A Forgotten Centennial

Winter 2017.

100 years ago, the world as so many knew it ceased to exist. A mass exodus from East to West (and also from East to further East) pushed hundreds of thousands (actual estimates vary between 900,000 and 2 million) out of Russia and into lands unknown.

They didn’t want to go. They didn’t plan to stay wherever they ended up. They certainly had no intention to “integrate” in the new places they reached. Nor did they have any wish to upset the local order. Their aim was to abide and go back home, reclaim what was lost —¬† any way they could. At first, the world supported them, sheltered them, and most of all, listened and supported their claims and their cause. After all, they were writers, composers, diplomats, aristocrats, poets, painters, academics, scientists, teachers, officers… and everybody who came with them.

But pretty soon, their claims, however legitimate, lost power against the winner of the show of force, and the Soviet Union was recognized by the older nations. The Russian emigres joined the ranks of the lost and forgotten, falling out of fashion, and soon rejected as reactionary holdouts, archaic originals, insular foreigners — basically, them.

Meanwhile, those who didn’t leave (didn’t think to leave, didn’t want to leave, or didn’t get to leave) also faced the end of the world, and most of them didn’t even know it yet.

Photograph by Proskudin-Gorsky, early 20th century

The civil war was over, the White Armies were disbanded, the White soldiers and officers who didn’t leave returned home to their farms, workshops, small businesses, thinking they’d go back to their old life.

My mother was born around 1925, and the early memories she recorded in a letter to us, her daughters, would date them to the very early 1930s.

Grandfather took us to the orchard. The orchard was large. There was a lot of everything: currants, cherry trees, thorny gooseberry bushes, and whole rows of apple and pear trees.

When the time came to pick the apples, the orchard came alive with a multitude of voices. They would hire harvesters, young girls in bright clothing. They would lift long poles with a wooden hand at one end, bring the palm to the apple, give the pole a twist, and the apple would lie in the wooden palm. Then they would place it carefully into a bed of wood shavings so there wouldn’t be any blemishes on it. Those apples went to the market, Grandfather himself took them to the city.

Her memories clearly describe a prosperous farmstead, able to provide seasonal work, and a family of hard working farmers.

Those happy, sunny memories were shattered when the collectivization started, and our family was arrested and our property was taken away. The entire family — my grandmother with her infant daughter, my mother and her sister, her father, other relatives and other people from the village — were taken to Solovki.

Watchtower at the Solovki labor camp

My mother couldn’t have been older than five. Maybe less, since she told me stories of starting school early, when everything had been taken from them already, so that would have been after they came back from the labor camp.

 

But it all started in 1917, and if the end of the world as so many people knew it was slow to reach all corners of Russia, that’s really when it started.

The real modern world.

The real 20th century.

The end of an era.

For every commemoration of the 1917 Russian revolution, remember the preschoolers, who, like my mother, would be pulled out of their homes one night and sent to desolate labor camps in an effort to eliminate an entire component of the old Russian society — a genocide not based on race or gender, but on work ethic and success.