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.