Alexander Vassilieff is a descendent of the colonists who are personified in his first epic novel, a biography of his family.
ODYSSEYA - An Epic Journey from Russia to Australia
"A fascinating and moving Australian immigrant saga set against the backdrop of ancient and modern Russian history."
Alex was born in Shanghai, China. At the age of three, he was taken to Harbin and at nine, in 1951, to Sydney, Australia. After an active career as a Professional Engineer and a long record of civic and community involvement, he retired and lives with his wife Alexandra in Castle Hill. They have two children and four grandchildren. In Nov 2008 he was awarded as Laureate-grand-finalists in a Sydney Book Festival.
The author provides short chapters with to the most part, clear points and conclusions. At its finest, Vassilieff uses language so well that the reader is prompted to learn more about Russian art and through this, to consider some of the darker aspects of the story. This is very good writing and the points made are subtle and wry with a generous humour. There is very little convoluted or over emotional indulgence and the story flows clearly and with almost no dull patches. The author has packed around his family's history some interesting asides about cuisine, theosophy, art, music and literature, the effects of the war on ordinary lives and the hard work, sense of freedom and ultimately the development of families thrust into a new and totally different country.
The introduction is very well managed. The author has chosen to highlight the period of Russian history that ordinary or lay readers often do not understand - the effects of the arrival of the Viking warriors and how this can be traced and understood to have lead to the fall of the Romanov Empire are excellently drawn together. Spanning Old Russia to the Russian Diaspora., the content provides much historical information sourced from a diverse collection of Russian chronicles and history. However the human interest is continually brought to the fore through the interweaving of personal accounts, reflection and, as the author attests, an anthropological and forensic application to what he recalls and has been told.
As I was writting my memoirs I understood the words uttered by a famous 19th Century Danish Writer and Philosopher. "Life must be lived forward but it can only be understood backwards"
The thoughts of another famous novelist an American inspired me with his words -"I am not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen yesterday and I love today."
Life must be lived forward but it can only be understood backwards Soren Kierkegaard 1813-55
In Imperial Russia, there used to be four social classes. As in the West, the main three were the working class – peasants and labourers; the middle class or bourgeoisie – administrative personnel, merchants, clerks, professionals and clergy; and the aristocracy, including the nobility (both ‘personal’ and ‘hereditary’) and the titular (title-holders), such as princes and counts.
The fourth class, the Cossacks, was rather unique. The Cossacks were allotted land, a certain degree of autonomy and self-government. For this semiautonomy, each man was required to give twenty years of military service to the Tsar, commencing at the age of eighteen. Their services were mainly used for protection against border incursions and during times of war. At birth, the class of an individual was recorded on the birth certificate and in a special ‘Book of Births’ so there could be no future doubt as to his or her status. To some degree, the Cossack Clans could be said to resemble the Scottish Clans; the Macgregors, MacDonalds, Campbells and so on.
This is a story which covers a period of about 200 years. It is near enough to a biography about my family, or rather a number of families whose roots intertwine all class barriers and stretch across half the globe as they journeyed to new lands to better their lives and sometimes to save them. The story also covers briefly a period of Russian history from the beginning – the summoning of the Viking warriors to the fall of the Romanov Empire and the resulting Russian Diaspora. It does it in a way to introduce the reader, unfamiliar with the Russian beginnings, to what Russia used to be. The historical information is sourced from Old Russian chronicles, eminent historians, encyclopaedias, and word of mouth, from those who lived through some of the more recent horrors of the Russian tragedy.
The historic outline covers the development and richness of Russian thought and culture, its neverending turmoils and some of its contributions to our world.
My family’s life is deeply intertwined in Russian history and the resulting Diaspora and typifies to the reader what millions of Russians went through during the turbulent times of the 20th century. Although I was unable to acquire all of my family’s history, I filled in the gaps the way it may have happened to the best of my ability through deductive reasoning of events – similar family behavioural patterns of blood relatives, family chitchat and factoring in of surrounding events of the time. As such I take full responsibility for any errors in the story for which I hope my ancestors will forgive me.
My grandparents and parents fled from Russia to China during the Russian Civil War immediately after World War I. Most of my family survived two generations of the worst bloodshed, political and economic upheaval experienced during the 20th century (World War I, the Russian Civil War, Japanese occupation, World War II, Stalin’s GULAGS and Political Oppression). Although my father and two of my uncles survived Stalin’s postwar GULAGS, four of my granduncles were killed in the Russian Civil War and one distinguished himself and lived to tell the tale. Both of my grandfathers died during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, one as a result of torture, and the other from stress and related physical ailments.
My wife, who brought much love and joy to my development, experienced with her parents and grandparents similar dislocation and turmoil in fleeing from Russia at about the same time as my family, but fleeing in the opposite direction of France and Germany. They experienced life under Hitler, the destruction of Berlin and the postwar Displaced Persons camps prior to coming here to Australia.
ODYSSEYA is available from: (Aus) Autographed direct from author email@example.com (NZ) www.teremok.co.nz (US & Globally) Amazon.com
REVIEWS A fascinating and moving Australian immigrant saga set against the backdrop of ancient and modern Russian history. — Archbishop Hilarion, Archbishop of Sydney, Australia and NZ Russian Orthodox Church (Canadian born now Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad)
A triumph of a novel! — Wendy O’Hanlon, Acres Australia
From Russia to China, around the world and back again – share the author’s well researched family story and how he came to call Australia home. — John Morrow’s Pick of the Week Armidale
Heartfelt greetings to the readers of: ‘Odysseya – An epic journey from Russia to Australia’. The tragic revolutionary events that overtook Imperial Russia in the 20th Century deprived Russia of millions of its countrymen. A large number, found themselves in the Far East and eventually many of them established a second homeland on the continent of Australia. Their faith, fortune, suffering and struggle for a worthwhile life should not be forgotten. Vassilieff’s book presents an important contribution in preserving the historical legacy of the Russian Diaspora. — Maria Romanova, HIH The Grand Duchess of Russia, Head of the Russian Imperial House
A captivating read, personifying a series of significant – historical broad ranging events – as lived through by the author and his family, spanning the 20th Century of Russia, China and Australia. A heritage left for the future generations in its intimate account of what it’s like to lose part of one’s family and homeland and finally reach Australian shores to ultimately call it home. — Vladimir Kouzmin, Editor Unification (Russian Weekly National Newspaper - Australia)
This was truly an Odyssey lived through by many but told by very few, which makes the book not only interesting but also valuable as a documentary. — Dr Paul A Urtiew, ORUR Snr Scm (Chief Sct ret’d), San Francisco
Finished your book yesterday (I’m a fast reader) you certainly put in a lot of work to get your information and a lot of effort. I liked the way you have given a brief history of all aspects of Russia before beginning your family story. It is a wonderful legacy for your children, grandchildren, as well as future generations. They will know their family history. — Iia Sergie Special Needs Teacher and avid reader Sydney
In this family memoir, anecdotes of hope and courage enliven the bleak backdrop of war and deprivation… the family’s belief in one another and their promising future, despite volatile political events and the necessity of starting over—again and again. — Kirkus Discoveries New
Chapter 6 TIME TRAVEL - THE MARRIAGE (Extract from ODYSSEYA)
I recall a quote that goes something like this: When we are young we dream of the future. At what point in time do we begin to dream of the past? Perhaps when the future that we were dreaming of becomes the past. Put another way: We look forward to the future and then the future becomes the past. This theme of time is associated with the most widely admired and highly honoured American poet, Robert Lee Frost (1874-1963).
For as long as I remember, I have been fascinated with time travel. If we could time travel, there is so much history that we could substantiate. Without time travel, to learn how people lived throughout history we must rely on written testimony, man-made objects of the period, and living remains. However, the best witness to history is speaking to the person who lived it. In trying to fill the missing pieces of my family history, I have had to rely on all three methods and have often still come up against a blank wall. One such dead end was Ivan. Until one night something happened to me, which even now is hazy and perplexing to me. So this section I leave to you the reader to judge for yourself.
It was about midnight on 5 November. My wife and I returned from an outing – our son’s birthday. Trying to unwind, I went to my study and sat down at my desk. After a night of discussion about our ancestors I was still attempting in my own mind to define or bring into coherence my grandparents’ experience and my still unproductive research into my great-great grandfather Ivan. Who the heck was he? I loosened my coat and tie and was about to take off my cuff-links to place them in my trinket box on my table – as I often did – when I picked out of the box a ten rouble gold coin, some other smaller coins, my grandfather’s gold pocket watch and my grandmother’s gold wedding ring. Recently, I had toyed with these things to help me collect my thoughts when writing my family history. On this occasion, however, I was drawn to them like to a magnet and an eerie and buzzing feeling went through me. I felt hot, cold and dizzy; my immediate thoughts were that I should have avoided that last glass of vodka. As if this was not bad enough, I then began to feel as if I was being drawn through a funnel and fell to the floor.
I came to, not on our floor, but on a grass patch alongside a pavement next to a wide stone cobbled street across which I saw a beautiful Orthodox timber-built church with couples silhouetted against a bright blue sky. It was broad daylight. “Good Lord,” I said. “This must be heaven and I didn’t even realize that a bus had come for me.”
Suddenly from behind, a voice said to me: “Are you all right, sir? That was a nasty trip. I did not even see you fall. Here, let me help you on your feet, Your Honour, I will help you across the street. You look a little shaky. You don’t want to miss the wedding do you?”
As my eyesight cleared, I noted that the man who was helping me was dressed as a coachman and the ringing in my ears was in fact the church bells chiming. I realized that he was speaking to me in Russian. Turning to him I said: “Where am I and what wedding are you talking about?”
“Oh, you have been celebrating, Your Honour. Are you from out of town? This is the Vajinsky wedding. It’s the biggest wedding of the month here in Odessa, particularly since peace was declared in the Far East; it’s even mentioned in today’s Odessa-News. Here, look, Your Honour.” The coachman saw that I was still dazed and said “Oh! That must have been a really bad fall, Your Honour. Here, you better sit on a seat inside the church courtyard and collect yourself before you go inside, the wedding is still only half way through.”
I thanked him and gave him the smaller coin of 20 kopeyeks that I found in my pocket beside the ten rouble coin. He graciously accepted the silver coin and hurried back to his coach. I quickly looked at the front page of the Odessa newspaper and saw the date – 23 October 1905. One of the front-page headlines read: “Travel to the Far East has resumed once again and passengers can proceed in all safety and comfort as far as Harbin in Manchuria since the signing of the Portsmouth peace treaty in the United States of America.”
As I was still not sure what was happening to me – it was like a dream but seemed so real that I did not think I was dreaming – I thought I might as well go along with the situation and see where it took me.
On entering the church, by habit I crossed myself and at that moment I saw the archpriest walking the newly married couple on their final circle around the wedding altar with the gold wedding crowns(14) held above their heads by the two groomsmen. Soon after, the couple was taken to the steps in front of the Iconostasis(15). The archpriest announced to the congregation that they were welcome to approach and congratulate the newly-weds – Boris Nikitich Vajinsky and his new bride Efrasinia Stepanovna Vajinsky. As is the custom, the first two couples who approached were the parents of the bride, then the groom, followed by the rest of the congregation joyously congratulating the newly married couple.
Still partly stunned, I too approached the couple, kissed them warmly and expressed my delight on this important occasion. As I began to walk away, mesmerised by their youthful beauty and happiness, an old man asked me to help him out down the steps. Once outside we began a conversation.
“My name is Ivan Vassiliyich. You look as though you are on your own, can I offer you a lift to the reception?”
Still taken back by the events I gladly accepted, giving him my full name and patronymic. We chatted on about the wedding, the lovely day. He asked me if I was related to the couple. Before I could answer, the carriage pulled up in front of an attractive sandstone building where the reception was being held. As we got out of the carriage, I helped the old man up the short wide stone stairway and past the beautiful Greco-Roman columns, then through a lobby into a reception room where the guests were gathering and champagne was being offered. The old man introduced me to a couple of guests and excused himself. The middle-aged couple, Mr. and Mrs. Orloff, with whom I exchanged formalities, pointed me into the direction of the large French windows, through which I saw the most spectacular view.
“A sunset over the Black Sea is absolutely divine, would you not agree Alexander Vladimirovich?”
“Absolutely spectacular, Mrs. Orloff,” I answered. “Call me Gutya,” Mrs. Orloff responded. “After all we are practically all related here.”
Before Gutya could ask me how I was related, I led the conversation into a different direction.
“The sunset is rather early, is it not?” I asked. “Oh no! I would say it’s right on time.” She pointed in the direction of the clock on the wall, which showed five o’clock. I then remembered my grandfather’s gold pocket watch and took it out of my pocket, setting the right time. Gutya immediately remarked, “There are very few of these around. It bears the imperial trademark of Pavel Bure, the supplier of His Majesty’s clocks and watches. It is usually presented to people of distinction.”
I was getting deeper into hot water and looking for a way out. 14 In Russian Orthodoxy the second part of the Marriage Service culminates in the ceremony of coronation; the crowns signify an outward and visible sign of the sacrament, the special grace that the couple receive from the Holy Spirit, before they set out to found a new family or domestic Church. The crowns are crowns of joy, but they are also crowns of martyrdom, since every true marriage involves an immeasurable self-sacrifice on both sides. At the end of the service the couple drink from the same cup of wine, which recalls the miracle at the marriage feast of Cana in Galilee: this common cup is a symbol of the fact that henceforward they will share a common life with one another.
15 An icon covered screen that separates the sanctuary-altar from the body of the building.
“Ah my dear chap, there you are.” Saved by the bell, I thought, as Ivan Vassiliyich reappeared. “I think we are just about to be seated. Look, the bride and groom are being greeted with bread and salt by the parents,” said Ivan Vassiliyich excitedly. “Yes God bless them,” he murmured. “Come along, Alexander Vladimirovich, and sit next to me. You seem to be an interesting companion.” “But ... ” I said.
“No buts, I know we have much in common to discuss.” Ivan Vassiliyich began our conversation almost immediately after we were seated and the archpriest blessed all present and said a brief prayer for the coming meal.
“You must be related to us, I can see it in your face, your ears and your chin but you must be from some distant land. Your accent appears to be a mixture of St. Petersburger and something foreign, not French or German, maybe English. Your clothing is different to everyone else’s. A good quality suit and tie, your shirt looks as though you have been travelling in it all day in a hurry to get here. Am I right so far?” “You are very observant and quite right on every count, Ivan Vassiliyich, almost as though you are a detective.”
“Thank you for the compliment, Alexander Vladimirovich, but no I am no detective. However, I do believe that a gift of memory is what makes us truly human! I have lived a long time – 80 years you know, travelled somewhat, I participated in the Crimean Campaign as a supply officer and I love to read foreign and local news, novels, science and politics.” He then looked at me for a response.
“You are right, Ivan Vassiliyich; we do have a lot in common. I am a distant relative of yours and I have lived in a far away land for a long time. It’s a relatively new country called Australia.”
“Ah! That explains the unrecognisable accent. English? And yet not quite English! You are now a Federation of States and no longer a colony. I think your Prime Minister is Alfred Deakin? You export merino wool and you have interesting animals like kangaroos and koalas.” (He pronounced the last two words with a strong Russian accent.)
“I am becoming more impressed with your knowledge, Ivan Vassiliyich.” I personally had to think back a hundred years to who was the then Prime Minister and had he asked me I may have given the wrong one like Barton, Reid or Fisher, but Deakin sounded more correct when he said it. “Yes I also like to read similar topics to yours.”
Then he further amazed me by saying: “You know, Alexander Vladimirovich, by the turn of the 19th century and at least by the end of this year so many new discoveries were made that they are now revolutionizing our age in so many different areas such as: Telephone and Telegraph, Electricity and Electromagnetism. They are already talking of lighting up all of St. Petersburg and connecting by telephone Moscow to St. Petersburg and maybe later down here to Odessa. Mendeleev’s Chemical Periodic Chart and his prediction of future elements are making considerable breakthroughs in chemistry and photography. The recent Wright Brothers Flight suggests we will have flying ships in the not too distant future and just a few months ago, I read in a scientific journal that a new Swiss scientist, Albert Einstein, discovered a relationship between energy, matter and light and he called it the Theory of Relativity. So possibly, in the near future Jules Verne and H G Well’s fantasies might become a reality of under water ships, flights to the moon and maybe even time machines. So people will be able to be transported underwater, through air, outer space and maybe even through time itself. Maybe these people – Jules Verne, H G Wells, Mendeleyev and now Einstein – are time travellers. For that matter you too could be a time traveller.”
“You know, dear Ivan Vassiliyich, you are more right than anyone could possibly know.” During our conversation, time was flying and the bride and groom were being continually toasted. The atmosphere was jovial – love, kisses, food, wine and song overflowed in abundance at times making it difficult for us to stick to our conversation. On a couple of occasions we did tear away from our conversation and joined the rest in a couple of Russian and Ukrainian songs. A Russian wedding without singing is incomplete and no participant can remain immune to the atmosphere and/or abstain from joining it.
“This has been a most splendid evening, Alexander Vladimirovich. I have enjoyed myself thoroughly,” said my companion. “Do you think our young couple will have a long and happy future with many children?”
“I am sure they will on all three counts,” I responded without hesitation. Then as if by habit I placed my right hand into my coat pocket and took out the pocket-watch to check the time, which was about 11.00 p.m., not noticing that my grandmother’s wedding ring had slipped on to my little finger. As I read the time, my companion observantly asked, “You have a second wedding ring on your right hand.”
“That was my grandmother’s,” I replied. “May I see it?” he said. Uncomfortably, I gave it to him. He rolled it and read the inscription on the inside: 23 October 1905.
“But that’s today’s date!” He looked at me astonished. “How can this be?” He gave me back the ring and said: “That Pavel Bure gold watch you are holding, I have an exact one in my pocket that I am going to give my grandson tonight when they depart on their honeymoon.”
As astonished and bewildered as he, I said, “Then you are Ivan!” “But of course, my dear fellow. Who else did you think I was?” “I have been searching for you a long time.”
“Well now you found me, what are you going to do?” As if in response, we both embraced and then reached out to shake each other’s hand. But as our hands met with the pocket watches still in each other’s hand I felt the same funny sensation that earlier on came over me. I once again felt dizzy and began to be drawn through a funnel until I finally fell to the floor. As I tried to get up and get myself together, something wet was slobbering my face. On opening my eyes I saw my cocker spaniel, Toffee, next to me in my study where I was lying on my carpet with my grandmother’s wedding ring and my grandfather’s pocket watch in my right hand showing about 11.05 p.m. I then looked at my wall clock and it read five minutes after midnight. The wall calendar next to it still showed yesterday’s date – 5 November 2005 (23 October old style).