When I was seven years old, my mother woke me up in the middle of the night. She told me we were going on a trip. I didn’t know it would be the last time I’d see my home, my country and my father.
I was born in Moscow, where my parents had emigrated from Armenia. My mother was an economist, and my father an engineer. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did our family. We became desperate overnight.
My father started selling homemade Barbie dresses on the black market and painting nesting dolls for tourists on Red Square.
We hardly saw him. My mother helped with the business and took care of me and my brother. At night, the three of us waited for my father and watched Boris Yeltsin talk about the country’s future.
And then: Santa Barbara.
It was the first American soap opera to be broadcast in post-Soviet Russia. Full of sunlit palm trees and wealthy Californians, it was an escape for the millions of newly poor and jobless.
What I didn’t know was how much the show would influence my life. For my mother, Santa Barbara represented a dream, and she was inspired to find a way to get there. She placed a classified ad through a local agency, which was translated for newspapers in the US: “I am a young woman from Moscow, and would like to meet a kind man, who can show me America.” In return, she received letters from dozens of men. One of them was from Santa Barbara.
At 35, my mother took my brother and me to America. I was seven. It was only two decades later that she revealed the deeper story of how she managed to leave her country.
It happened overnight. We boarded a flight to America and arrived in California in October 1996. My mother held a photo of the man we would meet: he was handsome and in his fifties. At the airport a much older, chubby retiree appeared, wearing a navy-blue windbreaker, jeans and white New Balance sneakers. This was Eli.
Together, we left the airport and drove in his 1995 white Camaro, headed towards the town we had dreamt of seeing: Santa Barbara. I don’t remember much of the drive, as I was sleeping. My mother recalls Eli looking at her in awe: “You’re so young,” he said. When I woke up, it was dark outside and we were in his home. My brother and I had never seen anything like it. In Moscow, we had one bed for four people. Here, each room was bigger than the next. Moving through them, we counted the TVs. In the bathroom, we found my mother, crying. “This isn’t our home,” she said. “We are going back to Russia.” My brother told her that she could go back, but this would be his home.
We stayed. My real father and our life in Russia slowly faded. We hardly spoke Armenian or Russian at home. My mother changed her name from Svetlana to “Lana”, a name Eli could pronounce. Though she had a PhD, she went back to school and took a job selling ties at a department store. We became American, with Eli as our guide. He took us to our first restaurant, taught my mother how to drive and led us on road trips to places we had only seen on TV. When our family had nothing, Eli became everything. My mother married him within a year and I learnt to call him Dad.
Two decades after we arrived in America, my mother revealed the truth about how she met Eli. When I was a little girl, she had told me that he was a family friend who would help us. At 27, I was now reading his letters and learning things about my mother I had never known. I was beginning to see her as a woman who had the courage to change the cards we were dealt, and to make the ultimate sacrifice to give us more.
As a way of understanding her, I leaned towards art. I collaborated with a Santa Barbara writer to create a script for a short film and book; cast a set of actors to play my family; and travelled to my childhood homes in Armenia, Moscow and California to reimagine our departure from Russia and arrival in America.
The casting process took nearly a year. I auditioned 384 women to play my mother, before meeting the woman who could fill the shoes of Svetlana. The shoots started in Santa Barbara, with a set built to look like our Soviet apartment. As I continued to build the story, I travelled back to Armenia with the cast, to the actual apartment I grew up in, to re-enact the last argument I remember my parents having. Suddenly, I saw my family and myself in the individuals who were playing us. And for a split second, nothing had been taken from me: I had everyone back. It was my seventh birthday. My dad hadn’t been home in a month and here they were fighting. It felt real in a way I could never have imagined.
I never knew that the episodes of Santa Barbara we watched in Moscow were reruns. By the time we saw it, the show had already been cancelled in the US. It lasted for eight years — the same number my mom stayed with Eli. He eventually became like my own father: a part of the past.
Memory is a wonderful thing, until you’re confronting it, and then it becomes real. That’s what this project has been: a time machine of sorts, which has allowed me to remember a part of my childhood I had forgotten. It’s now a story. One that I’ve crafted, controlled and, essentially, relived.
‘Diana Markosian: Santa Barbara’ will be published by Aperture in November ($65). Markosian will be in conversation with Shoair Mavlian on October 21 as part of Photoworks Festival, photoworks.org.uk
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