My Russian mother’s words come back to me from the grave as I board Aeroflot Flight Number 115 from Toronto to Moscow. We are about to begin shooting the first scenes of a feature length documentary by interviewing my 89 year old aunt who lives on the edge of Siberia.
To tell my mother’s story, well, it is a childhood fantasy. As a daughter, it is also profoundly unsettling, even as I write this from Seat number 15C, approaching the Motherland at 700 kilometers an hour.
The Russian version of the trailer for “The Traitor’s Daughter” (дочь предателя родины) has created a buzz in Moscow. Practically overnight, the Cyrillic Facebook Page gets more than 1,000 views and dozens of comments from hip young Russians hooked on social media and intrigued by an international detective story. Some refer to the experience of their own parents or grandparents who survived The Great Patriotic War, as it is still called in Russia. They say, I am brave. I don’t feel so. (Look at these guys in the photograph below. That’s courage.)
Others question the moral right of a daughter to violate the gravesite wish of her own mother to remain silent about her war-time experiences at the hands of the Nazis.
That is at the heart of this international sleuthing story that has haunted me since childhood in the village of Netherhill, Saskatchewan.
At Pearson airport, CBC Radio (Mainstreet Halifax) catches up with me just before I board, posing the same question, and I stumble to come up with the tidy answer. But it eludes me.
In a few hours, Russia Today will send a car to pick me up to interview me for their prime time TV show. (They are the first television network to get 1 billion views on You-Tube. Watch for the link to this interview.)
I wonder if I will be able to resolve the moral quandary of the journalist versus the daughter before the questions begin?
On Saturday morning, two hours flight to the east of Russia’s capital, we will fly on to Perm, and then, board a bus to travel an additional three hours north through the Ural Mountains where I will find myself once again in the embrace of my last remaining link to my mother.
My beloved Aunt Nela still lives in Chusovoy, the same town where she and my mother were born at the beginning of the heady days of the new Socialist Paradise that was the Soviet Union. 1922.
Only five years earlier, in 1917, the grandest social experiment in history began behind the Red Curtain. Communism. In Stalin’s world, my mother, Agnes Spicer, was a traitor because she’d ‘allowed’ herself to be captured by the Fascist Third Reich.
Stalin’s declaration meant she could never safely return home after the War. It cost her, her family, language, culture, and, to some extent, her very identity. But, half a century later, “Russia” was still in her blood.
Ah, Siberian dumplings! The taste of pelmeni, swimming in hot butter and sour cream. It is the taste of childhood, family, bonds, and Mother Russia. We used to gobble them up in Netherhill, two or three dozen at a time, calling them “Russian Dish”. At Christmas, while the farm kids were having turkey, we gorged on these meat filled treasures. And in an echo of the ritual preparation that takes hours in the kitchen, I hope my cameraman and I will be able to discreetly catch the shards of memory of this 89- year old witness to a lost era of Soviet glory.
My uncle Kostya was the only one my mother really confided in, when she undertook her first trip back to Russia, the year after the Soviet Union dissolved.
While everyone slept, the two old Red Army Soldiers, one a hero, the other, a traitor, would disappear onto the balcony and tell each other, their secrets from the Front.
As I return to the edge of Siberia to interview the last witness to this chapter of my mother’s story, will my aunt break her fifty year silence? Or have her memories already been lost to the passage of time? The next 14 days will test me in ways I can not yet imagine.