Remember Us: Letters from Stalin's Gulag (1930-37): Volume One: The Regehr Family
Book review by Eric J. Schmaltz, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, Co-Executive Director of the Northwestern Oklahoma State University-Masonic Institute for Citizenship Studies, Department of Social Sciences, Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva.
Siemens, Ruth Derksen. Remember Us: Letters from Stalin's Gulag (1930-37): Volume One: The Regehr Family. Pandora Press, Kitchener, Ontario, 2008.
Scholar Ruth Derksen-Siemens opens the first of a much anticipated three-volume set with brief historical background about the Mennonite people and their arrival in tsarist Russia. She then summarizes the early Soviet period that serves as the tragic backdrop to the odyssey of one Russian Mennonite family, the Regehrs, whose 463 letters between 1930 and 1937 amazingly made their way from confined special settlements in the Ural Mountains to their relatives in a small Canadian prairie town. Forgotten for over five decades in the family attic, these Gulag letters represent the largest international collection of its kind ever to be authenticated.
Derksen-Siemens is a first-generation Canadian of Russian Mennonite descent born in Vancouver, British Columbia. She teaches Rhetoric and Writing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Her Ph.D. at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom investigated this impressive corpus of Gulag letters.
Derksen-Siemens’ compilation includes a useful glossary in the front, as well as a number of maps, charts, and bibliographical notes at the end. Published in an attractive soft-cover volume, “Remember Us” utilizes old family photos and scanned images of a variety of original letters, envelopes, and postcards, etc., on which the Regehr family described their ordeals under Stalin. It considers how the letters, in order to avoid Soviet censorship or interception, transmitted information by way of certain code words, phrases and even religious allusions, what is sometimes called “speaking through the flowers.” The DVD, Through the Red Gate, also serves as an excellent visual supplement and summary for the book, depicting the discovery of this incredible body of letters. Not least of all, a most helpful Website that complements both book and video is found at www.gulagletters.com.
During the Lenin and Stalin years, some famine and Gulag letters went through the Soviet postal system, while others followed a more secretive and illegal route. Either way, in view of the amazing communication about what was happening in the Gulag, one intriguing question remains whether any letters from Canada and the United States sent to the Soviet Union were ever received and preserved, either in personal homes or Soviet archives. It is indeed incredible how so many letters managed to work their way through the “system,” or bypassed it altogether, leaving one to wonder just how many items never even made it to their destinations over a several-year period, intercepted by officials or simply lost. The significant role of sympathetic camp guards and locals outside of the Gulags must be recognized, too. Despite the system, the human element remained. One also imagines how those in North America who received such horrible and troubling accounts and details could have endured the guilt and anxiety about those left behind in a turbulent Soviet Russia. Pained silence might have been the most logical survival response. Perhaps a further exploration of some of the letters’ specific content and context would assist readers to answer such probing questions, but textual elaboration might simply be impossible. At best, we can only glean a general picture from the letters as a whole.
It is noteworthy that the Soviet regime permitted or at least put up with letter exchanges and even smuggling for much of the time of Stalinist collectivization drives and terror. The regime’s twisted logic was to keep at least some of these unfortunate people alive in the Gulags by allowing the outside world to help encourage them emotionally and financially, and even feed them. Thus the regime for a time needed to keep the official letter exchanges going, later only to shut them down altogether. This stubborn communication link also indicated that the system of Soviet “totalitarianism” indeed contained certain limits to what the regime at times was willing or even able to do against its real or perceived internal enemies, the kulaks and other political targets. The smuggled letters and their clandestine escapes especially revealed cracks and soft spots in Stalin’s police state, thus indicating that the Soviet Union fortunately was not always “total” in its hold on power.
In recent years, some left-wing scholars critical of Soviet-era famine and Gulag letters have argued that such historical artifacts from this period are too emotional and tend to express an intense bias in response to events that were still in progress. That is, more pro-Soviet critics say that such letter-writers and victims were “too caught up in the moment” to present an accurate portrayal of the period in question. In other words, the argument goes that these letters present a skewed anti-Soviet perspective. Even if these eyewitness accounts and historical actors were limited in their perspective at the time, they still offer us another powerful angle and interpretation of these terrible events. For the first time, a complete body of letters like this one is available to us, serving in fact to solidify the continuing post-Cold War Soviet archival research on the repressiveness and brutality of the Lenin and Stalin eras.
To offer additional context to historical events surrounding the Germans in the young Soviet Union, detailed studies by scholars Samuel D. Sinner, Ronald J. Vossler, and Nelly Däs are suggestions for further reading. Derksen-Siemens’ dissertation in fact incorporated Sinner’s and Vossler’s findings into her work, and two more volumes are anticipated for the “Gulag Letters” series to build on the accomplishments of the first. In coming years, a more comprehensive and careful review of scholars like Sinner, Vossler, Däs and Derksen-Siemens should take place to help integrate this growing body of literature documenting Soviet Communist repression and atrocities at the grass-roots level.
The Regehr family’s touching story compels us today to ask whether more such letters remain hidden and forgotten in library archives, attics and basements across the prairies. As a father pleaded on behalf of his family imprisoned at the time in Stalin’s Gulag, “Remember us as we remember you,” will we, too, recall what they and millions of others endured during that tumultuous period? Though heart-wrenching, the Gulag accounts are filled with hope, faith and endurance, calling on us to prevent such things from ever happening again. The letters remain a living testament to that apocalyptic period in question.