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THE LIFE AND DEATH OF TWELVE-YEAR OLD BOYS

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By Randy Nikkel Schroeder

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The Montréal Review, July 2022

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'Vozmezdie' (Retribution), 1918-1921. Poster Revolution and Civil War in Russia. Artist Unknown.

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The Red Birthday

For almost fifty years I remembered it like a child—

One August afternoon, in 1919, on the Molotschna Mennonite colony, my great uncle Peter was hacked to pieces by an anarchist named Makhno.

Peter was twelve. It was his birthday party.

Makhno and his disciples galloped in and chopped with Cossack sabres, cracking their infamous nagaikas. They were inflamed by vengeance, given the treatment they had suffered at the hands of their landholding masters: Peter’s community, my Mennonite clan. We were a diasporic pacifist culture, most recently fled to Ukraine from West Prussia at the invitation of Russia’s Catherine the Great, lured by her promise of a Privilegium.

We did not treat the locals well. They received no Privilegium, only the chance to toil as our servants—to watch us get rich, and fat, and complacent, and drunk—in their homeland, on their soil, at their expense. They nourished their resentments; we nourished our orchards and gardens and great fields of wheat.

The Russian Revolution ended all that. In Molotschna we had been exempt from much of the Winter Palace's rule, and, as we preferred, from history itself. Abruptly we were thrown wide-open to the World's quirks and hazards, specifically to the blowback of Makhno's long-simmering resentment and hatred.

In the historical record, Makhno was Nestor Ivanovych Makhno, commander of the Makhnovshchina, a guerilla army that fought anybody seeking authoritative rule over southern Ukraine. Those seeking authority proved to be quite a crowd, including Germans, Austro-Germans, the nationalist Ukrainian People's Republic, the anti-Bolshevik Ukrainian State, the Red Army, the White Army, and various Ukrainian military hetmans. Makhno fought every one of them under his black flag of worker's anarchism.

To this day—and I hate to confess it—I feel a romantic frisson reading about the burbling political machinations and see-saw battles, imagining the striking imagery of White, Red and Black armies galloping across the Ukrainian steppes, fighting the perennial war between monarchs who made history and peasants who did not. In my mind, the geography of Southern Ukraine was itself mythical: between two great rivers, Dneistr and Don, stretched between the Urals and the Carpathian foothills, marked by the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, the latter name right out of the Old Testament tales of Canaan. What was this land, supposedly at the very rim of the civilized world, and who was this Makhno?

According to his own writing, Makhno had two entwined passions: the liberation of the poor and the forgotten, precisely through the obliteration of ruling classes and the establishment of anarchic social formations. To that end, he even entered into brief alliances with Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, who were at least a better option than the Tsarist White Army, led by the autocratic, anti-Semitic and terrorizing General Denikin. But Trotsky turned on Makhno, predictably, and anarchy did not prevail. Makhno died in exile at forty-five, in Paris—a writer, inventor, revolutionary, patriot, and, to some, the Ukrainian Robin Hood.

My relatives saw him quite differently. Many of them were exactly the landlords who had helped to radicalize Makhno, they and the miscellany of nobles, rulers, commanders and Tsars responsible for the misery of everyone else. Makhno, in my family tales, is a caricature of satanic rage and violence, a child-killer driven by bloodlust, devoid of any guiding principle or ethos. In my youth, when I saw pictures of his demonic presence, I was terrified. The sunken eyes, the bleak and bluff cheekbones, the raven hair—all of it called forth the rampaging sin and horror of an unredeemed World. For the longest time I thought that Makhno was either possessed by a demon, or a demon himself, manifest to devastate our culture, which must have strayed from the true path of righteousness. I truly did believe in demons at the time, with all my childish heart. I wondered if maybe we had been punished in the Old Country, if God had loosed the demon Makhno in order to set us on the straight path again.

Much later, when I was a scholar in my forties, I discovered an obscure work of Mennonite history from 1930, called Russian Dance with Death, by one Dietrich Neufeld. Even the fading cover gave me gooseflesh: a crimson border bounding a block print in black ink, depicting stylized people in various states of rage, despair and confusion, loomed over by hooded Death himself, beating a drum. Within, Makhno was described as an "inhuman monster" who left the countryside "drenched with blood." Indeed, in his own memoirs Makhno described his insatiable resentment toward his overseers, the Mennonite kulaks. He nurtured a particular hatred for their children, who pranced about in their fancy clothes, entitled and uncaring, well-fed and oblivious, secure in the obvious knowledge that he was exactly at his station: dirty, ragged, underfed, and overworked, just as God willed. Somewhere, the crows were preparing to come home.

The birthday episode, then, was in some ways dreadfully predictable. But it was also woven with ambiguity, historical contingency and parallax interpretation. The context was much richer and more granular than my family could ever tell it to each other. I was under the impression that the birthday episode drove Peter’s sister, Sara, to the very borders of sanity; I was told she witnessed the entire horror. I knew Sara as Grossmama: grandmother. Fifty years after that party, when I was young, my father would take us on the long prairie trek from Lethbridge, Alberta to Steinbach, Manitoba, to visit Grosspapa and Grossmama, during what seemed to me deliciously humid summers spilling forth rivers, rhubarb and raspberries, humming with mosquitoes and biting flies. At the supper table, in the tiny bungalow with the dusty smell, with the attic full of Old World board games, with the infinite garden and the weeping willow, Grossmama would abruptly break down and weep for no apparent reason. It scared the hell out of me. No story could encircle it.

Later, as a young man, I would remember those breakdown episodes, and attempt to contain the events of Makhno and the Mennonites by imagining them as scenes in a vaguely "Shakespearian” tragedy. "Shakespearian" was an adjective I didn’t really understand, any more than I really understood my culture's roots: why did my father’s parents speak “High German” and my mother’s “Low German,” even though they were all Mennonites? Why did the kids at school think I was a Hutterite? Why, to my boyish eye, did my dad and his younger brothers look slightly Mediterranean, while my cousins looked like Vikings, and my other cousins like Dutch?

It is a truism to note that memory is unreliable. But more: memories are elastic, spastic, fractal, jammed, porous. Neuroscience tells us so. They imply lines of fixed time and chronology, but they are also horizontal, like giant weavings that sprawl with entanglements of every hue. Or perhaps a better metaphor is the ancient cliché of water: the dynamic of stillness and motion that can be shallow or deep, flowing or pooling. Water is difficult to map, especially when it is turbulent, but it always changes the landscape. Like memory, water is never finished.

 That moment when Makhno rode in to hack apart a children’s birthday party must have been pure trauma, far outside of language—but the event continues to wend its way through my Mennonite landscape. The consequences have been both comic and tragic, in the way that so many Mennonite episodes are. We Russian Mennos are related not only by history, belief, and cuisine, but by a vaguely fascist notion of blood—the kind that epitomizes insular cultures who do not fully participate in the “World.” We interbreed. We share a limited repertoire of strategies to engage the world, as we share a limited set of last names, first names, and nicknames. Like all limits, ours are tragicomic. They flesh out the Romantic German notion of weltschmerz, that irreparable gap between what we expect of the world and what it actually gives us.

What do we expect? Sensible stories. So we continue to tell them, as the World continues to un-tell them.

I have met at least three Peter Doerksens in my life, but, of course, never that Peter Doerksen—my grandmother’s brother, my father’s uncle, my son’s great-great uncle. Nor, given my adult views on the afterlife, do I think myself likely to. But I do feel the cruel ironies of that blood, awash at that party and flowing forward into our genealogy: my great uncle, then twelve years old by only an hour, turned out to be the wrong Peter Doerksen.

Makhno failed to get his boy. Everyone's tale unraveled.

A Circle of Crows

My mother's parents escaped to Canada. She grew up in the Southern Alberta idyll of Readymade, with Rudy Wiebe, later a celebrated Mennonite writer and tale-teller. When I was twelve, I secretly read his novel My Lovely Enemy, even though it was a forbidden book. I always wondered how Wiebe could get away with the sexy stuff, which, according to my culture, was as much a part of Makhno's outside World as terror and violence. Apparently, some of my cousins wondered the same thing—they cancelled their subscription to the Mennonite Herald as payback for simply reviewing the book. I remember the Herald review as harsh and unsparing. I was more puzzled by my cousins' disavowal of the Herald, in the magazine’s letters section, than I was by Wiebe’s impunity. Sure: Rudy's gone off the colony, so to speak. But why punish the Herald for offering exactly the critique you wanted to read anyway? And why were descriptions of sex somehow a sin equivalent to—no, worse than—anarchist terror and violence?

Mennonite mythology is arranged and organized almost perfectly by the archetypal circle. Maknho and other sinful energies come from the outside the circle, as chaotic forces that splinter and smash the purity and safety of the inside. The boundary of the circle is literal: the community and the church, with their rules, beliefs and habits, all of which serve to keep the outside out. Weltschmerz, for us, is almost always the rupture of the boundary, and the invasion of the devilish energies from beyond: sex, violence, blasphemy, dissolution. "Hold the Fort," as the old hymn goes. "This World is not my home" goes another. Call the inside what you like—the fort, the church, the culture, the colony, the family, the Word. At some point, the outside is coming. It's called history. In 1919, it was called the Russian Revolution.

Many Mennonites fled. As pacifists who love their privilege, that's our thing. We seek out new safe spaces in which to establish the next circle.

Those same cousins who cancelled their subscription stopped speaking to my favorite aunt when she became an alcoholic. After she died, from alcohol, some of them became alcoholics. One of their daughters drinks so much she's on her third marriage, but they’ve never met the latest husband, because they all stopped speaking a long time ago. I don't know exactly why. Once, some of the Viking cousins joined my family to flee the Lethbridge Lakeview Mennonite Brethren Church and start a new one—some perplexing feud over who should be pastor—only to return to Lakeview years later in another related quarrel, in a sort of Mobius Strip of bad faith.

Our second go at the Lakeview church also involved some vendetta over an adopted cousin, nicknamed "Shinky," who had taken up with a reputed drug dealer from outside the circle, and in the end some of us went to the wedding while others went to Las Vegas. The marriage didn't last, but the memories did. I can recall my favorite uncle wondering aloud why Shinky's parents fled the Wicked Wedding in favor the City of Sin. Sometimes our family got the inside and the outside seriously mixed up.

After the inevitable divorce, in a bizarre act of reconciliation, Shinky burned her contact lenses, encircled by her watchful family. All the evil seen through those lenses vanished, literally in smoke, as per the detailed and final instructions of the matriarch, Auntie Suze.

I remember a wider circle of crows, watching the ritual from atop the streetlights. I was still twelve. It all seemed a little anarchic to me, and a little mythic, and a little pagan, which I really liked. Since the age of three, I had felt deep affinities for a vital animistic world, alive with strange enchantments and rituals beyond telling.

I loved circles, but they always turned inside-out, and kinked, and spiraled, and overlapped, and unspooled, and knotted into each other. They were the whorls of crooked trees and scudding clouds, not the neat spheres of coffee tables, canning jars and wedding rings. They didn't correspond to the way Jesus, in the Gospels, justified his work by neatly circling back to the earlier predictions of the Hebrew prophets.

So my world never seemed to match the Christian narrative; it never seemed to match any narrative. For a Mennonite boy, that was actually quite a problem, because I was always on the outside while on the inside. That's a dispiriting, interstitial place to be. But broken circles may have saved my life, because stories never did anything but undermine and delegitimize my experience.

Stories never fit anything, except themselves.

The Luminous Absence of Nestor Makhno

Actually, there is more unraveling yet. The truth is that I never could have met that Peter Doerksen, not even in the best of all possible worlds. Perhaps most distressing to me—as one who has never faced the persecution and trauma my ancestors did—is that all my life I have been telling myself the wrong Makhno story. My relatives told the story with some errors. The revisions and biases were predictable, but not wildly wrong.

Me? I've held a false tale all these years, like a live coal that I could neither swallow nor spit out, as a profound seminal moment in family narrative, as an opening scene with the formal characteristics of a wondrously structured novel. The way I've held it could have set up a neat symmetry between great uncle Peter Doerksen and myself, one that would create an artful counterpoint with which to organize this very telling.

But through childlike mis-hearings and lapsed memories I've been building a completely crooked tale for almost fifty years, only to get it right recently, while researching this essay. My murdered great uncle was actually named Gerhard.  His nickname was "Grishka," a fond diminutive given to all the local boys named Gerhard.

Grishka was at a Mennonite wedding hosted by Batjko Pravda, a bandit chief with his headquarters in the colony. Batjko Pravda had lost both his legs in a railway accident, but was still an excellent horseman, and enough of a brigand to capitalize on the lawless mayhem currently engulfing the Russian Empire. During the ceremony, a rival gang of bandits galloped in, looking for someone named Grishka who had, according to their tale, harassed a real Russian. They were disputatious, but not overly concerned with details. Wrongfully accusing our Grishka, and abjuring all inconvenient proceedings, they dragged my great uncle to his grandfather's estate. There they took turns hacking the boy to pieces.

I'm still not clear as to whom the real revolutionaries and insurgents were in 1919, and whom the opportunistic miscellany of bandits, thieves, murderers, and rapists, and whom a combination of both. My family still lumps them all together as "anarchists." Gerhard's family, of course, pleaded for his life; heaven, miracles and other palliative beliefs never soften the immediate experience of trauma. Such beliefs rarely come to mind at the moment of anguish.

Gerhard's mother knelt, weeping. But my grossmama Sara—then just a girl—stepped forward to offer herself as a substitute for her brother. Told in retrospect, her impromptu act of bravery is so scene-like, so wondrously fit to partake of the Augustinian redemption narrative, that it reads like fiction. The other stories are more predictable, and less striking, and perhaps sadder still. One of them is that Gerhard, by the grace of God, had accepted Jesus Christ into his heart as his Lord and Savior just weeks prior to his death. So despite his tragically short life, he was at least going to Heaven rather than Hell, as per our Mennonite doctrine of salvation, and in keeping with Augustine. That's a story I've heard told of too many young Mennonites, too many times, with too much desperation, at too many premature funerals. I doubt if it's ever true.

The crows never came for Grishka's body parts. His father did. He gathered the remains and wrapped them in a sheet, then snuck away; it was too dangerous to stage a proper funeral with so many bandits about. No one could help, not even my great-uncle Peter, who was actually Grishka’s brother. Uncle Peter lived to a ripe old age in Manitoba, and never gave up on his faith. To amend the story further, Grishka’s murder didn’t happen on Batjko Pravda’s property. And Batjko Pravda was not, to my knowledge, an actual Maknhnovist. And no member of the actual Makhnovshchina was in the vicinity. And historians have yet to agree as to whether the Makhnovshchina had any consistent revolutionary principles at all. And Makhno certainly wasn't at the birthday party.

And it wasn't even a birthday party.

But throughout the tale’s tortuous history—spanning almost a hundred years, subject to retellings and revisions and omissions and additions and clashing views and tinting ideologies—one stubborn fact has remained consistent: the boy was twelve.

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Randy Nikkel Schroeder is the author of Arctic Smoke (NeWest), Crooked Timber: Seven Suburban Faerie Tales (Green Magpie), and over fifty published short stories. In his spare time, he is professor of English, Languages, and Cultures at Mount Royal University. More about Randy Schroeder at https://www.randynikkelschroeder.com

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