Five years ago, I conducted an interview that changed my life forever.
I sat down with Botso Korisheli, who was then 92 years old, in his Morro Bay home on California’s Central Coast for a conversation during a typical fog-enshrouded midsummer morning. There, with my voice recorder clicked on, I began the interview as I always do, by asking for some background information. “If it’s okay with you, Botso, let’s start by talking about your childhood, about where you are from.”
Through a heavy Eastern European accent, Korisheli revealed that he had grown up in the Republic of Georgia when it was brought under Soviet control. Slow and measured in his speaking, he began sharing the story of his father, a famous actor in the capital city’s theatre. “My father disagreed with the government—the rule was that theatre and drama and arts should serve the politics. But, dad disagreed. He said that it should serve the people. And, he did not budge one inch.”
One day, when he was a young boy, Korisheli went on his own to the theatre to watch his father perform in a double feature. It was late, but it did not matter because it was summer; school was out. Tucked away in the back corner, Korisheli’s eyes became heavy toward the end of the first show and he drifted off to sleep. When he awoke, the theatre was empty except for the first row, which was lined with a group of men in military uniforms. Rubbing his eyes and dismissing the bizarre scene as a dream, Korisheli, still half-asleep, tripped his way toward the stage.
When he made it to the front of the auditorium, he craned his head to the right, at the very same time the man sitting in the middle of the group glanced to his left—in that moment, Botso Korisheli locked eyes with Joseph Stalin. Korisheli knew immediately who he was because posters of the Soviet dictator were everywhere. The men flanking either side of the murderous ruler sprang to their feet—a hornet’s nest animated by a piñata stick—they were upset that this kid had snuck up from behind so easily, and were worried about what their boss may say, or do. From backstage, Korisheli’s father came running out. Then Stalin took over.
Standing behind the boy, the dictator rested both hands on his little shoulders—“I can still feel it; big hand,” is how Korisheli remembered it—while he spoke to his father, the actor. Solicitous of the child, Stalin leaned over to ask what he had thought of his father’s performance. Korisheli answered that he had liked it very much.
Before continuing with the retelling of the story, Korisheli paused for two or three beats, gazed off toward nowhere in particular, lowered his voice and said, “Years later, he executed my father.”
When he was 15 years old, Korisheli was finally allowed to visit his father in prison where he had been sentenced to death for his political views. Told they would have just 20 minutes before the execution, father and son held hands through the iron bars. The elder Korisheli then attempted to impart a lifetime of lessons and wisdom, everything he had planned to say over the many years they expected to share. “Do not go to sleep at night without asking yourself, ‘Did I do enough work for the day?’”… “Listen more, talk less.”… “Do not leave things unfinished. You start—make sure you finish.”… “Do not repeat second-hand news. Find the truth.” Then, mid-sentence, two KGB prison guards emerged and without a word ripped the actor away, leading him down a long hallway.
I surfaced from Korisheli’s home that day to find the fog lifting, but my mind was anything but clear. It wasn’t so much that I heard the story; it was that I felt it. It was now part of me. That night with my family and our three young kids around the table for dinner, I saw everyone in a different light—I understood 20 minutes.