Interview with Nikita Pavlovich Zhukov, the man who invented himself
Russian revolutionary emigration is a unique occurrence. Never before or after the Russian revolution was the crême de la crême of the people forced to save themselves by running from the masses, the same masses that were being enlightened and liberated by the best intellectual minds of the time. They did indeed liberate them, but at their own peril.
Although the wealthy managed to transfer their capital to the other side of the border and left, the educated Russians considered themselves lucky if they managed to get a hold of their documents and family heirloom. In worst cases, they appeared on Europe's doorstep with only the knowledge in their heads and their desire to survive and go back.
Many managed to survive and the myth of returning to Russia disintegrated several years late, probably at the time when the West realized that they can make a profit from the Bolshevik Russia or when “dedicated revolutionaries“ started talking about accounts and safety deposit boxes in Swiss banks.
My conversation with Nikita Zhukov, the man of unique destiny, led me to such thoughts.
When he was talking about his visit to Orenburg, which was practically owned by his family on his father's side, an episode from my own life came to mind.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, my father, allegedly in jest, said: “Come back, the President promised to return our house in Volsk.“ For a moment I tried to envision the process of the return of the building that now housed the city administration and decided to stay in Zagreb.
Another funny occasion comes to mind. My husband was longingly watching our “family nest“ on the opposite side of the garden, that was, regrettably, lost to us, forever. At that moment I remembered something that happened during the Russian World Conference in Saint Petersburg.
One of the guests of the Conference was Prince Alexander Alexandrovich Trubetskoi. I don't know if the Prince would agree with my opinion but I said the following to my husband: “You are longing for a simple three storey home! Imagine how the Prince must feel looking at his family's castle?!“
Still, I am thrilled by the fact that children from some of the wealthiest Russian families that were raised outside of Russia still love and respect the motherland.
I was fortunate enough to meet the Princes Alexander Trubetskoi, the President of the “French-Russian Dialogue Association“ and Dmitri, Shakovski, the Head of the Association of Russian Nobility in Saint Petersburg. I have met the descendants of the Russian nobility and intelligentsia in Paris, Vienna, Belgrade and Zagreb and I've met Nikita Zhukov, a Russian born in Zagreb, the man with an amazing career through Natalia Vorobyova.
I hope you will find his unusual biography an interesting read. As far as I'm concerned, he is the man for whom it can be said that he pulled himself up by his bootstraps thanks to, as Natalia always says, “the interference of his Majesty, the Lucky Chance“.
The hero of our tale is truly a unique person. His story reminded me of the story of the man after whom the oldest University in Russia was named. And, I have met this amazing man, once again, thanks to Natalia and his Majesty, the Lucky Chance.
Nikita Zhukov, as you may have gathered by now, is one of our own, a Russian. He was born and raised in Zagreb and learned to design and build fantastic edifices in America. When speaking about Nikita Zhukov, it is impossible not to mention historical events because the history of his family is irrevocably linked to famous historical figures and events.
The Zhukovs are one of the oldest Russian families. The progenitor of the family is considered to be a Greek, Ivan Samolvin who, according to legend, came from Constantinople with the Empress Anne, the bride of the Holy Vladimir. Ivan Samolvin received his nickname Zhuk from the Gran Prince himself. His proven descendant Vasily Vasilevich Zhukov ruled the settlements around Novgorod in 1476.
Many member of the Zhukov family served as the commanders of Moscow archers, courtiers and imperial clerks. The family is mentioned in the sixth volume of the Book of Genealogy of the governorate of Nizhny Novgorod (List of Coats of Arms, VI, 6).
Two other branches of the Zhukov family, which can be found in the sixth part of the Book of genealogy of the governorates of Moscow, Tambov and Kaluga (List of Coat of Arms VI, 25), are mentioned as early as the 16th century and yet another two branches can be found in the sixth volume of the Book of Genealogy of the governorate of Orenburg and Ryazan in the 17th century.
According to documents found in archives by Nikita Zhukov, his family is descended from the Orenburg branch and the title of boyar has been in his family since A.D. 970.At the time when first genealogical books were written, the Zhukovs had ruled the Orenburg area for one hundred years.
There is a funny story I have forgotten to tell you, that is connected to Orenburg and it was told to me by Nikita Pavlovich.
Some 45 years ago, Nikita Zhukov felt a sudden urge to inspect his “heritage“. This was the time of the Soviet Union and the mayor met him with no particular enthusiasm. The mayor enquired as to his expectations and Mr. Zhukov, who at that time was a wealthy American, and who replied that he wants nothing from the city of Orenburg and that he just wanted to see the place from where his ancestors on his father's side originate. Upon hearing those words, the mayor relaxed and organized a feast to which he invited all political dignitaries. This is the event that stands out in the memory of Nikita Zhukov.
At the end of the 19th century Pavel Zhukov is said to have travelled from the Urals, where he was born, to Saint Petersburg, where he attended the military school. Since Nikita Zhukov’s memory are not complete and since he had no particular contact with his father after the divorce of his parents and only came into possession of the documents after his father’s death, I will let myself be carried away by my imagination. All of my guesses might be true because historical facts corroborate fragmentary memories.
Pavel Zhukov probably attended the Constantine artillery school, the military school of the Russian imperial army that educated artillery officers, located in Saint Petersburg at 17, Moskovsky Prospekt. Another fact speaks in favor of this conclusion. During our talk, Nikita Zhukov mentioned a silver bowl given to his father by the members of the Cossack community, probably while he was at school. For example, in March 1907, during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the school, the Emperor Nicolas II presented cadets with silver trumpets on which the following was written: «1807-1832-1855-1859-1894-1907».
Still, the Cossack version of the story also seems very probable.
The Cossack community actively started taking shape in Saint Petersburg in the middle of the 17th century. Its founders are believed to be the Cossacks of Don, Princes Ponyatovsky, Razumovsky, Orlov-Denisovy and many officers of the Leib guard of the Cossack regiments and Cossacks who accompanied His Imperial Majesty. At the time when Pavel Zhukov attended the Saint Petersburg military school, there were regional groups among the members of the community and one of them was the Orenburg Cossack community.
On his mother's side, Nikita Zhukov's family comes from Harkov, but at the time of the Revolution they had been living for a while in Saint Petersburg. And, they haven't only been living there – the family legend says that the great grandfather Nikita Mikhailov was one of the obstetricians who delivered the last Russian empress. The Mikhailov family is sadly not mentioned in Igor Zimin's book “The doctors of His Royal Highness' court or How the royal family was treated“, that mentions the family names of doctors ever since the time of Catherine II up to Alexandra Fyodorovna. Still, the child remembers his grandmother's stories of listening at her father's office doors together with her mother during father's working day because the mother was insanely jealous, regardless of the fact that nothing could have happened at court since the Empress never came to the doctor's house. On the other hand, the book relates the story that after the birth of the Grand Princess Olga Nikolaevna, an edict was issued on November 4, 1895, promoting “D.O. Ott into the OBGYN of His Majesty’s Court“. A while later, Dmitriy Oskarovich Ott, the manager of Midwives' school and the manager of the Ladies' medical school built a magnificent obstetrical and gynecological palace on the “golden land“ of Strelka of the Vasilevski Island. The palace was visited by both Nicolas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna for its opening on February 24, 1904. Nikolai Mikhailov must have worked at that clinic and held private practice at home. That was the custom at the time.
The child remembers yet another interesting family legend, about the marriage of his grandmother. At that time in Russia the customs were very strict and not only concrete actions were regarded as a sign of “serious intent“, but also an innocent kiss. In our case, a touch on a cheek upon parting. The grandmother was only 16 and after such a “disgrace“, as an honorable young woman, she felt that she had to accept the offer of marriage from the young man. So, she married the man but managed to refrain from fulfilling her marital duties for over a month, until her desperate husband lied to her that her perfect complexion will begin to suffer if she continues to abstain. That was the argument that forced the young wife to succumb to her husband's efforts and that was how our hero's mother was born. We remain surprised that a gynecologist’s daughter remained so “untouchable“. Perhaps listening at her father's office door deprived her of any desire to do her “marital duty“.
After escaping from the war-torn Russia, the emigrants Pavel and Lyubov were brought to Zagreb by His Majesty, the Lucky Chance. The consequence of this fateful meeting of a white guard officer and a doctor's daughter was the birth of the son, Nikita in 1934.
Indeed, after Nikita's grandparents Lyubov and Vsevolod Nesterovsky came to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, they didn't get lost but managed to prosper. At the time of their arrival, in Zagreb there was a store called «Kastner i Öhler», located where today's NAMA (NArodni MAgazin) store is. How the Nesterov's managed to partner with Karl Kastner and German Öhler is anybody's guess. The only thing that is certain is that at the time when their grandson was born, the Nesterov's had a small shop selling fruits and vegetables. We don't know if Nikita Zhukov read the book by Tatiana Pushkadia Rybkin entitled “Russian emigrants“, which mentions the names of his grandparents. The book says that Vsevolod Georgievich Nesterovsky was a “major in the Russian imperial army“ and page 53 describes Lyuba Nesterovska, as a “small-time shop keeper of exotic and domestic fruits“. Mr Nikita Zhukov's mind is very clear and we owe a great thanks to Tatiana Vitalievna, who spent her entire working life at the Zagreb Archive for saving and confirming the memories of her compatriots.
Indeed, Nikita Zhukov and Tatiana Pushkadiya-Rybkin belong to the same generation – the children of emigrants, born in Zagreb. They probably met at the Russian club, participated in same New Year’s pageants, were, perhaps, even in love with each other. Even if the recollections of Nikita Pavlovich of that time are relatively fuzzy, thanks to the book entitled “Russian emigrants“ the gaps in his biography can be credibly filled.
Nikita remembers the Theatre Square and the Evangelical church located not far from the club which he frequently visited with his parents. In Tatiana Vitalyevna's book we read: “'The Russian club', was founded at the end of December 1925. ... In the beginning of 1938, the Club was located in the Croatian Teacher's Assembly at Number 4, King Alexander's Square, second floor (the note adds: today's Marshal Tito Square and recently, Square of the Republic of Croatia), or, as it is known among the general public, Theatre Square). The Club was a place where one could play various parlor games, use the library, organize tea parties and numerous events. The club also became the meeting place for various active Russian societies and communities“.
If we take into consideration the year in which Nikita Pavlovich was born (1934), we can bravely say that his childhood coincided with the appearance of the Independent state of Croatia on the historical scene (the term Theatre square, which is still used today, comes from that time), and his youth with the building of the young socialist country of Yugoslavia. The marriage of his parents broke up just before the beginning of the war but, in accordance with the ancient Russian tradition, the grandparents didn't leave the child with his irresponsible parents but had decided to raise him themselves. What happened to Nikita's parents later is described in the book “Russian emigrants“.
«... among the emigrants from Russia who didn’t have Yugoslav citizenship there were many significant scientists and cultural figures who never broke any laws of the FNRJ (Federativna narodna republika Jugoslavija, 1946-1963, Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia 1946-1963, later SFRY). Similar actions were offensive to them and many decided ... to leave the FPRY and emigrate for the second time... Younger members of the family usually decided to cross the ocean while their families remained waiting for them to find their way in their new home and would join them later… Of those who stayed, the majority found their new homes and an eternal rest here (in Zagreb).“
Among those who fled “across the ocean“ were Nikita's parents, who finally put down roots in New York. His mother met her second love in Belgrade, and then came along Munich and finally New York. After their divorce, Nikita's father went to Austria, to Graz, where he finished the Faculty of Architecture at the Technical University in Graz (Technische Universität Graz). After that, he also moved to New York in 1954. Nikita's grandfather died in 1940 (Nikita Pavlovich still visits his grave at Mirogoj every year) and about a year after the departure of her grandson, Nikita's grandmother also moved to New York.
Nikita Zhukov's childhood memories are quite unclear because he used to visit the Russian club with his parents before the war and his parents divorced when he was only 2 or 3 years old. The same book informs us that at the time of the Independent state of Croatia (ISC), the Russian club ceased to exist. “The “Novi list“ newspapers from July 15, 1941 published an article entitled 'Russian club in the ISC to create a legion of volunteers to fight against the Bolsheviks’.“ In the opinion of the author of the book “Russian emigrants“, this particular article was the reason why all the members found in the club itself in May 1945 were taken to an undisclosed location never to be seen again.
It is also safe to assume that, since his grandmother kept a safe distance from the Russian club after the death of her husband, Nikita became such a scamp. But, don't get me wrong, there was no criminal activity involved! It was just that nobody was allowed to pass through either Klaićeva or Krajiška streets without his previous approval.
Nikita spent the first 16 years of his life in 62, Klaićeva Street. Six of those years he lived in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, 4 in the Independent state of Croatia and 5 in the Federative People's Republic of Yugoslavia. Thanks to his parents, Nikita was considered to be a stateless person (which he didn’t mind until he turned 16) and on his 16th birthday he had to decide on the nationality he would assume.
Since his mother was already settled in the US, and due to the experience of the Bolshevik revolution, Informburo, postwar deportations of Russians back to the USSR and the Goli otok (1948), it was decided at a family meeting that Nikita would travel to America. And so, at a ripe old age of 16, Nikita Zhukov found himself with a cardboard suitcase, no high school diploma and no knowledge of English at the Zagreb Western railway station.
All of this was just an introduction. Now comes the story of a Russian boy, born and raised in Zagreb, who became a famous architect and businessman.
Up until this moment, the story was based on childhood memories, data from the Internet and facts gathered from various books and developed according to the principle “it was probably so“. Now, we shall let Nikita Zhukov himself continue the tale.
Ljetopis: Nikita, I am sure you will agree that you didn’t really have an auspicious beginning. How were you able to conquer America with such a burden? Who helped the most, your mother or your scamp mentality?
Nikita Zhukov: (laughing) Probably the latter. My mother wanted to enroll me in a high school but I had no papers and since the educational system is so very different in America, the high school is considered to be very prestigious. Anyway, I wasn't accepted to a high school so I started working as a draftsman at a construction company. My stepfather and stepsiblings and I never saw eye to eye and I decided to live on my own. This is probably where I benefitted the most from my scamp experience. But, this was not all. Sports are very popular and important in the US and back in Yugoslavia I used to be a member of a junior water polo team at the Mladost water polo club. An acquaintance of mine, who knew I used to play water polo seriously back in Yugoslavia, recommended me to the trainer of a water polo team.
Ljetopis: So, you managed to get into a college?
N.Z.: No, it is not the same in America. Every Faculty in America favors a particular type of sport and Queens College favored water polo. As I have already said, I had no high school diploma and I couldn't get into college; but, I knew that there was a technical high school in Brooklyn so I entered that, graduated and got my diploma. I played for the college team only once, but well enough for that acquaintance to recommend me to the team of the NewYork Athletic club, a very accomplished team of water polo players, where I became the star player.
While I was there, I met a man who worked in the accounting office of the Columbia University in New York. He came to the pool every day, saw me train and asked if I wanted to study at the University. Me? At the University?! It was more than I could even dream! Not thinking for a second, I answered “YES, OF COURSE!“ He said that he knew a patron, a philanthropist from Rumania or Bulgaria, I can't remember, who covers the cost of the first year of study, apartment and all expenses for one athlete each year.
Ljetopis: Talk about His Majesty the Lucky Chance! Although, His Majesty probably wouldn't have paid much attention to you if you hadn't been such an accomplished athlete, which is to your credit. How did you do with the language?
N. Z.: You are right; it was much harder for me to study than for any of my colleagues because I was still struggling with English. But, His Majesty also meddled in that, too. The meddling goes back to Zagreb, where I studied German from a very young age, from kindergarten. I was supposed to take French but my grandfather had had a row with my French teacher and I had to take German. After that, I attended Evangelical school and by the time I had reached University level, my German was really good.
Ljetopis: Were you able to choose your Faculty?
N.Z.: Yes and I chose the School of Architecture which was supposed to last for 6 years but I managed to graduate in 5. My draftsman's experience came in handy. As I have already mentioned, my patron covered only my first year of study and I had to find another source of income after that. The Faculty provided its best students with a small scholarship which was not sufficient. I worked during the night and studied during the day and I also swam and played water polo. During my first year of study I came in first in swimming at the competition of American Universities.
I graduated from the University in 1958 as the best student and got a grant from the School of Architecture. The grant was an award for being the best student and I was supposed to spend it on a six-month-long educational journey to study architecture.
Ljetopis: How interesting! And, how did you spend the money?
N. Z.: I bought a small Volkswagen and transported it by boat to Genoa. I went to shore, sat in my little car and almost started to cry. I had no idea where to go and what to do. But, after a while I collected myself and travelled by car through the entire Italy, Greece and Serbia. I chose those countries because I was interested in Byzantine architecture. We were taught at School that the Byzantine style in the history of Egypt begins after the destruction of the Roman Empire, after which the Coptic (Christian) architecture takes over. I wasn't able to reach Egypt then but I made up for it many times since, while I studied the development of Byzantine culture in Europe with great interest. For example, St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow is a great example of Byzantine baroque while some small churches in Serbia and Bosnia were built under the influence of the Greek style. Without a doubt, the Church of Hagia Sophia is one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture of the 14th and 15th centuries but it was also very interesting to follow the development of this architectural form in former Yugoslavia.
While I was travelling around Europe, one of my University professors offered me a job in Israel. He invited me to come to the construction site of the Hadassah Medical Organization, Hadassa Hospital. Without even thinking about it, I cut my journey short and travelled to Jerusalem. I was the only Christian to work on the architectural project of this world famous medical facility. I spent two years in Israel and became best friends with Ben-Gurion.
Ljetopis: The names you mention! You are talking about THE Ben-Gurion, the Russian Jew who read the Declaration of Independence in 1948 and became one of the founding fathers of the State of Israel? If I am not wrong, at the time when you were in Jerusalem, he was the Prime Minister (1955-1963)?
N. Z.: The same. We met at the hospital during a cocktail. We were introduced and started talking in English. In the beginning, it was difficult for me to understand him, having already mastered the language, but I later realized that Ben-Gurion pronounced most of the words in Russian. I suggested we switch to Russian which made him very happy and he even hugged me. Since that moment I travelled each and every weekend to visit him and his wife Paula at the kibbutz in Sde Boker, where he lived.
Ljetopis: Interestingly enough, your wife's name is also Paula?
N. Z.: (laughing) Yes, but we didn't meet in Israel. After Jerusalem, I returned to America and married three times. I did do many stupid things. Paula is my fourth wife and we have been together for 42 years.
Ljetopis: Of course, it took you some time to realize that, if you wanted to be a great man, you had to marry a Paula. But, what happened after your return from Israel?
N. Z.: I worked in the Bermuda for a while. It was suggested I should open an office there because none of the local architects had a license. Besides, there were a huge number of so-called architects there because anyone with an affinity for architecture would simply declare themselves an expert. I, on the other hand, had an American license and was entrusted with serious projects. I spent 4 or 5 years there and that is where my third wife and I had our son. In 1970 I returned to New York. I met a wealthy businessman who owned casinos in Las Vegas and who offered me a job. I agreed but on condition that I don't work for him but have my own architectural office. We agreed that, in the beginning I would work primarily on his projects but that I am also free to take on other jobs. That's how it all begun. We can even say that he jump started my business.
Ljetopis: Which of your projects was the most successful or the most interesting?
N. Z.: My first solo project was the Riviera hotel and casino in Las Vegas; it was torn down in 2016. In America it is common to tear down a building and erect a new one in its place, that's the national pastime. I built congress centers and shopping malls and then I decided to spread out. Aside from architectural projects, my firm was in charge of the whole process of building, from beginning to the end. We signed contracts with subcontractors and were in charge of the build.
Ljetopis: We also know that you established a Foundation to support young architects and designers. How did that happen?
N. Z.: When I arrived in, what was then still Yugoslavia, on one occasion I met the great architect Bernardo Bernardi. We became great friends and I invited him and his wife to come visit us in New York. It was he who suggested I establish such a Foundation. I remembered that I was also helped by someone and agreed. On the basis of the opinion of a professional panel of judges, each year the Foundation rewarded the best young designer. When Croatia became an independent country, the award was given to the best young Croatian designer. Unfortunately, Bernardi died very early and I kept the project running for a while in his name but it was very difficult to do so from across the ocean and I wasn't able to find anyone who would take my place. Bernardi and his team worked on a purely voluntary basis. At that time I had already had several subsidiaries in large American cities and they all demanded my attention so I practically had to live on the plane. Then, in 1989, the Association of Croatian Architects established the award entitled “Bernardo Bernardi – For the best project in the area of design and interior decoration“. For a while, both of these awards were given simultaneously but then my Foundation stopped operating in Croatia.
Ljetopis: Did anyone besides Bernardi help you with the Foundation, here in Zagreb?
N. Z.: When Bernardi and I decided to establish the Foundation, I met a unique man, architect, sculptor, artist and set designer, Vjenceslav Richter, who helped the Foundation a great deal.
Ljetopis: Are you talking about the famous “rebel with a vision“, the author of the Yugoslav pavilion at the EXPO-58 in Brussels?
N. Z : The same. The concept of urbanism (city planning) was his idea as well as the decision to divide a circle not into 360 degrees, but into 512 degrees. Richter wasn't just an architect, he discovered new perspectives in art, changed the world around him. I remember him taking me to the construction site of the Villa Zagorje, which was at that time designated for Tito and which is today the residence of the President of the Republic of Croatia. Together with Kazimir Ostrogović, Richter designed the villa. Аnd, as far as the Foundation is concerned, I was in America and couldn't keep track of the artistic work of young designers or send their works to various competitions. Richter also helped me there a great deal. The Foundation lived until his death in 2002 and then there was no one to take it over professionally. Of course, I was greatly helped by Natasha Vorobyova, and not only in the matters of the foundation. I am very grateful to her for helping me fight my way through the paperwork that I received after the death of my father.
Ljetopis: Do you visit Croatia every year?
N. Z.: Yes, I have been coming here for the past 45 years, to the place where I was born and where my grandfather's grave is. Paula and I rest for two months in Dubrovnik and come to Zagreb in the autumn. We travel around Europe from Zagreb and frequently visit Istanbul (which I still refer to as Constantinople).
Ljetopis: I am not at all surprised. It is from there that your ancestor Zhuk came to Ancient Russia. You stay at the Westin hotel when you come to Zagreb. From there you can see the street where you grew up and the entire part of the city where you spent your childhood. Is that a coincidence?
N. Z.: It might be construed as such but I never thought about that. We like walking around Zagreb and that is why we like our hotel to be near the city center. Besides, there was a tradition in my family to have our photograph taken every year next to the old water pump on Britanski Square. This year we were surprised to find a fountain in its place. Still, I found the exact same water pump when I came to visit my grandfather's grave on Mirogoj. From now on, we'll have our picture taken there.
I would have been able to listen to Mr. Zhukov's interesting story for hours, but he and Paula had to move on. The very next day they planned to fly back home, to Palm Beach, Florida and attend a Salvation Army charity ball. Mr. Zhukov is one of the sponsors and organizers of the ball. We hope that Paula and Nikita will come to Zagreb again in the fall. It seems that all the Zhukovs' roads lead to Zagreb.
Katarina Todorceva Hlača
Translate Dubravka Pleše
23 марта 2018г.
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