Boris Fishman

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Homeward Bound

There are two things most people don’t know about Vladivostok, the Far Eastern Russian port. The first is how to pronounce its name. Non-Russians worldwide simply will not be talked out of vladdy-VOS-talk, as if the place was around the bend from County Clare. (It’s Vla-dee-vos-TOK). The other is that one of its founders was a Swiss industrialist named Jules Brynner – grandfather to Yul Brynner, who, before becoming the King of Siam, hunted Siberian tiger in the surrounding taiga with his grandfather’s private army; and great-grandfather to Rock Brynner, Yul’s son, who several years ago became the first Brynner to return to his father’s birthplace since the family fled the Bolsheviks in 1927. Rock went to the Vladivostok International Film Festival to premiere all the Yul films – “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Anastasia,” “The King and I” – the Soviets suppressed in retribution.

Rock is a political science professor at Western Connecticut State University, but that hardly explains anything. He has been a street clown in Europe, a star on Broadway, a road manager for The Band and Bob Dylan, and – least explicably considering his slight frame – a bodyguard to Muhammad Ali. His wardrobe tends toward double-breasted hipster suits over pink tuxedo shirts and burgundy bowties, his head ubiquitously crowned by a rakishly crumpled fedora. He is a poly sci prof the way Melville was a customs inspector.

“My father didn’t talk about Russia,” Rock, who is “sixty fucking one,” said. “It was like that very first scene with Steve McQueen in ‘The Magnificent Seven’ where Steve McQueen says, ‘Where you from?’ and Yul says” – Rock pointed his right thumb behind his shoulder – “so then he says, ‘Where you goin’?’ and Yul goes” – Rock poked his right index finger ahead of him. “My father was like that,” Rock said, pointing forward again.

The Brynners escaped to Harbin, in China, and shortly thereafter to Paris, where Yul performed as a circus acrobat, and then, after an ill-timed triple somersault, sang gypsy songs in cabarets. When he was leaving China, “Yul did what any smart kid from the Orient would do,” Rock said, with some pride. “He filled his guitar with opium. And he was playing one night in Paris at a place called Monsigneur when up comes this French gentleman, asking for opium. It was Jean Cocteau. It’s a peculiar historical fact that Yul Brynner was Jean Cocteau’s opium dealer.”

In Vladivostok, Yul’s grandfather dug silver mines, established settlements and universities, and persuaded shipping magnates to try their luck in the Russian Empire’s version of San Francisco. (He also paved the way for the Russo-Japanese War when he sold a timber concession on the Japanese-dominated Korean Peninsula to Tsar Nicholas II. “It fell to me to correct Solzhenitsyn on the source of the Russo-Japanese War,” Rock said with strained modesty.) In Primorye, the Vladivostok region, there are residences, capes, and piers that bear the family name. Rock was feted like a wandering son reclaiming the homestead, though occasionally the city’s resources could not compete with its good will.

“In Vladivostok, when things went wrong – and a lot of things go wrong in Vladivostok – everyone just said, ‘It’s the Russian way,'” Rock said. “They had no water. A city of seven hundred thousand people, and they had water one hour a day. They live on a peninsula, so there’s water all around. Just not to wash or drink. But the first day of the festival, of course, everyone had water.” Rock giggled.

“There was this Mayor no one elected,” he continued. “The governor they didn’t mind so much because he’d already stolen everything possible. But the mayor wasn’t through yet. They didn’t know where this guy came from. Just showed up in office one day. Thick-neck kind of guy. So this guy said, ‘Why are all the cars backed up?’ Because of the traffic lights! So he took out all the traffic lights.” Rock giggled again.

“So now no one knows what to do at an intersection. Plus half the cars come from Japan, which means they’re right-hand drive. So they would do this thing with their eyebrows” – Rock arched his eyebrows meaningfully – “and just hope for the best. I mean, there are six different kinds of armed forces on the street, but no one’s directing traffic.”

Rock met the semaphore scourge himself, after touring the old Brynner residence, which still stands in the Old Town Jules Brynner imported European architects to build. “The mayor patted me on the shoulder and said: ‘Want it?'” Rock was also offered one of his great-grandfather’s silver mines. (He politely declined, but he’s helping to raise eco-awareness at the complex. Since his visit, both the mayor and his successor, a convicted criminal who won after his predecessor “tripped” on a grenade outside his office, have gone to prison. Vladivostok has been without a mayor for close to a year.)

“They’re like the Irish, the Russians,” Rock, who studied in Dublin, said. “Everyone’s drunk, everyone’s penniless, and everyone’s happy.” (Perhaps the mispronunciation of the city’s name is not so inapt, after all.)

Rock was welcomed with a Navy honor guard and made the front page of Vladivostok, the city’s eponymous broadside. “A man came up to me and said, ‘Did you know that rok means “fate” in Russian? You were fated to come back here.’ I was their connection to a pre-Soviet time.

“Yul never made it back to Russia,” Rock went on. “But two months before I went on my trip, I got a box in the mail from one of my half-sisters. It was my father’s cowboy boots from ‘Magnificent Seven.’ She bought them on eBay. They fit me perfectly. Yul couldn’t walk the streets of Vladivostok, but his boots did. And his music played from the loudspeakers.”

Since that visit, Rock has become quite a fixture in Vladivostok, lecturing about family history at local universities and blessing new businesses. “I’m very much a part of the city’s fabric now,” he said matter-of-factly. For his next adopted city, he wants Pyongyang. (The Brynners helped build an enormous resort at Chongjin, 75 miles south of the Russian border.) “I’m offering myself as a ping-pong,” Rock said, referring to the brand of diplomacy. “As is well known, Kim Jong Il is a huge fan of Hollywood films. I’m the last living link between Pyongyang and Hollywood.”

Published
February 28, 2009