What beckons us to the road, far from home, removed from our culture and comfort zone? For me it is story, newness, connection, surprise: The beautiful, the stunning, the devastating, the far-flung narrative and its power to astound, even to transform. It’s the daylong rise out of the dripping 100-degree Amazon, into a snowstorm along the spine of its Andes. It’s the impoverished rickshaw driver in New Delhi, Raja Ram, the Lord King, with his haunting soliloquy on the meaning of life and death. Or the young taxi driver, late at night on a darkened South American road, making eye contact in the mirror, asking plaintively,Why don’t you have children?
It’s the sound of a violin in a Palestinian refugee camp. Mysterious lights flickering across a plain in West Texas. Beethoven’s Third Symphony, played at full volume as your car ascends the Wyoming Rockies, hitting its crescendo just as you top a mountain pass.
Such random surprise can happen every time, if you allow it.
This summer, traveling to Russia and Estonia for the first time, what astounded me was less the gleaming, bulbous domes of the Orthodox churches, or the Medieval towers of a 14th-century town, but history itself: how it’s told and retold; its multiple layers, one built on top of another. And how cut off and isolated I had been, as an American child of the Cold War, about another people’s devastating sacrifice.
I’d come to Russia at the invitation of my wife, the novelist Andrea Portes (sure, darling, twist my arm), whose upcoming thriller is based partly in Moscow. It didn’t take us long to encounter the alternate universe of history. Walking toward Red Square and the Kremlin, the guide Andrea had hired for historical and cultural perspective kept invoking the “Great Patriotic War.” To some this historical rephrasing of World War II might sound amusing, until you realize that an estimated 23 million Soviet citizens, or one in every eight, died in the war—three times-plus the number that perished in the Holocaust, and some 60 times more than U.S. casualties. These numbers are not quite a historical secret in the West, but how many of us were ever taught this? And how did I get to be 60 years old without learning of perhaps the most sustained vicious onslaught in the history of warfare—the Siege of Leningrad? My mother and her friends recall the siege, because they lived through those times and read the contemporary accounts of unspeakable suffering—but soon that history would be obscured by the Iron Curtain.
History is written by the winners, of course. If you need a reminder of that, just visit the Park of Fallen Heroes, where monuments of the disgraced visionaries of communism have been relocated, to a sculpture park of curiosity in a sunny glade in Moscow’s Gorky Park. Families dozed on the grass amidst the towering bronze statues of Lenin, Marx, Brezhnev, infamous KGB chief Felix Dzherzhinski, and a vandalized Stalin, whose nose is mostly hacked off.
Disgraced or not, it was the Soviets, and the terribly outmatched citizens of Leningrad, who held the line against Hitler’s nearly 900-day siege. This we witnessed on the other end of a three-hour bullet train ride from Moscow, in a relatively obscure St. Petersburg museum along the Neva River. Here, we appeared to be the only non-Russians. The clerks of theState Museum of St. Petersburg’s History viewed us skeptically, as if we had wandered off mistakenly from the nearby Fabergé Museum, where the ornate, bejeweled eggsdesigned by Carl Fabergé embody the out-of-touch excesses of the Tsars. At the Fabergé, where you can understand why the Tsarist regime was toppled by the Bolsheviks, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans and Western Europeans pack the well-lit exhibits every day. But at the dusty old museum on the English Embankment, we made it clear to the ticket taker that we weren’t lost; we had come to learn about St. Petersburg during the Great Patriotic War. They brightened, and we re-entered Russia’s dark days.
Beginning in 1941, Hitler’s 700,000 troops ringed Leningrad, cutting off food and fuel. The Führer, according to the exhibition, was determined to “raze Leningrad to the ground, in order that no people would remain who would have to be fed in winter.” The people’s largely volunteer army, outnumbered by more than 2:1, dug trenches, built air raid shelters, and planted cabbage in the public gardens to stave off starvation. Four-ounce, barely edible “blockade bread” became a daily staple. Still, “entire families were carried off by starvation.” With no fuel (they had already burned their trees, their furniture, their kitchens shelves and their books), people huddled in their apartments in winter temperatures that reached 30 below zero Fahrenheit. A diorama showed an apartment house ripped in half by a shelling, the guts of daily life exposed. Children’s drawings depicted tanks firing on the city, and buildings on fire.
A lone photograph showed a couple pulling a sled, upon which lay a tiny body shrouded in black. In all, a million people died in the Siege of Leningrad.
Yet, in one of history’s greatest testaments to solidarity, the people of Leningrad held the line against the Nazis. Many families took refuge in their Orthodox faith, believing they were being tested by God. Another family, nearly dead from hunger, took a different path: they learned Pushkin by heart. At the height of the siege, in August 1942, Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, or the Leningrad Symphony, premiered in the besieged city. By this time, the Leningrad Radio Orchestra was down to 14 surviving musicians. To fill its ranks, the conductor recruited volunteers, including musicians from the Soviet Army. Shostakovich’s composition, written and performed in Leningrad when the outcome of the siege was still very much in doubt, concludes in a spirit of unambiguous triumph. And there, beside the museum’s display cases, we sat in contemplation, listening to the Shostakovich.
Before we left, we read the memorial scroll sent in May 1944 by President Franklin Roosevelt to the people of Leningrad, who, “despite constant bombardments and untold sufferings from cold, hunger and sickness, successfully defended their beloved city…”
For us, the newness, the connection, the surprise of a new place lay in an old museum, behind smudged glass cases.
We stepped back into the street, like new people. Astounded. The sweeping view of domes, spires, the glint of sunlight on water—all of it looked different now. We felt transformed, really, with a profound new respect for our Russian hosts, and fascinated by the stories nations tell themselves. Important things were missing from the exhibition, as we found out later. Stalin and his apparatchiks failed to evacuate Leningrad or to stockpile food, with horrifying consequences. Families ate house cats, sawdust, wallpaper paste, and finally, faced the terrible choice of whether to eat human meat or starve. Regardless of the museum’s missing pieces, though, the suffering and heroism of the people of Leningrad was undeniable.
Yet historical denial was palpable on the next leg of our trip, in Estonia, a bullet train and ferry ride away, via Helsinki. We sailed across the Gulf of Finland toward the Medieval town of Tallinn, finishing dinner as the sun set over the water at nearly 10 p.m. The past—specifically, the mid-20th Century—had taken hold of us. Maybe that’s because Andrea’s grandfather was a U.S. military pilot during World War II, flying medevac in the Pacific. Or because I kept recalling my late close friend, Joe Garland, and his terrible time on the Anzio beachhead in Italy. Or because my mom and her friends had recently shared their powerful memories of the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, when they were teenagers. Whatever the reason, the next day we followed our Tallinn map to Estonia’s Museum of Occupations.
The very name of the museum, funded by a wealthy Estonian-American after the fall of Communism, reflects the way the newly-independent nation sees itself: as a victim of the occupations of the Soviets, then the Nazis, then the Soviets again. True enough in its own way, of course; Estonians would have preferred their freedom. And every country gets to tells itself its own story. But sometimes the omissions are more interesting than the narrative. (Imagine the American story, as many people do, without acknowledgment of slavery or the genocide of Native Americans.)
What struck us most about the shiny museum was its depiction of Estonians’ victimization without any reflection of responsibility. Estonians “joined the German army” but never became Nazis; they were “forced to go to Germany” after World War II but never participated in atrocities during the war. Except that some of them did. Oula Silvennoinen of the University of Helsinki, in his review of Anton Weiss-Wendt’s “Murder Without Hatred: Estonians and the Holocaust,” writes that collaboration was “crucial to the realization of the Holocaust on the local level.” He adds that the “genocide of the Estonian Jews” was “largely perpetrated by Estonian militias and security police.”
Yet at the Museum of Occupations, you learn no such thing, including nothing of Estonian participation in the concentration camps the Nazis established here—one a mere miles from Tallinn. It is all about victimhood and heroism, not collaboration. Much celebrated are the legendary “Forest Brothers,” small bands of guerilla resisters to Communism who survived in the woods, some of them into the 1950s. But any discussion of Estonian atrocities, or even any Estonians who believed in Communism, is not to be found in the Museum of Occupations. At least, we didn’t see it, and we looked.
When I brought this up to the 23-year-old staffing the entrance counter, he told me: “My great grandfather joined the German army not because he liked the Nazis, but because he hated Communism so much.” Ah, so that’s the story that a nation tells its young. What a contrast to Germany, which has confronted its own terrible history head-on. Middle school children visit the concentration camps as part of their education. And on nearly every corner of Berlin, it seems, is a reminder of a Jewish family who lived here, or worked there, before being hauled away in the night, and exterminated.
So, nations bury their history, or they confront it, or they edit it, leaving out some uncomfortable parts. Perhaps the choice comes down to proximity, degree of terribleness, personal and national courage, and the level of genuine democracy.
But of course, the more distant the history, the easier it is to excavate. This is what we saw in the Tallinn Town Hall, where the mining of history is not fraught with the discomfort or denial of the living.
In 2003, Tallinn received funds to renovated its town hall, which had stood for more than six centuries, but which had fallen into disrepair under Soviet rule. Workers in the attic made a startling discovery: amid the old photos of the Soviet era, when the town hall housed a button shop, flanked with giant images of Stalin and Lenin, they found civil documents and legal claims going all the way back to the 14th Century. At this moment, more than ever before, I understood the fascination of my brother John’s work as a Medieval scholar, living in France.
Now, upstairs, past the life-size dolls of peasants and knights, the portraits of Swedish kings, the chronicle of a nobleman who beat his slave to death and in turn was sentenced to death himself, and the displays of Medieval weathervanes, we came to the excavated history: fragments of parchment exposing the disputes of ordinary men and women of twenty and twenty-five generations past.
“Court document,” states one plaque in front of a stained paper from 1583, “in which the accuser demands 60 thakers and ten packages of books. The defendant states that the debt has already been paid.” Beside that document stood another one: “Letter from Prince Jaroslav Obolensky to the Tallinn Magistracy and burgomaster Johann Super concerning a horse theft (1487)”. And then another display, from some 420 years later, and 12 years before the Bolshevik Revolution: handbills from 1905. “Kill all the barons!”
Before we left Estonia, to return to St. Petersburg and then back to the States, I climbed the 100-plus stone steps of Tallinn’s town hall. The tower, built in 1402, once included a stoic tin weathervane named Old Thomas. There he stood, looking out over Estonia, until he was toppled in a Soviet air attack to liberate (or “liberate,” if you prefer) Tallinn from the Nazis in 1944—an attack it denied for decades.
The tower, now with a new Old Thomas (the original is down below, its mustache reforged from five Soviet pennies), affords a spectacular view in all directions, including north, to the Gulf of Finland, where every day in the summer, cruise ships disgorge thousands of tourists, who flood the red-roofed Medieval town and its cobbled square just below.
I could see them now, milling about. At first I thought, how too bad, this town to be overrun in this way. But then I thought, given the alternatives demonstrated by the layers of history, in this town and in all the places we’d seen, it was not such a terrible way to be overtaken.