Rhino's Ramblings: Memories of the Past


Robert Thomas

For many people, November 7th, 2017 was just another day but for many others it was something much more; it was the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution.

That fateful day which dominated much of the twentieth century.

The Bolshevik takeover of the Russian Empire's capital and quickly the entire country was startling and surprising not just to the Provisional Government but to the entire world.

Russia's leader Alexander Kerensky found himself and the entire Russian cabinet at the Winter Palace and went off to find loyal troops to put the manageable Bolshevik rebellion down.

So confident was he of success that the Russian ministers remained in the Winter Palace only to be easily captured when Kerensky could not find enough troops to nip what we now call the October Revolution in the proverbial bud.

Today, I think about my own family and how this one day really was a turning point in our destinies. It is really why I am a Canadian today.

When the Bolsheviks struck, my family was almost literally spread out over Russia.

To understand why you have to understand Russia in those days. Although the country was at war with Germany, loyalties were divided politically amongst many factions and political unity was hard to find.

Groups jostled for control and power which meant manipulating and motivating the masses. Crisis was exploited and there was no real resolve to continue the war. The war was rapidly bleeding the life out of the Provisional Government.

Three years earlier Russia had patriotically fallen into disarray as what was largely an agrarian country found itself willingly thrown into an industrial based war it was nowhere near prepared to fight.

When war broke out my ancestors witnessed the loss of their right to not be conscripted. They knew if conscripted they would likely end up as infantry cannon fodder. So they had been wisely enlisting and due to that had the right to choose to become medics and doctors.

So when war finally did break out they found themselves assigned to various military units to care for the wounded.

One family lived in far off NovoNikolaevisk (today's Novosibirsk) where as a medical officer he had received a grant of land following the siege in Port Artur and being assigned to a Cossack cavalry unit. Following the 1905 war he had remained behind in Siberia where he looked after Cossack war veterans and work as a farmer. He would be amongst the officers who rodo out with wounded Cossacks and easily out-flanked the Bolsheviks from the rear who were preparing for the Czechs. I can only imagine the horror of the Bolsheviks upon realizing that if they didn’t run the green and white flag of Siberian independence shaskas would be drawn.

He, along with his family, would perish in the Great Siberian Ice March or elsewhere in the great retreat of Admiral Alexander Kolchak's forces.

My closest family members were in the Odessa sector but later they rode off to war as doctors in a Don Cossack cavalry unit.

Others found themselves assigned to various units and even a ship in the Black Sea fleet when the Bolsheviks seized power. The majority though were farmers just north of Odessa at the Bolshevik takeover.

Tucked away in a closet, inside my home there is a sword. A true battle sword from this time. Forged in 1917 in Tula, it saw the ill fated Kerensky Offensive and the Russian Civil War. It is one of the last relics our family possesses of what had been our past.

Growing up I heard stories about the Reds seizure of power and I remember the vivid stories of actual Russian Civil War veterans and the hardship and horrors they had witnessed.

My direct ancestors found themselves in the Donbas area where my great grandfather would later join the Volunteer Army and join yet another uprising which triggered the resistance to the Bolsheviks and the tragedy of the brutal Russian Civil War.

As a child I learnt the history and heard the stories not from books but from those who had lived and witnessed it. I learnt the stories of the 4th Don Cossack Cavalry and the battles they fought against incredible odds.

I remember my grandfather telling me how when his uncle rode into a Mennonite Black Sea village the local inhabitants had wept openly that God had sent General Denikin's soldiers to save them.

I also heard about the brutal reprisals inflicted upon Nestor Mahnko's followers when they caught them. The kindest way to describe it is butchery.

I learnt about how we fought for what we had. For our place in the world. How we fought to return the Provisional Government to power. How we fought to have our say.

And I learnt about the desperate escape from Crimea and the journey to family members who had immigrated less than 20 years earlier to Saskatchewan.

Growing up I remember my older relatives yearning for home to return to Russia. To find out what happened to family members left behind in Odessa and if possible take back what was stolen from us. These weren’t nostalgic reminiscences but really councils of war. Some family members were even rumoured to have joined the NTS, the resistance movement sworn to overthrow the Communists and return freedom to the Soviet Union.

Although a footnote in history, there was a time the NTS was enemy number one for the KGB and others as the NTS infiltrated, spread propaganda and attempted to overthrow the Soviet government by any means necessary.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union I found myself back in Russia and Ukraine rediscovering my roots but also searching to see if any of my family survived the Darkness.

It was a sporadic 20 year plus journey which literally saw me on boats, planes and automobiles.

I boated the Ob River, rode the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Russia (twice), rode buses everywhere, saw the Volga, lounged on the beaches of Odessa with a beauty queen, met a real Russian governor, met more than a few members of the Russian speaking mafia, knew some opposition figures, saw the mounds where countless repression victims were executed, visited my family's ancestral homes, helped save a couple of lives and witnessed the outbreak of the Donbas War over 11 days I was there in June 2014. It has been quite the adventure.

In the end I learned the horrible truths about what was the real Soviet Union. I learned about the repressions, the executions, the famines, the camps and the exiles. In the end I learned about the deaths of 63 members of my family. None of them survived the Darkness.

The numbers sound alarming but against the estimates of 30-50 million that Stalin would ultimately kill, they are minuscule.

But in my quest to discover and reconcile my past I saw my views moderating. I learned something that for me helps explain the horrors set off by Lenin and his cohorts a century ago today.

And that is that anytime society ascribes too resolutely to any "ism" we run the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past. When we heed to absolutes and the far side of any political philosophy we are no longer democrats but extremists. And we become, most predictably, intolerant.

The Twentieth Century has seen the senseless slaughter of hundreds of millions of innocent lives based upon ideology.

My opinion of today's Communists has changed. We don't have to make them illegal like Ukraine has done but we can beat them at the ballot box we can beat them with the truth. For if we suppress them like they did to us are we really any better than they are?

Perhaps we need to remember what democracy is supposed to be about. Its suppose to be about everyone thinking what they choose to think. It’s has nothing to do with slanted voices screaming out in a thinly veiled ethnic revenge. Sadly though it’s so much of what’s still occurring 100 years later. I call it a schizophrenic response to the past by those so driven by revenge they could have countless PhDs but in reality they have simply closed their minds.

Sadly though, with the victims of The Darkness and events now so distant it seems far too many have forgot the true lessons of the past. And as a result we are destined to repeat them.

God help us all if we ever do