It so happened that I spent a week travelling through three Baltic countries and listening to typical East European 20th century family stories - of victims and perpetrators living under the same roof or - a common case - being the same individuals.
In one striking story, two aging brothers would always beat each other at every family gathering throughout the 70s and 80s, and the youngsters couldn’t fathom why. In the 90s, it turned out one was Holocaust perpetrator and the other took part in Soviet deportations.
The anniversary of Soviet invasion prompted usual suspects to say usual stuff about collective historical guilt and collective repenting at a national level. I don’t believe in that stuff, possibly because I don’t really feel myself as a part of any nation.
I was born in one country, then it became another, then I moved to a third country and now the ongoing onslaught of illiberalism is likely to force me move to a fourth one. But I’ll always remain an East European, that’s my prime geographical identity.
I think the best way of tackling issues of victimhood and perpetration in East Europe is by telling family stories in an objective manner. I’ll try to outline my family story without leaving aside the perpetration/collaboration part.
My paternal grandfather was born to a German-speaking Russian & Latvian family linked to Moravian Brethren. His parents met in what is now Tartu and went to live in what is now Volgograd.
They survived Civil War’s battle of Tsaritsyn and Stalingrad battle in WWII - both as civilians. After the latter, my great grandfather was tortured sent to camps for attending to German soldiers as a doctor. Her wife was tortured, but released by her torturer, a fellow Latvian.
My grandfather spent WWII discovering oil deposits in West Siberia. He never joined the party, but became professor at Moscow State University in 1950s. He was kicked out after my Polish grandmother complained to the party committee about his affair with a younger woman.
My Polish grandmother was born in Siberia. Her father went there to help Polish exiles after meeting the Pope. He was a conductor in a Polish choir. He worked in the Polish repatriation committee helping Poles to escape to Australia and the US. But he stayed in Siberia.
My grandmother denounced her “counter-revolutionary” father to get higher education. She became a personal doctor of the Mongolian Communist leader’s family. They were a bunch of perverts apparently.
My Dad was engineering geologist specializing in dams and reservoirs. He wouldn’t join the party until the late Gorbachev years, when he felt he could influence things by joining. That was slightly ridiculous. I was deep in the democratic movement by then.
My maternal grandfather was born in the year when the USSR was formed (1924) and died in 1989. He saw nothing but Soviet times, but he travelled the world.
His father, hailing from Pskov, was in the Bolshevik underground before revolution, then fought in WWI. In his memoir, he stunningly admits that he didn’t notice October Revolution even though his regiment was active in it and he was sitting on the soldiers’ Soviet.
He went to his native Pskov region to fight under the command of Latvian Red Army commander Jānis Fabriciuss, whom he absolutely adored. They fought against White Polish commander Bulak-Balachowitz, whom he describes as a sadistic murderer. He wasn’t a nice person by all means.
After Civil War, he was wise enough not to pursue a party career, but remained a worker at his plant all his life. He was one of the Bolsheviks who circulated Raskolnikov’a anti-Stalin pamphlet.
My maternal grandfather went to defend Leningrad with all boys from his class at the age of 16. He was one of two survivors. Everyone else was killed in a few days. He was injured and taken across the Ladoga out of the blockade by his Jewish friend, the other survivor.
He went to study at an artillery school in Siberia and returned to the front as a commanding officer when the Soviets were rolling into Poland. He had a difficult time establishing authority over soldiers who were much older and went through hell in 41-43. But they got along well
He ended war on the island of Rügen and most of his unit was wiped out by Soviet aviation after the end of war, because they commandeered a German boat with military insignia. Soviet planes were bombing boats carrying German refugees fleeing the Baltics at the time.
After the war, he got enrolled in the military institute of foreign languages. In 1956, he took part in the suppression of the Hungarian uprising as a propaganda officer. He used to talk about atrocities staged by the rebels - some real, some not. He wasn’t proud of it though.
He became a Soviet diplomat in Latin America. They lived in Cuba in the 1960s. Raul was a personal friend. Che Guevara became an idol. My grandfather believed that Cuban socialism was “real”, while Soviet socialism was corrupt.
In the 70s, he was in Peru delivering arms to the pro-US government which fought a Maoist uprising. It was an unusual arrangement, but China was an enemy. In the 80s he was translating Latin American literature.
My maternal grandmother comes from Ryazan region. Her mother ran was apparently an educated woman who fled the city and married a peasant to to survived the revolution. Then they had to flee to Moscow to survive artificial famine staged by the Bolsheviks.
She was drafted to the army in 1941 because she spoke good German. She moved with army HQ translating captured documents. My grandparents met in Potsdam in 1947 and my mother was born in Eberswalde.
Being a translator for Smersh, my grandmother took part in the deportations of German engineers who were sent to the USSR to lead teams of German POWs who were actively used in post-war reconstruction. I only got her to talk about it once. She spent the rest of life as housewife.
My mother is a book editor. Most famously, she edited (and keeps editing) Solzhenitsyn’s official full collection.
Her brother was a GRU officer in Afghanistan. He spoke every Afghan language, but specialized in talks with Maoist bands in Pamir region. He among the last soldiers to leave Afghanistan. My grandfather has a lethal stroke the day it happened.
My uncle suffered a full-blown Vietnam syndrome after Afghanistan. His diplomatic career and family collapsed, he took to drinking and died of a heart attack in the street. He was a super-talented man with exquisite writing skills who should have never joined the military.
Another subthread here. My great-grandmother’s brother was a Red Latvian Rifleman and Lenin’s bodyguard. Then he returned to Latvia. In WWII, he became a forest brother fighting Soviets & Germans. He was spared execution when he produced a Kremlin entry permit signed by Lenin.
One of my distant relatives conducted Soviet deportations from Riga. I’ve never met him, but some of my St Petersburg relatives would visit him at the time and what they saw was grim.
My maternal grandfather was stationed in Haapsalu Estonia for a year after moving from Germany in 1949. They shared a house with its original owners, who naturally weren’t happy about the arrangement. But somehow they became friends. Granddad was a very friendly man.