Today we visited a field of graves—
slaves’ or Indians’ graves, you said—
sunk, unmarked, green edges of hammered granite
sharp as a shoulder blade.
God break me out
of this stiff life I’ve made.
—Jean Valentine, “Forces”
My father died suddenly in August 2021 on his 56th birthday, the victim of an addiction to alcohol that had ravaged him for some 20 years. His deathbed was a couch in a little dacha he had built in Ostrovo, a few hours outside Moscow, on a half-acre plot overgrown with nettles but in which an unbelievable profusion of fruit trees and berry bushes flourished. Despite years of benign neglect, this implacably fertile plot produced more currants, apples, and plums than my father and stepmother could consume in a summer. On warm evenings, he would grill skewered or spitted meat over wood fires and smoke a cigar on the back porch. It was his own little earthly paradise.
I had emigrated to the United States with my mother in 1995. The informal custody arrangement my parents set up when they divorced was that I would stay with my father in Russia in the summers. Year by year, I saw Russian society first unravel, then gradually reconstitute itself in its current, capitalist-Putinist form; my father went from getting by on the scanty leavings of various foreign research fellowships to receiving a comfortable salary as a senior research associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He had bought the plot as that process began around the turn of the millennium, when the one-road village was even more of a backwater than it is now. A peasant hut that, for all we knew, could have been hundreds of years old had once stood there—low ceilings, faded icons, and gray, splintering logs. My father thought the changes in Russia since 1991 had been all for the best, and the dacha represented a stake in the future he thought he saw ahead.
But it was also a place of memory. When his cat Stilianos died in 2012, my father buried him beneath a stone at the very back of the plot, a place that would look indistinguishable to passersby but that I could probably still pinpoint today. My father loved cats, and it didn’t take him long to get another one, but we all continued to honor Stilianos’s memory. Over the years, as my dad spent first the summer months and then more and more of the year at the dacha, old books gradually made their way there from the city. He sat at his sunny desk on the second floor, producing reams of the Byzantine Greek translation and scholarship that were his professional lifeblood.
The last time I went to Russia—likely the last for many, many years—was for his funeral. It was late summer, a perfect time to sit and read on the little upper balcony of the dacha, but I did not have a chance to visit Ostrovo during my brief time in Moscow, where the funeral was held and the rest of my family lives. I teach Russian history at Georgetown University, and it was the first week of the semester for me. All I had time to do was kiss the waxy, stiff forehead of my father’s corpse and watch it disappear into the crematorium’s incinerator. It did not seem like the body belonged to my father. It could almost have been anybody.
In Sophocles’s Antigone, the titular daughter of the unfortunate Oedipus wants to bury the corpse of her brother Polynices, which has been left to rot outside the city walls of Thebes after a battle. This means breaking the law: Creon, the new ruler of the city, has ordered that the corpse be left unburied as a warning to anyone who might seek to oppose the city and its government. When Antigone buries the body anyway, Creon orders her to be entombed alive, until the blind prophet Tiresias shows up and berates him for violating the divine order. Creon gives way, but it is too late: Antigone, his son Haemon, and his wife Eurydice have all committed suicide.
In the typical explication of this play, Creon’s life has been destroyed by the fatal flaw of hubris. He has dared to set himself against the gods. In my reading, though, his reasoning makes sense. Polynices tried to conquer Thebes (unlike his brother Eteocles, who fought and died to defend it), causing the deaths of many of its citizens in the process. Why should the two brothers be given equal honors? Creon is punished not for his hubris but for the secular utilitarianism he displays in weighing the security of his people over the divine order.
Antigone, however, is not a persuasive advocate for her view: her single-minded devotion to her brother’s corpse amounts to a barely concealed death wish. The war in Ukraine offers plenty of fodder for Creon-style utilitarianism when I think of my father’s death. Living Ukrainians, and Russians, are being killed every day; it is hardly the moment to consider a man who died before the invasion, whose death can’t be attributed to the malice of a despot. How petty can you be to focus on your small tragedy when there are so many bigger ones at play?
And yet. Even against the backdrop of earthshaking events, it is still private ritual that makes loss and mourning meaningful. If we don’t allow for making sense of individual losses, how can collective ones have any significance? A death is tragic because someone is left behind to mourn, or because the absence of mourners testifies to a void in a life now gone. No matter what Polynices might have done to be responsible for the suffering of others, it is Antigone’s recognition that personal mourning is the foundation of collective grief that puts her in the right.
My father’s father grew up among Belarusian partisans during World War II and afterward became a successful editor at a Soviet media agency. One year in the early 1970s, he went on a long kayaking trip with his boss, tracing the old trade route “from the Varangians to the Greeks”—from the Baltic coast near today’s Novgorod to the Black Sea.
We say “trade route,” but the primary goods for sale were human. Varangian traders (we know them as Vikings, though they called themselves Rus) used it to ship Slavic slaves south to the wealthy cities of Byzantium, eventually bringing north Orthodox religion, art, and artisan goods. The Rus were an unpleasant bunch, though today, Russian and Ukrainian historians vie for their legacy as the origin of their respective states. The Arab diplomat Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who claimed to have met some of the Rus in the 10th century, records an elaborate burial rite they performed upon the death of one of their chiefs. An old woman known as the “Angel of Death” would kill one of the chief’s slave girls following a sequence of ceremonial rapes. Then both chief and girl would be laid out on a boat piled with kindling and set on fire in classic Viking fashion. Ibn Fadlan found all this shocking, but one of the Rus told him it was the Arabs who were stupid. “You go and cast into the earth the people whom you both love and honor most among men,” he said. “Then the earth, creeping things, and worms devour them. We, however, let them burn for an instant, and accordingly he enters into paradise at once in that very hour.” Then, writes Ibn Fadlan, the Viking “burst into immoderate laughter.” Until they began to integrate with the Slavic population they dominated, most of the Rus left little indication that they thought of these lands as a home to return to; there was no reason for them to leave their dead behind.
As the two of them traced the old route, my grandfather’s boss taught him to drink hard, in the national tradition. Around 987, when Grand Prince Vladimir—important because of his control over Kiev, which was the heart of the trade route—was choosing which of the major religions to convert to, he supposedly held a competition between their emissaries. (It is unlikely anything like this ever happened: our only source of this story is a much later, Christian document, from a period when the Rus ruling class had become fully Slavicized.) In the story, the prince dismisses Judaism because, as he points out, it would entail being “rejected by God” and “dispersed through alien lands.” Islam was more enticing. Its emissaries promised that, although wine and pork would no longer be permitted in this life, “after you die you can fornicate with women.” Vladimir, the chronicle says, “loved fornication and so relished listening to them.” But the wine was a problem. “To the people of Rus,” he said, “drinking is joy, and we cannot exist without it.”
A joy you can’t exist without quickly ceases to be a joy. My grandfather was never the same after he came back. He became abusive, alcohol the driving force of his life. Eventually my grandmother left him and never remarried. I’ve seen photos of my father with my grandmother from that time: he must have been 13 or 14, all gangly limbs and poofy hair, his expression protective, determined. When he became an adult, he gave up the surname that was his father’s most lasting inheritance and changed his name to his mother’s. It is the name I still bear. My father ensured that I never met my grandfather, though I was 11 or 12 when he died. By then he was a vagrant, sleeping in saunas outside strangers’ dachas, just like the sauna my father had at the dacha where he died. I don’t know where my grandfather is buried.
I never managed to have an honest conversation with my father about all of this; he was the opposite of forthcoming. He named me after St. Gregory of Nyssa, whose writings he had been translating when I was born. The bishop’s best-known work, other than technical treatises on theology, has to do with mourning. He had lost three of his beloved siblings one by one during his lifetime, and in his surviving texts he gives voice to the profound grief he experienced when they died. But his message to the Christian community was that this kind of mourning was a moral dead end, that indulging it was “womanish.” Instead, a Christian should tame these kinds of passions with rationality and transform them into hope for redemption through God. I don’t know how my father felt about this idea. He certainly saw himself as tough and unsentimental (except when it came to food and cats).
He wanted, I think, to simply leave his father’s body outside the gates. Of course it didn’t work. He decided at some point that drinking was okay after all and followed in the footsteps of the man he had tried to leave behind. Watching her only child descend the same path, my grandmother drank, too. Her drinking was not as loud as his, though it may be that her habit of mixing whiskey with the sleeping pills she was also addicted to contributed to the brain lesions that ultimately killed her.
The last time I saw my father alive, shortly before the pandemic, was in a French hospital. I had crossed the Atlantic to take care of him. The weekend before, I’d been visiting someone in Massachusetts; we were lying in bed, idly chatting in the morning sunshine, talking about the awful responsibility that comes with becoming your parents’ caregiver. I don’t know that I could do it, I said; I’m too selfish and irresponsible.
Five minutes later—this is a detail that seems made up, but I swear, it’s real—I received a phone call from my grandmother. She was distraught. This was far from the first crisis of this kind, but it was the first that only I could help with: my father was alone in Paris, on a bender, apparently injured somehow and bleeding out. It took several hours of intercontinental telephone tag involving his long-divorced ex-wife (my mother) and her Parisian friend for us to extract his Airbnb’s door code from his slurred, barely coherent words and find an ambulance that could be summoned to the apartment remotely.
I bought a last-minute plane ticket and flew out to see him. I was proud of myself for stepping up, hopeful that this act of martyrdom would jolt me out of a romantic crisis, resentful that every time something like this happened, it pulled me further away from warm childhood memories of my father’s company. For a week I visited him in the hospital, cleaned up the blood and the dozens of liquor bottles in the apartment, pleaded with him to stop drinking. By the time he was released, still in Paris, he was good humored and already working his way through another Greek translation. I said I’d call more to check in if he would commit to stopping his drinking. He was more vulnerable than usual, more willing to agree.
I felt great: I’d saved the day by swooping in with my act of care. In the following months, it was easy enough for him to pretend over the phone that everything was going fine, even as the pandemic drove him and my stepmother into isolation, first in Moscow and then at the dacha. For an alcoholic, this level of deception is child’s play, as easy as sticking a half-empty bottle behind the sofa. But of course he was never really going to quit. Why would he? He didn’t quit even when a doctor finally said that the only other option was death. And so it was.
The trip to Moscow for his funeral was also the last time I saw my grandmother, who died a month before the war started. It is not easy to write the words her death came as a relief, but her death came as a relief. For the past decade, she had been living an increasingly restricted life. The more limited her mobility became, the more the scope of her life shrank, especially in a city as inaccessible to disabled people as Moscow. At first, the main obstacles were stairs, which interrupt most pedestrian and transit routes through the city. She found ways around them: trams instead of metro, taxis instead of trams. But then her neurological and inner-ear problems worsened, and she began to fall. Even walking to the grocery store meant risking a fall that could lead to a broken hip, followed by surgery and months of static recovery. Each reduction in her mobility made her more disabled from lack of exercise, more depressed, less socially engaged, less intellectually curious, less able to read or write—this for a woman who had received an Order of the North Star for her work as a translator of modernist Swedish literature.
Covid was the final stair in this process. I remember being on the phone with her early in the pandemic—her pooh-poohing the danger as just a repeat of the MERS outbreak of 2013, my urging her desperately to stick to the lockdown rules. I thought I was saving her life, but what if all I was really doing was helping to make her final years a living hell? By the time I visited her for my father’s funeral, her apartment had become a tomb. Her life was spent walking the handful of steps between her bedroom, bathroom, refrigerator, and living room couch, where she spent days and nights smoking cigarettes and doing arrowword puzzles, the TV blaring in the background. She could not leave even with my assistance; she had to watch her son’s funeral on a livestream.
We passed that week talking about her mother, a woman I’ve been fascinated with for years. My great-grandmother was a modern dancer named Jeanya Schwarz, born into a family of Romanian Jews on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1905. In her 20s, she became a communist and ultimately defected to the Soviet Union in 1933 after meeting her second husband, the playwright Alexander Afinogenov, who became my great-grandfather. To protect him during the Stalinist purges, she gave up her American citizenship, but in 1941 he was killed by a German shell in Moscow. When the war ended, she went back to the United States with her two daughters, but only two years later she decided to return to Russia. On her way back through the Black Sea—the last leg of the trip following the end of the ancient trade route—her ship caught fire when a spark ignited a closet full of silver nitrate filmstrips. My grandmother and her sister were rescued only because they were on just the right side of a burning stairwell. My great-grandmother, however, entered into Paradise at once at that very hour, leaving no relics for worms to eat or for descendants to honor.
I had always thought that Jeanya went back to the USSR because, despite her soft life in postwar Los Angeles, she missed the sense of purpose she had found by participating in the Stalinist project. Maybe that is true; I have been waiting for half a decade to get my hands on her voluminous FBI file, which might shed some light on the question. But when I asked my grandmother, who might have been the last living person to remember her, I got a different answer. “Of course she didn’t talk to me about politics! I was five years old,” she said. “But Mom always told me we were going back because that was where my father and his ancestors were buried.”
Jeanya’s final voyage took place in 1948, maybe the worst possible moment for such a journey. Her first husband had been fired from the Department of Labor in 1943 for his communist ties; she and her American friends were under constant FBI surveillance. The Berlin Airlift was in full swing, and the Cold War was ramping up in earnest. In the postwar Soviet Union, ties with the capitalist world were cause for intense suspicion, and Jewish cultural figures were being shot and imprisoned left and right for their alleged “rootless cosmopolitanism.” How did a Stalinist Jew from New York come to have such concern for these bones that she risked a transatlantic voyage in such conditions to reunite with them? I don’t even know where anyone in my family before Jeanya’s generation is buried, and I doubt she did, either.
She knew where her husband was, at least. Thanks in part to her efforts to win his political rehabilitation, he was awarded a plot in Novodevichye Cemetery in southwest Moscow, the most prestigious resting place in the Soviet Union after Lenin’s mausoleum. Maintaining and caring for this hallowed piece of ground was one of my grandmother’s preoccupations. When she was still middle-aged, she would periodically round up the family for what felt like an exceptionally tiresome field trip. We’d go clean up the grave and put fresh flowers on it. After the outside world was lost to her, she tried to make sure someone else was available to do so. Securing the relocation of the urn with my father’s ashes to the family plot in Novodevichye was the last thing she did before going to the hospital for what turned out to be the final time.
This kind of care for a burial plot is certainly a national tradition. The descendants of the Rus care more than their ancestors did for the tangible remnants of their dead. Christianity, of course, helped usher in such rituals, but the legacy of Soviet atheism ironically ensured their continuation. Since there was no longer a soul to survive after death, the act of memory involved in caring for the graves of loved ones became one of the few ways to secure their immortality. After the war, as the horizon of communist utopia receded further and further, the obligation to commemorate the sacrifices made by the dead weighed more and more heavily on the living. After 1991, this kind of commemoration was practically all that my great-grandfather Alexander Afinogenov had left: like most of the other inhabitants of Novodevichye, he was one of thousands of writers, poets, and cultural figures who had once made successful careers thanks to Communist Party patronage, but whose work had now become so much dusty paper.
For my grandmother, there was another element, too. Her father died a few months before she was born. His grave was all she ever had of him to touch. I think the danger of forgetting was so acute to my grandmother that the act of caring for the grave had been a way to stave off oblivion. Maintaining it was her way of saying, We, too, have a stake in this place—this country, this city, this graveyard.
A bust of the author’s great-grandfather Alexander Afinogenov overlooks the family plot in Moscow’s Novodevichye Cemetery. (Courtesy of the author)
By the time I began to figure out how bad my father’s addiction had become, alcohol had insinuated itself so deeply into the fabric of my own life that giving it up felt inconceivable—even though I rarely drank every day or to the point of inebriation. At my age, my father (as I could see from photos) had not been as far gone as he had been in Paris, or later at the dacha. He was convivial, social, still someone for whom drinking was a plausible accessory to the joys of life and not its primary purpose. Was I on the same trajectory? When people discussed going sober, a kind of fear would well up inside me.
Going back to Russia began to raise interesting dilemmas. I wanted to drink, but I didn’t want to validate my father’s drinking; I wanted to share a glass with him, but I didn’t want to enable his addiction. The increasing unreality of my efforts to square this circle did not lead to any revelations on my part, or any changes in my behavior.
Only after my father’s death did anything approaching a revelation begin to arrive. As the war in Ukraine began and my path to Russia closed, I realized I had no idea how to properly honor him on the anniversary of his death. I could not go back to Russia and celebrate his memory with my stepmother, though I could talk to her on the phone. I could not do much for his academic legacy, which was in the hands of his colleagues. Combing through his old emails to me only caused me pain: you read the man in them, not the alcoholic, though the alcoholic had increasingly been the one making the decisions. Aside from his book—its Russian title translates to The Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Iconoclasm Crisis in Byzantium—I had almost no artifacts of his: a linen shirt he’d brought me once, a sweater.
I began to think about other ways. I had quit smoking a few months earlier, using a British self-help book from the ’80s called The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. The book is not very complicated. It works by patiently dismantling the stories smokers tell themselves, without harsh judgment or pathology or appeals to the American wellness doctrine. The same method could easily be applied to alcohol or a bad relationship or, really, any harmful crutch. By the time I officially quit drinking, I had already stopped almost entirely; it had come to seem unnecessary, almost disgusting.
The last shot of vodka I ever poured went down as it always did, a slight shift in the axis of the world, disorientation without pleasure. It was accompanied by a powerful sense of having broken a family curse. A few weeks later, I collapsed into a helpless, quivering mass of grief while watching Leaving Las Vegas, a movie about how nothing—not true love, dignity, or the desire for self-preservation—outweighs the drive for alcoholic self-destruction. It was one of only a few moments of truly unrestrained sobbing I have experienced since my father’s death. For me, these moments, a year later, were the real funeral.
I do not miss drinking at all: I still have old liquor bottles hanging around and have never once been tempted to drink from them. But of course these revelations can be deceiving, and liquor still kills long after you stop: an old family friend died of cirrhosis shortly before my father did, having not touched a drop for years. Still, I think the ritual of commemoration that the shot represented has kept it from being one of any number of resolutions I have broken in my life. Not drinking is not just something I am doing for myself; it is something I am doing for my father—his last gift to me.
Jeanya left her parents behind in the United States, and her parents had left their own ancestors behind in Romania. She was clearly selective in whose grave she chose to call home. But like Antigone, once she found it, her life was not too great a cost. She was a wanderer, but she was no rootless cosmopolitan. Me? I can’t even bring myself to get on a plane to Russia lest I be buttonholed by an FSB officer and hauled off to some detention center, even though, chances are, Jeanya’s reception in 1948 would have been worse. I think about all the tombs I left behind there: Stilianos’s under its mossy rock, my grandmother’s apartment (now, theoretically, my inheritance), the marble slab in Novodevichye. And I think about all the still-unburied dead who lie in the space between, in Bakhmut and Mariupol and Donetsk, who will have to be interred for good before I can put flowers on the family grave. May the gods punish the man who has left them there.
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