Remembering Natayla Isatchenko: Kodiak’s walking contradiction

Natalya Isatchenko was remembered at the Kodiak Russian Orthodox Cathedral on Sunday, Aug. 23. (video still/Rhonda McBride)

Who was Natalya Isatchenko? She was a woman almost everyone in Kodiak knew — but really didn’t know. Everywhere and nowhere. Homeless but always at home, wherever she was. She was often seen walking the roadsides, as she did the morning of Aug. 19, when she was killed by a hit-and-run driver on West Rezanof Road near Pier III.

In many ways she was a fixture in town, but also invisible. She moved about, mostly unnoticed, except by those like Roman Carlson who occasionally interacted with her.

Carlson works at the library, where she was one of the regulars.

Roman Carlson, standing by a painting at the Kodiak library. The library worker says it was the fisherman in this painting that Natalya Isatchenko would talk to. (courtesy Roman Carlson)

“We have a picture on the wall she would come and talk to,” Carlson said. “I always had the impression it looked like somebody she had known in the past.”

Carlson hadn’t seen her much after the library cut back its hours due to the coronavirus, so the news of her death hit him hard.

“It really made me sad, just because she died on the road with nobody there,” Carlson said. “It’s how she lived. Her life was pretty solitary. I don’t think that’s any way that somebody should leave this world is alone.”

Carlson said he didn’t try to engage her in conversation. He sensed she wouldn’t welcome it, even though she was always talking.

At Big Ray’s outdoor clothing store, she would occasionally sit at a table at the entrance, and the staff would bring her coffee.

Erik Berggren says he was always careful to warn new staffers about Isatchenko’s visits.

Eric Berggren describes how Natalya Isatchenko would come into Big Ray’s with pieces of fruit and leave them on the railing for the bear. (Rhonda McBride/KMXT)

“Don’t worry. Don’t worry. She won’t hurt anything,” he would tell them. “She won’t steal anything. She doesn’t break stuff. She just talks to people we can’t see.”

She also talked to the towering wooden bear carving that sits outside the store. And when she came inside, she carried on a conversation with a stuffed brown bear.

“She’d feed the one out front, like cheeseburgers. She’d leave this one pieces of fruit sometimes,” he said pointing to the stuffed bear behind a railing Berggren calls “the cage.”

He said she would try to show the bear her offerings, then lay them on the cage. Staffers would wait to clear them away until after she left. Now they won’t have to do that anymore, and that makes Berggren sad.

“We’re all going to miss her to a certain extent,” said Berggren, who said his staff came to enjoy her random visits. “It’s something we’ve become accustomed to, and it’s not there now.”

Natalya Isatchenko (Rhonda McBride)

If anything, the town had become accustomed to living with the mystery of Natalya Isatchenko. Her story is not known to the public at large, not even to Mike Rostad, a longtime Kodiak newspaper columnist who met her years ago when he worked at the Arc and Spark store and welding shop, where a toy dragon sat on the counter.

“And her eyes just lit up,” Rostad said. “And in a very soft, sweet voice and a very nice tone, she started speaking to this dragon in Russian.”

Those in Kodiak’s social service network said she sometimes would talk about the desire to go home to Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Republic in Central Asia.

Maybe that’s why she frequented the grounds of the Russian Orthodox Church along Mission Road.

Chris Dresdow, the pastor’s wife, tried to get to know her.

“Usually, if you went to offer her something, she would say ‘No. No. No. No. I’m fine. I have everything. I have everything,’” said Dresdow.

Even though her overtures were met with rejection, that didn’t stop Dresdow from trying. And one day not too long ago, she had a breakthrough when she tried to give Isatchenko some cake she had made, part of an experiment to prepare for her daughter’s wedding.

“Please help me. Please take some cake. I have so much cake. I don’t even know what to do with it,” Dresdow remembers telling Isatchenko.

“And then she said yes. And she turned. We look at each other and that was just kind of the beginning.”

Dresdow and her husband, Daniel, known to the Russian Orthodox worshipers in Kodiak as Father Innocent, had heard the speculation around town that her mental illness stemmed from a past trauma.

Father Innocent said he believed something must have happened, just from watching her.

Father Innocent points to the picket fence where Natalya Isatchenko would stand and pray. (Rhonda McBride/KMXT)

Occasionally he would see her standing next to a white picket fence near the wooden chapel at the church’s seminary. One time he watched her for about 20 minutes.

“She would make the sign of the cross repetitively, looking up at the cupolas and the crosses at the top of the church. It was one of those moments, even watching from 100 yards away, you could feel the grace and sacredness of the moment,” Father Innocent said.

He remembers the last time he saw her very vividly.

“Pouring rain. Pouring rain,” he said. “And she just stood out there in that same stance. Praying hands together, crossing herself, gazing up in the rain. She was past this earthly life in that sense. It was grace, true grace.”

Father Innocent says he will never forget her gaze.

“My blue eyes to her blues eyes. They seemed to look right through you,” he said. “It was sobering.”

In fact, there was something familiar about her face and her posture in prayer.

“Many times I saw her, I thought of St. Mary,” Father Innocent said, speaking of St. Mary of Egypt, who wandered the desert alone to atone for her sins. On church icons, she’s skeleton-thin, with gray hair, ragged and closely cut, just like Natalya — also a wanderer in search of what, we can only wonder.

“There’s hope that can be found even in these horrific circumstances of her loss, and part of that hope can be found in recognizing that she survived,” Father Innocent said.

Many in Kodiak wondered how. They, like Chris Dresdow, tried to offer food or comfort, but usually these attempts to reach out would drive her away, like a bird when you get too close.

But just a few weeks before she died, Natayla told Chris her story of heartbreak. It’s one Chris says she will never share because it’s the only gift she can give to Natayla now, her privacy.

 

Epilogue

Natalya Isatchenko was remembered at the Kodiak Russian Orthodox Cathedral on Sunday.

The bells rang as a choir sang an ancient hymn, Memories Eternal.

Father Innocent also shared some of her story, as relayed to him by her ex-husband, a retired professor who called him a few days ago from his home in Florida.

He told the priest they met in the 1990’s and were married in St. Petersburg, Russia. Later, they moved to the United States, where Isatchenko worked in a pharmacy and raised a son.

They visited Anchorage in 2004, about the time their marriage began to break down under the strain of her long struggle with mental illness.

For reasons unknown, mental breakdowns happen,” the priest told his congregation.

“In my speaking with her husband, it was very, very clear that he still loves her tremendously,” Father Innocent said, “and he was hesitant to contact me, because his experiences with the church, up until this time, were not very supportive of her struggle.”

In fact, he said, they made things worse.

“Natalya, over the years, was subject to every form of treatment that could be imagined by mankind. But still she was tortured by these voices,” Father Innocent said. “So, by the time that she came here to Kodiak, she left her husband for good, thinking he was one of the devils.”

Isatchenko died on August 19, two days after she had turned 62. That day not only marked her death but is also a Russian Orthodox holy day, known as the Feast of Transfiguration, the day that Christ took his inner circle of disciples to a mountain and his face and his clothes became bright with light.

“It took the wind out of me,” Father Innocent said of his reaction to hearing the news of Isatchenko’s death. “She died on one of the major feasts of the church.”

“When one is received by God on a feast day of the church, it is considered a great grace, a great gift of god’s love.”

The priest told the congregation that although Natalya Isatchenko chose to live in the community’s orbit and was often hard to reach, Kodiak accepted her for who she was — and that her life and death are a reminder — that except for the love of God and family, there is no greater love than the love of our neighbors.

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