Liquidation Week

The stores, during these last days of December, are filled with shoppers looking for bargains during  'liquidation sales.'

Russia has a different take on 'liquidation.' Back on December 27, 1929, the Soviet government, under Stalin, passed the resolution to ‘liquidate the kulaks’ as a class.  

Sign says: Liquidate the kulaks as a class. Photo:
Unknown. Thanks to Lewis H. Siegelbaum and Andrej K. Sokolov, GFDL <>, via Wikimedia Commons

On December 29, 2021, the Russian government, under Putin, passed another liquidation law ... the resolution to liquidate Memorial, the human rights organization focused on victims of political repression. 

It took me twenty years to figure out my family history, repressed as it was under the Soviet regime. Finding it, proving it, left me feeling sad but started a healing process.  93 years after my mom’s family was broken apart, after the family’s windmill was lost; almost 70 years after my grandfather was killed, I'd found him. I'd found my family. But now the modern Russian government has rescinded that tragic past. Now it's illegal for people to remember their own history.

My grandfather, a kulak

This year, 2022, Putin has a new set of liquidation laws. While still waiting for the final stamp of approval, new laws passed a first reading December 20, 2022, against ‘sabotage propaganda’. This is open to interpretation, but ‘liking’ an anti-Russian, pro-Ukrainian Instagram post could now be considered ‘sabotage’ with a prison sentence of 20 years or more. Putin’s about to ‘liquidate’ anyone. Just like ‘kulak’ became a convenient label for anyone seen as different; modern Russia targets internal threats with labels and laws. 

Dangerous windmill

 “The punishment for saboteurs will be as severe as possible,” said State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, a member of Russia’s ruling United Russia party. (Moscow Times)

I’m afraid for a Russian friend of mine. Perhaps it’s best that we don’t connect. Our friendship could be her downfall.  Our children’s book project about cuckoos and storks might somehow be seen as subversive.  I wish I was joking. 


Subvert: to destroy or damage

Liquidate: to eliminate

Winter Solstice and Yalda Night

I received an invitation to attend a winter solstice celebration with a recent Iranian immigrant (a former student of mine in the language program for which I volunteer).  It was an invitation I couldn’t turn down. 

Soccer Play Sentenced to Death
Yalda night with the Iranian diaspora of Winnipeg this year should have been a joyous occasion. After all, Yalda is about light regaining its strength after the longest night. After two years of Covid, people were no doubt looking forward to reconnecting. But instead of reconnecting via the red of juicy pomegranate and watermelon—traditional food served for Yalda night—the only red was blood on the images of the executed or shot during the last 96 days of the new Iranian revolution. Images on large screens showed the faces of victims of this government crackdown on protesters. 
 “Woman, life, freedom,” accompanied all the portraits. 

Photo-shopped images of some of those killed

While it was not a night of celebration, it was a night of empowerment through music, poetry and speeches. Various local politicians shared their support for this new Iranian revolution, as well. City councillor, Janice Lukes’ words stayed with me: “You are the light,” she told the attendees. And I think that’s the message we all need to know and to act on. Whatever our situation, we need to be the light. Was it a Chinese proverb that says, “many hands make light work”? Well, our world needs many hands.

The days are getting longer now. The light will prevail. 

Crows in Novels

You know how it is when you have something, you're suddenly aware of it everywhere—like grey cats, say, or red cars ... or novels with ‘crow’ in the title.  

I’ve discovered that the title Crow Stone belongs to a successful thriller released back in 2007 by Jenni Mills. I’ll have to read it to find out for myself if the two books share anything other than the same title. 

Then there’s the new novel by David Robert Alexander, from here in the city. The Theory of Crows explores family relationships seen through the lens of Indigenous struggles for self-identity. 

Another recently re-released book of essays  by a prairie author, The Crow Who Tampered with Time by Lloyd Ratzlaff looks interesting.  And, I’m thinking I’d like to try The Crow Road by Iain Banks, too. First out back in 1992, it's been re-released and stands as one of Bank's finest novels. 

The crow in my own new release comes from an actual crow that sat outside my mother’s nursing home window. That particular crow became the catalyst for the rest of the novel. Perhaps when you’re dying, crows really do appear more often. 

Any crow books that you’d recommend? 

Dokhodyagas: the goners

Photo book by Tomasz Kizny
While searching the internet for a possible gulag bread recipe to try and re-create for my upcoming launch, I again stumbled on the term dokhodiaga which means “goner.”  It’s the fate of one of Katya’s co-prisoners in my new novel, Crow Stone.

Dokhodiaga (or dakhodyaga) is a frightening term and relevant not only to the dying in a faraway gulag camp somewhere in Stalin’s era. It can apply to society in present-day Canada, too. I’ve seen dokhodyagas in the last week here in Winnipeg. 

A couple of them were sitting in the pretty dining room at the care centre where one of my dear friends is living out her life with a rapidly soul-sucking dementia. It’s sucking my soul … she, hopefully, is blissfully unaware of her new world of institutionalized personal care, surrounded by goners who yowl with imaginary pain or fold the same napkin over and over, humming off-key.

Souvenir Gulag Spoons: Aren't they pretty
& rather insulting?
The ‘goners’ are also on our Winnipeg streets. Maybe they're the ones who hold up signs saying, Smile, God loves you. Or, any little bit will help? No, they’re not goners, not yet. It’s the other ones, huddling in bus shelters under dirty blankets, surrounded by garbage, and other soul-less goners. The ones who can’t ask for help. One of them froze to death during our recent cold snap.

The goners. Without hope, maybe we’d all be goners. Like those in the gulag camps who could no longer work and then wouldn’t get food and who then got weaker and still couldn’t work and gradually disappeared—like our street people, our dokhodyagas. Here, in Canada.

Dare I try a Russian gulag bread? Somehow, I don’t think we could ever appreciate how it tastes. We’re not hungry enough. 

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 Lale Andersen, Zara  Leanders, 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 (aka, August), 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?

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