I have trouble making small talk. I set out to offer some trite remark about the weather but end up blurting something about my grandfather being executed by firing squad in Ukraine. A reliable conversation-killer in many American circles, which is one reason why I set up this site. Now, when I want to share socially awkward ancestral stuff, there is some chance that someone might actually want to respond. Which is what Emma Hardy did after reading my previous post. And, remarkably, revealed similarities that reached beyond Ukraine to an obscure town in the Austrian Alps. But let me start with Ukraine since our president, Donald Trump, has recently put it on the map.
One meaning of “Ukraine” is “borderland,” and boundaries were shifting at the beginning of the 20th Century. When my grandfather, Teodors Johansons, arrived in Kharkiv, it was the administrative center of a Russian district established by Empress Catherine the Great and a major industrial and cultural presence. It was also where the idea of an independent Ukraine was first proclaimed. Teodors had started out in Sweden and traveled the world as an engineer building bridges. He had married Elizabete Zeltiņs in Rīga, then also part of the Russian Empire and making nationalistic rumblings. Elizabete had given birth to my mother Elza in 1915, so he had come to Kharkiv with them, part of the wave of Latvian migration around the turn of the century. His job was running a chemical factory. At home, from the little that I know, there was love and laughter. Teodors and Elizabete had a penchant for pranks, tossing pickled herring from their flat into hoods of passersby below bundled up for the winter.
Revolt against the Russian Empire started in 1917 with the February Revolution in the capital city of Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg) and the formation of the Russian Provisional Government, dominated by wealthy capitalists and the aristocracy. Community assemblies called “Soviets,” dominated by soldiers and the industrial working class, permitted the provisional government to rule but insisted on the right to influence the government and control the various militias. This was not a stable situation and collapsed with the October Revolution, a Bolshevik-led armed insurrection by workers and soldiers in Petrograd that overthrew the provisional government and transferred all authority to the Soviets. In December, Kharkiv was invaded by Red Guard forces and a Soviet Ukraine was established. This was around the time when Teodors—as I had always envisioned it—was led out to the courtyard of his factory and, despite repeated attempts at reasoning with the militia unit leader—the revolution desperately needed factories and educated people like him to run them and so on—was executed by a formal firing squad while Elizabete, then pregnant with her son Gvido, and two-year-old Elza were allowed to return to Rīga with suitcases full of worthless rubles.
It was only after receiving Emma’s response that I did some reading on Teodors’ executioners, most likely the Red Guard. I learned that enlistment was voluntary and only required recommendations from Soviets, Bolshevik party units or the like. Unit composition and organization varied greatly, and military training was often conducted while workers were still employed at their plants. And the units, while successful in local conflicts, could not prevail against more formidable adversaries like the White Army. But I did not consider the possibility that my grandfather had, more likely, been brutally murdered by a lawless mob until I came across a photograph of a Red Guard unit and shared it with Emma. The horror that I felt was confirmed by her response: “Lots of words came to me as I looked at red guard pic, all words profane. Omg, what a photo. Such intense anger in those faces. And the weapons! How oddly juxtaposed against his angry face is the jaunty straw hat worn by one of the men, 2nd row center. Renoir could have painted such a hat but certainly without the diabolical face below it (painting is my hobby hence this random thought on straw hats). The whole picture BEGS caution against extremes, ideological and political. I mean, it really blew me away.”
Emma’s mother was born and raised in Nikolayev, a village some 50 miles north of Odessa, currently Ukraine’s third most populous city. In 1928 or so, Emma’s maternal grandfather was taken from their home without warning. Not long thereafter, his wife was summoned to an official place to collect her husband’s shoes. “Being given his shoes meant he had been executed,” Emma explained. “That was how the Soviets communicated such things.” Which is why Emma understood about my maternal grandfather the way that others cannot. And why we are worried about what is happening today. After decades of oppression, both Latvians and Ukrainians threw off the Soviet yoke. But post-Soviet Russia is threatening those nations again. And many Americans, perhaps because they share a far more benign history, have not yet learned to recognize—much less fear—the face of extremism increasingly evident at home and abroad.
But, hey, what wonderful weather we’re having! Here I am in Maryland at the start of March, and we’ve barely had any snow all winter.