Time seems to stand still in this place straddling the European and Asian borders of Russia. Lenin has been stripped of his pedestals in the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. But five hours to the east, ‘He’ remains a sentinel to an industrial city calcified between its Soviet past and an uncertain future: Chusovoy, my mother’s birthplace.
“We called him Father,” my Aunt Nela whispers to Olga, my young translator, as we make pelmeni, the traditional ‘Siberian dumpling’ around the kitchen table of her apartment, And then, she quickly adds, “Don’t translate that!”
My mother was a little less reverential about Father Lenin.
“You couldn’t take a shit without him staring at you!” she declared. And then, we laughed our heads off. But, in Russia, a comment about Lenin like that, would have landed her in prison. The Socialist Paradise didn’t have a sense of humour when it came to its deities.
To this day, no one in the family knows why my grandmother Clavdia, was declared an Enemy of the People, and imprisoned in the notorious gulags. She died at the age of 47.
It took more than half a century, before Mom let down her guard and began to talk more freely about her life in Russia as a young woman. By then, the next generation of Spicer’s began asking questions too. My nephew Eric and his wife, Amanda, managed to sidestep layers of family taboos that prohibited the direct question.
Or maybe, after a lifetime of secrets, by the time she turned 84, my mother just decided, what the hell.
As you read this, I am returning to the birthplace of my mother, to the city of Chusovoy, perched on the edge of Siberia and the heart of the Ural Mountains, for the first time with a TV crew to begin filming an epic detective story (..thanks to a successful crowd sourcing initiative that raised almost $20,000 from supporters of The Traitor’s Daughter). My grandmother’s house still stands, offering vivid location detail for the film.
My mother’s journey into the Heart of Darkness, the epicenter of Nazi Germany, during World War Two started here: on the very railway platform I stood, recording her reunion with her sister half a century later. She left her home, a teenage bride, unaware she would never see her mother again or that it would be fifty years before she would breathe the air of the Ural Mountains again.
Now, my Aunt Nela, 89 year old, holds the key to unlocking some of the doors into a murky past. Off-camera, in the winter of 2012, she recounted a chilling tale of an afternoon in the forest, when Nazi soldiers surrounded my mother, a Red Army soldier and her Soviet partisan compatriots, barking orders to strip their tunics, take off their boots, and put their hands in the air. Will I be able to capture this shard of memory in front of a TV camera next week when I return to the edge of Siberia, to interview the last witness to an extraordinary time? The fan base for the film is building: to date 34,000 views on this website, and in Moscow, The trailer, The Traitor’s Daughter, gets over 1,000 views in a single week with dozens of comments from young Russians:
Roxana, I understand you very well. My father, grandfather, and grandmother have all been in the army during the War, but all I know of their experience is just a few short stories, here and there. I’m looking forward to this documentary as a reminder about our relatives’ past and the War.
I feel that this story is very much like a story of my own family. My great grandmother and her little daughter, my grandmother, were taken to a German concentration camp and separated there. My great grandmother ended up in Texas, USA with her new family. My grandmother was saved from the camp, and now lives in St. Petersburg. They haven’t seen each other ever since the concentration camp – the war separated them forever. This trailer gives me shivers down the spine.