Déjà vu

I recently learned about Ksenia Karelina’s arrest in Russia. According to CNN, “Ksenia, a dual citizen, went to Russia to visit her 90-year-old grandmother, parents and younger sister. She has been accused of treason for allegedly donating $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity in the US.”

She became an American citizen in 2021 but Russia does not accept dual citizenship and she now faces a potential 20 year prison sentence if found guilty. Treason? Because of a fifty-dollar donation supporting Ukraine? Boggles the mind. Putin’s re-creating a Stalin terror-state.

My grandfather was found guilty of treason back in 1937.  That was under Stalin. A person charged under Article 58 was considered an ‘enemy of the people’ and a counter-revolutionary.   The law was in place until 1958 under Nikita Krushev. That was the same year my surviving relatives received letters of ‘rehabilitation’ from the Soviet government, entitling them to pensions. 

With Yuri, translator who helped me peruse a thick file
involving my grandfather in the secret police files/Zhytomyr

Modern Russia’s version of Article 58 is Article 275, updated in April 2023. It defines treason as "espionage, disclosure of state secrets, or any other assistance rendered to a foreign State, a foreign organization, or their representatives in hostile activities to the detriment of the external security of the Russian Federation, committed by a citizen of the Russian Federation."

It’s been 20 years since I accessed the secret police files in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. With the help of a translator, I read through my grandfather’s file along with the files of his brothers. On thin pink papers, I read of the money he received from family and a church group in Poland and East Prussia. Eight DM (Deutsch Marks) in July, 1934, 11 DM (Deutsch Marks) in November, 1934, another 8 DM in April, 1934. A pittance of money to help him survive as he struggled to get an exit visa out of the country.  A pittance was all it took to charge him with treason. Translated, from his file:

Executions were carried out in the basement of this building
- former NKVD headquarters in Zhytomyr

“Found guilty on August 28 and  condemned to death.  This should be carried out on September 19, 1937 at 3:13.” 

And now, a young woman, accused of treason for sending a Ukrainian charity fifty-one dollars. Déjà vu, indeed!

What I'm Reading

This book, Nancy Drew and Company, came out in 1997 so its perspective is a tad dated. Nevertheless, as a first book I've read about the phenomena of Nancy Drew, it was insightful. I appreciated learning about series fiction in general and its influence on 20th century readers. I was an avid Nancy Drew fan and remember the stigma of being one. Not surprised to learn that it wasn't until the mid 1970s that the NYC public library would carry the series. Forever young, Nancy Drew was a role model for me and this book confirmed that she was also a role models for millions of other young readers.

And now, because I'm going on a trip, I've pulled out a book I found this past summer in a Little Free Library ... Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel.  Not sure what sort of internet connection I will have ...  and don't want to risk sand on my electronics.  I won't be gone long ... two weeks. But I've suddenly got 'ants in my pants' and need to get out of dodge!

puzzle pieces

What I’ve tried to do through past stories is shine a bit of light on forgotten lives. Take my grandmother, Matilde, age 41. She was put into an unmarked grave in Yaya, Siberia back in February of 1931. 

Then there’s her youngest son, Jonathan, a toddler who died along the way … left somewhere along the train tracks crisscrossing Russia. No birth or death certificates to mark their lives. Faded photographs and confused memories. Even red granite stones become anonymous over time. 

My grandmother with Jonathan on her lap

Current temperature in Yaya, Siberia is minus ten. Keeping track of the weather in Yaya is a way for me to stay in touch with my grandmother. Crazy? I know. I still hope to visit the town which orphaned my mom and her siblings. To get there I need a two-day train trip east from Moscow to Novosibirsk, and then change trains for another four-hour ride. Maybe, someday.

In the meantime, there are two other youngsters I’ve been trying to remember. My father’s two sons from his first marriage were born during the war … perhaps in Posen (now Poznan, Poland) The stigma of his subsequent divorce after five years' Soviet imprisonment, of being German, and the ubiquitous nature of death at the end of the war—means their short lives … like the lives of countless other young children … flow into an anonymous ocean of tears. For our family, their lives belonged to dark closets and forbidden photo

My father with his first son in his arms

albums. I’m still searching for a way to weave their brief lives into my stories. With only vague clues to their histories, my imagination meanders.

Did unremembered lives really live? Of course, they did. And we, the story-makers, try our best to recreate life from the lifeless.  It’s like putting a puzzle together without a picture for reference. 

This post was inspired by a Eurasian Knot podcast I listened to last night while dog-walking. While their conversation focused on Mennonite repression, my family’s German Baptists/Lutherans shared similar stories. 

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