NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Perhaps the most amazing thing about the letters from Stalin’s Gulag is that they exist at all.
Ruth Derksen Siemens, an instructor in rhetoric and writing at the University of British Columbia, has made it her mission to tell the largely forgotten story of the Stalinist purges in the former Soviet Union in the 1930s through a collection of letters written by Russian Mennonites imprisoned in the Gulag. The letters have become the basis of a book, “Remember Us”: Letters from Stalin’s Gulag, 1930-37 (Volume 1, The Regehr Family), and a film, Through the Red Gate.
Siemens visited Bethel College in early October to talk about the process of putting together the book, which includes 131 of 463 total letters from Mennonites exiled to the Gulag (subsequent volumes are planned for the remaining letters), and to show Through the Red Gate. This first Friends of the MLA (Mennonite Library and Archives) event of the school year drew a standing room-only crowd.
The letters in “Remember Us” came from the Jasch (Jacob) Regehr family. Regehr, his wife Maria, six children and younger brother were sent in 1931 to a prison camp in Siberia. The first obstacle to letter-writing, Siemens pointed out, was lack of paper in the camps. Writers used cigarette paper, Soviet propaganda postcards and newspapers with the newsprint rubbed off.
Second was getting the letters past the Soviet censors. Since her discovery of the letters and then interviews with survivors of the Gulag and their descendants in Canada and the United States, Siemens has learned about various ways in which letter writers coded their messages.
For example, she said, one letter refers to conditions in the prison camp being “as nice as in 2 Corinthians 4:7-9,” the writer knowing intended readers would get the reference while the Communist censors didn’t know Scripture and didn’t dare consult a Bible. The passage says, in part: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
Even if the letters got past the censors, it was illegal to send them outside the Soviet Union to the West. Siemens says she has yet to learn definitively how the letters got out. She speculates that there must have been sympathetic prison guards and postal workers along with some kind of underground network of dissidents that managed to pass the letters on. Many went to relatives in Ukraine and from there to Canada and the United States.
A large number of them ended up in the tiny town of Carlyle, Saskatchewan, even if the writers had no family connections there. “Somehow information traveled by word of mouth and it was known that a letter would get through to Carlyle,” Siemens said.
Other collections of letters – “postcards from hell,” one British newspaper called them – have been found in south central Kansas in the Whitewater area, in the Beatrice, Neb., area, and in the Dakotas and Oklahoma, Siemens said. The second largest group of letters, after the Regehr letters, turned up in Kansas. Elma Esau, now of North Newton, has them in translation in a notebook, Siemens said.
Many of the letters arrived in the United States or Canada with postage due. “It was the Great Depression,” Siemens said. “People hardly had two pennies to rub together and they would have to borrow money to pay the postage. Yet some faithful postal worker believed he would get the postage and sent the letter on.”
And after all that, many of the letters in “Remember Us” might have gone into the trash in 1989. That was when Peter Bargen, of Kelowna, British Columbia, who had escaped from Soviet Russia to Carlyle with his family as a young boy, was visiting his brother Frank in Manitoba. Frank mentioned that there was “a Campbell’s Soup box of letters in the attic that [he had had] since Mom and Dad died,” that he was ready to throw out.
When Peter and his wife Anne opened the box and saw the fragile letters – some of them only fragments – written in German Gothic script, they quickly realized that these had come from Bargen relatives who did not escape Europe. They spent the next three years translating 131 of them, “sitting around the kitchen table and crying,” Peter relates in Through the Red Gate, for which he is a primary source. “That’s when we began to understand our story – past history came alive.”
The story is Siemens’ as well. She was born in Canada but her parents fled the former Soviet Union, and she is a distant cousin of Peter Bargen (who died in 2004). In 1991, Bargen printed 100 copies of the Regehr letters in translation.
In 1999, in a coffee shop in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Siemens’ sister, Lois, handed her a copy of the letters. When she looked at them, Siemens has reported, she got goosebumps. “I said, ‘Lois, this is our story.’
“Our parents and grandparents didn’t want to talk about their experiences [in Stalinist Russia],” she went on. “I and [my siblings] didn’t know our own history. We didn’t have a single class or chapel in my Mennonite high school [on this topic].”
Siemens’ exposure to the letters and the story behind them eventually took her to the University of Sheffield, England, where she completed her Ph.D. in philosophy of language with the letters as her research focus.
Sheffield has a department of Russian and Slavonic studies – and when Siemens arrived, she found that the department had not one single copy of a letter from the Gulag. Siemens began to realize the broad historical significance of the 463 letters, and her quest to discover more of them began.
It is also a quest to make the world aware of a story forgotten or never known. “How can we really move forward if we don’t know where we came from and where we are?” she said. “[Russian Prime Minister] Putin is working hard to reinvent Josef Stalin as a powerful leader, a victor, a hero for ‘patriotic Russians.’”
An estimated 50 million people died in Stalin’s purges between 1929 and 1938 – more than the entire population of Canada, Siemens said. “People, even young ones, know the swastika and [who Hitler was] but ask them about Stalin and how many died.
“My son came home with a red star [symbol of Communism] on a belt buckle and a hammer and sickle on a bracelet,” she recalled. “He told me, ‘Mom, these are cool.’ So we had a long talk, and I said, ‘Go ask Grandma and Grandpa what those mean to them.’
“The silence has lasted too long,” Siemens said. “The book [and others to follow] and the film are an attempt to break the silence.”
Both “Remember Us” and Through the Red Gate can be ordered online at www.gulagletters.com. Siemens would like to hear from anyone who has letters from the Gulag – “One, or 10, or any number is important,” she said – and invites contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.