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.


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Das Alter Buch

Among the other documents included in Grandpa's magnum opus is a photocopy of the Alter Buch, or genealogy, started by my great-great grandfather, Peter Kornelius Martens. It is hand-written on unlined paper in German, using the old Fraktur script, also sometimes called "Gothic." Although I feel reasonably at ease reading German, the Alter Buch is completely illegible to me because I have virtually no knowledge of the old script - I can read it with great difficulty in print, but in hand-written cursive it's hopeless. For me, it would have been easier to read in hand-written Russian. The old German script was abolished by the Nazis in 1941 because Hitler believed it to have Jewish roots. Although after 1945 it was no longer illegal to use, it never recovered its pre-WWII popularity and nowadays it is rarely used and virtually never taught in school. It persisted among "diaspora" Germans in Canada for another decade or so after the war, but is by now forgotten most everywhere. Fortunately, Grandpa also transcribed the German into the modern script and translated it to English.


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March 22, 2003

Out of Frisia

I feel that at this point I should provide some background information about Mennonites, and how they came to be in Russia. If I had Grandpa's library on hand, this would be a piece of cake. He had dozens of books on Mennonite history and culture. However, his books are in Canada, in his last house, and I am seven time zones east of them.

I am therefore warning you: I'm working mostly from memory and this is not a complete history. It's probably not fully accurate, it's not very serious, and it should be treated in the same category of historiography as that capsule history of America in the middle of Bowling for Columbine.


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March 23, 2003

One third of the way around the world in 30 days

I've always been fascinated by travelling. Those moments in life that are between places are so full of purpose and intent and so much more a stage for the human drama than a trip to the mall or eating in a restaurant. People who would otherwise never in all their lives come into contact are - in modern times - frequently compelled to share public transportation facilities.


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March 30, 2003

Down and out in Siberia

In light of the current conflict - and because I'm not feeling very peaceable - we are going to focus on Russia and political mayhem one last time before moving on to the much happier world of Canada between the wars. I had, in fact, decided to skip this bit of Grandpa's documentation and keep the narrative focus on Grandpa himself. I had prepared a post on life in Canada after emigration, but I've decided to post this instead. The next post will go up tomorrow or the day after depending on how much time I have.


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April 3, 2003

Winnipeg emm Kjalla

Grandpa's early life is - to me - like something out of a history book. I have never been to Russia, although I would very much like to go and study Russian seriously. My wife, when I told her that once upon a time, just nodded and said that she had had this premonition of us living in Russia, so it was all no big deal. There are times when I feel like there is some strange bond between us Martenses and Russia, although it seems silly when I say it out loud. My own research has taken me, time and again, into the world of socialist and czarist Russia, often at times when it seemed completely unrelated to what I was doing.


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April 17, 2003

Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.

Mrs. Tilton makes a point in the comments to a previous post:

I think the religious should not be shy about being seen as religious, and I would hope the influence of their belief upon their lives might prompt non-believers to wonder whether there might be something to all that. But intrusive crawthumping is not only offensive in itself; it's also likely to drive away non-believers who might not otherwise have been driven away. Note the difference in style between Tony Blair and George Bush, both committed Christians. One can disapprove of both (and for many of the same reasons); but Bush's religiosity puts Christianity in a bad light in a way that Blair's does not.
I agree entirely. Religious people should not shy away being recognised as such. No one should have to hide who and what they are. Not just in matters of religion, but in all aspects of identity. That is an important part of what substantial freedom, as opposed to legalistic freedom, should mean. And this has some bearing on today's instalment from Grandpa.


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April 18, 2003

The Revolutionary Council calls for a vote

Pedantry is, to put it bluntly, not a democracy. My posts, my choice, my editorial authority. I am the General Secretary, the Chairman, El Presidente and the Great Helmsman. That's what blogging is all about: low cost, small market self-publishing. We babble, you decide.

Nonetheless, today I'm going to try an experiment in "guided democracy" in order to show the masses that I am not without populist impulses.


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May 4, 2003

Beastly Murder

In response to my public, Pedantry is returning to pre-revolutionary Russia for a few more instalments in my series of posts taken from my recently deceased grandfather's papers.

My great-grandmother - Grandpa's mother - was born Katharina Abram [Ekaterina Abramovna] Neustädter in 1895, 108 years ago this August, on a rural estate in Gubernaya Ekaterinoslav, now part of the Republic of Ukraine. She died in early 1988 in Winnipeg, Manitoba when I was 16. She never fully mastered English and used standard German, not Mennonite Plautdietsch, as her most regularly spoken language. I never really mastered standard German and I am still nowhere near as comfortable in it as I am in French, so I had few conversations with her and I have little to recount about her in the first person. My memories of Grandma Dick are all of a very old woman. She was a few days from her 76th birthday when I was born.

I always knew that her parents were murdered, but I don't know if anyone ever told me the details.


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May 19, 2003

Tina rennt...

I have promised the rest of Grandma Dick's story for some two weeks now. The first part is here, and there is a link from there that lets you go back to the rest of Grandpa's memoirs. This story should be contrasted with my grandfather's memory of the same events, which were not the same.

We pick up Grandma Dick's story again in 1927 - she says almost nothing about the years between her parents murder and her exit from the Soviet Union, except a series of dates for her baptism, her marriage and my grandfather's birth. For her, Russia symbolised a misery that I don't think she was ever comfortable talking about, while Canada was her liberation. Russia was where her parents were murdered, where she spent her teen years in misery with her foster parents, and where her husband died less than eighteen months after her marriage.


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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.


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May 29, 2003


Grandpa Dick was, as I have already recounted, my grandfather's adopted father and the only father he knew. Grandpa Dick was born David Davidovich Dick on the 17th of October, 1900 in Apanlee, one of his family's estates, located in the Molochna colony, the largest Mennonite enclave in Ukraine.

I know this because when I was a young Russian student in Montreal, Grandpa sent me a photocopy of a document in Russian that he couldn't identify. I was able to tell what it was pretty much right away. It was Grandpa Dick's birth certificate. Translating it, however, was quite difficult. First, I had awful Russian. I was - I think - in my second semester, not too long before I quit Russian to concentrate on my core courses. Second, this birth certificate had been written and certified in 1913, and the Russian language went through a huge reform after the revolution. They didn't just change the way words were spelled, they actually changed the alphabet. The result was that I had a hard time even looking the words up in the dictionary.


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May 30, 2003

Before somone googles it...

"Apanlee" on Goolgle

It has come to my attention that my great-grandfather's family estate, Apanlee, features prominently in a work of historical fiction called Lebensraum, written by Ingrid Rimland, a Holocaust denier and current owner of the Zundelsite (link leads to the ADL website). I am not, nor is anyone in my family as far as I know, linked to Zündel, Rimland, Holocaust denial, neo-Naziism or anything even dimly related to that end of the political spectrum. Some in my clan are quite politically conservative, none that I know are anywhere near so far to the right.


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June 25, 2003

The Apanlee Park

Grandpa has a lot more material on Dick family history than Martens family history. The Dick family was fairly large and owned quite a lot of land in Russia. He had a number of aunts and uncles on that side of the family, but honestly, I can't remember any of them. I'm not sure I met any of the Dicks other than Grandpa Dick.

The previous instalment describes how the David Jacob Dick - my great-great-grandfather - came to be the master of Apanlee, and this one offers a view of life there from the eyes of an eleven year old child, writing about it in her own adulthood. Grandpa collected accounts from several Dicks over the years, and there are at least two other books on life at Apanlee, but of the materials I have on hand, this one struck me as the most evocative of life on the family estate.


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July 29, 2003

Faith put to the test

It's been a while since I put up a post about my great-grandfather David Jakob Dick (who will mostly be referred to as "Grandpa Dick" from here on out) - more than a month from the look of it. The last post, written by his younger sister Helene, ended with:

When the greatest misfortune took us, I can well remember sitting right there under the fruit trees and hearing the shots.
To read the story up to this point, you should use the "category" archive in Movable Type, which you can get to by clicking here.


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December 25, 2003

Du kjleena Enjlaenda

Christmas last year, I was in Winnipeg with my family. I had not planned to return last Christmas, but shortly before the holidays, my Grandfather passed away at 82 years of age. I returned for the funeral and stayed for the holiday.

Grandpa made a series of photocopied binders - four in total - which encompass a variety of autobiographical material, family history, and narratives from the old country. Since March, I have been editing them down and serialising them on my blog. It's been a long time since I put up a post from Grandpa. Since July from the look of it. You can read the entire series to date by clicking here.

After a long interlude of material from Russia, we are returning to Grandpa in the 1940's. The last post from Grandpa's life saw him on the farm in Saskatchewan in 1943, age 22. He had just received an indefinite differment from his draft board. At some point in 1944, Grandpa became a naturalised Canadian citizen. He doesn't mention it in the text, but there is a copy of his naturalisation certificate which refers to him as a British subject, not a citizen, since there was no such thing as a Canadian citizen until 1947.

But Grandpa came to aspire to something other than a life on the farm. He eventually left Saskatchewan again to finish his education and finds himself involved in the construction trade on and off through this period, and sweeping floors and cleaning furnaces much of the rest of the time. This gives rise in me to the odd image of my grandfather as Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except without the casual sex with ex-demons. He fell into construction simply because he needed the work and found that he was good at it.

This post covers the years from 1945 to 1953, during which Grandpa finished school, met and married his wife and had two children. But, he has a few more adventures in him yet. His story started in revolutionary Russia and the early Soviet Union and has taken him to rural Saskatchewan between the wars, but there is one more exotic location to come, as we will see at the end of today's instalment.

This post also reveals some of the larger context Grandpa is living in. Some traditional Mennonite institutions are beginning to break down in the face of social change. Increasingly, Mennonite society is divided between evangelicals who seem themselves as having a global mission and traditionalists who seek isolation from worldly affairs. This divide is not just visible in religion, but also in culture and especially in language. The divide over time took on a more and more linguistic tone, as adopting urban life, public schools and the English language became linked to one side, while Church German, Plautdietsch and rural living were left behind.

I do need to give you one more piece of information before we start. During the 1930's, Grandma and Grandpa Dick - Grandpa's mother and adopted father - had three more children: Irene, Wanda and Hedy. Grandpa just barely mentions their birth in his text, and I don't think I've included that material, but he mentions them again here. Also, the family name "Toews" is pronounced "Taves" to rhyme with "Dave's", and "Dueck" is pronounced "Dick." The reasons have to do with how people approximate German vowels in English and Plautdietsch.


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January 27, 2004

A brief history of Bakongo

Once again, I'm going to take a short break from Grandpa's autobiography to expand on some of the background of the events around him. I did this early on with a brief discussion of Mennonite history, but this time the topic does not just place Grandpa in his historical context, it is also a little closer to current events. History is important to understanding things, and to make the history of Africa start with Grandpa's arrival would both make his circumstances harder to follow and the present-day Congo harder to understand. The last instalment is here and for any new readers, the whole series can be read from this page. I'm going to talk about the history, culture and linguistics of the Congo region in two or three (relatively) short posts before going back to Grandpa. I expect to do the whole thing in a week or so, so this won't be spread out over a couple months or anything like that.

The history of the Kingdom of Kongo - Bakongo in the Kikongo language - is, like much of African history, a tragic tale of a clash between local culture and external forces of change. It is a story with many parallels in the modern era when we are again reopening ancient debates about the consequences of intercultural contact.


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February 9, 2004

Dona Beatriz and African Social Democracy

This is part two of Pedantry's contribution to Black History Month. This series will run a lot longer than February, since there is at least one more post on the history of Kongo before moving on to Grandpa's life there, which will take up quite a few posts and doubtless run months at the present (very slow) rate. Part one is here.

I had intended to talk about the 1885 Berlin Conference and the Congo Free State in this post, but the story of Kimpa Vita seemed worth telling and didn't fit into a post about the economics and linguistics of colonialism. The next post will take up Kongo's (by then Congo) post-Berlin history and some of the interesting linguistic issues this created. It's about half-written, so I'm hoping to get it up very, very soon.


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February 15, 2004

1885 and Africa's final fall

I've decided to extend the discussion of the history of Congo one post longer. This entry in my commentary on Grandpa's autobiography is about the events of 1885 - a red letter year in African history. It was the moment when Africa's fate was finally made completely subject to the will of European states. The first part is here and the second here.

In American high schools, colonialism is seen as something that started in 1492 and rose persistently to a crescendo around WWI. But, this is not exactly the way it happened. The early colonial empires were motivated by a fairly simple mercantilism. Some things were cheaper to take than to buy. Some things could only be produced in distant lands, and investments had to be protected. Some things that were purchased rather than taken travelled on routes that had to be protected with overseas bases. Trade led to dependency, dependency led to insecurity, insecurity led to taking over so that you can minimise the insecurity.

But by the middle of the 19th century, this doctrine was already known to be an economic failure. Richard Cobden - following the ground-breaking doctrines of Adam Smith - pointed out that there was nothing to gain from a colonial empire that could not have been had more cheaply with free trade. As proof, by the mid-19th century Britain's most profitable colony was the United States, a nation it had not ruled for most of a century.

Declining gains had diminished interest in new colonial ventures and Britain shifted its model of colonial administration to one with growing home rule. (As described here.) The UK even considered selling some of its less useful colonies to smaller European states. There was even talk here and there of a multi-national British union, led from London, of course.

Britain ruled the seas and prevented any other state from establishing new colonies without its consent. France was the only other nation with even close to the same level of power, and most of the long running disputes between the two had been resolved. The UK manufactured most of Europe's industrial goods and reaped the benefits of a large trade surplus. There was little for it to gain from new colonies.

Colonialism might have ended there, fading away over the second half of the 19th century because of declining returns. Both the British and French models of colonialism were creating local elites or had simply co-opted existing elites, and the movement towards local rule generally favoured them. Free trade could have replaced foreign control.

But, that's not what happened. Instead, the last three decades of the 19th century saw colonial expansion reach a fervour never seen before. Between 1876 and 1900, European control over Africa went from a paltry 10% of the continent's land mass to some 90%. At the root of this rapid expansion is the convergence of several disparate trends that might, otherwise, have had nothing to do with each other.


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February 23, 2004

Congo under the new regime

This is the last part of the history of Congo before returning to Grandpa's biography, with its more first person account of life in Africa. The other parts can be read by following the links to Part I, Part II, and Part III. If you want to read the whole serialisation of Grandpa's autobiography, you can go to this page. This post covers the period from the Berlin Conference to 1953, when Grandpa received an offer to go to the Belgian Congo as a missionary and a teacher.

Update 24 February: I posted this late last night, and I'm fixing its many textual flaws. I've also added a few more pictures and a bit of text. So, if you read it before, I invite you to reread it.

The No. 44 tram line in Brussels runs from Montgomery metro station, near the Parc du Cinquantenaire and the EU quarter in central Brussels, eastwards along Avenue de Tervueren/Tervurenlaan, passing roughly 300m from my front door. From there it continues out beyond the limits of the Brussels capital region into the Flemish suburb of Tervuren. The end of the line is adjacent to the Park van Tervuren, a large green space in the eastern suburbs and the point where Tervurenlaan becomes Leuvensesteenweg/Chaussée de Louvain. Although the line has been rebuilt in many places, powered trams have run from the Parc du Cinquantenaire to the Park van Tervuren since 1897. The line and both parks were built at the same time: to house the 1897 Exposition Internationale de Bruxelles and to shuttle visitors between the two sites.

"World's Fairs" were all the rage in those days. From 1870 to the beginning of WWI, there were usually several every year in different parts of the world. They served several functions. In the days before film - much less TV - they gave people of all social classes a taste of just how big and how diverse the world was. There was also a significant economic function. By offering people access to truly novel items, entrepreneurs could gauge whether or not there was a real market for them. Bananas, for example, first appeared on the American market at a world's fair, as did ice cream cones. They were also tourist attractions, and like the Olympics could raise the profile of a city or a country in search of new investment. Furthermore, since the pavilions at world's fairs were generally sponsored by national governments, they were a way for whole countries to advertise themselves and the investment opportunities in their lands. Sometimes, they even became cultural icons. The Eiffel Tower was originally a temporary structure built for the 1889 Paris World's Fair.


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October 14, 2004


This is my cousin Tonya Gabor, née Shymkiw, and her husband Leon. They got married a week ago Sunday in Winnipeg. I've been in Winnipeg for the last few weeks to see my family - with the wedding, more of the clan was there than usual.

Tonya and Leon live - or perhaps lived - in the Cayman Islands, a small Caribbean tax haven and technically UK territory which has long been something a favourite for elusive billionaires. They, alas, are not billionaires. Small Caribbean tax havens support rather large service and hospitality sectors. There is little point in savings millions in taxes through voluntary exile if you can't spend them on some warm beach where pretty girls bring you overpriced drinks. That is the area of their employment.

Hurricane Ivan apparently did a real job on the islands. Although the Cayman government denies that the damage was enormous, I am assured that the damage was, in fact, enormous. The assumption is that the goverment does not wish to cause on a run on its exceedingly profitable banking sector by disclosing the full extent of the damages. Tonya and Leon stayed through the hurricane, getting out only a few days before the wedding. They don't know - or didn't know at the time - whether or not they still have work.


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November 4, 2004

To Congo

It's been an awfully long time since I put up something from Grandpa's memoirs. Since February from the look of it. I've been busy, and I've only just now secured scanner software that works well enough to handle Grandpa's typed and photocopied memoirs.

As readers of the previous instalments know, I am fascinated by travel and by the transitional spaces it opens up. This is Grandpa's second trans-Atlantic crossing, and it is nothing like the first. In 1927, as a seven year old boy, he travelled from Zaporozhe, Ukraine to Winnipeg, Canada in a little under a month. This trip, in 1953, will take him a bit longer - about a month and a half by my count. But the destination is off most people's maps. Africa is a long way away from anywhere, even today. It rarely surfaces in the news, and when it does, it is portrayed as too remote, too troubled, and too strange to fully comprehend.

This trip is a bit more difficult for me to unpack than the first one. Grandpa's brief trip to New York is the first thing in this memoir that I remember my own father describing to me from his memories. He remembered the Automat, the Bronx Zoo and the Empire State building. He even remebered the Vinkt, the ship they took across the ocean. The road from Winnipeg to New York had changed some in the thirty years between Grandpa's trip and when I moved to New Jersey as a teenager. The highway names have changed - there were no Interstates - and the prices are a lot higher. But we used to drive that route twice a year.

This post has a small glimpse of New York at the peak of its powers, when it really could claim the title of the greatest city in the world. Less than a decade after the war, Europe was still rebuilding and Asia was still poor. America, however, represented a larger part of the global economy than ever before or since.

I moved to greater New York in 1983. By then, things were already quite different. Wall Street was no longer a place, it was a metaphor for the global rule of capital. New York under Ed Koch was considered one of the worst places in America to live: full of slums and crime, overrun with grafitti, its traditional industries downsizing. Since then, I understand that it has made something of a come-back, but the glory is gone. Passenger ships no longer form a mainstay in New York, and the less said about JFK airport, the better.

The coming part of Grandpa's memoirs covers life in Africa during that brief moment when the jet age overlapped with the colonial age. The grand colonial empires were not yet wholly gone. France still controlled its colonies through the somewhat looser framework of the French Union, and Britain had not yet relinquished its hold over much of Africa. But time was running out, and only a fool could have missed the signs.

This is also the very end of the days when passengers crossed oceans in boats. Grandpa talks about packing his entire household onto the back of a truck, driving it to New York, loading the whole truck onto the boat, and then driving it off in Africa. That's carry-on luggage.

Grandpa's grand aspiration was to be a missionary. This was his life's work he's was going away to do, and he expected to stay in Africa for the rest of his working life. It didn't turn out that way, but that comes later. First, the trip.


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February 15, 2005

Africa Correspondence

This is a really long entry. It's been, once again, far too long since I posted from Grandpa's papers. In fact, it's so long that I found out that Movable Type has a maximum post size, and I've had to make some cuts to fit it. But, since my recent change of status, I am going to have more time to blog from now on.

Grandpa was a profligate letter-writer. I am not - something that I hear lots about from my extended family. His correspondence from Africa is compiled in a 364-page red binder, marked "Congo". It covers five years in Africa. Most of Grandpa's letters were in German, but he translated them. I should note that where he uses the word black, I'm fairly certain the original German was Neger - a word that is more accurately translated as Negro. I considered changing it back, but have left the text as Grandpa wanted it. At the time when he wrote these letters, and in the social context he lived in, Negro was an appropriate, reasonable word.

Of course, the manner in which he talks about "blacks" is more revealing than his choice of word. It is clear that no matter how much Grandpa and other missionaries believed in the equality of human souls before God, there is still a wide social chasm separating African natives from white missionaries. Modern missionaries pay more attention to that gap than they did in Grandpa's time. Grandpa was clearly not well prepared for the cultural or ecological shift that a move to Africa entailed.

This post is slightly different in format than previous ones. The notes in brackets are Grandpa's notes, unless I have marked them otherwise. The long expositions in blockquotes are mine. The letters that were not written by Grandpa are marked with the name of the author in brackets at the beginning.


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