May 24, 2003

Liebesbriefen von Rußland

I have a question on matters of blogger etiquette. Someone has posted in appreciation of my series on my family, linking to each post in turn. Since I already link to ReachM High Cowboy Network Noose, I have little of the unofficial currency of blogging to offer. What do I do? The best I can think of is fan service.

So, for my fans, I have a pair of letters from my great-grandfather, Kornelius Peter Martens, to his girlfriend, my great-grandmother Tina Neustädter. This is nowhere near complete correspondence. Even as a child I remember hearing about other letters, letters about life in Moscow, at school, and Great-Grandpa's thoughts on WWI. But, Grandpa must not have had them or I'm sure he would have included them. This is what I have.

This first letter must be his very first letter to her. It is dated immediately after when I had understood them to have first met - Winter 1914-15 - while he was on his way to an outhouse during a family function and she was coming back from the same. They were introduced by Grandma Dick's friend Tina Martens, who was also great-grandpa's cousin. She later married Johann Loewen and moved to Ekaterinoslav, then eventually to Fiske, Saskatchewan.

This letter is in German, written from the business school in Barvenkovo that he attended before going on to the university in Moscow. I don't have the original, just a translation. Grandpa was a very capable German translator, but he seems to have had difficulty translating this letter into an unstilted English. I've fixed the most grievous stylistic errors, the moments when I can just about reconstruct the original German from his text. Nonetheless, you can still read through the translation the cheesy romanticism of a 20 year old writting a love letter from school to the cute girl he met over Christmas.

Barvenkovo, 14 January 1915

Dearest Tina!

On the designated day I received your letter. I was quite certain that you would keep your promise, and still I was a bit apprehensive because I had the feeling that you might write a day later. I have longed for you so much these days. I had composed a letter to you but now I've torn it up. I thought you would laugh at me if I wrote you after a separation of only three days. I have almost buried myself in my four walls again. There are only little disturbances now and then.

A few days ago I received the news that on the 24th I am to participate in the draw. My letter requesting exemption probably got lost. I will write them again as soon as possible, but if it doesn't help, I'll be in Einlage on the 23rd. One of my friends had to go; his experience was similar to mine. [Grandpa's note: This was during WWI and young men were frequently conscripted. Since Father was not baptised until just before his wedding, this could not have concerned the forestry service which was available as an alternative to members of the Mennonite Church. Since he was not drafted, his request for exemption must have been granted in the end.]

You probably go for walks all the time? I am almost envious of you. How gladly I would like to be at your side at Tina's place. [Grandpa thinks he means Kornelius' cousin Tina, the woman who introduced them on their way back from an outhouse.] That beautiful time is a thing of the past and now those wonderful hours of the past ramble through my mind like a fog before my eyes. I can hardly believe my memory, that barely two weeks ago, I spoke with my beloved. And still it cannot be doubted. One thing is true, those blessed hours are a thing of the past, and all that is left is a beautiful memory that in the world there is one heart to whom I can entrust my heart fully and completely. How wonderful! Isn't it so, dearest? Human beings always have a lot that they wish for. I just thought it would be even nicer if I could draw you against my breast, well, even if that's not possible in reality, then I can imagine it...

Thank you for your dear letter and the little card. Y.F. always wants to cut off Tina's half. It will probably happen at the first opportunity. [Grandpa's note: The "little card" must have been a photograph of Tina Neustädter and Tina Martens, his first cousin, in whom "Y.F." was interested. His identity is not known.] We will have ourselves photographed together, and then we'll send each of you a copy.

Tell Tina not to repay evil with evil, because my brother didn't mean [what he said] that way. I think he wrote her [to say that] already. When you write, make sure that the letter does not arrive here the 23rd or 24th. I may have to leave by then. A thousand kisses by your Kornelius.

P.S. If this letter is too long for you, I'll write less next time.

P.S. Smallpox is making the rounds here. We have all been vaccinated already.

P.S. There is no thought of going for a walk here. There is as much mud on the sidewalk as at Reimers' in the middle of the street.

P.S. I am waiting for a reply very soon.


Great-Grandpa is concerned about the draft. He hasn't been baptised and therefore can't claim a conscientious objection. Mennonites had lost their all-purpose draft exemption by then, and only members of actual dissenting churches could avoid military service. As for whatever his brother said to Tina Martens, I'm sure no one alive has any idea what it was about.

This second letter is from almost a year later, and is written in Russian from Moscow University. Grandma Dick had not learned very much Russian in school. I have had the impression that she was primarily used to speaking Russian with servants and was borderline illiterate in the language. It seems that Great-Grandpa had encouraged her to improve her Russian. He, as a man with a broader education and a future in big business, had quite fluent Russian.

Grandpa didn't translate this letter himself, since he could not speak or read Russian at all. He had it translated by a former associate who was also a Russian professor at the University of Winnipeg. Once again, I am missing the original and it doesn't seem to be a very good translation. It is excessively literal, giving it a kind of bizarre tone for a love letter. I have, once again, tried to repare the worst of it.

Moscow, 1 October 1916

My dear Tina,

You will probably be wondering why I have not written for such a long time. I, too, was alarmed when my letters remained unanswered. The last news that I have from you was written on the 16th of September, but I only got it on the 28th. So for that space of two weeks I did not have the least bit of news from you, my dearest. But you are always worried if I do not respond within a few days after receiving your letter. You can't imagine what's been going through my mind during these long days. Finally I started to think I didn't know anything at all. And then, just when I reached that conclusion, your letter arrived. In a flash, all my puzzling thoughts disappeared and the next moment, in my imagination, I threw myself into your arms, kissing you a thousand times and hugging you repeatedly. The past has disappeared unnoticed, as though I only saw your likeness yesterday. That's the way I saw you in my imagination. The future will probably seem longer to us. For the time being, we have to be satisfied with waiting for letters, then eventually seeing each other again. But until then is such a long time, oh how long, almost unending.

As a comforting rule, take Nekrasov's advice: "Believe, hope and wait", and in the end we will be reunited. After a long absence I will be able to look into your dear eyes, little dove, and... and... I am unable to describe my feelings. Such feelings are unutterable, because to another person they are foreign. But we understand them, don't we my angel? But let me guess what you're thinking. You're thinking: "Now the wretched madness is galloping away with him." Maybe so, but what can one do? That is my fate, as much as I thought this fate had to adjust itself to the wishes of man.

"How firm is the man that strives
See what all he can accomplish
If only in his heart he has for patience and discernment
The freedom, and God's blessing"
This is my guiding principle. Man can do anything. There is nothing impossible in this world. But now, enough. Again I have let myself go too far.

You ask why I do not correspond with Vanya. [I have no clue who Vanya was.] I correspond with no one except you and my parents. Furthermore, he does not answer letters. I will straighten out the matter with him after the war or if he should come to Moscow.

With many kisses,

Your Kornelius

My address:

Moscow
Karetnyy ryad
Srednye-spasliy pereulok
House #3, Suite 1
K.P.M
P.S. You can continue to write to me at my old address, but it seems to me that here there aren't as many hostile hands. [Some of his mail had disappeared, and he assumed theft.]
I assume "Nekrasov" is Nikolay Alekseyevich Nekrasov (1821 - 1877), a Russian poet. He was a popular poet, and something of a favourite of social reformers and revolutionaries at the time. He is now something of an obscure writer, known more for having introduced Dostoyevski to the publishing world than for his own work. I also have no idea who "Vanya" was or what his beef might have been.

This last letter is even cheesier than the first. Great-Grandpa seems to have fallen under the influence of some highly romantic poetry. The few lines he quotes are no doubt from some Russian poet, but I can't read the language well enough to find out who the original author is.

I'm struck by the irony of the line from his first letter "The future will probably seem longer to us", for he was dead by the spring of 1920 after a sixteen month marriage. According to Grandma Dick, he learned the catechism in less than three days, so that he could get baptised immediately and marry her in a Mennonite church.

Yet, in 1916 at age 21, he seems to have put his faith elsewhere entirely: "Man can do anything. There is nothing impossible in this world." I don't doubt that he would have been quite the engineer if he had lived.

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Posted 2003/05/24 0:43 (Sat) | TrackBack