Letters open window of memory
Remember Us: Letters from Stalin’s Gulag (1930–37). Volume One: The Regehr Family
Ruth Derksen Siemens
By conservative estimates, at least 45 million people died in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1953 through state causes such as executions, imposed famines, imprisonment in the gulag, and relocation to “special settlements,” not to mention millions more deaths because of war.
Numbers like this are simply impossible for us to comprehend. But, “behind such statistics are countless human tragedies,” reminds Orlando Figes in The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. The genius of Figes’ work is that he brings his deep investigation of Stalinism’s influence on personal and family life into our grasp through the stories of specific, ordinary Soviet people.
This is also the genius of Ruth Derksen Siemens’ Remember Us: Letters from Stalin’s Gulag (1930–37). While many Mennonites emigrated from Russia, many thousands also stayed behind. The letters from one family – the Jasch and Maria Regehr family – written from a work/prison camp in the Ural Mountains to which they were banished in 1931, offer a picture of the physical suffering, spiritual loss, and pressure on family life Mennonites and other “disenfranchised” groups endured under Stalin.
The Regehr letters belong to a cache of 463 letters found in a Campbell’s soup box in a Manitoba attic in 1989. They were painstakingly translated by Peter and Anne Bargen (his parents Franz and Liese Bargen had saved them) and put together in a book for the extended family. Siemens, researcher, historian, and instructor of rhetoric and writing at the University of British Columbia, used the letters for her PhD work. Through this book, a documentary, artwork, and various public events (see www.gulagletters.com), she is also bringing this story into public remembrance.
The letters span the years 1930–37, years in which correspondence, though risky, was still possible, as was the receipt of money and parcels. The letters, then, forged a literal lifeline of help and hope. In spite of it, Jasch Regehr died of starvation in 1934. (“If you would see him…you would weep and wail with compassion,” Maria writes.) Through much of the period, the Regehrs still hoped to be freed and kept urging that their plight – and that of many others – be told to anyone who could influence the situation.
There is an immediacy and raw emotion in these letters that is very compelling. The writers exhibit strong faith and gratitude, but also spiritual struggle. For example, “[T]he children…are beginning to doubt God’s Word because for so long there is no answer to prayer.”
Given their significance, some aspects of the letters’ presentation are disappointing. I found myself wishing for more information, and more precision in the context provided. Commentary between letters tends to tell us what they say, instead of enlarging our understanding of them. (Readers may want to consult Peter Letkemann’s review of the book in Mennonite Historian for corrections of some of the translations and terms used.)
I also wanted to know more about the effect of the letters on their recipients in Canada. What strategies of help and political pressure did the Canadian Mennonite community employ? Why did some relatives write and others (so the Regehrs complained, at least) not respond at all?
If “remembering” begins by hearing one family’s gulag story and letting it grip our hearts, however, we certainly have ample opportunity through this book of letters.