Jaw-dropping life includes stay in Santa Barbara
Surreal was a word that kept cropping up during a phone interview with Diana Markosian, author of “Santa Barbara” (Aperture Foundation, $65), a 216-page, clothbound coffee table book that chronicles the story of Ms. Markosian’s journey from Russia to the United States.
During that time, Ms. Markosian; her mother, Svetlana, and older brother, David, lived in Santa Barbara from 1996 to 2005 with a man who responded to an ad placed by Svetlana with a Moscow agency.
“I am a young woman from Moscow and would like to meet a kind man who can show me America,” it read.
“There were a number of responses, but she chose the man who lived in Santa Barbara because the soap opera, ‘Santa Barbara,’ was the most popular program on television in what was then the Soviet Union,” said Ms. Markosian, whose Armenian parents moved to the Soviet Union to study for their doctorates at the university.
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, my father, an engineer, was forced to sell counterfeit Barbie doll dresses on the black market and paint matryoshka dolls for tourists in Red Square,” Ms. Markosian told the News-Press. “My mother, an economist, waited in bread lines and scoured the streets for bottles to sell. In the evenings, along with millions of other Russians, she watched ‘Santa Barbara.’ ”
In the U.S., the soap aired from 1984 to 1993 on NBC. It was the first American TV series to air on Russian television after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Under the weight of her parents’ struggles, the marriage disintegrated, and that’s when Svetlana placed the ad with the agency.
Ms. Markosian, now 31, said she was 7 years old when her mother woke her and her brother up in the middle of the night and “told us we were going on a trip. It was surreal.”
After a long flight from Moscow, they were greeted at LAX by a man who was not the handsome 50-year-old pictured in his photo but an overweight retiree wearing a windbreaker, jeans and New Balance shoes.
“ ‘Who is this man?’ I asked my brother. He said, ‘I don’t know. Mom said he can help us,’ ” Ms. Markosian recalled. “He drove us in his white 1995 Camaro to his home on the Mesa. I remember waking up in the middle of the night in what to me was a massive bedroom.
“In Russia, we had a bed for three people. In this home, each room was bigger than the next. It was surreal and confusing to be transported to another world overnight. It didn’t help that my mother was in the bathroom crying. She was terrified.”
Attending second grade at Vieja Valley Elementary School was another culture shock.
“The first day when I walked in I saw the students sitting in a circle on the floor reading. I couldn’t understand this informality. It was so foreign. In Russia, there was strict discipline. Each day the teacher inspected our hands to make sure our fingernails were clean. We wore dresses and stockings, no jeans,” said Ms. Markosian, who spoke no English except for a few sentences at the time. Today, there is no trace of an accent.
“My teacher and classmates were helpful, but I felt lonely, not necessarily in a negative way. Gradually, my past life faded. I really wanted to be American, I yearned to belong. I wanted to fit in, to become a California girl.”
Eli, who became her stepfather when her mother married him a year later, was kind and patient, teaching Svetlana English and taking the family on trips to Disneyland, Palm Springs and other places Ms. Markosian had heard about in Russia.
“We went to restaurants for the first time — little things,” she said. “He helped me become the person I am today.”
However, after Ms. Markosian and her brother graduated from La Colina Junior High and she was a sophomore at San Marcos High School, her life suddenly changed again when the family decided to move to San Francisco, where Svetlana had a job.
“The house was sold, and the day we were supposed to leave, Eli filed for divorce. He dropped us at a motel and never returned,” Ms. Markosian said. “The relationship lasted nine years, the same as ‘Santa Barbara,’ the television series. We were left with nothing and had to live in a homeless shelter in Santa Barbara for a year.
“Ballet was my escape. I spent most of my time at the West Coast Ballet School.”
In 2006, the family moved to Portland, Ore., where Svetlana found a job as an accountant and Ms. Markosian was admitted to the University of Oregon in Eugene, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in history and international studies.
In 2010, she earned her master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York City, financing her college careers by working at a variety of jobs.
Her plan to become a writer took an unexpected turn when Ms. Markosian attended a guest lecture on photography.
“I discovered an affinity for photography that I hadn’t experienced as a writer. The day after graduation from Columbia, I bought a one-way ticket to Moscow, where I spent the next two years, followed by a trip to Armenia in 2013 to be with my father,” she said. “I wanted to see the world.”
Ms. Markosian has become known for her intimate approach to storytelling using photography and video, and her images can be found in publications such as National Geographic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vogue and GQ. Her work is represented by the Rose Gallery in Los Angeles and Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire in Paris.
“In 2017, I came back to Oregon and had a long talk with my mother about how she met my stepfather. I thought he was a family friend until I was 27, and my mother finally revealed what had happened,” said Ms. Markosian. “I started to realize how my own life story resembled the ‘Santa Barbara’ soap opera. I moved to Hollywood and collaborated with Lynda Myles to produce a film about my life. Lynda had worked on the ‘Santa Barbara’ soap opera.
“Finding the actors to play my family took almost a year. I auditioned 384 women for the role of my mother.”
All the realistic photos in the book, which recreate her life in Santa Barbara, are from the film, and the people are actors with fictitious names. There are also several pages from the script.
Ms. Markosian, who moved to Los Angeles in December, said her “Santa Barbara” project helped recreate her past from her mother’s perspective.
“Although I was aware of the sacrifice she had made to provide her children a better life, I still struggled to accept it. I didn’t want to believe that was the trade. I didn’t want to confront that as a daughter. I chose to go back in time to see my story not through my point of view but through the point of view of my mother.
“You want to believe that your parents are heroes … We brush over their weaknesses, accept their decisions, respect them, often unconditionally, until we grow up, and our age affords us some perspective, we realize that they, like us, are human.”