Tuesday, December 27, 2005


I am a first generation American on my father's side, a second generation on my mother's. My family did not go "over there", to come back to peacetime. They came from there, Europe of the twentieth century, Rwanda with panzer armies and no jungle. My mother's family was confused and scandalized by actions of family against family, of men fleeing women, never to return. My father's family was confused by actions of self against self, but with these various near-psychotic characters somehow staying together. As the only enemy I have ever acknowledged is myself, I naturally have come to sympathize with my father's family more. Psychosis and Russianness are like ice cream and apple pie.

Natural sympathy, of course, is no substitute for a good story, and my father's family has plenty of that. They were Cossacks, hardly domesticated, at least to hear grandmother talk of them: marrying their stepdaughters, poisoning their wives (when they complained), initiating pograms and writing damned good poetry about all of it. Even the pograms had nursery rhymes written about them:

The Chechen sits in the dark by the lake
He is sharpening his knife
The rest of the village is drinking and dancing (they have lots!)
But the Chechen still sharpens his knife

Then communism happened, or rather, as P. J. O'Rourke memorably clarified, "communism with Russians in it". My family fled. Starting out as groups of constitutional monarchists (Kadets), they settled in Yugoslavia. They established a sort of miniature Kiev, complete with their own miniature Russian Orthodox Church (now known as ROCA, or ROCOR, as opposed to the Russian Orthodox Church, which was re-started after the fall of communism), waiting for the day Lenin and his dastardly Jewish cohorts might be brought low. High hopes were had for a Hitler-Kadet restoration of Imperial Russia, but Hitler's penchant for enslaving and/or killing anyone east of the Dnieper put a clamp on that idea. Hitler came into Yugoslavia and killed some people, then the Americans came and killed absolutely everyone. The United States military doctrine about entering towns was pretty simple back then: if there is even an appearance of resistance, bomb the living shit out of it.

My great-grandfather was shot by partisans sometime in this period, something that always made me wonder. Why would they shoot kadets who were on their side (as grandmother has said out family was)? Was great-grandfather collaborating with the Nazis? I have read in books that the Kadets were generally inclined to hug Nazis, in a large-scale history book kind of way, but it is a hard thing to know about your great-grandfather. It would not be a moral failing if he was. Morality in general was having a hard time on the Eastern front. The partisans come in and shoot anyone who doesn't cooperate. Then the Nazis come in and shoot anyone for cooperating with the Partisans. Roving Albanian gangs come in and shoot everyone that hasn't been blown to bits by B-17s. At least the Nazis had snappy uniforms, and that's something I can see an old Tsarist appreciating. So many possibilities. More likely than any of them is simple larceny. He was well-off, and known to be well off (virtue of the snappy uniforms) and the partisans, like all young men with guns, relieved him of his well-offedness without a whole lot of political thought.

My grandmother tunnelled from the rubble of stone and corpses that was Belgrade and went to find a displaced persons camp. Somewhere in this period my father was born. She probably wasn't actually looking for a camp or much of anything at this point, but wandering and trying to survive. It is shameful that there is still a quarter of the world's population living like this. It sounds easy to accept when it is your family, but not easy when you are there, I imagine, probably impossible for many in that poor old continent. My grandmother's childhood friend hung herself before they could reach anything like sanctuary, somewhere on the road from Belgrade. It was not a terribly uncommon way for young women to pass to rest: willowy bodies rotting, strung in the cherry trees, like toys or kites abandoned in childhood. Too heavy to live, too light to fall.

My grandfather had a somewhat less grim time of it, although perhaps this is simply my impression, as my grandfather died before I grew interested in such things as history or the Reichswehr. An engineer, he was conscripted to shoot at Germans, but proved to be sincerely terrible at it. The Germans took him to a POW camp briefly before it was blown to bits by B-17s, and he made his escape on top of a Panzer. He wandered Europe's ruin as well and decided to up and head for America. Whether or not grandma and grandpa had some sort of scheduled rendevous I do not know, but I do know they found each other in the processing stations at Ellis Island, sometime in 1947. Planned or not, that must have been something to see. I hope everyone's life has a moment or five like that.

The one good thing about my life is that I have had moments that I think were like that. I always let them go, like a kid with toy balloons. This is partially because I enjoy hurting myself but also because I do not want to squander my chances of having another, and another, and another. Those moments are the reason for life, and getting to them is the act of living. I have internalized the exile. As the exile wishes to return, I wish for nothing but yearning. I want nothing more than to want. And so I will walk.

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