Searching for Tato

Cynthia Kuser Earle
Cynthia Kuser Earle

As a child growing up half wild on a remote Arizona ranch, Andrew Earle looked forward every summer to his family’s annual trip East. Cowboys would take Andrew and the rest of his family--mother Cynthia, brother Tony, two adopted children from Central America, a nanny, assorted bags and dogs--27 miles over dirt roads to the train station in Morristown, Ariz. There they would board for New York City.

It was the 1950s. Long before cable TV and the Internet, the cultural chasm between rural Arizona and midtown Manhattan yawned like the Grand Canyon. But that only begins to explain the enormity of the mental and emotional journey on which the family would embark.

Andrew was the second son of Cynthia Kuser Earle, heiress to a vast New Jersey fortune. She was a woman of uncommon independence, beauty and recklessness who spoke eight languages and is said to have seduced men in most of them. He was a boy without a father. In New York, the Earles would settle in at the St. Regis hotel. From room service, they would order fresh raspberries and other seasonal delicacies unknown at the ranch.

At the appointed time, the nanny would pile Andrew and Tony--freshly scrubbed, stiffly dressed--into a limousine, whose driver would take them to Central Park. The sultry air, the dense palette of green, the clustering humanity--nothing could have seemed more foreign or exotic. They would be led down a path, and there would stand the man they knew as Tato. Dapper and in his early 50s, he had a deeply creased face, dark brows and a coal-eyed gaze. They would run to him and be enveloped in his arms.

Tato would whisk the Earles to New Hampshire, where he owned a secluded vacation home in a compound on an island in a lake. In this idyllic safe house, the mysterious Ukrainian would entertain the boys, cook borscht and apple pancakes, and generally fill the vacuum created by their lack of any apparent father. Andrew remembers sitting on a counter in a kitchen filled with steaming pots, drinking in the intoxicating smells and listening to Tato, in his thick Russian accent, tell fables filled with Slavic warmth and darkness, making the boy feel happy in a way he never had felt before.

It was 1965 before Andrew found out the truth.

He was 15 and at home in Arizona. “My brother and I went for a ride [on horseback],” he now recalls. “Christmas morning. We rode up to the top of this big, big mountain. He was three years older than I am. And on the top of this mountain, looking over the ranch, he asked me, ‘Who do you think our father is?’ And I said, ‘Well, I think it’s Uncle Arthur.’ ” Arthur Earle was the estranged husband of their mother. “And he said, ‘Well, why do you think we are calling our father Uncle Arthur?’ And I said, ‘I don’t have a clue, I’ve never really thought about it.’ And I really hadn’t. It had never really occurred to me. And he told me that our father was Tato, and it felt like such a complete betrayal. My mother tried to explain, but all the explanations in the world couldn’t make it right.”

The betrayal was wrapped in a thick layer of intrigue. Tato was Victor Kravchenko, one of the first and most influential Soviet defectors to the United States, who had written “I Chose Freedom,” a searing account of life under Stalin. Kravchenko met Cynthia Kuser (she was not yet Earle) on a snowy New York night in the winter of 1946 at a book party in his honor. From there they started a whirlwind, intense relationship that produced Andrew and his brother, Anthony. But Victor and Cynthia never married. He was, according to Andrew, too worried about the danger to her and their boys and insisted that their relationship remain secret to all but a few close friends.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious, even down to the name: Tato, as Andrew later learned, is a Ukrainian endearment for one’s father. But that in no way cushioned the shock. “I didn’t come down off that mountain being the same,” he says.

Then, two months later, Kravchenko was dead, shot once in the head in his Manhattan apartment. The coroner’s ruling: suicide. His sons had never been able to see him or speak to him after learning that he was their father. “That created an even bigger hole,” Andrew says. “All of a sudden, it went from betrayal to wanting answers to wanting to know the truth.”

Relations between fathers and sons can be complex and difficult in the best of circumstances. Faced with the death of a father, almost every son struggles with a welter of emotions as he reconciles the father’s strengths and foibles and then measures them against his own. But what of the father who deceives and then dies, bequeathing a mystery and an unyielding, empty ache in his son’s heart?

This yearning to understand--in some way to re-create--his father became an obsession that has shaped much of Andrew’s adult life. It had a powerful influence from the start. His grades plummeted. He began to rebel. He wanted to leave Arizona and go somewhere far away--the Amazon, Australia, it didn’t matter. He eventually did break away, moving to Spain as a young man to study art, and then to Berlin and a failed marriage. He was running. It influenced his work as an artist and led him for one bleak period, he says, to shoot heroin. Drug-free now, he remains the dutiful son who never really had a father. What he does have are books and letters, photographs and a name. No longer Andrew Earle, he is now Andrew Kravchenko.

He tells this story as he sits at a table in the garden of the Chateau Marmont, the hotel hideaway off Sunset Boulevard, not far from his Hollywood Hills home. He moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s after a fire destroyed his Arizona ranch house. It is a warm afternoon, and the hotel is rustling with bleary-eyed rockers, fashion photographers and a brisk Santa Ana wind. Andrew is a slender man of 52 with a long face and a swept-back swoosh of graying blond hair. Despite his rugged upbringing, he has an air of refinement; he drives a Mercedes-Benz, not a pickup. He is dressed casually but elegantly in a white open-necked linen shirt and sport jacket. And yet--look at him from the right angle, just the face, winter-pallid and lined--he could be a man waiting for a bus on Leninsky Prospekt in Moscow. He is telling his life story, but he isn’t really. It’s the story of Victor Kravchenko and Cynthia Earle by way of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John le Carre, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Zane Gray.

Kravchenko, a mining and steel engineer, was a mid-level official in the Soviet lend-lease office in Washington, D.C., when he sought asylum in 1944. At the time, the Soviet Union was still a U.S. war ally, and many Americans were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to “Uncle Joe” Stalin. Kravchenko wanted to shatter those illusions. His defection was front-page news and prompted debate at the highest levels of government, up to and including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stalin demanded that he be turned over as a traitor--an automatic death sentence. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover urged FDR to let him stay. On April 13, 1945, the day after Roosevelt died, Kravchenko received notice that his application for asylum had been granted.

Luck is an essential element in any survivor’s tale, and Kravchenko was a lucky man. With pitch-perfect timing, working with the renowned Maxwell Perkins--editor of Thomas Wolfe, Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, among others--he wrote an autobiographical critique of the Soviet regime. “I Chose Freedom” was published in 1946 at the dawn of the Cold War, when an American public that had been willing to go shoulder to shoulder with its Soviet allies was being told that Communism was the new enemy. Readers wanted to know why. “I Chose Freedom” became a bestseller, an international sensation. Largely forgotten today, it presaged Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” and Eugenia Ginzburg’s “Journey into the Whirlwind,” and stands with them as among the most influential works of their kind.

While these other writers were still behind barbed wire, Kravchenko was describing the brutality of collectivization, the madness of Communist Party purges, the inefficiencies of central planning and the atrocities of the gulag. “The magnitude of the horror has never been grasped by the outside world,” he wrote. “Perhaps it is too vast ever to be grasped. . . . One can only look into this or that corner, and judge the whole from its parts.”

When Kravchenko’s book was published, “he must have been feeling full of himself,” Andrew says. “I mean, full of himself in the best of ways. He’s finally got it done. And it was accepted, it was selling, people were telling the truth and--boom, what a moment. At this party, he meets this woman. Now, this is the woman he meets.”

Flipping through the pages of a black folder, he turns to a photograph. It shows a young woman in a low-cut dress holding a hand of playing cards. Her head is cocked and eyebrows arched; her eyes, half shut, drift languidly into the distance. This is Cynthia Kuser, the rebellious daughter of a family that socialite Brooke Astor once described as exemplifying “the arrogance of big money.” (Astor had had a disastrous marriage to Cynthia’s older brother, Dryden.)

The Kuser fortune had spouted from the mundane wells of insurance and electric utilities. As a child, Cynthia would spend the occasional weekend at her parents’ rustic retreat in northwestern New Jersey. When her father later donated it to the state, it became High Point State Park, 14,000 acres of mountainous forest that includes the highest spot in New Jersey. As a young woman, Andrew says, Cynthia’s lovers included the mobster Lucky Luciano, the Spanish matador Manolete, and Alfred Sloan, the head of General Motors--all while she was married to her first husband, Theodore Herbst. “This is a woman who didn’t care,” Andrew says. “On her deathbed [in 1985], she said, ‘You think, when I go before St. Peter, anything’s going to happen?’ I said"--and he laughs fondly--" 'You know what? You treated men [abominably] and you’re going to pay for it!’ She was a femme fatale.”

If there is such a term as homme fatal, it might well describe Kravchenko, who had broken hearts from Kharkov to Moscow. “So,” Andrew continues, “they meet at this party, fall in love--boom, right there. He grabs her, they walk down Fifth Avenue--this is true--and the snow is lightly falling, and he takes her to Scribner’s [bookshop], and the windows are filled with ‘I Chose Freedom.’ They go to Faircourt, the old family estate, and as my mother said, just made love passionately. It was an incredibly passionate, romantic relationship, and [it] stayed that way.”

But according to notes written by Cynthia and discovered by Andrew, Kravchenko insisted on discretion, haunted by fears that had some basis in reality. His decision to abandon the Soviet Union condemned family members he left behind to harassment, imprisonment and worse. Thirty or more were killed, including his father, mother and brother. Soviet agents had once left a bullet on his mantle in New York, a little calling card to remind him of their power. But as Cynthia also wrote, Kravchenko had a “love of . . . secrecy and mystery.” She suspected that subconsciously he was disappointed when the level of danger lessened. She was, however, willing to play the game. She entered into what Andrew describes as a sham marriage to Earle, a friend who received an allowance and a cottage for his trouble. She went to elaborate lengths to make it appear as if Andrew were an adopted child. From birth, Andrew and Anthony were swaddled in lies.

“As the son of a defector, you keep finding out,” Andrew says. “You’re born into a detective story and you find out who everybody is, [but] there’s not an end to this detective story. Most especially if it involves an archive.”

In the years after Kravchenko’s death, Andrew periodically delved into the belongings, mostly papers, that his father had left behind in several steamer trunks and suitcases. “There were so many lies, which were lies to protect [me], but whether they’re there to protect you or not, they’re still a lie. So I started to think, My mother’s story--what’s the reality here? And Victor’s story--what’s the reality here? And then began the long, arduous [process of] finding out, interviewing everybody they knew, everybody I knew that they knew, and finding out the truth. Who were these people? What did they do? How did it all work? What happened? And then in doing that you’re opening up not only cans of worms, but you’re finding out all these things about these people who are your parents.” Andrew and his mother had discussed his family history over the years, but it was somehow never enough.

Eventually, about 10 years ago, the archive took over his life. “There was just a certain point when I had to say, ‘There’s something to be finished here.’ ” The trunks were in a large stone building near the main house on the Arizona ranch, where Cynthia had moved in the early 1950s. Andrew, who had achieved some success in Europe as a painter of richly suggestive, neo-Expressionist images, gave up his art career and devoted himself full time to the archive. He realized that what he had was more than just a family reliquary; it had wider historical value.

At its center were piles of testimonials gathered to bolster Kravchenko’s 1949 libel case in Paris after a leftist newspaper described his book as a work of fiction. The proceeding was called, with some justification, the Trial of the Century. Unlike other such ballyhooed cases, this one dealt with some of the meatiest issues of the 20th century and effectively put the Soviet Union on trial.

Kravchenko and his lawyers had known that Soviet officials would flood the court with testimony that he had lied in “I Chose Freedom.” As they expected, much of the trial was a leering, looking-glass journey through Kravchenko’s past life, with ex-bosses, ex-friends and even his ex-wife taking the stand to say that his descriptions of Stalinist horrors were the rantings of an opportunist and liar. To strike back, Kravchenko reached out to former Soviet citizens who were still living in the displaced persons’ camps that dotted Europe after World War II. The response was overwhelming. Kravchenko was flooded with letters and petitions of support, which were backed up with detailed descriptions of Soviet crimes that matched or exceeded those described in his book. When the court ruled in Kravchenko’s favor, it was a serious blow to France’s powerful Communist Party. He followed it up with a second book, “I Chose Justice,” which told about the trial.

Gary Kern, a former professor of Russian literature and the author and translator of numerous books about Russia, cataloged the archive for Andrew and says the trial documents are not only historically significant, but they also form the emotional heart of the Kravchenko collection. Kern says that he can’t imagine a researcher reading them without crying. “The personal documents of his witnesses and of the displaced persons--they just have overwhelming emotion.” Among the documents are meticulous descriptions, at least one of which is backed up with a grisly photograph, of mass executions by the Soviet secret police. Memorial, the Russian organization dedicated to unearthing the truth about Soviet crimes, has taken a keen interest in these documents.

In 1994, with Kern’s help, Andrew petitioned the U.S. government for his father’s FBI file. The FBI said no. Fifty years after the fact, the agency argued that release of the files would endanger national security. In December 2000, a court ordered the FBI to release the documents, and Andrew and Kern received several boxes filled with thousands of pages of formerly classified papers, many of which were freshly censored. They provided a fascinating look at the intrigue surrounding Kravchenko’s defection, as Soviet spies and FBI agents strove to stay a step ahead of each other, the Soviets wanting Kravchenko back in their clutches, the Americans wanting to find out what he knew and whether they could trust him. The FBI trove also included a copy of Kravchenko’s suicide note, splattered with his blood.

To Andrew, it made for electrifying reading. The memos confirmed just how significant a figure his father had been. Not only did he find memos between Hoover and FDR, but there also were later memos demonstrating that President Lyndon B. Johnson had taken a strong interest in Kravchenko’s suicide, demanding that the FBI determine if his suicide note was authentic or a Soviet fabrication.

“All of a sudden, I saw the levels of power that this went to,” Andrew says. And yet the material was sobering on a personal level. The suicide note, in particular, “really got me,” he says. It is the single document, among tens of thousands in his archive, that he did not want The Times to see.

While declining to divulge the contents of the note, Andrew says he believes that Kravchenko might not have killed himself at all; he might have been the victim of a KGB hit. After all, Andrew says, a hospital report indicates that Kravchenko had his .38 revolver in his suit coat pocket when he was brought into the emergency room. If he had shot himself in the head, how could he have put the gun away?

But there is more than ample reason to believe that it was a suicide. Police or an ambulance crew could have stuffed the gun into his pocket. And Kravchenko had reason to want to kill himself. He was in declining health, suffering from emphysema, among other ailments. He was frustrated by global political currents: the Vietnam War, the Soviet retrenchment under Leonid Brezhnev. His business interests in a Peruvian mining operation weren’t going as well as he had hoped. “He was a very unhappy fellow,” Kern says.

Moreover, he had a lifelong fascination with suicide that is documented in “I Chose Freedom.” Repeatedly throughout the book, whenever he gets into a serious jam, he contemplates killing himself. “My mind played with [the thought], almost tenderly, and a kind of hysterical joy began to overwhelm me,” he writes at one point, when he was being harassed by the Soviet secret police. “It was the thought of sending a bullet through my skull. . . . You pull the trigger and it’s over.” Time after time, he returns to this theme.

Finally, and most painfully, it is hard not to wonder about the timing of his death, coming so soon after his sons discovered his true identity. Could that have played a role? If the suicide note provides the answer, it remains for now a secret--perhaps the last great secret in the Kravchenko family.

As Andrew immersed himself in the growing archive, which eventually would fill 50 cardboard boxes, he began to see Kravchenko in a new light--not just as a shadow father but as a man of deep integrity and purpose who hovered around the fringes of great events and important figures. He began to see Kravchenko’s relevance in a post-Soviet world, chiefly as an advocate for human rights. “Here is a story of a man who sacrificed everything to bring truth to the world at a time when nobody wanted to hear it, and battle impossible odds to do so,” he says.

There was Kravchenko speaking to Richard M. Nixon, then a young California congressman making his name as an anti-Communist crusader. “Do you feel,” Nixon asked him at a 1947 meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee, “that [it] would be at all helpful to take legal action to outlaw the Communist Party as such in the United States?” No, he didn’t, Kravchenko informed the future president. “America is a free country in the world where it is possible to organize political parties, societies and groups. Let these hundred thousand Communists say whatever they want. . . . I believe that any legal action against them would lessen the prestige of America as a free country.”

There was Kravchenko writing to Maryland Sen. Millard Tydings in 1950 to express outrage over Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist campaign. “I believe profoundly,” he wrote, “that in the struggle against Communists and their organizations . . . we cannot and should not resort to the methods and forms employed by the Communists.”

There was Kravchenko in Paris at the libel trial, being upbraided for casting aspersions on what one Soviet witness termed “my dearly beloved leader, Stalin.” As the judge threatened to clear the court, Kravchenko roared back: “I can talk of the ‘dearly beloved leader’ because I am on the free soil of France, and I don’t care a rap what he thinks about it. I have been waiting for this hour all my life!”

And there was Kravchenko writing to Cynthia Earle, discussing what to do with his papers when he dies. Give them to Andrei, he said, using the Russian for Andrew. “He’s the best one in the family to do something with it.”

“I don’t want to be melodramatic,” Andrew says, “but what would you do if you got a letter from your father, whom you never knew to be your father, saying that this should be given to you? It was so reaffirming.” Aside from a 31-year-old daughter who lives in Germany, the archive might be considered Andrew’s closest living relative. His brother, Anthony, died from an embolism at age 22 while studying Buddhism with Ram Dass, the former Richard Alpert. His mother’s death in 1985 also followed a spiritual quest--to the traditional Apache religion. There is a half-sister, but she and Andrew are not close. Then there was Valentin.

Around 1990, as the Soviet Union was in its death throes, Andrew received word that an article about his father had been published in the Literary Gazette, a Soviet newspaper. That in itself was surprising, given Kravchenko’s turncoat reputation in his homeland. But what caught Andrew’s breath was the author: Valentin Kravchenko, a half-brother he never knew existed.

Valentin had been born seven months after his mother, Zinaida Gorlova, had separated from Kravchenko. Valentin and Gorlova had escaped retribution because she had agreed to testify against Kravchenko in Paris. (A second wife who refused to testify was executed, according to Andrew.) Valentin grew up loathing the legacy of his father, the traitor. It was by happenstance that he wound up graduating from the same Metallurgical Institute in Dnepropetrovsk that Kravchenko had attended, and found himself in a similar job, as an iron caster. In 1964, he accepted an invitation to join the Communist Party on the condition that he denounce his father. It wasn’t difficult--Valentin was a true believer.

That belief system was shattered in 1982 when Valentin was arrested, along with a group of other workers building a heating plant, on charges of financial malfeasance. In effect, he was accused of moonlighting. At trial, the judge denounced him as the son of the traitor Kravchenko and sentenced him to 14 years of hard labor.

He would only serve six years in the gulag, but they were very hard years. According to Soviet scholar Kern, who researched Valentin’s story intensively, his teeth were knocked out in beatings and his lungs were burned by the cold. At a labor camp in Siberia, he would coax stray dogs to the fence, tear them apart and eat them. One evening, Kern relates, a guard shouted to Valentin, “Your whore mother just croaked!” Valentin, overcome with grief, tried to commit suicide by hanging himself. Cut down by a guard, who found him by chance, he went into convulsions and was revived by an injection straight into his heart.

He emerged in 1988 at age 54, a man broken in health and tormented in spirit. Prison had given him just one thing besides bitterness and pain. Having seen firsthand what Kravchenko had denounced, Valentin had reclaimed the legacy of his father. In January 1992, having established communication with Andrew, he followed his father’s path and came to the United States.

There followed an emotional and widely publicized meeting of the two brothers in Phoenix. “All my life, I have lived with a broken heart,” Valentin told reporters at the time. “But when I saw Andrew, that part of my heart was returned.” From the airport, they went to the Earle ranch, where things quickly got weird. “It was like Gulag Convict Meets Cowboy at High Noon,” Andrew recalls. “I mean, he and I got into it the first night. We were at each other.”

Valentin brought Andrew face to face with a truth. Both brothers, Andrew realized, had been imprisoned by Kravchenko’s decision to defect, by his choice of freedom. Valentin had been behind real bars; Andrew’s prison--years of drug abuse, anguish over the loss of his father--had been metaphorical, not to mention self-created. He recognized the difference; that didn’t ease the pain. No one was saying that Kravchenko shouldn’t have done what he did. Even Kravchenko’s father, a dedicated revolutionary who knew his son’s decision would be his death knell, urged him to do what he knew was right.

But a half-century later the bill was still coming due. And now Andrew and Valentin faced off. Valentin would spend many days shuffling around the circular driveway outside the ranch house, dragging one bum leg behind him like a ball and chain. He had the entire Sonoran desert laid out in front of him, miles of free range, yet he chose to confine himself in a re-creation of the gulag yard. In the vodka-blurred evenings, he would challenge Andrew. “I am No. 1 son!” he would bellow. “To make a long story short,” Andrew says, “we lasted for as long as we could, we gave it our best shot, and he met a woman, fell in love with her and stayed in the United States.”

Two years ago, on the day he became a U.S. citizen, Valentin died. In the hours between the ceremony and his death, Andrew says, “He called me [and] said, ‘Andy, I am free man!’ By this time, we’re OK. I’d visited him about five months before, and we spoke English--he’d really lifted himself up. So in his moment of finally making it, that night he has a massive heart attack. It’s like, ‘Hello, Mr. Stalin, where does it end?’ It doesn’t stop.”

For years, trying to make sense of this legacy of pain, Andrew had turned to Buddhism, influenced in part by his late brother. In particular, the Buddhist concept of cause and effect seemed to speak to his experience. “It’s like everyone has a mirror and they’re walking around,” he explains. “Some people’s mirrors are gray and they’re cloudy. Other people spend time polishing. And that daily work, I think, is vital.”

Now Andrew has a plan. He envisions a movie about Kravchenko’s life and wants to see “I Chose Freedom” reprinted. Kern already is working on a scholarly biography. Andrew hopes to find a worthy institution--a university, most likely--that will give a home to the Victor Kravchenko Archive. Scholars will study it, and his father will be restored to his rightful place in history.

Andrew sees himself, one day soon, flying to Ukraine, the ancestral home that he has never seen. Below are ancient farms and fields brought to ruin in his father’s time, the scar tissue of collectivization. There also are the mines and factories in which Kravchenko toiled. Arriving in Zaporozhe, the town that was home to generations of Kravchenkos, he hires a boat, maybe a simple rowboat, and pulls it out into the wide Dnieper River, where Kravchenko fished and swam with his grandfather as a boy. In Andrew’s lap are his father’s ashes. In the center, he stops, the river lapping against the boat, the current tugging. He picks up the urn and flings the ashes into the air. They swirl, gray flecks against an iron sky, and then flutter into the water, holding a moment on the surface and then vanishing. Victor Kravchenko is home. And Andrew, the dutiful son, is free.

Mitchell Landsberg is a Times staff writer.