Surviving the Ides of March: A Requiem for My Father

Yuri Glazov was born December 26, 1929 in Moscow, Russia. He died March 15, 1998 in Halifax, Nova-Scotia.

Never came trouble to my house in the likeness of your Grace,
for trouble being gone, comfort should remain;
but when you depart from me, sorrow
abides and happiness takes his leave.
(Much Ado About Nothing. 1.1.99-102)

A messy, hopeless panorama of Russian politics is documented world-wide in an impessive variety of magazines, newspapers, and journals. As a result, we are all only too aware that the acute stage of Russia's sickness occupying temporally most of the 20th century has now given way to a lingering and nauseating chronic condition, with no end in sight. Lost in this bleak picture are those whose portrayal requires the brightest of colours, and by this I mean the faces of the Russian dissidents, that is, the faces of those who dared to stand up against the Soviet ideological monolyth which, among other accomplishments, happened to catch the imagination of so many of Western liberal intellectuals.

Very few of the dissidents whom I remember are in danger of being included in the near future in Russia's history books, and none of them, if I were to judge by the same snippets of memory, will ever serve as suitable candidates for sainthood. Yet they were daring men and women, and although heroic epithets are not fashionable in our age of political correctness, which strives ever so diligently for uniformity of all language, these people took my breath away when I was a child, and they continue to do so now when I happen to be meeting them in the most unexpected of places, most notably, among the pages of Shakespeare's histories, comedies, and tragedies. Let me explain this: one face which stands out on any occasion is the dearest face of my youth and the trusted friend of my adult years, my father, a Russian dissident Yuri Glazov.

Although Russia was his destiny and love, he was forced to immigrate with his family in 1972. He wanted me to become a part of the Western world and not share his own ghosts, and to a great extent I followed his advice: I became a teacher of English literature. But lately something started to happen to me in my classes, and after my father's death this something has started to speak with the force of compulsion. But in one respect, I did not disobey my father's words. What troubles me now cannot be ghosts, for the presence of the voices that I hear are life-giving and life-nourishing.

I have taught Shakespeare now for seven years, and every year when I introduce to students the articulate, magnanimous exchanges of Shakespeare's autocrats, "Good Signior Leonato, are you come to meet trouble? The fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you encounter it" (Much Ado 1.1.96-98), I hear in my mind a different dialogue and even a different language. The memory that floods the classroom for me on these occasions is the life of our family in Moscow in the 60s and 70s, the friends of my parents gathering in our house, and their spirited discussions of all aspects of culture, politics, and life. I hear Boris Shragin, my father's best friend, an outcast philosopher who was singled out as the source of anti-government agitation in the Moscow Institute of Art in 1968, saying to my father, in phrases incomprehensible in English unless transposed into the grander modes of Shakespeare's characters: "Glazov, you feast of my soul, how wrong you are!" And I hear my father replying: "We must adopt some measure of Western-style democracy around this table. Why do you never let me finish?" And everyone at the table would grin, purse their lips, then continue a conversation so full of needles, and checks, and fun. That world exists now only in the minds of its participants, and not many of those are still alive. Those now absent include Boris Shragin and my father.

This year was the first time I taught King Lear while confronting the reality of my father's death. My problem was this: Kent's passionate love for justice (albeit his own version of justice) had always in the past made me call home to hear yet again my father's voice on the phone. On those occasions it was understood very quickly that I had nothing of real significance to impart, and so he and I would switch to our usual style of conversation. Having many times established the well-being of his son-in-law and his grandchildren, my father would ask me: "Do you still have time to think? What are the three best ideas that have come into your mind in the last month?" And if I was low, the timbre of the conversation would change and he would say: "You're holding down that job, writing, and looking after your family -- it is a heroic effort, Elena," and I, as always surprised by this unconditional support, would repeat to myself the lines of Shakespeare's most disliked female character: 'Beyond all manner of so much I love you' (Lear I.i.61). Only I would mean every word of this speech, for, in contrast to Goneril's Lear, my father never taught me the secrets of how to maintain the worldly power.

An immigrant, devoted to Russia and books, he taught me love. And I was not alone. We all loved him, my step-mother Marina, my brothers, my husband, my children. It is not fashionable to call someone a patriarch in our world, but I can find no other word. Only, in contrast to Shakespeare's patriarchs, mine was of a kind that wanted us to argue with him and who actually taught us how to fight back. "No Glazov has any difficulty articulating an opinion, requested or otherwise," my husband sometimes says in mock despair, and my son Yuri echoes something of this thought: "Mom, people can live their lives without confronting problems all the time. There is such a thing as a peaceful life." In Shakespearean criticism, this kind of interchange is called "flyting," and as I explain its principles in class, I think of that constant irony, playful but always dangerous that my father had incited in our house. On many occasions he would compare himself with the protagonist of The Pink Panther, Inspector Clouseau, and our family to Clouseau's Chinese attendant, a judo expert whose job was to attack the detective at home in order to prepare the incompetent Frenchman for this ever so dangerous world. "Watch Shakespeare's characters," I would say to my students, "If they play, this means they love each other." But in my mind, I would so often hear a different voice: "Yelena Yurievna, you are becoming an honourable member of the bourgeois class. I hope you still know how to read a book." And we would exchange glances of total satisfaction as if we had just told each other that we were best friends.

How did our friendship start? My parents were divorced, and I spent much of my childhood in state kindergartens or in my grandmother's care. For my father these were very unhappy years. But I vividly remember his taking me for long walks, and Moscow in fall, winter, and spring remains the central memory of my early life. Even when very little, I was truly impressed by his passionate and artful knowledge of the city, and this, of course, had its own prehistory. His mother, Rosalia, and her three boys had moved from the quiet provincial Sarov to Moscow after her husband died unexpectedly and mysteriously from a stroke in 1937. That was, in fact, the beginning of the purges, and after my grandfather's death, all his colleagues were arrested within the next month. My father, the middle child, was only seven and was to spend the rest of his childhood and adolescence in Stalin's Moscow of the late 1930s and 40s (that is, during Russia's most repressive and desolate years) while his mother worked unending hours to support and feed the family. Yet this upbringing had its own unexpected fruits: my father as a boy found sanctuary in the public libraries and, brought up by the city, so to speak, he learned to love and understand the urban language of the streets. This meant that many years later when he took me for long walks, I sensed his ease with his surroundings, and in my imagination I saw him as the lucky winner of the city's applause. Bassanio, of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, a character who invariably receives heavy criticism in my lectures, draws at some point a picture of "a beloved prince" who "doth appear/ Among the buzzing pleased multitude,/ Where every something, being blent together,/ Turns to a wild of nothing, save of joy" (3.2.179-182). My father in those uncertain and turbulent years appeared to me to be that kind of prince. He was young, and women often glanced admiringly in his direction, cleaning ladies called him "son" and told him snippets of their lives; he avoided instinctively dangerous alleys and mixed crowds, but drunks still asked him for money, lost souls borrowed bus change, and the librarians beamed as he showed me his favourite spots for studying. As I was growing up, I began to look physically more like him and walking with me must have reminded him of something of the past, for he talked much about Plutarch, the great love of his school years. Plutarch's heroes, consuls, emperors, but particularly the complexity of Caesar, the brilliance of Cicero, and the courage of the brothers Gracchi made him forget that I was still little. I tried to love Plutarch as much as he did, but it was not to be, yet I believe that my instinctual attraction to Shakespeare's characters was prepared by those walks.

That early friendship never wavered and only deepened as my father's life later stabilized. When I was 13, he had already remarried and fathered two sons, Greg and Jamie (these are, of course, their English names), and Jamie was just new-born. My father by that time had become a successful scholar: he was teaching East-Indian Languages at Moscow University and was a member of the Academy of Sciences. But it was also the end of the Russian political thaw, and the arrests started yet again. Sinyavsky, Daniel, Ginsburg, Father Yakunin, Galamshtok, Bukovsky, Ilya Gabay -- these are just a few of the names that I heard on his lips. Then suddenly when we met for our customary Thursday walk, he asked my permission to sign protests against the arrests and illegal trials conducted by the government. What could I say? At 14, I thought he was invulnerable and that he was destined to win the heart of the world as effortlessly as he had won mine. So he signed his petitions, among them the letter of the 12 (that went to the Congress of the Communist Parties in Budapest in March 1968), refused to recant or apologize, and was expelled from his job, which after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 meant that he was never to work again. Since his academic career was his vocation, his forced unemployment was a heavy cross. It was then that I learned to see my father no longer as a prince, but as an outcast who every day needed to find sufficient courage to live with dignity. Very soon after that, I moved to their apartment, for his proud vulnerability was like a magnet, and I wanted to be near it. It was then that my friendship with my step-mother really began. She was funny and courageous, and my father was deeply grateful that she understood and accepted his life. Ever since his boyhood, he dreamed of dignity and courage, and now they shared not merely the legendary world of Plutarch's heroes but the real world of renunciation, danger, and pain.

And so, four years passed while his existence as a semi-legal, unemployed dissident started to bring its own unexpected harvest. His position as an outcast was also like a pass of safe-conduct, a certificate of dependability which opened doors to some remarkable people, who were also hounded by the system and who could teach him what he always desired most: the incomparable lessons of courage and steadfastness. In those four years, I saw my father and Marina learning how to free themselves from fear, as if they were accustoming themselves to a new gravitational source.

But the reality remained sinister, undiluted by the spirit of the family. The house was under surveyance, and a rather romantic couple kissed passionately near the garbage shoot but watched us through half-closed eye-lids every time we went out. Our neighbours had been asked apparently about the number of foreigners who frequented our flat and had been informed that the family supported itself by trafficking in narcotics. But in our apartment house our family was loved, and the neighbours warned Marina. Russians need no teaching about the corrupt forms of governmental justice. We all knew: during a search the narcotics could be easily planted, and as a consequence my father tried for criminal, not political reasons. The shadow of Gulag surrounded our flat, even as my young brothers woke up each day to more innocent fun. In 1972, before Nixon visited Moscow, we applied for exit visas, unclear whether the direction would be to the East (and the Gulag) or to the West. Our destiny proved merciful: Soviet officials needed to develop further economic ties with the United States. On Passover, April 20, 1972, our family left Russia and entered upon our new life.

It was in 1975 that my father, after teaching in several American colleges, received a permanent appointment as Chairman of the Russian Department at Dalhousie University, a position which he held for many years. Halifax became for us a long sought place of stability and peace. There was, of course, much that we all needed to learn. Western intellectuals, for their own good reasons, were not exactly rushing to embrace yet another anti-Soviet voice, which seemed intent on destroying the aspirations of the Western left. "Left and right change places when you turn a hundred and eighty degrees," my father summarized for himself and for us the experience of the Russian dissident in exile. Displacement of temperaments and aspirations seemed to be the order of the day when the views of pro-religious anti-communist, Russian free-thinkers (none of whom knew how to make money) would seem identical with the views of the Western neo-conservative right. "Soviet people, even dissidents, should be very careful before they teach the West how to organize its life," he used to quip, but we had also begun to learn the biggest lesson of all: even in the free world, truth is not in high demand among a crowd which habitually searches for a fashionable stereotype.

It was also by this time that his vocation had crystllized into a way of life: teaching and writing. He enjoyed calling himself a Haligonian, delighted to bargain with the Nova-Scotian fishermen who treated him as family; he loved the ocean, and little could compare for him with the pleasure of walking for hours along the rocky ocean shore. My parents' house always attracted students who came, I always thought, to see the best drama in town. My father had an unparalleled gift of quotation. The most unexpected passages of Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Zoschenko would enter his speech and bring with them explosions of surprise, laughter, and recognition. His rendering of Dostoevsky in particular was deeply original, and I still believe that he was the only person on Earth who could catch Dostoevsky's humour. But through all of this, with the determination of a stream running towards its goal, he turned towards the central labour of his life: to examine the essential characteristics of the system which had exterminated 70 million of its citizens and to draw the profiles of those who had participated in moral resistance against this extermination. He was proud of his two books, "The Russian Mind Since Stalin's Death" and "To Be or Not To Be a Member of the Communist Party." In the last two years of his life, his writings started to return to Russia. Chapters from his memoirs were published in Novy Mir, Neva, Zvesda, and his book, "In The Land of the Forefathers" has just been published in Moscow.

We found out about his cancer during his visit to my family at Christmas 1997 when the house was cleaned and decorated for the holidays and the children were squealing with delight that grandpa was so good at chess and skiing. Amidst the celebration, Christmas lights, the comfort of the fire-place, and the purity of the falling snow -- a death sentence. No one, not even heroes, can stop the progress of time. "Marina," he asked his beloved wife already on his death-bed, "how did you marry such a fool, a really silly version of Don Quixote?"

Apart from that, I cannot really describe how he left, nor can I draw the faces of Marina and my brothers. We who knew his life only too well were shocked that once again we had to see him searching for courage and steadfastness, but there he was -- facing his death and looking directly at what was then to me an unimaginable future. Marina, after the diagnosis, never left his side. I travelled back and forth between Saskatoon and Halifax. The phone rang constantly. He seemed happy when his friends called from Russia, England, all corners of Canada, and the States. These were last words of love, encouragement, and compassion. He died March 15, 1998. I was flying that day from Saskatchewan to see him but was late by half a day. Flying to him who had already departed, I thought of the Ides of March, about the ironic coincidence of dates, about my father's love for Plutarch.

All his life, I thought, he fought the power of the Empire-builders and resisted the company of those warriors who serve political emperors. But there are other warriors who also fight and serve, and who are denied castles, political machination, and flattery. Banished and suffering, they keep faith with eternal laws and hold that conscience speaks the language of honour and virtue. Instead of thrones, they are granted the lives of wandering exiles, and their graves are rarely close to their home. The Trappist monks of Rogersville, New Brunswick, generously offered my father his last resting place at the entrance to the monastery of Our Lady of Calvary.