Monday, September 21, 2009

From the Siberian Taiga to the California Coast Flew Wunderkind Shura

I have done a few posts already on Shura, the last arrival into our family (well, the last child arrivee). So, I will point you to those posts and summarize here. (The whole story is so complex that it took me 2/3 of a book to tell it; it is one of the two framework stories for Blest Atheist. I have included a short excerpt from the book on my Mahlou Musings site: "Siberia on Easter Morning".)

I don't know why I was so attracted to Siberia, but I was from the very beginning of my Russian studies in the 1970s. I finally made it to Siberia in 1984-1985, taking Lizzie with me, where I studied the dialects of Russian spoken there. In Siberian dialect, there is an expression, "the mink whistles at me." This expression means that one is attracted to something for some compelling reason, does not know why, and cannot resist. When it came to Siberia, the mink whistled at me.

The winter of 1984-1985 was cold in more ways than just the deep snow across which Lizzie, I, and our Siberian friends cross-country skied, one of the few leisure activities available in the wooded steppe when all was frozen over. The Cold War between the US and USSR was still in its below-zero stages, so it was somewhat of a surprise that the mink's whistle was strong enough to force the hand of the Foreign Student Office at the University of Moscow to allow Lizzie and me to go to Siberia, against its desires. No one had gone there to do research since the Cold War started. (My trip there with Lizzie opened the door to other scholars.) One of the most instrumental people in getting the university to change its mind was Dr. Alexandr Ilich Fedorov, the head of the Institute of Philology at the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Akademgorodok, where I did my research. Alexandr Ilich called the University of Moscow, after learning of my interest from my advisor there, and said that he had prepared everything for me to come to Siberia. Reluctantly, the university let us go.

So there were Lizzie and I, two lone Americans, conducting research, learning to ski, and interacting with the locals in a variety of ways. What most people in that era knew first-hand of Americans came from us, and we were aware of the importance of that.

Aleksandr Ilich, whose dictionaries were key to my research (oni mne kak zoloto, I told him, meaning that they are like gold to me -- this pleased him mightily), became my consultant, friend, guide, and Siberian father. Years later, he was quite pleased when he learned that I had befriended a Siberian boy, Shura, who was dying at the time. But, I get ahead of myself with the story.

Many years passed between my research days in Siberia and my contact with Shura. One day in 1993, when I was conducting training in Krasnoyarsk, I learned in talking to the head of a delegation of teachers from Akademgorodok (Novosibirsk) that Aleksandr Ilich had been her graduate advisor at the university. When I asked her to take him an answer to his last letter and news about Noelle's recent surgery related to her spina bifida, I discovered that her godson, a talented child artist, was dying from spina bifida. We hatched a plan to save him.

A year later, with the help of Noelle's neurosurgeon, I had pried a visa for Shura out of the US Embassy in Moscow, and he was living with me. With no money for his medical care, I had miraculously (seriously) found a billionaire who gave the University of Virginia Hospital (he insisted on UVA Hospital) a half-million dollars for Shura's care and then doubled it when the cost of care ran over. There were so many miracles associated with Shura's surgeries and health that I have chronicled them in multiple posts (click on "posts about Shura" below).

Shura stayed in the USA for 15 years. Initially, he lived with me, but when the trips from California to Virginia for follow-up care became burdensome, the nurse who headed the spina bifida clinic at UVA Hospital offered to take him into her home, and there he stayed until he took some college courses, began an art career (supported by work as a chef), married, and then divorced. He returned to Russia this past January to be with his aging parents. Medical care in Russia, especially the availability of antibiotics, has significantly improved since the days when the doctors were unable to treat him in Siberia. It also helps that his parents and most of his siblings have since moved to Moscow.

posts about Shura

Shura's drawings

House of Scientists (Shura had art exibits here as a child, an extraordinary and unique achievement)

Morskoy Prospekt (Sea Prospect, the main street in Akademgorodok)

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