Feliks Khatsyanov, San Diego's anti-Brezhnev homeless man, dies

Expert on control theory quoted Dostoyevsky, Golgol, Kipling, Edward Lear

The two friends were engineers, one trained in California and one in the Soviet Union. "He could talk about anything, from mathematics to world literature," says Imperial Beach resident Ralph Sherman of his departed friend Feliks Khatsyanov. "He was the smartest man I ever knew. But I didn't think of him as homeless. All of Imperial Beach was his home. And he said he had an annuity to take care of his needs."

Khatsyanov stopped in to see many people in Imperial Beach. At the home of Jerry and S, he kept bags of items he hoped to recycle and a few meager belongings. "Feliks was at the house almost every day," says Jerry, "but when we offered him a place to stay, he said he didn't want to impose. I don't know where he slept." On March 18, the 73-year-old immigrant collapsed in the couple's front yard. Coming home, Jerry Markham called 911 after finding Khatsyanov lying on the lawn and complaining of severe stomach pain. Khatsyanov died of cardiac arrest later that day.

"Feliks never told us not to drink," says Markham, who admits he likes to enjoy a few glasses. "But when he had tea with us, he would say that alcohol is unhealthy." Khatsyanov found it difficult to get the medical attention he needed, Sue Markham tells me. "He told us Medi-Cal and social service agencies didn't seem to want to help him," she says. According to several other people who knew him, Khatsyanov had been thin and frail for some time.

Jerry Markham says, "We got to know Feliks six or eight years ago, after I asked him for a little help. He gave me ten dollars." Giving away the little money he had seems to be what Khatsyanov was most noted for, especially in St. Charles Catholic Church's Caritas program, which helps the poor. The church is in Imperial Beach. According to the March 29 edition of the Southern Cross, a Catholic weekly newspaper, Khatsyanov appeared at the church's Caritas Day each month and gave money. The article quotes Merlyn Baker, the Caritas program's director, as saying, "This is really a case of the Widow's Mite." The reference is to a Gospel story about the poor woman who quietly slips her last two pennies into the Temple collection box. The story compares her action to high-status contributors loudly clanking big coins in the box. The paper goes on to observe that "last month Mr. Feliks donated $20.60."

On April 11, I attended Khatsyanov's funeral at St. Charles Church. His son, Paul Pluzhnikov, and sister, Valentina Khatsyanov, sat in the front row as 12 to 15 people came forward to give heartfelt testimony to the homeless man's friendliness and generosity. A Mexican woman addressed the moderate gathering in Spanish and, a cappella, sang a haunting dirge. Khatsyanov had learned Spanish and spent much of his time helping the poor in Tijuana.

Several days later, from his home in Pasadena, Pluzhnikov fills me in on his father's history. Feliks Khatsyanov was born in 1934 in Kiev, Ukraine. As a young man he studied engineering and applied mathematics. In the 1950s, he worked as a scientist in "research institutes," says Pluzhnikov. "The institutes were called 'boxes,' because they were square buildings without unique characteristics. People were not supposed to know what or where they were."

The early years of his father's career, Pluzhnikov tells me, coincided with an effort by Nikita Khrushchev, when he took power in 1953, to rid the Soviet Union of Stalinist influence. One result was a relaxation of restrictions on artists and intellectuals. In 1956, at a convention of the Communist Party, "lids were lifted on all the pots that were boiling," says Pluzhnikov. That, he says, seems to have pushed his father into a budding human rights movement. The situation returned to the bad old days, however, in 1964, when Leonid Brezhnev ousted Khrushchev in a nonviolent coup and "artists were suddenly jailed. Then Feliks starting doing work to defend those people," says Pluzhnikov. "Eventually he was called in by the authorities and given a choice -- either leave the country or go to jail. He was seen as refusing to build the bright communist future.

"Already by this time, Feliks was giving all his money to the cause, so to speak. He had this belief that you should give everything away."

When I ask Pluzhnikov about difficulties this might have caused his mother in trying to raise a family, he says the conversation "is getting quite personal." But he goes on, telling me that his parents divorced. He wasn't sure if there were other factors in the divorce besides the money. It wasn't as if they had nothing, he says, for his mother worked. "In the USSR, there was no such thing as a stay-at-home mom," he says.

Born in 1963, Pluzhnikov was nine when his father requested the opportunity to emigrate to Israel. "According to my father's younger sister, my aunt Valentina, who now lives in Germany, he really wanted to come to the United States," says Pluzhnikov. "People would say they were going to Israel, and when they got to Vienna, they would change their mind and go to New York instead." Feliks Khatsyanov arrived in New York in 1972 and connected with Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement. He soon converted to Catholicism. Pluzhnikov says that how his father survived at first is "a big mystery to me. He may have taken some odd jobs, but I've been told that he soon began doing his recycling. He was a man unto himself and extremely undemanding. He did not spend much on himself."

"Why is your last name," I ask, "different than your father's?"

"My father was Jewish," Pluzhnikov explains, "and this information was present on the internal passport everyone in the USSR was required to carry. Being Jewish always caused suspicions in the eyes of the authorities. Even after Feliks left, the same information would have appeared on my passport as his son. So to remove potential problems I took my mother's name."

Pluzhnikov and his mother, Natalya Pluzhnikov, followed Feliks to the U.S. in 1989. At first they went to Providence, Rhode Island, where Natalya still lives. But shortly thereafter, Paul Pluzhnikov got a job as a programmer at Parasoft Corporation in Monrovia. He and his wife now live in nearby Pasadena.

"When I came to the U.S.," Pluzhnikov tells me, "my father was already in Chula Vista." Pluzhnikov shows some reluctance, however, in admitting that father and son did not see each other. "It's sad. I should have contacted him," he says. "It wasn't that I felt bad about the past, and I don't believe Feliks had bad feelings toward us. I had seen pictures of him from when I was nine. But we just really didn't know each other."

I reach Natalya Pluzhnikov by phone in Providence. She does not harbor grievances against her former husband but remembers that he was "very argumentative over little details. When we finally got our own apartment after being married a few years," she says, "he didn't want to get furniture. He wanted to sleep on the floor. I'm not the kind of person who wants to be arguing all the time. So we divorced."

Next to the family at Feliks Khatsyanov's funeral sat Beth Seberger of Kansas City. She currently teaches English as a second language to refugees. Seberger met Khatsyanov in the 1970s, when he visited the Kansas City Catholic Worker House where she then worked. She thinks he arrived in Kansas City after having volunteered at a Catholic Worker house in Baltimore, where he worked for Johns Hopkins University. They remained friends, writing letters back and forth over the years. Early on, Seberger even wrote to Khatsyanov's mother, who still lived in Russia. On the day of his heart attack, police found Seberger's name and address in Khatsyanov's pocket. They called to inform her of his death.

I ask Seberger her impression of Khatsyanov.

"Feliks was very different than most people I had ever met," she says. "He ate very sparsely and avoided meat. He allowed himself little pleasure, lived simply, and shared with the poor. To him, neither communism nor capitalism was the answer. I found him to be very humble, yet extremely proud of his Russian heritage. He read widely and loved folk songs, both Russian and American. He collected recyclables in Kansas City, too, and would help homeless and alcoholic men. Eventually he moved on to Colorado and then to Alaska, where he worked for Avis Rent A Car in Anchorage. I know that he lived in a trailer up there."

Seberger passed on the information she received about Khatsyanov's death to Ralph Sherman, his engineer friend in Imperial Beach. "From Feliks's letters," she says, "I had information on Ralph as a contact person in Imperial Beach."

"When I was studying engineering in college," Sherman tells me, "I took a short story class that I struggled very hard to understand. But Feliks, also an engineer, had an amazing comprehension of literature, and not only the Russians. He did tell me all about Gogol and a story called 'The Overcoat.' And he said that Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground referred to the crawl space between the floorboards and the ground. But he would read me lines from the Persian poet Rumi, too. He was especially fond of quoting from a nonsense poem by an Englishman named Edward Lear. It's called 'The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.' It was very funny.

"Oh, we talked a lot about engineering and mathematics, too. Feliks told me he had taken his son Paul to his work in Russia on the old punch-card computers when the boy was very young. Feliks was also an expert in something called 'control theory,' which is important in manufacturing processes. Another name for it here is cybernetics, which, interestingly, comes from a word meaning 'helmsman.' Feliks said he once got sent on a control theory troubleshooting mission to the Uzbekistan city of Samarqand on the old Silk Road between China and the West. There was an error in the feedback loops at a factory there.

"But I think the conversation I'll remember most is when I was telling him about my son. I said my son had become a Hindu yogi and now calls himself a 'sannyasin.' I asked Feliks, 'Have you ever heard that term?' 'Yes,' he said, 'Rudy Kipling wrote about one in a story called "The Miracle of Purun Bhagat." It's about an Indian Brahmin.' "

I look into the meaning of "sannyasin." Huston Smith, the great scholar of the world's religions, notes that the Bhagavad Gita calls a sannyasin "one who neither hates nor loves anybody." In India, a man becomes a sannyasin during retirement years after a spiritual quest alone as a "forest dweller." When the search is over, the man comes back to his community. But he does not return to his family, wanders homeless among his fellows, and begs for his food.

I ask Sherman, "Do you think Feliks truly had that annuity he told you about? The one that took care of his needs?"

"I was curious about a lot of things in Feliks's life," he replies. "But I thought it was not right to pull somebody out of himself."

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