• From Russia to Alaska, with love and commitment to community
By Naomi Klouda
One of the last members of the 1956 Constitutional Convention, Victor Fischer regaled a large crowd Friday night at the Kachemak Bay Campus. He introduced his book, “To Russia with Love: An Alaskan’s Journey,” written with Charles Wohlforth.
Fischer’s life is remarkable on a number of fronts. He father is the famous American-born Louis Fischer, who spent a week with Ghandi and wrote his autobiography that was made into a movie. And his mother is writer and translator Markoosha Fisher, born in Tsarist Russia in 1888. Fischer grew up in the shadow of Hitler’s rise to power as a child in Berlin, then under Stalin. He watched his friends’ parents disappear after political arrests. It was Eleanor Roosevelt who helped engineer the family’s escape from Russia to America just in time for young Victor to join the American army and fight in World War II. Both of Fischer’s parents were Jewish.
The stories of his life events are recounted in his memoir. At Friday’s talk and book signing, Fischer spoke of his early childhood in conditions of famine and poverty under Russia’s new Communism. “There were seven families living in one apartment in a community building that had been condemned,” he said. “The conditions were horrendous. My parents sent us to live in Berlin when I was seven.”
George, his brother, was a year older. They lived with family friends Hede and Paul Massing in much improved circumstances. The street fights between kids, however, had a political bent. “We lived with a communist family, so we were ‘little commies’ at the time, chased by the Nazi kids and we chased them. Our color was red and theirs was brown.”
They would not return to the Soviet Union until Victor was nine in 1933.
Under the communist revolution, a great deal of idealism prevailed in the hope for more equality and an overthrow of the class structure.
“These were heady times. Dreams were being built. We had a new apartment on a new block. Heath care was better. Food was more appealing. Life wasn’t beautiful, but it was much better,” Fischer recalled. Then, in 1935-1938, Stalin’s repressive measures were underway. “It kept getting worse. Teachers disappeared. There were big trials. It was a very oppressive era. At that point, my parents decided we have got to leave Russia,” he said. But the soviet state refused to issue Markoosha a passport. Louis Fischer was by then in the U.S., after covering the Spanish War. He gained an audience with Eleanor Roosevelt, who spoke to the president about getting Markoosha a passport. “Two weeks later we were out of Russia, into Finland and then England, on our way to America.”
Fischer stopped his story there for the Homer audience, but the 400-page memoir travels through Fischer’s 88 years of life. After the war, and after college where he earned a degree in city planning, he moved to Alaska. Soon he entered civic affairs, motivated by the Alaska Statehood cause because Alaskans couldn’t vote as a territory. The Constitutional Convention was the body responsible for establishing statehood by having these policy documents in place to show Washington D.C. the territory had done its foundation work for statehood, he said. He also held many other government appointments in both Alaska and Washington D.C. that allowed him to witness great historic events.
Fischer was asked how he feels about Ballot Measure 1 to convene a new Constitutional Convention.
“I am opposed to a Constitutional Convention because in general terms, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. The convention would open the whole constitution. It was a step toward statehood, unity, bipartisanship and not a partisan issue. It was a different era,” Fischer said.
Today, such an event could be used to put a tax limit in the constitution or a property tax limit. “We’ll have a proposal for a limit on the severance tax. I don’t want to imagine writing corporate law into the constitution. It’s preposterous. It’s a guarantee of individual rights. It’s the structure of government,” he said.
The Constitution contains Section 2, Article 2 that discusses developing the state’s resources “for the maximum benefit of all.” Fischer was asked about the intent of this section. This doesn’t match well with Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposed $2 billion tax break for oil companies, Fischer said. “That is in violation of our constitution.” But, it is a policy statement that likely wouldn’t be enforceable in court, he added. It also is not a mandate to develop.
The reason the 1956 convention worked efficiently to complete the task at hand in 75 days was because it took place in a non-political forum on the remote University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in the dead of cold winter.
“There were no lobbyists, no external pressures. We were four miles outside of Fairbanks out in the middle of no where,” he said.
When the Ice Curtain melted between Russia and Alaska in the 1980s, Fischer was able to go full circle and return to his homeland, this time to help bring Democracy. He traveled there with his wife and daughter and remained helping to bring two sides together.
“We had made amazing progress. After the initial enthusiasm, things slowed down and compromises came in 2001 to the democratic structures like elections at the state level for governing was repealed and all (government) was centralized again,” Fischer said. Soviet leader Vladimir Putin grabbed control so that government access was limited. Parliament adopted laws by Putin that said any nonprofit had to declare itself a foreign agent if it was accepting money from outside the country. “This strangled help from coming in. Television was controlled, the press didn’t have much freedom, but compared to Stalin, this was paradise. I am an optimist.”
Fischer was asked about the source of this optimism that sustained a long, active, effective career in the midst of the world’s biggest political movements. “The basis of my optimism are the values that took root from my parents and their hopes and dreams, from a time when the sky was the limit,” he responded. “Even though Stalin brought repression, the values of life continued.”
One of his first causes in the Alaska Legislature was the repeal of the death penalty. “I was convinced we don’t want the state to kill people. I’m not a religious person but I would go back to Jesus and the values he pursued during his time on earth. Optimism got us through World War II. Democracy has come. It breaks through the autocrats and the dictators. Alaska broke free from the repressive federal regime to one where we do have a voice.”
In answer to a question about how can Alaskans keep their special places free of environmental devastation in such oil extraction methods of fracking and other development on the horizon, Fischer said he wished he could give a prescription.
“You have to be involved and you have to lobby for specifics. Many people would agree with you in broad principles but it needs follow up,” he said. “Find effective policy. You have to use whatever leverages there are. There are forces that work.”
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