Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Sinner, Samuel D. Autumn Thoughts: Under Ruins and Snow: An Experiment in Ethnic Anthology Two Centuries of German-Russian Poetry, Short Stories, and Essays. North Dakota State University Library, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2003.
The cover of this book says, "...this rich resource work is a truly Russian-German anthology in the fullest sense." This reviewer was puzzled by this statement because it is not accurate to the contents of the book. The book focuses closely on the travail of only the Volga Germans during the early communist years in Russia, and does not deal at all with the immigrant experiences of either the Volga or Black Sea groups. It wanders off into works about the ancient gods of the Germanic peoples of the far north. There is nothing wrong, of course, with tailoring the scope of a work to something less than a reflection of the whole, but it is hardly an anthology that deals with the German Russians in the full sense as blurb about it indicates. That said, it provides a piercing view of the agony of the Volga community facing dissolution, and that is worth knowing about.
The book is divided into parts: The poetry of Peter Sinner and his wife Kamilla, related poetry by persons, some non-German Russians, who shared his world view and imitated his style, poems and short essays by other Russian Germans, writing by Sinner's son, and work by Samuel Sinner, who grew up on the Mojave Desert in the United States. According to a
biographical sketch by Reinhold Keil, Peter Sinner, a teacher in the German villages of Russia, lived for a time in St. Petersburg, then returned to his Volga homeland. Samuel Sinner's bio sketches say he was arrested several times for his anti-Communist-regime views and disappeared in 1935 in the time of massive purges; some of the Sinners and others whose work appears were university-based intellectuals in Russia. Samuel Sinner is a US scholar interested in his German Russian heritage, in "Jewish mysticism, philosophy, theology, world folklore and mythology, ancient history and languages, ancient Jewish and Christian apocryphal literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and quantum physics." He is also interested in genocide studies.
The poetry of Peter Sinner is the heart of the book. He tells of the love of the steppe, as Americans write sometimes of the prairies. I observed wryly that you could write of that love if you didn't have to get out and do the hard work of farming it, but Peter had some of that work in his life experience. Many of his poems are veiled political commentary. Samuel, to his credit, "spoon feeds" the reader so that the symbolism makes sense. Stalin and his henchpersons certainly wouldn't have liked being depicted as wolves, but Peter flings his characterizations into their faces like a handful of rocks. He foresaw what would happen to his German people because he knew the plan was already in place; the Czar had planned to export them just before the Communist Revolution provided a reprieve. Peter lived through the famine times caused by government requisitioners who came and stole their food, and is blunt about describing his people's experiences. The Volga Germans did not have the German army to push them westward, as did many Black Sea Germans; they could not escape, as a number of Mennonite groups did. It is chilling to understand their raw feelings, their helplessness, as they realized that they were to be destroyed as a people, shipped to the east and far north of Russia without anyone in the world noticing--or caring.
A curious thing about this book is the generous use of classical German/Scandinavian symbolism, primarily in the poetry of persons other than Peter Sinner. The poems occasionally drop references to traditional Christian symbols such as crosses and chalices, and some phrasing borrows from the Bible. Peter would have grown up in a traditional Christian home on the
Volga, where he would have become acquainted with the church, even clandestinely, during his time; in some of Peter's poems, the solace offered by the church comes through clearly. But Samuel is clearly taken with Odin and the other ancient Germanic deities and writings, and these images overpower the Christian symbolic environment of the book.
The latter part of the book contains translations of work by persons who write hard poems and essays about predatory communist attackers, about famine and death and despair. Some of Peter's harshest work appears here. Samuel's own work includes mystical pieces that have nothing to do with the Germans from Russia except that he, their author, is of that background.
Some of the works in this collection are labeled with the author's name and its date of writing; some have neither and the reader feels disoriented. The work, unfortunately, lacked an editor who would have pushed Samuel to greater clarity in its conception and organization.
So, should you read it? The Germans from Russia have few enough poets, and the poetry of Peter Sinner is haunting. Nobody ever told me before that the steppe was beautiful. Nor had I ever felt quite so clearly how helpless the people felt as they guessed their coming destruction and how intense was the anger against their communist oppressors. Feel free to skip the mystical
essays. An anthology for the whole German Russian experience this is not, but in that the best parts illuminate a very dark corner of the Germans from Russian experience, a part of our history that fades in our awareness with each generation, it is worth picking up.