Interview with Paul E. Richardson, author of Resilience: Life Stories of Centenarians Born in the Year of Revolution

Interview with Paul E. Richardson, author of Resilience: Life Stories of Centenarians Born in the Year of Revolution

“At a time when all we hear out of Russia is news that is either bad or worse, it could not be more important to share stories of humanity and community, of hope and persistence. Of resilience.”

 – Paul E. Richardson, publisher/editor of Russian Life magazine, and author of Resilience: Life Stories of Centenarians Born in the Year of Revolution

28 years ago in March, Paul Richardson and a friend decided to found a publishing company specializing in their favorite subject, Russia. Today, among other literary ventures, Richardson’s company publishes the bimonthly magazine, Russian Life and its companion blog. This is his 22nd year putting out the magazine, an engaging compendium of cultural information, tips, contemporary stories, snapshots, and historical pieces about life in the largest country on earth.

In 2018 he and his collaborators, photojournalist Mikhail Mordasov and journalist Nadyezhda Grebennikova, have produced the beautiful and moving book, Resilience: Life Stories of Centenarians Born in the Year of Revolution.

In a nod to the 100th anniversary of Russia’s October Revolution, in 2017 they traveled the country, collecting the stories of centenarians born in 1917, elders who have lived through 100 years of Russian and Soviet history. The stories of these elders are told with tenderness and sympathy, and rigorous research and meticulous planning went in to their telling.

The book is thoughtfully illustrated with perceptive portraits of the interviewees in their homes, as well as some of their own photos saved through the years.

Nadia, Paul, and Mikhail pose for selfie among the birch trees. Photo: Mikhail Mordasov

Nadia, Paul, and Mikhail pose for selfie among the birch trees
Photo: Mikhail Mordasov

We recently caught up with Richardson to chat with him about his relationship with Russia, and, more specifically, with the 22 elders featured in the book.

What first sparked your interest in Russia?I came of age at the height of the (first) Cold War, and became fascinated with US-Russian relations in college. Once I visited (in 1981), I was bitten by the bug (probably around the time that I exchanged my down jacket for two fur hats).

How long had you been thinking about doing this project?In 2016, soon after Mikhail, Nadya and I finished our first crowdfunded project, The Spine of Russia, we began thinking about what we might do next together. When we considered that the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution was coming [in 2017]…I thought, “I wonder if there would be any Russians born in 1917 still able and willing to share their memories? That would be a story.” Mikhail looked into it and found that, officially at least, there were about 6500 Russians 100 years and older.

What were your hopes and expectations?To be able to capture interesting stories before it was too late. To make very tangible, human connections and hear firsthand the life stories of people who had lived through perhaps the most difficult 100 years of Russian history. And of course to travel all across Russia in pursuit of our aims.

(click on photo to see larger version)  

What were your criteria for picking the interviewees (other than being born in 1917)?Well, they had to be born in the bounds of what was the Russian Empire at the time of their birth. And we wanted as broad a cross section of society (economic, social, ethnic) as we could get. That was pretty much it.

It was not necessarily easy finding people, because while there were official statistics that they were out there, privacy laws do not allow the government agencies with the information on such people’s whereabouts to share that information easily. And it was hard to mobilize such officials to work for our cause (basically to ask the subjects if the agency could share their whereabouts). But a few did, thankfully. Mainly that we found all these people is down to the amazing doggedness of Mikhail. He simply cannot be stopped when he is on a mission.

Sounds like this is the favorite of all your projects. Why is that?Because I really feel like we saved a bit of history that would otherwise have been lost. These remarkable people have lived incomparable lives, seen astounding changes over the past century, yet their personal stories and impressions might never have been shared beyond the bounds of their family were it not for this project.

But of course there is more than that, because I think all three of us on this project gained a deeper appreciation for the generations that have gone before us, for the elderly in our midst. We all noted how, now when we see an elderly person quietly walking down the street, or silently sitting on a bench watching the world go by, we wonder what their story is, and if someone has captured it. And we all also rue the fact that our own grandparents are all gone and we know few of their stories.

Mikhail and Paul pose with Helmi Hellman, the final interviewee of the trip<br>Photo: Mikhail Mordasov

Mikhail and Paul pose with Helmi Hellman, during the last interview conducted for the project
Photo: Mikhail Mordasov

What are your tips for travel to Russia?I think it is much like travel anywhere. Go with an open mind and aim for a sort of Zen attitude toward travel, trying to take and experience things as they come, rather than impose your own agenda or judgments out of the gate. As the Russian saying has it, “Don’t go to a foreign monastery with your own charter.”

Tips for connecting with local people?I would start with the things that interest you. Spend some time researching and learning ahead of time about people with similar interests in Russia, then see if you can connect up with them.

For instance, a few years ago, because of a story we were doing for the magazine, and because I am a runner, I connected up with some runners and running groups in Moscow and St. Petersburg, then did races with them. That was a great, memorable experience.

If you are into beer, try to connect with craft brewers. If you are into some kind of music or art, try to connect with people in that realm. It’s so much easier to do that ahead of time now with social media.

Can you share a story or two about experiences you had while working on the film and book?The time in Kostroma when we were visiting a church and Mikhail insisted that they would let him in wearing his shorts. I arched a doubtful eyebrow, and of course on our way in a babushka pulled him aside to an adjoining building, from which he emerged wearing what looked like a sari so he could go inside. I have to say he wore it quite well…

When, after finishing an interview with a delightful, blind woman outside Novosibirsk, the team was packing up to go talk to her family in the kitchen. And she said to herself, under her breath, but loud enough that I, still standing next to her, could hear, “Now I will not be forgotten.”

That to me summarized everything this project is about.

Mikhail in his infamous sari Photo: Paul E. Richardson

Mikhail in his infamous sari
Photo: Paul E. Richardson

It goes without saying that MIR is a big fan of Paul Richardson and Russian Life.Our company and MIR were both born about the same time and have both miraculously persisted through coups and threats of coups, through devaluations and travel bans, through God knows what else.

Born in that same era of the late 1980s and early 1990s, I think we both probably still cling to that idealistic goal many voiced in the waning years of the first Cold War, that if the US and Russia could connect more deeply on the human, individual level, it would be a really good thing…

We launched a travel newsletter back in 1994, I think it was, and MIR was a charter subscriber and advertiser. Then when we bought Russian Life magazine in 1995, they joined as an advertiser there and have not missed an issue in over 20 years. That’s dedication.

More info about Russian Life and Resilience:

  • Information about Russian Life magazine and how to subscribe is available at the RL website.
  • Order Resilience directly from Russian Life or Amazon.
  • You might also be interested in some of the other books Paul and Russian Life have put together – peruse the list here.


(Top Photo: Paul and Nadia capturing Alexandra Pilyasova’s story; Photo: Mikhail Mordasov)

PUBLISHED: May 7, 2018

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