Family histories

Astrid (or grandma Asya, as we all knew her) was born in eastern Finland in mid-20th into a large family of Swedish origin. In the beginning of 1930s, in a desperate attempt to escape the famine and post-civil war depression, naïvely optimistic to believe in the Soviet propaganda of a prosperous new Karelian autonomy, Astrid’s father took off, crossed the Russian boarder seeking asylum and better life. With hundreds of other Finns, he was executed as a foreign spy by the Stalin’s regime, and his family ended up in Gulag’s settlement in the Murmansk region. This is where Asya grew up, married to a descendant of another exiled family, survived the Second World war and the USSR collapse, worked almost 2 decades in a chemical lab, volunteered for the city library,  raised 2 children, 4 grandchildren, and 5 great grandchildren. Her guiding principles involved three basic rules: everyone in the family must be excessively fed, people in power shouldn’t be trusted, and all children must go to college. At the age of 70, still speaking flawless Finnish and never blaming anyone for anything that happened, she returned to Finland, strong-minded and upbeat, as always. We lost her last week.

What strikes me most is how she always found this perfect harmony about who she was and where she came from. No hesitation or second-guessing. She wasn’t torn between two worlds, unlike many of us, the newest generation. She never defined herself as an immigrant and wherever she lived, she projected incredible confidence of her right to belong there.


Coincidentally, this week I finally finished the The Bastard of Istanbul, a book by Elif Shafak about how much our family history matters.


Two sisters: Asya (the bastard of Istanbul) feels like her traditional Turkish family history is a burden, she wants to break free and not have anything in common with irrational, submissive and narrow-minded females she knows. She needs a clean slate and a fresh start. Amy, an Armenian American, was raised to cherish her family history. To her, the Armenian genocide of 1915 happened yesterday and she doesn’t quite grasp why modern Turks don’t feel it’s their responsibility. Amy is stunned learning that in the minds of Asya’s generation the modern Turkey is a different state, entirely free from any faults or felonies done by the Ottoman Empire. Males in Asya’s family either die very young or are driven away. My take on this metaphor is that men  (or a lack thereof) stand for pride and confidence. Without a father figure or, more generally, something to honor about her family, Asya can’t move forward, can’t find any stepping stones. Amy, on the other hand, is very fond of her family, but too indecisive and has more questions than answers. She cannot relate to her present.

Russia is notorious for re-writing the history, emptying trash and announcing fresh starts. It is supposed to bring about progress and give people hope.

Living in Germany, I’ve seen how the German state accepted responsibility for the holocaust and nationalism and how deeply it’s ingrained in the German society. At the very least, we know, the country learned the lesson and people are mindful (don’t tell me about NDP and other far rights, a group of extremists is not the same as a state policy). I’m worried to see Stalin’s monuments reinstalled all over Russia, his portrait’s next to Putin’s and re-written history books claiming Stalin was a national hero, who industrialized the country, won the war and had his reasons go build the Gulag and execute nation’s brightest minds. Russia is great at re-writing history, trying to leave past in the past and build the future. The problem is when you look from the outside, the future looks exactly like the past.

I’m personally caught up in between, desperately searching for reasons to be a proud Russian (brilliant friends, figure skaters and artists) and frequently finding myself feeling disappointed or ashamed (about politics). Never easy.

It’s post-Valentine and it smells like the spring is around the corner, so it OK to be a bit sentimental, I suppose.

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12 Responses to Family histories

  1. sttx says:

    Stalin’s monuments fucking helllll. “And then it got worse” Russia’s history in in one sentence

    reading this right now

    • Yana says:

      True, what’s happening now is sad. At the same time, so many Russians genuinely believe that they and their families are SOOO much better off with the existing regime, that finally they have a strong leader who is not telling them to learn from the West and this is something to be proud of.

      • - says:

        they have been in different forms of slavery pretty much all their entire history. can’t expect anything different

      • Yana says:

        Not quite. In late 1990s many people at least looked like they valued democracy and freedom, a lot of people believed that democracy and freedom of speech were the first step to a better society, because it was supposed to make politicians more accountable and to expose corruption and inefficiencies. I remember people being very excited to go and vote and excited to read the press and so passionate about political debates. Anyone could open a newspaper or setup a new political party or go on stage to tell that Yeltsin was drunk or corrupted or both – without any consequences. Nobody at that time wanted to work for the government, everyone was setting up their own businesses and making plans, so many people said that all they needed was freedom and they would take care of themselves and they would not need any government support beyond basic facilities. It’s unbelievable to see how short-lived it was. Now it appears that the all people care about is a strong state and “our Crimea” 😉

      • - says:

        measly 10 years of ‘freedom’ will not erase centuries of slavery

  2. Anonymous says:

    Like this your post very much.

  3. Yana, I am struggling with the same kind of identity crisis you mentioned in the end. I thought you were completely over it and at peace but it is good to know that it is a common and “normal” thing.

    • Yana says:

      I thought I was over it, as long as the news from Russia were more or less distant. I just felt like Russia was on a different planet, far away and irrelevant for my daily life. When the Malaysian plane crushed with everything that followed, I realized that that it’s not far away. My work was impacted by Obama’s order requesting US companies exit Crimea. And this is just one of many examples.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Yana, you shouldn’t feel shame at all, because mentally you are not Russian. In your previous russian blog at livejournal you even wrote that you don’t maintain connection with your parent’s family because they don’t understand you. You are really principled person.
    And you were very far seeing that leaved Russia in 90-s and appropriated a lot of money from these many silly Russians, who were not able to take care about their property. I mean your successful speculation with stocks.
    It is so pleasure to read your your honest notes. Please write more often.

    • Yana says:

      I often wish I wasn’t born in Russia, true, but it is what it is, I can’t change that. A lot of people in the 90-es had the same idea – let’s get rich and independent and use all opportunities coming our way. I was one of the millions thinking the same way. But what happened next (and this is where I think I am different from many Russians who stayed in Russia), I wasn’t OK with all the compromises and risks that were necessary to keep making money and staying in Russia. At the same time, I feel like if I don’t learn the lessons of Russian history, if I don’t internalize what’s right and wrong, it would be very easy to make a moral mistake or an unfortunate choice. What’s happening in Ukraine is wrong and it is also wrong to pretend that it isn’t happening or it’s none of our business. A lot of tragedies (apartheid, holocaust, Armenian genocide) happened when many good people just did nothing.

  5. Anna says:

    “people in power shouldn’t be trusted, and all children must go to college”

    My grandma was a bond (right?) for the nationalistic movement of her country (not Russia) and at the same time secretary of Soviet local government. Small things, in the village. She and her family were arrested and sent to Siberia (almost near Japan) to live there. She married there, had a kid, but then all family returned home. She couldn’t work as a teacher (it was her education), so worked as shop assistant all her life. She died soon after her husband, quite early – it’s not a happy story.

    She was not political, she maybe was a bit of idealistic and just wanted a better life for her country. But Soviets were really rough in building their empire and I don’t feel any sadness that their construction crashed/is crashing down. There is suspect that her boyfriend told authorities (he later got good job in police), so her kid, one of my parents was grown with “don’t trust other people” belief. There is nothing good in that story, but it was happening all the time at those times as I know. I am very happy that now world is at least a bit of different.

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