Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Primeval Forest of Guilt

A little girl lost in a forest, bewildered, in peril, not knowing when she’ll find a clearing. Such a quintessential and universal image would have been a fantasy for my mother, who watched the forests burn along with houses, as loved ones, friends and other children ran screaming usually to be greeted by death elsewhere. Survival seems like a way out. And for her there was an escape, but not to some idyllic land rich with frisky wildlife, ripe berries and fragrant flowers. Instead her path out, a forced one, was paved with the stench of death and not so much as a crumb to eat. The harsh environment wasn’t the worst of it. Losing others when she, for no good reason in her young perception, made it out alive came with a lifelong condition: guilt that ran deeper than the Dnieper River and stung more than a bullet wound.

Belarus was effectively flattened in World War II, leaving little of historic interest for tourists who flock to monuments and battle sites. But within those thick primeval forests and picturesque villages is buried a history of death and destruction.

Between 1937 and 1938, Stalin's NKVD secret police executed more than 1,000 people per day, most with a shot to the back of the head. As many as 1.6 million people were killed in Belarus during the Stalin-era purges, according to historian Ihar Kuznyatsow, even as officials claim only 600,000 Belarusians were killed. By any account, it’s a staggering number. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has downplayed Stalin’s reign of terror, claiming that mass graves don’t contain the NKVD’s victims. For parts of modern-day Belarus, little has changed. The country still has Soviet-style collective farms and there has been very limited privatization.

To the best of her recollection, my mother was born June 21st or 23rd by the Gregorian calendar (now internationally the most widely used civil calendar) in either 1936 or 1938. As a Russian Orthodox Christian, my mother observes holy days, or moveable and immovable feasts, by the Julian calendar, a reform of the Roman calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The Julian calendar served as the civil calendar in some countries until as late as the 20th century. But her birthday, for all practical intents and purposes, has been July 5th since she immigrated to the United States in 1950. It has nothing to do with the differences between the two calendars. “When my father was interrogated, when we were prisoners in Germany (circa 1946), he had made a mistake about (some other fact) and he got scared and that's what he gave as my date of birth,” she explains.

Whether she was born before or just as Stalin unleashed his murderous rampage is irrelevant because her earliest memories would be of a world ruled by this evil beast. As today’s evil dictator, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (who was born in Vitebsk Oblast) continues to undermine the magnitude of the country’s losses, such historic events become mythical. Without any records of births and deaths and no markings on mass graves, it’s as if those who perished never existed outside the memory of survivors like my mother. Most of my mother’s close relatives, including all three of her brothers, and childhood friends were denied any burial ritual, all becoming lost in the very soil they identify with using a term zemlak (or zemlachka for women), literally meaning those from the same earth. For my mother’s parents, there was a culture to identify with before all the bloodshed. For my mother, there was nothing positive until she made it to a displaced persons’ camp in Germany.

My mother has no truly youthful memories. Her memories from youth don’t include any childlike whimsy that lends to the lighter side of fairytales. She didn’t learn many of these tales until she was older. As a little girl, these tales were passed down to me, both orally by my grandparents and their friends, many much older and from vastly different villages and cities, or in various tellings and translations. It’s unsurprising that my mother identifies only with the tales of the church, as her first happy memories are tied to hearing and singing liturgies.

Had my mother’s brothers lived, their story could have been more like the classic tale “The Metamorphosis Of The Dnieper, The Volga, And The Dvina,” of which the first and third run through Vitebsk Oblast.

The account recorded by 19th century Russian scholar and translator William Ralston Shedden-Ralston, a close friend of Ivan Turgenev, begins like this:

The Dnieper, Volga, and Dvina used once to be living people. The Dnieper was a boy, and the Volga and Dvina his sisters. While they were still in childhood they were left complete orphans, and, as they hadn’t a crust to eat, they were obliged to get their living by daily labor beyond their strength. “When was that?” Very long ago, say the old folks; beyond the memory even of our great-grandfathers.

Well, the children grew up, but they never had even the slightest bit of good luck. Every day, from morn till eve, it was always toil and toil, and all merely for the day’s subsistence. As for their clothing, it was just what God sent them! They sometimes found rags on the dust-heaps, and with these they managed to cover their bodies. The poor things had to endure cold and hunger. Life became a burden to them.

One day, after toiling hard afield, they sat down under a bush to eat their last morsel of bread. And when they had eaten it, they cried and sorrowed for a while, and considered and held counsel together as to how they might manage to live, and to have food and clothing, and, without toiling, to supply others with meat and drink. Well, this is what they resolved: to set out wandering about the wide world in search of good luck and a kindly welcome, and to look for and find out the best places in which they could turn into great rivers—for that was a possible thing then.

Depressing to most, this would have been a far brighter outcome for my mother’s siblings. For her, along with a childhood stolen, all hope is lost.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spirit of the Skaska

In a remote part of a sprawling land comprised largely of forest and home to more than 2,800 lakes and 500 rivers, a baby girl was born. The majority of those forests are centuries-old coniferous woods, which have survived horrible battles that have claimed countless human lives. The girl’s three brothers died as infants, along with friends and family, mostly innocent victims caught in the crossfire of multiple conflicts led by cruel and unrelenting conquerors. She watched and wept, not understanding why everyone was being killed, but also not knowing a life without such constant horrors. Her first years spent in this forest marred by bloodshed, bombs, grenades and murderous rampages, are forever imprinted in that girl’s memory, even as many details remain a blur of atrocities. So many tiny villages, so many large-scale attacks; it was impossible for those being forced from their homes even to know who was striking at any time or why.

Like a Russian skazka, or fairytale, my mother’s early years in small villages in Vitebsk Oblast in Belarus are fraught with horrific and otherworldly images that tell a dark story that many would like to bury.

Today some 1.2 million people live in Vitebsk Oblast, which borders Russia, Lithuania and Latvia. My mother, an ethnic Russian, was born close to the Russian border. The region now boasts excellent road infrastructure connected to several major international motorways, and international railway lines offering access to Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. When my mother was born, the only path out for her and other survivors was through labor and concentration camps in Poland and finally a displaced persons camp in Germany. It was a war path, and even getting out alive left a legacy of pain and suffering that few could comprehend.

The modern day Vitebsk Oblast would likely be unrecognizable to my mother who has never returned to her homeland. The picturesque Belarusian land of lakes, or Belaruskaye Paazerye, inspires art and awes tourists who appreciate its natural beauty. This disputed land remains unsettled to this day. From my mother’s perspective it’s a mass grave, with no markings, just distant memories of where and when so many violently died or disappeared.

It’s easy to assume that Russians, or Slavs in general, are more dramatic, darker and heavier of heart than westerners. Imagine your entry into the world as a struggle to survive, and childhood realizations that you’d be better off dead with the rest than cope with the guilt of getting away alive. This lens obscures any hope of living a truly free life. Far worse than fear is the belief that if you’d perished someone else, someone you loved, would have thrived. Yet nobody thrives. Survivors of this kind of trauma, especially in early childhood, are forever living in debt, as if they owe it to those they watched die to live in some form of deprivation. They’re not deserving of any happiness, any quality of life, any peace. At least this is what I’ve learned from my mother, that little girl who never let her spirit blossom.

Regarded as a seminal figure in modern Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin also is significant for breathing new life into skazki, which exemplify the true native literature of a people and a history that have been cast into darkness. Sure there is levity and love and other conventions in lighter tales, but most are cautionary at best and the Slavic versions of classic European stories are handed down with a ponderousness in Russian. Mocking the woeful, soulful voice of the quintessential Russian is a western sport. But most westerners dismiss the root of this misery.

Alexander Afanasyev, a nineteenth century Russian folklorist who published a record 600-plus folktales and fairytales, is known both for depicting the archetypal figures found in universal stories in multiple languages, as well as recording uniquely Russian characters including Koshchey the Immortal (Bessmertny), Baba Yaga, the Swan Maiden and the Firebird.

While most westerners have read or heard some version of Baba Yaga, her male counterpart, Koshchey, tends to circulate more in Russian circles. He is an evil sorcerer who gallops on his magic steed, naked, around the Caucuses. I’d be surprised if Putin didn’t secretly regard him as a folk hero. A shape-shifter who takes on the form of windstorms, Koshchey steals away beautiful women, especially the brides of heroes. His presence is preceded by dark clouds, thunder and lightning. Think Loki, but much darker.  He is immortal (or “deathless,” which is a closer literal translation of bessmertny) because what he calls his death (but may be interpreted as his soul or spirit) is concealed and detached from his body. His death sometimes is hidden in a needlepoint inside a duck's egg, and Koshchey the Immortal may lose his powers and die if a hero finds the egg.

As with all folk tales, there are many versions of this story, and in Russian many words that could alter the meaning significantly. But this is a dark tale by any standard. I remember hearing it as a child and thinking it was perfectly plausible. After all, the tales of my mother, her parents and the few others who survived weren’t any less morose or ridiculous by the standards of where I was born.

Even my mother’s birthday has been passed down like a skaska, shrouded in mystery and blurred details. The first record of her birth was created by a priest when she was a schoolgirl at a displaced persons camp in Germany. As I attempt to retell what she remembers and what can be culled from the few remaining documents and photographs, I aim to keep the spirit of the skaska alive.