On Small and Big History, Reflections from a Sleepless Night by Yuliya Yurchuk

The third sleepless night. I badly want to check on my father, but what if he is peacefully sleeping and I will just rob him of this ultimate joy – sleep? I am taking notes instead.

Yesterday night, last time I spoke with my father, it was totally dark on my telephone’s screen. He could see me on the camera but I could hardly see his contours. It should be dark everywhere inside when it is dark outside. In this way, the planes will not realize that there are inhabited houses below them and hopefully won’t send their missiles on you. You see, such are the rules of the game. So, we spoke in total darkness. Yet, my anxiety was rocketing: what if even this little light from his camera with my face on will give a signal for the plane? So, we did not speak much.

After our short talk I went to bed, squeezing my cat. Poor thing thought probably that she will die in my hugs, but she somehow understood that I needed her and she tolerated my hugs.

Then I thought. My father. 76 years old.  Born exactly a year after WWII ended. Raised with two sisters by my grandmother. Strong woman. The Stalinist regime sent my grandfather (father’s father, farfar, as they say in Sweden) to GULAG. No, my grandfather was not a criminal, but my grandma’s brother was active in the anti-Soviet activities and it was enough to send my grandfather to gulag convicting him as a criminal (the grandma’s brother was killed so he escaped the gulag).

When my grandfather came home from gulag he was never the same. So my grandma said and so my father says. My grandfather’s health was so poor after all those gulag years that he did not live long and died when my father was nine (which is exactly the age of my daughter now).

My father did well, he was always the best at school (that smart is my father). He managed to build a decent life with a strong beautiful woman (my mother) and two wonderful children (me and my brother).

So, now, back to 2022, my father is spending half of the day in the cellar of our family house because when the signal comes all the people must hide in the safe places. I do hope that he always follows the rules. He promises me he does.

During my sleepless night, I remember 2001. My first time coming to “the West” (Berlin) and not getting exactly why everyone was so fascinated by all things Soviet? Not exactly the same kind of knowledge about the Soviet that I’ve inherited from my grandmother (with grandpa in gulag, you still follow?).

Being a smart girl (my father’s daughter), I quickly realized that it was just the rules of the game. If you want to belong to their sandbox you had to love certain stuff, and I never belonged to that sandbox of cool kids. On the other hand, though, I have never liked playing with sand. It was OK for me not to belong. I found my own gang anyway.

Tymothy Snyder called our lands ‘bloodlands’ because they suffered from both Nazi and Soviet regimes the most. Now my country is the epicenter of those blood lands again. Ironically, just a day before the war started I was grading essays of my students on Snyder’s book Bloodlands and the (im)possibility of comparison between two regimes. You see, even though I did not like all things Soviet, like those kids in the sandbox, I did become interested in the history of the Soviet Union. It can teach us a lot. You just need to want to listen to its stories.

When I went to school, we were not taught that WWII started in 1939, we were always told it was 1941. I remember the dissonance I felt when I could not put the numbers together when my grandma was telling me stories about the Germans that came and the Soviets that came. I could not get how to relate her stories to the grandeur around the WWII (Great Patriotic War it was called) on the TV and during Victory celebrations.

Now I understand perfectly well what power the stories have over people. What will the students read about this war? I feel outrage when I see what kind of “news” Russians are fed with by their regime-controlled media. This is the same way we learned history in the Soviet times without even knowing about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

I am sitting in my sleepless night and think: is it the past that never became a past or is it the future disguised as the past that my father must hide from in this cellar? My mindfulness app says there is no past, and there is no future, there is only now.

And what is now? I remember what my father said when I asked how he was doing. “Getting ready for victory!” he said.

Stockholm, 27 February 2022

(Yuliya Yurchuk is a historian, teaching at Umeå University, Sweden)