The sun is setting on the Duke of Gloucester St., leaving the crevices of the cobblestoned street crowned only by the gentle glimmer of the neighboring light posts. Gone is the noise of horse-drawn carriages clattering merrily down the roads and the chatter of crowds has chilled to a low drone. Between the aged eaves of battered brick buildings escapes a certain chill as though there prowls a supernatural presence. However, not all is as idle as it seems — arising from the shadows is the flourish of a flame, flickering from within a lamp. Following behind its mesmerizing ember is a trail of students. Spearheading the flock is a larger-than-life figure: Vladimir Sokolov, the illustrious guide at the Original Ghost Tours of Williamsburg, laughing heartily as he regales tales of Williamsburg past.
As the group drags its feet down Nicholson St., it comes to a halt by the infamous Peyton Randolph House. The sinister facade carries an air of restless fury, almost taunting the group from behind its white fence. Randolph’s brother, Sokolov shares, was shipped from London to the United States in a barrel of liquor.
“I suppose you could say he arrived home in good spirits,” Sokolov said.
These kinds of quips are typical of Sokolov’s tours. He was first attracted to the entertainment aspect of being a tour guide; his affinity for making others laugh is what led him to apply for the position on the employment website Indeed.
“I found this opportunity, and I decided to give it a shot because I like entertaining people,” Sokolov said. “I like telling stories. I’ve never done that in English. But I decided to try.”
Sokolov made others laugh for a living even before he emigrated from Russia one year ago. Although medical school is where he met his wife, who is an ophthalmologist, he pushed onto his path as a professional crowd-pleaser through stand-up comedy and then improv theater. His specialty by far was as a Master of Ceremonies for weddings, parties and other social events.
“I know that I can do my job very well,” Sokolov said. “I can entertain everybody, really. Give me people, give me a microphone, give me a cheat sheet, and I’ll do it. Even now, even in English, without any preparation, I can entertain everybody.”
Despite this, Sokolov explained that he faced significant trouble finding a similar job in the U.S. He explained that securing the same niche in an unfamiliar country had been a particularly difficult hurdle for him to overcome.
“Usually you have DJs or musical bands during events,” Sokolov said. “And it’s so frustrating for me because I can’t find my way here. That’s why I decided to become a tour guide because it’s something similar to what I was doing in Russia.”
Working a crowd as an entertainer was where Sokolov said he felt truly in his element, but the dissatisfaction he expressed with his job search was born of emergency circumstances. He recalled that he had no choice but to flee Russia after President Vladimir Putin first announced mobilization against Ukraine in September 2022.
“Russia began the war with Ukraine, and when it happened, we were shocked,” Sokolov said. “My family was shocked about that, and I couldn’t accept that. It’s very hard to believe that your motherland began war with our closest neighbors, and we began finding out what we could do.”
As Sokolov recalled, he faced only one option: to move away from all that he and his family had ever known. One of the first challenges he countered after making the decision was the urgent preparations necessary to make the relocation, he said.
“It’s really hard because you have to understand very quickly what you need and what you don’t need,” Sokolov recounted. “’Do you see this stuff? Can we take it now? You can leave it here?’ or ‘Yes, we have to take this’ because we have about four big luggages. We couldn’t fit everything. It’s hard because you are saying goodbye to your previous life in this time.”
After his family’s struggle to pack only their most essential items in order to leave as quickly and efficiently as possible, Sokolov said that his family first came to Connecticut in order to temporarily stay with family there. After two months or so, he, his wife and his three kids took advice to settle down in Williamsburg, Va.
“Oh, it’s an interesting story,” Sokolov said. “I have a small blog on my Instagram, and one of my followers invited us over [to Williamsburg], and we decided to move because it’s hard to live with a big family in a relative’s house.”
Sokolov elaborated that the stay with relatives was never meant to be long-term as his family would eventually need to independently forge their own path and set down their roots. He recalled that part of establishing a new life in the U.S. meant assimilating to a certain degree, but doing so came with another set of challenges. Despite attending a school where English was taught seriously, he came face-to-face with a language barrier once he began living long-term in the states.
“I feel frustrated when I can’t understand everything, and I can’t tell everything the same way I could in my own language,” Sokolov said. “That makes me sick, really.”
Sokolov emphasized that while immigrating to the U.S. was a necessary decision, he does miss the friends, job, home, family and car he left behind upon switching continents. He described that starting from scratch creates a difficult divide between one’s current situation and the lifestyle one desires to reclaim from the past.
“It’s hard because you remember how you lived before,” Sokolov said. “Now you have to reach this level as soon as possible, but it’s impossible because it’s more difficult here.”
Despite the obstacles along the way, though, Sokolov recognized how helpful the people of Williamsburg have been throughout his transition.
“Everybody is so nice and kind and everybody tries to help, to support, to do something to improve our life here,” Sokolov said. “So I appreciate that, I appreciate Americans.”
Besides his work experience as a tour guide, another legacy of Sokolov’s is his large social media following. In May 2019, shortly after the birth of his first son, he started an Instagram account in which he wrote funny posts about his daily life as a father. From there, he developed a movement called Humor of Fun as well as a course on how to write comically. While he still updates his page, the frequency and tone with which he does so have changed as he adjusts to his new surroundings, and the war between Russia and Ukraine continues to rage on.
“You are here, and you know that your friends, your followers, they are there in Russia,” Sokolov said. “It’s very hard to find an appropriate way for making jokes now because they are living in different circumstances, and it’s hard.”
In order to stay in touch with his heritage, Sokolov shared that he is making an effort to not only raise his sons to be good people in general but also to be bilingual with a fluency in both English and Russian. He taught his eldest son the Russian alphabet over the summer, and he and his wife plan to continue speaking their native tongue inside the home for frequent practice.
“Now, I’m trying to teach [my oldest son] how to read his letters,” Sokolov said. “Because if I don’t do this, who will? Nobody here.”
The difficulty in maintaining a connection between his life in the U.S. and the people and culture he left behind in Russia has not stopped Sokolov from moving forward with his social life and career. Beyond keeping tradition alive within his household, Sokolov expressed his hope for establishing a secure life for his family and achieving his own career fulfillment in the process in the years to come.
“For now, I want to earn enough money for my family and to do my favorite job,” Sokolov said. “And if I reach to this far, I will be the happiest guy. I don’t want to earn millions of dollars or have millions of followers on Instagram. No, I want to earn enough and do what I’m good at. That’s my purpose here.”
CORRECTION (9/28): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sokolov emigrated from Russia two years ago. The article has been updated to reflect he emigrated one year ago.