Pedantry - Moved to http://pedantry.fistfulofeuros.net

Thursday, April 03, 2003
 
Winnipeg emm Kjalla

Part 1: Nestor Makhno and me
Part 2: Das Alter Buch
Part 3: Out of Friesia
Part 4: One third of the way around the world in 30 days
Part 5: Down and out in Siberia

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.

My grandfather never set foot again in Russia after 1927, my father never got closer than Brussels and I have been in both Berlin and Beijing, but have never myself been any closer than that to the former Soviet Union. Grandpa could not actually speak Russian as an adult and my father had no grasp of the language whatsoever. I studied it for a time in university long ago, but I can no longer claim more than a very minimal reading ability, having decided to place my best efforts elsewhere. So, places like Zaporozhe and Moscow, names like Makhno, Lenin and Stalin, and words like kulak and priyut - they are part of an alien world to me, only meaningful in historical terms.

Winnipeg is the family siège. I was born there, as was my father and my mother was born less than 30 minutes away from it. Even though I have myself never kept a fixed address in the city of Winnipeg, I have returned to it more or less annually all my life. It was the place my parents thought of as home while I was growing up and where my mother and brother now live. It has been the one constant place in my entire life. I have never received a phone bill that didn't include at least one call to a number in the 204 area code.

So with this part of his story, Grandpa has moved into a world I know much better. I've spent countless hours in Eaton's in downtown Winnipeg. I know where the Brooklands neighbourhood is and Elgin Avenue is one of the streets along the way from my mother's house to the airport. What is perhaps the strangest part of it for me is recognising the Winnipeg I know in Grandpa's childhood memories, or perhaps more accurately identifying the trace of Grandpa's childhood in the city of today.

It is, of course, all different now. Kerosene lamps and horse-drawn carriages are as much a thing of the past in urban Canada as they are elsewhere. Winnipeg's streetcars disappeared in the 1950's, replaced by ugly orange buses. Brooklands is next to the airport now, and consequently much of the former housing has been replaced by commercial properties that depend on cheap land prices. It is now a ghetto of superstores and warehouses. Reading Grandpa's story reminds me that what is for me a huge gap between the world of 1928 and the world of 2003 was for him a gradual process - never so fast that it intruded directly on your senses. Many of the landmarks of his childhood still stand, attesting to the awkward truth that the world didn't come into being the way it is. Everything has a past.

But in 1927, not quite eight years old and fresh off the boat from Russia, it was all new to Grandpa. Neither he nor great-grandmother spoke a word of English and they had none of the comforts of financial security. Canada had come to them all at once, without history.

It did not take very long before Grandmother and her three daughters bought a house at 1844 Elgin Avenue. [This comes something of a surprise to me. Although the whole family quit Russia, they had no significant assets in Canada as far as I know. Grandpa doesn't explain. I suppose it's possible that they had a mortgage. Mennonites used to be pretty well organised when it came to community banking, and Mennonite credit unions are still among the most successful banks in Manitoba.] Mother and I were with them when they moved in. I don't know where they got the used furniture from, but that first evening, we still had no table. Supper consisted of boiled potatoes served at a trunk next to the kitchen door.

Back in those days, the sidewalk on Elgin Avenue was made of wood and the water pump was just a short distance down the street towards town. [They had no indoor plumbing or well of their own. This was routinely the case in cities in those days and still is many countries.] There was no paving that far out because we were out in Brooklands beyond the streetcar line. The streetcars made a loop on Notre Dame, Keewatin, Logan and Main Street. [These streets are all major boulevards in the north-western and central part of present-day Winnipeg. The corner of Elgin Avenue and Keewatin Street is about 100m from 1844 Elgin.] There was a double track so they ran in both directions at the same time, about every 15 minutes. We used to go to Eaton's by streetcar in those days. One attraction at Eaton's was the machine where you placed your feet in a certain area and you could see exactly how your shoes fit. But that was in the "good old days" before they became aware of how much damage indiscriminate use of X-rays could do.

[Eaton's - which famously dropped the "'s" in my childhood in order to be more linguistically correct in bilingual Canada - was a famous nation-wide upmarket department store founded in 1869. It was second only to the Hudson Bay Company itself as an icon in the Canadian business community. Unfortunately, upmarket brands like Eaton fared poorly in the recession years after 1989. While its main competitor, the Hudson Bay Company, branched out into discount retail with its Zeller's brand stores, by the time Eaton's realised they too too would have to move downmarket, it was too late. Sears had made a successful transition into the discount retail market in the 90's and Walmart had moved into Canada in 1994 by acquiring the old Woolco chain, so there was no more room for a new discount superstore. The T. E. Eaton Company went bankrupt in 1999 and its retail assets were acquired by Sears, which sold the bulk of them and converted the rest into Sears stores in 2002.]

Eaton's made deliveries with wagons pulled by a team of horses. It must have been before Christmas 1928 when Eaton's made an unexpected delivery and a small package arrived for me. It contained a mouth organ [a harmonica], a gift from Aunt Susie and Uncle Isaak. The milkman made deliveries by horse and wagon too, but I think he came down the back alley to be closer to the kitchen doors. He would come to the house with a two gallon can and a measuring dipper and ladled the desired amount into your container. Uncle John Reimer, Aunt Käthe's husband, would sometimes come in with a team and unhitch the team from their farm 30 miles away in the alley behind the house and then take the streetcar into the city to do his shopping. The next day he would go back. I have a feeling that he mostly just went to Eaton's - Winnipeg emm Kjalla.

[Plautdietsch for "Winnipeg in the basement." Kjalla is pronounced challa and has the same root as the English word "cellar." If I recall correctly, this is a reference to the diversity of goods available in the housewares department, which used to be in the basement. It seems to have been a common moniker for Eaton's among Mennonites, because my mother and her siblings say it too.]

I don't know at what point Mother's wound healed, but eventually she started doing housework. What I do remember vividly is the morning she took me to school. By now it must have been some time in October. I was just a little short of being eight years old. I'm sure I don't know how Mother communicated to get me registered, but in the due course of time I found myself in the Brooklands School. The school was built of red brick and was three stories high. There were two main entrances, the left one for the girls and the right one for the boys. The school is still there, but the building I went to is now called the "Krawchyk School" as a new school has been built behind it. [The building is still there and is called the "Red School." "Krawchyk School" is only the official name. The whole complex is now called "Brooklands School."]

My class must have been for beginners. The students sat on little chairs and printed on half-sheets of paper. I dutifully copied what the teacher printed on the board, what it meant was far beyond me. There were only two English words that I understood: "yes" and "no." The teacher was a grandmotherly type with a figure to match. She must have been frustrated with a big overgrown beginner like me who couldn't communicate, but if she was, she didn't show it. When we were expected to be quiet, we had to sit straight up in our chairs with the right index finger over our lips. At washroom breaks she accompanied us and stood at the open door while we used the facilities.

It was a couple of blocks from home to school and I remember that it got to be rather cold walking there because I was dressed so poorly. My pants came to just below the knees where they buttoned. They must have been too short and too tight for me, because there was no room to spare at the knee. Below that, I wore long black stockings. [My grandfather was more than six feet tall as an adult, so I imagine he was quite tall for his age as a child.] My cap and jacket were not very warm. This was many years before people started wearing parkas. [Parkas are a traditional garment of far northern people, who made them out of fur. The word itself is borrowed from Russian, which in turn borrowed it Nenets, which is a Samoyedic language spoken in the far north-western part of Siberia. Modern parkas are conventional winter garments in northern countries, now usually made out of synthetic materials, but they only became commonplace in Canada after Grandpa was an adult when new plastic technology made them much cheaper.] My first English book, Peter Rabbit, was bought at the Salvation Army and, I suspect, my clothing was too. But then, beggars can't be choosers and for us it was a matter of survival in a strange land. There was no such thing as welfare for new immigrants. I doubt if I complained too much and it wouldn't have helped if I had, but I was aware that no one else was dressed the way I was. If others made disparaging remarks because of it, I couldn't have understood what they said, but I stuck out like a sore thumb to say the least.

Early in December, Mother and I took a train to Fiske, Saskatchewan where Uncle Isaak and Aunt Susie lived. I wonder if they didn't provide me with different clothes because I don't recall wearing those hated pants again.

In Fiske, I was in grade one. We had the "Canadian Reader" as our textbook which had Mother Goose rhymes in the first part: Tom Tinker had a dog. It said, bow wow. Jack Sprat had a cat. It said, meow. I'm sure I had those memorised in no time even though I couldn't read.

In the class was a girl who I now recognise as a slow learner. She read from a much easier reader that I remember being called the Flower Reader. Eventually, I must have learned the art of reading because I did rather well on this reader in comparison the girl for whose sake it was used. About the time of the summer holiday, I understood English well enough to overhear the principal, Mr. Goodwin, tell one of the other teachers that he was going to go back to school for his grade twelve. [The principal of Grandpa's rural elementary school had not himself graduated from high school!] There were two classrooms on the main floor and the principal taught upstairs. This school wasn't nearly as large as the Brooklands School, but it too was built of red brick. However, it did not have running water and there were outhouses in back with about a half dozen seats in a row.

There were two boys in Fiske that I knew, Victor and Alfred Loewen, the sons of John and Tina Loewen. Their mother was a cousin to both my father and my mother and had introduced them to each other back in Russia when the two were once returning from the outhouse. [Who knew the role of outhouses in turn of the century socialisation?] If someone was mad at the teacher, they would ask one of the Loewen boys to swear at the teacher in Russian and they would oblige. They had grown up in Ekaterinaslav - now Dnepropetrovsk - and spoke much better Russian than me. [Unlike many Russian cities named here, Dnepropetrovsk is still called Dnepropetrovsk.] I'm not sure how long the Loewens stayed in Fiske before moving to Saskatoon.

In spring, we moved across the road from Aust Susie's to the home of a bachelor farmer named Mike Moret for whom Mother cooked. [Remember that Tina Martens - my great-grandmother - had entered the country on a visa for domestic workers.] Later on, we moved to Doc Elder's, whose farm was at the north end of Fiske's main street. He had been a dentist who had moved to Fiske from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1911 and was now farming two sections of land. [A section is a square mile of farm land. The prairies were divided in the late 19th century into neat checkerboards of squares a mile on a side and sold to colonists in lots of a quarter square mile. They are still sectioned that way in rural western Canada. Of course, by the 1920's farming technology had improved to such a degree that lots of 120 acres (a quarter of a square mile) were sometimes too small to be financially viable, and a consolidation of holdings ensued as farmers' sons moved into the towns and cities. Nowadays, a small family farm in Canada is likely to be one or two sections, and family farms of 2000 acres or more are far from rare.]

Because Doc Elder worked his land with horses he had to have many men working for him. So, he had a cookhouse to serve the men in an old railway car with the carriages removed. [Carriages are the wheel and axle housings of train cars. They have moving parts that wear much faster than the rest of the car, so they are detachable and replaceable.] Here mother cooked for them and the men ate their meals there. We slept there too, in a long unpartitioned room. I remember when we started there Mother's English was still very poor. I'm not sure what it was that she had been instructed to make, it could have been rice or macaroni; with us, that would have constituted the main course. During the meal the men kept looking around. You see, she was not aware that she should also have cooked potatoes. Live and learn.

The Elder family subscribed to the Saskatoon Star Phoenix. The Saturday edition had the comic section. [The big, thick weekend editions usually published on Sundays in the US are published on Saturdays in Canada due to a past history of strict blue laws. Until I was a child, there were no Sunday editions at all in Canada, and even today they are very thin compared even to a weekday newspaper. So, Sunday comics are Saturday comics in Canada.] Andy Gump filled a complete page all by itself. Andy Gump was a chinless character who, together with his sidekick, went through the most hair-raising experiences. They would be marooned on a cannibal island with the natives after them. Of course they barely escaped with their lives, but at night I would have nightmares and Mother would have to wake me to get me out of them. [Andy Gump ran in daily newspapers from 1917 to 1959.]

There were no electric lights yet. The town store had gas lights, but everyone else used kerosene lamps. The kerosene was kept in a metal can in a large box on the veranda of the Elders' house. They also had a can of gasoline in that box for their power-operated washing machine. I'm sure the Elders did their best to communicate with Mother, but the message did not always get through because I remember Mother mixing up the cans up and putting gasoline in the lamps. They must have needed the gasoline for something, because - fortunately! - the error was discovered in time. The lamps were emptied and placed in the sun to evaporate completely.

I used to play in the ruins where a set of houses used to be, along the back alley of Fiske's main street. That sort of stuff was a real treasure to an eight-year old. While I was there one Saturday the back door of one of the storekeeper's houses opened and the mother called to her daughter to come eat a banana. I had never tasted a banana. I had eaten an orange though. I remember I had taken an orange to school one day, which I stored in the hole for my inkwell. It seems I was too impatient and before long my teeth had perforated the skin enough to extract some of the juice. The teacher noticed and took it away from me. I didn't appreciate that. [The production and transportation of tropical fruits to industrialised northern nations was still fairly new in those days, and the Central American banana export industry had only just become a major concern in the late 20's.]

When the summer holidays were over, I started grade two in the Fiske school. However, after the fall harvest Mother's services were no longer required, so we went back to Winnipeg. I asked the teacher for a note to give the school in Winnipeg, but I had some difficulty making myself understood. Eventually she understood and obliged my request.

In Winnipeg, Mother went back to doing housework and I returned to school. Naturally, we lived at Grandmother's again. I dutifully delivered the note from my teacher in Fiske and found myself in class 3A on the third floor. [He was suddenly promoted to grade 3.] I'm sure my previous teacher had meant well, but I was hardly ready for what I had to cope with. I suppose most of my subjects must not have been too bad, because they don't stand out in my memory, but spelling was terrible. We had 25 words on the spelling test every week. I'm sure I didn't know how to study spelling and I wonder if I even knew what the words even meant, but I had seventeen or eighteen of the words wrong every time. [I should note here that my Grandfather's last career before retiring was as a proof-reader for D. W. Friesen publishers.] The teacher must have been close to despair - I certainly was.

That Novemeber I had my ninth birthday. We didn't celebrate birthdays in our house back then, or if we had I'm sure I would have remembered it. At Christmas I received a gift I treasured very much - a Meccano set. The fact that it was one of the smallest sets didn't bother me at all. You could build all kinds of things with it. When Robert [my father] had a larger set of his own he used mine to supplement his. Both sets went with us when we moved abroad and neither returned. I do wonder what became of them. When we came back to Canada, we were too poor to buy another set for our son.

[A Meccano set is very much like an Erector set. The concept was invented in 1901 in Liverpool and sold wherever the Union Jack flew. The company, however, fell on hard times in the late 1970's and went into receivership in 1979. The trademark name lives on through its independent French subsidiary, which still manufactures and sells Meccano sets. I remember seeing one in a department store in France years ago when I lived there as a student. My father had very fond memories of his set and regularly bought me and my brother comparable toys - Legos, Erector sets and the like - and then played with them himself.]

During our stay in Fiske, Mother met a young man of 28. She was five years older than him and had a nine year old son, but he proposed to her by mail and she accepted. He lived on a farm north of Fiske, the Henry Craig place. That February he came to see Mother. I remember they were sitting on the sofa in front of the big window next to the front door when I complained that I did not have enough bolts for what I was building with my Meccano. The next time he came, he had a small metal box with a dozen more bolts for me.

The wedding of the widow Katharina Martens and David Dick took place on the afternoon of February 17, 1929. The ceremony was performed by Johann Klassen in the Zion's Church of the General Conference on Elgin Avenue. [The General Conference is a sort of sub-sect of Russian Mennonites. Mennonites - like Trotskyists - tend to proclaim the unity of their movement while breaking up into splinter groups.] There were quite a few people at the little church, but there was no reception as such. There was no shower or wedding cake. The closest relatives came to Grandmother's for lunch. I remember someone saying that the only way Grandmother could put people up for the night would be to have one group go to sleep on the beds and then lean them up against the wall once they were asleep so that the next group could use the beds.

After the wedding Dad took us to visit some of his relatives close to Winnipeg, and then we left for Saskatchewan. It was Mother's money that paid for the tickets. Dad had exhausted his money by purchasing a ticket to Winnipeg.

Grandpa referred to his step-father as "Dad" for the rest of his life. His biological father had died when he was an infant, so David Dick - Grandpa Dick to me - was the only father he knew. Both Grandpa's mother and step-father lived long enough for me to remember both of them. Of course, in my memory they are always very old. Both Grandma and Grandpa Dick were over 70 when I was born.

But I am already older than Grandpa Dick was when he makes his first appearance in Grandpa's life and I'm nearly as old as Grandma Dick was at the time. They were young in that other world, their world. But they are gone and the world of their youths is gone with them. For the moment, this world belongs to us. I can't see Grandpa's world as he saw it, all shiny and new. The things he saw as a child are mostly gone now, and what does remain is old and decayed.

What will my great-grandchildren know of my world when they are my age? As a science fiction reader, it is something that I've given some thought to. But in the end, I suppose it depends as much on them as on us, because we can't make them see it as we do.
 

Wednesday, April 02, 2003
 
News to watch for

There's a ministerial meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels tomorrow. The US called the meeting on Monday, but I only just found out. The story I'm hearing from my non-'Net sources is that America wants to offer Europe a place in post-war Iraq and try to mend relations with France and Germany. The question is what concessions Powell is willing to put on the table. Watch out for certain kinds of statements from Powell: emphasis on America's good relations with its "allies", reinforcing the idea of a smooth transition of power in Iraq, and that the developed world needs to "share the burden." These keys signs of backtracking will be important if the US is serious about improving the situation. Watch for the French and Germans to use the word "legitimacy" a lot, and bring up the UN at least once as a "legitimate civilian authority."

The real issues are likely to be whether or not the US is willing to cede administrative power over Iraq to an authority not wholly under US control. If true, this kills any notion of using Iraq as a base for continuing military activity in the Middle East. France and Germany are unlikely to accept anything else, recognising only the UN as a legitimate authority in a case of transition, and offering the EU's services if the UN mandates it.

Pure speculation: France and Germany - as well as many of the smaller states - want reduced EU dependency on NATO infrastructure, which was the major barrier to establishing a military command under EU control. The US and Turkey strongly resisted allowing NATO resources to come under EU control. If the US really is desperate for outside help, this is a good bargaining chip for the advocates of a serious EU force. They can claim that the EU can only support an operation in Iraq if it is given real access to NATO infrastructure.

Signs that Powell's mission has utterly failed: words like "frank and open discussion" or something along the lines of "clearly, we still have disagreements with our allies, but I fell we have made real progress."

This will all go down at some god-awful hour of morning US time. I expect the press conference in late afternoon CET tomorrow - just about in time for the morning news shows in California.
 

 
Life is what happens while you're making other plans

Sorry, real life has been interfering with my blog time so far this week. I have a stack of e-mails I haven't answered and some links to add to the blog roll.

I will post the next installment in Grandpa's memoirs soon. For those of you who fear that it's all downhill from here, now that we've left Russia behind, I only intend to cover the next 20 years in a couple of posts about life in Canada before Grandpa moves on to an even more exotic location than Russia. So stay tuned.

In the mean time, let me point you towards an underreported news story, lost in the flux of war reporting. As of Monday, the European Union has taken over peacekeeping operations in Macedonia.


Change of command ceremony in Skopje


The operation is neither very large nor terribly challenging from a military point of view. It's significance, though, is that this is the first time an armed force has ever operated under the flag of the EU, not NATO, the UN or any of the national military commands.

Is this the first military engagement of a new great power, or a politically motivated one-off? The rhetoric is still very NATO-based and NATO dependent, as Lord Robertson's speech shows:

By taking on its first military mission, the European Union is demonstrating that its project of a European Security and Defence Policy has come of age. Based on new institutional ties with NATO, the EU can now even more effectively bring to bear its full range of political, economic and military tools. Today s handover is a sign of continuity. The EU will continue the job that NATO started and NATO will stay engaged-in support of the EU-led fore and as an advisor in security matters. We will continue to have a Senior Civilian Representative and a Senior Military representative in Skopje, who will both help the Government with security sector reform and adaptation to NATO standards on the road to NATO membership. And most importantly and significantly for continuity, the operational commander of the European Union Force, Admiral Feist, is also NATO's Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

However, the Macedonian president, Boris Trajkovski, seems to realise that this is very much about the EU:

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, with the transfer of the NATO mission to the EU forces, Europe is entering to the new era in the realisation of the European Security and Defence Identity and Policy in practice. The experience has taught us that we can best enhance security and stability, democracy and prosperity by acting together. The presence of the EU Forces in Macedonia is also another sign that we all belong to the community of shared values of democracy, rule of law and market economy.

In this context, the arrival of the EU Forces in Macedonia for me symbolises three important things: the first is that this mission will support the strengthening of our own capabilities, so that we are in a position to ensure lasting peace and stability. The second is the confidence that we have in the European Union. The third is the ambition of this country to establish closer links with the European Union in all areas. Our ambition is full membership in the Union, and I would like to see this mission, and our joint efforts in promoting stability, as a step in that direction. The more of EU we have in Macedonia, the more of Macedonia there will be in the EU.

A year ago, this all would have made little difference, but today everyone realises that the EU and NATO are not exactly the same package. NATO doesn't have an economy and until now the EU hasn't had an army. If the EU has an army and an economy, why would states in the Balkans be interested in NATO?
 

Sunday, March 30, 2003
 
Down and out in Siberia

Part 1: Nestor Makhno and me
Part 2: Das Alter Buch
Part 3: Out of Friesia
Part 4: One third of the way around the world in 30 days

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.

Russia was not, in the long run, a very hospitable place for Russia's Germans. Between Stalin and the "pre-emptive removal" of Germans in WWII, their community - at it's peak almost two million strong - was basically destroyed and integrated into the dominant Russian ethnic group. Until 1991, most of Russia's Germans, unable to speak any German at all, simply thought of themselves as Russians. Afterwards, however, many of them took advantage of Germany's "right of return" law to gain German citizenship.

Johann Martens was my great-great-grandfather Peter Martens' brother. He was an elder in the Mennonite church in Einlage - the title is usually translated as "bishop" - and remained in Russia after 1927. He was born in 1875 according to the Alter Buch and had six children as far as I can tell. Bishop Martens was a certified teacher and taught for ten years in another colony and then for three years in Einlage after he returned to take over the family farm when his father died. In 1917, he was elected bishop of the Einlage church, but could not start because he was, at the time, the Oberschulze - something like a county commissioner - of the Khortitsa Volost, or municipal government.

While the other Martenses emigrated legally in 1927, before Stalin had consolidated his hold on the Soviet Union, Johann Martens and his family remained, facing the brunt of Stalin's paranoia. His daughter Käthe Dyck and her husband managed to emigrate to the Mennonite colonies in Paraguay after WWII as refugees. At that point, she recounted her father's story. It is published in a book called Mennonitische Märtyrer - "Mennonite Martyrs." This is Grandpa's translation of Käthe's account, interspersed with extracts from Johann Martens' letters from exile.

In the year 1929, Russia began the "Entkulakisierung" [dekulakisation] of the farmers. [Kulaks were farmers with sizeable holdings and were the major barrier to the collectivisation of agriculture. In 1929, Stalin used a fairly moderate and largely voluntary agricultural collectivisation programme to liquidate the kulaks, sending them into exile in Siberia.] Since Father belonged to that group too, he was forced to pay a large fine and every time it grew larger. As long as he was able to make the payment, he faithfully did so, until one day they demanded a sum so large that he was unable to raise it. He considered it pointless to get a hold of this sum since, one way or another they would exile him anyway. Consequently, the church raised the money so that they would not have to blame themselves later. In spite of that, it was all in vain. Shortly afterwards, my parents were evicted from house and home. And in 1930, my parents and two siblings, together with many others, were exiled to the Ural area. Since I was incapable of working because I have a bent backbone, [I presume she means she had scoliosis] I was permitted to stay with my step-siblings because they had a different name - not Martens. After ten days of difficult travel, they arrived in the Ural Mountain region at the city of Bogoslav, not far from Sverdlovsk. [Sverdlovsk was called Yekaterinburg before 1924 and has returned to that name since 1991. Bogoslav was a major labour camp in the early Stalinist era, where some 15,000 ethnic Germans were sent, along with many others.]

February 6, 1933

[...] We are five Mennonite families here and about 15 Lutheran. But we have no fellowship. [They have no religious services.] Repeatedly they investigate whether we have meetings. Enslaved and imprisoned in body and soul. And yet, we are thankful! About 200 verst north of here are more exiled Mennonites. [A verst is an old Russian unit slightly larger than a kilometre.] Some men delivered a team of horses up there. [...] Hunger and deprivation is visible on each of them. Every day there are deaths - the victims of hunger. [...]

There in the primeval forest they managed to stay alive with great difficulty. We, the siblings who remained behind, did our best to support our parents with packages. Since now and then a package arrived from abroad, the government saw fit to send them to a different place so that every trace of them would be lost. They had to work very hard. [...] Since food was sparse, and lodging inadequate living under an overturned row boat, it nearly destroyed him. But the Lord soon provided him with easier work, namely to guard horses in the forest. However, since he had heart and kidney problems and the forest was wet and swampy, he could not stand it for too long because his legs were badly swollen from the wet and cold.

He was permitted to see the doctor, but few people were permitted to be sick - that is the doctor was forbidden from declaring people to be sick even though they were ailing. The Lord again helped wonderfully and the doctor gave Father a certificate stating that he was definitely not permitted to stay in that work. He was then employed as bookkeeper in the prison office.

Excerpts from Johann Martens' letters in the 1930's:

"Here we are [...] in circumstances where they would like to isolate us completely from the world."

"We had nothing like a church. What we had has been completely demolished. That beginning was soon destroyed."

"When they told us unequivocally that proclaiming the Word could result in exile to still more distant lands for the preacher, we did not dare to preach publicly, only in the evening after dark."

"[Those] without help from home and from the west - it is no exaggeration to say that 70% are no more."

Repeatedly we tried to intercede on our parents behalf. We wrote to Moscow and Kiev but it seemed as though everything was in vain. My Mother, who did not have to go to work, had to collect food from 20km away. And so it happened that one day she was carrying 60 pounds of potatoes and could not take the load from her shoulders because there was no one there to help her pick it up again if she put it down. She had to rest by leaning against a tree with the load still on her. Finally, she got home. When she put the load down, she noticed a jerk on her backbone and shortly thereafter the whole right side of her body became paralysed.

For five more years my parents had to live there under the most difficult circumstances, until [the authorities] finally realised that our paralysed mother could not help them anymore and Father was getting on in years. One day, they were told that they could return home. Our brother had to remain there and is still there to the present day. [This text was written in 1947.] Our sister fled after after eight months of banishment.

In 1936 our parents returned, but they no longer had a home. Good friends lent them 3,000 roubles so they could buy half a house. My father was not afraid of work - he did any work that was available during the day and at night guarded horses in the barn of the collective farm. Since I was unhealthy, Mother was unable to do anything and my sister was employed, Father also had to do many of the jobs at home. Every month, some of my siblings earnings was taken to pay the debt. [...]

1938 was an extremely fateful year for us. In one day the GPU [state security and predecessor to the KGB] came to get Father, two brothers and a brother-in-law. [...] For the time being they were in in Zaporozhe, however, we were not permitted to speak to them or to inquire [about them.] We always went to inquire about them with a heavy heart, because many [who did so] received the answer he died. But one day we were told that they had been deported to the distant north. Since then we know nothing about them. [...] In ten years we have been unable to find any trace of them.

We are so thankful to God for the way he has led us and allowed us to find a home here in the Chaco. [A large and fairly wild area in Paraguay colonised by Mennonites in the 1920's.] Mother and I live with our married sister, the one who fled from the Ural area back then. Her husband, praise the Lord, is with her. [The couple later came to Canada.]

My family's Alterbuch has a page for Johann Martens. It reads as follows:

[In the Gothic script in great-great grandfather Peter Martens handwriting]
1875 den 7ten Juni ist mein Bruder Johann Martens geboren.
[In the Roman script, in crisp handwriting that I do not recognise]
1938 nach Siberien verbannt und in Verbannung gestorben.

Grandpa's translation:

June 7, 1875 my brother, Johann Martens was born.
1938 he was exiled to Siberia where he perished.

Now, a case can be made that Stalin's brutal rule was all that could keep the peace and industrialise Russia enough to face the Nazis. But remember, that is the judgement of history. For those who lived through it, it was nothing but cruelty.

Those who advocate western countries taking charge in the Middle East and pressing an agenda for radical reform should remind themselves of this story, and should ask themselves if so-called Islamic fundamentalists won't one day be telling their grandchildren these kinds of stories about the US.
 

 
Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Those who recognise this quote know that it comes from that prototype of the Reagan conservative, Barry Goldwater. I thought it appropriate in light of the recent web dialogue brought on by a Calpundit 's post on liberal "extremism", followed up on Body and Soul, Eschaton, MacDiva, Alas, a Blog and on Pandagon, and leading to a response on Calpundit.

My own perspective on this is much more ecological than those presented. A healthy body politic needs its extremists and its moderates, and who is right is generally impossible to judge in advance. Decades, sometimes centuries, later there is enough perspective to judge each and the general conclusion is usually that they were all right, or all wrong, but either way no one got exactly what they asked for.

It can take angry extremists to draw public attention to a matter, and to serve as a rallying point for those might agree, in part or in whole, with the extremists goals. It can also make dealing with the moderates much more appealing for those who would rather ignore the whole issue. The existence of some group driven by ideological purity and devotion to cause does not always harm that cause, and usually a historical perspective on such people in past conflicts leads one to that conclusion. Radicals are the ideological engine of social and political change. It is there that the grand narratives and utopian visions that come to motivate mass social change are born. I don't think the Black Panthers did any serious damage to the cause of civil rights in the US and I would in fact be more surprised had there been no group advocating more active and violent resistance to an unacceptably racist state. Fear - fear from the white upper and middle class - of a more violent response to the situation of blacks in America was a factor in advancing the cause of civil rights, and the lack of any such fear now is one of the reasons racial integration and equality has been set so far back in the last 20 years.

On the other hand, it does not do for a large public cause not to have its moderates. Civil rights were advanced in America in part because a large part of the white American public believed that many, perhaps the overwhelming majority, of blacks simply wanted equal treatment in society and nothing else. There was a group of moderates that white people could easily identify with as not asking for them to radically change themselves or their lives, and able to make the kinds of arguments able to appeal to them. This kind of good cop/bad cop approach has on the whole been wildly successful in producing actual progress in almost every kind of industrialised, mediated state in the world.

It has failed primarily where demands have been met not with attacks on the radicals - who are generally well equipped to survive organised opposition - but by attacking the moderates who are not well equipped to win in ideological warfare against motivated opponents. The two most outstanding cases are in Central America and the Middle East. It was the attack on moderate land reformers in Central America, people like Jacobo Arbenz or the early Sandinistas, that led to a radicalisation of reformers and the prolongation of damaging civil wars. Even now - more than a decade after most of the fighting ended - it is hard for the different sides in Central America to trust each other enough to compromise.

In the Middle East, the attacks on fairly moderate nationalists - people like Mohammad Mossadegh, non-Ba'athist socialists in Iraq and Syria and even modernisers like Nasser - have served more than anything else to create the current mess where only extremists motivated by religious purity are able to draw any attention to injustice in the Arab world and have become in many places the only ones who appear able to do anything about it. When there is no prospect for reform by more moderate channels, the disaffected with turn to more direct action. The same applies to the Palestinians, where Israel has liquidated every organisation the might have advanced a peaceful transition to a two-state Palestine, and is now attacking the Palestinian public directly. This direction leads only to greater radicalisation and more violence. Yet, before condemning the radicals in Palestine, consider the alternatives. Israel has a record of taking about peace, but then attacking moderates. If Palestinians were to take a Gandhi/Martin Luther King type strategy up, they would not be any closer to having a proper state or civil rights.

What has happened in America in recent years is that the moderates are under attack. The assault on "liberals" - mostly just moderate progressives who are hardly demanding radical changes to American society - has undermined the possibility of moderates driving institutional change. A radicalisation of American politics is the inevitable consequence. There is very little moderate force in America willing to stand for gay rights at all, even in the Democratic Party. Running on identity politics has become nothing but a way to lose elections in the US. The result is people turning to more radical expressions of their beliefs, with greater polarisation as a consequence.

If Kevin Drum really believes in the need for a vital centre - and if he does I agree with him - the way to get there is not to attack the radicals, but to defend their intentions as legitimate. Recognise that radicals have a place, and an important one, and that electoral politics can only be an alternative to radicalism if there are electable people willing to stand for the radicals' general programme.

Update: Kevin has posted a response to many of the arguments made on other blogs. Essentially, it points out that progressive reform in America has rested on strong Democratic majorities in Congress - which is true but beside the point - and if I'm reading him correctly, on a distinction between radical and extremist that I don't think he has made clear.