Tag Archives: Soviet Union

The Face of Extremism

The Red Guard at the Vulkan factory in Petrograd. (Photo: Viktor Bulla)

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.

A Book About Sentient Beings, Great and Small

Front and back covers of the English-language version of a Latvian book.

Sometimes I wonder how I manage to have any friends at all. Take what I did to the talented Rīga illustrator Rūta Briede shortly after I was introduced to her by someone I knew from my childhood. Rūta had sent me the drafts of three books merely to give me some idea of the current state of children’s literature in Latvia; I responded by sending her three single-spaced pages of comments on one of them, addressing everything from color scheme to parallel construction to atmospheric science. I did say in the accompanying message, “Please understand that they are just initial reactions and that I, like many Latvians that I know here, state my opinions far more forcibly than I should, or even than I intend.” But that didn’t stop me from having the same sick feeling after hitting “Send” that I had as a child after I couldn’t keep from doing something that I knew full well was wrong.

Remarkably, Rūta could read between the lines. She understood that I would never have bothered doing any of that had The Dog Who Found Sorrow not meant so much to me. You see, it was one of those rare books that took children’s feelings seriously, and I was one of myriad others who grew up wondering why their experiences during war and displacement and other dreadful events were routinely trivialized by similarly distraught adults. It bothered me so much that when, late in life, I wrote my first story,“Making Soup,” I gave voice to a one-month-old infant and made her position clear from the start:

A woman on a bicycle stopped to tickle my stomach. It was bad enough she did that without my leave, but then she turned to my mother and said, “Thank God she is too young to understand.” Perhaps I was too young to play the piano or read Proust, but I was not too young to understand what went on around me. I understood before I came into the world, when my mother carried me inside of her. She gasped, and I had no air to breathe.

Rūta grants this sort of awareness to all sentient beings, both great and small. She uses a grown dog as her first-person narrator, and this dog demands that he be taken as seriously as my verbal infant. As depicted through evocative grayscale illustrations provided by Elīna Brasliņa, Rūta’s former student, his ears are erect, not floppy, indicating that he has not become domesticated and does not want to be seen as either an able assistant or a pampered pet. Similarly, his nose is long and pointy, not short and round.  And being a thoroughly modern urban male, he not only walks upright and wears a coat but also grows pink roses, which he sometimes soothes with his harmonica. Accordingly, Rūta calls him “suns”—not the endearing “sunītis“—in Latvian, a language seemingly dominated by such diminutives.

Thus, Rūta and I were, more or less, on the same page. Then I had to tease her about the book’s themes and endanger our rapport. If only I had limited myself to exclaiming, “How Latvian!” This, after all, was the first reaction that I received from poet and publisher Clarinda Harriss after I asked her to look at the book. Clarinda, you see, had learned enough about my native land to know that this was so. Even enough that she had incorporated me into her story “The Vinegar Drinker” and made my character provide the protagonist with a recipe for galerts, an elegant aspic made mainly of pigs feet. But I had to take it further, much like a child has to test the limits. Referring to the sorrow that permeates the book, I sent Rūta a video clip from the Onion News Network featuring Latvian American actress Laila Robins demanding that her subordinate give her a hit or she would make him her news director in Latvia. “You know what the Number 1 hobby in Latvia is?” When he indicates that he does not, she unsmilingly says, “Sadness.” Fortunately, Rūta said she found it to be funny.

But sadness was so painstakingly detailed in the book that I came to believe it was meant to be something more than a national tendency. This particular sadness started out as mysterious black smoke that poured out of “everything that was lonely and abandoned,” causing residents to cough and destroying both the color and scent of roses, only to form a large cloud “as dark and hard as a cast-iron pan,” impenetrable to raindrops, which turned out to be tears. In contrast to the modern dog and other up-to-date denizens of what could easily be Rīga, this sadness had an old-fashioned feel, reminiscent of the soot that once coated cities during the Industrial Revolution. Doing some digging, I learned that Latvia is still dealing with the legacy of ecological damage brought about by the poorly planned industrialization that occurred after it was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. And that, despite the impressive economic gains and the cultural rebirth that followed the restoration of independence in 1991, Latvia is losing population at an alarming rate and even the vibrant city of Rīga, sadly, is now called “The Capital of Empty Spaces.”

Undaunted by the impossibility of his undertaking and the obscurity of my references, the dog, armed only with a ladder and a curtain rod, pokes a hole in the cloud. Once inside, he is surrounded by sorrows, at least one of whom is female. I see them as the mothers, sisters and wives of men such as my uncle who were first conscripted into the German Army against their will, then punished by the Soviets, who deported them to remote regions such as Kazakhstan and imprisoned them in slave-labor camps, but I have such an overactive imagination. Not knowing what to do, the dog—”How Latvian!”—resorts to music, which results in dancing, which breaks apart the cloud and releases the tears, which wash away the soot. That isn’t as unlikely as it seems. Between 1987 and 1991, Latvians participated in an Estonian initiative, The Singing Revolution. It culminated in a human chain spanning the three Baltic nations that could have hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. Less known but maybe more important is the role of the Environmental Protection Club, which resisted the industrialization, in constituting the core of The Latvian National Independence Movement. Success in blocking the building of a hydroelectric dam emboldened many other opposition groups.

“Hey, that’s too heavy a load to place on such a slender volume,” you—or even Rūta, who is currently participating in the London Book Fair and conveniently unavailable for comment—could say. But remember that once a book is released, it belongs to the reader. And I have decided that I have rights that extend beyond those of a regular reader. Rūta was kind enough to acknowledge me in the back matter, which, in my mind, makes me the dear dog’s agnostic godmother. Which requires that I look after his future. And it is a future that already includes East Asian nations such as  Korea, Taiwan and China, where politician oppression and industrial pollution are realities that seep into the consciousness of the largest and smallest beings. And it is a future that could well include temporary settlements around the world that house young and old victims of the worst refugee crisis since the one that I experienced. As well as great American cities such as Detroit and Baltimore from which affluent families flee and leave behind much that is “lonely and abandoned.”

But before I press “Publish” and, yet again, cringe at the thought of what I have unleashed, allow me slip in one more layer of meaning. Although Rūta and Elīna might disagree, I cannot help seeing the dog that they brought into being as their alter ego. Or even a second self representing contemporary Latvian illustrators as a whole. One reason—other than the sheer impressiveness of their body of work—that I am so taken by them is that, unlike many others, they have managed, without denying its existence, to put Latvia’s troubled past  behind them and briskly move forward. And it turns out that I am not the only one to feel that way. Rosie Goldsmith, an award-winning British journalist specializing in the arts, has observed that while contemporary Latvian writers seem to be burdened by the past, illustrators, in contrast, appear to be liberated. One could say that it is almost as though some well-drawn dog has ripped apart a dark, oppressive cloud and let color and scent return to the roses.

Note: Rūta Briede is a graphic designer, a lecturer at the Art Academy of Latvia and an art editor at Liels un Mazs (Great and Small), a Latvian children’s book publisher. The Dog Who Found Sorrow is Briede’s first but not only collaboration with Elīna Brasliņa, an accomplished artist in her own right who translated Briede’s The Queen of Seagulls, which received an International Baltic Sea Region Jānis Baltvilks Prize in 2017. For more on my dealings with dogs, read my essay “Me, As Mammal.”

 

The dog, who played the harmonica for a rosebush, plays for the sorrows.

 

Some “lonely and abandoned” buildings in Rīga being revived bit by bit.

 

Some well-deserved recognition for Latvia’s new “liberated” illustrators. 

 

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Two illustrators at the 2018 London Book Fair, which features Latvia.