In usual small talk at cocktail parties I try to avoid one topic: my attitude towards the country of my birth.
Typical conversation goes something like this:
-Oh, you’re from Russia (or Ukraine, Kazakhstan &)! A beautiful country. I heard (read, saw a movie) of such&such wonder (city, mountain, artist, dam, sea, museum) – you are lucky to be born there! How long has it been since you left? That long? And when are you going to visit? Never? WHY???
And I am at a loss for words. How can one deliver in a sentence the sense of the tortured existence of 3 generations of one family – of one ethnic group – of one country’s entire population? How is it possible to summarize total absence of any hope for any structured, positive change that could ever be ascribed to the black cancerous mole that spreads on 1/6th of Earth surface? The history that affected everyone and will affect future generations forever, because for all the crimes there has been no punishment and no repentance?
All prepared responses are inadequate; I try to keep it simple for audience sake, but simplified versions inevitably lead to more questions (“I am an American, but also an Italian, and I love both countries – how can you not?”), showing gaping incomprehension and disconnect between us and giving my interlocutors an impression that I am hiding something unpalatable.
Just now I came across a post at LiveJournal where the Soviet-born author asked her likewise readers “is anyone’s family DIDN’T lose members in famines, shootings, civil war, Siberian camps, political purges, etc etc etc?”
I’ll translate several comments from the thread.
Rys.: My grandparents were born before WWII in Ural region. They have never been well-to-do, so they were not expropriated; lived in small towns, didn’t attract attention. In the 70’s were looking for employment; moved to Ukraine to work in the mines.
Liron: Three of my great grandparents fell victims of expropriation as kulaks. One was just a regular peasant, owned an apiary, but he was wrongly accused of owning a flour mill [by implication, of being rich – ETat]. As the story goes, those who seized his property were the worst workers in the village, drunks and lazy parasites – and they attacked my great-grandpa despite his well-known help to orphans and widows.
Hruk: My Jewish great-grandfather was involved in expropriations: he commanded an unit of special forces. Afterwards he served in CheKa, but in the mid-20’s left for an administrative job. After the fall of Ezhov and arrival of Beria he was deadly afraid of arrest, kept a packed suitcase ready. His wife, my great grandmother, continued working in CheKa during all the purges; she was always carrying loaded gun [implied: to be ready to shoot herself in case of arrest – ETat]. But they both were spared in the internal purges. … Why should one be ashamed of one’s predecessors? They were living in different circumstances, thinking and perceiving the world completely differently. On the contrary, I’m proud that they had an active attitude to life, didn’t hide in some hole but were trying to bring change according to their principles.
Yulka: mine DIDN’T. Although…they did have a real chance to die of hunger during blockade of Leningrad.
Spamsink: one of my great grandfathers was shot by Red Army during Civil War; one of great grandmothers – by Nazis during WWII: both for being Jewish. Other than that, we were fine – nobody was deemed an Enemy of the People…
Caperucita: Both branches of my family were expropriated; on mother’s side – they were a family of wealthy merchants in Ural region; on father’s – Cossacks in Kuban – they were well-to-do, had successful farm and were well educated. One of them saved himself by emigrating to US; he died just 15 yrs ago.
Birjulka: Dad, among other medical students (all were Jews, of course), were expelled from university in March of 1953, in the midst of Doctors’ Plot campaign – but they were lucky, the Father of All Peoples met his timely death then, and they were all reinstated. We were generally lucky, direct relatives were not persecuted, despite two of my great grandfathers being of merchant origins. One son of each (my parents’ uncles), however, were murdered by CheKa immediately after October revolution. On the other hand, second wife of my grandpa started her career as a foreman at the building of Moscow-Volga canal [built by Gulag prisoners – ETat], and was a card-carrying Communist. When I started to write this comment, I thought our family was an exception, then recalled that “grandma” and the two murdered uncles…
Anaml: one of my grandmothers was a doctor in far-away rural place, by the time repressions reached them in ’54, it was too late for her to be fired from her job. She was lucky – her friend who lived in a big city, was arrested and spent full sentence in jail. She didn’t return to the city afterwards – my grandma helped her to get a job in her provincial hospital. My second grandma died under bombardment.
Osota: my family didn’t have any of that. They were all frank opportunists; even those members who served in WWII returned alive…
Atma: My predecessors on mother’s side lived through several attempts of expropriation as “kulaks”, but every time they ran away. Took kids, horses and few belongings and ran. Their neighbors warned them that next morning the expropriation squad planned to come, so the night before they loaded what they could on a cart and ran to nowhere. Found a new place, started from scratch, built successful business – and the story repeated itself, somebody reported them and they had to run away again. They were a big clan – children in many branches lost their parents and went to live with an uncle or an aunt, so they all lived and worked together – in the fields, on a farm, and acquired some modest property – which made them an attractive target. Once my grandfather was labelled the Enemy of the People and was put in a group of similarly accused to be transported to a regional town for “court hearing” – but they were guarded by only one CheKist, so on the road he ran, before they reached the prison. Then he collected everybody and they relocated again and in a new place changed their family name.