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Writer to share hidden stories from Stalin’s Gulag

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – A Canadian visitor will give the first Friends of the MLA (Mennonite Library and Archives) program of the school year at Bethel College, at a place and time different from the usual.

Ruth Duerksen Siemens, Vancouver, British Columbia, is traveling in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas to publicize her book “Remember Us”: Letters from Stalin’s Gulag (1930-37). Siemens was also involved in production of a documentary, Through the Red Gate, about the discovery of the letters. Both film and book came out in 2007 and Siemens is now working on a second volume of letters. She will read from the book and show clips from the film Friday, Oct. 9, at 3 p.m. in the MLA projection room, in the basement below the library and archives. The presentation is free and open to the public.

Ruth Duerksen Siemens is a first-generation Russian Mennonite who grew up in Vancouver but spent many spring and summer months at her grandparents’ farm in the Mennonite community of Yarrow, British Columbia. As a pre-teen, she moved with her family from Vancouver to Arnold, British Columbia, another Mennonite village.

Siemens’ first passion and career choice was music, but a longing to understand language and its rhetorical uses led her back to university. She is now an instructor of rhetoric and writing at the University of British Columbia, as well as a researcher and historian. She has conducted her primary research in the field of English rhetoric and discourse analysis, but her interest in historical documents and their linguistic implications remains dominant. Her Ph.D. in philosophy of language, from the University of Sheffield (UK), investigates letters written from the former Soviet Union (1930-38) by Russian Mennonites, many of whom were imprisoned and died in Stalin’s Gulag.

When Siemens discovered these letters, she realized, she says, that the writers were not “faceless, nameless people from the past,” but rather her kin and a nation’s “social conscience.” “Remember Us” includes 131 letters from one family, Jasch and Maria Regehr and their children, as well as the chronicle of two sisters who survived, along with photos, maps and statistics. Subsequent volumes will include the remaining letters from other families (463 total).

The book’s title comes from the Regehrs’ plea to their relatives in Canada: “Remember us. Do not forget us.” Although writing letters to “the West” was a crime during the Stalin regime, a subversive network of mail delivery somehow developed during this horrific era in human history, when men, women and children were sentenced to a vast gulag of more than 2,000 prison camps where the average survival rate was one winter.

Although most of the rest of the world knows little of this history, Siemens’ hope is that the letters will change that, both confirming the day-to-day experience in the prison camps and honoring victims and survivors.

More information about the author, the film Through the Red Gate and the book is at www.gulagletters.com. You can purchase “Remember Us” online or at Siemens’ Friends of the MLA presentation. For directions to the MLA projection room or more information on the Friends of the MLA, call 316-284-5360 or e-mail jthiesen@bethelks.edu.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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