If there is a soundtrack to traveling the Trans-Siberian railroad it must surely include Ravel’s ‘Bolero’. Its relentless minor key motif captures something of an exhausting traverse; the hypnotic percussion striving against featureless steppes and forests, and just so, the sturdy settlements buttressed against weather and loneliness.
Our family, intrigued as we are by epic rail journeys, once dreamed of such a trip from Moscow to Vladivostok: to Yekaterinburg on the boundary of Asia where the Romanovs were snuffed out; to Omsk, home of Dostoyevsky; past the rivers and birches of Krasnoyarsk; to Lake Baikal, deepest fresh water on the planet, and beyond, to Russia’s Far East. Here and there we heard of others who rode the rails, surviving the meals of turnips and sausage, the monotony, the stoic passengers glaring out frosted windows, and vodka among slim comforts. We were certain, though, that given a two-week supply of peanut butter we might survive the trials while taking in the sweep and scale of a continent. But at a time when communications were sketchy, arrangements fell short, and the Trans-Siberian had to be abandoned to imagination, to another life.
The epic railroad burst back into view, however, when our colleagues, Henry and Bettie Bergen, came to tea one Kalahari afternoon. The side street outside and neighborhood clatter fell away to a hush as Henry began to tell the saga of his family. They had once lived in south Russia, he said, attracted generations earlier by a tsarina’s promise of land and shelter. But promises came to an end as once-prosperous villages shook with the Bolshevik Revolution, the civil war and famine that followed.
The hardships of Stalinism turned to calamity one day in 1938 when the KGB descended on Henry’s home village. They arrested his father and vanished leaving behind a terrified family. When he failed to return, they were haunted by the thought that a loved one might yet be alive, perhaps out east in the gulag, the notorious prison camps of the time. Whispered inquiries yielded some hope though, even a location in Siberia where, it was rumored, Henry’s father might be confined.
This set in motion a long-shot journey on the Trans-Siberian. Henry’s mother, Susanna, gathered a basket of her husband’s clothing together with food that might sustain and encourage him. Desperate in prayer, she, who had never before ridden a train, crept aboard the eastbound departure dreading the worst, riding into the unknown, the forbidding backcountry. She descended from the train at the suggested city and, not wanting to attract attention, approached a group of children for directions to the prison. To her surprise they led her to a house ‘where other ladies go in search of their husbands.’ She found the mistress of the house hanging laundry and explained the purpose of her journey. The kindly woman informed Susanna that her spouse was a prison warder who might be able to confirm her husband’s presence. Then came the reply that Henry’s father was, indeed, an inmate of that facility. Wild with joy at this answer to her prayers, Susanna went to the prison clutching the love basket, only to learn that she would not be permitted to see her loved one. The basket of remembrances, however, would be passed on to him.
Without news of his condition or any message from him, she returned to the train and the bleak ride home with this wisp of consolation: that he would know he had been remembered, that he was missed terribly, and that they would wait in hope for him. But the course of WWII eventually swept Henry and his family west to Europe and finally to Canada, leaving them with this question: whatever became of their loved one who had disappeared without trace into Russia’s interior? Henry paused at this point, overcome with emotion, wondering aloud if his aged father might yet be alive somewhere beyond their reach.
There is a poignant coda to this story.* In the 1990s, the Ukrainian government opened its archives to those who might be searching for traces of lost loved ones. The family received a scrap of detail from the records that Henry’s father might have been shot and killed days after arrest. Susanna, however, dismissed this news as more official lies of the time. In either case, the family is left with the memory of a loved one lost somewhere to an unknown story, lying in an unmarked grave.
And that makes them kin to families around the globe who mourn their ‘disappeared’ despite fruitless searching. Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ would evoke for them the traverse, not only across continental steppes, rivers and forests, but across a flatland of loss and grief.
*I am indebted to the Bergen family still living in Canada for added details of this generational drama. Before his death in 2021, Henry gathered other families of the disappeared to preserve memory of the heroic deeds of that generation. His own accounts he entrusted to several books, including ‘Four Years Less A Day’.