Monday, December 28, 2015

The Men of Hutava

This is my grandfather Massey Pribish.  It was probably taken in 1913 or so.  I believe it was a picture he had taken when he was arrived Joliet, Illinois and sent it to his wife in Russia.  But I'm getting ahead of the story.
Massey Pribish Circ 1913
The story of Ikons begins in 1904.  Massey and his brother Sam are planning to leave their home in Hutava to claim their fortune.   Since I didn't have any pictures of the two brothers when they were young, I chose to use a picture of two Russians I found in a history book as inspiration. 

Massey and Sam's Stand-ins

"Victor looked carefully at each man trying to decide who would give the most work for the least pay.  Over to one side he saw two young men standing apart from the rest.  They were of medium height and strongly resembled one another.  One, the oldest, already had a dense growth of hair on his upper lip; the other lad, only a mere shadow.  Both were lean.  Not the hungry lean Victor usually saw, but a sturdy, muscular lean.  Their hair was black and close cropped, more in the fashion of a soldier than the bowl-shaped chasha of a peasant, and their skin was still dark from days in the sun.  It was obvious both were just off the land and not yet broken by factory labor.  Victor leaned toward the yard-boss and pointed a leathery finger at Samuel and Massey.  "Those two," he said and quickly walked back to the mill."

* * *

Based on this photo, I constructed a story line for the brothers.  At the time I didn't have all the family information about the two, so I made it up resulting in two mistakes.  First, in my novel Sam was the solid older brother and Massey the feisty little brother.  In actuality, Massey was older.  Second, I named Sam, Sam, an honest mistake.  All my life I knew my great-uncle as Sam.  It turned out his name was Sergei and he had changed his name to Sam when he came to the United States in 1910.

For the rest of the men in Hutava I used this photo.  Notice the man on the far right.  He became my great grandfather, Major Sergei Pribish. Many years later I obtained records from the Department of Homeland Security, which listed Massey's father's name as Lucian Lukaszewicz.  I have no idea what that means.
The Men of Hutava

My father called his grandfather on the Pribish side, The Major.  It could be he was a major in the Tsar's army or was mayor of Hutava.  Both words are similar in Russian.  I chose to name him Serei and make him a retired army officer.  Note the medals on his chest.  Russian officers in 1900 were usually of noble birth.  The only way Sergei could attain commissioned rank was by serving in the Asian frontier.  So that's how his story came to be.  Sending him to the Far East also allowed me to explain my father's Tatar features.  Sergei's story is the frame upon which Russia's participation in the Great War was constructed.

According to DHS, my father's maternal grandfather was Andrew Kotchik.  Not knowing this in 1992, I named him Boris Koscik.  My father claimed he was a horse thief.  Boris' story is based on the recollections of my then ten year-old father and is instrumental on projecting the story of politics in the Russian village.

Other villager men were the inn-keeper, mayor, assorted farmers and of course, the village villain, Shako.

Using old photos was not an original idea of mine. It actually came from Sue Grafton (Alphabet Murder series).  She taught my class at the Antioch Writers' Workshop and brought in photos to use as props.  One of her photos became a character in my second book.

Giving the brothers opposite personalities and placing them under the thumb of a domineering father allowed me to create a coming-of-age story for the two boys.  I used my own experience and those of my friends to paint a picture of young men leaving home, looking for work and finding it the lower levels of the factory.  While our lives may have been sixty years removed from that of our grandfathers, our experiences were similar.  It would have been something to actually be able to have a discussion between me and my grandfather at age eighteen.

Russian Factory Workers - Circ 1900
Based on this photo, I do believe our grandfathers had it rougher than we did.

More Ikon Reader

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


The Village of Hutava
I grew up hearing relatives speak of an exotic Russian village called Hutava located in Western Tarist Russia (Now Belarus) near the city of Drognichin.  Although I never visited the place, it was as real to me as New York City or Chicago.  While researching my story I came across a series of color photos from Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky, the photographer for the Tsar.  Prokudin-Gorskii as tasked to make color images of the Tsar's vast empire. Many of his photos, now residing in the United States National Archives, had been digitized and made available on line. From them I constructed an imaginary village consisting of a church, an inn, and several dozen izbah, Russian peasant homes.

A color picture of a Russian village circa 1904

Hutava Surrogate 
Present day church in Hutava
The village I grew up in, Rockdale, Illinois, was populated by many first generation Eastern Europeans and faintly resembled Russian towns I saw when I was stationed in Russia.  Slavic food, gardens, fences, clothing, and chicken coops all took me back to America in the 1940's, making it easy to reconstruct my story's location.  My experience as a weapon's inspector in the Soviet Union and four years of Upper Michigan winters, provided me with a first hand knowledge of bitterly cold winters.

I made my village exotic enough to pique the readers interest in a distant land, but familiar enough to engage memories of their home life.  Who does not recall aromas of food, the smell of fresh cut grass or hay, cold rain, and warm sun?

Tourists in exotic Hutava
Photo by Morton Steinberg
 Copyright © 2010 Debbie Kroopkin
My quest for a location now complete, it was time to populate the village.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Steve's Guide to Writing Historical Fiction

Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Steve Pribish and this is my initial blog post.  I am a self-published writer of historical fiction dealing with the Russian-American experience from 1905 to 1931. 

What I hope to accomplish through this blog is to present my Eastern European family's experience after immigrating to the United States and how their lives became the basis for three novels. My fictionalized stories are based on real people, though all the events may not have happened to the particular character.  Through my blog I plan to pass on lessons I learned about writing, publishing and selling your stories: i.e., dumb mistakes, brilliant ideas, and all the stuff in between. (Mostly dumb mistakes.)

Here  is my bio as seen on my book:

Steve Pribish was born in Joliet, Illinois of Russian immigrants and learned stories of "years ago" first hand from his father and grandfather. After college, Steve spent thirty-three years working for the United States government monitoring the Soviet Union. He was deeply involved in Russian culture and made prolonged trips into European Russia. His first two novels, Ikons and Banners are the result of several generations of experience. Steve is the author of over two hundred government reports and has written for Home and Away and Videomaker magazines, and several Midwestern newspapers. His short stories, There Will Be Crosses and The MiG and I both won regional first place awards.

There is more to my life than that, but for the time being, it will do.   

The Genesis of the Novel

One of the first things an immigrant to America did upon achieving a modicum of success was pose for a portrait.  Whether one man or an extended family, the results presided in their home’s place of honor surrounded by pictures of saints and the current president.  Alas, as families became Americanized, they regulated their portraits to a more obscure spot and replaced it with an art work whose colors matched the sofa. 

Pribish Family Portrait

I remember being introduced to my family’s portrait when it hung on the basement storeroom wall of our home in Rockdale, Illinois.  Following my father's death, I was entrusted with the treasure and promptly placed it in an out of the way spot in my basement work area.  Several years later, when the reproaching eyes of my bygone relatives finally bore deep enough into my soul, I started to dig into the history of the artifact.  

Its story was haunting.  Distant relatives recalled something about it saving my father’s life and others related the mystery of how all the people were together when they had never assembled as a group.  Sadly, the principles had passed away taking with them any direct connections to the portrait’s origin.

As I learned more, I attempted to assemble known facts into a short story called The Portrait.  However, the deeper I dug into the family tree the more tangled the roots became.  I was facing a saga of epic proportions.  The Portrait had morphed into a novel.

A very rough story outline resulted in a novel spanning over 700 pages. In 1989 I began my daunting task typing away on a 1980’s state-of-the-art Texas Instrument TI-99A word processor with an ever so slow dot matrix printer.  I christened my novel Ikons and divided it into three books.  Each book was titled after an icon used by the orthodox religion.  
Book One: Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker was set in the period from 1905 to 1914.  The title came from icon carried by Russian immigrants on their journeys.
Book Two: Christ With the Fiery Eyes covered World War One to the Bolshevik Revolution.  Its title reflected the icon carried by front-line Tsarist soldiers.
Book Three: She Who Nourishes spanned the revolution to final chapter in 1931.  Its title referred to the icon of the Blessed Mother bestowing God’s blessing on children. 

In the end the one novel became three: Ikons: Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker, Banners: For God, Tsar and Russia, and Slogans: Our Children, Our Future.

An historical-fiction novel needs three elements:  exotic locations, gripping characters, and a significant historical era.  I may be biased in believing my locations and characters qualify, but there is no denying my chosen era has historic events in spades.  From 1900 to 1930, the world experienced world war, revolution, competing economic systems, mass immigration and migration, xenophobia, and financial and social upheavals. The scope of these three decades was so vast, I scaled it down by putting a human face to all these events by placing my characters either history's forefront or the wake.