April 29, 2012

Language Lanterns Book Launch–Toronto, April 29, 2012

It's my role here today to present the Language Lanterns trilogy Desperate Times, with its volumes Brother Against Brother, Between the Trenches, and Conflict and Chaos.

It is difficult to sugar coat one of the most terrible periods in human history, in a place that modern scholars of total war and genocide have begun calling the "Bloodlands."

I assume that many in the audience here today have Ukrainian roots. Some of you may have wondered why Baba had a Polish passport when she came to Canada, while Dido had an Austrian one. Some of you may have seen photos of great-uncle Fedir in one uniform, while his brother Petro wore a different one. Some of you may recall that great-granddad, or perhaps granddad, had mysterious gaps in his memories of the "old country." Years that he'd dismiss with an angry chop of his hand, and you knew not to press further.

The authors of the stories in this trilogy put faces to buried experiences and emotions. They stand witness to events that people of disparate nationalities, cultures and religions often want to forget. Roma and my late mother Sonia struggled with choosing stories in this trilogy, and when I was brought deeper into the process, I could see why. We didn't want it to be all horror, and doom and gloom, yet we also firmly believed that it was necessary to make the experiences of our ancestors more readily available to modern generations.

I am not going to discuss in depth the literary merit of the stories, or the strengths and weaknesses of individual authors. I shall focus more on the era, and the setting, in which they wrote. The authors are not all equally capable, and the stories vary in literary quality, but it is not the job of a translator or editor to "improve" works in translation, but to present them as closely as possible to the original, while also attempting to make the resulting English palatable to modern readers who have shorter attention spans, vastly different educations, and very different literary expectations than European readers had a century ago.

The trilogy focuses on stories written during the 1900 to 1930 period that encompasses the slide of the imperial Russian Empire into chaos, the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, World War I, and the subsequent upheaval in Eastern Europe fomented by the Russian Revolution.

As of the early 20th century, Ukraine had long been divided by other empires--with Russia controlling eastern Ukraine, and various European powers dominating western portions. In both regions the Ukrainian language, culture and distinctive Ukrainian forms of Orthodox and Catholic rites were at times severely controlled, or completely banned, and conditions for ethnic Ukrainians were harsh. There was little opportunity for education and advancement, and the rising revolutionary tide that began sweeping Europe in the 19th century, with its concepts of nationalism, democracy, and freedom, soon found fertile ground in traditional Ukrainian territory.

The stories in this trilogy depict attempts at reform and political activism, peasant uprisings, revolutionary and terrorist acts, and the flowering of the Ukrainian independence movement. This blossoming of culture, language and political idealism was soon trampled, however, with the First World War sweeping millions to death, along with the brutal and bloody consolidation of power by communists in the lands of the former Russian Empire.

We chose stories written from multiple points of view. While we had some qualms about including some works, in the end we decided it was fitting, for they are all part of the spectrum of beliefs that drove variously motivated protagonists of those times.

So we read about Soviet revolutionary heroes--and disillusionment with the new communist regime. We read about atrocities perpetrated by imperial forces, and the complete collapse of morality in areas controlled by anarchist groups. We experience the power of fiction that enables us to put ourselves into others' shoes, to witness events through their eyes, to feel their emotions. The results often are not pretty, but stories such as these actually happened, time and again, shaping real people. Shaping our ancestors.

While it is difficult to divide the stories into precise chronological order, we began with ones dating to the Russian Revolution of 1905 that revealed the rotten state of the empire. Russia was shocked by repeated defeats in the Russo-Japanese War, and revolutionaries of various political stripes--though mostly socialists and communists--saw that collapse was a matter of time.

The Russian Empire had attempted to impose the Russian language and church upon all within its territory. As military disasters in the Far East undermined discipline, the empire was faced with rising ethnically based national aspirations. The overwhelming human and economic cost of WWI piled on stresses that the ossified and increasingly fractious empire could not withstand.

For Ukrainians, WWI was really a time of brother against brother, and not by choice. Several of the stories in this trilogy depict the anguish as families were divided between empires, with Ukrainians conscripted into both the Russian army, and opposing Germanic-Austrian forces.

By 1917, a demoralized and near-destitute Russian Empire was ripe for revolution, and two exploded that year. The first, the February Revolution, saw the abdication of the tsar and the establishment of a provisional government. The second, the October Revolution, saw the Bolsheviks under Lenin sweep into power and begin the consolidation of a new, communist, empire that became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or, more simply, the Soviet Union.

The great tragedy of this revolutionary era is that idealism fell by the wayside, with horrific years of civil war in which combatants of all political stripes plunged into an escalating cycle of atrocities. It didn't matter right wing or left wing, they met in extremism, mass murder, rape, torture, looting--and for extended periods--total anarchy. There was complete social, political and economic collapse.

The modern Western reader has little concept of such terror and utter helplessness. We have no sense of such ingrained hatred--hatred of the oppressive aristocracy and bureaucracy--followed by hatred of the perversion of Marxism and Communism into a new, even harsher dictatorship that blindly espoused totalitarian ends that justified the foulest means.

Yet we see in these stories that amidst the chaos there were flickers of humanity, of ethical, moral behaviour. Within that chaos, people still loved, dreamed, and hoped. It is heartening to find that within that chaos some people still adhered to humane and principled codes of behaviour, even sacrificing their own lives to save those of others.

While reading these stories I sometimes wondered how people could go on, yet they did. Many of us in this room here today owe our freedom and our prosperity to ancestors who had the courage and perseverance to survive those Desperate Times, and to selflessly forge a new direction in a new country for the benefit of their descendants - for us.

The issues central to these volumes of revolutionary stories are still relevant and some are yet unresolved. The short-lived Ukrainian governments of the revolutionary period planted the seeds of independence, and some partisans fought on for decades against the Soviets. Reverberations from those times still impact the ongoing development of democracy in a free Ukraine in the face of still widely entrenched authoritarian values, and resurgent imperialistic ambitions in Russia.

Is it better to forget, or better to remember? I feel that as human beings we must remember, we must honour our ancestors, we must learn about our past, and we must learn how to do better in the future.

Thank you

Posted by Paul at April 29, 2012 09:17 PM