Books: How a Soap Opera Changed Diana Markosian's Life

By David Schonauer   Monday November 23, 2020

Diana Markosian’s life was shaped by a soap opera.

The show was Santa Barbara, which ran in the U.S. from 1984 to 1993. It was also the first American soap opera broadcast in post-Soviet Russia and was watched by millions there. One of them was Markosian’s mother. And the result was a story that merged reality with fiction. Now Markosian, an artist who works at the intersection of photography and film, is telling that story in her debut book, titled Santa Barbara.

The project, notes the book’s publisher, Aperture, pulls together staged scenes, film stills, and family pictures in “an innovative and compelling hybrid of personal and documentary.” In it, Markosian grapples with the reality that her mother, seeking a better life for herself and her two young children, escaped Russia and came to America, settling in the city she’d seen on television: Santa Barbara, California.

“Markosian reconsiders her family’s story from her mother’s perspective, relating to her for the first time as a woman, and coming to terms with the profound sacrifices she made to become an American,” notes Aperture.

Blurring the lines of truth, fiction and memory further, Markosian’s images, which reenact her family’s story, are woven together with a script she wrote in collaboration with one of the original soap opera's writers, Lynda Myles. The script is the basis for a new short film directed by Markosian.


The story she tells is as intricate as any soap opera plot. Markosian came to America at age 7, along with her mother, Svetlana, and her brother David. The three settled in Santa Barbara with a man named Eli. She did not see her biological father again for 15 years.

“Only when Ms. Markosian was 27 did her mother reveal to her the full story of how she and Eli met,” noted The New York Times recently. Svetlana explained that she had in fact enrolled with an agency in Russia that posted listings in American newspapers and catalogs for so-called mail-order brides. “I am a young woman from Moscow, and would like to meet a kind man who can show me America,” read Svetlana’s posting.

In her new book, Markosian attempts to come to terms with the decision taken by Svetlana a quarter of a century ago to abandon her husband and Russia.

“I tried to make the film from my mom’s perspective, because I wanted to understand her,” she tells The Times. “I wanted to love her. I wanted to feel for her more than I guess I have in 30 years.”

“Moscow Breadline”

“A New Life”

Markosian’s narrative reveals how the the Santa Barbara soap opera helped to shape her life, “as the golden Californian light seeped from the television set into Markosian’s mother’s Moscow apartment,” notes the British Journal of Photography.

There, in the midst of economic chaos following the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Svetlana, with a PhD in economics, supports her father, Arsen, an engineer with a PhD, as he flogs homemade Barbie doll dresses on the black market in Red Square. The marriage disintegrates and Arsen leaves for another woman. The script describes it this way: "The father leaves the family; the mother feels betrayed in every way; the children are confused and lonely. These events set the stage for the radical story that unfolds."

“First Day at Work”

“Mum and David After School”

“The starting point was the script and the cast,” Markosian tells the British Journal of Photography. “Once those two things were established, I could start reimagining. I say reimagining because it feels like a time machine that I’ve created.”

“The result is a complex and honest project: painful and beautiful at once,” declares BJP. “Markosian’s commitment to mining the deepest parts of herself to reconcile a history that shaped the course of her life gives the book its power.”
At top: “The Disappointment”


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