Archive for May, 2011

“All the Kings Men” and other thoughts on History

Watched the movie “All the Kings Men” starring Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law, Sean Penn and Kate Winslet. We thought it should have won some Oscar awards from the Academy, but they didn’t pocket any back in 2006 when it first came out.  However, the author of “All the Kings Men” was awarded a Pulitzer in literature, Sean Penn Warren for this tail spinning novel.  The actors’ performances of the fictionalized character brought out the real life of Louisiana politician Huey Long and those people who were affected by him and his outrageous politics in the early 1930s.

“All the Kings Men” reminded me of the movie I watched years ago that was based on newspaper giant Hearst, Citizen Kane, but that’s another blog.  For now I am struck by quotes about history and the retelling of true historical facts that come out differently once authors get a hold of the rich material that is out there to mine.  Lately I’ve been reading through my Ukrainian students’ stories about their grandparents and ran across this quote that a student used and am trying to make sense of it.

“To know the truth of history is to realize its ultimate myth and its inevitable ambiguity.”  Roy P. Basler

I’m not sure what Basler meant by this because to my mind “truth” and “ultimate myth” don’t go together.  I’m not so good with dealing with ambiguity since I like things black and white.  Napolean was known to have said something similar:  “History is a myth that men agree to believe.” So Robert Penn Warren got a Pulitzer prize in literature but in poetry as well. Noone else has accomplished this honor but watching the movie about the Kingfisher seemed to show poetic justice in the end.  I’ll need to read the original book written by Warren to see how closely the movie followed the original score.

“Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” by Robert Penn Warren

I can understand this quote by Robert Penn Warren when he says this:  “The past is always a rebuke to the present.” This follows closer to what I think and what Agatha, a Ukrainian student of mine wrote, perhaps a translation from Russian or Ukrainian language:

Old wine is tastier,

Old remains – more valuable

Old runner is more experienced,

And old scientist is wiser…

I suppose Oscar Wilde has it right when he is known to have penned:

Any fool can make history,

But it takes a genius to write it.

The following quote credited to someone is a bit more my speed, “Information is nothing without proper interpretation” as I plod through all the stories written by my former Ukrainian students about their grandparents.  Sobering and it fits with this anonymous quote: “History must be written of, by and for the survivors.”

That’s why I keep blogging so that people can be aware of what happened in the Soviet Union’s past. It wasn’t pretty and quite different from what most dishonest historians in today’s universities would have their impressionable students believe. I would agree closest to this quote attributed to Kenneth Stampp about history for having lived in Ukraine and Kazakhstan for a total of ten years. “With the historian it is an article of faith that knowledge of the past is a key to understanding the present.”
Instructive to know what happened in the past and not to let the victors always tell their version, the victims who seemingly have been silenced have a different take on what really happened.

I’ll end with this last quote by Robert Penn Warren: “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.

 

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Who will listen to their stories?

I’m revisiting my Ukrainian students’ interviews with their grandparents back in 2006, that is when this all started for me in my quest to find out more about Soviet history. Oral histories can be very interesting even if you give your students an assignment that is simply “Tell me about your grandparents.”  With the hundreds of students I’ve taught over the years, I have gotten some amazing results when I taught in Kyiv, Ukraine, Almaty and Astana, Kazakhstan.  I even used this with my American students when I taught English composition in the U.S. I learned some new things from them about what life was like in the golden, olden days.

My wanting to know more about the Soviet Union started when a Ukrainian boy in the back of the room in the early 2000s challenged me about why I didn’t know anything about Ukraine’s terror famine (Holodomor).  He was not aggressive in his questioning me, he was baffled how I could have taught in Ukraine for 3-4 years and not known about this tragic event in the 1930s.  He wasn’t a particularly good student as I had a minor altercation with him the very first day we met. I told him to not come to class with alcohol on his breath, his defense was that he had some alcohol spill on him with his train ride into town from his hometown of Lviv, Ukraine (western border to Poland).  I let it pass with an internal “yeah right.” After that, I wish I could remember his name, I didn’t have any more problems with him.  Apparently his parents were doctors and had lived in Philadelphia and he had been a pizza delivery boy at that time.

When my husband and I left this university, he had very kind words to say about us being there as we represented America to him.  I need to find out how he is doing now, he was certainly a Ukrainian nationalist and LOVED his country.  I have met many other students similar to him who love their country of either Ukraine or Kazakhstan.  They also love their grandparents and what THEY went through in order for them to experience real freedom and independence they enjoy today.

That is why I am wondering if there are people in my blog reading audience who are curious like I am, to find out more about what happened in the Soviet past? Especially from oral interviews?  I believe that is how my husband and I could maintain a presence teaching in the Former Soviet Union for as long as we did.  Total up both places and we were in Kazakhstan and Ukraine for over ten years.  Today, while it rains, I am going over the interviews that my Ukrainian students did with their own grandparents.  I had assigned no more than 500 words and had wanted direct quotations (as much as could be translated from Ukrainian or Russian) in English.  I can still remember many of these students, what they looked like, what they wrote.

I just wonder “who will listen to their stories” once they are retold by me?  What can be changed once read?  I know for a fact that we were able to cope with living in these different cultures. Especially true after finding out how the Ukrainians and the Kazakhs and Kazakhstanis picked themselves up and dusted themselves off after all the Soviet atrocities that were visited upon them. I hope during this Memorial Day that American young people would sit down with their grandparents to listen to them and what stories they have to tell.  Happy Memorial Day to all in the U.S. Time to reflect, listen to older people and think ahead to a future that is bright with promise because of the older people’s sacrifices.  Stories give hope to the listeners, you can think in terms of “If they survived what they went through, so can we!”

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“Now we shall be able to talk” from Rawicz’s book

I have written this before, I’ll write it again in today’s blog: I LOVE old books.  However, I don’t count Slavomir Rawicz’s book necessarily that OLD at 55 years.  It recounts what had happened back in the early 1940s. But just the same, I came away learning more about Circassians.  I had not heard of Circassians before from my Kazakh students, yet I am well aware of Tatars, Chechens and other smaller people groups.

But first let me relate the dialogue in this 1956 book that piqued my interest in Circassians. If you have read my past several blogs, the group of escapees from a Siberian camp had entered Tibet and were on their way to Lhasa, or so they told people along their 4,000 mile trek:

“Welcome,” he said in Russian. “Now we shall be able to talk.”

We were rather taken aback.  He spoke Russian easily and without hesitation.  I had to remind myself that there could be no danger so far south of the Soviet in a chance encounter with a Russian.

He waited for me to reply and when I did not he went on eagerly, “I am a Circassian and it is a long time since I met anyone who could speak Russian.”

“A Circassian?” I repeated. “That is most interesting.” I could not think of anything less banal to say.

His questions tumbled over themselves. “Are you pilgrims? It is not many Russians who are Buddhists. You came through the Gobi [desert] on foot?”

From what I have gathered off the Internet with a cursory glance is that there are not many Circassians who are Russian Orthodox but this man in the Rawicz’s story was. Living in Tibet, he looked by his clothes more Mongolian yet spoke Russian. He was very proud of being Circassian as many independent Muslims are today.  I learned there are 500,000 Circassians in southern Russia and several million diaspora.

What’s interesting is this article I came across about Georgia [the country] which proclaimed the genocide against the Circassians. Read the following link. Also know that in a military campaign that was carried out in 1860-64, the Russian imperial historians recorded the deaths of these Circassians who lived in the Caucasus mountains.  Proclaiming that this was a genocide 150 years later but then Armenia will have its chance to ask for reparation from Turkey about the genocide that happened almost 100 years ago against the Armenian people.

Who can talk about these atrocities when there is division of languages, memories have faded and history books have been revised away from the truth?   “Now we shall be able to talk” will only happen in a perfect world where truth tries to mend the fractures within cultures.  It won’t be happening any time soon in Kazakhstan where many people from other nationalities were deported and dumped in Kazakhstan.  Ah…so much sadness…

 

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“I think I should tell you about myself” from Rawicz’s book

Finished Slavomir Rawicz’s book titled “The Long Walk.” Different in other ways from the recent Hollywoodized movie “The Way Back.”  Why did the movie veer off as it did from this true story from the early 1940s? More than enough drama without going off the serpentine path these escapees took from a Siberian prison camp, all 4,000 miles of it.  Without giving all the story away, if you are interested in reading the book or watching the movie, I will insert something from p. 116 that I thought was particularly good. It fits with the drum I’ve been beating for a long time about what conditions were like in Ukraine in the 1930s.  So much sadness even before the 1940s for those who survived the terror famine in the 1930s and what they encountered once sent off to Siberia or Kazakhstan to be “rehabilitated.”

The movie changed the name of the one fugitive girl (Irena) that joined the party of escapees, her name was Kristina in the book.  She wanted to let the other seven men know who she was so thus the title of this blog, she started with:

“I think I should tell you about myself,” she said.  We nodded.  It was a variation of a story we all knew.  The prison camps were filled with men who could tell of similar experiences.  The location and the details might differ, but the horror and the leaden misery were common ingredients and stemmed from the same authorship.

After the first World War Kristina Polanska’s father had been rewarded for his war services by a grant of land in the Ukraine under the reorganization of Central European territory.  He had fought against the Bolsheviks, and General Pilsudski was thus able to give a practical expression of Polish gratitude.  The girl was the only child.  They were a hard-working couple, these parents, and they intended that Kristina should have every advantage their industry could provide.  In 1939 she was attending high school in Luck and the Polanskas were well pleased with the progress she was making.

Came September 1939. The Russians started moving in.  Ahead of the Red Army “Liberators” the news of their coming reached the Ukrainian farm workers.  The well-organized Communist underground was ready.  It needed only a few inflammatory speeches on the theme of the overthrow of the foreign landowners and restoration of the land to the workers, and the Ukrainian peasants were transformed into killer mobs.  The Polanskas knew their position was desperate.  They knew the mob would come for them.  They hid Kristina in a loft and waited…”

The rest of Kristina’s story is too sad to recount here in this blog as is true of all these stories coming out of Ukraine and Kazakhstan I have collected over the years.  Suffice it to say, Kristina was an orphan and met up with these men who had gone through far worse trials of being separated from their families and also severely tortured.  The movie, of course, did not go indepth as to what had happened to Kristina before she met up with them. Nor had the movie shown the tortures that Rawicz went through at the hands of the Soviets which is at the beginning of the book.

Therefore, next time an old timer from the Old Country might say to you, “I think I should tell you about myself…” Let them tell their story. But my guess is that you will have to patiently ask questions (maybe loudly and insistently) and need a box of tissues handy when you get the answers.

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Reading “The Long Walk” by Slavomir Rawicz

My husband read this book titled “The Long Walk” written by Slavomir Rawicz when he was in 6th grade, it was published in 1956. It’s about a Polish army officer who was “sized up” as a spy for the Germans by the Soviets. The recent movie starring Ed Harris “The Way Back” is based on this book but leaves out all the torture and hardship Rawicz lived through as a 25 year old privileged army officer first in Kharkiv (Ukraine) and then in the terrible prison in Moscow.  That was almost two years worth before the agonizing one month train trip (3,000 miles) on the trans-Siberian. Prisoners were treated like cattle and then these “Unfortunates” were forced to walk in the deep snow with chains north to Camp 303 in the northern part of Siberia close to Yakutsk.  The film makers leave out many things but they DO portray other things quite accurately about the 4,000 mile walk.  I recommend seeing the movie if you don’t want to bother with the book.

The following is the description of what the inmates looked like based on their ages, according to 25 year old author Rawicz:

“And all the time my mind juggling with pictures of the stockaded camp…and always the men about me, the young ones like me who were resilient and quick to recover, the forty-year-olds who surprisingly (to me, then) moved slowly but with great reserves of courage and strength and the over fifties who fought to stay young, to work, to live, the men who had lived leisured lives and now, marvelously, displayed the guts to face a cruel new life very bravely. They should have been telling tales to their devoted grandchildren, these oldsters.  Instead they spent their days straining and lifting at the great fallen trees, working alongside men who were often half their age.  There is a courage which flourishes in the worst kind of adversity and it is quite unspectacular. These men had it in full.”

The same could be said of the “Enemies of the People” women who were depicted in what I have blogged about the last several days in “Till My Tale is Told.” Many women in ALZHIR prison camp should have been with their grandchildren instead of felling trees and being used as slave labor.

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Unwritten Places (Part IV and final)

I know from my studies of the Ukrainian terror famine (Holodomor) that Eleanor Roosevelt was concerned about those people who were trapped in the “displaced persons” camps after WWII was over.  One of the Ukrainians I had interviewed who had survived the famine in 1932-33 as a small child, referred to Roosevelt as saying something to the effect, “if these people in DP camps don’t want to return to their motherland (as Stalin insisted they  MUST) then they should not have to go back.” Many knew upon return to Ukraine, it was either sure death or being sent off to a gulag for having ended up in Germany. Thus, many displaced persons were brought to freedom in the U.S., sadly many others were not.

Unfortunately, 16 women in Vilenksy’s book who survived prison life in the former Soviet Union want their tales to be known and remembered. This is my last installment of what I read from “Till My Tale is Told.” It has been “ghastly” to read what they went through for simply being labeled enemies of the Soviet state.

Perhaps if I looked at some of these films or read the following books, I would get a better sense of what Russian or Soviet life looked like just by reading the titles off the index of Vilensky’s book:

Captive Earth – film

Days of the Rubins (Bulgakov)

The Drowned and the Saved (Levi)

Exploits of a Secret Service Agent (film)

Flow, Swift Volga! (Vesyoly)

The Idiot (Dostoyevsky)

How the Steel was Tempered (Ostrovsky)

In the Abyss (Honret)

Kolyma Tales (Shalamov)

Into the Whirlwind (Yevengiya Ginzburg) – appeared in the West long ago

p. 292 – Bratsk – “Kazbek” cigarettes were expensive (Kazakhstan + Uzbekistan tobacco?)

p. 295 – Karakalpakia in Central Asia

p. 306 – five years exile in Kokchetavsk region in KZ

p. 320 – Stolypin wagons – tsarist minister in charge of putting down the 1905 revolution

p. 327 – “I could gaze very minute through the window

Forgetting all hunger and pain

But all things that I see there

Are twice scored by heavy, black lines

The trees and the sunset above them

The fields and paths cutting through

Crossed out by rusting metal

My life scored by black in on bars.”

By Vera Shulz (this was written @ 1938)

p. 167 – After receiving my sentence – five years exile in Kazakhstan as a “socially dangerous element”

“…I learned from bitter experience the wisdom of Marx’s words that knowing a foreign language is a weapon in the struggle for existence.”

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Unwritten Places (Part III)

As I was going through the index of the book “Till My Tale is Told,” by Simeon Vilensky, I was writing down every prison or camp to make sense of it and tease out what I could that might be in Kazakhstan.  Here’s a fitting poem I came across that goes along with the poem “We’re Alive, We’re Alive!”

 “I write in the name of the living,

That they, in turn, may not stand

In a silent, submissive crowd

By the dark gates of some camp.”

Taganka – Moscow prison

Lubyanka – headquarters for Soviet Secret police  in central Moscow

Lefortovo – Moscow prison

Butyrki – largest Moscow prison

Solovki – special camp north of Moscow

Kazan – southeast on the Volga

Kolyma – Magadan, Sea of Okhotsk, Vladimir prison

Suzdal – like Solovki, a former monastery, northeast of Moscow

Verkhneuralsk prison

Elgen – women’s camp, 500 miles northwest and inland from Magadan

Serpantinka

Narym – central Siberia

Yaroslavl prison

Shapalerka prison

Mariinsk camp farther west from Kolyma

You get the idea that there were LOTS of campus throughout the former Soviet Union. An oft spoken saying among those women in gulag camps after living through tedious drudgery day after day:  “It may be worse, but at least it’ll be different”

p. 112 – “What you suffer is not as important as what you learn from the experience.”

p. 271 – “…Eleanor Roosevelt knew about huge numbers of political prisoners in Soviet Union, had come to the country and asked to visit the camps and see for herself.  This request had been categorically refused.”

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