The extraordinary story of an ordinary man
Prologue: July 1978, Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow
It was probably the second bang on the counter that alerted the authorities. Or maybe it was the first. It was hard to know. What was clear was that the buxom, bespectacled officer in an ill-fitting dress behind the counter had dialled a number on her phone, and within minutes, airport security would arrive at the scene.
Fifty-two year old former Russian army captain Grigory Kats, dressed in a full suit and tie despite the stifling heat, had to think fast on his feet. He had arrived at the airport almost two hours earlier with his whole family, because his son, daughter-in-law and toddler grandson had made the decision to depart the Soviet Union for a new life in Australia. It was a difficult decision to make, and even more difficult to implement. At every turn, there were obstacles, blockades and challenges. Grigory, his wife and daughter had been given the opportunity to come on the journey too, but had chosen not to, in part because they didn’t want to confront the challenges that they knew would be inevitable in this process. But now inadvertently, one of those barriers had come to him anyway.
When they had first arrived at the airport with the extended family, through the roadblocks and Olympic construction traffic and into the dank Sheremetyevo II terminal, all had seemed fine. All the papers were checked and stamped appropriately and repeatedly, and the young family including his precious new grandson were nearly ready to board their plane, initially to Rome and then onto Melbourne. But things soon started to go awry. There were many checkpoints along the way, each one manned by an impassive uniformed clerk doing their job. At the checkpoint where he now found himself, Grigory and the family were told that the parents could board the plane, but that the child could not. It was another seemingly implacable obstruction, another test designed to deter citizens from abandoning their motherland. Jews were technically being allowed to leave the Soviet Union under certain circumstances, but the authorities were making it as difficult as possible, even at this late stage, just metres from the boarding gate.
So while the child and all the relatives, including the machatanim – the in-laws – had taken the boy to buy a lolly or an ice cream, Grigory had confidently and with a few expletives, told the family that he would handle the situation and would make the lady understand. Now though, left alone and with the authorities on their way, he wasn’t quite sure what else to say. He just knew he had to say something. She was telling him that in the end, the documents had been validated for the adults but not for the child. The boy would be taken into the custody of the State and eventually would probably be released. She seemed vague on the details, or maybe he had stopped paying attention after a while. Either way, she had said it so matter-of-factly, without any of the emotion normally associated with the details that determine the fate of a human life.
Grigory of course was seething. How could a family, especially a family with a toddler who could barely walk or look after himself, be separated? Deep down, he didn’t really want his grandson to leave, and in the depths of his heart had hoped that all the deterrence attempts would have worked. That maybe his son would have changed his mind. But he also understood why a new life in Australia seemed like such an attractive proposition, especially for a young Jewish family from Moscow. What he couldn’t understand was how this clerk before him could justify what she had just told him. Surely she couldn’t even believe what she was saying? Of course he knew that she was just a small cog in the large machinery of the Russian establishment, but at that moment, she was all that stood between his family and the authorities. So he pulled rank, mentioned his status as a former army captain, told her how incomprehensible her proposal was, how important it was for any family to stay together, and why this child needed to be with his parents. At some point his male fury manifested in a raised voice and a bang or two on the counter. He wasn’t normally one to get physical; he preferred finding creative solutions, but he was also accustomed to getting his way.
She could clearly see what this meant to him and why he was so furious, though while not betraying any sense of empathy, she looked over her papers again. If he had belittled or upset her, she certainly wasn’t showing it. She had a duty to uphold and a Soviet pride to maintain as well. She could also see that he, like her, was a patriot. Sure, his son might be about to abandon the motherland, but he was staying right here. Maybe a little pokerfaced compassion might be called for.
When he had used yet another choice word, she stopped him, looked down at her papers, and then back up at him, gazing into his blue eyes for just a little longer than necessary. Then she began to speak, as monotonously as before. She said that the child’s paperwork was not validated like his parents’ had been, but given that he was only a toddler who needed his parents, maybe that could be overlooked on this occasion. She looked down at her papers again and without another word, stamped the papers and returned them to him. Before he had even fully processed what had happened, she led him out of her little cubicle office and was already calling over the next family in line. He thanked her multiple times in whispered tones and then grasped the papers tightly, holding them close to his chest. He can’t be sure, but maybe his eyes had even expelled a tear or two. He quickly dabbed his eyes dry and then just stood there for a moment.
Two airport security men then arrived at her cubicle. Though he couldn’t hear what they were saying behind the plate glass, the lady pointed in his direction and both men stared at him for a moment. They also wrote down details from her files. They didn’t pursue him, but he was surely now a marked man, and at some point, this incident, or one of many other colourful episodes from his full, intriguing and remarkable life would come back to haunt him. But at that moment he had other things on his mind. His wife, son, daughter-in-law and the rest of the extended family had returned from their expedition through the terminal. His very dear grandson – who he might never see again because of the battle he had just won – oblivious to all the fuss, was smiling and content too, after a belly full of sweets.
Moments later, after some very tearful hugs, kisses and words of wisdom and farewell, the young family together with their toddler son safely boarded their plane. Grigory was of course still reeling, not quite sure how he managed to assuage the clerk, but equally overwhelmed by all that had happened in the last few hours. That is why he and the rest of the family were still at the airport almost an hour later, having watched the plane take off, not wanting to stay, but not quite ready to go home either. And at that moment, little did he know how much their lives were about to change. That in less than a year, he and the rest of his immediate family would be back at this airport making the same hasty, harried journey as his son was now embarking on, and that he would be starting life again in his mid-fifties on the other side of the world, and would be the only one of his generation on his side of the family still alive well into the next century. For now though, he just wished his son a safe journey and a happy new beginning.