Thursday, September 26, 1991


In the film, Dr. Zhivago , at the funeral, Zhivago's brother says of the throngs of mourners filing past Zhivago's casket, those who love poetry love poets, and nobody loves poetry like the Russians.

But he could just as easily described the very real funeral scene of Anna Akhmatova—considered to be the high priestess of Russian poetry, and one of the great poets of the 20th century—in the documentary film, The Personal File of Anna Akhmatova , by Leningrad filmmaker Semyon Aranovich. 

In Zhivago , Anna's friend, Boris Pasternak captured a fragment of the darkness that must have descended upon Russia, as the material for the Iron Curtain was mined from the very psyche of her artists and intellectuals. The capital of culture, (and once the political capital of the USSR) St. Petersburg (Leningrad), with her mosaic of 101 islands wrested from the marsh, is said to be built on a foundation of human bones. 

In this dense, heavy, dark film, Aranovich effectively captures some of the real-life horror artists suffered while under the reign of Stalin. Akhmatova speaks, "The naked man on the naked earth. What a dangerous thing art is."

Russia has made great contributions to literary tradition: Tolstoy, Pushkin, Blok, Mandelstam, Solzhenitsyn, and of course, Akhmatova. 

Ironically, it was during my first visit to the USSR, in August of 1989, that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's work was allowed to be published for the first time, during that same epic month, Andrei Sakharov died, and the film, The Personal File of Anna Akhmatova, was broadcast on television. Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Akhmatova were finally repatriated and reinstated—and filmmaker Aranovich as well. 

One of Stalin's first work camps bore this slogan, 'With an iron hand we shall lead humankind to happiness." On the green walls of Leningrad's Literature Club, I read a list: many of the world's greatest artists lived there, and during the Period of Stagnation, smuggled their work abroad.

Joseph Brodsky, who, as a young poet was befriended by Akhmatova, before he was forced to leave the Soviet Union for America, said "it depletes you by making you think of it all the time, and so you struggle with it, losing all your potential." 

In the film, one month before his own defection to the west, Solzhenitsyn tells Akhmatova "That's just what I thought— you are not silent, but write what cannot be published." 

And during the 1991 August putscht , I watched the film, only to hear the voice of Akhmatova utter, "August is always a frightening month for me. . . how many poems I did not write. . . I know beginnings and endings too. I did, probably, everything that could be done."

Born near Odessa in 1889, during the last days of the reign of the tsar, the spirited Anna Andrevna lived in the outskirts of St. Petersburg, in Tsarskoye Selo. At the age of seven, she knew her destiny, and changed her surname to Akhmatova, after the last prince of the Golden Horde. 

"When Papa found out about my poems he told me, Don't bring shame on my name. 'I can do without your name, I told him.' Only a crazy girl would choose a Tatar surname for a Russian pen-name!" she retorted.

She narrates: "The human soul is made in a strange way. Poems, even the greatest poems, never make the author happy." Though she suffered the full sting of Stalin's purges, Akhmatova's life itself was an act of courage: in 1946 she was silenced, expelled from the Writers' Union, and only partially rehabilitated after her death in 1966. 

"A writer with a frightened soul isn't qualified to be a writer," wrote her friend, Misha Zoschenko—who was banned at the same time. 

In 1912, her first book, Evening was published, and her son, Lev was born. "You are my son and my terror, . . .And I can no longer tell man from beast." she wrote. The second time her son was imprisoned for the crime of bearing his father's name—poet and counter-revolutionary Nikolai Gumilyov, executed in by the Bolsheviks in 1921—she suffered a heart attack that nearly killed her. 

No one is forgotten; nothing is forgotten— Akhmatova wrote of censorship, "I remember how the gods turned people / into things, not killing their consciousness." 

Akhmatova later committed nothing to paper: the poems, including her famous "Requiem" survived because friends memorized sections for her. 

"Requiem" is a chronicle of her wait in line outside the prison walls to see her son. An old woman asked," Can you describe this?" Akhmatova said, "Yes, I can." 

In Stalin's times, for many, the defiant act of poetry was the only way to stay conscious and sane. For this reason of bearing witness, the poet must never forget—for Akhmatova, to do so, was to commit a mortal sin. 

Later in the film, Anna says, "Solzhenitsyn gives us back our native languages and loves Russia with Blok called a "deadly insulted love." She refused to leave the Soviet Union, becoming "a forceful voice against oppression." Two years before her death, she was reinstated into the Writers' Union, Solzhenitsyn fled to the West to publish freely. 

Aranovich, who filmed archival footage of Akhmatova's funeral in  1966, risked arrest and was unable to show these images until now, under glasnost .

The story of the film itself, reads like the chronicle of Akhmatova's life: Aranovich was silenced when his footage of Akhmatova's funeral was confiscated by the KGB, the director demoted, and the footage remained missing for five years. 

According to the American translator of the script, poet Maryna Albert of Odessa Productions in Seattle, "Aranovich was told by someone to ask about the footage at the archives at Lenfilm Studios. He went with a bottle of vodka, and talked to the head archivist. They drank the bottle and Aranovich got another. Finally, the archivist says, 'I know what you're here for, your film, but you're not going to get it.' 

For almost 20 years they could not get ahold of the footage. Ironically, the only time it was shown was when the KGB wanted to know who was present at Akhmatova's funeral." 

Maryna Albert's own involvement in the film came about when she was in Russia in 1989, when she met a young musician who had just finished working on a film of Akhmatova. She saw the film, loved it, and met the director, Aranovich. 

In turn, she read him a poem she'd written at Akhmatova's graveside, translated by her friend, Leningrad writer and guitar -maker Yuri Dmitrievski. Aranovich liked the poem, and offered her the job of co-translating the Russian text of the film into English with Yuri. 

(Excellent translations of most of the poems and text of Anna Akhmatova are by Yuri Dmitrievski and Maryna Albert; three poems by Judith Hemschemeyer, from the recently released Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova , Zephyr Press 1990; two poems by Stanley Kunitz/Max Hayward from Poems of Akhmatova , Little, Brown & Company 1973.) 

The completion and subsequent airing of this important documentary film represents the banishment of repression not only for Aranovich. 

Yuri Dmitrievski who described Social Realism as "a monster nobody has actually seen with the naked eye," said "If you weren't killed, survival was agonizingly hard for anyone banished from the obedient herd. Consequently, there's scorn among Communists for anyone who is independent and, worst of all, creative."

Russian criticism of the film was that Aranovich objectified Akhmatova too much, placed her on a pedestal. She was more human, down to earth. Albert said the film, geared for Russian audiences, assumes those viewing the film are intimate with Russian history and literature. Not enough is explained for American audiences. 

"I tried to bring some clarity to the film, which is not always chronological." She was confronted with the added dilemma that the film had no separate sound track. Albert was able to make an American adaptation (2 and a half years in the making) funded by the Washington State Humanities Council, with only seven editorial cuts.

The 63-minute black and white film successfully weaves photographs and footage, often using pastiches, collage, overlays, and repetitive loops to achieve a visual poetic effect. Haunting, discordant music serves to enhance the nightmarish quality of some of the images—Stalin wiping his mustache over and over, or the wind riffling the pages of books.

The cult of Stalin juxtaposed against rows of animal skins, scored with Dmitrievski's percussive rendition of "Moscow Nights" and "Katushka" raises the hackles on one's neck. This is a dense film noir, requiring several viewings. Sometimes the subtitles go by so fast, there isn't adequate time to absorb them, and some of the text for the complete poems is almost too small to read. 

However, it's a film well worth seeing—especially as we in the west struggle to understand what Russia has already experienced, and what lies ahead.

Part of a growing Renaissance on the life of Akhmatova, the archival film will make its Bay WArea debut at the Mill Valley Film Festival in November, and it will be aired again in December at the Poetry Film Festival in San Francisco. 

An American companion film on Akhmatova—using much of Aranovich's original footage—"Fear and the Muse" will also air in November on KQED. And there is rumor of other documentary films on Akhmatova on the way.

Distributed by Oakland-based, non-profit national film distributor, The Video Project, The Personal File of Anna Akhmatova, is now part of their Glasnost Film Festival video series, the original 22 films which toured the US for over a year, have expanded to 33 titles. 

The Festival was brought to North American audiences in 1989 by the Citizen Exchange Council and the American-Soviet Film Initiative (Moscow).

The Video Project (originally the Educational Film & Video Project) was co-founded by Oscar nomination, I n the Nuclear Shadow: What Can the Children Tell Us? 1983, and Academy Award ( Women—For America, For the World , 1986) winning documentary filmmakers Vivienne Verdon-Roe and Ian Thiermann in 1983 to produce and distribute affordable alternative films and videos on issues crucial to our future on the planet. 

Verdon-Roe first saw the Soviet films at the Los Angeles premier of the Glasnost Film Festival. "I was quite unprepared for the emotional impact of these films. They are a vivid reflection of the changes sweeping the Soviet Union, a transformation that is now changing our world so dramatically. . . a society that is taking moral inventory of itself, trying to heal itself."

Over 150 films ranging from environmental to critical social issues such as the arms race, and Latin America—hard-hitting films rarely seen on television—are available for individual, or group rental or purchase at 5332 College Avenue, Suite 101, Oakland, CA 94618, or call (415)655-9050. Thiermann encourages grassroots groups to use the films to raise funds for their own efforts. Le Video in San Francisco and Video Droid in Mill Valley do stock some of their tapes as well.

I don't have a tear sheet for this, not edited version.

Wednesday, September 25, 1991



When my weekly horoscope said I'd fall in love with a stranger,
perhaps a Gemini, I laughed, thinking how easily I'd outfoxed my fate, 
and escaped Eros' sting. Besides, it was during the Russian coup,
I was living a cloistered life; I'd sworn off men—especially Soviets,
having put the last one (a Cancer) on a plane back to his wife.
Chocolate is a lot easier on the psyche and tastebuds.
Minerva cautioned the entire centarian tribe of archers,
Unlucky in love, are you the problem or the key to the solution?
Sagge, be careful what you ask for. I don't believe in starcasts,
but I forgot the gods are practical jokers. 
A chance meeting with a stranger on a pier,
minutes before my forecast was rendered null and void,
I fell in love with a Gemini man from an overthrown country 
half-way around the world, without even a language in common. 
I forgot to specify I wanted a sensitive, rich, agnostic American. 
Instead, I got a piously orthodox aging Russian singer.
Always in hot water, I know I'm trouble, I wonder what he asked for,
& how many other Sagges were parboiled that week?
Blame fate or the stars the ship was stranded a week in port.
It began innocently enough—the night I drove him back to the ship
at 70 mph, my unexplicable tears, the swimming freeway.
Alarmed, he wondered if we'd get there in one piece.
I stood on the pier shivering in a summer dress
& bundled against the fog, dismally in love with a stranger
about to set sail. The gods take no prisoners, we couldn't board ship—
US customs had shut it down. Trouble, all right.
He pointed to the dictionary, are you free?
Was he was referring to political ideological freedom
just after the coup—it seemed a natural enough question.
Panicking, I assumed he wanted to defect. 
Six others jumped ship in Seattle and nearly drowned.
He shook his head, No. I thought, O god, 
it's the larger question: do I have ties, am I single? 
But he just wanted to go shopping before returning home.
Relieved, I said yes to all three counts.
We spent the week exploring backroads and beaches,
singing under the stars, before his ship left for Vladivostok.
My girlfriends sighed, how romantic! It's certainly a challenge. 
At least he's not married like the last one.
While I was busy fanning the blaze with a frying pan,  
my ship came in all right. And sailed without me.
I wonder where fate will take me this time:
To St. Petersburg as a Russian wife peeling spotty potatoes?
Or will he come here, dependent as a babe; 
both of us broke and hating each other,
living like caged rats in my shoebox of a cabin?
I've never seen the fall come in like this before: thunder & rain 
after a day hot enough to cook eggs in plein-air.
Last night's full equinox moon pushed on the sky
like an impatient child in the birth canal,
with bags packed, nowhere in particular to go.                 

rev. 5/92

Wednesday, September 18, 1991



Sleeping until noon & needing an excuse,
she blamed it on the java she scored—
20 pounds of dark French roast
vibrating in her fridge—
keeping her hardwired all night long.

rev. 8/92

89 to 92

Tuesday, September 17, 1991



In the Grand Canyon, the rivers eat time.
The muddy Colorado, a hungry red snake devours natal rock.
Like an old man seeking the fountain of youth,
it eats ever deeper to a time when the earth was young.
Soon it will devour itself like Oruboros,
because it eats through to the heart of the metaphor—
not vertical history, but timeless geology.
Lava sensibilities hidden in the depths
give no clue to the passion set in stone; time itself is fluid—
cracks in the earth, fissures in the soul
of alluvium and rusted sandstone.
Defiance Plateau. How big, and utterly defiant
the land must've seemed to those crossing by wagon.
Now the land becomes less distinct,
an amalgam—like the people who settled America.

Mirages are to the desert as waves are to the ocean.
Ghost cities laid out like Nazca lines,
geometric knotwork of someone's failed dreams.
We try so hard to leave our mark,
sometimes without even knowing it.

Flying over Acoma, the oldest inhabited city in the U.S.
I think of Coronado searching for the seven fabled cities of Cibola,
who found only the empty cities of the Anasazi, the Old Ones,
could not see the wealth of earthen walls glowing at sunset.

9/91 & 9/93  
Santa Fe, NM



Dendritic memory of dry riverbeds,
the pale alluvium, most recent in memory,
points accusingly toward sinkholes below sea level.
Recognizable from the air: Cedar Breaks,
Vermilion Cliffs, Rainbow Plateau, Monument Valley.
Lines across the earth in resonating patterns,
what do they mean? Power lines visible from space?
The varied skin of the mother,
the mysterious deeper names for the earth.
A finger lake with fractalline shores—
and irrigated circles, green coinage for the corn mothers.
Nothing grows in the pocket canyons
except turquoise reservoirs, truly jewels of the desert.
Remnants of oceans, polyps and coral, a garden
bloomed in the blood of our mother, the sea,
the first goddess to emerge
and give up her bounty.

9/91 & 9/93
Santa Fe, NM

Monday, September 16, 1991

Face to Face Art Auction 9/16/91

Using art to help celebrate life

COMPASSION—A work by wood sculptor Bruce Johnson to be auctioned at Face to Face's annual Art For Life benefit Sept. 21 at The Friedman Center.


In 1988, stained-glass artist Laurence Evangelinos contacted Face to Face Sonoma County AIDS Network, the local agency dedicated to providing care and support for people with AIDS and ARC. "It is time to do something. I want to help," the Occidental artist told Face to Face Development Director Rick Dean. "The only thing I have to give is my art."

But she had an idea that she wasn't alone in the artist community, and Art For Life, one of the most successful art auction fundraisers in California, was born.

Over the last four years, the Sonoma County artists have responded in force to the Face to Face request for donations. Last year's auction exceeded projections of $25,000 and raised $37,000. This year more than 200 works of art valued at over $100,000 have been donated to the auction which will be held September 21 at The Friedman Center in Santa Rosa. One piece alone, donated by Timber Cove sculptor Bruce Johnson, is valued at $8000.

Among the contributors, visual artist and SRJC art instructor Marsha Connell of Santa Rosa sees the project as a natural endeavor for the community. "AIDS and the artist community overlap—and there are fewer resources available to us. We need to help our own community."

Guerneville printmaker Inge Laskowski says, "I feel it's a really important event for artists who can give something other than money. It's a gift of ourselves to contribute to the cause. The community takes an interest in that art, and with that interest, donates money to Face to Face. I can see the direct results of the benefit auction right here in my own community."

One complaint often made by artists about benefit auctions—that sponsors think little of asking artists for a donation as if somehow creating fine art was less of a livelihood than, say, plumbing—is curiously absent when discussing Art For Life.

A practical issue Connell raises is that "though a piece of art may be worth thousands of dollars, the artist is not allowed to take a tax credit for the charitable donation of a piece. The IRS allows artists to deduct only the cost of the materials." Since most artists have already deducted materials in their yearly tax returns, they usually receive no tax-break whatsoever. "However, if a business person or a gallery owner donates a piece of art, they can claim full value," explained Connell.

So when artists give their art for charitable causes, they usually receive no compensation. True philanthropy.

Though artists contributing to Art For Life are entitled to receive up to 2O percent of the sale price for their donated piece (which helps to recoup materials costs), framing a watercolor can run upwards of $400, a considerable out-of-pocket cost for the artist to absorb—most artists who donate work to the auction do not claim their 20 percent. According to Dean, less than a quarter of the artists ask for the payment.

Of course, artists also donate their work because ita lso gives them exposure. According to ceramicist Jeff Zigulis, "This auction is one of the premier art events in the Bay Area."

Zigulis, who is on the board of directors for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, feels it's a feather in his cap to be asked to be involved in the auction. "Face to Face is a timely issue, it helps local people in the community. The ir auction is head and shoulders above the rest. It's number one."

Forestville wood sculptor Michael Costantini began as a volunteer at the first auction four years ago and helped organize the system with "flow-function logistics." Costantini explains, "The art auction is a very labor-intensive way for an organization to make money. The amount of energy expended for the return of profit is considered to be on the low end of the totem pole. And the auction is so successful, it's one of the biggest money-makers for Face to Face." The other major fundraiser, the Human Race, is held in May. Monthly pledge programs and state and county grants, make up the bulk of the organization's annual budget.

Costantini, who works primarily on commissioned pieces privately negotiated through Gump's, sees the donation of his art as a promotional venue as well as a philanthropic gesture. He says it's like having a new instant client.

"The auction gives exposure to worthwhile artists, and because it's invitational, it has prestige," says Laskowski. "It's important that all of us think about AIDS-most of us can't help out on a day-to-day basis. The auction is an outrageous success. A real social event, a who's who of the [local] art world."

After the art auction Dean will fly to Vancouver, B.C., to take the model to other AIDS agencies. One reason he thinks the auction is so successful is the extraordinary number of artists, restaurants, and wineries in Sonoma County. Several chefs, caterers, and wineries also contribute services and products to the event. "Sonoma," Dean says, "is a mecca."

Face to Face began as a grass-roots movement in 1984 with community members taking care of friends by providing home care, emotional support, and hospice services. Development Director Dean began at Face To Face four years ago as a volunteer. He had quit his job at retail sales, decided to volunteer, and loved working for the organization. When he began, the budget was $100,000. Today it exceeds $600,000 and requires a professional staff of 16 full- and half-time nurses, social workers, therapists, and educators. The volunteer base has swelled to 150.

The extra services are, unfortunately, tied to increased need. Recent statistics from the Sonoma County Public Health Department show 552 known AIDS cases since 1982,389 deaths, and an estimated 3,000 HIV-positive people. Seventy-eight new cases were reported during the first half of the year alone.

But county statistics don't accurately reflect the numbers of AIDS cases in the county, Dean says, because many people are diagnosed in San Francisco and other Bay Area communities, and then relocate to Sonoma County. "We have done miracles to still be in existence. We're one of the few agencies that does not have a waiting Iist. And the patients are not just men—women, children and whole families are on the roster," explains Dean.

"We now serve 400 patients a year, the highest caseload ever," notes Dean. "It's been a steady climb from just 35 people from four years ago."

Evangelinos continues to donate to the auction, this year a fused-glass sculpture. "Donating art has both political and social rarnifications—if you don't act on what you believe needs to be changed, or helped, you are guilty of leaving the status quo intact, she says. "Just standing on the sidelines isn't enough."

Works to be auctioned at Art for Life can be previewed in over a dozen community showcases, including the Quicksilver Mine Co. in Guerneville, Q Gallery and Sawyer's in Santa Rosa, Copperfield's in Sebastopol, and Hand Goods in Occidental. The auction itself will be held at the Friedman Center, 4676 Mayette Avenue, Santa Rosa, on Sept. 21. A silent auction will begin at 3.30 p.m. and a live auction will follow at 5. Tickets ($10) are available at the door. For more information, call Face to Face at 887-1581.

The West Sonoma County Paper, 9/16/91

Friday, September 6, 1991



The first sign of winter begins as a small vegetable mold on the leaves,
jagged five-veined hearts pointing away from the nest in radial asymmetry.
Fractal curve of young leaves guard embryonic clusters
caught too late in the season and yellow-orange squash blossoms
curl their five arms around the fruiting body to keep it warm.
From the velvet throat, the stamen, like a finger,
or brain coral, rises up from a phallic stock. Floral love.
Pale green veins end with small claws at the tip and base of each flower
like two hands—one holding up the sky,
the other holding up the sun, as if in victory.
The base root swelling through the boundaries of star
shaped fruit until it becomes a crenulated sundog on the horizon.

Beneath the leaf canopy, an acrid odor of beetles
or formalin gives way to the sweet sap of mute inverted bells.
Yellow fruit. Pure cadmium pigment from the tube, so intense
it pushes back the green air with small vibrations of light.
In the heat of summer you can almost hear them growing,
taut-skinned summer squash, ripening to bursting point,
scattering small blind eyes in the soil, waiting for the signal
to unzip the genetic ladder. Vegetable love.
This extravagance of life too soon ends.
The kitchen knife reveals their hidden star charts,
the marrow and vein of space. Tracks of seeds—
stars streaking in the direction of dawn.

I remember my grandmother picking the unpollinated flowers,
looking inside each one, saying, they'd never bear fruit.
I never knew how she could tell — sexing each squash blossom,
dredging them into egg and flour and frying them in butter
until they were dinosaur tracks of the sun
feeding me in late summer. Nutty sweetness
and the promise of something more.

And you, unseasonable bitter fruit, tough-skinned vessel,
why so yellow? A love token of the sun's fickle attention?
Undone by your own surgery, you try to cleave your broken halves,
heal the breach with your veneous dealings
but you can't fix the imperfect symmetry of your heart
severed from its circular discourse by the steel blade.
There is little comfort in remembering the corpse of our love,
or in knowing that you're a beetle-browed Sisyphus
condemned to dragging your sterile sex from woman to woman
like a victory torch in a perpetual race where
no one gets to be on top of the dung heap.

rev. 9/91

1992 First Leaves

Wednesday, September 4, 1991

Russian Connections 9/5/1991

LIVING HISTORY—A kind of impromptu cultural exchange in the weeks following the coup in the Soviet Union made the historic and present day links between Sonoma County and the Soviet Union even stronger. Above, History Professor Nikolai lvanovich Rokitiansky from De Anza College and Archbishop Anthony of the Russian Orthodox Church in San Francisco exchange interpretations of the events at Fort Ross.

By Maureen Hurley

WHEN 160 Soviet scientists, scholars, historians, geographers, businessmen, artists and crew joined the historic 250th anniversary voyage commemorating Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov's exploration of Russian America, little did they know that the Soviet Union they left behind on July 10, 1991, would cease to exist. News of the failed Soviet coup d'état, which kept most of us glued to CNN news and had mapmakers scrambling for updated versions of political boundaries, was celebrated with cheers by the Soviet entourage aboard the research vessel, the Akademik Shirshov, docked just hours later at San Francisco's Pier 32.

Soviets and Americans celebrated the culmination of a week's tumultuous political changes that swept the Soviet Union onto the shores of democracy during a visit to Fort Ross, where, with open arms and hearts, they feasted most sumptuously on borscht, caviar, and salmon—dancing and singing again under the flag of the Russian American Fur Trading Company that once flew over Fort Ross from 1812 to 1941.

According to crew member Yevgeny Shlei, a photo-journalist from Novosibirsk, during the seven decades of communism, the name and location of Fort Ross (Ross is an ancient Slavic name for Russia) was concealed from history and geography books and maps. To many Soviets, he says, Fort Ross is a symbol, a mythical place, a piece of old Russia—surrounded by California redwoods. He asked me why—even during the height of the Cold War—Americans didn't also conceal or change the name of the fort or the name of the Russian River.

Yevgeny Shlei elaborated: "Russia is finally coming back into the lap of depoliticized existence, while her children who once had to leave their country, have finally found that haven of human souls that could be substituted for their motherland. Fort Ross has become such a haven. Will Russia itself ever moor to it?"

When I queried Yevgeny Shlei about the coup, the breakup of the USSR, and the pending freedom of ten Soviet republics, he stoically said, "Russia is still Russia. That will never change." Another ex-Soviet added, "But you cannot again make a slave out of a man who stands up for his rights."

In 1728, Bering discovered the gulf between Asia and America. Searching for "de Gamma land," on July 16, he, like Columbus, discovered America, but didn't know it, as he had lost his way in the thick fog. Chirikov, who searched for Bering aboard the sister vessel, the St. Peter, had passed him up in the fog, so Chirikov also co-discovered America. But it wasn't official until Russian exploration of the "unoccupied" coast of the Pacific Northwest began in 1741 with the second Bering Expedition and the colonization of Sitka, Alaska, the first Russian-American colony.

Attracted by an abundance of prized otter and seals and a fertile coastline blessed with clement weather, Ivan Kuskov of the Russian-American Fur Trading Company, anchored in Roumiantzov Bay (Bodega Bay) in 1809 to scout out a possible settlement site; he returned with 25 Russians and 85 kayak-bearing Aleutians on the Chirikov in June of' 1812 to establish the colony of Fort Ross, Russia's southernmost colony. Russians, Aleutians, and Kashaya Pomo Indians lived together in rare tri-cultural harmony. (See "Digging the Past at Fort Ross" page 14.)

From the northern reaches of Alaska to the southernmost Channel Islands, the Russians and Aleuts had harvested the sea otter to the brink of extinction within a decade. By 1821 the fur trading business was over, the bottom had fallen out and the otter population decimated. And in 1841, the fort, considered a massive financial loss, was sold to Swiss immigrant settler Captain John Sutter for the sum of $30,000. The Russians packed up, lock stock, and, well, leaving behind the barrels and cannons—they sailed for home.

But the Russian Front returned to Fort Ross 150 years later, this August 24, to reestablish cordial relations. In addition to the festivities coordinated by the Fort Ross Living History interpreters, a rock opera staged by the Leningrad Rock Opera, "Juno and Avos"—a love story based on the historic romance and engagement of Presidio commandant's daughter, Maria de la Conceptíon Arguello, or Conchita, and Count Nikolai Rezanov, was staged in the reconstructed Fort Ross barracks.

Commanded home by the tsar in 1806, Rezanov set sail on the Juno. While traveling across Siberia, Rezanov was killed by a fall from a horse. Hearing no news of his death, Conchita waited faithfully for years before becoming California's first Carmelite nun. It was an interesting reality tweak to see this particular rock opera, replete with orchestration from the original iron bell cast in St. Petersburg, performed at the fort.

According to Fred Ptucha of Santa Rosa, the visit, a brainstorm of Fort Ross Interpretive Association President John Middleton of Monterey, began as a fluke—an idea conceived on a few sheets of Fort Ross stationery. Later, at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, when the Russian-American 250 Committee was under house-arrest, and the ship impounded by US Customs for not having official documents, they waved Middleton's letter, declaring they had an official letter of invitation.

The US bureaucrats backed down, and the expedition continued. But having received no reply from the Soviets, Middleton assumed the idea had met an early end—until some one happened to spot an article about the voyage, already underway, in the June issue of Soviet Life magazine. News that the Russians were indeed coming had several Americans hastily scrambling to organize a welcome committee for the delegation in Alaska, Washington, and California.

The California leg of the voyage was nearly aborted when news of the Soviet coup (putscht) reached the ship, but after the failure of the scheme, the Akademik Shirshov continued on its journey and headed for San Francisco. (Fort Ross harbor—such as it is—is far too small to accommodate the 400-foot scientific weather research vessel.)

With little warning and little time to prepare for the visitors, Sonoma County volunteers, headed up by Ptucha and Barbara Leger of Santa Rosa, rallied to the cause in true American fashion. With less than two days' notice, Santa Rosa-Cherkassy Sister City USSR arranged transportation, a tour of the Wine Country, a concert, and impromptu homestay for 52 stranded Soviet guests.

From the beginning of their epic journey, the crew of the Akademik Shirshov, which embarked on a goodwill journey from the Siberian military port of Vladivostok, in the extreme southeastern portion of the Soviet Far East, has been plagued with troubles. Rough seas, clashes with U.S. Customs, ten defections during the height of the coup scare, illness, and an aborted journey to Los Angeles were all part of the excursion in the United States.

But it was the theft of the ship's payroll-which ultimately left the crew and passengers stranded, broke, and without food or fuel, and docked for more than a week at San Francisco's Pier 32 that made headline news and brought offers of help from all directions. Russian American Yuri Shavanov donated $4000; An owner of an Oregon inn flew down from Portland to give the crew $100 each. Harbor master Jules Hall arranged docking fees, and $3000 worth of food. Countless others offered gifts of food and money to help the travelers return home.

Vladimir Baturin, deputy chairman of the Soviet expedition, said the aim of the expedition, which includes seven vessels (the Pallada, a 352-foot square rigger, and the 44-foot Baikal, arrive this week in San Francisco), is "a voyage of friendship to bring our two nations closer together, to build bridges across the ocean."

When the A. Shirshov finally departed, Americans (including many families from Sonoma County) and Soviets alike shed tears for their new-found friends. Americans threw cans of beer, toys, teddy bears, and candy aboard; Soviets returned the gesture with posters, flags, and fresh loaves of galley baked Russian bread.

Crew members say that had the attempted Soviet coup succeeded, defections would have increased dramatically. Only four Soviets in Seattle elected not to return home. However, there was another form of defection—consorting and fraternizing with the enemy. Before the ship was officially closed by customs officials, groggy Americans and Soviets emerged from cabins and berths, more than just a little bleary-eyed from necking the vodka bottle during the previous evening's festivities. In the true Russian-American tradition of Glasnost, more than one love match was spawned at every port—a guarantee the goodwill voyages will continue in another form.

Fighting heavy Labor Day traffic, I drove to a pre-designated spot at the Marin Headlands—I was a modern-day Conchita waving my impromptu flag-red pants—as the Akademik Shirshov emerged from beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. The ship returned my salute with two blasts from her horn. The new Russians waved back wildly as she headed out to sea; a white ship brilliant as an idea merged with the fog on its final voyage home and a return to an uncertain future.

From pages 1 & 14, The West Sonoma County Paper, Vol. 13, issue 7, September 5-18, 1991.

Monday, September 2, 1991



The labor of love begins in the mind
works its way down into the body—
hollows imperfect architectural notions —
the way a termite hungers for wood.
At Goat Rock, or Slavic Gate,
I turn and speak to my Russian friend
in the few nouns I know.
Called home by the tzar in 1806,
Count Rezanov must have felt this hollowness
as he gazed upon his betrothed,
the Presidio Commander's young daughter,
ConcepcÌon de la Maria — or Conchita, as he called her—
before he set sail on the Juno that summer.
To love was to commit treason against church and state —
But by taking a wife, he could take a country too.
Besides having to woo the Tzar, the Patriarch,
and the Vatican, the King of Spain also had to give consent.
Teaching Conchita her first foreign words,
We must have faith, he said. Mea maxima culpa, she replied.
Did Rezanov and his secret bride pantomime desire
and willingness to wait in their own languages,
each hoping the other would understand?
Adios — go with God, she whispered to the wind.

That same Fort Ross bell still tolls for love:
I am the music of the field, what do you want of me?
Under the Russian-American Company flag,
the Leningrad Rok-Opera renders their love story
into Juno & Avos.                 We celebrate
the end of the August putsch and the 250th anniversary
of the Bering — Chirikov discovery voyage to America
by feasting most sumptuously on salmon, caviar, and borscht.
We raise a bilingual toast to peace, friendship,
and to the offshore flotilla anchored in the bay —
the frigate Pallada harvests only the wind in her sails.
Peter the Great must've dreamed of a moment such as this.
The end of summer, the square-rigger,
To the Pomo, the tall ships were exquisite winged gods
rising from the belly of the sea. Tabula Rasa. New lands.
After 150 years, the otter is making a slow comeback
from the brink of extinction, no more fur-traders left in the new world,
and freedom has resurrected Leningrad
once again into Petrograd. Peter's city.

The Russian singer calls me his Conchita,
naming himself as Rezanov.
The night is empty, cold ikonii.
No one told her Rezanov, weakened by illness,
was killed by a fall from a horse in Siberia,
and she waited 10 years for his return
before defecting to the veils of God —
as California's first nun.
No one can tell me the dark secrets
gnawing at the singer
who falls to his knees, and blesses me
on this feast day of the three Maries —
as if he were an apostle,
and I, a heathen in need of salvation.
He asks: Are we Romeo and Juliet? 
I shake my head: No, wrong metaphor —
Too seasoned a warrior to die for ideal love,
I keep an uneasy truce with religion.
As a child I was a cynic, I deliberately armed myself
by collecting small bright stones of venial sins,
insurance against conscription to Jehova's cloisters.
In as many days as it took to make the world,
he sings arias to me, Ave Maria, wooing me.
A chance meeting: have I fallen in love with the art,
mistaking it for the man?
But maybe there's no other way out,
maybe this is a natural reaction to so many years of denial.
Avos. Perchance by sleeping with the enemy,
we find we are one people after all.
On our final journey back to the ship's berth,
his first sentence in English: Marina, I want…kiss you, 
I nearly drove off the road,
last night's horses dreamed us into being,
having no common tongue.
Pointing at the dictionary, he gestures,
dumb and mute, I nod, yes. I understand.
He shows me the words serious and tenderness,
pointing to his heart.  What do you want?
I confuse the Russian word soul for rain,
and answer, No, the stars are shining.

At a friend's trailer, we sang
until darkness melded us to the redwoods,
Venus burned, we broke apart a sand dollar,
freeing the five small white doves inside.
Rick said: It's a gesture of peace 
to each take a dove upon parting.
Los aves, I say in Spanish. The Cold War is over.
Handing me a half a loaf of Russian bread,
and blowing me kisses, the singer asks
when I'll come to him in Leningrad.
I answer, In the night wind instead of In spring.
Our final kisses through the porthole need no translation
as the Akademik Shirshov shudders away from the dock.
A modern-day Conchita,
I race the ship to the Golden Gate Headlands
and wave my impromptu flag — red pants —
feeling as she must have so many years ago,
with her snowy petiticoats held aloft to the wind.
The vessel returns my salute with two blasts of her horn;
a white ship brilliant as an idea merges with the fog,
returning home to an uncertain future,
towards the westering sun to Vladivostok and Siberia.
Hammer and Sickle. What dawning country awaits?
The paradox of sailing west only to arrive in the east,
thus losing the day already gained,
is no less strange than this love.
I am hollow sacrament,
the chambers of my body,
riddled with light.

Labor Day 1992
Marin Headlands
1993 Maverick