Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Like Names in a Russian Novel

Just when I think I’m closing in on the right details in this search for my Russian-heritage godmother, I’m hit with an unexpected turn of events: more names.

I am beginning to feel as if I am trapped within the covers of a Russian novel.

My godmother—whom one could excuse for sporting more than one surname, due to her choice as a performer to utilize a stage name—evidently also possessed well more than one given name. We’ve already discovered one: her full name given as Eugenie was likely the formal French form of the nickname I knew her by—Genia.

But this may not be the end of the naming story. I have apparently found more.

My offense in the seeking game was to try and find more online hits for my newly-discovered prize, Genia’s mother’s name. I was so pleased with myself to have confirmed that Lydia was indeed Genia’s mother’s name. But I’m not so happy with what was apparently a greedy move on my part: looking for yet more.

My “discovery” started with an entry on Ancestry.com that I had seen previously: a border crossing record from Canada to Blaine, Washington—wherever that is—in 1939.

I had dismissed this finding out of hand for several reasons. The main one, of course, was that Genia and Lydia were supposed to be in New York City at the time, where Genia was dancing with her ballet troupe at the behest of the Metropolitan Opera Company. Although many travelers to this country may not comprehend this at first, the distance between, say, New York and Washington state is phenomenal; it is unlikely that the Melnichenkos merely "stopped over" in Washington for a snack and a brief visit between a matinee and an evening performance. (My family and I get that reaction all the time from foreign friends. The minute they find out we live in California, they immediately blurt out, “Oh, I bet you go to Disneyland all the time!” Which we don’t. Yes, we live in the same state. But it would take an eight hour drive, door to door, before we could walk through the main gate at the Happiest Place on Earth. And that’s with no lines.)

Once I confirmed to myself that Lydia was actually Genia’s mother’s name—when I found that second entry in the ship’s passenger list yesterday—I relented from my original stance and stole a glance at the Lydia-in-Washington border crossing record.

It didn’t help matters.

The card, itself, was blurry and difficult to read. You know me and my eyes. Try as I might, I could not make out the typed-over entry for Lydia’s place of birth, though I could tell the town’s name began with an “S” and was within the borders of Russia.

The card, dated February 22, 1939, indicated that Lydia received her visa in London on September 22, 1938. This was starting to sound familiar! The unexplained numbers I had found for the visa in the M.V. Georgic ship’s list were cleared up a bit for us on this card: the “3(2)” comes from the “Act of 1924” section 3, subdivision 2. Her visa number was given here as 2873, which matches Lydia’s from the M.V. Georgic records. Though original plans were to remain in the United States through April 9, 1939, apparently Lydia had made arrangements to depart at the end of March aboard the S.S. Rex.

After reading all those details—and cross-checking them with the file from the M.V. Georgic—I felt pretty certain that this was our Lydia. But what of Genia? There was no corresponding file for Lydia’s daughter that I could find.

This opened up some questions. Could Lydia have left her fourteen year old daughter to perform in New York, and traveled the country solo, perhaps to visit her own relatives who might have immigrated here? Why was she coming down from Canada on the west coast of America? Or was Genia touring the continent also, as part of the arrangement with the Met?

I couldn’t help notice there was another entry for a border crossing from Canada to Blaine, Washington. The surname on this other record was also Melnitchenko. Coincidence?

I took a moment to click on the entry for Olga Melnitchenko. I didn’t expect much.

Am I glad I didn’t ignore that one! There, along with all the same details—date, visa information, visitor status parameters—was a small note at the bottom of the record:
With mother Lydia.

So, fourteen year old Olga, traveling on business with her mother Lydia, for some reason had found herself on a grand tour of the continent of North America. Whether it was for professional reasons—I suppose I could line up the names of the other company members and see if there were corresponding border crossing records for each of them, also—or for a personal excursion, it is pretty certain that the same mother-daughter team we found disembarking in October, 1938, from the M.V. Georgic in New York City had found their way to the northernmost reaches of the state of Washington by February of the next year.

Having found that, we may now add another to our list of names for the same characters peopling this story of the search for a Russian family’s history. Keep the count straight, for apparently we are not finished with this name list, yet.


  1. Maybe the "stage manager" thought Olga sounded more "Russian" and that was a "good thing" -- Russian Ballet was always considered good.

    I've read about travel and how it was done "back in the 30's" and it wasn't unusual to "go around the world" -- the transoceanic crossings were usually done by steamship - and the cross land travels by train. Blaine, Washington is the town just south of Vancouver. Perhaps they did a show there?

    1. I'm thinking it would be more likely that the troupe danced in Vancouver than in Blaine. Maybe they were on their way south to Seattle for their next engagement???

      Yeah...Olga is right up there with "Boris" and "Natasha" as far as what I know of Russian names ;)

  2. Replies
    1. It certainly was a surprise to me! I wonder if the advice in the Melnitchenkos' new homeland was to pick both a Russian name and a French-sounding name for their new baby when she was born in Marseilles. Something to help the little one blend in better with her new nationality...get her off to a "right" start.


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