Lifelines: On Santa Barbara


On Art

Diana Markosian, The Arrival, from Santa Barbara, 2019. Courtesy of Rose Gallery.

I lived in Moscow during the summer of 1992, just after I graduated from college. The attempted coup by hardline communists to oust Mikhail Gorbachev had failed, the USSR had collapsed, and Russia was officially open to the West. Religious organizations were flooding in—including the one I’d signed up with at my university. We were there to teach English using a simplified version of the Gospel of Luke, a strategy I didn’t question back then. Most of my students wanted to learn American slang. One young man brought in a Sports Illustrated he’d purchased on the black market. He asked me to read aloud phrases he’d highlighted, then repeated what I said, copying my accent and cadence. Those were my favorite sessions.

What a time to be there, amid the influx of Westerners shopping in the dollars-only markets. Not the people I was with. The mission organization believed, rightly, that we were guests in the country and should live as the locals did. We waited in breadlines, milk lines, egg-shop lines, pretending that for us, too, times were hard. But there was no ignoring the imbalance between our dollar and the ruble. I hired a cab to take me from my hotel—the Hotel Akademicheskaya, a mile from Gorky Park—to the American embassy. The total cost was 300 rubles. For me it was the equivalent of about thirty cents; for a Russian, it was tantamount to spending $300 on a twenty-minute car ride. A bottle of Fanta was forty rubles, or about four cents. Imagine spending forty dollars on a bottle of soda. Still, in the tiny apartment where we were sharing a meal, one of my students pulled out bottles of Fanta and said, “I am sorry it is not Coca-Cola.”

I was reminded of this lost world in June, when I saw the photographer and filmmaker Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara at the Fotografiska Museum in Stockholm. The show opens with a placard displaying Markosian’s words:

When I was seven years old, living with my family in Moscow, my mother woke me up in the middle of the night and said we were going on a trip. The year was 1996. The Soviet Union had long collapsed, and by then, so had my family. We left without saying goodbye to my father, and the next day landed in a new world: America.

What follows is a series of rooms containing staged photographs, archival family images, and a few stray objects: a cherry-red rotary phone, a scalloped glass ashtray. (A photograph depicting these items, along with a small radio, is titled The Lifeline.) But the show’s centerpiece—the vehicle through which we watch the narrative unfold—is a short film dramatizing the journey Markosian’s mother, Svetlana, took from Moscow to America. Actors play the central roles. In one scene, Svetlana (played by Ana Imnadze) tries to buy bread at a crowded market; in another she has a violent argument with her estranged husband, Arsen. According to Jonathan Griffin’s 2020 profile of Markosian in the New York Times, her parents came to Moscow from Armenia to finish their Ph.D.’s and separated before Markosian was born. Arsen was an engineer, Svetlana an economist. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Arsen resorted to selling counterfeit Barbie dolls on the black market in order to survive.

Diana Markosian, Lifeline from Santa Barbara, 2019. Courtesy of Rose Gallery.

Interspersed with these scenes from daily life are clips of Svetlana in a darkened room watching a daytime drama called Santa Barbara. The show aired in Moscow from 1992 to 1999 and starred Robin Wright, A Martinez, and Dane Witherspoon, among others. It was the first American television series to air on Russian television. Millions of Russians tuned in, caught up in the fantasy world of the forever-feuding Capwell and Lockridge families. The private yachts and palm-lined streets, elegant dinner parties in mansions overlooking the Pacific—here, then, was the American Dream.

Svetlana gets caught up in that dream. She registers, in secret, as a mail-order bride and becomes engaged to a man named Eli, who lives—where else?—in Santa Barbara. In the middle of the night, Svetlana wakes her children Diana and David, ages seven and eleven, and tells them to pack. They leave the next morning without saying goodbye to their father, who has remained present in their lives despite the separation. The children will lose touch with him for the next fifteen years. 

Eli, played by actor Gene Jones, is waiting for the family at the airport in California. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he turns out to be a very old man, nothing like the photograph of the middle-aged man he’d sent. “When you came and saw him, what did you think?” the actress playing Svetlana asks the real Svetlana, who is middle aged now. The two women sit across from one another at a small dining table: the younger “Svetlana” in costume, the real Svetlana wearing a sleek black dress and pumps. 

“That was actually a little shocking,” the real Svetlana says. “I was definitely expecting different than I saw.”

Eli is a kind man. He and Svetlana make a noble attempt to love each other. One moving scene depicts the two of them in bed with a book open between them, Eli helping Svetlana practice English.

“I have confidence,” Eli says, enunciating the words.

“I have confidence,” Svetlana repeats.

“I am confident,” Eli says. 

“I am confident,” she repeats.

“But I was unhappy for a long time,” Svetlana says to her daughter in a recorded telephone interview, clips of which play in voice-over throughout the film. 

“Do you think he felt it?” Markosian asks.

“Of course he did,” Svetlana says.

Diana Markosian, The Pink Robe, from Santa Barbara, 2019. Courtesy of Rose Gallery.


Markosian’s film, scored by the composer Nils Frahm, is twelve minutes long. I watched it five times. Markosian collaborated with Lynda Myles, one of the scriptwriters on the original Santa Barbara, to write her own screenplay. I expected the film to feel like an episode of the soap opera. But it resists melodrama and heightened emotionalism. Eli is portrayed neither as villain—preying on a younger woman with no means—nor as victim of a femme fatale. Svetlana, too, refuses the victim role. In one of the voice-overs, Markosian says, “I’m trying to understand you, Mom.” “You need to love me,” the real Svetlana replies. “You don’t have to understand. I don’t need understanding.”

When I got home from Stockholm I pulled out the videos I’d recorded in 1992, my own chronicle of that world: interviews with my students, walks through the streets (everything in some stage of demolition, it seemed), standing in line for morozhenoe, ice cream. A weekend trip to Irina’s dacha in the countryside, where I drank a delicious Egyptian flower water and was sick for a week. A trip to Sergiyev Posad to see the Orthodox churches. (“You must not call it Zagorsk,” our guide said, referencing the town’s Soviet-era name. “Never again Zagorsk.”) Dinner with Vladimir and his wife, Olga, and their son, Paul. Vladimir was a professor at the Moscow Aviation Institute. We corresponded for several months after I left. Here’s an excerpt, dated December 12, 1992:

Now the economic situation in Russia is very hard. In this year the prices have grown more than 100 times and our salary have grown only 20 times. We see that in future will not be better than now and we think about the future work in the foreign countries in the field of my profession. Now Russia does not need the persons of my profession. Therefore I am obliged to change the field of the work, to do the commercial work, or to look for the work in my field of work in the foreign countries. 

Such hard-won democracy, overcoming czars and dictators to finally—finally—begin the long road toward a stable democracy. And now, just across the Baltic, a madman was attempting to turn back the clock: the day I saw the Markosian exhibit in Stockholm, Vladimir Putin launched an attack on the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine, injuring twenty people, five of them children. 


Markosian auditioned sixty men for the role of Eli. Each actor was asked to draft a mock letter to Svetlana, attempting to convince her to come to Santa Barbara, as the real Eli had done. The actors then read their letters on camera. Some of these letters are displayed alongside photographs of the various actors, with clips of their audition reels playing on a loop.

I am an attractive man—not extremely handsome—but I think attractive enough to please you.

I am a good Christian. I love God and his rules.

Svetlana Dearest, Thank you for the lovely letters and the photos. You are always in my thoughts, and I can’t wait to see you in person. We have written each other for a long time now, and I feel that each letter draws us closer together. If you will take the last—and biggest—step to me, I promise you won’t regret it.

Watching the actors audition for the role of Eli—one more distillation of the distance between fantasy and reality—I thought about my own summer in Moscow. How we pretended to teach English when in fact we were trying to make converts; how we playacted poverty while our students and their families suffered. I thought of the distance between the glitzed-up, televised version of the American Dream Svetlana put her hopes in, versus her experiences in America, but also the way these intersected. After all, Markosian went on to earn a master’s degree from Columbia. “It was a small little world and I changed that for you,” Svetlana says to Markosian in voice-over.

“Do you feel like our story is like a soap opera, Mom?” Markosian asks.

Svetlana is silent for a moment.

“It’s life,” she says, finally. 


Jamie Quatro is the author of Fire Sermon and I Want to Show You More. Grove Press will publish her novel Two-Step Devil in summer 2024 and her story collection Next Time I’ll Be Louder in 2025.