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Fedor Iranovich, Galina & I, in the hotel Tamanoco. Carnival Ball Caracas

Fedor Iranovich, Galina & I, in the hotel Tamanoco. Carnival Ball Caracas

 

After all the wartime struggle to protect us, feed us, and put a roof over our heads, my father seemed lost in the New World. No bombs were falling, no enemy was chasing us. He had been raised and trained to fight, but now his zest for life was gone and he was confronted daily by all the ghosts of yesterday. All he could think to do was drown his sorrows and try to stop the voices in his head: O Mother Russia, what have I done? Am I a traitor– was I wrong to take my family out of Russia? To kill the pain, he drank himself into a stupor with vodka, mixing it with tears for his lost motherland.

Then, after Stalin died in 1953, my father was persuaded to return home by the phony promise that the new Khruschev regime would forgive everyone.  Desperate to see his beloved homeland once more, perhaps even to see his parents again, he took the communists at their word. He booked passage and headed back to Russia from Venezuela. It was not easy for us to say goodby to father, even if he was terrifying to be around the way he was drinking. I remembered he once tried to kill mama in a drunken rage; another time, when I came home late, he threw a jar of kerosene on the kitchen floor and lit the fire. If I hadn’t shut the bedroom door tight, I would have been burned all over and never had a modeling career.

The last phone call we had from him came from Italy, where he excitedly informed us that “all was forgiven” and we should come with him back to the Motherland. We never heard from him again, and later learned that he was executed shortly after he re-entered the U.S.S.R., after being tortured for information and forced to make a false confession of “crimes against the state.”  Many others met the same fate after the imaginary “liberalization” of the Khruschev period, but fortunately my mother had no desire to return to Russia, remembering the horrors of the Old World and the catastrophes that had only ended when we reached America.

Mama’s only dream was to escape that world and take care of her children. But needless to say, when we learned of Papa’s fate, the fear hung over our heads like a black cloud. What if the communists came for us here in Venezuela? Who would protect us when we heard that knock on the door? Soon after we heard the awful news, Mama applied for refugee residential visas for us at the US embassy. She was determined to get us beyond the long arms of the communists, in the promised land of America, with freedom and liberty for all.

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Visiting with my sister Galina and her baby, Vera.

We ended up in the outskirts of Caracas, in a home of a family with whom we’d been friends since Austria, by the name of Isbarenko. There were two sisters and a brother; the old man and my father had a good time together drinking and singing, and the old man played the accordion. The lady of the house was a typical Russian matuchka, a country farm woman. Theirs was a happy home, but somehow they were different from us; the girls and the boy were older and they didn’t exactly want a younger girl like me hanging around them.

They rented a piece of land not far from their home and were farming tomatoes. I loved those vegetables, the sun and open space, so I went with them to help with the crop. But Anatoly went back to the gold and diamond mines, and Galina went back to her husband on the Isle of Pearls, as it is known in Spanish (La Isla de Las Perlas, Margarita), so I felt very alone and insecure.

We were broke, so father sold the truck and dismissed the chauffeur, and we finally rented a small one-room place with a bathroom and kitchen. Father turned the countertop and refrigerator into a butcher shop in the morning, at night we slept in the floor in the same room. Poor Father could only drink down his disappointments in life, and the alcohol was beginning to take its toll on him. Somehow he found animals to buy, a place to slaughter them, and meat to sell. Mama would work hard right next to Papa, and I would walk for miles down the highway to a store that sold the spices we needed to make the homemade kielbasa sausages. When I think back on how I watched a great strong man like my father turn into a beat-up, broken old man, my heart still aches and a painful feeling comes over me.

The Isbarenko girls were not too far away from our new home, so once in a while I went with them to the movies, I suppose when they felt sorry for me and would tolerate my presence. Their reluctance to hang out with me didn’t stop me from having fun, because I was always happy with very little. Some Sundays we would all go down to the river, but it had a big rushing current and since I did not swim, I just hung on to a tree branch and dangled my legs in.

The days ran on and on; I was growing up—in fact, I looked older and more developed than I really was. One day, I heard the Isbarenko girls were going dancing the weekend after Easter. I wanted desperately to go along, so I begged Papa to let me go. Mama had nothing to say against it, so we girls went to a night club and I got my first glimpse of another world. How incredibly fantastic it was to me–twinkling lights, music playing, people laughing and dancing and drinking. Everyone was so happy and gay; I don’t remember what we ordered to drink, but it made me happy to just be there. Then the band was playing “Siboney”! Oh what a romantic sound, moving just like the waves and wind by the sea. We were sitting across from a table with five guys and, naturally, the flirting started. One of them, a tall, handsome young man, asked me to dance, and it felt so natural to me–I just melted away in his arms!

Soon they were all making plans to meet up at the beach the next day, and I just knew I had to go too! The girls had brought me home and dropped me off on time, so father had no objection–after all it was just the beach. The next morning we all left at 9 am, and on the way we were singing and talking about the night before. I was dreaming about seeing that same young man (who was really much older than me) as I walked alone down the beach and played with the waves and water, but the group of guys from the night before, including the handsome prince who had danced with me, never showed up.

That was probably my first disappointment from trusting a man, but the real lesson of love’s disillusionment only came much later in life.

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Loading the truck at the ranch, me with my little niece, Vera

Somewhere back in Austria, I had heard a song that went “Oh my Augustin, everything is lost and gone.” Father started laughing when he heard me singing this song as we packed the big red truck with all our belongings at 2 in the morning, getting ready to go back to Caracas. We were leaving, or escaping, the ranch, and I was a little sad to say goodbye to my pretty river, my beehives, the mangoes, the orange trees –it was goodbye to all our dreams.

But now where where were we going? It really did not make much difference to me, since I was curious and happy to have new things to see and do in the capital. I don’t remember if I mourned the fact that I would no longer get to see my little old lady friend on her ranch, to help her pass the time and drink her coffee (a luxury we did not have in our home).

On the road, we passed many beautiful places and stopped for refreshments when the heat of the day came; I tasted my first Pepsi cola, and found it delicious: it wasn’t like the chicha drink of the Andes, but the bubbles tickled my nose. I was so excited and eager to have another soda at the next roadside stand (maybe this time it would be a different flavor!) that I jumped out of the truck, fell, and landed on the empty broken soda bottles the chauffeur had put aside for the deposit. I almost poked my eye out, and still carry the scar!

A few more miles down the road, the next stand had a sign that said “Pinas,” and when we approached the fruit stand, we saw a fruit my mama called Ananas–as it was called in Europe–bunches of bananas hanging all around the stand . How sweet and delicious were all these exotic, tropical fruit scents–eating the fresh bananas and pineapples was like eating a piece of heaven. There was so much for my eyes to see and my soul to take in, and my heart rejoiced at all the wondrous things God had made- this was probably the first time I felt real gratitude.

Our travels always brought many adventures with new stories to tell, but first we had to climb over the mountains, where it quickly became very cold.  Down inside the truck cabin were Mama, Gala, Vera , and Fedor Ivanovich, Anatoly and I were on top along with our belongings. Under the pretext of keeping me warm, father hugged me tight so I wouldn’t feel cold, and said jokingly, “Let me suffer!” My father was not a demonstrative man, but I knew that he, too, was warmed by the embrace and did care for me and all of us. This was the only time I ever remembered feeling the embrace of fatherly love, an emotion that he so rarely showed any of us. This warm feeling stays in my memory to this day.

Finally we started to come down from the mountains into the big city of Caracas. I really think that was when I fell in love with the city lights, they just fascinated me with so many different brilliant colors and shapes. I thought it was fantastically gorgeous the way the lights of the big city were spread out below us –the city that seemed even larger than I had remembered it. My eyes were wide open and tears were running down my cheeks-I don’t know if they were tears of joy or just from the wind blowing against my face, but for the first time in my life, I felt truly happy , content, and satisfied. I wished that time would just stand still for us.  But of course, it never does.

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My sister Galina on the far left, frolicking in "our" river.

The river on our land was like one from a familiar scene you sometimes see in the movies, with a tree leaning over the bank from which I used to swing from the branches and fall into the water. Since I was busy helping at home, I did not go to school, and my free time was spent playing. We were all excitedly waiting for the weekly bus from Caracas, which would be bringing my sister Gala and her new daughter for a holiday visit. On the expected day, Mama waited outside while I splished and splashed in the river. Suddenly, I heard the bus horn. I hurriedly slipped into my panties and ran as fast as I could. At that age, I had no shame about nudity and anyway, all the local kids were naked in the hot summer weather, due either to the heat or that perhaps some of them did not have clothes. Mother had made dresses for me, of course, but I wore them or I didn’t, it made no difference to me.

I rushed up wet and almost naked to embrace my sister and her new baby, named Vera, which in Russian means “fate.” Fate was already in my mother’s arms, while Papa was all smiles and Anatoly stood there, shy but polite. Then Papa went out of the house, and I put some clothes on to get ready for dinner. I was amazed at all the good food Mama had prepared for the homecoming feast, many delicious roast chickens…but then a thought occurred to me and I became suspicious. I went running down to the little coop I had lovingly tended and, as I feared, my chickens were gone. I went over to the beehives to hide my tears and let go of my pain. I never even said anything to Mama, but when Vera was in my arms and I walked around the house, I made sure to inform her that she was responsible for the death of my pet chickens..She was just a baby and didn’t understand what I said, but I felt better. Of course, I got over it and life goes on. It seemed like only a few days, but Galina and her baby stayed a couple of months before returning to their home in Porlamar.

The end of the year came and our tomatoes were gigantic and deep pink, so Papa said, “This Monday we’ll start picking them!” By now it was Christmas weekend, and we were all asleep in the house. I went to the big windows and sat down to look up at the stars; across the road was a big hacienda, where the owners of our little ranch lived. I spoke to Santa and told him it was okay, I understood that I would not get any presents for the Catholic Christmas; I would have to wait for the Orthodox Christmas, which came later on the old calendar.

The next morning I went down the road as always to see my old lady friend and wish her well. I had nothing to give her, just a flower or two from Mama’s garden, but passing by the gate of the owners’ hacienda I saw their children playing with all kinds of new Christmas toys. Papa and Mama forbade me to disturb the owners, so I just went closer and peeked in, saying to myself, “One day….”

Monday came and very early, we all went down to the tomato field–Papa, mama, and Anatoly, while I went to wake up the chauffeur and his wife, who were to help us pick tomatoes. When I approached the sleeping pair, the man sat up, grabbed my arm and tried to kiss me on the mouth! I broke away from him in disgust and went running back, not saying a word because we needed his help picking the tomatoes. Still, I could not help but spit out the taste for a long while, as we crossed the grove of oranges and mangoes, which were long since harvested and sold. As we passed the beehive, I saw a little snake cross the flower path and screamed to Anatoly, “Kill it!” But nobody made a fuss about the snake- we were on our way to make a fortune with our tomato crop—they were like gold to us!

“My God!” my mother cried out. Papa also yelled in anger!, for the flimsy pole and wire fences had been knocked down, and a huge herd of cows was walking through our field and eating all our tomatoes! We all went crazy and tears ran down our cheeks. Our dreams of a rich harvest, a gold mine, were all gone–kaput!

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My brother Anatoly was a fully-grown man when I was still a child. He helped our father in Maracay.

On the road again, like a band of gypsies! Our next home, Maracay, was a small colonial city with wide streets and lots of parks with statues of heroes of the revolution at the battle of Carabobo. We drove through the city, so clean and free compared to others, and traveled about twenty minutes down a dirt road to a large ranch with orange groves, mango trees and lots of land ready for planting. Papa’s plan was to put us to work as ranchers or farmers!

Anatoly arrived a few days later, but by now my sister was married to a pure blooded Russian exile who carried his German aristocratic name and title with pride. Anatoly was put to work on a big tractor tilling the soil, mama was down in the rows with me pulling weeds, but there was still not enough money for my schoolbooks. I would have to walk to school, until one day a good looking young man came by the ranch to talk to papa and offered to give me a ride to school.

I remember bouncing along down the road in his big 8 wheel truck, and that night dreaming of being his wife and living with this wealthy young man in a big hacienda with lots of servants and many children! I was growing into a woman, and for the first time I felt something for a man, different from my feelings for my brother or schoolmates. He was tall, with a gentle and seductive voice, strong and sweet and protective, and perhaps he did not even notice I was staring at him strangely. This was my first girlish crush on a man, and I had no idea what I was feeling.

Well, we had a name for  a foolish child–a “mocosa,” meaning “A snot-nosed kid who needs to dry its eyes and grow up!” Of course, I never saw that young man again, but by the next day I had forgotten all about him: My sister was coming to visit us with her newborn baby, so we had to get the house ready to accommodate them!

Our strange house in Maracay

The house was very big and strange to me: one room ran into the next, and out of the kitchen there was a brick path leading to a flower garden and an outhouse. Mama planted flowers along the pathway, and papa and Tola made me a little fence corral for my chickens. An old woman they called a witch had given me a bunch of chicks; she lived in a cardboard box house down the road, and I thought she was so sweet that I didn’t want her to be lonesome, so I visited her every day.

She would make me coffee, a royal treat for a young lady, and I spent long hours down there, helping her get clean water from the river, washing her only two teacups, listening to the roosters crow and the hens cluck. After I was gone too long, my poor overworked mother would come looking for me- I didn’t realize that to her, I had gone missing from chores, wandering the countryside and maybe getting into trouble.

At school I played baseball, since my legs had grown very fast and I could hit a home run like the boys. At the school festival, a boy sang a hit song from America, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons, and what do you get, Another day older and deeper in debt!” I did not understood the words but I would dance to it; I had never seen the record and only heard a tape, but I loved the melody and the rhythm and most of all that deep voice, the baritone that I loved so much, (even those I heard in the church choir), singing so meaningfully, “St. Peter don’t you call me, cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”  I invented my own meaning of these words, since no one around me spoke English–I simply felt it, and it wasn’t until I began to understand English that I knew what the song meant.  Another English-language song that affected me deeply was one I heard  for the first time many years later, when I was in Los Angeles.  I wondered if Willie Nelson had written “On the Road Again” about us, as my family and I had lived such unsettled lives, traveling through the world like vagabonds.  This was to become one of my favorite songs.

Father brought home some beehives and began teaching me how to care for them. I thought the bees were so beautiful, the way they buzzed and talked to each other, with the big queen getting all the honey and the worker bees slaving away. Papa explained that we had to separate and get rid of the drones that did not produce honey: “Ludachka you just sit here and get as many you can and I will bring you a present from my next business trip, is that understood?” “Da, papa, da!” (“Yes, Papa!)
The strange thing was the bees never stung or bothered me, although if anyone else came to the hives they had to wear a mask and gloves.

Now we had honey, mangoes and oranges to sell. Father and his driver would ride into town and sell at the market, and at home we were growing tomatoes in the long summer. Anatoly would dig open a little hole, prepare the soil, and I would follow behind him and plant a little tomato seedling that Mama had grown in boxes in the house. At the end of the day, Tola would open the pump that carried water from the river into the irrigation channels, so our baby tomatoes would be watered from the bottom and not the top.

I was so young, and I thought I had all the time in the world!

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I have no photos of my red en pointe ballet shoes, but these are similar. Source: everyaustraliancounts.com.au

Once again we were on the go!  Every time we moved, we came to a new and different world, and I was already getting hooked on traveling– at least it was never boring! The Andes mountains were so beautiful- the air was fresh and cool, the skies bright blue, the mountain and hills brilliant green. Where we were was not a forest, nor a desert, but an alpine plateau with short vegetation and multicolored little flowers. My body felt heavier due to the altitude and the cold mountain air, but at least it wasn’t the bitter icy cold of European winter, more like a crisp clean cold.

We were driving to San Cristobal, which is even closer to the Colombian border. The people there were shorter and darker than in Caracas or even Merida—they were Indio Puro, pure Indian, unlike the mixture of Spanish, Italian, Russian and Mestizo that I’d seen in Caracas. Later I realized that the women of Venezuela are some of the most beautiful in the world, winning Miss Universe or Miss World titles almost every other year, and for a good reason: they are gorgeous!

San Cristobal had a Teatro Municipal (Municipal Theater), four stories high and the biggest building in town, and I began taking ballet lessons there. There was an older Russian woman teaching ballet, a real ballerina, and she became good friends with my mother. As my training progressed, I got into better condition and moved into first or second ballerina in the little company.

Up to this point, I had only used little ballet slippers, but now it was time to get real ballet shoes, the kind you can stand up in en point, held up by the toes and the shoe tips. It was my idea to get red shoes, not the usual beige or pink, and I got what I wanted. After my one and only performance, however, the director of the ballet came looking for me because I hadn’t paid for them yet! I hid under a big conference table, but he finally found me after a long search, up on the top floor. I clutched my precious zapatillas rojas to my chest and refused to let go, but finally they wrested them away. Oh, how I cried! My poor mama was so sad because she had tried hard to get the money to pay for the shoes, but things in our family had started to deteriorate and every financial transaction had to go first through father.  She soothed me and tried to tell me that it would be all right, that somehow we would find the money to get my red shoes back, but in the end, we soon moved again and I never did.  Although I was upset, I wasn’t angry with father or mother, nor did I act like a brat like some spoiled children might have done–I think my life experiences as a refugee and immigrant had conditioned me to understand that this was just the way things were.  You either had money for red shoes or you didn’t, ni modo.

By this time, my Spanish was getting very good, and I heard mama say, “Ludmila reminds me of Maria Mijalovna,” who was a translator to the Czar in the old days. I hadn’t heard of her, of course, so I asked my mama, who explained that this famous woman spoke 22 languages!  I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s a lot!” I only spoke Russian, a little German and, most useful of all in my new life, Spanish.

I had learned the value of languages, since I now served as translator on the business trips papa made to sell Embotidos in Colombia. We would drive over the mountain roads with our red truck full of sausages and meats, through the cool mountain air. Meanwhile, Galina went to work in Caracas, since like Anatoly she could not get along with father, who was beginning to drink too often and lost his temper frequently (I did not know then that it was his alcoholic buzz causing that).

Without my siblings, I was scared and lonely, and looking forward to a new chapter in my life. Little did I know what the future held….

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This is a more recent photo of Merida, Venezuela's Principal Market, but it looks very similar to how I remember it as a girl. Source: members.virtualtourist.com

“Enbotidos Los Andes” was the name of Fedor Ivanovich’s proud new enterprise; his very first company, a grand beginning in the New World. His meatpacking business was a complete operation from beginning to end, from birthing and animal husbandry to feeding and butchering, to selling direct to stores, shops, and families in the region. In the big outdoor public market, we had to slice thin samples of our salamis, kilvasha (which is the Russian word for “kielbasa”), and hams so that the people could taste it or else they would not buy it—there had never been that kind of deli and it was new and a curious novelty to the indigenous locals of Venezuela. Of course, the expatriated Europeans knew about delis and welcomed us; as a result, our business quickly grew.

Everyone was happy, Father was beginning to prosper. When I worked and helped father, I got to ask for a few pennies or a dime to buy chicha, a milky, creamy, delicious drink that I loved that was made from fermented corn. Some chichas had alcohol in them–in Chile they make chicha of fermented grapes, which is the drink of the gauchos, or horsemen–but then I did not yet know the difference and of course they sold me the chichas without alcohol (or perhaps they did have alcohol, which might have made them even more delicious to me). They cost the equivalent of 2 pennies of that time or maybe one because it was a quarter of one Bolivar, which was Venezuela’s currency.

When carnival time arrived, our little town of Merida went crazy, with everybody singing and dancing in the streets, fireworks and of course there were great feasts requiring our sausages and hams. The firecrackers and fireworks were frightening to me at first, but I soon realized these were not the gunshots and bombs of the Old World, with their ugly sounds of death and destruction. This was a happy sound, of the fiesta, and even at home we could hear the wild celebrations in the plaza while we gathered around the long table cutting meat by hand–manos a la obra as they say in Spanish.

Anatoly went to town to buy black pepper for the kalvasha and of course he couldn’t resist getting some firecrackers to frighten us. When he came back home, he snuck into the workroom, lit and threw one right behind Gala, who cried out in shock and whirled around knife still in hand–and accidentally sliced his wrist open, sending blood gushing everywhere! When we went with him to the big hospital, I was the only one who could speak Spanish, which gave me a new sense of responsibility and belonging in my adopted country. But the hospital was scary!

Soon afterward, Mother had a terrible pain under her ribs and after we had been to many doctors, none of whom could figure out what was wrong with her, we decided to try another method. Living in a place where witch doctors were more respected than medical doctors, My sister Galina and I went to a curandero (shaman) who lived far away in the mountains, to ask him to make some medicine to heal mama. It was against our religion, of course, but we were desperate. I accompanied Galina alone into the countryside, we left as the sun rose and didn’t return home until after seeing the sun go down. We passed winding rivers, big plantations and rising hills, until finally we got to this old man in a hut. There were other villagers waiting there for his “voodoo” medicine, so we waited until it was finally our turn. We entered the darkened hut with candles and incense burning, not knowing what to expect. After we explained why we had come, the curandero did his “mumbo jumbo” and chanted some prayers that we did not understand, then he sent us away. As we descended the hills to return home, we picked oranges and were singing again, happy to bringing mama the curandero’s medicine and the gift of fresh oranges.

By now I was back in class, public school this time, and going to my first ballet classes against my father’s wishes; he certainly did not want me to be an artist, much less a ballerina or anything like that because in the old world only loose women put on shows! Mother had to sneak me to my classes and hide my little costumes, until finally the day came when I had to perform in the little theater and we forgot the undergarments for my costume. We sent home for them, and it was Father who came back with the clothes and sat there watching silently; we were both scared stiff, but he didn’t say a word, and at the end he even applauded!

After that I was free to dance! I was happy in my soul and mind and my body, flying through the air as I breathed deeply and moved my arms. How could it be bad when it was so pure and clean? Every chance I had, with the slightest provocation, I would dance along with the wind or breeze, or when I heard any musical sound–my body could not stay still. There was a little movie house that was outdoors at the plaza. Before the show I would go behind the screen and dance so my silhouette showed for the people sitting waiting for the film to start. I am one with God when I dance, and there is no evil or pain or tears or fears, only love in my face and heart.

Father needed a truck to transport his animals, and so far I did not yet have a proper doll. One day he said to me, “Come with me to the bank and if you do a good translation and get the banker to give us a loan for the truck, I’ll buy you a big doll with eyes that close to go to sleep!” Of course I went (like I had any choice in the matter?) and to tell the truth, I don’t remember if I did well or not. But I do know that he left the bank and bought a bright red Ford truck with a wooden truckbed for his livestock, and I received my beautiful doll! Life could not get any better, it seemed to me! The embotida business was making good money, and soon we had a maid and a chauffeur, and lots of grapes that father made into wine for the table.

One day Fedor Ivanovich had to go out to the valley of the Andes with the chauffeur (of course he did not know how to drive), and by now Anatoly had gone far away because he could not smoke in front of father and they did not get along so well. Palina Vasilivna was in the market selling meat and so Gala and I were home for the holidays. By now it was more interesting to me to play with my pet, a live squirrel, than my longed-for doll! The big wooden barrel of wine had already fermented and were almost ready to drink, so Gala said to me, “Ludmila, let’s try it and see if it’s good!” She already knew about liquor, since she and Tola had tried it before, but I had not yet tasted alcohol. I was ready for any new adventure, so I answered, “Yes, yes!” I guess I liked the grapes’ taste at first; “One more?” Gala asked. Yes! And one and two and three! Soon I was sick, vomiting and calling to my father for help, but luckily mama arrived first and put me to bed.

Oh, the room was spinning around and I was swearing, never, never again, mama! Then I passed out, also for the first time. This was my first experience with the booze–little did I know at the time that alcohol would come to be my perdition, condemnation, and, more than half a century later, the salvation of my soul.

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