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 09:17 PM

April 22, 2012

Deer Lake Ramble Sees Mink, Birds, Beauty–and Death in the Afternoon

Yumi and I took a two-hour ramble around Burnaby's Deer Lake Park this afternoon. We were amazed to see a mink snag a frog in broad daylight just a few feet away from us. That was the highlight of the afternoon, but there were plenty of other great views in this gem of an urban park.

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Starting the lake-round trail clockwise from the beach area

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Fishing from the comfort of a chair!

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We've still got some great blossoms around

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We saw several raptors patrolling the park. An osprey?

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The north shore Lions in the background

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Tree-climbing snail

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OK, not a great shot, but I had to prove that we did see the elusive
pheasants that you can often hear, but rarely see, in the park. We
saw two today, a couple skulking in the bush.

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The invasive red-eared sliders were out in force enjoying some rays

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And here's the mink. Little one, but lethal. . .

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Hard to see, but the mink bounced into the water and came up
with a frog that it carried under the log. We heard a soft crunch
or two, and saw no more.

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Another frog, further down the lake

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Awwww. Mallard duckling, one of eight out cruisin' with mom.

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Mother and child of another species enjoying the park : -)

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A handsome crow at the end of our circumnavigation of the lake trail

Posted by Paul at 06:23 PM

April 20, 2012

Byrne Creek Ravine Flowers, Plants, Bees

We are in the midst of a kitchen reno, and the other day I placed my Nikon D300 DSLR and 18-200 lens on top a cabinet that I had assembled. Choco the cat chose that moment to jump up and investigate said cabinet, and slid into the camera, knocking it 39 1/8" onto a carpeted floor. The camera seems to be OK, but the front element of the lens was loose, so I took it in to the Nikon Canada service centre in Richmond, BC. $199 + tax to fix. Ouch, but better than laying out some $800 for a new lens.

So today I was "limited" to my 70-300 (105-450mm equivalent) zoom on my lunchtime creek walk, but I had fun seeking opportunities to capitalize on the telephoto zoom's shallow depth of field, perspective flattening, and ability to narrowly isolate elements in scenes. A few of today's shots:

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These are all hand-held, natural shots, with no flash, and no
artificial backgrounds. Just "normal" manipulation of exposure.
ISOs in the 400-1,000 range, because I don't like lugging a tripod
around. But that may change when I try to blow shots like these
up to 11 X 14 and beyond. Lugging that tripod will be critical then . . .

Posted by Paul at 01:48 PM

April 16, 2012

My Introduction to ‘Maria’ by Ulas Samchuk

Maria by Ulas Samchuk is now available in English-language translation by Language Lanterns Publications. Maria is a gripping story about a Ukrainian woman's loves, losses, and daily toil, from the emancipation of serfs in 1861 to one of the most tragic periods in human history--the 1932-33 Holodomor, or Famine-Genocide.

Following is the introduction I wrote to the book:

"To see a world in a grain of sand."

These words by English poet William Blake remind us that minute, apparently inconsequential events in a life can represent universal truths. Ulas Samchuk's character Maria is such a grain of sand--or in the context of the novel, such a kernel of grain.

The life of this uneducated woman spans upheavals in Ukrainian history from approximately the 1861 emancipation of serfs in the Russian Empire under the Tsars, to the nearly unimaginable horror of the communist-induced mass starvation in Soviet Ukraine in the early 1930s that killed millions, and is internationally recognized as an act of genocide.

Samchuk dedicates his novel "to the mothers who died of hunger in Ukraine in 1932-33," yet the story is much more than that, taking the reader through three stages: A Book about the Birth of Maria, A Book of Maria's Days, and A Book about Bread. Each is important in its own way, as Maria grows, matures, and reacts to the changes going on around her.

She may be just a bit of flotsam carried by a tsunami of social and political change, but her loves, trials and toil through three score and ten (the author tells us that she lived for 26,258 days, or nearly 72 years) enable us to picture a harsh existence that prompted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian peasants to abandon their beloved villages and emigrate in search of land, freedom, education, and opportunity.

There is obvious symbolism in how Samchuk names his lead female character: Maria is a reflection of Mother Mary, and Maria's daughter is named Nadiya, or "hope." Yet Maria is no Virgin Mary and Samchuk honours his character by portraying her as a real woman, with the flaws that all humans have.

Land is a theme that runs throughout the novel, as is the grain, or bread, that it produces. Land literally was life for small-scale farmers. Life revolved around, and depended on, the cycle of planting and harvesting grain, vegetables and fruit. An ethos of hard work, of providing for one's family, grew from this bond to the land. Without hard work, without sweat, a family would not eat. And with backbreaking labour came the satisfaction and joy of putting food on the table, of perhaps getting ahead a bit by growing enough so that a small surplus could be sold to buy a cow, or a pig.

The 1861 emancipation in the part of Ukraine controlled by the Russian Empire was viewed by the peasantry as a chance to finally be rid of forced labour, to expend all one's efforts on farming one's own plot of land. While it soon became evident that the "reforms" still heavily favoured the landed aristocracy, there was more opportunity for diligent former serfs to rise out of poverty, and even prosper.

Maria's husband, Korniy, after years of being drafted into the Russian Imperial Navy, returns home haughtily speaking Russian and shirking his culture and his community, but the land works its magic on him and he undergoes a transformation:

He is discovering an ever greater delight and joy in work. His vagabond-proletarian habits are fading into the past and being forgotten. The earth is drawing him into itself and filling his veins, his mind, and his entire being with solid habits. Korniy is now aware of this. His days as a freewheeling sailor are being forgotten and he is becoming a true human being. He slowly shakes off his vile cursing, begins using his native language, and this change restores him to the bosom of his family.

Samchuk's characters are not simply one-dimensional "peasants." They are human beings who labour and love, suffer and grow, celebrate small victories, and mourn terrible losses. The author shows us how similar experiences can have dramatically different effects on people--some lift themselves from their wanton ways and find reward in work, community, and their church, while others take advantage of turmoil to further themselves at the expense of others.

For those who worked hard, there were rewards, simple as they may have been.

Korniy, Maria and the elderly mother sit down at the table set with various dishes. There is everything here. Take whatever you want, whatever you feel like eating. Everything is good, everything is homemade, earned through the toil of their own hands and their patient endurance. Break off a piece of bread and eat it. Eat the bread, the cabbage, the varenyky. Eat the cabbage rolls and the fried fish. Eat the granular kutya and drink with it fruit juices from your own orchard. Wash it all down with honey gathered from the flowers of your native land.

But in the end, there was never enough land, and consequently Ukrainians began emigrating in significant numbers in the late 19th century to places like Canada, the United States, Australia and South America. That flow continued in spurts through the early 20th century, whenever the opportunity arose between wars, revolutions, and totalitarian regimes, with one final exodus following World War II, before the Iron Curtain fell, cutting off contact between the USSR and the rest of the world. Maria gives the modern reader a sense of how that love of land, combined with a lack of it, led to the conditions in which hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians left their native villages.

Initial reaction to the February and October Revolutions of 1917 that swept away the Tsar was often positive among the peasantry, with promises of more land, more freedom, more education. But with the new regime came the idea of creating a new Soviet man, and that meant destroying religion and age-old traditions, and replacing them with socialist slogans and "five-year plans" in which the central government imposed agricultural and industrial production quotas that had to be filled no matter what the reality of local conditions was.

When such quotas could not be filled, the next "solution" was collectivization, or the forced amalgamation of peasants' farms. Farmers no longer worked for themselves, they worked for the collective. Farmers no longer made decisions on what to sow, and when to sow it. All such decisions came from above, often with disastrous results as inexperienced administrators parroted demands from the central authorities.

There was no choice in collectivization. There was no opt in, or opt out. If a farmer resisted, land, seed, tools, equipment, and animals were all expropriated, and any further stubbornness was met with incarceration in a prison camp, exile to Siberia, or simply a firing squad. And the bolt-hole of emigration was sealed, not to open again until the 1990s, when Ukraine gained its independence.

While there were similarities in the governance of the Tsars and the Bolsheviks, for example both attempted to assimilate cultures and languages through Russification, in the end it was the Soviet regime that perpetrated almost unimaginable mass terror on Ukraine. Under Soviet rule, Ukraine, the "breadbasket of Europe," became a basket case. And when farmers en masse refused to join the shoddily run collectives, Stalin and his henchmen felt no compunction in sealing the borders of Ukraine, expropriating all of its grain, vegetables, fruit and livestock, and letting entire regions starve to death.

As Ukrainians died by the hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions, grain was being exported from Ukrainian ports under communist Red Army guard.

And this, unfortunately, brings the reader to the third "book" of Maria's life.

Where were human hearts? Where was conscience? They take good care of an animal, they care for a plant, they care for an insect, they even take care of the lowliest worm, but they don't take care of a human mother.

The contrasts that Samchuk portrays through this chronicle of Maria's life through her family and her village are stark, but real. Readers feel the grit, the sorrows, the happiness, the disillusionment in the government, and the utter helplessness in the face of totalitarianism.

In a sense the novel is a history lesson, but it is written so compellingly that readers are pulled along by the thread of Maria's story. It truly is the life of a simple woman who lived through one of the most tragic periods in human history.

Paul Cipywnyk
Editor

Posted by Paul at 04:44 PM

April 10, 2012

My Annual New Westminster, BC, Flower Foto Extravaganza

Yes, folks, it's that time of year again, when flowers on the promenade near the New Westminster, BC, Quay, are in full bloom. The gardeners always do a wonderful job of planting. Check it out soon if you're in the hood.

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Posted by Paul at 09:39 PM

April 02, 2012

Coho Fry Spotted in Byrne Creek

My wife Yumi spotted some coho fry in Byrne Creek in SE Burnaby, BC, on March 24. She carefully netted, photographed, and released a couple of fry. Note that streamkeepers do this with permission from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans - otherwise it is illegal to net fry.

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Posted by Paul at 08:36 PM