Family Archives

This photo, like most in the Semenkovich collection, was taken sometime between 1910 and 1913 at a country estate outside of Moscow. Seated on the porch is my grandmother Varvara. Standing below her in the colorful tunic is her sister Natasha. The young man is holding a Kodak Brownie No. 2 camera.

I have had the great fortune to be born into a family that takes photographs and preserves them in albums, starting more than a hundred years ago in pre-revolutionary Russia.

On my father’s side, my grandmother, Varvara Grigorieff (née Semenkovich), took her family albums with her when she was exiled from Moscow to Siberia. There she was briefly reunited with my grandfather, Sergei Grigorieff, who was subsequently arrested by the Cheka and shot on 24 June 1921. Dying of tuberculosis, Varvara made her way to Harbin with her two boys in the late 1920’s. My father, Vladimir Grigorieff, kept the albums during the twenty years he lived in China (although some albums were lost during the 1932 Harbin flood), and they traveled with us as we escaped from China to Taiwan, lived in Japan for six years, and eventually came to America. (Tientsin Diaries is a fictionalized account of my parents’ lives in China)

On my mother’s side, our family albums had an equally perilous journey. My grandparents Mikhail and Evpraxia Smolianikoff (née Baranoff), fleeing the Red Army in 1919, left their hometown Biisk, Siberia, lived in hiding in Mongolia for almost two years, eventually making their way across the Gobi Desert into Western China, then on to Tientsin on the coast. After World War II, they were sent to a refugee camp in the Philippines before settling in Brazil. (Mongolia Portraits were taken in 2014 when my wife Rachel and I retraced the journey taken by the Smolianikoffs in the years 1919-1921)

It is an axiom that, for most of us, after our great-grandchildren die, no one will remember us and we will be consigned to oblivion. By posting these photos from my family archives, and annotating them when possible, I seek to honor the wish expressed in the hymn that is sung at every Russian Orthodox funeral service: Вечная память. Eternal memory.