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A Grave in Leningrad

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

The station is old and brown, with shades of gray. There are few lights, and these are dim. We are leaving on the overnight train from Moscow to Leningrad. Soon the worn tracks begin their lonely rhythm, and villages pass intermittently by, growing smaller and more remote as we continue northward. It is early 1989, and the film crew is tired, having recently arrived from our homes in the USA. Our Russian counterparts are also speaking little, perhaps knowing what labors lie before us. Still, there is that feeling of something ahead, and we realize that despite our planning, there are no assurances here.

Alone in my berth, looking through the window, I thought of what brought me here. A long ago idea that envisioned a joint film crew, each position filled by a professional documentary film maker—one Soviet; one American—creating a television series that would take us through both countries as we looked at who we are, what we think, and what misconceptions we hold of each other. These films would be edited by only the two producers, and aired internationally in the same version, on the same day. I smiled at how absurd this goal had once seemed—this thought vigorously reinforced by each of my video production colleagues—and returned to the movie passing outside the glass, and the concerns I held for this episode, the second in what had in fact become The Homeland Project.

I was struck again by how old this world outside appeared; even the slowly falling snow seemed tired. I listened to the tracks that once brought food to save a city starved by war, and am glad that we have chosen such a location to pair with an American city. Here we will seek this country’s experience with warfare, and couple it with Santa Fe, New Mexico and the making of the bomb that ended this same war. Leningrad suffered a siege of 900 days during the World War II. The tales from this event are truly beyond imagination. With our knowledgeable Soviet team members, we have planned for many revealing interviews. Yet I realized that we must remain open to unforeseeable events. Dreams, it seems, may follow strange paths toward their destination.

Just before midnight our still photographer, Dale, burst through the door and into my thoughts with “You’ve got to come and meet this guy, he’s got to be in the movie” and took off down the aisle. “Of course,” I answered aloud, stood and hustled after him toward this quite accurate prediction.

My counterpart producer, Alexander, our interpreter, Victor, grinning Dale, and a Soviet Army Colonel were gathered in the aisle of an adjoining car. The Colonel looked a bit grumpy as he repeated the story that had so aroused my friend. He was traveling to Leningrad to meet his ex-wife and together visit the grave of their 21 year-old son, who was killed in Afghanistan. The others strongly suggested that this might be a powerful moment to document for our film. I agreed and briefly explained our mission to the Colonel, Boris, and asked if we might accompany him on this journey. He nodded, and added that he must first ask the boy’s mother. We exchanged contact numbers, and left, each with our own feelings.

We filmed and interviewed throughout Leningrad, having access to locations and people I could never have managed had I tried to do this without such help. We went abroad a Soviet anti-aircraft cruiser, visited an army base where, once they discovered I had once been an American armor officer, hustled me into a main battle tank and ran me through the close combat course at, I believe, a dramatically accelerated pace. We met with an elderly lady who had lived through the long siege, and heard her stories of what hunger can do—of what people will eat. We visited a radio station that still broadcasts the names of people gone missing 45 years ago. And then Boris called. His ex-wife had agreed to allow us to accompany them to the cemetery. We set the day and time.

Our bus stopped before the supplied address. Alex and Victor went into the worn apartment building and soon returned with the Colonel in his impeccable uniform and a short lady dressed in a heavy black coat and a black scarf. When introduced she politely nodded and sat silently for the rest of the 45 minute ride to the outskirts of the city, and the vast cemetery situated there on a gentle hillside. We entered through the main gate and the Colonel pointed out the location of the grave. The couple waited in the bus while we set up our cameras and prepared for the session. The two photographers were sensitive professionals, and I trusted their take on this unusual moment. I mentioned only a few things I wanted, and reminded them to remain invisible. We did not wish to disturb this so private moment. Once all was ready I returned to the bus, thanked the couple for their patience, and said it was time.

The scene here is important. The cemetery is old and worn. There is no trash. Each grave is marked by a large headstone, and most are surrounded by a three-foot black iron fence and gate. Many have a cement table and benches that can hold up to six people. It is a custom to bring food and drink to spend time with those that have gone. In the cold, the familiar grays and browns and black, set against the stark white snow, seem to lull you into a sense of unreality; as a color photograph might when suddenly stripped of all but the basic shades. But you see something, feel something, that otherwise would have been lost beneath the bursts of yellow and red, behind the anxious greens and insistent blues. With color gone, you are faced with only a meaning that lies patiently beneath. And here, that meaning is clear.

These were my thoughts as the couple approached their son. I once again considered my question from the train, “Who am I, to be here?” Roughly kicking snow out of the way, Boris opened the gate. He went to the table, scraped off the snow, and set down the food and bottle of vodka he had brought. The mother entered and, her face tightly set, approached the tall headstone. There was no sound, no one to be seen, no movement anywhere else. I could no longer see the cameramen. Only the mother moved. She reached up and brushed the light snow from the etching of her son’s face. She spoke gently, as if she was scolding a child for messing his hair. Then she softly patted him, and stretched up further to kiss the cold cheek…all she had left of her only child.

The cameras are off now. I am sitting across from the mother; Boris is sitting beside her. Alex and Victor sit next to me. The rest of the crew have packed their gear and stand close by. Rough brown bread is passed around, with meats and cheeses. Vodka is poured into shot glasses. Toasts to the boy are sincerely spoken, and followed by icy alcohol. After a time all grows quiet again. The father stares into his glass, possibly seeing his anger reflected there. The mother softly says, “what makes me the saddest is that he had so much to say. His dreams, hopes, plans for life. Now no one will ever hear my son.” No one speaks. And here something unexpected happens. On the instant I bring my fist to the table, almost overturning the bottle and sending the bread flying. The mother looks up in surprise, as do the others at this outrage. I point at her face and said, “No! You are wrong. He will be heard. And by many. I promise this.” With the same emphasis, Victor translates. She looks directly into my eyes as if seeking reassurance that I am serious, and for the first time she smiles, just a small smile, and nods a single time.

For me this was enough. More than enough. But as we were to board the bus, the Colonel told the Russian cameraman he had more to say. We called the interpreter over, retrieved a camera, and the tape began to roll. That Boris had more to say was evident in his abrupt mannerisms and the scowl on his face. This day had done something to him or, possibly, set something loose. He had made a decision and wanted it documented; there would be no turning back.

“My son was a soldier, he was killed in Afghanistan.” He spat out “Afghanistan” like a bitter poison, the look disgust and revulsion on his face was frightening. “My son’s friends killed the Afghan boy who had killed my son. But what are we left with? The only thing left is two grieving mothers.”

We returned to Moscow, and then to our homes. Some time later the crew met and traveled together to film in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “The Homeland Project, Leningrad/Santa Fe,” was aired in late 1989 on The Discovery Channel, PBS, and National Soviet Television Channel 1 on the same day, across 23 time zones. The boy’s story, and picture, were there at the end of the Leningrad segment. Boris was forced to retire from the Army, but found good employment. When we visited him during the filming of our next episode, he greeted us in civilian clothes, with a smile. The same picture of his son was there in his apartment. Boris regrets nothing, he says, and indicating his son’s photograph he adds that his son “would have been proud.” The boy’s mother was moved to a much larger Leningrad apartment. Their son Dimitri did, after all, speak—to millions.


Afterwords: Leningrad/Santa Fe was the second episode in The Homeland Project, which itself ended abruptly 33 years ago with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. When the Russian producer and interpreter sat with me in my basement editing room to watch this airing, I thought for some moments of my long-ago decision to pursue this crazy idea, and what it had taken to accomplish this. I silently remembered the cost and the risks, the people we had met who had shared their lives with us and, our fears and often danger. I recalled coming to understand that success was not money, but rather it was finishing what you set out to do. None of us knew then we’d receive three Emmy nominations for our work. We only knew we were finishing what we set out to do. And today, still, that’s what matters. We opened champagne and sat down to watch a film we had watched a hundred times before. I fell asleep.

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