncomfortable. He asked if he could come out and stay with us for a couple of weeks, and we agreed. The moment he was on the plane to Chicago, Raya called to say that he was now our responsibility and she didn’t want him back.

He arrived in Chicago in the spring of 1994 with some clothes and a couple of his most treasured possessions–most prominently, the brass nameplate from Woodward Governor. At the airport he presented Nina with an envelope and told her it was her inheritance. “It’s important for you to have it,” he said. “You’re the last of the Cherniavskys.” Inside the envelope were two old photographs of Nikolai, taken during the Russian civil war; one shows him on his horse, and the other shows him standing by a campfire in the middle of a desolate winter landscape.

But Nick didn’t bring any money or financial documents. He was unable to say what had happened to his savings, nor did Raya ever offer us a clear explanation. He’d received a large settlement from the Defense Languages Institute when he retired, but it had vanished–Raya said she’d spent a lot of it on Nick’s medical bills, because she didn’t trust medicare. She said she was broke, that she’d just got back in touch with her family in Russia and had lent them all her money. “I can’t tell you how much,” she said. “It makes me dizzy just to think about it.” Then too, she was expecting daily to be laid off, along with the rest of the Russians at the institute. With the cold war over and the iron curtain gone, the military didn’t need many new Russian-speaking spies.

We moved Nick into our spare bedroom until we could figure out what to do next. He proved to be a surprisingly pleasant houseguest. Maybe it was his condition or maybe it was that he felt so battered by his last months with Raya, but he was far less prickly than I’d seen him in years. He was almost abashed when he lost his train of thought. He became dreadfully embarrassed when he couldn’t remember how to do simple things like zip up a jacket. And if Nina or I did him a favor–one as trivial as bringing him a glass of water–he would sometimes be so overcome with gratitude that his eyes filled with tears.

Our friends and neighbors got to like him. He could be a baffling conversationalist, but his manners were as impeccable as ever. He once startled our Japanese neighbors by addressing them with the correct Japanese honorifics. Another time he picked a bamboo pole out of an alley trash can and gave an unnervingly energetic demonstration of traditional Japanese martial arts. People got used to his self-effacing presence in our house. He even charmed our most timid cat, who ordinarily vanished at the sound of any footstep on the stairs; she began creeping out from her hiding places so that Nick could pet her.

But Nick was uncomfortable with his circumstances. He never said so, but it was obvious that he hated our apartment. He kept getting lost at night trying to find the bathroom–it was right next to his room, and we left the door open and the light on for him. But we would invariably be awakened by the sound of him banging around at the far end of the hallway, frantically opening and closing doors and muttering Russian curses. It was impossible to help him at such times, because he was humiliated by his inability to find the way and would become incensed if we tried to guide him. Nina put up signs for him, in glow-in-the-dark letters (“bathroom,” “nick’s room”), and this did work sometimes–but he just as often ignored them or became distracted by other problems. Once we were awakened by a ferocious pounding in the bathroom; he’d become enraged that he couldn’t figure out the difference between the door leading to the hall and the door to the linen closet.

Soon afterward he started making it as clear as he could that he wanted an apartment of his own. As often as we would arrange his things for him in a dresser and on a nightstand, he would without a word pack them neatly back into his suitcase and leave it standing in the middle of the floor.

That fall we got him a room in a retirement hotel in Evanston. It was an old, decorous, quiet place–a labyrinth of hushed corridors and somnolent common rooms and libraries. It even had a formal dining room, where at dinner the female residents were required to wear dresses and the male residents suits and ties. We didn’t know if Nick could cope, but he seemed to quickly master all the ins and outs. He praised the place to us at every occasion; he even loved the soft, savorless food served at every meal. He introduced himself to all the staff–sometimes he did it several times a week–and was soon on a first-name basis with all the maids and custodians. He was very concerned about their working conditions and constantly inquired about the possibility of negotiating a new agreement with management.

He was less pleased by the other residents. He detested everybody at his assigned table in the dining room. They were too talkative, too nosy, too flighty, too politically conservative. He particularly loathed one resident some of the staff had been sure he would become fast friends with–the man was smart, cheerful, well educated, and a Democrat. But none of that counted. “He reads mystery novels!” Nick said with disdain. “How can I take such a person seriously?”

Nina tried to arrange for him to meet new people at a local senior citizens’ center. The center had informal discussion groups on a variety of topics, and Nina signed Nick up for one on history. The first time he attended he impressed everyone with a story about the death of a White Army general during the Russian civil war. Somehow he came away convinced that the teacher had turned the class over to him and that he would be able to lecture every week on his favorite topics in history. When he found out his mistake the next week he left crestfallen and never went back.

He did grow to like two residents at the hotel. One was a very old, frail, and dignified Korean doctor. I think he reminded Nick of the Japanese teacher at the Tientsin cadet school. In any case, soon Nick was calling him “the best friend I ever had.” He became obsessed with taking him on a walk to the beach, though the doctor looked as though a stroll to the end of the block would finish him off. Nick came up with the idea of bringing along a folding chair so they could stop and rest every few feet. But his friend passed away in his sleep one night before Nick had a chance to try it out.

His other friend was a mean, foul-tempered, and spiteful woman I’ll call Gertie. Nick was enchanted by her and was soon spending every waking moment in her company. They sat together in one of the common rooms for hours at a time, and all the while he had his hand draped over her shoulder so he could fuss over her and pat her and say soothing things whenever she got testy. He adopted all of her rancorous opinions about the hotel; even after she got tired of having him around, he obediently repeated her complaints about the food (which he no longer said he liked), about the management (he spun out several theories about occult power struggles among the staff), and about how the place would soon be closed down and they’d all be out on the street.

His endless solicitude for Gertie did briefly lift her spirits. She sometimes came with us when we took Nick out to dinner, and she would occasionally emerge from her sullenness to tell stories of her childhood. Almost all of them concerned bizarre misfortunes she’d endured. Once she said to me that her whole life she’d regretted not going to her high school prom, and when I asked her why she’d missed it she said, “Oh, I was in the hospital. The day before, I went roller-skating and slipped, and I impaled myself on a fence post. It went all the way through my shoulder.”

Their relationship became the talk of the hotel. Nick began telling us he’d never been so happy. It was hard to see why; Gertie quickly grew to despise him. Whenever he got confused or made a mistake–as happened often–she hooted at him. Sometimes he seemed on the edge of tears as he suffered through her shrieks of scornful laughter; but he never once spoke back, and he became outraged if he heard a word against her.

He was more relaxed when we got him away from the hotel. He often went with Nina to a nearby Starbucks; he happily spent afternoons there, sitting placidly while she did her mending. He’d always been a big coffee drinker, and he loved how strong the coffee was (he took it black with seven sugars). He and I took frequent walks together around Evanston. He’d come to know the neighborhood well, and he liked pointing out the ornamental details he’d spotted. The churches, the parks, the mansions, the apartment blocks, the streets lined by ancient elms–all reminded him strongly of the International Settlement, and he was constantly comparing the sights to Bubbling Well Road or the French Concession.

But his stories about his past were getting difficult to follow–and their details were changing. One day he said that Nina had been three years old when they’d arrived in Rockford.

“I thought Nina was born in America,” I said.

“Oh, no!” he exclaimed. “That’s totally wrong! How could you think that? Nina was born in China. She was in the refugee camp with us. She was already a little girl when we came here.”

I didn’t argue. A few days after that a story he often liked to tell about a foolish American doctor in Rockford became a story about a foolish American doctor in Shanghai. Soon afterward, a factory he’d worked at in California mutated into a factory in Tsingtao. The pattern was unmistakable: America was dwindling away in his mind, and China was swelling to replace it.

From then on the losses seemed to occur daily. Parts of his American life were inexorably falling away, as though sinking into the ocean. Soon only the biggest and most thoroughly indigenous American elements–like presidential elections–remained, sticking up like spars out of the water. Everything else in his life, he solemnly assured me, had happened in China. Even America’s physical reality was shrinking. He’d say, for instance, that in the McGovern campaign he’d traveled to every state in the union, when he’d actually never left Illinois. One day he asked if we could walk over to visit Raya and Erik, and when Nina reminded him that they were in California he burst out, “I know that! But California is only a few blocks from here!” Another time I asked him how long he’d been in America. He was stumped. “I would say,” he at last began hesitantly, “I would say I have been in America for seven years.” The correct answer was 43 years.

He remained a devoted correspondent. Every few days he would sit down at his desk and laboriously compose a new letter, in blue ink on ruled paper, about whatever concerned him most at the moment. In the winter of 1995 he had a cold he couldn’t shake and wrote the following:

Dear Lee and Nina,

I come to a sad, cause:,It apeared to me that a very sad, and aparently and possibly shocking–it is very possible that I might have succumbed to a very possible, to the the thatti, tubercculoses, which, would would practically put almost everyone, who would put practically to thesis.

I certainly hope the th, God wilg we may survive, But serious precautions, probably may bee mightt certaintly I hope and this wil This will this th,



His formality and sense of occasion had remained intact, even if he was now unable to get to the end of a sentence, or even the end of a word, without losing his thought. A few days later he was feeling better, and he wrote to say how much he missed Nina, who’d seen him just the day before:

Dear, Nina,

In hope of your expdedishis return. We all ar here, verily in always, here disapeering, and are hoping, to way of here expeditious return.


He wasn’t able to mail these letters of course; the post office was now beyond him. He would simply leave them on his desk when he was done, knowing they’d reach the right person.

He had less luck with our answering machine. He was able to use the speed dial on his phone, but he was baffled when he heard my voice on our outgoing message. He would typically begin brightly and then trail off into despair: “Hello, Lee. This is Nick. Hello? Lee, it’s Nick. Why aren’t you saying anything? It’s Nick. It’s Nick. Lee! Lee! What’s the matter? What’s the matter? It’s Nick!” Sometimes he did nothing but breathe and mutter nervously and then hang up. Now and then I would hear a snatch of conversation he was having with somebody in his room–a nurse, most often, trying to get him to take his pills. Once I heard him cry out petulantly, “I don’t want them! I don’t want them!” The nurse said, “Nick, could you please take them for me?” “Oh, well, if it’s for you!” Nick said, his old gallantry in full flower. “Why didn’t you say so?” Then the connection was broken.

Dear Lee, and Nina,

I woud be going to R Rosia, soon, I will be leaviiing, This to and the cats, Please, take al oof this, forr Oof them, in mi, absence, Love, and al the best,

To every lone,


We were surprised by this letter. Nick was aware of the collapse of the Soviet Union, because during his first year in the hotel Nina read to him regularly from Time and Newsweek (“It’s amazing that things keep happening,” he said once). But we hadn’t realized how much it mattered to him. At first we thought he might have been thinking of a vacation, but he soon made himself clear: he wanted to spend the rest of his days in Russia.

He was so determined that Nina began wondering if she could arrange it for him. It didn’t seem wholly impossible. Of course he would need someone to take care of him full-time, but he did have his monthly social security check–and while it barely covered his rent here, it would be a fortune over there. Nina had friends who had friends in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and among them there would surely be somebody who’d agree to act as his caregiver. It was very risky for him to be so far away and so dependent on strangers. “But why not?” he kept saying. “I have no friends in America. And what’s the worst that could happen to me? I’m an old man and I’m going to die soon anyway.” Sometimes he would begin sobbing because he wasn’t already in Russia and we were holding him back from his last journey.

Then one day Nina was reading him a story in Newsweek about recent developments in the new Russian commonwealth, and he began shaking his head sadly about the crime problem. “It’s very dangerous there right now,” he said. “Remember when I wanted to move there? I’m so glad that we decided against it.” He’s never mentioned going to Russia again.

The doors in the hotel were increasingly giving him trouble. He often woke up in the night to go to the bathroom, and if he picked the wrong door he ended up in the hallway. He would then start trying every door to see if it was the right one, and when he couldn’t get them to open he would start pounding on them and yelling. The other residents were terrified by the noise; the few who were brave enough to answer the knocking were confronted by a gaunt, wild-eyed, distraught apparition babbling incoherently in Russian. It only added to the confusion of the scene that Nick was naked.

Sometimes he was nowhere to be found in the mornings, and we would have to search for him in the remote recesses of the hotel. Once we found him wandering naked down one of the service corridors. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days; his expression was dark and haunted. “There are terrible things happening in this place,” he said to us. “Evil things. You can’t imagine how evil.” Then his eyes filled with tears.

He began having visitors. “The strangest thing happened to me the other day,” he said to Nina. “I can’t explain it. An old friend came to see me–one of my oldest friends in the world.”

“Who?” Nina asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t remember his name. But he said he was going to be staying with me in my room from now on.”

“Did he?” Nina asked. “So what happened?”

Nick smiled. “Oh, you’ll have to tell me that.”

There was another guest he didn’t say anything about. We learned of her presence in a letter he left sitting on his desk.

Dear Mother,

I still recal when I was siting at your nee grumling if the cros was giving you problems, but then, somehow, I grew up, and even some how, I myselv became a parent, and insted of you teaching me, I was teaching my dather, and was I was staying by myselv But somehow, I came to you and broght you to me again.

One morning he thought he heard on the radio that it was going to be the hottest day of the year. So he decided to take a walk. He changed into a short-sleeve shirt and light pants. When he passed through the hotel lobby the staff tried to stop him. He was furious–they had no right to keep him indoors when the day was so nice. They told him he’d get frostbite if he went out dressed like that, because the temperature was below zero and a strong wind was blowing. “Don’t talk nonsense!” he snapped. “I heard on the radio it was hot!” They pointed to the thick frost on the window and the snow sweeping wildly past the door. He refused to look. He managed to shake free of them and step outside. He couldn’t understand what he was seeing–the sky seemed to be filled with white ash. It must be extraordinarily hot, he decided. That explained why the air was so painful on his skin.

Dear NNN

OK, is heart of m My heart of heaart of heaarari, O let us, get togeser, and gett togegter, before we really, get all scattering all over–lets everyone, lets get together, you Lee and get a good gett together, after,, guys,–What to you gang, what, do yyuo lets and have a gyood totegther, a a good a gogood a a, real good, a ggood a gugo a, gygood, every avery Leaa and Lee, anid So wat, ad you sa–gong, Okey Riaght–wel., Okay ganmg, well,?


One Saturday in the spring of 1997 Nina went to see him for her weekly visit. He’d caught the flu and was having attacks of diarrhea. He sat wretchedly in his chair, with brown and sickly green spatters smeared on the bed and the blankets and the rug. He knew something was wrong, and he was distressed because he couldn’t understand what it was. He’d forgotten how to go to the bathroom.


v., snis si nss. s. xx x.s sn xtst. tack sinsk then.

x x x

When someone applies to put a relative in a nursing home, the state sends a social worker to do an interview to make sure the person isn’t being dumped. The social worker sent to interview Nick was bright, professional, and courteous. These days Nick was intensely nervous around social workers and doctors, but she immediately put him at ease.

“How long have you lived in Chicago, Mr. Cherniavsky?” she asked.

Nick was baffled. “I have never lived in Chicago,” he said firmly.

“All right,” the interviewer said. “Where were you before you came here?”

“China,” he answered promptly.

The interviewer looked at Nina and rolled her eyes, as if to say, “There won’t be any problem if he’s this delusional.”

Nina whispered to her, “He really is from China.”

The interviewer pressed onward. “What did you do in China?”

Nick made an expansive gesture with his hands and said happily, “Oh, well! I lived! I worked!”

“I see,” the interviewer said. “Do you know where you are now?”

Nick looked out the window. He thought some more. “Illinois? I would venture to say so. Rockford?”

“How long have you been in America?” she asked.

“A long time,” Nick said. “At least a month.”

During Nick’s first week in the nursing home we visited him every day to see how he was doing, and we were surprised each time by how relaxed and happy he seemed. He was shaking clear of the memory of the retirement hotel, which he thought of as a dreadful and oppressive place. Here he had no routine to follow, no expectations to meet, no cause to be embarrassed about his forgetfulness. He paced around the corridors and common room happily, introducing himself to all the staff and vigorously shaking hands with everybody he recognized. Whenever he saw us emerge from the elevators his face would light up with surprise and pleasure, and he’d advance toward us with his arms held out, crying, “My God, what are you doing here? It’s wonderful to see you!”

Sometimes though, his delight was marred by sounds from elsewhere in the ward. Once as he came toward us, he flinched when he heard gunfire from the TV in the common room. “I’m glad you’ve come,” he said urgently. “But we can’t walk down this street. They’re firing live rounds.”

“Well, then we’ll go the other way,” Nina said. She stopped to talk to one of the nurses, and Nick led me on a circuitous route toward his room. We were met by several residents standing together by the nurses’ station, and they greeted Nick with wild enthusiasm. “Giddy up!” one kept crying. “Yahoo!” yelled another. “I like you!” a third exclaimed. “Give me a piece of cake!” Nick brightened considerably as he shook their hands and patted them all on the shoulder. He looked like a down-at-the-heels politician working a crowd. Then we made our way down the hallway. The doors to the rooms were all open, and I saw residents alone at windows or lying in their beds. Some were talking to themselves; a few were laughing at some untranslatable joke. Some were sitting silently with an odd expression I often saw here, one between blank indifference and hypnotized dread, as though they were staring into the darkness between the stars.

Nick’s room was at the end of the hall. Nina had arranged several familiar objects on his desk, including his nameplate from Woodward Governor, and she’d put some etchings of Saint Petersburg in the 19th century on the wall. The room had a sweeping view of an old tree-woven Lakeview block, with glimpses of weathered ornamental stonework and terra-cotta roof tiles. Nick and I stood before the window for a long while.

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

“Yes, very beautiful,” he answered. “It reminds me of somewhere. I don’t know where. But I often come here and look out the window like this. I keep hoping I’ll see my daughter when she arrives for a visit. But I never do. She must come from another direction.” He thought for a moment, and then he turned to look at me. “But I wanted to ask you a question. I have seen something I don’t understand. In the mornings there’s a certain time when suddenly the streets fill up with people. They’re all well dressed and carrying briefcases, and they’re all in a big hurry to get somewhere.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve seen that.”

“Ah, good,” he said. “This is my question. Do you know where they’re going?”

Nina had come into the room while he was speaking, and she asked, “Where do you think they’re going, dad?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I wonder. I think they must be going to coffeehouses.”

“Is that where you’d like to go?” she asked. “We could take you to one, now that you’re–”

“Starting my new life,” Nick said. Then he laughed and turned to look out the window again. “Now that I’m starting my new life.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.