History is a tricky thing. We’re supposed to recall and remember what happened in the past so we can learn from it. In our individual lives, history is a valued tutor, teaching us in a rear view mirror how to do better in the future.
Learning from history can take many forms. My father used to tell me, “Learn from the mistakes of others because you’ll never live long enough to make them all yourself.” That’s good advice, although there are also good things in our past we can learn from. For example, I learned long ago that I like chocolate chip cookies, and I’ve done my best to repeat that habit as often as possible.
Of course, we tend to forget what happened before, whether it was minutes ago—how often have you touched a hot plate in a restaurant right after the server warned you of its searing heat—or years ago. I don’t know why we forget important information, except that we believe we’re smarter than people who made mistakes in the past.
But Russia is a different story. I’m interested in the history of this gigantic and immensely significant country for one simple reason: my grandfather was born there.
To be clear, my grandfather, Henry Wiebe, was not Russian, but German. His ancestors were lured by Catherine the Great, a ruler of German descent, to a farming region near the Black Sea in the latter part of the 18th century. Although they were immersed in Russia geographically and politically, my ancestors kept their German customs, language and spiritual convictions, specifically the Mennonite religious culture.
Henry was born in 1894, the fourth oldest of nine children. His father—my great grandfather—passed away when Henry was eight years old, and Henry’s mother died two years later, which led to Henry and his siblings being farmed out to other families. By the summer of 1910 the Russian aristocracy was feeling the pressures of political unrest that would erupt 15 years later in the Russian Revolution. Henry and his older brother Jacob, concerned about the political restlessness and their future in Russia, decided to leave their homeland and emigrate to Canada, where their oldest brother Peter and his wife had settled in 1903.
Henry and Jacob, 16 and 18 years old respectively, made the long train ride to the northern Polish port of Libau (in current-day Latvia), where they were held because an infectious eye disease. After seven months of quarantine, they took a ship to Hull, England, and from there traveled to Liverpool, where they were quarantined again. Finally, after two months they were allowed to board the S.S. Dominion for Quebec and eventually ended up in Saskatchewan.
Life turned out okay for the Henry Wiebe family in Canada. My grandfather met and married Anna Schultz, and together they raised eight children, including my mother. Grandpa taught school and pastored a number of Mennonite churches in Canada and the U.S. Their children all became or married people of letters and the arts—pastors, teachers, musicians and poets.
However, for my grandfather’s six brothers and sisters, those who stayed in Russia and experienced the horrific effects of the Russian Revolution, life was anything but okay. They bore the full weight and cruelty of Communism, which NBC curiously characterized as “one of modern history’s pivotal experiments” on the opening day’s broadcast.
Indeed, that “pivotal experiment” caused the deaths of tens of millions of Russian citizens, including many of my German ancestors, most of whom suffered and died in the infamous forced labor camps of the Soviet Gulag.
The horror of Soviet Communism is not all there is to Russian history, but it is substantial and it is recent. The Berlin Wall was brought down a mere 25 years ago, leading to the independence of 15 countries formerly meshed together like cogs in the Soviet machine. Some of those countries are currently caught in the ongoing tension between the European Union and the old Soviet mindset, including before our very eyes, Ukraine. And it’s just possible that Vladimir Putin, the all-powerful president of Russia, is pressing the leaders of some of these struggling regimes to once again come under the firm and oil-rich embrace of Mother Russia.
Is history repeating itself, perhaps before our very eyes as the Winter Olympics winds down and the rebellion in Ukraine heats up? I don’t know. I’m not even close to being qualified to answer that question. But I have the perspective of history, some of which I carry in my blood, and it’s more than a little unsettling.
I’ll probably watch the closing ceremonies in Sochi like the rest of the world, and I’ll likely see Putin with his tight lips and steel gaze, confidently wave to the crowd. And I’ll wonder if he feels triumphant because he successfully pulled of an international event without incident, or because even now his plan to repeat history is starting to take shape.