Thoughts--Under Ruins and Snow: An Experiment in Ethnic Anthology
Two Centuries of German-Russian Poetry, Short Stories, and Essays
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
The cover of this book says, "...this rich resource work is a
truly Russian-German anthology in the fullest sense." This reviewer
was puzzled by this statement because it is not accurate to the contents
of the book. The book focuses closely on the travail of only the Volga
Germans during the early communist years in Russia, and does not deal
at all with the immigrant experiences of either the Volga or Black
Sea groups. It wanders off into works about the ancient gods of the
Germanic peoples of the far north. There is nothing wrong, of course,
with tailoring the scope of a work to something less than a reflection
of the whole, but it is hardly an anthology that deals with the German
Russians in the full sense as blurb about it indicates. That said,
it provides a piercing view of the agony of the Volga community facing
dissolution, and that is worth knowing about.
The book is divided into parts: The poetry of Peter Sinner and his
wife Kamilla, related poetry by persons, some non-German Russians,
who shared his world view and imitated his style, poems and short
essays by other Russian Germans, writing by Sinner's son, and work
by Samuel Sinner, who grew up on the Mojave Desert in the United States.
According to a
biographical sketch by Reinhold Keil, Peter Sinner, a teacher in the
German villages of Russia, lived for a time in St. Petersburg, then
returned to his Volga homeland. Samuel Sinner's bio sketches say he
was arrested several times for his anti-Communist-regime views and
disappeared in 1935 in the time of massive purges; some of the Sinners
and others whose work appears were university-based intellectuals
in Russia. Samuel Sinner is a US scholar interested in his German
Russian heritage, in "Jewish mysticism, philosophy, theology,
world folklore and mythology, ancient history and languages, ancient
Jewish and Christian apocryphal literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls,
and quantum physics." He is also interested in genocide studies.
The poetry of Peter Sinner is the heart of the book. He tells of the
love of the steppe, as Americans write sometimes of the prairies.
I observed wryly that you could write of that love if you didn't have
to get out and do the hard work of farming it, but Peter had some
of that work in his life experience. Many of his poems are veiled
political commentary. Samuel, to his credit, "spoon feeds"
the reader so that the symbolism makes sense. Stalin and his henchpersons
certainly wouldn't have liked being depicted as wolves, but Peter
flings his characterizations into their faces like a handful of rocks.
He foresaw what would happen to his German people because he knew
the plan was already in place; the Czar had planned to export them
just before the Communist Revolution provided a reprieve. Peter lived
through the famine times caused by government requisitioners who came
and stole their food, and is blunt about describing his people's experiences.
The Volga Germans did not have the German army to push them westward,
as did many Black Sea Germans; they could not escape, as a number
of Mennonite groups did. It is chilling to understand their raw feelings,
their helplessness, as they realized that they were to be destroyed
as a people, shipped to the east and far north of Russia without anyone
in the world noticing--or caring.
A curious thing about this book is the generous use of classical German/Scandinavian
symbolism, primarily in the poetry of persons other than Peter Sinner.
The poems occasionally drop references to traditional Christian symbols
such as crosses and chalices, and some phrasing borrows from the Bible.
Peter would have grown up in a traditional Christian home on the
Volga, where he would have become acquainted with the church, even
clandestinely, during his time; in some of Peter's poems, the solace
offered by the church comes through clearly. But Samuel is clearly
taken with Odin and the other ancient Germanic deities and writings,
and these images overpower the Christian symbolic environment of the
The latter part of the book contains translations of work by persons
who write hard poems and essays about predatory communist attackers,
about famine and death and despair. Some of Peter's harshest work
appears here. Samuel's own work includes mystical pieces that have
nothing to do with the Germans from Russia except that he, their author,
is of that background.
Some of the works in this collection are labeled with the author's
name and its date of writing; some have neither and the reader feels
disoriented. The work, unfortunately, lacked an editor who would have
pushed Samuel to greater clarity in its conception and organization.
So, should you read it? The Germans from Russia have few enough poets,
and the poetry of Peter Sinner is haunting. Nobody ever told me before
that the steppe was beautiful. Nor had I ever felt quite so clearly
how helpless the people felt as they guessed their coming destruction
and how intense was the anger against their communist oppressors.
Feel free to skip the mystical
essays. An anthology for the whole German Russian experience this
is not, but in that the best parts illuminate a very dark corner of
the Germans from Russian experience, a part of our history that fades
in our awareness with each generation, it is worth picking up.
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