Nobel Peace Prize and Memorial

Nobel Peace Prize Certificate from CC Neptuul
Nobel Peace Prize award acceptance
speeches  will be aired on December 10th from Oslo, Norway. One of the three recipients is the International Memorial Society, founded in 1987. Memorial’s aims have been to reveal and showcase the crimes of the Stalin years. While it's now legally banned in Russia, it continues to function in various other countries. 

I try to highlight these abuses in my own humble way through my stories. The Kulak’s Daughter (aka, Red Stone) is a novel focused on the  First Five Year Plan, to liquidate the kulaks. It destroyed my mother’s family farm, killed my grandmother, and toddler uncle. The sequel, Broken Stone, was about how my mom and her siblings managed to dodge a state orphanage, leave the Soviet Union and narrowly avoid the famine, while her dad, my grandfather, was not allowed to leave … how he managed to survive the Holodomor and then disappeared into the behemoth of the Great Terror. 

With the sacrifice of the Soviet Red Army, under Stalin’s ruthless leadership, the Nazis were finally crushed and USSR's reward was the Iron Curtain and the loss of freedom for millions of east Europeans. Stalin’s Red Army turned ordinary men into monsters, many who turned to the bottle to numb any remaining humanity left inside them.  Now in Crow Stone I explore how civilians like my mom were worked to death in inhumane forced labour camps ... again under Stalin.

That these horrific things happened under Stalin’s leadership is not disputed. But that modern Russia continues to deliberately downplay the human rights’ abuses under Stalin shows that Memorial’s mission is far from over.  Instead of healing, there is continued repression and ruthless violence. Holocaust survivors can go to numerous centres throughout Europe and re-imagine the Nazi horror of concentration camps and extermination centres. But an organization like Memorial honouring the memories of my own broken family becomes outlawed in the vary places it happened.  

With Uri, my translator, and the bundle of files
about my family in the Zhytomyr secret police archives
I was fortunate enough to have access to my family members' secret police files in Zhytomyr.  The last entry, was a letter dated August 16, 1989, from the KGB acknowledging that my uncle, Gustav, was indeed politically repressed and executed in 1937.  His brother, my grandfather, had a similar fate but that was waiting for me to discover. 

The fact that Memorial is now considered a foreign agent and banned in modern Russia, under Putin, proves that its truths have power. Putin is afraid of the truth. Long live Memorial. Maybe someday I'll be able to create a memorial to my grandmother out in Yaya, Siberia.  For now, I can only write stories. 

And, forever, I'll be grateful to Don Miller, who introduced me to my mom's home and family. His book, Under Arrest, did for me, what Memorial is doing for human rights worldwide. If I had a voice, I'd be giving Don Miller his own Nobel Prize for Peace.  He has written several books and has a great website where he showcases extensive research.

Don Miller in my mom's home village, Federofka,
with an old woman who remembered my mom's family

War and Music

I was not a hip kid. My parents were immigrants and watched every penny.  It meant there was no money for fashion or new music … 2 necessary ingredients for being in style. While I learned to sew and gradually resolved my fashion issues, I fed my need for music with a treasure-trove of old music down in the basement where I immersed myself with Dad’s old 78s. 

Rosita Serrano, Public Doman
From an early age I had Zara Leanders, Lana Anderson, Hans Albers, and Rosita Serrano on the turntable. Serrano, also known as the Chilean Nightingale, became my favourite. For me, Serrano’s song, Roter Mohn, represented all the romance and tragedy of the past.  It's something I’ve been exploring with a current writing project.  

The British had Vera Lynn's We'll Meet Again, the Americans had Marlene Dietrich's Lili Marleen and the Russians? Who did the Soviet soldiers listen to for romance?  Perhaps it was the Blue Scarf by Klavdiya Shulzhenko, which I first heard of when reading Maria Stepanova’s book, In Memory of Memory. The lyrics, originally released in 1940 were changed slightly by Mikhail Maximov after the Nazi invasion of June, 1941 and became, “The soldier fires his machine-gun for the blue scarf that rested once on the shoulders of his beloved.” Machine-guns for love.

Cover for Klavdiya Shulzhenko's Blue Scarf Album

When I traveled through the Zhytomyr Oblast of Ukraine back in 2004, it coincided with the Victory Day holiday … the victory over the fascists. In poverty-stricken Ukrainian villages, music blared through tinny speakers as old men drank home-brew and remembered old battles. I was struck by the hold that the music of war still had on the countryside. Even in the bigger centres, military music was blasted by military parades and in public squares. 

Music stimulates emotion and like magic, it transports people to other places and times. It unites people with shared memories and with aspirations for the future. It’s powerful, potentially dangerous and universal in its appeal. 

I wonder what music plays throughout Ukraine during these terrible months of invasion?  Perhaps I’ll find out as I begin a new volunteer session with a recent Ukrainian immigrant. 

Crow Stone's Arrived!

I got a parcel in the mail yesterday ... the kind of parcel every author loves like a newborn baby ... my new book!  Crow Stone, the jumbled and blurry ramblings of an old woman as interpreted by me. It's a story brought into focus with the support of my wonderful writing group and my amazing publisher, and now a tangible object ... a novel.  My only regret is that my mom can't hold it.

How would she review it? I'm thinking she'd shake her head and mutter ... brotloße Kunst (breadless art) ... but she'd be smiling. 

Storied Stones

Solovetsky Stone in Moscow CC, Andy House

Piece of coal from Ukraine
There are many best things about books, and here’s another one … they become stepping stones to more books, more ideas, more worlds. Often a bibliography at the back of a book helps lead the way. Other times, the tantalizing crumbs are scattered throughout. In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova I was eager to follow up on a couple of items—the Blue Scarf, a popular song during the Soviet times and the Solovetsky Stone.

I’ve always been drawn to stone, as my previous book titles confirm, and my fascination with them goes beyond my writing. I have stones with a variety of histories scattered throughout my home and garden. Their timelessness, their uniqueness, their silence attracts me—they bear witness to history.

Baltic Amber posing as stones
So, what was the Solovetsky Stone that Stepanova mentions in her memoir?  The huge boulder is a monument dedicated to political repression in the Soviet Union. It’s right in Moscow at Lubyanka Square, close to the secret police headquarters made famous in our western world by the cold war’s KGB, but previously known as the Cheka, the OGPU, the NKVD and now morphed into the FSB. Yes, modern Russia still needs its secret police. 

Red Stone from windmill's
foundation in Federofka, Ukraine

This ordinary-looking stone monument was unveiled in 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. October 30th is marked as the annual day to remember victims of political oppression. How was that day handled last month? I missed hearing about it. 

The granite boulder comes from the Solovetsky Islands in the northern White Sea. One of my uncles perished out there. An older brother of my mom’s, he was arrested along with her father. I never created a character out of him for my earlier novels (The Kulak’s Daughter or Red Stone) because he wasn’t in the photos done before and after the 1930 exile and his very existence seemed murky. If there’s no photo, then did he really exist?  Now that’s a scary thought. 

Limestone from shores of Lake Winnipeg
Later, I could indeed confirm his tragic life. Back in 1931, as a fifteen-year-old he’d been considered old enough to help build the White Sea Canal. So he’d just disappeared into that no man’s land of rocks, cold and OGPU tyrants. My way of honouring him has been to use his name for my protagonist’s younger brother. That’s all rather confusing, but the truth is, my mom had three brothers … Albert, August and Jonathan, a toddler. Little Jonathan died en route to Yaya, Siberia. August, (called Albert in my books), ended up fighting for the Wehrmacht and disappeared in a Soviet forced labour camp in 1945 while the real Albert, pushed boulders for Stalin’s White Sea Canal.

Stone stories from my
daughter's Europe trip
The Solovetsky Stone in Lubyanka Square is for that  un-photographed Albert, for my fictional Albert, and for little Jonathan.  All three youths were victims of political repression in the Soviet Union. Three uncles, dead through Stalin’s policies, along with my two maternal grandparents, victims as well.  Yes, that Solovetsky Stone in Moscow commemorates my family, too. 

When my daughter traveled throughout Europe one summer she brought back a collection of her own storied-stones to share with me.  

Because stones can't talk—they can only listen—they need us to speak for them. Stepping stones, indeed. 

Now I need to follow-up with the Blue Scarf. 

Rest in Peace ... Live in Peace

The story of Crow Stone … out in just a few days … begins on November 11th, 1944. Here’s the opening paragraph.

November 11. Today is Albert’s twenty-fourth birthday and he’s coming home to celebrate. Well not home, home, but what’s become home—Königsberg here in East Prussia. I’m meeting him at the train station, the same station where we arrived when we were homeless children—kulak orphans. Will I even recognize Albert? The men all looks the same in their grey field uniforms.

His brief visit will be the last time he gets to be with his family. Inspired by my mom’s real brother, August, he soon disappears into the quagmire of a Soviet Union prisoner of war camp.

Two months later on a Red Cross/Crescent postcard, dated January 17, 1945, he writes, ‘Things are going well so far, wishing the same for you. Hope we can soon reunite in our homeland.’ Well, there was no homecoming, no home to return to, and no future. 

This Remembrance Day I want to remember that war kills. It kills the enemy, the hero, the child, the old woman, and the family dog. War doesn’t focus on a uniform or on an age.

Solzhenitsyn, Public Domain

In Prussian Nights, a narrative poem composed by Solzhenitsyn and committed to memory while he was in the Gulag after being accused of empathizing with the enemy, he remembers war.

Some soldiers have gathered round

          A pram that’s been abandoned,


Lace trimmings, too:

’Look, a little ‘un.

Still, he’s a German!

He’ll grow and put a helmet on.

Deal with him now, d’you think?

The order from Supreme Command

Is Blood for Blood!    (p. 67. Prussian Nights, translated by Robert Conquest)

Rest in Peace, Uncle A. Let me never take this living in peace for granted. 

The unmarked graves

I’ve been curious about this Erich Koch who was the top Nazi in East Prussia during my mom’s time there. Who was he and what is a Gauleiter?

The word Gau means area and leiter means leader. It's not been used since the Nazi defeat, except in a derogatory way. In the Nazi hierarchy there was the one and only Führer, and one level lower were the 16 Reichsleiter (later, 22), and then the third highest tier were the Gauleiters of the various districts throughout the Third Reich. In East Prussia, aka Ostpreußen, it was Gauleiter Erich Koch. 

A career-Nazi (born in 1896), Koch joined the Nazi party in 1922 and become East Prussian Gauleiter in 1928.  He whole-heartedly endorsed the master race theory, later promoted to Reichsleiter of Ukraine and known for his brutality. 

Erich Koch at his trial in Poland in1958

As the war was ending, East Prussian civilians were finally permitted to flee via Operation Hannibal on January 23, 1945. Koch's faith in the master race had faded and he didn’t wait around either. A ship waited for him in the Pillau harbour (avoiding the chaos of the masses) and he headed to Flensburg (close to my dad’s home turf) in Schleswig-Holstein.  Koch’s plan had been to follow other top Nazis to South America. 

Captured in Hamburg in 1949, he was tried in Warsaw and imprisoned in Barczewo, Poland (former Wartenburg, East Prussia). Spared a death sentence because the Soviets thought he might know what happened to the Amber Room,  he died at age 90.  Like my grandfather and my grandmother, and several of my uncles—and like Hitler himself—Koch was buried in an unmarked grave. During this month of remembering, when graves and memorial sites are visited and bedecked with flowers, it’s poignant to think that the perpetrators of war and so many of its victims lie in unmarked graves. 

Maria Stepanova

But then who needs a grave to be remembered? Seems rather unnecessary. The whole idea of what to do with a person’s body after its life has left seems irrelevant to the actual memory of what that person meant to the living. I’m reading the 2021 Booker prize winning book, In Memory of Memory, right now and perusing the idea of how to remember the past. A fascinating read. 

Maria Stepanova's quote from Bertolt Brecht seems appropriate here. “And you see only those who stand in the light while those in the darkness nobody can see.”

The Power of Chocolate

While visiting what was probably the last open-air farmer’s market of the season, I purchased a ‘peace by chocolate’ chocolate bar, designed with the colours of Ukraine’s flag. МИР it read or 'Ukrainian for Peace' and PEACE IS BEAUTIFUL in every language.  What a simple message sprawled in big letters on a hazelnut milk chocolate bar.  And yet so political!  Ukraine wants peace.

As I indulged in my guilty pleasure, I continued to peruse the package it came in. On the back, it read, “One PEACE won’t hurt.” Well one piece is never enough but more peace couldn’t hurt either. And then I did what every curious, chocolate-indulging writer raised on Nancy Drew would do … I followed up with some research. 

Peace by Chocolate is a “Syrian Family Tradition.” The family behind this chocolate venture were Syrian refugees who came to Canada in 2012. You can check out their website and the beautiful people behind this chocolate for peace effort. The family came from Damascus and settled in Nova Scotia. It’s a wonderful immigrant success story and during this most volatile and violent of times, it’s a great reason to eat chocolate. Hopefully, ‘peace by chocolate’ during these polarizing times, won't cause too much weight gain or cavities. 

My first book, The Kulak’s Daughter (aka Red Stone) revealed the power of chocolate while out in a desolate transition camp in Yaya, Siberia. In one scene an OGPU guard takes pity on the kulak children and offers them chocolate. 

In Crow Stone, another guard (the OGPU morphed into the NKVD) shares chocolate with Katya, who’s now a prisoner of war. Here’s a snippet from the book: 

    “Eyes closed, I let the sweet dark square melt in my mouth as I remember how more than ten years ago, a guard named Sepp gave my little brother a piece of kindness. That chocolate is still melting, still spreading its goodness around.” (p. 174).

Eating chocolate is good, but giving chocolate is even kinder. We need the peace of chocolate more than ever. 

P.S. I didn't know until 2 days later, but October 28th was World Chocolate Day! Another reason to indulge. 


Remembering October, 1944

Nemmersdorf (Ostpreußen)
October 21, 1944. It's the 88th anniversary of the Nemmersdorf massacre and the invasion has never been more relevant to modern times. This brutal Soviet intrusion on an eastern village in East Prussia marked the beginning of the end for East Prussia. (The Third Reich was doomed a long time before that.) What marked this particular attack was not only the extreme violence (too horrid to specify) but also how it was used by the Nazis. Goebbels immediately sent out a film crew and showed the reel as a propaganda trailer before German cinema features. The message was clear. Be afraid, be very afraid … the Soviets are ruthless barbarians. 

But instilling fear into the broken German population and the demoralized Nazi troops was not enough to stop the revenge-seeking Red Army. October 21, 1944, Nemmersdorf was just an appetizer of what was to come three months later, when the full assault began on January 24, 1945.


Present-day Nemmersdorf is in the south eastern part of the Kaliningrad Oblast and known as Mayakovskoye. Located on the Angrapa River, it's a quiet place with a population of less than one thousand. Any surviving Germans were expelled or fled, as in the rest of the former East Prussia. 

Instagram is full of images of the ruins in Kaliningrad. Those beautiful ruins began crumbling back in 1944 ... a poignant reminder of war and destruction. 

Hearing about the violence and torture happening now, in occupied Ukraine, in October, 2022 just a few hundred kilometers east of Nemmersdorf ... seems unreal ... like a nightmare. Young men turned into monsters, humiliating their peers to avoid being humiliated. How did this all happen? 

I didn’t want to blog about war and violence today. I wanted to blog about something positive and good. I wanted to write about chocolate. Next week. 

Politics and Music in Russia

I jumped at the opportunity to attend a concert last weekend ...

when I heard that it would be Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony.

Having read Symphony for the City of the Dead by M. T. Anderson last winter, I’d gained some insight and curiousity about Shostakovich’s music and even streamed some of it to enjoy during my nightly dog walks. Anderson’s book highlights the composer’s experiences during the terrible siege and I found the Novorossiysk Chimes (The Fires of Eternal Glory, Op 111b) short and accessible for a non-classical mind like mine. 

Listening to his Tenth Symphony, first performed December 17th, 1953 in what was then Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) opened my ears to what an immersive classical music experience can be. I couldn’t help but try to imagine the original audience. Leningrad was, after all, the city that endured horrendous suffering during the almost 900 days siege. 

Composer featured on Russian stamp 

A quote by the composer (the validity questioned by some biographers), says, “I did depict Stalin in my next symphony, the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin's death and no one has yet guessed what the symphony is about. It's about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that's the basis." (From the book, Testimony by Solomon Volkov). 

Even a great musician like Shastakovich had a shaky relationship with the Kremlin, as did everyone who experienced the perilous 30s and 40s in the Soviet Union. It was too easy to end up in some gulag or dead, like my grandfather during the 1937/38 Great Purges

Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93.  Who knew that a symphony could be so political? 

Historical Fiction Favourites

I’m preparing for my part for an upcoming online panel talk, Making History Come Alive, being hosted by publisher, Ronsdale Press from Vancouver, BC. Anyone who reads my blog knows what inspires me to write and where my stories are set is no surprise either. 

I’ve been mulling over things from a reader’s point of view. Why does history matter? More specifically, why should today’s young people read about yesterday’s mess-ups? Aren’t there enough current issues demanding attention? Isn’t concern for the future a more valid interest to pursue? 

The best historical fiction allows readers to step into a writer’s characters and experience history for themselves. It offers a character, a plot and a resolution. It offers the reader something to take into the present and then to the future.

Boris Pasternak

My favourite pieces of historical fiction? For the adult in me … always, there’ll be Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Always there’ll be Heinrich Böll. In fact, I must search out his books (devoured as a university student) and re-read them. Always, there’s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. How will these books stand up after all these years? So much has been revealed. So much is still changing.

For my young adult self?  Always, there’s Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief. Always, there’ll be Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. More recently, there’s a whole series of Martha Skrypuch’s middle grade novels. I’m about to open her most recent novel, Winterkill, set in Ukraine during the Holodomor. I loved Karen Bass’s award-winning novels, especially Graffiti Knight profiling the German point of view. And I totally appreciated Harriet Zaidman’s locally-set novel, Second Chances, set in the 1950s about polio and Winnipeg racism, which received the 2022 Geoffrey Bilson Award for best historical fiction in Canada. 

Here’s a quote by Timothy Synder author of Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin.  “The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, some of which we can only estimate … It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and to put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people. (p. 408)

I’d like to continue his thoughts with these words, It is for us as writers, to turn these people into stories. Why?  Because as Rudyard Kipling so aptly said, “If history were told in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” 

Hope you can make it to our panel talk. Six authors from across Canada with stories crossing centuries and continents. 

Siberia in Birds Hill

I didn't expect to find any references to Siberia during my fall hike yesterday past historical points of interest. After all, the Manitoba landscape  ... in the middle of Canada, is … is what

Manitoba’s landscape is mostly flat steppe. (Technically, the difference between a steppe and a prairie is that prairie grasses are taller.)  In the fall, the golden aspen become a centre point (Siberia has its birch trees). 

In the winter, Manitoba’s prairie promises wind, snow, and cold. Hmm. Like my mother, a Siberian exile survivor, always said, “just like Siberia.” It’s a wonder she stayed in this brutal climate after her first winter back in 1954. But then, in those days, she had few options and surviving a cold Winnipeg winter was nothing like starving during a cold Siberian one.

Anyway, imagine my surprise when I visited an old homestead (built by East European immigrants, Frank and Rose Kudlowich, in 1936), outside of Winnipeg yesterday.  The place had been part of the movie set for a 2013 Keenu Reeves movie called Siberia (terrible reviews, but in this trailer you see a glimpse of the cabin at about 1:23). Perhaps my mom was right to compare Siberia with Manitoba. Here's a link to a Free Press article

Winter weather, Siberian or Manitoban, was a strong point of contention for my mom and me. After years of quickly hiding my snow boots and other outdoor gear before she visited, the secret of my day-job finally emerged. She cried with disappointment. (Yes, I was a disappointing daughter in many ways.) After that, I had to constantly defend my decision to work in the Siberian/Winnipeg winters as a letter carrier. I thought it was a great job for a struggling writer raising three kids. I had solid income, regular hours, great benefits (including a pension and the health to enjoy it) and most importantly, head space to think my own thoughts. Another perk was the sunshine all year long and an appreciation of what a cold Siberian winter might have been like. Call it research.

I hope to revisit this 1936 built cabin later in the winter when the wind blows and the snow is deep. Sounds rather inviting. But for the millions of exiles back in Stalin’s world, the transition camps, special settlements, and gulags were anything but inviting. Winters can be harsh in this world and with the global energy supply threatened by Putin’s war, it’s a serious matter. We’re all vulnerable to extreme weather, especially when politics manipulates our experiences of it.

Reading Kiss the Red Stairs

I’ve been reading Kiss the Red Stairs and have mixed feelings about it. It’s very well-written, poignant and passionate. The author, Marsha Lederman, is a well-known Canadian journalist so I'd expected her research would be well-presented. With this memoir, she does a great job of connecting her life with her parents’ Holocaust memories. I also appreciate how she connects her losses to Indigenous and Black traumas.

I wasn’t quite as engaged with the trauma of her dysfunctional marriage. Perhaps I don’t see marriage as such an important part of selfhood. I'm someone who’s chosen not to wear my wedding ring, for complicated reasons, so her sadness about her ring-less fingers didn’t touch me at all. 

Like her, I also grew up without grandparents.  Perhaps I'm jealous about how much support she received as she explored her tragic family history. There’s no national day to remember the liquidating of the kulaks. No national memorial for the victims of the 1937/38 purges. My grandmother, dead of typhus in Yaya, Siberia has no gravestone. Neither does my baby uncle, dead on a boxcar during the long trip up to Yaya. Or my other uncle, dead while building the White Sea Canal. Numerous great uncles, aunts, shipped away to be forced labourers and never heard from again.  No recognition of their spent lives … not in Stalin's world. No reconciliation now in Putin's world.

As the daughter of a German father (a pilot for the Nazis) and a German-Russian mother, I grew up here in Canada feeling shame and embarrassment.  I grew up feeling that I was the daughter of bad people. Reading this memoir does nothing to alleviate that shame. I will never be good enough. I can’t erase who I am or who my parents were. 

I appreciated her expressions of gratitude ... something I'm also overwhelmed with.  I find reasons for it here in this democracy called Canada, in diverse friends and in rustic nature. 

One thing I have learned ... evil is not out there. Evil stares back at me in my own reflection. This knowledge keeps me humble. No righteous indignation in my life. 

I’m sure it was a cathartic experience for Lederman to research and write this book. And her honesty and vulnerability lends it power. But there was one more thing I was waiting for in this memoir … forgiveness.  She's a 2G —second generation Holocaust survivor—and I will always be guilty — the second generation perpetrator.  This is my inheritance and I must accept that with the help of Reinhold Niebuhr's 1932/3 written serenity prayer.

September's Gifts

This has got to be my most favourite time of year. September. The month of change, of harvest, of fragility. The month when the gift of summer still radiates from the tree’s fruit, from the earth’s vegetables, from the sky’s migrating birds. 

I live near two schools and on the sidewalks (yes, my neighbourhood has actual sidewalks!) youth saunter past—some with voices that trill with excitement—others who drag their soles (or is that souls?) with seeming dread. September and school ... positive possibilities for some; stress and anxiety for others.

There's also been a deathly tinge to my Septembers, like leaves that have changed colours. One of these deaths was my grandfather—executed during Stalin’s Great Terror in 1937. Discovering his interrogation papers and the exact date and time of his death (3:13 AM, September 19th, Zhytomyr) back in 2004 has added to the season's melancholy. 

September teases with cold, with hope, with decay, with potential. The compost pile grows bigger, promising to nurture  future lives and create new stories. Wishing everyone warm soup, warm socks and warm spaces to share stories.                                   

Writing Retreats

Photo taken from Mann's
office in Nida
Back in September, 2019 I looked forward to visiting Nida, Lithuania once called Nidden, Germany. Located on the idyllic, sand-dune covered Curonian Spit, the sleepy beach town of Nida, still honours the summer retreat of Thomas Mann. It’s a town he had to evacuate in 1933 when the Nazis delivered a charred copy of Buddenbrooks to his residence. 
Mann and his family in then 'Nidden'

I was enchanted by the view from Mann’s writing space in the picturesque blue cottage. Many writers like a natural setting while they write. The internet is full of exotic locales set deep in the woods or on beach properties to entice the muse. But for me, it's usually my own backyard that provides a natural setting for my creativity.

I often have to share 'office' with Tiberius, the cat

The ironic thing is, once a writer is in the ‘zone’ his or her surroundings dissolve as the story takes hold of the mind’s eye.  I might be sitting and watching the squirrel chasing the chipmunk when all of a sudden, I’m in a car catching the dialogue between two arguing parents as I’m transported to the other world of my novel-in-progress. 

Walking sand dunes near Nida

I wonder what Thomas Mann saw looking out of his studio upon the Baltic lagoon? Did he see the crashing waves of political upheaval coming into his country? He called it the Italian view. Did it remind him of his novella, Death in Venice, published back in 1912 before he even went to Nida? 

It seems ironic, but as writers we’re influenced by our surroundings even when we ignore them. I’m heading out to my favourite writing place this coming week during this season of decay and change. I’m confident in its power to inspire me and somehow it will find its way into my stories. No doubt the waves from Lake Winnipeg’s rustic beaches will lap at the edges of my pages. 

Waves on Lake Winnipeg

Visiting Riga

It’s been an eventful 3 years since I undertook my Baltic and Kaliningrad cycling adventure. Who knew then what a privilege travel would be? Who knew then what a precarious new chapter Russia would be introducing to eastern Europe. 

Travel has always been a privilege although many of us might see it as a right. Now with the spread of disease, the consequences of global warming and an unstable political situation, I am more than ever grateful for the limited travel I have managed to do. More than ever I scratch my travel itch through immigrant volunteer work and through books. Books—safe, cheap, environmentally sustainable and no masks or testing required. 

Still I bask in the memory of landing in Riga (about the size of Winnipeg) and embracing the crisp Baltic sunshine and all that incredible history. Riga, Latvia had never been on my travel radar before but it’s a true gem of a city. Perhaps its vibrancy is because democracy and freedom there are only 30 years old. As a former Soviet-occupied country, Riga has a living memory of political oppression.  Unfortunately, in spite of the security in being a NATO country (since 2004), by sharing a border with Belarus and Russia it has a constant reminder of its vulnerable geographical position.

Nevertheless, Latvia thrives. Its KGB museums are not rewriting history like the gulag museum in Perm in the Urals.  Last week I blogged about how the Russians continue to confabulate their own history. In Latvia, they remember the past and they sure don’t want to repeat it. Repression in countries, like repression in people, leads to illness, unhappiness and isolation. 

I’m grateful for the privilege of exploring historical Riga …a beautiful Hanseatic League port. Now it’s a place where NATO troops gather to prepare for another possible takeover. Why can’t the neighbours just mind their own business?

Confabulated Memories

Story Fossils at Lake Winnipeg
Memory is a curious thing. Without it, events happen and get lost and forgotten. At a recent memorial service on the weekend, I felt connected with others in attendance because we shared memories of the deceased. And it was through the sharing that we validated not only the life of our friend but our own experiences.

Meanwhile, I’ve lived for almost four decades with a man whose various stages of brain damage have led to a confabulated past that leaves my own head spinning. I find myself isolated and alone when I realize that this man I’ve shared a home with, doesn’t share my memories. But confabulating the past doesn’t just hurt families. It seems to be all the rage now in Russian politics.

And isn’t confabulation what we fiction writers do all the time? We invent things. When we don’t know all the facts, we make stuff up. I know that with my own historical fiction I try to build on facts but create a character to personalize them. I invent lives to fit into the events. Sort of like building dinosaurs out of old bones. 

Recently, I was re-visiting a book, first published in 1947, Forced Labor in Soviet Russia by David J. Dallin and Boris I. Nicolavesky. (These 2 co-authors are worthy of more research!)  It’s the best source of detailed locations of the Soviet-era corrective camps I’ve come across. I wanted to find some modern images of the camps on the internet. 

Fence at Perm
Photo: Gerald Praschl, CC
The general vicinity where my mom worked in an open open-coal mine in the Urals, back in 1947, is now touted as a place for nature-lovers to get away. It has all the modern conveniences that a gulag labourer couldn't even imagine... indoor hot tubs, showers, quaint log cabins with feather duvets and TV.  It’s almost as if what my mom told me when I was growing up ... the bugs, the hunger, the cold ... had never happened. It’s like she might have confabulated the whole thing. 

Putin demonstrates daily that confabulation is thriving in modern-day Russia. The only gulag museum in Russia, housed in Perm, in the Urals, was until 2014 under the management of Memorial, an international human rights NGO. But that truth is too hard to remember and so it's been changed. It’s like a whole country has brain damage and needs to confabulate a storyline to survive.

Perm 36 once a museum remembering the victims of the gulag, now has re-written its own story. For modern Russia, gulags have become a necessary evil that helped Russia achieve greatness. According to the new museum director, it is no longer "politically correct" to view the camps beyond their architectural layout and positive contribution to the Soviet victory. Manipulation of memory. Russia now lives in its own confabulated world. A lonely place to be.

Cycle of Violence

Kurapty Forest near Minsk, Public Domain
I eagerly anticipated reading The Singing Forest by Judith McCormack. There was a long waiting list for it at my local library and when my turn finally came, I closed my other books and focused on this. About a third of the way through, I grew restless, disappointed and turned for other opinions on Goodreads. Very mixed reviews. I decided to soldier on and I’m so glad I did.

The Singing Forest is set between contemporary Toronto and pre-war Belarus. The two main characters, Leah, a young lawyer, and Drozd, former NKVD chauffeur from Belarus. Both characters have fathers who have failed them. Both are trying to prove themselves. Leah, through justice; Drozd, by instilling fear in those around him. While the complicated Toronto scenes slow the story down, with three uncles, a love interest, and the lawyering, the Minsk scenes kept me reading. I found Judith McCormack’s ability to get inside the villain’s personal headspace allowed me to understand, but never to condone, the cruelties done under the pretence of Stalinism.  Drozd wasn't a communist, he was a survivalist. 

My grandfather, a kulak, was also tortured and killed under Article 58, counter-revolutionary activity, during the first summer of the Great Terror. He was jailed for two months and interrogated via troika.  His trial took place in Zhytomyr, about five hundred kilometers south of Minsk. There’s good reason why Timothy Synder refers to these areas as ‘bloodlands.’  McCormack’s novel opens strong with the random discovery of a skull by some boys out mushroom hunting in the Kurapaty Forest. It ends with an online meeting that left me hanging. But perhaps unresolved is the only way to end such a complicated story about faded memories.

Our pity for the little abused boy that Drozd once was morphs into disgust as we see his survival instincts destroy those close to him. Monsters are often created during childhood. People who are hurt often hurt in turn. The cycle of violence goes on, ruled by fear. 

I’m glad I read this book. Now I want to read Lynn Viola’s Stalin’s Perpetrators on Trial. I know that at least one of the troika involved in condemning my grandfather, a NKVD officer called Maniko, in the documents I copied while in the Zhytomyr archives, was condemned in 1940 for falsifying evidence and beating the prisoners. 

And now the same areas are once again struggling. The cycle of violence continues. 

P.S. I'll be watching for McCormack's next book. 

Camp Morton and Time

Visiting the ruins at Camp Morton is always a highlight of my summer. The crashing of Lake Winnipeg’s waves, the sparkles on the water, and 1930s era stone mosaics touch me in a visceral way. It’s a place where history and nature embrace each other and I like to be caught in that embrace.

One of the children's cabins from 1930s
Why do I feel so connected? Perhaps, because first of all, I love shorelines. Any shoreline. I’ve ambled along the Baltic, the North Sea, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Pacific. The colours, the sound and spray of waves, the texture of the sand, broken shells, unique driftwood and always, the stones—each one containing a timeless story. Camp Morton, along the western edge of Lake Winnipeg, has such a timeless shoreline.
Water tower with 1937 in stone mosaic

Then there’s the coincidence of the camp’s dates. While Camp Morton opened in 1920,  many of the buildings are dated 1937. That's the same year my grandfather was shot in Zhytomyr during Stalin's Great Terror. The year my mom worked on some East Prussian estate in a Nazi world. For some reason, juxtaposing the serene lakeside camp with my family's losses during the Stalin and Nazi years, helps me appreciate the peaceful times I spend here at the lake. Camp Morton’s ruins are my ruins, too.

Remembering the Sisters who supervised the camp

But there’s another reason why I’m drawn to Camp Morton. It’s the religious over-tone. I spent childhood summers going to a religious camp and know it’s a perfect place to build friendships, make music and create memories.   It’s also a place where vulnerable young people can fall prey to manipulative elders with sometimes soul-sucking intentions. 

Perhaps the Fresh Air camps on Lake Winnipeg were only places of healthy recreation. But I can’t help but wonder about those children in the 1930s. Sometimes I think I hear their ghosts calling me. But it’s probably just the wind in the poplars, or the crashing waves. Or just me, casting my own shadow on the past. 

Stone fence on perimeter

Stone-clad sundial

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