His Poem, My Dream: On Anniversary of My Father’s Murder

What was America to my father — the person who defined for me the paradigm of freedom, of individualism, of independence?
December 8, 2020
Photo by Alexey_R/Getty Images

Through the force of my father’s will, my face was always turned towards America. I knew that whatever questions I had were going to be answered in America and by America, and eventually indeed they were. Even for my father’s murder there was an answer in America.

With time I also learned, through academic and personal triumphs and disappointments, that America was a country of questions, not answers. Presenting your own point of view is the most primitive form of freedom of speech; provoking questions and seeking answers which you may never get is the real key to freedom of speech. Questions allow tolerance, acceptance of all sorts of answers and opinions and the free exchange of ideas. This very notion was Soviet society’s poison. Questions were the magnet with which America pulled people like me out of our Eastern swamp.

And yet, in recent years America, both deliberately and negligently, has let go of its Socratic sanctity of intellectual freedom upon which it once so courageously and nobly founded its  liberalism. Instead, it is being replaced by some utopian progressive ideology that recognizes only answers and shies away from questions. Tired of its magnificently lush and successful past, today’s America is trying to refurbish itself, very ineptly, with dangerous dogmatism by way of indoctrinating school children with single-minded philosophies.

So, is America still a maverick? Are people who live here still pioneers? After all, it is the people who make our country — not the presidents and not the politicians. Or perhaps it depends on the country, on how strong the people of that country are! So far, I have observed that many people, too many people, have been afraid to ask questions. What is even more alarming, because it is more deceiving, people only ask safe questions, they ask questions that won’t brand them unpopular, that won’t get them in trouble, that won’t get them fired, that won’t darken their political record or embarrass them. These people never ask uncomfortable, provoking, Socratic questions, they never ask questions that will disturb and alter the mind of their peers, only the kind of questions which will cause concurrence, inevitable stagnation and possibly the ultimate collapse of free speech.

Today, faced with a cataclysmic presidential election, inconvenient truths on race, gender, sex, views on religion and attitude towards mask-wearing, America has become a perfect fertile ground for nothing but answers comprised of attacks, assaults, and limited information.

I am a very lazy person. I am accustomed to my Manhattan lifestyle; despite the gruesomeness of the past few months and the toll they have taken on the city, I find it inconceivable to imagine myself anywhere else. But sometimes, when I fall under the spell of my Russian gloom, I wonder if I should be questioning America. My entire childhood, I was looking West. Where should I turn to now? Shall I look to the East again? One should never turn back. It’s the same everywhere anyway…

Perhaps questioning America is what’s essential. That’s where poetry lies. For as long as I am allowed to question the country my Father selected for me, I shall continue to read New York as a poem, and I shall always have the vision of America as my first unquenchable dream.

For as long as I am allowed to question the country my Father selected for me, I shall continue to read New York as a poem.

America! For some, you shall forever remain but a shadow of the unrequited promise of freedoms, miracles and magnificent audacity. The mythical, gawky city on the Manhattan island, proclaimed to me as a dream that I would inhabit one day by my father, years and years ago, has eventually become not only the realization of my shameless vision, but also  the source of the most embarrassing heartbreak, insatiable allure, recurring disappointments and most of all, in spite of it all, the most persistent, deafening sound of poetry.

This year marks 30 years since my father, the Soviet Jewish physician Arkady Novikov, came to this beloved country of his, to this beguiling New York, only to be murdered here on the fifth day of his stay. He was only 47 years old. I was 13.

No one ever talks about America; everyone screams about it. In the Soviet Union they hissed at it, but what my father taught me enlightened me about it.  Since I was about five, we were still engulfed by the winds of Soviet hypocrisy, its impermeable oppressiveness and by the glamour of its lies. My father and I looked up to the West, always to the West, to its freedom, to its notion of human independence. In the 80s, it was our idea of modern excellence.

What was it to my father — the person who defined for me the paradigm of freedom, of individualism, of independence, the person who audaciously created for me the dream and made me fall in love with it?

On the one hand, my father had the mind of a true free thinker with the spirit of a true capitalist. but on the other hand, he was not a conservative type of capitalist but a true adventurer, for he knew no boundaries. He was not afraid of anything; his interests were vast, his knowledge of things was intricate, dangerous, uncomfortable for others to live with, his questions were limitless and seductive. He spoke fluent English. He despised the Soviet regime. He adored his Russia. He was a Jew, the fundamental importance of which he passed on to me proudly, irrevocably and courageously. He was the man for all seasons, for all countries, for all people. The humiliating system of the Soviet stagnation was unable to break his spirit; he never stopped flying because his wings were within him.

But still, it took him almost forty-six years to get to the streets of free Europe, where he could finally rest his eyes on things he could only fantasize about. It took him even longer to finally breathe in the air of his beloved America, the dream which he nursed, cherished and preserved so dearly and so bravely.

The summer was all planned out. The Summer of 1990. It was the dawn of new Russia. People were beginning to travel abroad, at least those who had money and some connections in air travel and visa offices. My family was unusually fortunate in that we had both connections and money. My father’s dream of visiting America was finally about to be realized.

But one whole month! So far away, a whole blue ocean away, away from my parents, away in America which I adored but which I feared! My father was travelling to New York, the only city in the world I had settled on to spend the entirety of my life. It was as if we had conspired that he was going to travel there to prepare the city for my eventual arrival, and yet I wasn’t prepared to have my parents swallowed up by that tall seductive monster made of glass and wondering immigrants. My father didn’t just make America real for me (and for our whole family); he made sure that the reality of its image was magical, forever alluring and infinitely inspiring. He created my America for me during the time when my birth country explicitly and categorically denied America. To my father, it seemed to me, going to America, seeing America, bringing America to me, explaining to me the substance of its morality upon which its freedom was born (or, at least, the most sincere belief that it can exist) was his ultimate goal.

He taught me that it was America that was a pioneer, a maverick. The vision of America was a benchmark against which I was supposed to measure the virtues of all societies, all nations. But as eloquent as his stories were, America was still a vision, and at thirteen it was only a dream for me. And when my father talked to me about America’s pioneering spirit, it was his life-force and his spirit that I understood in the words he attributed to America.

My father taught me that it was America that was a pioneer, a maverick.

My father practiced medicine illegally during the period of the suffocating Soviet stagnation. Our home served as his office. He did it openly. He charged money for it, although he never had a set fee. It helped, of course, that he was the only doctor who cured people from one of the most debilitating illnesses known as Bronchial Asthma. There was no cure for that illness. He was also a scientist, and he had worked out a method that combined a serious medical therapy with a special dietary regime, which he altered for his patients throughout the rather long course of their treatment. Under this method (and each method assumed that each patient had a slightly different approach based on that patient’s tolerance and general health), virtually all of my Dad’s patients began to feel better within ten days. He was also a specialist in other areas of cardiovascular illnesses. People from all over the Soviet Union flocked to our apartment to be seen by him. People waited months, sometimes years in order to be seen by him: old, young, infants, teens, invalids, people afflicted with blindness, peasants, the Soviet elite, diplomats, forsaken aristocrats with their sonorous voices full of regret and pride, Nobel Prize winners, mediocre apparatchiks, government clerks, policemen, firemen, former inmates, prostitutes, bad people, good people, priests, relatives, foreigners, very poor people and very wealthy people, former political prisoners, movie stars, writers, teachers and so many, many others.

My father spoke freely about the virtues of the West, about the goodness of America, about the notion of presumption of innocence. The phrase presumption of innocence, no matter how many times he explained its meaning to me, meant very little to me then, except that it was a good thing and that it belonged to freedom. Presumption of Innocence sounded poetic, although it was utterly abstract in its meaning; it had its own rhythm, its own music, and that alone was beautiful and therefore that seemed enough. It was enough for me to believe that my Dad was convinced that words like that thrived in America, which couldn’t be anything but magnificent.

He walked on the edge of the acceptable, and he did uncomfortable, awkward, strange things which were not only unfashionable but also outside the boundaries of Soviet law. It was not in vogue to be openly Jewish, and yet he proclaimed to me that we were Jewish. He told me about the existence of Israel. As much as naming that country out loud was enough to have your name backlisted, to have your past deleted and to see your future vaporized. He didn’t just mention Israel to me, he delivered it to me. Through the power of his intellect and his boldness, I was supposed to understand that there was a connection between my Jewishness and Israel, that my connection would always remain sacred and intact, as well as mine to control. My father had the audacity to make me fall in love with Israel during the times when it was the Soviet Union’s greatest enemy; his adamant support of Israel and the way he went on about it to me worried the rest of the family. He didn’t listen to anybody! He caused me to think that few things, and certainly no other country, stood for as much courage, pride, self-reliance, raw freedom, passion for life and survival as Israel did. He was never afraid to talk like that about Israel and what it meant to him in front of other people.

That summer of 1990, Papa and Mama left me and my sister in an exclusive resort nearby Moscow and flew to New York. He was murdered there five days later during a random robbery, while shielding my Mom from a 23-year-old attacker by the name Eric Wilson.

It was a quiet, starry night; my parents had just finished exploring the noisy Manhattan and returned to their friends’ home in Forest Hills. My mom remembers my father’s words as they were about to enter the building: “how peaceful it is here!” Then everything happened very fast; my mother saw very little in the darkness, but she felt that her purse had got caught on something behind her. She made an effort to free herself. It wasn’t “something,” but “somebody,” a man tugging on her purse, standing right next to my mom with a gun pointing at her. My father pushed him away, grabbed my mom and ran inside the building with her; the man followed. With the gun pointed at my parents and standing about six feet away from them, he fired his gun and ran away.

My father was laying on top of my mom, covering her completely with his body, holding her very tight, so tight that she ended up having bruises on her arms from his grip. It got quiet again, and she was almost surprised to discover that she was sitting in a pool of blood. She knew that she was not hurt, she felt that she wasn’t hurt, but the floor she was sitting on and the clothes she was wearing began to feel sticky and turned burgundy. And then she saw him, my father, her Arkady. She understood that it was his blood; that he was the one who was hurt. She began to scream in agony, in horror. The bullet went through his heart, lungs, liver, affecting all of his vital organs, finally stopping in his elbow, miraculously not entering my mom’s body. He was pronounced dead upon reaching hospital.

My mom lost her voice. She simply could not speak for the next week. She told me that she had only once before lost her voice like that, and that was the day she married my dad. She was happy then. My grandmother heard the announcement in the middle of the night on her beloved Voice of America. The news stayed hidden from my younger sister and me under my Mom’s strict order until her arrival. She returned to our resort, to us, without him, but with the broken promise for my enchanting future secured by freedom and independence, for my uncompromising Jewishness and for my path to the America he had painted for me.

Was I still supposed to like America? Was I allowed to want to come to New York? What use was American freedom to me when it was the America that tore him away from me? The experience of living in it was only worth something if I could face it together with my father. Without him, this grand notion of freedom was just a vacuous word.

And yet, my father had planted the worm inside my body, penetrating every barrier of logical reasoning, of what country I was allowed to like or be loyal to, even if it betrayed mine and my father’s trust. Despite it all, my eyes, my mind, my beating heart, all of me was turned towards America, the country which divested me of my father.

Despite it all, my eyes, my mind, my beating heart, all of me was turned towards America, the country which divested me of my father.

During his short stay in New York, my Dad had bought a small American flag for me in one of those insignificant gift shops. I have it still. On that day, on August 3 of 1992, I was flying to New York, towards his dream. His dream of New York and my stubborn desire, as a spoiled child, to live there was awe-inspiring. I didn’t know a single poem about New York, or about Manhattan, but I was convinced that those poems existed, otherwise my Dad’s uncompromisingly poetic mind would not have handpicked it for me. So even today, in the midst of this ruinous pandemic, when I walk through its tunneled streets, through its shameless neighborhoods, populated with single-minded people, across its crass avenues, when the pupils of my eyes pierce through the lace of its weightless bridges, when every brownstone with its mysterious internal life unwillingly whispers to me its messy stories, when the only pulses of the city are the cries and the laughter of those who still remain here, I see, despite the gluttony of the merciless sun and the city’s humorous rain, through the veil of its miraculous snow, the reddish-brown bricks of one noble Hall saluting me from afar, reminding me, perhaps only hinting, that New York’s poetry still exists. And that was exactly what my father saw in New York so many years ago. It was to this dream, to this unquenchable blue poem, that I was flying to on that day in August.


New York, November 2020

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