March 16, 2003

Nestor Makhno and me

I'm still reading Hobsbawm, and just finished the chapter on the Cold War. I find Hobsbawm is best read by doing a whole chapter in one sitting, then allowing it some time to sink in before embarking on the next chapter. Usually, it's just enough to time to read another book. Today, it was Dark Light by Ken MacLeod.

First, a very brief book review. For those of you who liked Cosmonaut Keep, you've probably already bought a copy of Dark Light and formed your own opinions. For those of you who haven't read Cosmonaut Keep, you'll need to buy it before making any sense of the sequel. For those of you who do not like any of MacLeod's novels and never have, don't bother, you won't like this book either. If, however, like me, you read but didn't like Cosmonaut Keep, but liked MacLeod's Fall Revolution books, I advise you to run right out and buy a copy of Dark Light. It's a lot better. There's a lot more sense to it and a much more coherent narrative, as well as a good bit of Marxist and semi-Marxist theory along with a nice rousing proletarian revolution. Good stuff. Though, the verb tenses switching back and forth - randomly from chapter to chapter - from the past tense to the present was a little weird.

MacLeod has a good quote attributed to him: History is the trade secret of science fiction. It's an appropriate quote for a socialist, and he demonstrates it in Dark Light.

What sparked this post, however, is a minor bit nearly at the end of the book:

"Bad news. What about the Party branch?"
Endecott's sandy eyebrows twitch, very slightly.
"They're solid. Most of them."
"What party?" Annie asks suspiciously
"Uh, later," says Matt. He has an absurd flash-forward of her taking Endecott to task for Kronstadt, Makhno and the Barcelona Phone Company.
What do Kronstadt, Makhno and the Barcelona Phone Company have to do with each other? Well, this is perhaps an obscure bit of history. Kronstadt is well known enough as the moment the Bolsheviks took action against leftist anarchists who had taken over Kronstadt island near St-Petersburg. The Barcelona Telephone Company refers to a violent incident in the Spanish Civil War when communists took action against an institution controlled by the anarchists. And Makhno... well, Nestor Makhno was an anarchist with a small army who took over a big chunk of the Ukraine during the Civil War. Later, he was exiled to Paris and still has his fans among the anti- and not-particularly-Marxist varieties of socialist radicals. All, in effect, refer to incidents when more orthodox communists took action against socialist anarchists.

The thing is, for some people, Makhno was a terrorist. I'm one of those people, and one of the reasons is that they terrorised my grandfather's parents, and my grandfather used to tell the story regularly. Not that Grandpa could ever have entertained this thought, but getting rid of Makhno was one of the better things the Bolsheviks did. I have little sympathy for that kind of anarchist.

My paternal grandfather died shortly before this last Christmas, and I had to make a quick trip to Canada less than 3 months ago to go to his funeral. His death wasn't terribly tragic, at least for me. He was 84 years old and had been in poor health for some time. For me he hadn't so much died as just faded away over the course of several years. At some point, he ceased to be the Grandpa who spoiled me silly as a child, and became the clan patriarch whose philosophy, religion and outlook on life were utterly incompatible with mine. As I moved further from the family's homelands in Manitoba and took more control of my life as an adult, we saw less and less of each other, and when we did meet, Grandpa was less and less communicative as his health deteriorated.

However, I found myself crying for the first time in years on the flight back. What brought it on was the strangest thought: when I was a child, my father was Mr. Martens. That was what his students called him. My father died when I was 16 and after that, Grandpa was "Mr Martens" and hardly anyone outside the family ever seemed to call him anything else. Grandpa had only one son: my father, and I have only one brother and he's younger than me. That means that from now on I'm "Mr. Martens"

That was the thought that brought me to tears in the middle seat of a packed-full 747 somewhere over Greenland.

Over the years since his retirement, Grandpa had tried to compose a... well, I don't think memoir is the right word. It's more like a compendium of autobiographical correspondence and genealogical research combined with various reminisces and anecdotes. It fills four binders and one copy was made for each of the grandchildren.

Reading Hobsbawm talk about "the short twentieth century" reminds me that his generation - my grandfather's generation as much as Hobsbawm's - actually lived through pretty much all of it. That's a remarkable amount of change to live through.

People are your only real connection to the past, and to neglect my own people would be like claiming that I came out of nothing. So, along with my other reading, I've been moving slowly through this mass of text Grandpa left behind, with a half a mind to edit it down to something more manageable and adding some contextualising historical material, perhaps for my own future children to read, or to pass on to my less pedantically minded cousins.

This is the first bit, and it's the part that mentions Makhno. It's only lightly edited. I removed some material I thought was superfluous, edited spellings and sometimes syntax to more uniform and modern standards, changed the spellings of Russian place names to a more standard transcription, and moved several blocks around to provide better narrative flow. The text between square brackets are my own notes.

A photo taken from Khortitsa Island (from University of Toronto)
My earliest recollection is of a horse being sick. Mother thought I would have been about three years old when her sister Susan's husband Isaak Zacharias had come to visit, and their horse became sick. They lived at Osterwick on an estate known as Zachrisifeld in Russia. [These places are all in the contemporary Republic of Ukraine. My grandparents referred to the old country as Russia without exception, even though these events all take place after the establishment of the Soviet Union and during the Civil War that followed. They had little regard for changing borders or the new nations that replaced the old Romanov empire.]

Approximate area of Mennonite colonisation in Ukraine

My parents were married on September 23, 1918 at a time when things were a little more calm after the revolution. [I presume this is under the old Julian calendar. The Soviet Union adopted the Gregorian calendar by decree in 1918, but it took years before this had an impact on the whole of the country.] Four couples were married at that ceremony. One bride was a widow the next morning. Her groom already has typhus at the ceremony. Of the four couples, my parents lived together the longest, which was a year and almost four months.

Before I was born, my parents had to flee Einlage. [Einlage was a village about 5km north of present-day Zaporizhzhiya, Ukraine on the west bank of the Dniepr river. It's inhabitants at the time were primarily Mennonites, thus the German name.] The Makhnovtsii [followers of the anarchist - terrorist according to Grandpa - Nestor Makhno] had come into the house and turned the piano into kindling, so my parents went to Khortitsa to the Johann Epp estate. The Epps were relatives and their son John was my father's good friend. My birth was recorded as October 25, 1919. To the best of our knowledge, we believe that the old style [Julian] calendar was in use at that time. In the rest of the world it was November 7. I have always used the latter date. How foolish! I could have had Old Age pension a month sooner.

Location of the old village of Einlage, now underwater

In Einlage, Makhno, the anarchist who butchered so many of our Mennonite people had his machine gun sitting on Grandfather Martens' window. That was his headquarters. [Grandpa claimed that his grandfather's house was the biggest and nicest one in Einlage. The family was quite well-to-do in the old Empire and not mere peasants. They were kulaks, farmers with significant holdings and relatively large incomes.] None of the members of the family were molested, but others did not fare so well. A young man was picked up somewhere and beheaded on the threshold of the barn door. One of our family members tore off a piece of his shirt in hope that his family could identify him, but nothing ever came of it.

But Makhno's people brought lice, and lice carried typhus, and typhus brought death to many. Medicine was not available. By the time my parents left the Epp's hospitality to return to Einlage, father already had typhus. His family had sent the Kutscher - the coachman - to get them on January 6. Father passed away January 10, 1920 at the age of 25. His father died on January 16 and Uncle David's daughter died between the two. So there were three funerals in the family in one week.

The doctor had told my father that he was strong and should recover, but he did not. The strong ones became the victims of typhus. Weaklings like mother and I pulled through. Mother had typhus too when Father died, but she walked from Grandmother Martens' house to the Peters' house to get father's suit. She was so weak that she had to support herself by holding on to the pickets of the fences along the way. She also embroidered the pillow case for his coffin although her fingers were very sensitive and all but bleeding. If I recall correctly, she did not go to the cemetery. There were so many deaths that they did not have services in churches.

When father was to be buried, they took a brick along to mark the grave. The coachman came up with a wire hoop to which Aunt Njuta [Great-Grandfather's older sister] attached evergreens for a wreath. At the grave, they inserted the brick so only a short end protruded. The wreath was placed on the grave. When they returned for the next funeral - remember father's was only the first of three in the family - the wreath had been thrown away, and the brick was gone. There was no way of knowing which of the many graves was his. Now it makes no difference for all the graves are under the waters of the Dniepr. [The construction of massive hydroelectric dams along the Dniepr during the late 1920's completely submerged Einlage along with many other villages along the banks of the river.]

A photo of the Dnjeprostroy, the hydro-electric dam above Zaporizhzhya, just south of Einlage. (from Sasha's 2002 trip to Ukraine)

My parents never had a home of their own. They lived with Father's parents and after Father died, Mother and I moved back to Mother's foster parents, actually Mother's aunt and her second husband. Helene and Peter Solomon Peters were like grandparents to me. Mother says that her foster mother used to say, "De oama en de jietsja tole dobbelt." The poor and the stingy pay double. [Mennonites in Russia had their own language, a dialect of Lower Saxon that they call Plautdietsch. This language is largely restricted to the elderly in contemporary Canada, although it is still quite alive among Mennonite colonies in Mexico, Belize and Paraguay. My parents both spoke it, but virtually never used it except with their own parents and siblings, so my own knowledge of it is purely passive. Think of it as a sort of Dutch spoken with a thick New York accent where people can't pronounce "r".]

After Makhno had robbed the people of almost everything they had, the Red Army took over and completed the job. People sold their remaining valuables if they could and bought what limited food was available. I am sure barley was not a staple with our people, but now it was a godsend. Inflation was completely out of control. Anyone who had any money today would buy thread or anything else that was tangible, because tomorrow the money might be worth only half as much. The farmers lost all their horses, cattle and other farm animals. Everyone's food supply had been eaten up or destroyed. There were few animals available for field work. What was seeded failed to produce because of the drought. The result was starvation throughout Russia in the winter of 1921-1922. To alleviate the plight of their brethren in the faith, the Mennonites of North America had organised the Mennonite Central Committee in 1920. The food that was shipped in from the States was prepared in what Mother called the "American Kitchen." People who were chosen for the programme got to eat in these feeding places. I understand that the ones who worked there were given a double portion. Mother got to cook in the Einlage branch. That is what kept us alive.

Please let me know if this is at all interesting material. I'm quite serious about seeking feedback on it, but if it's really boring my readers to death I won't do it here. If it's interesting, I'll put more of it up.

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Posted 2003/03/16 3:14 (Sun) | TrackBack