Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Moving Image That Captures A Defining Moment Lost In Time

I’m nostalgic for movies like The Mummy. Not the 1999 box office blockbuster starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. And not the seminal 1932 horror film starring Boris Karloff that did well in British theaters. I enjoy CGI when done well and especially on the big screen, and Karloff’s portrayal of an ancient Egyptian priest called Imhotep remains forever iconic. But it’s the 1959 version of The Mummy, co-starring Peter Cushing as an archaeologist and Christopher Lee as Kharis, that I saw first and stands as one of the seminal films of my early childhood. 

My father introduced me to the occult (via books on amulets and talisman and not some ritual practice) as well as the early gods of horror like Bela Lugosi, Karloff, Lee and Cushing. We didn’t have cable TV growing up and my childhood friends weren’t (yet) into B horror, so I’d sneak what I could on PBS, which aired British horror films by Hammer Film Productions. I remember sitting cross-legged on the carpet with my nose close to the TV so I could hear with minimal volume and my right hand on the dial ready to switch it off if I was caught.

I imagined myself as Cushing’s John Banning, searching for the tomb of Princess Ananka, the high priestess of the god Karnak. My father also sparked my youthful obsession with all things ancient Egypt. Meantime, I was attending Russian Orthodox liturgies, not only on Sundays, but also on various holy days, with my mother and her parents, who frequently hosted hierarchs and other priests at my childhood homes. To me the two worlds clashed and co-existed, what with all the imagery and relics, though I understood that in the eyes of the church these two worlds were at odds – one pure, one cursed. It made perfect sense to me that Egypt’s Coptic Christians venerated the same icons and used the same calendar as the Russian Orthodox. As a child I was fascinated by the pagan roots of both cultures and how they were intertwined and intrinsically linked to the myths and legends that inspired the stories in the Hammer movies. 

My mother's first movie memory, the one “that stuck with me more than anything,” she says, depicted the coronation of a tsar filmed during the liturgy on the feast day of The Elevation of the Venerable and Life-Creating Cross of the Lord. 
This was the second of two films she saw during her early childhood at Lyssenko Displaced Persons Camp in Hanover, Germany, which she describes at the best time of her life. “The only place I remember going was to church, and to a carnival and twice to a movie.” It’s important to note my mother has seen no more than a dozen films in a movie theater during her lifetime, save for free days at the local theater when my sister and I were children. I remember we went to the mall to see the original Arthur, featuring Dudley Moore as a dopey drunkard, because it was free. I was about 10 at the time, and my sister about 6. Our father took my sister and I to see Ghostbusters at the theater when it came out, paying full price. That was a major event for us, but just a typical weekend activity for most of our peers. The few movies I saw in first release before age 13 were mostly at birthday party celebrations or treats from friends’ parents.

The first film my mother saw was Kamennyy Tsvetok (Stone Flower), which was a seminal new release at the time. The 1946 Soviet fantasy film was directed by the pioneering Aleksandr Ptushko, regarded by some as the Soviet Walt Disney, and compared to other legends including Italy’s legendary Mario Bava. The color film, shot on Agfacolor negative film in the Soviet Union, was seized in Germany and entered into the 1946 Cannes Film Festival.

My mother’s viewing of this Stone Flower as a child is a historic event, by all accounts except her own. “I don't remember anything about that movie,” she quips. It was based on a fairy tale by Pavel Bazhov, which also inspired Prokofiev’s ballet The Tale of the Stone Flower. Bazhov’s widely read and influential The Malachite Casket collection of stories told to a young boy by a watchman, who lived in the Ural Mountains, was so popular it was translated into English in 1944. The dark tales of struggle and social relations echo many of my mother’s pains, if not from a very different perspective. She claims to have never read them.

That my mother was able to erase from her memory this groundbreaking film, the first one she saw, seems impossible to my western born psyche.

Her emotional needs drew her to the film about a tsar’s coronation, which she recalls as “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” A passion for faith that transcends any other life experience was born from this childhood viewing and has cemented itself in her mind as the ultimate ideal. 

There exists rare vintage film footage of the Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II from 1896, the first film ever made in Russia and directed by Camille Cerf, who worked with the Lumière brothers of France, the world’s first filmmakers. But my mother insists what she saw was the coronation of either Alexander I or II, though I find no record of any such film. My mother says she is certain that the coronation was filmed on Sept. 26 by the Julian Calendar, during the liturgy one the eve of celebrating The Elevation of the Venerable and Life-Creating Cross of the Lord. She says she saw tis film a second time, at Holy Trinity Monastery in rural upstate New York, where her parents and my father are buried. She recalls (and repeats) with a fervor reserved exclusively for the Russian Orthodox liturgy how the choir sings as the cross is elevated. This singular memory trumps any and all other remembrances.

“It was during the big holy day which is celebrated on September 27th, so I guess it was on the eve of it. Because I remember the service, how it was, the church it was decorated and it was so beautiful, and because it was the bishop and the service was very, very wonderful. The only time I had been (to the service) was two or three times in Jordanville, New York.”

Extolling the beauty of liturgy in that film, my mother notes, “I didn’t know anything about any tsars at that time, because we weren’t taught that.”

The hunger for a solid ethnic identity is clearly a result of being born on a disputed borderland and being herded as a very young girl from Belarus to Poland to Germany as a prisoner, watching relatives and friends die along the way. This film was her first glimpse into what defines her Russianness: Orthodoxy.

The other early memories from Lyssenko are happy ones, again this was the “happiest time of my life,” she says, though none rival her emotional bond with the liturgy.

Her memory of carnival is marred by an injury that has stuck with her.

“I was in a merry-go-round I guess, and I didn’t get off of it on time and it started to go and I fell and I still have some pebbles in my right knee. I had a lot of them but most of them disappeared. It was all bloody and everything, but I went with some teenagers who told me not to tell my mother because they would be in trouble because they were supposed to be looking after me. And I got caught, and the only thing I remember going on there was the merry-go-round. And I think there was some kind of thing that we could win something, but I don’t remember if I did win anything, I don’t remember. I didn’t have money at that time, and I think those older boys and girls probably paid for me,” she says, laughter emerging.

Compared with the first four or so years spent dodging bullets and land mines and being taken prisoner by numerous forces, my mother’s time at Lyssenko was relatively normal.

“My father was the plumber for the building that we were in, and I guess for other buildings at the camp. I don’t think my mother had a job. I'm not sure. And my father also was at that time going to mechanic school, and I went to the Ukrainian school, and I think life was just good at that time. Very good.”

While memories of Stone Flower and other non-religious experiences are essentially lost, my mother does recall some logistic details of the building at Lyssenko with the same precision, if not passion, of that liturgy.

“It was tall and big and just like a big box. Our block was number four. And we were in number 4A. …. And my friend, Olga, who lives in Connecticut now, lived on the same floor as we did, but a few rooms away.”

To this day, every life experience is held to the standard of my mother’s first memories at Lyssenko. Nothing can compare with those first tastes that bit into a forced starvation – an early childhood life previously devoid of any spiritual, cultural or social exposure. To this day, she rarely is satisfied by any restaurant or secular activity, and generally shuns them. Essentially why bother? It can only lead to disappointment.

“Hanover looked nice as far as I remember, I didn’t go to too many places,” my mother says. “I went to a restaurant once.”

“Oh, the fish was delicious in there. I had fish, and I had German potato salad and beets and that was delicious. That was the only time I'd eaten in a restaurant.”

Saturday, January 25, 2014

‘The Chaos Of Antiquity’ Forever Haunts a Disputed Borderland

The written or recorded history of Belarus gets stranger with modern interpretation, especially with the nationalistic pride that marginalizes its inhabitants. My mother and her parents have never identified as Belarusian, they consider themselves ethnic Russians who were born in Belarus. They all were born and lived so close to the Russian border that my maternal grandmother carried my infant mother into Russia to baptize her.

Belarus literally translates as White Rus, and had for years been called White Russia, a name considered derisive by Belarusian nationalists, but still widely used in many languages and countries. Rus is not short for Russia. Kievan Rus was a powerful East Slavic state dominated by the city of Kiev, which is the modern day capital of Ukraine. Rus dates back to the 9th century and is traditionally viewed as the beginning of Russia and the ancestor of Belarus and Ukraine, though this theory is often disputed. Kiev is regarded as the original Holy Russian Empire, because Vladimir the Great, the pagan Slavic ruler of Kievan Rus, in 988 converted the state to Orthodox Christianity.

Some cite Slavic lore that claims Vladimir chose Orthodox Christianity over the teaching of Muslim missionaries because his people liked to drink wine, a practice prohibited by the Muslim faith. His motive was unlikely a spiritual one, at any level. Vladimir married the Byzantine emperor’s wife and viewed the establishment of a church as essential to development of a powerful state. Kiev traded fur, animal hides, burlap, hemp and hops in exchange for Byzantine wine, silk, steel blades, religious art and horses. Byzantine imperial ideals clearly influenced Russian political life. Kievan Rus was effectively eliminated in 1237, when Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, invaded and over three years the Mongols (or Tatars) destroyed all of the major cities of Kievan Rus except Novgorod and Pskov. The regional princes were not deposed, but were beholden to the Tatar state, which became known as the Empire of the Golden Horde. Both the Swedes (in 1240) and the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, a regional branch of the Teutonic Knights, (in 1242), pounced but failed to defeat “Russia” or Rus.

At the time of the Tatar invasion, modern-day Moscow was an insignificant trading outpost, but its remote, forested location buffered it from attack and occupation, and its rivers provided access to the Baltic and Black seas and to the Caucasus region. It was the rule of ambitious princes that gave rise to the state of Muscovy: Daniil Aleksandrovich secured the principality for his branch of the Rurik Dynasty, which was founded by Varangian (Viking) prince Rurik and ruled Kievan Rus after 862. His son, Ivan I, was given the title "Grand Prince of Vladimir" from his Mongol overlords, and he cooperated closely with the Mongols to gain control over Muscovy's chief rival, the northern city of Tver. In 1327 the Orthodox metropolitan transferred his residency from Kiev to Moscow, shifting spiritual power from Kievan Rus to Moscow, even as the Tatars presided over the political state until 1480. While Eurasianism is still emerging in the study of Russian history, the Asian influence and identity have been dominant since the rise of the tsars. A third of Russian nobles had Tatar names and Ivan the Terrible descended, on his mother’s side, from Genghis Khan.

Rather than delve deeper into this part of history, I want only to suggest that while the Vikings may have their roots in my mother’s birthplace -- archaeologists in September 2012 found Viking artifacts from the 10th and 11th centuries in Vitebsk Oblast – her national identity may be built on Tatar ideology and bloodlines. This makes the term “White Russia” that much more contested. My maternal grandmother had blue eyes and translucent light skin that had to be shielded from direct sunlight. My maternal grandfather had dark eyes and hair and an olive complexion. My mother has blue eyes and an olive complexion that tans quickly and never burns. My mother knows very little about her father’s parents, other than they were born “somewhere in Russia.” However, a Tatar heritage might explain why my maternal grandfather left the Soviet Army, why so many members of his family were brutally killed by the Belarusians, why he, his wife and children were targets of the Belarusian Partisans, as well as Stalin and the Nazis. It would also explain his loyalty to the Holy Russian Empire, even its seat in Moscow.

In “The History of Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia,” Voltaire states: “It is not my business in this place to inquire, why the countries from Smolensk, to the other side of Moscow, were called White Russia, or why (German geographer Johann) Hubner gives it the name of Black, nor for what reason the government of Kiev should be named Red Russia.”  It's important to note that Voltaire wanted to "make myself Russian," and created an alter-ego using the persona of a Russian diplomat, Ivan Alethof, as the “author” of his 1760 poem "The Russian in Paris.” 

“It is very likely that Madies the Scythian, who made an irruption into Asia, near seven hundred years before our vulgar era, might have carried his arms into these regions, as Gengis-Khan (sic) and Tamerlane did afterwards, and as probably others had done long before Madies. Every part of antiquity is not deserving of our inquiries; that of the Chinese, the Indians, the Persians, and the Egyptians, is ascertained from illustrious and interesting monuments; but these monuments suppose others of a far more ancient date, since it required many ages to teach men the art of transmitting their thoughts by permanent signs, and no less time was required to form a regular language; and yet we have no such monuments even in this polite part of Europe. The art of writing was a long time unknown to all the North: the patriarch Constantine, who wrote the history of Kiev in the Russian language, acknowledges, that the use of writing was not known in these countries in the fifth century.”

“Let others examine whether the Huns, the Slavs, and the Tartars, formerly led their wandering and famished tribes towards the source of the Boristhenes (the antiquated term for the Dniepr River and its eponymous river god); my design is to show what czar Peter created, and not to engage in a useless attempt, to clear up the chaos of antiquity. We should always keep in mind, that no family upon earth knows its first founder, and consequently, that no nation knows its first origin.”
Many have, since Voltaire’s account from 1857, made exhaustive efforts “to clear up the chaos of antiquity,” generally to rewrite a history that lends to rabid nationalism. But as new genetic data emerges this misguided pride is called into question.

Belarusians together with Ukrainians and Russians represent the East Slavic linguistic group, largest both in numbers and territory, inhabiting East Europe alongside Baltic-, Finno-Permic- and Turkic-speaking people. There have been until very recently only few genetic studies performed on this population.

A June 2013 research article, “Uniparental Genetic Heritage of Belarusians: Encounter of Rare Middle Eastern Matrilineages with a Central European Mitochondrial DNA Pool,” published in PLOS ONE, found that 80% of the paternal Belarusian gene pool is composed of R1a, I2a and N1c Y-chromosome haplogroups, a profile very similar to Ukrainians and Russians.

The Y-chromosome reflects movements of people in central-east Europe, as early as the start of the Holocene (beginning at the end of the last Ice Age about 11,000 years ago and characterized by the development of human civilization.)  The matrilineal legacy of Belarusians retains two rare mitochondrial DNA haplogroups, N1a3 and N3, both of Middle Eastern origin.

As Eurasian studies begin to displace Slavic studies at major universities and more DNA analysis becomes available to scholars, the ethnic identity of Belarusians, or at least the people born there, may help us correct the complicated history of a population that has withstood a perpetual warpath. My own desire to understand why so many members of my mother’s family have been brutalized and killed drives my interest in the science as well as the social history and historical sociology that has yet to gain any wide spread recognition. My own scholarly experience has been colored by either national identity (no matter how subtle) of my professors, as well as myriad incarnations of Slavophilism adopted often by non-Slavs. Much of what I was taught is at odds with what I see when I look at photographs of my mother’s father and grandfather.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Leaving Lyssenko: Displaced Memories

The years my mother spent at Lyssenko Displaced Persons Camp in Hanover, Germany, were “very good.” The young girl who’d spent her first half decade herded from labor camp to prison camp to concentration camp had finally found a “home.” Those formative years at Lyssenko were not rife with killings and rapes and bombs and grenades and constant fear of which enemy would strike next and at what gate.

The notion of leaving a displaced persons for a new life in a faraway land sounds like a dream for most people. To my mother it was an end to the first era of her life that didn’t involve constant suffering and instability. And it meant saying goodbye to people she came to know as family in the wake of losing so many blood relatives. It was horrifying. It meant recalling all the previous tragedies and again losing friends by separation.

“And then people started to immigrate to different countries, and they started to place us. Two of my father's friends went to England. And they had lost their families, too, during the war. Whether they were killed or what happened to them, I don’t know. They sent us pictures from England. They were handsome men and when they got to England, they had sent us rubber boots, which were beautiful, and chocolate candy. I can't find any here like that. It was like a candy bar, but it had crispy part inside of it. That was delicious.”

I’d brought home, from my first trip to England in 1991, what I thought my mother had described but she insisted it wasn’t the same. That time in her early childhood offered her very first taste of joy and nothing since could be sweetening to comparison. It was as if anything from those years was magical, almost otherworldly, and could never be duplicated again. I can only imagine the shifting emotion from a life of desolation and destruction to one that offered her very first creature comforts. They were so simple, yet perfect, those articles of clothing or pieces of chocolate. I think my mother begrudges herself any of life’s comforts, partly because of the guilt, but also because she can never again feel such immense satisfaction that comes with the very first experience.

For my mother, all of these places are defined by whatever iconic item she received in a care package or the descriptions in letters written by those who had relocated. She has never left the United States, save for Canada and the Caribbean, since childhood, and to her those places where other families from Lyssenko ended up remain frozen in memory and unchanging by time.

It makes sense that she would hold on to any image or idea from those years, as they were her first happy memories. All my wanderlust is lost on her, and I feel like a criminal, stealing her childhood snapshots of places she’d never visited by informing her of sweeping social change.

“A lot of our best friends, my best friends, my mother's best friends, went to Australia, some went to Brazil, some went to Argentina. But my father wanted to go to America, because from what he knew from the history lessons in school, it was the best country to go to. And because I was the only child, it was easier for us to choose to go to a different country, and my parents were still young and healthy, so we didn’t have problems. But America was the hardest country to get to because we were in British zone, but we used to get coffee, and we used to (barter and) trade it with the Germans because they didn’t have the good coffee. It was chicory, but they liked it, so we never had drank it ourselves. We always used to trade it for clothes or something. At that time, it was very, very good for us, because we could get beautiful clothes for the coffee, and again berries, we used to go pick berries and trade those. And I sang and we had a church, and I sang in a church choir. We had Christmas parties. It was wonderful. We used to go Christmas caroling. It was a wonderful life, you know.”

My mother’s explanation that her parents were selected to come to the U.S. because of their savvy in trading with the Germans in the British zone is lost in her happy memories. She clings to those early years, which are forever idyllic for their simple pleasures. There is an innocence that overrides any ignorance that may stem from an unwillingness to acknowledge how culture has changed with time.

My mother and her parents ended up in New Hampshire, not far from Dartmouth, but still in a community that hadn’t been opened to the wider world. Stevens High School in Claremont, New Hampshire, didn’t offer English as Second Language and there was no public assistance available to her family. They had to toil to pay back every penny to the farmer who had sponsored their trip here via Church World Services. They lived without hot water for years, working at multiple manual labor and service jobs around the clock for a pittance of a wage, and saving to have fewer comforts and concessions than those that were available at Lyssenko or through bartering with the Germans. They traveled frequently throughout the Northeast to visit with friends from Lyssenko and to maintain a dispersed community in the absence of the ghettos that allow most immigrants to retain their culture.

“Some of my friends did come to America. One of them lives in Connecticut now. And the others, mostly all of them, live in New Jersey. I went to eleven weddings and I was a bridesmaid. [laughter] But the camp was actually the happiest part of my life at that time, because we didn’t have any cares. And we had food. We had clothes. It didn’t bother us that we slept on cots in just a corner of a room. We were all just happy. People used to go fishing, and they would get fish and we would have parties and stuff like that. My mother's best friend, the ones that went to Australia afterwards, her husband somehow had good luck of catching a lot of fish. One time when it was my birthday, he says ‘this is going be for Luba's birthday’ and he caught so much fish and since we didn’t have a big stove with hot plates, a lot of women, like five or six, were frying that fish. They had a big, big party for me at that time.”

My mother believes it was her 10th birthday, but the date isn’t a detail that matters.

“That was the best birthday party I ever had and it was the first one I ever remember. And that was very good. There were a lot of people at the table. I don’t know, maybe twenty, maybe thirty, I don’t know. A lot of people. And of course, there was vodka but we kids didn’t drink. [laughter] We didn’t have to.”

It is unsurprising that mother’s happy memories are vivid and retold in great detail. She is not one to repress any memory and the abundance of traumatic ones had to be offset somehow, if only to cope.

In the epilogue of The Brothers Karamazov Book XII, Chapter 14, Alyosha offers life-affirming hope for the next generation when speaking to a group of schoolboys at the funeral of their peer Ilyusha. Memory Eternal (transliterated from Old Church Slavonic as Vechnaya Pamyat) a chant sung at the end of Eastern Orthodox funerals and memorial services is heard in the background. Alyosha epitomizes the ideal human being (or, as my father would have said, a human becoming as humanism is a lifelong pursuit) in a Dostoyevskian universe rife with the conflicts and constraints of faith. Identified at the start of the novel by the narrator as its hero, Alyosha is an exemplar by being open-minded and forgiving. The character is named for Dostoevsky's son who died of an epileptic fit at age 3. 

"You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home.  People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.  If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one's heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us. "