Son of the famous American journalist Louis Fischer, who corresponded from Germany and then Moscow, and the Russian writer Markoosha Fischer, Victor Fischer grew up in the shadow of Hitler and Stalin, watching his friends’ parents disappear after political arrests. Eleanor Roosevelt personally engineered the Fischer family’s escape from Russia, and soon after Victor was serving in the United States Army in World War II and fighting opposite his childhood friends in the Russian and German armies.As a young adult, he went on to help shape Alaska’s map by planning towns throughout the state. This unique autobiography recounts Fischer’s earliest days in Germany, Russia, and Alaska, where he soon entered civic affairs and was elected as a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention—the body responsible for establishing statehood in the territory. A move to Washington, DC, and further government appointments allowed him to witness key historic events of his era, which he also recounts here. Finally, Fischer brings his memoir up to the present, describing how he has returned to Russia many times to bring the lessons of Alaska freedom and prosperity to the newly democratic states.
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To Russia with LoveAn Alaskan's Journey
By Victor Fischer Charles Wohlforth
UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESSCopyright © 2012 Victor Fischer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Reichstag Fire
It was 1931. Berlin, Germany. I was seven. Almost every balcony in our apartment building flew a party flag. Ours was red. We were the good guys. The bad guys had the swastika flag. There were others, but they are not in my memory.
Politics dominated even the life of this seven-year-old, as communists and fascists vied for power on the playgrounds as well as in Germany's parliament, the Reichstag. My brother George and I joined other kids from leftist families to face off with Nazi children, shoving and taunting, copying the political toughs who fought with sticks and brass knuckles in the streets.
When we saw children on another balcony in our L-shaped building flying their swastika Nazi flag, we screamed insults at them and they back at us. We had become conscious of the world around us back home in Moscow, where all of life was colored red. We had learned from our parents and from others around us the importance of the struggle for which everyone there was sacrificing.
Besides fighting for our side, we were raised in the cause of equality and economic justice. It motivated all the adults in my world to dedicate their lives to their ideals. At that time, many of them believed the communists were more likely to take over Germany than the fascists, as Marxism and Leninism spread worldwide. The idealism of those heady, chaotic times sank deep into my sense of myself, not as a communist, but as an optimist for humanity.
My mother, Markoosha Fischer, who was born in tsarist Russia, had bundled George and me off to Berlin to live with family friends, Paul and Hede Massing, whom she first met in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. Living conditions in Moscow drove her to the decision. We had reached the point of near starvation under Josef Stalin's First Five-Year Plan for industrialization. Markoosha had struggled through the bitter Russian winter of 1930–1931 raising us on her own, supporting us with her scant earnings as a translator and with loans from friends. We had lived in a room in a filthy, dilapidated communal apartment.
Writing years later in her memoirs, she glossed over her hardships during that winter of the Five-Year Plan, but I've recently excavated her private letters written to my father, Louis Fischer, an American born in Philadelphia. He constantly traveled as a foreign correspondent and lent her no financial support.
She had sewn our winter clothes from his old pajamas. Unable to obtain butter, cream, meat, or chicken for weeks on end, she gave the best food she could find to George and me, while she and the maid ate boiled potatoes for every meal. Nonetheless, we boys grew thin and pale and were constantly ill from malnutrition and inadequately treated malaria.
Despite her sacrifices, Markoosha felt the need to apologize for complaining in her letters:
To me Russia is the goal of everything. I arrived here as to the last escape from a world which I hate. And I, just as everybody else, must have an aim, a goal, a high idea. You may think that I pay too much attention to little things.... But when I see the children, the adults, pale and weak from nagruzka [burden] which no young organism can stand, narrow and one sided—I don't know where to look for hope.
Besides the physical privations, our mother worried about my brother's social development. The children in our Moscow neighborhood were tough; stealing and fighting were common. George became defiant of adult authority, a little revolutionary in his own right. The adults praised him for his fiery zeal for the Red cause when he organized the other children to march in front of the house chanting slogans, but his open challenges to his teachers got him in serious trouble.
George was Yuri when we were in Russia and Jura in Germany (I'll use George to keep things clear). The swirling emotions of our unsettled life tortured him. He idolized our important American father, but Louis had no interest in family life and treated us coldly when he did live with us. Louis preferred to stay in hotels and hobnob with the powerful rather than huddle in our one room in Moscow, harried by two boys, a wife, and a maid. He would not return as long as we lodged there. Markoosha needed to be free of us to be reunited with Louis, whom she adored.
George suffered from Louis's neglect and Markoosha's abandonment when she left to travel with him after installing us in Berlin. The banishment affected George as a rejection and he worried over it for the rest of his life, compulsively researching in his old age our parents' motivations through their archived letters. Among the discoveries from the archives: Markoosha hoped the Massings' German discipline and Hede's training in child development would straighten him out.
These issues barely affected me. A year younger than George, I was the infi- nitely adaptable child. Rather than being traumatized by the change, I remember being astonished by the size and cleanliness of the Massings' working-class apartment in Berlin, and the beauty and open space of the housing complex, called Friedrich Ebert Siedlung. The Social Democrats had recently built it as an enactment of their progressive policies to provide decent housing to the masses. Compared to Moscow, Depression-era Berlin was paradise.
Despite the political chaos in the streets, the Massings brought order to our lives and, for the first time, a loving father figure. Like all our parents' friends, Paul Massing was a leftist intellectual. He had earned a PhD in agronomy and had lived in Russia and written about the new communal agriculture. He also was a caring and charismatic young man who loved George and me and treated us as if we were his own sons. We came to treat him as our true father.
Paul was strict in the German style of raising children, but his warmth and humanity always predominated. He gave us a sense of security and value, which are critical to the happiness of a child. He also knew how to relate to our friends, becoming an adult member of whatever group might form around us. I spent many hours stamp collecting and playing chess with Paul in the apartment and hiking with him in suburban parks. We developed a connection that would support me many times throughout my childhood, teens, and adulthood.
In Berlin, Paul was a popular speaker, under an assumed name, working within the Communist Party. He and his comrades were convinced that their efforts, combined with a popular reaction against the rise of Adolf Hitler, would bring about a proletarian revolution in the streets. With this belief, they pursued a disastrous policy of fighting the moderate-left Social Democrats almost as avidly as they resisted the fascists, working to eliminate the middle rather than uniting with their natural allies against the Nazi Party.
Our elders analyzed these issues long afterward. German Communist Party members at the time probably could not have adopted a more reasonable strategy. They were controlled by the party in Russia under Stalin, which veered from one policy to another. Members learned to instantly agree with the latest dictate, as the party denounced and punished those who adhered to its former views as soon as they were officially discarded.
My mother described German party meetings as weird and unpleasant. Members tried to parrot the lines they thought they were supposed to be repeating from the Soviet Union and attacked anyone who diverged from that day's party line. The strongest reason to remain involved, for my parents as well as the Massings, was staunch resistance to fascism, which only the Soviets and communists wholeheartedly maintained.
Paul's wife, Hede, participated in the party much less, because she had been recruited, as I learned later, as a Soviet spy. After an unhappy childhood, Hede had fallen in with a set of German communist intellectuals, spending her days listening to their debates in the cafes and practicing their free-love philosophy. Paul was her third husband. Her second had been an American, and while with him, teaching in an orphanage in Massachusetts, she had obtained US citizenship. That US passport became her most important asset as a Soviet courier.
Ultimately, her passport brought Hede to safety in America before World War II. Her espionage work continued there until, in the late 1940s, she betrayed her old comrades and gave key testimony in court against Alger Hiss in one of the most famous spy cases in US history.
As children, all we knew about the Massings was that we liked Paul far better. Hede didn't connect with us, and George positively hated her for her discipline. The icky feeling she gave me, of course, had to do with her personality and psychology rather than her unknown life as a Soviet agent.
Political meetings frequently convened in the apartment. On one occasion, I was sent to a nearby store for a couple of pitchers of beer for the thirsty party members only to be found an hour later sleeping in a doorway with half a pitcher gone. Apparently I had gotten thirsty on the way home.
Paul enrolled George and me in the Berlin workers' sports club Fichte (Spruce) for swimming lessons. Even learning to swim was political. The international workers' sport movement, begun in the 1920s, emphasized fitness and cooperative activities as a counter to competitive capitalist sports. Millions participated, including some ten thousand in the Fichte club.
Getting to our evening swimming class required a scary walk in a downtown industrial area, crossing many blocks in pitch darkness from the trolley stop to the pool and back. But I loved the swimming and quickly learned to cross the pool underwater. When the instructor pushed me into the deep end of the pool without warning, I didn't drown.
Just as swimming has remained a great joy to me ever since, my Fichte membership card, dated 5 December 1932, has survived all this time in my possession, my oldest document except the birth certificate that I obtained later. It shows that I was known in Berlin as Vitja, the German spelling of Vitya, my Russian name. The card was paid up for January and February 1933. March dues were not paid: Hitler had taken absolute power and we left Germany.
I sometimes resented the obsessive focus on politics around us, especially on one terrible day that is etched into my mind. A dear classmate, my only close friend at the time, came to our apartment to celebrate his birthday. On the return home, he had to cross the Müller Strasse, a wide boulevard with a park strip down the center and two streetcar tracks. His older sister went ahead by herself. As he followed her across, my friend ran in front of a car and was killed.
At the funeral, as I grieved, the adults around me wouldn't stop talking about Red politics. On one side of the room, a small window gave a view into the crematorium, and I could see the flames rising that were consuming my friend's body. Beside this horror, the adults kept chattering on. My fury returns vividly today as I recollect that moment.
Another powerful image from that period sticks with me more positively. We were invited to a town in the country for Christmas in 1932 to visit friends of the Massings. A boy in that family, Vikki, received a new electric train. I got his old wind-up train. The magic of the electric train fascinated me; and from that time forward, I became focused on electricity and how to make things work.
Ultimately, I would learn to build ingenious electrical toys from ordinary materials I could obtain. This mechanical outlet, along with my generally easygoing personality, may have protected me through difficult years that had more impact on my brother. I became enamored with the idea of being an electrical engineer, wherever I might end up in the world.
* * *
But one could never forget politics for long in Berlin. I remember a strike at the Müller Strasse streetcar barn, which we could see from our apartment. Most people in the neighborhood supported the strikers. For its leftist leanings, the district was called Red Wedding.
Nazi Party brownshirts arrived en masse to attack the strikers. A huge melee erupted with vicious, bloody fighting between the two sides. We watched from our window as the Nazis and the streetcar workers beat one another with clubs and any other weapon at hand. After that fight, and many others, we saw blood in the streets, both fresh and dried.
We boys did our part, fighting fascist children with slingshots and whatever other forces our skinny, little bodies could manage. I don't remember anyone getting seriously hurt. Some boys called George a "dirty Jew," the first time he had ever realized he was Jewish, prompting him to come to ask Hede what being a Jew meant. But on the whole, the Jews didn't take Hitler's anti-Semitism seriously at that point. Few took the opportunity to get out of Germany.
The conditions that could create such political conflict are difficult to imagine from the perspective of our affluent American society. My father was one of the first and most perceptive writers on the subject. He was a regular correspondent for the then influential liberal weekly, the Nation. Louis also wrote for many other publications and wrote books, always as an inde pendent freelancer.
As Louis explained, the economic chaos and social despair imposed upon Germany by the victors of World War I created an atmosphere of emergency in which extremists could win supporters for their side. Moderates within the country, and outsiders who could have helped, repeatedly failed to take decisive action to reduce the German peoples' suffering or to resolve their grievances. International policy focused on sham arms-control talks.
Big business funded the Nazis to beat back labor unions and strengthen capitalism. The industrialists foolishly believed they would always be able to control Hitler. The communists indirectly contributed to his rise, too, by creating a frightening alternative to fascism. Fear of communism helped drive the middle class toward the Nazis.
Two rounds of elections in 1932 brought Berlin to a frenzy of marches and demonstrations. I well remember our hope that the left would make advances and our fear that a Nazi victory would bring our annihilation. Scores of Germans on both sides died in election violence.
The fascists did well in the voting, but not as well as the moderates. The communists and moderates could have heavily overbalanced the Nazis, but they were unable to work out their differences. After a period of stalemate and uncertainty, President Paul von Hindenburg unexpectedly named Hitler as Germany's chancellor on January 30, 1933.
In his book Men and Politics, my father documented the meeting with the industrialists when Hitler won Hindenburg's support. Hitler's mediocrity and extremism convinced them he could be handled as a puppet.
Four weeks later, on the night of February 27, 1933, explosive news came that the Reichstag—the home of the German parliament—was burning. Only a shell was left of the grand stone building. The government accused a deranged communist of setting the fire. Using this as a pretext, Hitler declared a state of emergency and suspended civil rights, outlawing communists and making massive arrests. Within a month, he had taken total control of Germany.
Until the Reichstag fire, Communist Party members such as Paul Massing still believed events were playing into their hands. They expected Hitler to overreach, motivating the mass populace to take to the streets in revolution. Now, suddenly, all communists were in grave danger. They began to scatter or go underground as quickly as they could.
My father was in New York. He called Paul Massing and demanded his boys be moved out of the country immediately. Paul countered that Hitler would not last ninety days. But Louis insisted, saying his sons would never live under fascism. Finally they agreed we would be out of Germany within forty-eight hours. A mad rush began to prepare for our departure. Hede herded us around, urging us to speed our packing, making arrangements for a long trip. She took charge of Vikki as well. In a brief, anguished telephone conversation, Hede told Markoosha she would try to get us to Czechoslovakia as Louis demanded, but then she dropped from contact.
Markoosha, in a comfortable new apartment in Moscow, heard news of arrests in Berlin and rumors of horrors, but couldn't find out what was going on with her children. After a couple of frustrating attempts, she stopped trying to call Berlin out of fear that anyone she contacted in Germany could be arrested and executed as a traitor. Meanwhile, unknown to her, we had left for Czechoslovakia under the guise of a skiing vacation under the charge of Hede's domestic helper. Eventually Markoosha learned of our whereabouts through the assistance of a friend.
Excerpted from To Russia with Love by Victor Fischer Charles Wohlforth Copyright © 2012 by Victor Fischer. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
1. The Reichstag Fire
2. Markoosha and Louis
3. Early Soviet Years
4. The Troika
5. The Purge
6. Escape to America
7. The Troika at War
8. Coming of Age
Beginnings in Alaska
9. Alaska Bound
10. Becoming Alaskan
11. Little Men for Statehood
12. Constitution Delegate
13. Convening the Convention
14. Constitutional Battles
15. Fatherhood and Statehood
16. Seeking Challenges
18. Return to Russia, and Alaska
19. The Institute of Everything
20. Fairbanks Years
21. Troika Redux
22. Starting a New Life
23. State Senate
25. Russian Reconnection
26. Working Internationally
27. Russian Endings
28. Secrets to a Long Life