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In remarkable biography, Vic Fischer makes Alaska history come alive

Nancy Lord
Loren Holmes photo

REVIEW: "To Russia with Love: An Alaskan’s Journey," by Victor Fischer with Charles Wohlforth. University of Alaska Press, 2012.

The name of Victor Fischer should be well known to most Alaskans.  One of the last three members of our Constitutional Convention still standing, Vic speaks frequently as an elder statesman on constitutional matters.  Many Alaskans will also know him as Anchorage’s first city planner, founder of the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, a former state senator, and, on his last return from retirement, the director of the Office of Russian Affairs at the University of Alaska Anchorage.  They may know that his early years were lived in Moscow and that his father was a famous American journalist.

Those are just the broadest, very partial outlines of a remarkable life captured now in an extraordinarily well-researched and well-told autobiography.  If you shy from autobiographies as self-aggrandizing accumulations of details that no one but a mother could love, expect something quite different here.  Reading this one is like sitting with Vic for one of the most fascinating conversations of your life.  (Let me say, before going any further, that I once worked for Vic and consider him a mentor and friend — and a terrific storyteller.)  The voice is all Vic’s, assisted by the very able interviewing and organizational skills of “book partner” (Vic’s words) Charles Wohlforth, himself a lifelong Alaskan and author.  

It’s one thing to read history in a textbook and quite another to hear it first-hand from someone who witnessed Stalin’s Great Purge, fled to the U.S. and served in its military, then made his way to Alaska to build a life of purpose and humanity.  If Vic seems to have known everyone, been present at every twist of history, and applied his hand to an inordinate number of institutions, policies, and lives — that may be because it’s true. Vic doesn’t boast.  Instead, he acknowledges repeatedly the role of luck in his life.  He was on the receiving end of an in-born optimism, early experiences that bequeathed him strong values and confidence, timely encounters, opportunities that needed what he could give, deep and enriching friendships.

Always a dreamer in the best sense of the word, Vic grew from childhood infatuations with Arctic exploration and a handy ability to fix things to a key moment on the troop ship carrying him to war in 1945.  In the ship’s library he discovered a book about architecture and learned that there was a profession called city planning.  He soon fit his passions together, earned a planning degree at MIT, and — with the fateful involvement of a friend already working in Alaska — arrived in Anchorage in 1950 as the Bureau of Land Management’s man to lay-out new towns and address problems in existing ones.   

Vic’s early Alaska years may be the most fascinating for Alaskans, with insider accounts of post-war development, the fight for statehood, the 1964 earthquake and aftermath, Prudhoe Bay oil development, and much more.  This Alaskan history is so recent still — and yet rapidly being lost as a generation passes and our always-transient population moves through.  How many of today’s voters can correctly identify Bill Egan, Frank Peratrovich, the roots of our unsettled Native subsistence rights, the origin of Anchorage’s “park strip,” why Valdez looks like Valdez?  Current debates over equal rights, oil taxation, and economic development would all be better informed if Alaskans knew more of their own history.  Vic gives perspective to the can-do spirit that brought Alaskans of various political persuasions together for a common good.  Respect and compromise built Alaska -- not that self-service and political corruption haven’t always been with us. Vic details some of that, too.

Elsewhere in “To Russia with Love,” Vic tells the richly detailed and deeply moving story of what he calls “the troika.”  He and his two best boyhood friends in Moscow, separated when he left for America, ended up serving in three different (American, Russian, and German) armies and had radically different life experiences during and after the war. Years later, the three reunited, and their families visited across the Berlin Wall and other divides on numerous occasions. This decades-long story forms a case study of how lives are shaped by political ideologies and circumstances beyond the control of smart and idealistic individuals. Vic’s friends survived to achieve impressive measures of success; one friend became an acclaimed architect and wealthy businessman, the other a famous filmmaker.  There were also costs — to families, psyches, and health.  Here again, Vic’s sense of good fortune and appreciation of his American freedoms come to the fore.  No one can doubt that he was dealt the best hand.

As early as the 1960s, when Vic was directing ISER, he began reaching out to Russian academics to share knowledge about northern development.  After the lifting of the “Ice Curtain” in 1989, he was intimately involved with various exchanges and programs to assist with trade and the development of Russian democracy.  This circling back to the people and language of his birth is a central theme in Vic’s life story.

We all know that memory is fickle, not to be trusted.  But again, luck is with us.  Vic comes from a lineage of writers and savers.  He and Charles Wohlforth were able to access not just memory but books written by Vic’s parents and brother as well as documents held in archives, Vic’s own archives and personal papers, various transcripts and recordings, letters and photographs, and other books.  The extensive documentation makes To Russia with Love something very different from one person’s nostalgic memories.  The archival materials and interviews gathered and referenced will surely be a valuable resource for future historians.

If I had one wish, it would be for a different book title and cover photo.  Less Russia, more Alaska, more journey with luck and heart.  This gift from a long, richly lived life of public service and “fun” (a word that frequents the pages) should be widely read and enjoyed.

Former Alaska Writer Laureate Nancy Lord is the author of "Beluga Days: Tracking the Endangered White Whale," "Rock, Water, Wild: An Alaskan Life" and "Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-Changed North" and several other books.  She lives in Homer, Alaska.