My First Trip to the Homeland

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In search of abandoned treasures behind the Iron Curtain

I wondered yet again: Had I really agreed to fly on a one-way ticket into a remote backwater of Communist Russia of 1977, a country repressed by fear and impoverished by incompetent bureaucracy, one my father fled as an infant and couldn’t believe his daughter was braving?

My family, Don Cossacks, had lived for centuries on the Don River between Moscow and Stalingrad. The Cossacks, although mostly peasants, were staunch supporters of the tsar and represented the last stand of resistance to the Communist Revolution, losing the final battle in 1920.

When I was a child, my grandmother told me stories of that final battle. How the family, following the White Army, repeatedly left their village and returned. How by the last retreat there was no time to dig up the silver she had buried under the back doorstep to their house, abandoned to the dust of history. My grandmother was long gone, but that silver in its dirt grave halfway around the world lived on in my mind, my sole keepsake beyond the small gold stars she had always worn dangling from her ears. I wanted to see where our story began and to retrieve what she was forced to leave behind. I wanted to dig up that dirt.