Sunday, January 7, 2018

Whatever Happened to Aunt Helen? The Life of Yelena Aleksandrovna Vasilyeva

Happy Russian Christmas. If that's what you're into.

Growing up, I preferred non-Russian Christmas. For me, it was all about Rudolph, Charlie Brown, Frosty the Snowman, and nostalgic commercials from the fine folks at Folgers and McDonalds. I'm nothing if not all American; I devour shared anticipation, brand names, and Groupthink.

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!"

Russian Christmas, 1983, at Christ the Saviour on Anza Street in San Francisco.
Russian Christmas, 1983

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.

Russian Christmas, 1981, at 2678 McAllister Street in San Francisco.
Russian Christmas, 1981

With that attitude, I'd most likely be a profound disappointment to my Great-Aunt Yelena Aleksandrovna Vasilyeva (Васильева Елена Александровна). By all accounts, she was an expert in what Russian children find enchanting, and in enchanting Russian children. Easily my most noteworthy, accomplished, and arguably famous family member1, she was an acclaimed childrens' author, decorated Scout Master, and undercover rabbit. Yet, she she still found time to question her faith, marry and divorce Cossack soldiers, and hang out with archbishops and tiger hunters. She was nothing if not ambitious. Also, to paraphrase an old Irish proverb (or Mark Twain), she "never let truth get in the way of a good story."

Васильева Елена Александровна aka Yelena Aleksandrovna Vasilyeva aka Helen Orloff
Yelena Aleksandrovna Vasilyeva aka Yurka
Circa 1930's
Harbin, China

Yelena was born on 11 May, 1906 in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (or 24 May, depending on the calendar). Her father, Aleksander Vasilyev, was a chief executive officer of the China Eastern Railway. Yelena grew up in China, and was born to Lithuanian and Polish parents—so why she was born in Turkmenistan is something of a mystery. She may have been birthed on the road from Crimea to Manchuria. Or perhaps Aleksander was stationed in Central Asia in some professional capacity, perhaps on the Trans-Caspian Railway. Details are sketchy, but either way, Yelena arrived in Harbin, China at the age of six months.

Harbin Grade School, Russian
From an early age, Yelena wrote poems and plays. She also displayed a pronounced independent streak, as well as an affinity for the outdoors. During her grade-school years, her favorite playmates were a pair of Polish kids from Saint Petersburg named Edik and Kazik Yanushevichi. They regaled her with tales of Cub Scout camps back home, where the forests were thick with adventurous pre-teens who spent all day helping one's neighbor while learning the art of self-sufficiency. Young Lenochka was smitten, and determined to be a scout. Unfortunately, there were no Russian Cub Scouts—only Polish ones. So, at age 10, she informed her father that she intended to go Catholic.

"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 Lvov
Archbishop Nathaniel aka Vasya
Shocked by her father's objection, Yelena argued that it was a non-issue because her grandmother was Catholic. Now allegedly, Yelena's mother, the stately Vera Vasilyev née Doroshenko, was Petro Doroshenko's sixth or seventh great-granddaughter through her father, a Crimean Cossack. Her mother, however, was a Polish Catholic named Franziszka. I guess Aleksander's mother-in-law didn't carry too much weight in the house, because when it came to his adolescent offspring worshipping the Pope, he flatly refused.

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.

Valentin Volkov aka Валентина Николаевича Валькова
Valentin Valkov
Circa 1936
At age 22, Yelena quit the Scouts, and married a down-on-his-luck, partially disabled former military cadet named Valentin Valkov. You can read a rather brilliant Russian article detailing his life story here. A month after the wedding, Yelena bumped into an old Scout buddy on the street, and he offered her a gig as Commanding Officer. When she told Volkov, he was livid—and her elation was short-lived as, once again, some patriarchal traditionalist pissed on her parade. Her new husband issued an ultimatum: "It's either me, or the Scouts! Choose!" Yelena was heartbroken; she cried, she pleaded, she threw things. But Valkov was steadfast in his idea that a woman's place should be in a lackluster, under-decorated kitchen, sweating over hot piroskhi. This was the first of many fights, and the newlyweds separated three and half years later because, purportedly, "he drank and didn't want to work." Interestingly, they stayed legally married until the end of the 1930's. Yelena supported Valkov financially, and when his myriad ailments necessitated a move South, she introduced him to family friends (and Yul Brynner's cousins) Valery and Arseny Yankovsky, who owned and operated luxury game reserves in North Korea. As it turned out, killing big cats was just what the doctor ordered, and the disillusioned Valkov finally found a place to call home with his new best friends, the Yankovskys—where, hopefully, the women weren't crazy broads who pursued their own interests.

The Yankovskys
The Yankovskys
Circa 1930's
North Korea

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.

Елена Васильева
Yelena Vasilyeva (short and center) flanked by family and friends
Circa 1937
Harbin, China
(photo courtesy of Jorge Poulsen)

In 1932, the Japanese invaded Manchuria, and the first thing they wanted to know was, "Who the hell are all these Russians, why are they here, and are they communists?" So the Bureau of Russian Emigrants in the Manchurian Empire (BREM, or БРЭМ) was born; an administrative division dedicated to "strengthening the material and legal situation of Russian emigrants residing in Manchukuo, establishing ties with the government of Manchukuo on all matters relating to emigrants, and assisting the Japanese administration in dealing with emigrant issues." Every Russian resident of Harbin was required to complete a lengthy, unwieldy census laid out like some unholy amalgamation of passport application, resume, and personality test. They're all still on file at the The State Archive of the Khabarovsk Territory.

Елена Васильева

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.


Yurka the Rabbit ultimately got so popular that they spun him off into his own children's magazine, Lastochka (Ласточка) aka The Swallow. Although it didn't start out as Yurka's magazine, per se. The magazine had been around for decades, but was on the verge of folding when one of Rupor's editors, E.S. Kaufmann (Кауфман Евгений Самойлович), bought the rag for nothing and gave Yelena a salaried, in-house position.


The word on the street was, the current staff at Lastochka just couldn't connect with children. The serials were boring, the stories were stilted. Yelena initially produced work according to the terms laid out in her job description, but ever the rebel, she soon found her own style, and began to ignore the advice of senior writers. This led to clashes with the editors, but by all accounts, Yelena's contributions were something Lastochka hadn't been in a long time: fresh, witty, and real. Everyone loved Yurka, and the magazine experienced a resurgence in popularity. By 1942, she'd muscled her way up to managing editor, fired everyone but herself, and spent the next three years supplying all the content (stories, poems, illustrations). After a while, she didn't even bother submitting copy for Kaufmann's review—she'd just toss the printed magazine on Uncle Zhenya's desk and walk away.3


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.

Yelena entered the United States at Honolulu, Hawaii on August 10, 1961 and settled in San Francisco. Unlike her brother and sister—whose Bay Area families had immigrated years before via Japan, or the Russian Settlement in the Philippines—Yurka was reportedly in Harbin until the bitter end. She'd even spent time training Soviet scouts. So much for being a Monarchist.

Six months after arriving, she got married (for the third and final time) to a Ukrainian lab assistant named Valerius N. Orloff (b. 29 Aug 1895 - d. 6 Dec 1972). The only thing I know about Valerius is that Yelena outlived him. He was basically her Catherine Parr.

Valerius N. Orloff (b. 29 Aug 1895 - d. 6 Dec 1972)

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."

Helen A Orloff death certificate

Unfortunately, Yurka died in San Francisco on July 7, 1979 (or fortunately, given the quality of life experienced by 112 year-old women these days). One of my earliest memories is attending her funeral. It was open-casket, and Yelena was dressed in a Scout uniform. Even as a three year-old child, I remember thinking she struck me as too youthful to have died from "old age."

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. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control: A Russian Orthodox Baptism in 1976

To honor Organized Religion Day, I thought I'd post this fast, cheap, and out-of-control collection of vintage baptism snapshots. They were taken at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Russian Orthodox Church on Green & Van Ness in San Francisco, and they can only be described as Instagrams from Hell.

Russian Orthodox Baptism at Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco in 1976

These dinky little prints really are holy terrors. I wish I knew who took these lemons so I could properly shame them. A baptism is a big deal. They could've at least spent over $10 on a camera, or called Sears Portrait Studio, or something.

Russian Orthodox Baptism at Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco in 1976

How am I supposed to take my relationship with God seriously if this picture taker couldn't take his/her assignment seriously? If they won't do their job, then I can't do mine! Sorry, it's not Christ-like to judge vintage snapshots so harshly, but seriously—this photographer blows.

Russian Orthodox Baptism at Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco in 1976

In case you haven't figured it out, I was the baby—and these were my Godparents, Seoul Sister Tatiana "Tanya" Sarsfield née Vasilev (left), and Alexander Sven Zabelin (right). Godparents present a child at baptism, respond on its behalf, and promise to take responsibility for the child's religious education. But Tanya was an atheist, and Alex left a week later for Italy to appear in "art films," so my subsequent religious education didn't end up being very comprehensive.

Russian Orthodox Baptism at Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco in 1976

Once again, I just have to mention—these pictures really are bad. But there's something kinda cool about them, like my baptism into the Russian Orthodox Church was an Andy Milligan movie. I don't remember who this priest was, but he may as well be Guru the Mad Monk.

Russian Orthodox Baptism at Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco in 1976

I can hear you right now: "You spoiled little child! Who cares that they used an inexpensive, semi-disposable Kodak 110 nightmare camera to commemorate your unholy baptism and make it look like lost stills from a horror film? You should be grateful that someone cared! Nobody took pictures of my baptism! They drunkenly sketched it with charcoal, then buried the drawings in the backyard to be dug up by raccoons and pissed on!"

Russian Orthodox Baptism at Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco in 1976

In that case, I guess I should be a little more thankful. It is Thanksgiving season after all. What would the Great Pumpkin say?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Trick or Treat: Halloween in Piedmont in the 1980's

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. I love horror movies, and I love barging up to strangers' houses and demanding things. So put the two together, and you've got the best day of the year. Speaking of, check out these eerie-sistable 35 year-old snapshots commemorating All Hallow's Eve. They were taken in Piedmont, California between 1979 and 1982.

Me (as the Pink Panther) on Halloween at 19 Ramona Avenue in Piedmont, California in 1979

These pictures were taken in 1979. That's me in the Pink Panther costume. That little board game with marbles next to the stuffed dog has me curious. Can anyone identify it? I remember playing it, and I remember liking it—but I have no idea what it was. I already tried Googling "board game with marbles from the 1980's" to no avail. *** UPDATE *** Reader MH has identified the game as Trouble.

Rory Sarsfield (as a devil) and me at 19 Ramona Avenue in Piedmont, California in 1979

Not sure who the devil is. I think it may have been my late cousin, Rory Sarsfield. Strangely enough, these photos terrified me as a child. I was already watching movies like Halloween and Dressed to Kill on cable (and loving them)—but then show me a snapshot of myself dressed like the Pink Panther, and I'm hiding under a couch.

Jessica Butz (as a cheerleader) and a mystery ape at 19 Ramona Avenue in Piedmont, California in the early 1980s.

This was my babysitter, Jessica Butz, dressed as a cheerleader. I'm not sure who the monkey is. I feel like it could've been me, but seriously.... Socks with sandals? I hope it wasn't me.

Me (as a green-faced monster) at 19 Ramona Avenue in Piedmont, California in the early 1980's.

I remember being very proud at having picked out this "costume" myself—a sweatsuit and a rubber monster mask. I had all year to plan a dynamic outfit to knock everyone off their feet, and at the last minute, I just threw on play clothes and a cheap Payless Halloween mask, and called it a day. That's pretty much a metaphor for my entire life.

The annual Halloween Parade outside PIedmont Avenue School in the early 1980's. Jean Gamboa as the witch.

This was the annual "Halloween Parade" outside Piedmont Avenue School. We all dressed up, and then took to the streets to terrify everyone within a two-block radius. The witch was my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Jean Gamboa. It was a more innocent era, when billboard alcohol advertisements weren't frowned upon.

The annual Halloween Parade outside PIedmont Avenue School in the early 1980's.

Here are some random kids who aren't me.

The annual Halloween Parade outside PIedmont Avenue School in the early 1980's.

There I am! I distinctly recall feeling like a bad-ass, bouncing down the street in my track suit.

The annual Halloween Parade outside PIedmont Avenue School in the early 1980's.

Happy Halloween everyone!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Kharitiniya, We Hardly Knew Ye: Harbin in 1936

To honor Business Women's Day, I thought I'd post this 80 year-old snapshot of my Great-Great-Grandmother Kharitiniya Afanasyevna Kozyreva (Козырева Харитиния Афанасьевна). It was taken in 1936 when she was 74 years old.

Козырева Харитиния Афанасьевна, 1936, Harbin, China

Not much is known about Kharitiniya, but I do know she was something of a business woman. And she had a fondness for head scarves.

She was born in 1862 in Staro-Konstantinov, Ukraine. At the age of 14, she married Ukrainian merchant Yakov Grigoryevich Kozyrev, and—at some point in the late 1880's—they migrated to Ust-Karsk, Zabaykalsky Krai, Russia (Усть-карск Забайкальск) to run a department store. They had five children that I know of—Stepanida Yakovlevna Kozyreva (b. 1877—d. 1958), Ivan Yakovlevich Kozyrev ("Vanya," b. 1880), Mikhail Yakovlevich Kozyrev ("Misha," b. 1882—d. 1918), Aleksandra Yakovlevna Kozyreva ("Shura," b. 20 March 1905), and Zinaida Yakovlevna Kozyreva ("Zina," b. 30 Sept 1900).

BREM file for Kharitiniya Afanasyevna Kozyreva.

According to family legend, Misha was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Yakov may have been as well. The now-widowed Kharitiniya fled to the Russian community in Harbin with her surviving children, in-laws, and grandchildren—including her also recently widowed daughter Stepanida Mitrofanenko née Kozyreva and her daughter, Natalia Feodosievna Mitrofanenko. You can read more about them here and here.

Obituary for Kharitina Afanasyevna Kozyreva, Jan 11 1941, Harbin, China.

"The grief-stricken son, daughter-in-law, grandsons, and granddaughters notify friends and acquaintances of the death of their beloved mother and grandmother Kharitina Afanasyevna Kozyreva. The body will be carried from the home at No 23, 7th Street, Zelenyy Bazar (Green Bazaar), to the Uspenskaya Cemetery Church (Church of the Assumption) today at 12:00 noon. The funeral service will be held at the Uspenskaya Church at 2:00 p.m."
Khartiniya (or "Kharitina") passed away sometime around January 11, 1941 at the age of 78 or 79. I don't know the cause, but I theorize old age may have had something to do with it.