OPINION: How Vic Fischer’s love and optimism grew from a place of darkness

As a teenager, Vic Fischer saved his mother’s life with a smile and a moment of warmth. His gift for human connection was powerful, and that is what I think of most, even more than his impact on Alaska history, as I consider his death on Sunday.

Fischer is the last of the major leaders who brought about Alaska statehood and was the final survivor among our 55 Constitutional Convention delegates. In nearly 70 years after that service, he remained at the center of countless efforts to improve the lives of Alaskans.

Time on Earth is only an opportunity. Fischer had a large share, and made use of it all. He remained optimistically engaged deep into his 90s, always making friends, always committed, always connecting.

He got that quality, he said, from his mother. And he may have saved her with it.

The incident occurred a world and a lifetime away, in Moscow, in January 1939. Family letters and memoirs tell of what happened. I read them all while I helped Fischer write his own memoir published in 2012, “To Russia With Love: An Alaskan’s Journey.”

His mother, Markoosha Fischer, had devoted herself to the dream of a world without inequality in a new kind of nation, the Soviet Union. That hope curdled into Josef Stalin’s oppression and murderous purges. As Markoosha begged for permission to leave for America, close friends disappeared from around her, taken for execution or gulag imprisonment, their children dispersed and their apartments emptied.

Markoosha probably stayed alive because of her international connections, as an interpreter with a famous, absent husband, American journalist Louis Fischer, who had written positively about the Soviet Union in the past.


The secret police repeatedly picked her up. They took Markoosha to a deep basement prison where political prisoners were constantly executed, walking her through rooms piled high with the victims’ belongings, bound for disposal or secondhand shops, boxes overflowing with kitchen utensils, books, furniture, dolls and toy trains. The agents threatened her with the same fate if she didn’t agree to spy and influence Louis’s writing.

She refused. The pressure increased.

On New Year’s Eve, 1938, Vic skied in the countryside with his two closest friends, Konrad “Koni” Wolf and Lothar Wloch. Amid the fear and repression, the teen trio had become inseparable. And despite the darkness, they found joy in their relationship, even while Lothar’s father was arrested and executed, Koni’s was imprisoned in France on his way to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and Vic’s reported on the fighting there.

Vic remembered that night carrying sparklers in the moonlight, skimming over the snow. Meanwhile, Markoosha was at home in Moscow, suicidal with the stress of her hopeless situation, as her private writings show.

For a final meeting with the authorities, she took along Vic, then 14, and left him waiting on the sidewalk outside. She demanded her freedom and received a final “no.” Coming out of the building, she planned to jump into the road in front of a truck.

Vic sensed her despondency and gave her a quick smile. He suggested they go into a nearby box office and buy tickets for the circus. Somehow, that bit of joy snapped Markoosha out of her decision. She later wrote that it saved her life.

Within two months, Markoosha, Vic and his brother, George, had left Russia for America. Louis had met with Eleanor Roosevelt, who spoke to President Roosevelt about the family and arranged with the Soviet ambassador for them to emigrate. Soon after, the family attended a small celebratory dinner at the White House, seated with the president and with Vic’s own hero, Antarctic explorer Admiral Richard Byrd. To his frustration, Vic couldn’t follow the conversation, because he could not yet speak English.

He learned quickly, and as soon as he was old enough, Fischer joined the Army to fight for the U.S. in World War II. Lothar Wloch had fled to Germany, where he joined the air force to shield his mother, a former communist, from repression by the Gestapo. Koni Wolf stayed in the Soviet Union and fought for the Red Army.

Decades after the war, their friendship persisted, as Fischer became an Alaska leader, Wloch became a German architect and real estate developer, and Wolf became a successful Soviet film director. Wolf even tried to make a film about their extraordinary friendship, but died without completing it in 1982.

Wolf’s older brother, Markus, was the head of espionage for East Germany’s Stasi secret police. In 1989, he adapted Koni’s notes for his unfinished film into a book, “Die Troika,” which was published in East and West Germany and Russia. With a surprisingly honest depiction of the wrongs of Stalinism, it became a bestseller.

The book reunited Fischer’s friends and classmates from the 1930s, helping them find each other and get in touch.

Like plants grown in an experimental garden, friends who had shared roots as children now reunited to compare full lives spent under different political systems. Some of Fischer’s classmates had spent decades in prison camps. Others had lived normally, but under Soviet repression their personalities had bent toward caution, guardedness and pessimism.

Fischer had instead prospered in the extreme freedom and opportunity of Alaska. With his optimism, boldness and love of people, he remained constantly involved, always pushing for humanistic values that gave him a sense of joy and purpose. Rather than harden or alienate him, the repression he had seen in his youth made him a constant crusader for freedom and justice.

Most of us hardly use the rights the U.S. Constitution gives us. Fischer did so constantly and fought for more, demanding political rights for Alaskans through statehood, helping write our own Alaska Constitution, sponsoring the repeal of the death penalty as a territorial legislator, and advocating for social justice as a state senator.

Elected to that office at 56 (still with almost half a century ahead of him), he formulated his mission while taking a long walk. “As I walked, I decided to do what I could for the poor and underprivileged,” he later wrote. “To advance women’s rights, improve women’s economic status, and protect women from domestic violence. I would pursue equity, equality and individual rights and freedoms.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Soviet Union opened up and then fell, Alaskans connected with counterparts across the Bering Strait with flights, educational and cultural exchanges, economic development projects and support for democracy. Fischer led that work too, using his Russian relationships and his Alaska political connections — including his friendship with U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who provided funds.

The Alaska Constitution Fischer helped write became a model for fledgling provincial democracy in Russia. Vic and his wife, Jane Angvik, lived in Russia and also hosted Russians in Anchorage, including a childhood friend who had survived the gulags and a newly minted oligarch. The work ended only when President Vladimir Putin clamped down on freedoms.


I know Vic had regrets. He lived at full speed, constantly diving into new causes and new relationships. He leaves a world full of devoted friends in many countries, most of all in Alaska, where his name is written in chapter after chapter of our history. He could not have avoided some mistakes.

But regrets never slowed him down. Even in advanced old age, he was more interested in what would happen next than what had happened in the past. He resisted writing his memoirs, and in the final chapter of his book, where most would attempt to sum up a life with the wisdom of age, he decided instead to be funny, joking that people had already been asking him the secret of his long life for 17 years (and that was 12 years ago).

He did have wisdom to share, however, in the positive spirit that had connected him with so many people and propelled his long productivity. That spirit he had inherited from his mother, a universal helper and confidant who had devoted herself to the misguided experiment of communism with only good intentions.

Markoosha had already been dead for 35 years when we discussed her influence. Still, Vic’s grief was so fresh he could barely speak.

“When she wrote in her autobiography that she would have stepped in front of a truck at the Soviet secret service offices but for my suggestion that we buy tickets for the circus, I knew exactly the moment she was recalling,” he wrote. “I had known then, too, even as a child, that she needed help and what I needed to say to help her. No one taught me that skill but she herself, in the help she constantly rendered to me and to everyone around her.”

In his century of living, Fischer, by example, taught the same to many other people. May each of us who knew him pass on that gift of life.

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Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.