Traveling at Home
My life has been full of journeys. As a child I lived in Latvia, Norway, Russia, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Portugal, and even occasionally in the U.S. Later in life, my wanderlust led me to Iceland, Mexico, Columbia, Argentina, Yugoslavia, Poland, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and even the frozen tundra of Yakutsk. As my life unfolded, so did my suitcase, and I had wonderful opportunities to both live and work in the USSR (later Russia) and Ukraine. All these excursions led to an appreciation of different cultures, a mastery of foreign languages, and a love of exotic foods.
When my Vineyard friend Mary V. invited me to join her on an excursion to the Antarctic, I, of course, accepted with alacrity. It was an extraordinary trip. We glided past towering glaciers and dramatic ice banks on a French ship, all the while feasting on gourmet food, especially croissants. Every day, clad in arctic gear, we huddled together on Zodiaks, which took us to frozen islands. There we climbed and slid about on icy paths, and visited the penguins, which provided endless amusement, most likely for both species. No stranger to the attraction of polar opposites, we soon signed up for the Norwegian mail boat trip to the Arctic Circle. There we sat up at night gazing at the stunning Norwegian coast. Further up north, we reveled in seeing reindeer and visited indigenous Finno-Ugric Sami families. After that, where to next? Mary V. and I were discussing an exploratory visit to Greenland when the pandemic struck.
I came to the Vineyard in mid-March, and have been here ever since. So what does a housebound traveler do during COVID exile? First of all, read. Instead of seeing for ourselves, we take trips through books. I especially enjoy exploring other countries through mysteries. Venice with Donna Leon; Berlin through David Downing; Paris and the Balkans with Alan Furst; Yorkshire, England, with gimlet-eyed Peter Robinson. Some people nurture new skills such as baking bread, while others plunge into physical activity such as walking and pickleball. The latter seems to be a current Vineyard craze. Tomorrow I plan to buy my first racket and ball.
People are also assembling jigsaw puzzles. Creating a clear image out of hundreds of separate pieces brings order to chaos, helpful in these difficult times.
An artist friend has encouraged me to start writing poetry, which I am doing and loving. Exploring my creativity, thoughts, and musings, is proving to be enlightening. It requires focusing on my inner life and traveling by staying still. It offers so many possibilities, which are seemingly limitless. I am free to create, enjoy, and wander. Where to next? It depends on where my imagination takes me.
Walking has always been a special pleasure. Recently I joined some friends to explore Philbin Beach in Aquinnah, a first for me. “Doesn’t this remind you of the Antarctic?” Mary V. asked, pointing to the black sand at the bottom of the brown, crumbling cliff. I was surprised, but then realized it did. I was traveling again — just closer to home.
Russia on My Mind
Less than three months before the American general election, Russia has appeared frequently in the news, but in somewhat different guises. As U.S.-Russian relations become more tense, espionage and related stories have increased. The more you read these stories, the more they connect in different ways.
The internet plays a role in many of them. Facebook and Twitter have announced the reappearance of a Russian-backed network called the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which positions itself as a left-wing American group aimed at pushing voters away from Biden and helping President Trump. IRA was very active and had many viewers in the 2016 election. There is also a Peace Data Site, another covert operation run from Moscow. However, apparently IRA and the Peace Data Site have lost American viewers in the past four years. One possible reason is that when the photos of the supposed editors of Peace Data Site were examined more closely, they turned out to be computer-generated images. Also, Facebook and Twitter users are becoming smarter and more suspicious of the fake agencies involved.
Aleksei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition, was just taken out of a medically induced coma in a German hospital in Berlin. The hospital doctors have spoken up to affirm that Navalny was the victim of a poison attack in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Doctors and family are convinced the attack was carried out by the FSB (former KGB). He was poisoned with Novichok, a neurotoxin developed in the Soviet Union. It is the same poison that was given to former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. While Navalny, the leader of the opposition to Vladimir Putin, has been a constant irritant to Putin over many years, he is still far from a serious political threat. So, it is curious that the government took the drastic step of poisoning him now. My suspicion is that Putin has been alarmed by the massive demonstrations taking place in neighboring Belarus, as well as weeks of street demonstrations in Russia’s Far East.
Meanwhile, Putin’s hegemony has even touched the Vineyard. Paul Whelan, the brother of Vineyard artist Elizabeth Whelan, whom I spoke to on Saturday, has recently been sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison. Paul, a former Marine, served four years in Iraq, during which time he started visiting Russia as a tourist. Paul always loved traveling and exploring foreign lands. He learned rudimentary Russian during those exploratory expeditions, signed up for the Russian social media site, VKontakte (or VK), and met and befriended a number of pen pals who had approached him via his VK site. In December 2018, when a fellow Marine was marrying a Russian girlfriend in Moscow, Paul was invited as a guest and to help wedding guests move around the city. On the day of the wedding, a VK friend of Paul named Ilya Yatsenko, whom he had known for 10 years, appeared at his hotel room door and gifted Paul with a thumb drive, saying it contained some travel photos. Paul somewhat naively accepted this gift. He knew that Yatsenko had been in the military and was currently working for the FSB, but assumed they were good friends. Almost immediately after Ilya’s departure, the Russian security forces were at the door and took the thumb drive, which allegedly contained compromising information and the names of Russian FSB agents. Paul was taken to Lefortovo Prison, and has never been seen by his family since. He has recently been moved to a prison colony in Mordovia, Russia. While there is gossip that he is being saved for a trade, his future is unclear. Both the previous and the current ambassadors to Russia, Huntsman and Sulllivan, have visited Paul, and have tried to extricate him from what certainly appears to be an obvious setup, but to no avail. Had they tried in happier times, he could probably have been quietly let go. Trump has been approached, but to even less avail.
This story brings shivers. I have lived in the Soviet Union in bad times and in good ones. My father, the U.S. Ambassador in 1952, was expelled by Stalin, and my family flown out under a cloud of Soviet disapproval. I remember years when Americans and Russians were not able to see each other, and times when we spent happy evenings drinking tea or vodka in miniscule Russian kitchens, and thought we were anticipating normal relations between our two countries. The current headline stories we read reflect the tense relations going on now between Russia and the U.S. They also illustrate the ambivalent attitude our current President seems to have toward Russia and Putin.
Suddenly in the past two weeks we are hearing about individuals caught up in conflict who might have been ignored a few years ago — Alexei Navalny, the Green Beret Peter Debbins, and Paul Whelan, who is serving the beginning of 16 years imprisonment in a Russian penal colony. Trump has had some much-publicized success in freeing Americans arrested and imprisoned in foreign countries. I, for one, would like to see him use some of his vaunted friendship and admiration for Putin to do the same to gain the release of this unfortunate American, now seemingly lost in the vast Russian penal system.
Use It or Lose It
I was 5 years old when my Norwegian-born mother became an American citizen. She never stopped stressing the importance of voting. She pointed out how lucky I was to be American, and that it would be a crime to skip an election. I never have.
Years later, while working in both Russia and Ukraine, I started election observing for a local group in Kiev, and then later occasionally for IRI (International Republican Institute), which does nonpartisan work overseas. I discovered that I loved the experience. As an election observer, I was to look for specific elements to ensure that the election is conducted with integrity. Observers, who always work in pairs, are told that there should be no campaign literature in the polling facility, the ballot box must be visible, voter IDs must be checked, and the process should be orderly. Teams of election observers visit different polling stations throughout the day. In addition to working with a partner, we were provided with an interpreter, car, and driver. Since I speak Russian, I didn’t need the interpreter, so it freed me up to talk to more voters and observers.
Even when the outcome was predictable, the whole election process in the former Soviet Union was colorful. Election Day in the USSR was always a holiday. Designated voting buildings were cleaned and filled with fresh-cut flowers and decorative photographs. Election officials decked themselves out in their good clothes, and the whole affair had a festive air.
One time, though, in Ukraine in 2004, the occasion was far from celebratory. When we arrived at a local polling station in the eastern city of Donetsk to observe the presidential election, we were met with voters fleeing the site. We entered the building, and were shocked to find Plexiglas ballot boxes slashed, and ballots strewn all about the floor. The remaining voters huddled in a corner of the room, pointing to an office in the back. There we discovered the local election official, a woman, in charge, cowering with the police officer assigned to protect the polling station. We told her that we would report the incident to the authorities. When we went back outside, we found that the tires of our car had also been slashed. That slowed down our travel to other polling places, as another vehicle had to be procured (but not our resolve). That election was subject to so many irregularities, including one district reporting 127 percent of the population voting, that it later required two additional elections before a winner was declared.
My enthusiasm for monitoring the voting process was such that I took and passed an exam to be an official OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observer. In 2005, I was part of a 70-member international delegation observing the Azerbaijani presidential elections. This assignment took me up to the remote mountainous area near the Russian border. We traveled through large, uninhabited areas seemingly populated only by sheep and an occasional shepherd. It made me feel I was traveling back into biblical times in a modern Mercedes bus. Most of our election-observing flock spent the day at local voting stations. But my partner and I were assigned the night shift at the regional Central Election Headquarters, where all the cast ballots were brought for official tabulation, so we started at 10 pm.
At the end of the day, all the local polling stations put their paper ballots into a box with an accompanying placard signed by all the election officials. The town driver and policeman then set off with this precious cargo for our post at the Central Election Headquarters. During a previous election, the ballots had been tampered with on this journey, so fear of a repeat offense caused some locals to jump into their own cars and chase the police car. It soon became an Indy 500 race. While hazardous, it prevented the escort policeman from stealing any ballots. It was exciting to hear the screeching of brakes and watch as the cars careened into the Headquarters parking lot.
My partner and I sat in an alcove, observing the technician who transferred the paper ballots into the computer. Late during that long evening, we spotted the technician entering an altered ballot figure. We reported it to OSCE headquarters in Baku, as we were not allowed to interfere with the local precincts. A few days later at the official OSCE closing ceremony, the election was declared marred by fraud. We were relieved and proud to think that judgment was partly based on our efforts to protect the integrity of the electoral process from a small town in the Azerbaijani mountains.
Today in America, with a presidential election looming before us in the middle of a pandemic, voting has again become a big issue, for several reasons. Mail-in voting is increasingly important, as physical voting can lead to physical propinquity. Thus, in recent state elections, there have been fewer polling stations open, causing people to wait interminable hours to cast their ballots. While many Democratic politicians have been strongly promoting mail-in ballots, the president and many followers have been opposed. The president has even gone so far as to suggest that children might be stealing ballots from mailboxes. This is particularly strange, as he himself votes by mail-in ballot. But what began as a partisan divide has become more snarled as the president has pushed to shut down or privatize the U.S. Post Office. Certainly, the volume of ballots is a new issue. It has been observed that mail-in voting in the recent New York primary caused long delays in counting the vote.
Perhaps we should consider encouraging more foreign observers like OSCE to oversee our election.
The president has even suggested that the November election be postponed, although he doesn’t have the authority to cancel or postpone an election.
At this tumultuous time, with the election and virus both competing for our attention, I am reminded of my mother’s declaration of how lucky I am to be an American. It seems particularly fitting to close with the words of the late John Lewis:
“Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society; you must use it, because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”
Let Us Breathe
My reaction to President Trump’s walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square was outrage. I know that historic church well. I was married there many years ago. It is called “the Church of the Presidents” because of its proximity to the White House, and frequent attendance by many past presidents. It is actually fairly small, and noted for its lack of a center aisle.
The bridal couple instead have to make their happy exit down a side aisle. But what was so upsetting to me about Trump’s visit was that he didn’t go to pray or to seek solace. He, who had spent the previous Sunday playing golf, was going simply to pose outside for photographers, holding up a Bible handed to him by his daughter, Ivanka.
That same weekend, Washington protesters surged up Wisconsin Avenue, close to my sister’s Georgetown house. There was violence, and neighborhood stores were broken into. She lives alone except for a sweet Labrador, Maeve. “The sky was full of helicopters, which kept flooding their lights into my bedroom,” she told me, “so I couldn’t even sleep.” In Martha’s Vineyard, I couldn’t sleep either, thinking of these images of police brutality, how COVID-19 has ravaged communities of color and illustrated that health disparities are related to racial inequality. Both these images were such a contrast from the past two months, where we had all been cocooned in our houses and apartments engaging in yoga, spiritual development, and much Zoom activity. Now we suddenly are glued to the television watching massive street demonstrations, most of which are peaceful. Protestors must choose between staying at home and practicing social distancing, or uniting in a movement to end the epidemic of social injustice.
Watching television, I was shocked by the destruction of small businesses, whose owners were already suffering from no business, no customers, and no income. Listening to the young African American men being interviewed, I was appalled that these young men have always been in danger of being pulled over or harassed by the uniformed men who are supposed to be protecting all of us. Now I realize that these abuses, which are part of people of color’s daily experiences, have been covered up by those in power.
A friend, Kelly Smith, a woman of color, shared with me a letter she had written to her children: Here is a segment.
”The walls of this country were built with the premise of freedom and equality for all; however, attached to this notion was the blatant agenda of severe brutality and bigotry … which was sewn with the threads of an infected society. It has broken the backs and has ripped the vibrant life of our forefathers. Their blood stains the very soil that we walk on … We will not give them another day, where we are engaged in sitting on the back of the bus because of the color of our skin. We will not allow another chokehold to kill our spirit and trample our soul. Your knee will not collapse the air passages that sustain us — because we are inferior to your evil ideology. We will deafen the sound of your systemic blow of hatred and brutality so that never again will we say, ‘I CAN’T BREATHE.’”
I was shocked. I have always had friends of different colors. In the years Kelly and I have known each other, however, we have never discussed race. Much has been left unsaid. Unspoken emotions and thoughts have been simmering beneath the surface. American history taught in our schools remains very white, while African American contributions appear negligible.
Walking down to Main Street in Vineyard Haven, I noticed that Timeless Treasures and the Beach House, two stores owned by whites, had big signs in their display windows: “Black Lives Matter.” The next day I went by, and saw two young black women photographing each other standing beside one of the signs. This gave me hope. George Floyd’s death, followed by Rayshard Brooks’ shooting, has made a huge difference in our country and our culture by prompting civil discourse, demonstrations, and long-overdue reform. Now is the time to listen, learn, and lead each other toward the light of a new dawning of equality.
Frozen in Time
Everything is different now.
Walking the streets amid a cascading crescendo of noise from the people, traffic, and businesses that call Manhattan home, I used to encounter all sorts of surprises — neighbors, of course, an unexpected old friend, or occasionally the glimpse a celebrity. Now, self-quarantined on Martha’s Vineyard, the only sounds I hear are crows cawing, blue jays jawing, and warblers trilling. I watch wild turkeys crossing the backyard, and spot a rare walker striding down the street. The silence is deafening. I am alone, a castaway from the city.
The human touch has gone. No hugs, handshakes, or kisses. God, I miss a rub on my back, a warm hug. A few days ago my peonies burst into bloom, reminding me that time is passing. I spend the days rereading David McCullough and Geraldine Brooks.
I have lived more than eight decades, and in many countries, so friends occasionally phone and ask, “Have you ever experienced anything like this?” Yes, I answer.
In a haunting way, I’m reminded of my visit to the town of Pripyat in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It was 2001, 15 years after the explosion. I was living and working in Ukraine, and had heard so much about Chernobyl that I wanted to see it for myself. Along with three other foreigners, I received a special permit to go there; we were met and escorted everywhere by an official with a Geiger counter. What struck me most was the absence of sound. Never have I been to a quieter place, I wrote at the time. No birds, no traffic, none of the industrial hums and screeches.
A second impression was how intangible radiation is. Like a virus, you do not smell it, see it, or intentionally touch it. You think it’s nowhere, until suddenly you realize it’s everywhere. We stood on a road near the center of the exclusion zone where the Geiger counter was silent, while two feet away from the road, the radiation level was 1,000 times higher.
We also stopped to visit a Pripyat apartment house whose residents were told they had 30 minutes to pack one suitcase and bring it to a line of buses. What they weren’t told was that they would never return. I looked around the empty apartments, unmade beds, half-finished letters, and clothes abandoned on a chair. The apartments had been untouched for 15 years.
Today, too, lives have been frozen in time. Instead of being told to evacuate, we are instructed to isolate. We don’t know when we will return to our previous way of living, and or who will be missing when we do.
For months and even years in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, millions of Europeans lived in fear and uncertainty. In Ukraine, there was anger at the Soviet political leaders, who dissembled and covered up the mounting health hazards. This was especially evident when thousands of children were sent to march outdoors in May Day parades instead of telling them to stay at home. The reactor meltdown left a lasting mark on the Ukrainian psyche. To this day, no one knows for sure how many Soviet citizens perished from the eventual effects of radiation, just as no one will ever know for sure how many people have died from the novel coronavirus.
The heroes, then and now, are the first responders — medical personnel, firefighters, soldiers, and countless other essential workers, some of them volunteers, but many others just doing their jobs and bearing the brunt of the risks to spare the rest of society.
Comparing Chernobyl and the current pandemic, I’m struck by how the distant past seems so close.
Coronavirus Chronicles: Reading In Shelter
The pandemic with a shelter-in-place order has pushed us all in different directions. Arriving at my house on Martha’s Vineyard, the first thing that caught my eye was David McCullough’s “John Adams.” “That’s perfect,” I thought. A book I had always meant to read was just sitting there waiting for me. I made a schedule to read seriously an hour a day. Having mostly grown up in Europe, where there was no American history taught at school, I felt “John Adams” would fit the bill. The author is an Islander too, so the book would fill two bills. I became totally absorbed learning about the long, hazardous trips it took Adams to go to Europe, about the smallpox plague in Philadelphia, echoing today’s pandemic, and the fact that his son, like my father, was U.S. Ambassador to Russia. It was a great read.
The next book on my list was Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror.” Since the subject was the black plague, it seemed equally timely. My literary friends all reinforced the general opinion that this was a wonderful book. But as I delved in, the problem was that at that moment, it seemed dense and far away. I decided to put it off for a while, and instead dove into a book about the troubles of Northern Ireland called “Say Nothing.” That book largely took place in Belfast, and included much murder, mayhem, and torture. While It dragged me into a dark and violent time, simultaneously it opened up a whole new world different from the peaceful and green Southern Ireland I had visited, but I loved it. What next?
Of course, you can’t just read serious books, so I was intermittently devouring mystery books. Those set in foreign countries — such as bucolic villages in England, and famous capital cities — I found especially appetizing. This time I followed Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks as he sleuthed in Yorkshire, England, and also escaped into the rather gory thrillers by Mark Pryor, located in Paris and London.
Martha’s Vineyard has long been known as a center for writers and artists, and among the joys of Vineyard living have always been book parties, lectures, art exhibits, and theater. Several of my literary friends began making physical contributions to my reading list, and a pile of new books started to accumulate on my hall table. A strange Island tradition is the absence of doorbells, so masked friends would “knock and drop.” There was a big, fat book on Vladimir Putin, written by Fiona Hill, about Russia, where I had lived so many years as both a child and as an adult. Had even spent a rather grim half an hour alone meeting with Putin when he was vice mayor of Saint Petersburg, where his Artic glance chilled me to the bone.
Another Russian contender, obviously less serious, called “Pravda HaHa,” chronicled the outrageous adventures of a famous travel writer in Russia. A third entry soon followed, “Disappearing Earth,” by Julia Phillips. This very original book, about how the disappearance of two young girls affected a community, took place in Kamchatka, and was raved about by the donor. I was engrossed. Kamchatka had always been on my list of places to visit. Much to my surprise, I found my nephew Brandon in Atlanta, Ga., was reading it as well. Clearly an affinity with Russia runs in the family.
Gifts were followed by loaners. More knock and drops. First Honor Moore’s “Our Revolution,” a memoir about her life with her mother. The title puzzled me — what do revolutions have to do with mothers? So I put the book off that day. But the second loaner, another memoir, was much more fun. Titled “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir,” written by Victoria Riskin, another Islander, it drew me right in. Fay Wray, the author’s mother, was the heroine of “King Kong,” but also starred in about 100 other movies. Fay managed to be a doting mother and devoted wife at the same time. Riskin’s book is hard to put down, and immerses you in the chaotic and creative world of early Hollywood, with a little stardust on the side.
While the pandemic has kept me at home, I have enjoyed my travels to colonial America, Belfast, Ireland, Yorkshire, England, Moscow, Kamchatka, and early Hollywood. And who knows where my next voyage will take me?