Russian Christmas just always seemed so anti-climactic. It'd limp along two weeks after school started, like some Mennonite who doesn't know what a Smartphone is. The songs, the characters, the decorations—everything was darker, more melancholy, and foreign. Santa was always the most medieval dude you've ever seen, and most annoyingly, it didn't warrant a school vacation. It was just some random Sunday in January consisting of a "Children's Festival" held in the basement of an Orthodox church, always headlined by some exhausted, bearded priest dourly beseeching, "Every child to get in line for presents now!"
I've always had a profound disconnect when it comes to Russian culture. Even as a child, I never felt more lost than when it came to their cartoon characters. I dug snarky, relatively modern, untraditionally irreverent kids and/or anthropomorphized animals who chomped cigars, questioned authority, and could pull lit dynamite from their back pockets, or at least could nasally deliver a contemporarily meaningful sermon on the true meaning of Christmas. Russian cartoons were always about Victorian hedgehogs in lace dresses offering tea to foxes in corsets. Or something. Long story short, I could never fully jive with what (I was told) Russian children found whimsical.
|Yelena Aleksandrovna Vasilyeva aka Yurka|
"It's that simple," she explained. "You convert to Catholicism, become a real Polka, and you're accepted right away."
This revelation really chapped Aleksander Vasilyev's hide, surprisingly (or not) considering his dubious background. According to family legend, Aleksander Vasilyev—the staunch, upper middle-class white émigré—was originally Aleksandras Vasiliauskas, a Lithuanian bookkeeper who'd changed his name to get a better job in Russia. Not much is known about the self-styled Aleksandras except that he married a woman who claimed to be a direct descendent of Petro Doroshenko (Cossack political and military leader and Hetman of Right-bank Ukraine) and supposedly became the Comptroller General of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Otherwise, the man is an enigma; he considered himself gentry, yet was born in Kovno2. He Russified himself mercilessly to give his kids a shot at a better life, and then along comes his first-born daughter, demanding to become a Polish Catholic. Needless to say, his response was a firm nyet.
|Archbishop Nathaniel aka Vasya|
Although Yelena was brutally forced to remain Orthodox, she eventually joined some Russian Scouts—and ran with an interesting crowd. Her best friends were two guys named Boris Andrianovich Dmitruk and Vasya Lvov. Boris went on to become the Chief of the Manchurian Department of the National Organization for Russian Scouts (NORS) before succumbing to Typhus in Shanghai. Little Vasya—or rather Vasily Vladimirovich Lvov—grew up to be better known as the late Archbishop Nathanael. So much for Yelena becoming a Catholic.
Not content to merely serve as a procurer of friends for her shell-shocked lush of an ex-husband, Yelena threw herself back into scouting. She also began inundating Harbin's main Russian newspaper, Rupor (Рупор), with unsolicited poems, stories, and illustrations—all ostensibly created by a rabbit named Yurka (Юрка). The editors liked what they saw, so they test-ran her work a few times on the children's page. Before long, the kids of Harbin were hooked, and the newspaper brought her on full-time.
|Yelena Vasilyeva (short and center) flanked by family and friends|
(photo courtesy of Jorge Poulsen)
Yelena completed her questionnaire in 1936. She lists her profession as journalist, and her dependent as her infirm, 83 year-old Polish Catholic grandmother, Franziszka Josifovna Doroshenko. As for political affiliations, she claims that she's a Monarchist with Crimean citizenship, and that she's "never had a Soviet passport, has never applied for one, and does not ever want one." She even organized a literary circle named after Alexander Suvorov, the Suvorov Literature and Arts Society of Russian Youth. For an alias, she lists Yurka.
In 1939, she finally got around to divorcing Valentin Valkov—if only to subsequently marry someone with the last name Goffman. She even took on the Goffman (Гоффман) name professionally for a few years. Mr. Goffman was most likely a man named Alexander Leonidovich Goffman (Гоффман Александр Леонидович) whose father had been involved in the White Movement. Very little is known about this period of her life, but one thing's for sure: at some point he must've told her what to do, because she was divorced in 1961 when she arrived in the United States—bearing the Americanized name Helen Hoffman.
Our family knew her as Aunt Helen, a lovable old eccentric who wrote letters to Smokey the Bear, painted rabbits on pillowcases, and answered the phone, "Meow?" But she also stayed active in her Golden Years by self-publishing a children's magazine called "Scout" (Скаутёнок) that she cranked out entirely by herself, month after month, on a Xerox CEM machine. She also made a triumphant return to the world of Russian Scouting, and became something of a Bay Area luminary in that field.
Continuing to work well into the late 1970's, even after the doctor banned all activity due to heart disease, she said at the time, "I lived in the world to bring joy to Russian children. And for me it was also a great joy!" Supposedly, she was even overjoyed that her Americanized niece chose to give birth out-of-wedlock because "it was a clever way to make sure the Vasilyev name didn't die out."
1 Not counting Kylie Minogue. Aunt Kylie is my fifth cousin, twice removed, and you're seething with jealousy about it.↩
2 The fact that his hometown rhymed with Govno, the Russian word for shit, provided an endless source of amusement for my grandparents.↩
3 It's interesting to note that her parents were largely out of the picture at this point. Today, the ultimate fate of Aleksandras Vasiliauskas and Vera Doroshsenko remains in a mystery. In the mid-1920's, an agreement was signed that only Soviet and Chinese citizens could be employed by the CEL. They may have gone back to the Soviet Union, or taken Chinese citizenship (as my grandfather, Yelena's brother had). Who knows? Nobody ever talked about them growing up, so they probably weren't a lot of fun. ↩