11 June 2013

Eulogy for Michael Vigdorchek

I’m here to pay tribute to Michael Efimovich Vigdorchek, my father in law and one of the greatest men I’ve known.  He led his life with courage, with wisdom and with kindness and generosity.

Michael was born in Kursk, in the former Soviet Union. His father, Yefim, was a doctor so treasured by the wives of the local party bosses, that his medical talent probably saved his family from the Gulag. When the Second World War broke out, Michael and his mother were evacuated.  He often recalled that when the train they were riding on came under bombardment, his mother stood in the open doorway of the cattle car they were in to protect him from the shrapnel that was exploding next to their train.

He came back home to Kursk and became a brilliant student, earning perfect scores on his university entrance exams. Because of quotas aimed at excluding Jews from prestigious institutions, he wasn’t able to go to his first choice to study philosophy. Instead, he went to the Mining Institute and launched a brilliant career in geophysics.

On one geological expedition in the Siberian wilds, he stood between a bear and a young woman who was with his team. It was a brave and gallant act. And it would lead to his winning the hand of that young woman in marriage. His union with Elena, close, passionate and enduring, lasted for more than 60 years, right up to the time of his passing.

In many ways, Michael led a fine life in Leningrad. He traveled on more expeditions, published scientific books and papers, and established a stellar reputation for himself. From what I know, it sounds like a life full of laughter, culture, debates in the kitchen, visits to Georgia and Armenia, a time filled with friendship and achievement set to the music of Vysotsky and Okudjava.

A fine life, except that he had to live, with his wife and his daughter, in the shadow of a totalitarian state that casually murdered millions of its own citizens.
Back here in the US, we used to play a kind of mental game. We’d wonder how we’d act if we landed in a dictatorship, or we’d try predict how we’d behave if the Nazis invaded us.  Would we act like Solzhenitsyn? Or would we turn into collaborators into grubby informers who preferred safety to honor? Of course, you’d like to think you’d make the right choice. But you wonder.

Michael never had to wonder. He knew.

For him, with his courage and his nobility of spirit, I don’t even think it was a choice. He simply acted with integrity and bravery. He never compromised with the oppressive regime. Never joined the party. Never allowed himself the easy self-deception and hypocrisy which is the cement of an authoritarian state.

Instead, in the middle of his life and with everything to lose, he took a large risk. He put his name on a list applying to leave the Soviet Union. Just being on that list, at that time and in that place, was considered treason. It amounted to social suicide and put him in the spotlight of a vicious bureaucracy. He lost friends. He was separated from his family.

And Michael left with his wife and daughter to start a new life with nothing but a few suitcases.

When he emigrated, he – and the Soviet state, and his friends, and his family – all thought it would be forever. Permanent exile, with no return ticket. He renounced everything he owned and knew to be free. Still, he didn’t hesitate. He did not waver. He wanted to be free, and share that freedom with his wife and daughter.
This is courage of the highest order, although Michael would be embarrassed to hear me say it. And I know that I am among others who made the same choice. I salute all of you.

In his new country and in a new language, Michael had an extraordinarily successful career. He joined Marathon Oil, and through the rigors of corporate life and through booms and crashes, he rose high. His creativity, his ability to synthesize, to think made him valuable, respected and rewarded.
But his ambition wasn’t driven by a need to score some numbers or gratify his ego. He was too large a man for that. Instead, it was driven by his love for his family, for his wish to secure them a future and to establish a legacy for his grandchildren. To bring the people he loved most safety and delight.

It’s the great irony of his life that he would return to Russia, after all. And in a way that one of his favorite writers, Alexandre Dumas would have appreciated. Instead of a pariah, he arrived back to his native land as a kind of corporate Count of Monte Christo, staying in fine hotels, wined and dined by oligarchs, and even returning to his home town in a limousine.

Lesser men might have let themselves be seduced by all the temptations offered by Yeltsin’s Russia. Michael didn’t waver then, either. He took the measure of the ex-KGB guys and the hustlers, and said they were simply gangsters. He could have, if he had wished, picked up a flashy gold digging wife and a big shiny Mercedes – the way a lot of his colleagues did, or indulged himself with a big fat Rolex. Instead, he wore a Timex. He saved his money, did his job for Marathon very well, and came home with stories and a few souvenirs. He didn’t even give in to the minor temptation of hinting about what a big deal he’d become.

He retired, reluctantly. He fought his first round with cancer.

Then he blossomed into a poet, a kind of Houston Pushkin, writing hundreds of poems which speculate, provoke, philosophize – a second, unexpected flowering in his life.

Michael fought two more rounds with cancer. His wife, Elena was by his side the whole time. He only made two complaints about all the pain and the hell he with through with the disease. Once, he confided that he hated the burden his care put on Elena. The second time, that he found it challenging to be still. His was a life, after all, filled with travel and the eager search for new horizons. The rest of it, the radiation, the chemo, the scars, the pain, he would merely shrug.

If I were to list all the reasons I’m grateful to him and all the debts I owe him, we’d be here for days, if not weeks. So I’ll only mention the most important one: He is the father of the love of my life, Tanya. I’m thankful to fate that we’ve been blessed with two children. It’s my pleasure to see echoes and traces of Michael in his grandchildren, in the color of my daughter’s eyes and the shape of my son’s hands. I hope that their resemblance to him will extend and embrace his to his deeper qualities – his humanity, dignity, generosity and courage.

I’ll miss the long walks we took together, with me trying to keep up with his brisk pace over the five miles or so he’d put in every day. 

I’ll miss his ferocious intensity when he had something big to say, some urgent advice to give, and he’d lock you in with his eyes - and you knew then you had no choice but to listen to him.

I’ll miss the evenings we shared on a porch, watching the stars come out, and drinking red wine. Michael, in his basso profundo voice, would quote Griboyedev, speculate about Nostradamus,  debate foreign policy, joke, share stories.
I’ll miss his counsel. I’ll miss his laughter which could be big and robust or darkly sardonic.

I’ll miss his radiant delight in his granddaughter’s paintings and his grandson’s music.

In every important way, he was a second father to me. My own father, who loves and deeply respects Michael as well, often told me how lucky I was to have such great in-laws and such a fine father in law. I knew then, and have always known, how right he was.

Michael loved all things French, and would appreciate that in French, father in law translates to “beau pére” or “handsome father.”  It’s very true. He was my handsome father in every way that counts.

He has left us. I hate to say goodbye to him. But I want to thank him for all his gifts, for the example of courage and integrity he set for my children and me – for his life filled with generosity and nobility.

Good night, and good rest, Michael.