Lenin, Russian Revolution, 1917-1919
I am at present writing my father and his families’ story. My father had Post Traumatic Stress most of his life and so did the eldest members of his family. Why? Because of what they saw and had to do to survive as refugees. In February of 1918 they fled their home near the Caucasus Mountains and ran and hid for 6 years before they escaped from the then Soviet Union shortly after Stalin came to power.
His stories when I was young were terrifying. And they were incredibly inspiring. I learned something about the human spirit I will never forget. People’s strength, bravery, and determination to live free can be much greater than any fear they have. My dad used to say to me, “Anna, of course we were scared. But we knew that our freedom to speak and freedom to worship the way we wanted to were more important than any of those fears. So we just kept going.” His stories have influenced me in my life in endless ways, and I hope they will help others as well. He would have wanted that.
And that’s why I am writing his story. To remind everyone to “keep on the lights” even when there is darkness outside. I have found no better way then to write this story as a creative nonfiction tale. No, I don’t know exactly what happened to him, but I have listened to all his stories over and over again. I have added other people’s memories and done lots of research, but in the long run the details are part of what I imagined in my mind as my father spoke. That’s why creative nonfiction is called creative.
On the other hand there is nothing that anyone remembers accurately anyway. With new brain research we know that it’s not how memory works. We add and subtract what we think is fact continuously, and reconstitute our memories. Have you ever been surprised by your brother or sister’s story of an event you remember quite differently? I have. It is obvious that each one of our perspectives of an event is different. One sees the forest, one sees the tree, one sees the ground, one sees the sky, and we filter out the rest. That’s why we call history, his story.
Here is the first of about twenty stories of the families escape.
Escape to Freedom
Feb. 6, 1918. Southern Russia. The Tereker Settlement, a collection of 17 German villages, located north of the Caucasus next to the Caspian Sea. (See map) Anarchy erupts.
Thirteen year-old Neil bolted upright in bed as he heard a loud knock on the front door. Men’s voices. He felt his body stiffen and his heart thump hard under his wool pajamas. He stared into the darkness. For two months now the Tereker Settlement had prepared, been on alert, waiting for the Tatars from the Caucasus Mountains to descend on them. Everyone knew that several villages to the south had already been plundered, robbed, whole families killed by young men from the mountains who refused to live in poverty anymore.
Another knock. Then his father’s firm footsteps. The front door creaked open. A familiar voice said, “We are waiting for Rudolph. He is the sentinel tonight.” Neil let out a long breath. It was one of the neighborhood men.
A din of voices erupted over each other as Neil heard boots drop on the floorboards, then moments later the scraping of chairs.
“Shh, You’ll wake the children,” Papa said. “They are too young to know.” The men’s voices quieted to a murmur.
Neil leaned over his younger brother lying next to him and checked to make sure Gerhard was asleep. Without making a sound, he slid off the feather mattress and tiptoed to the single plank wall that separated his bedroom from the main room. His fingers trembled as he pulled out the secret knot in one of the boards, almost dropped it, then peered through the small hole. Papa had better not find out about his eavesdropping post or there would be a word whipping in store.
Around the table about ten feet from Neil, four men in heavy jackets, and his father sat huddled together, examining a sheet of paper. Their caps lay on the table in front of them. The flame from the lamp flickered upward for a moment and Neil saw the men’s faces, their lips taut and jaws clenched.
The men whispered to each other. Neil pressed his ear to the hole, hardly breathing. He strained to listen. All he could hear were snatches of sentences. A global war …Russia in chaos…Czar Nicholas II overthrown and he and the family were now prisoners of the communist party somewhere…few government soldiers left to protect the villagers…two men from the settlement…gone into the mountains to negotiate with the Tatars for their safety…beaten and dragged to the roadside…found today…stench of rotting corpses…vultures.
Neil jerked as he heard another knock on the front door. He looked through the knothole again and saw his father hurry to answer. A man from across the village rushed in and strode to the table, his muddy boots squishing on the floor.
“Rudolph. What’s happened?” Papa forgot to keep his voice down. He closed the door and hurried after Rudolph. “What have you found out?”
Rudolph pulled off his calfskin mittens and tossed them on the table. His breath came fast. “People say a thousand young Tatars on horseback are riding down the mountains in our direction.”
Neil gasped and his jaw dropped. They would all die.
“What?” the neighbor said as he jumped to his feet. “Are you sure?”
“Who told you this? It may just be a rumor,” Papa said.
Without waiting for answers the men got up, grabbed their caps, and charged to the front door. They pulled on their boots and rushed out. Papa tugged his cap and jacket from a hook on the wall near the door and hurried after them. In a few minutes all the men, including Papa and Rudolph, were gone.
Frozen, Neil kept staring through the knothole. What should he do? Wake up the family? Hide? No, Papa would soon be back. He’d know what to do. Finally Neil tiptoed back to his bed. He knelt down in prayer. Please, please, God, help me be strong.
Reader, do you have a story of a true event you feel you “need” to write? Try creative nonfiction. You can make the story more interesting, powerful, and come alive for your reader.
Posted by Anna Goodwin
Looking forward to the next installment! Those fleeing such hostile conditions are truly heroes. Creative fiction. It does bring history alive.