Two New Books on the Baltics

Siberian Exile – Blood, War, and Granddaughter’s Reckoning

Julija Sukys –

University of Nebraska Press

 

Toronto-born Julija Sukys is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri. Her excellent biography of Ona Simaite, Epistolophilia, was discussed in an earlier post. Here she is out rather quickly with another affecting book of nonfiction. This one has to do with her grandmother’s years in the gulag as well as her grandfather’s complicity in The Holocaust.

For much of her adult life, Sukys had wanted to write about her grandmother Ona, who was deported in the first wave of deportations in Soviet Lithuania in 1941. Ona was taken by chance, in place of her husband, who happened not be home at the time, and luckily enough for her, none of her three children were there either.

Husband Anthony was in hiding at the time, and once the Soviets returned in 1944, he fled with the children to the UK and eventually to Canada. Poor Ona spent twenty years in the gulag and another five years in Lithuania while trying to get permission to rejoin her family of adult children.

Not surprisingly, after Ona did manage to make it to Canada, there were difficulties for her and her husband and children because they had been apart so long and their life experiences had been so different.

The shock that befell Sukys lay in the story of her grandfather, a narrative which she had been unaware of and was not intending to tell. Sukys was profoundly traumatized by her grandfather’s guilt, so much so that she seems to take on responsibility for his crimes in the belief that every crime must be paid for in some fashion, even if it is not by the person who committed it.

The story of Ona and her quarter century of struggle were supposed to be the main part of Sukys’s book, and they are described with detail and intelligence here, but their impact on Sukys the author is lesser, although there are some dramatic moments in Ona’s life and a remarkable coincidence of discovery in a Kent State archive that helped to illuminate her story.

Sukys’s book is thus very much about the author as well as about her grandmother and grandfather. She is astonished and appalled as she looks at another version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and finds it much closer to home than she imagined.

 

AMONG THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe

By Inara Verzemnieks

A graduate of the nonfiction writing program at Iowa, and Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa, Verzemnieks’s memoir also addresses her grandparents, Latvians who raised her in America when her mother and father were unable to do so.

Hers is very much an immersive biography of her grandparents, and indeed a biography of Latvia in the twentieth century.

After the deaths of the grandparents, Verzemnieks returns repeatedly to Latvia to live and work in the home of her maternal great aunt, and during these stays she takes on histories both big and small.

She writes about her grandfather, who was an economist until drafted into the Wermacht where he lost an eye fighting the Soviets. How guilty is that man for the crimes of the Holocaust? She considers her great aunt, who suffered terribly as a deportee in Siberia, working twice as hard as anyone else because she had to support two family members there who were incapable of working at all. She witnesses life in the countryside of Latvia amid the ruin of what the twentieth century wrought on that place

Verzemnieks’s prose is frequently philosophical and lyrical and is remarkable for its ability to encompass so much of the story of Latvia, and by extension, although she never makes that claim, of Lithuania and Estonia as well.

Like Sukys, Verzemnieks is very much in the centre of this story, even more so than Sukys by virtue of the time spent on the ground there. Her sensibility is slightly melancholy and wistful, and entirely appropriate for the places and the lives she is describing.

No Ambiguity

 

 

Retired General Richard Shirreff’s novel title spells it out clearly enough: War With Russia, and anyone looking for literary value should look somewhere else, but the qualities of the novel that make it compelling are Shirreff’s pedigree and an adventure story set in an all-too plausible future.

 

Sherriff is a retired former second in command of NATO in Europe, so the threat he is warning us about is believable given the knowledge he has. In a world filled with tragic immigration stories in the Mediterranean and war in Iraq and Syria, the Russian threat has been flying somewhat low on the radar. Shirreff believes NATO is underprepared for a real threat of invasion of the Baltics, and to judge by the rearming of the Sweden’s island of Gotland and the placement of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, he is not misguided in raising the alarm.

 

As to the novel itself it is an action-filled imaginative version of what that war might look like. It has classic heroes and dastardly but clever villains, as well as mind-numbing technical details about warplanes, missiles, and communications systems. This may sound like faint praise, but the drive of an action story should not be underestimated. Despite the novel’s flaws, I could not put it down.

 

So how real is the Russian threat? I attended lectures at the Munk International Centre last summer just before the NATO summit in Poland. Canada’s ambassador to NATO as well as the former American ambassador to Ukraine were both convinced NATO has to rise its strength in order to meet a real Russian danger.

 

Given the American president-elect’s recent coolness toward NATO, it remains to be seen whether that will happen. The novel describes a situation that comes perilously close to nuclear war, and that’s a potential problem that should hold everyone’s attention.

 

 

 

Tim Judah on Ukraine

Judah

 

I have followed Tim Judah in the New York review of Books because he is a reporter who gets right down on the ground and speaks to ordinary people of various persuasions all across the vast geography of Ukraine.

Most of the intellectuals with whom I have contact in Canada have little knowledge and less interest in central and eastern Europe, and I find it useful to read writers such as Judah, Snyder, Satter and others because they give sharp insights into this complicated and unfortunate part of the world.

Ukraine remains a complicated place for westerners, who assume that nationality relies on language, but in this part of the world an ardent Ukrainian might speak Russian. The concerns of Bulgarians, Gaugaz  (Turkic speakers) Bulgarians and others in Bessarabia, to say nothing of Crimean Tatars, all remain opaque on this side of the Atlantic.

The book is excellent in describing the failed hopes, the geopolitical fantasies, and complete corruption  in a place that was unable to reform itself before falling under attack. The much-maligned Azov battalion  consisted of Ukrainian extremists much despised in the west, and yet their volunteers were the ones who defended Mariupol from Russian-backed separatists because the regular army was in disarray. Their actions don’t justify their beliefs, of course, but people looking for simple heroes and simple villains in this region will be disappointed.

Judah generally supports the Ukrainian national idea, and he is contemptuous of the lies coming out of Russia, but he does not deny that people living in Donetsk and other regions, the few who remain, would welcome any government that might improve their lives.

Judah gives a view from the street of people who never expected war to come, and were horrified when it did. Indeed, his experience in the former Yugoslavia taught him that the complacency of every life or the exhilaration of fresh, revolutionary ideas, might give way all too quickly to the horrors of war.

Fearful Symmetry

 

Satter

How is the new Russia like the old Soviet Union? Control is centralized, as David Satter points out in his study of the country under Yeltsin and Putin, The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep.

 

And the title is accurate.

 

The book lays out how power no longer resides in the party, but rather in an interlocking system of corrupt government and oligarchs with complete penetration of the society right down to street level. Media, judiciary, police, and commerce are all under the thumb of Vladimir Putin and his cronies.

 

This message has been coming out for some time now, but Satter’s systematic demonstration is unsettling to say the least, especially at a time when the west is concerned primarily with the Middle East and now Europe ever since Brexit.

 

One of the happiest people on the subject of Britexit must be Vladimir Putin, because Europe has been weakened by the loss of a major contributor.

 

Paradoxically, this comes at a time when NATO is finally coming around to seeing the Russian threat. Angela Merkel, no warmonger, has said Russia is no longer an ally but a competitor. At this writing, four NATO battalions will be placed in Poland and the Baltics after a July 2016 NATO conference in Poland. Canada is considering participation, while three of the other four are to come from the USA, Britain, and Germany. But will Britain’s commitment to NATO slacken after the withdrawal from the EU? President Obama says we should not worry about it, and yet we should.

 

David Satter’s concerns with Russia are echoed in Arkady Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia, which is equally damming of the régime if not quite so bone-chilling.

 

I have skin in the game because I am in the Baltics often, doing research for my novels, and I have family living there. But coverage of this part of the world is slight in North America. At my regular poker game, attended by intellectuals of various stripes, I am considered an alarmist about Russia.

 

Maybe it’s because the more I know, the worse I sleep.