Former Alaska lawmaker Vic Fischer will be the featured speaker Friday when the University of Alaska Southeast hosts the next program in its Sound and Motion Spring Arts Series. Fischer’s informal talk centers on his recently released memoir, “To Russia with Love: An Alaskan’s Journey.”
Depending on how long they’ve lived in Alaska, residents may know Fischer as one of the 55 delegates to the state’s constitutional convention; a territorial legislator; Anchorage planner; a state senator in the 1980s; director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research; and a key player in Alaska-Russia relations when the Ice Curtain thawed in 1989.
While they may know how Fischer’s life is an integral part of Alaska’s recent story, Alaskans may not be familiar with the journey that brought him here. Fischer was born May 4, 1924, in Berlin. His father was Louis Fischer, noted U.S. journalist and book author, and his mother, Markoosha, was a Russian teacher, translator, social worker and writer. The family, which included Fischer’s older brother, George, managed to escape Stalinist Russia in 1939, only because First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt intervened, at the request of Louis Fischer.
In the book Fischer recounts one compelling story after another, including the tale of three childhood friends, “the troika.” The three — Lothar Wloch, Konrad Wolf and Fischer — met while attending the Karl Liebknecht School in Moscow. As teenagers, they were separated and during World War II, each fought for a different side. Wloch served in the German army, Wolf in the Soviet army and Fischer in the U.S. Army. They all survived the war and were reunited many years later — their friendship surpassing the very different turns their lives had taken. Their final escapade together was on the arctic ice at Prudhoe Bay.
These true-life anecdotes make “To Russia with Love” a page turner, as he personalizes key events in Alaska, U.S. and international history. The result is what reviewer and former Juneau resident Bob Rubadeau describes as “an epic memoir that reads like a best-selling thriller.”
In addition to his Sound and Motion presentation, Fischer will give a talk, “Hopes and Dreams of Alaska’s Constitution as Seen Today,” at Holy Trinity Church downtown on Saturday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m. He will also be part of an education forum, “Alaska’s Constitution -- Highlight of Our 100-Years of Legislative History,” at the Capitol Thursday, Feb. 21, at 5 p.m. in the Fahrenkamp Room.
Fischer’s Sound and Motion talk is at 7 p.m., Feb. 22, in the Egan Lecture Hall in the Egan Classroom Wing, on the UAS campus. Sound and Motion events are free and open to the public.
Although held in a lecture hall, Fischer’s Friday night presentation will be more like an informal conversation with one of the icons of Alaska history and politics.
It’s a format Fischer, 88, excels at.
Speaking Nov. 2, in Homer at the Kachemak Bay Campus of UAA, Fischer regaled his audience with stories of his life and Alaska politics without any kind of script. He was equally at home offering an impromptu interpretation of a section of the Alaska Constitution or assessing the potential of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The constitutional question, for instance, directed Fischer’s attention to Article 8, Section 2, which requires the Legislature to provide for the “utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of its people.”
“It’s not a mandate to develop,” Fischer said. “It’s not a mandate to conserve. It’s not a mandate to utilize. It’s really up to the Legislature to interpret that or the people by initiative. One person’s development might be another person’s exploitation.”
As for Putin, Fischer said that compared with what he recalls of Stalinist Russia, the current regime is “paradise.”
“I’m an optimist. I think it will be a much more gradual path (to democratization) than we expected in the 1990s, but it will happen.”
Pugh, the UAS chancellor, says Fischer’s talk Feb. 22 offers longtime Alaskans a chance to visit with Fischer, while relative newcomers will gain a better understanding of Alaska history.
And Pugh says Fischer’s “Sound and Motion” appearance is a chance to honor one of Alaska’s most senior statesmen.
One of Fischer’s many gifts to the state is his ability to look at issues with a wide lens, says Pugh.
“That’s really an important skill for a politician. He’s always asking ‘How does this impact the broader picture?’”
Among things that impress those who hear Fischer speak and those who read his book is Fischer’s willingness to share credit for his accomplishments. Fischer says the book itself still would be in the “talking” stage if not for the efforts of co-author Charles Wohlforth, an Anchorage-based writer.
Pugh notes another trait of Fischer that his Juneau audience will appreciate, and that’s his ability to connect with people.
“He has a way of bringing people into the discussion,” said Pugh. When Fischer talks about his achievements, Pugh says, the goal is to inspire others: “It’s for civic purposes, so you will look at his life and know that you can do that, too.”
Fischer was just 31 years old and had lived in Alaska only five years when he was elected as one of 55 delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention. He had been in the United States just 16 years, arriving in New York City from the Soviet Union without any English.
How in the world did he get from there to a seat at the constitutional convention table in Fairbanks during the winter of 1955-56?
“To Russia With Love” offers an answer: “The constant fact of my life is that I’ve kept hungrily diving into every opportunity to learn and do something new, to meet interesting people, or to go somewhere different.
“And I’ve been lucky. While the Soviet system constricted the lives of my classmates, the freedom of America burst boundaries and made anything seem possible for me.
“As an American, I lived the miracle of freedom and opportunity. I felt the positive power of democracy in ordinary people’s hands. I saw how a single person can help shape the future.”
“To Russia with Love: An Alaskan’s Journey” by Victor Fischer with Charles Wohlforth was published by the University of Alaska Press.
Autographed copies are available from Fischer’s website vicfischer.com for $33.95, which includes shipping and handling, and at his local appearances Friday and Saturday.
For more on Sound and Motion, go to www.uas.alaska.edu/sound_motion.