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


Why Spelling Matters

One thing I’ve been noticing as I follow the Ukraine war is the varied spelling of the beautiful Black Sea city of Odesa. I’ve seen it spelled Odessa and Oddessa. Which is the correct spelling? Turns out that Odessa is the Russian spelling and Odesa, with one s, is the Ukrainian spelling. 

My grandfather was killed in Zhytomyr, in northwest Ukraine. It's another place that has had various spellings. The Germans wrote Shitomir (see Karl Stump’s extensive maps). I referred to it as Zhitomir which I later learned was the Russian spelling and now, the correct Ukrainian spelling is, Zhytomyr. 

Stumpp's maps later helped the Nazis with their killing projects. The man himself was never charged in connection with the mass killings made possible with the help of his detailed maps.

Back to the issues of spelling. As I edit my book set in Soviet and Nazi times dealing with conflicted areas, spelling pops up again and again.  Perhaps it’s the same issue we have with our British vs. American spellings of words with the o or ou or l or ll spellings. Thankfully, we’re not at war with either the British or  the Americans and spelling is just spelling.

Karl Stumpp: Mapped German
settlements in Russia and Ukraine
It’s not the Russian language that’s wrong. What is wrong is that the Russian government feels threatened by the Ukrainian language. Many Ukrainians, especially in the eastern part of the country, are fluent in Russian while few Russians ever learn Ukrainian. 

Before the invasion, I'd been working on a children’s picture book with a friend living near the Volga in Samara. We were going to make the book bilingual, Russian and English. Making it trilingual was not going to happen. After all, my Russian friend had asked, who would read a Ukrainian picture book in Russia? That project, by the way, is now on indefinite hold. 

While language is a mere tool of communication, it's also quite political and easily weaponized. Indigenous languages in Canada were usurped by the English which has become an almost universal language. Holding tight to our identity by insisting on proper spelling is a way to regain self-respect. And only by having self-respect can we expect respect in return. 

I grew up ashamed of my often butchered name. Gabby. You're a Gabby? Or is that Gaby? With one b? Or Gabi? With an i?  Besides, how come you’re so quiet, if you’re gabby? For a few years, I insisted on Gabriele. How many ways can that be mis-pronounced? And how many times did others misspell it? Banks, schools, government IDs.  Gabrielle. Gabriel. Gabriella. Finally, I settled on Gabe. It’s a compromise for all the English-only speakers out there. 

Never mind my middle name. Ulrike. How many Ulrikes (3 syllables) do you know?  I was named after a set of twins and I’ve always been grateful that Gabriele (pronounced in German with 4 syllables) was at least born before poor Ulrike. 

So yeah, I get it. Odesa. One s. Okay?


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