Saturday, April 12, 2014

Discussions on Ukraine in earlier generations of my family

When I read news and analyses about Ukraine, I often make the mistake to look also at the comments below the articles. It is sickening, because no matter what source and what language I am reading, most of the comments are strongly pro-Russian, pro-Putin. Has the entire world gone crazy?

Analyzing the current situation invariably turns to digging into history, WWII and beyond. What strikes me is the tendency of some pro-Russian commenters to present the Holodomor as a natural and likely unavoidable famine. Quite like the pro-Palestinian Jew-haters with their Holocaust denialism.

This reminds me of my maternal grandfather. I am thinking of him on this day every year, because his name was Lazar, and today in Bulgaria is Lazarovden, i.e. St. Lazarus' day (tomorrow will be Tsvetnitsa - lit. "the day of flowers", i.e. Palm Sunday). I have mentioned in an earlier post that he was a carpenter. My mother still has in her home some excellent furniture made by him.

Unlike my paternal grandfather Georgi, who was strongly anti-Communist (and logically was killed by the Communists within weeks of their coming to power in September 1944), my grandfather Lazar was a Communist until 1945. His life had not been easy. His father Pavel, while serving in the cavalry, died in an accident. As he was riding through a forest, his head hit a branch and he fatally fell from the horse. After that, his family was of course doomed to misery.

The general with whom my great-grandfather Pavel had been serving wished to do something for his children. He arranged for Lazar to be enrolled in a carpentry school. So my grandfather learned his craft due to the goodwill of this general. Unfortunately, I am not sure in his name; I think it was Rusev.

When my grandfather grew up, he left his village Priboy and moved to the capital Sofia. His brothers gave him money that gave him the opportunity to settle in the city; in exchange, he renounced his share in the family estate. Poverty and injustice were widespread in Bulgaria at that time (the 1920s and 1930s). So he started to think that there were defects deep in the core of this society. He was shocked when his best friend's sister, a factory worker, died in an occupational accident. The young girl's death drove him to Communism.

My grandfather married a woman named Rilka, from the village of Herakovo. Her father Vladimir was a farmer - well-to-do, competent and respected. Like most people with a position in society at that time, he was anti-Communist. Thinking of this now, I even wonder how he allowed his daughter to marry a Communist. When he and my grandfather were together, they often had hot arguments on political subjects.

The regular topic of controversy was the Soviet Union. Information about oppression and misery in Stalin's realm was readily available, but my grandfather Lazar dismissed it all as capitalist propaganda. This included all reports of the Holodomor. His father in-law, however, knew that it was true. Not only because his greater experience in life was giving him better judgement, but also because some Russian refugees had settled in Herakovo, and actually one of them was working for him as a farm-hand. Their testimony was reliable. (I do not know what happened to these people after 1944. It is known, however, that many refugees from the Soviet "paradise" were rounded up after WWII and sent to Siberia, where they generally had short life spans.)

After Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, my grandfather, like many other Bulgarian Communists, took part in the Resistance (though not in armed struggle). He told me about going out at night to cut telephone wires of presumed military importance. Happily, he never fell under suspicion. Had he been cought, he would have been imprisoned, tortured and maybe even killed.

When Soviet invasion and occupation of Bulgaria brought Communists to power, my grandfather quickly saw his error and repented. He could no longer close his eyes for the ugly face of Communism - "the face of the Gorgon", as poet V. Svintila called it. In 1945, while many people were applying for membership in the Bulgarian Communist Party, my grandfather left it. However, he never became open and active opponent of the new dictatorship. The situation was clearly hopeless.

Now, grandfather Lazar realized that the anti-Soviet "propaganda" had been right all along and even underestimated the dire reality of Communist totalitarian rule. His regrets were made worse by the thought that he could and should have seen the truth earlier. He remembered e.g. how during the war he and two of his Party comrades visited a poor wagoner, hoping to win him for their cause. He angrily ordered them to leave him alone: "Get out of my sight! When you seize power, you will take my cart and my horse!" My grandfather later said, "And indeed, this is exactly what happened." He was sad for having made an error which the wagoner, poorer and less educated than him, had avoided.

By mid-1980s, when I was a teenager, grandfather Lazar was my only grandparent still alive. He already considered me mature enough to discuss political subjects. He often talked to me about pre-Communist Bulgaria, which he had struggled to reform. He was comparing it to the current Socialist Bulgaria, and the comparison was almost invariably in the favor of pre-1944. As I was listening to his tales, the lost Bulgaria of his youth, made beautiful by the golden aura of nostalgia, was appearing in my imagination. A dead and gone world was briefly resurrected, like the miracle of his namesake Lazarus.

The Socialist society, which had seemed indestructible for so long, was now showing signs of weakness. My grandfather was more optimistic than me. He said every year, "This autumn the Communists will fall (from power)!" Unfortunately, he died at age 86 in 1988, a year before "classical" Communism finally collapsed.


Katherine said...

I do not pretend to understand in any way what life is like under a communist government. I have spoken with friends who grew up under communism in Bulgaria. There feelings and opinions on Russia and Putin are all very negative. They see Putin's actions as being the same and as evil as Hitler and Stalin. They see the situation from a very different perspective. I too feel that Putin is evil, his actions could easily start a war in Europe. Putin is a bully, someone who is basically flipping off the world leaders. At some point enough is enough and the bully needs to be taken down.

Maya M said...

Thank you! I am glad that you and your Bulgarian-born friends share my opinion.