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My Great-granddad
Saw the Statue of Liberty,
or family memory that gains the voice century later
Olga Bubich
In the part of the world where I was born, researching family history was a pastime rather unpopular. Soviet children were more encouraged to learn the biographies of mythical martyr-pioneers than those of their own grandparents. Books describing in detail the self-sacrifice of young Zoya and Shura Kosmodemyansky were solemnly handed to outstanding pioneers – not without the automatically expected readiness to follow their heroic path one day.

With our heads crammed with the names of politically correct biographies, we lacked genuine interest to what was around, real, and much more relevant. We lacked curiosity and respect to our own yesterday – something that the Empire was eager to make us never know.

And we never did.

Awareness of the unmeasurable unmeasured human tragedies behind the Soviet “potemkin village” would come later. In some cases – too late, with no one to address questions and fill in the gaps we inevitably encounter in unfinished chapters of our ancestors’ silent disappearances. However, the boom of the interest towards the past that started in Europe and the USA in the 1990s now appears to also be approaching – not so fast and not to such a large extent – the former red continent.

A composition written in 1988, by my school friend Olga Morozova.

It says: "I really love laughing. I do not always do tasks timely and forget stuff. My hobby is reading. I love peaches, buckweat porridge, and pears.

I dream of having peace everywhere in the world."

Many years later, Olga would learn that she is a granddaugher of a Holocaust surviver.

When I think about the former USSR, I imagine a vast field mined with the secrets of the dead doomed to wander around in Tarkovsky-like slow motion. In the late 1930s only, as Nikolai Epple “An Inconvenient Past”, in 16 months only about 1.6 million people were arrested, 682 000 – shot. A broader historical frame would be even harder to visualize: in 1930-1958, 20 million passed through the Gulag with 2 million perished. However, the only figure constantly present in Soviet textbooks was the notorious “one out of four”, which stood for the formula of Belarusians killed in WW2 - while the Gulag arithmetic remained silenced.

A particularly cruel burden lied in the fact that victims and executioners could belong to one kin.

In accordance with the order of the NKVD No. 00447 issued in 1937, the first repressions opening up the era of the Great Terror affected not only the nomenklatura, but ordinary citizens. Any well-off hard worker, a former member of the White Guard Party or a surviving tsarist official could match the definition of “an anti-Soviet element”, get detained, given a hasty verdict, killed and forgotten. The other target group to be eliminated were non-ethnic Russians: Soviet Poles, Germans, Romanians, Latvians, Estonians, Greeks, Chinese and others.

The Soviet killing machine was the biggest in a century of killing machines, and the most effective because it inspired fear in an entire population, which knew: no one was exempt,” reflects in one of their essays Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, an outspoken critic of the Russian president Vladimir Putin who actively (and successfully) is now advocating the return of the Soviet regime.

In my own family history, there are several relatives who disappeared in the period between two wars – murdered either by the Bolsheviks or the Nazi. However, the fate of only one of them is confirmed in open archives. On August 23, 1937, my great-grandfather Ivan Kozel was kidnapped by plainclothes police and executed two months later in a Slutsk prison – until recently, the fact of his sudden disappearance had been the only thing the family knew about his fate. While researching the Memorial’s archive founded in 1989 to excavate the memory of the Gulag, I came across Ivan’s card: the man was found guilty under Articles 72 and 74 of the Criminal Code of the BSSR “Propaganda or agitation containing a call for overthrow.”

A father of four with basic school education was a spy plotting a coup? But the Soviets had their own “logic” – any suspicious fact on one’s CV could cost life.

In my great-granddad’s case, it was his trip to America made in 1914.

On the list of Aquitania passengers, alongside with other Belarusian and Jewish surnames, I see a line with the familiar surname. Little is known about the motivation or benefits of that uneasy voyage but one fact is important. In 1922, the 31-years-old Ivan was back in the native town Kopyl – to become a father of two more sons and face premature death in prison.

RMS Aquitania, Cunard Line. Location unknown.

Date – between 1914 and 1920. Detroit Publishing Co.

This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID det.4a16305.

Just a few days before my relative’s execution, more than 100 representatives of Belarusian intellectual circles would encounter the same end. Hasly buried in the forest near Minsk, their bodies would remain there with no due honors paid up to now, tragically marking the start of the ethnocide of the Belarusian culture and language that got gradually pushed out from our schools, media, theaters, and books and substituted by “the great Russian.”

Now in Minsk we even have a monument to the classical St.Petersburg-born poet - Alexander Pushkin. And silence regarding our own, Belarusian, Nobel prize winners: the writer Svetlana Alexievich is now in exile, the human rights activist Ales Bialiatsky - in prison.

Having discovered the circumstances of my great-grandfather’s death, I could not keep my anger. Why are we learning about this tragedy only 80 years later? “Mom, haven’t any of you, his four grandchildren, ever wondered about your granddad’s fate? Didn’t your own dad, the youngest of Ivan’s kids, ever want to learn what happened to his father?” Excuses can be numerous: too busy struggling to meet basic survival needs, too scared, too obedient to the regime that allowed no room for debate. Another important reason – a dominating taboo on questioning the Soviet past. For decades, archives remained literally inaccessible.

They are, in a way, an undesirable field of research in today’s Russia, too – in 2014, the Memorial Human Rights Center was declared a “foreign agent” by the Ministry of Justice, according to the Russian foreign agent law. In 2021, the Memorial would be forcibly closed as an organization supporting terrorism and extremism.

Remembering the “inconvenient past” would be officially classified as a crime.

Masha Gessen again puts its straight: after a brief period of Khrushchev’s Thaw and the collapse of the USSR,

Russians as a nation abandoned the project of uncovering the past. The information obtained by tens or hundreds of thousands of individuals looking for traces of their relatives never came together to form a picture of what had been done to Soviet society. […]

Consensus among the Russian powerful was that history was not particularly interesting but was potentially explosive.

A layout of my grandmother Olga Bubich (Novik) Medal Book – a document issued in the USSR to all medial holders. The left page is meant to have a photo of the book holder. The stamp says “valid without a photo ID”.

With a postponed potential explosion, silence thus resulted in extremely dangerous consequences. In its absurdity, 2022 mirrors the early XX century and looking at young Russian soldiers senselessly killing their peers and dying in the war with Ukraine I cannot but ask: how much do they know about their ancestors’ fates under Stalin? What would Russia look today, if the Great Terror’s bloody reality were not masqueraded into a victorious story of the romanticized “Stalinland” that Putin has been promoting for decades?

The Russian state appears to apply the same strategies the Nazi Germany used to apply, fetishizing the inverted history, and diminishing or entirely extinguishing the nation’s past sins. It is shocking how synonymous the ideologies seem. Such politics does not “simply invent a past to weaponize the emotional of nostalgia”, it “cherry-picks the past, avoiding anything that would diminish unreflective adulation of the nation’s glory,writes Stanley James about fascist imagination as such. His conclusion resonates with recent Russian media headlines – by autumn 2023, ten new monuments to Stalin had been officially inaugurated across the country.

Three more are expected to be finished by the end of the year.

Travesty of memory”, as Gessen could say.

Would the Russians take another stance if they were aware of the price their great-grandparents paid for peace? And which monuments would we see in Russian cities, if the trials similar to those of Nuremberg had been held of the Soviet leaders and their subordinates in charge of the murder of people like my great-granddad?

However, there is one dimension in which current times radically differ from the previous epoch. And it is its presence that could give us grounds for hope. Until recently, Aleida Assmann and Sebastian Conrad write, “the dynamics of memory production unfolded mostly within the bound of the nation state; coming to terms with the past was largely a national project. Under the impact of global mobility and movements, this has changed fundamentally. Global conditions have powerfully impacted on memory debates and, at the same time, memory has entered the global stage and global discourse”. With globalization and advanced telecommunication technologies, the way memories are produced, stored, and shared could not remain the same.

Since the turn of the century, issues of collective memory and memorial cultures have moved into the center of public attention and started playing a weighty role in rethinking national, regional, and global identities, as well as in general rethinking future “in alliance with recasting the past”.

Memories no longer belong to psychological domain only – they travel not through oral or written stories, but through the channels of mass media and the Internet, crossing boundaries and extending to the global level. And this (almost) uncontrolled flow inevitably contributes to the construction of another memory culture giving rise to a new phenomenon described by Andrew Hoskins as the “digital network memory”. Now to voice out the stories of the marginalized and repressed the only thing we need is genuine interest in our personal past – as well as empathy and motivation. Yes, one of the fullest archives of the Soviet period belongs to the “extremist” organization, but its invaluable information is still accessible online. And, in addition to that, numerous other databases of virtual libraries and museums documenting the victims of the Nazi, Soviet and other regimes across the globe.

It is now, guided by names, scarce dates, and topography, that thanks to the open sources and motivation, I manage to reconstruct the silenced biographies of my distant relatives. I learn about my hard-working strong-willed grandmother Olga Novik who refused to join one of ambitious construction projects of the early Soviets in the Urals and received a 2-years’ correctional labor punishment – at the age of 17, she was made to manually saw wood in a penal colony in Bobruisk. I learn about my grandfather’s sister Katya Bubich sent by the Nazi as a foreign slave worker to a furniture manufacturing factory in southern Germany in 1944. I learn about my great-granddad Ivan Kozel crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1914 and seeing the Statue of Liberty.

I discover that despite a century lying between us we can hear each other.

I hear them.

I am writing about them.

Just like my Soviet school friend in 1988, I dream of seeing peace everwhere in the world. And I am sure that taking care of our family stories and passing them through to new generations is one of the conditions of making this dream

come true one day.

“Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye,” says an old Russian proverb. But not many know that it has the second part –

“forget the past and you’ll lose both”.