Review– Death of a Past Life
By Robert N. Reincke
©2008, Robert N. Reincke,
Published by Spunky Books, West Hollywood, CA. 484 pp.
Reviewed by John Dougherty
The history of Russia in the first half of the twentieth century is marked by so much turmoil and upheaval that it seems to speak of another world. Having grown up in the relatively peaceful milieu of middle-class America in the last decades of the twentieth century, I find it difficult to imagine a life that knew revolution, world war, another revolution, civil war, domestic political terror, another world war, and exile to an alien land. I continue to be fascinated with, and drawn to, the questions of how such events come to be, and how ordinary people manage to carry on in such circumstances. I was happy to find in Robert Reincke’s book, Death of a Past Life, some insight into this last question. This book traces the lives of the author’s grandmother and mother, from the end of Russia’s “belle époque,” to their escape from the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
Another book I reviewed on this site—Former People, by Douglas Smith—illustrates the fate of those people who were members of the nobility under the rule of the Tsars; the very class against which the October Revolution was ostensibly fought, and the class that the Communist Party was determined to eliminate. Death of a Past Life gives insight into the fate of another social class in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution: the emergent middle-class of non-noble, educated professionals. This point of view interests me especially in that it highlights a paradox that Communist Party ideologues faced in their efforts to create a “classless” society. Members of this class were identified as “bourgeois,” or “petty bourgeois,” and thus the embodiment of capitalist values, which were anathema to the regime, but at the same time, the Soviet Union desperately needed the knowledge and skills of these people in its efforts to modernize and industrialize the Soviet Union.
This story begins in 1911, with events in the life of five year-old Nina Siewert, daughter of Leonid and Josephine (nee Krümmel). Nina’s life seems fairly comfortable: an extended family of successful and wealthy entrepreneurs and professionals, apartments in St. Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo (a suburb noted for the presence of one of the Tsar’s residences), and summers spent at the family dacha. Things get a little shaky in Nina’s world when war with Germany starts in 1914, but three years later things fall apart when the Tsar abdicates, the Bolsheviks seize the power of the state, and civil war ensues. From here we see young Nina coming of age in an era of political, economic and social chaos. Her parents are dispossessed, they move away from the city, and eventually her mother and father separate, with Josephine immigrating to Germany, where she has family. This German connection provides another curious twist. The Krümmel’s and the Siewerts are hyphenated Russians—born and bred in Russia, but with some German ancestry. This was quite common in Moscow and St. Petersburg as the Tsars had, since at least the time of Peter the Great, actively recruited and encouraged educated Europeans, especially Germans, to settle in Russia, and help in her fitful efforts to catch up with the rapidly industrializing West. Karl Krümmel, Nina’s grandfather, had in fact started one of Russia’s first automobile manufacturing operations in St. Petersburg before the revolution. This, like many other nascent industries, collapsed after 1917.
Between the world wars we see Nina adapting quite well in a society that was itself trying to adapt to new, post-revolutionary realities. She moves back to Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was renamed in 1924), finds a career, meets and marries Nicholas Katchalin, and in 1938 has a daughter, Anna.
Anna is born into a world about to explode yet again. Within just a few years the Germans will invade her homeland, and lay siege to the city that is her home. The siege of Leningrad lasted more than two years and was brutal for those trapped by it; continual bombing by the Germans and starvation were daily concerns. When at last a way is opened to escape, Leonid, Nina and Anna head south to the Caucuses region, where Leonid’s family were still living.
The war with Germany is not yet over, and the family follows Hitler’s retreating forces to flea the Soviet Union. Making their way to Berlin, they connect with Nina’s mother Josephine. But fearing the retribution of the Soviet regime, they are forced to leave Berlin, too, toward which the Red Army is rapidly advancing.
The story concludes with their ultimate escape from the Soviets, and eventual settlement in the United States—in Michigan. A family there that belongs to a Methodist church in which an acquaintance of Nick’s is active sponsors their emigration.
This edition of the book has a few proofreading oversights: for example, a “he” where a “the” should be, and the sentence, “After servings of tea and lunch, the visitors, determined to make their way to Tsarskoe Selo, begins to gather their assortment of packages.” But these rare snags do not take away from the affect of the book, which is to make these events, and the people who lived them, very real. The perspectives of the main characters sound true in their focus on what is important to them, without, as some stories do, trying to give them awareness of, and responsibility for, the broad scope of historic events in which they operate. This is especially true of Nina and Anna as children. While World War One is raging and Russian society and government is collapsing, Nina is focused on a bird that was unfairly taken from her by her cousin, and on her grandfather’s walking stick, which she identifies with her salvation from “drowning” at the dacha. During the siege of Leningrad, as their apartment building is being regularly shelled and they are slowly starving, Anna is mostly concerned about her doll and the family’s cat.
There are two things I feel this tale is missing, though: first, some more background, especially regarding the families; for example, a more detailed account of how and when the Krümmel’s first came to Russia from Germany would be good; and second, some mention, however brief, of the fates of Nina, Nicholas and Anna in Michigan (though perhaps this is to make room for a sequel). But the story works by making some of the most traumatic episodes of the 20th century more accessible by reminding the reader that as intriguing as the political, social and military machinations were, the importance of these events lay in their impact on people, families and communities. Death of a Past Life makes ordinary people bigger than the extraordinary events happening around them, and that is, to my mind, as it should be.
©2015, John Dougherty, All rights reserved.