“Be tender with her history,” the phrase rings in my ears on our final days of an extraordinary film shoot penetrating the Russian heart of the Ural Mountains, a part of the world cut off from the west for most of the last century. Over the last ten days, my Russian cousin Lena has emerged as the voice of my conscience, as I probe the tightly held secrets of my mother: a Nazi POW and one of millions forced into slavery for Hitler during the Second World War.
On the banks of River Chusovoya, which defined the purest, innocent days of my mother’s childhood in Stalinist Russia, I am profoundly uneasy with the task I have set myself: to piece together the mystery of a past that defined her as much as the magnificent river meandering beneath me.
And yet, I feel powerless to close Pandora’s Box. And rather obsessed to get the scenes I need to tell a story that has laid dormant for more than half a century.
Days earlier in Moscow, before flying to Perm, I appeared on “RT”, the second largest television network in the world. As disingenuous as it seems, in front of potential audience of 25 million viewers of Russia Today, I grappled with an intimate debate with myself. Is there an expiry date on secrets taken to the grave?
Even before I boarded the plane to come to Russia, CBC Radio, posed the most troubling question of all: how could I defy my mother’s last wish to take her secrets to the grave?
The question of my own moral quandary continued to dog me when I returned home to Canada three weeks later, becoming the subtext for a two-page spread in the Calgary Herald last weekend.
But from some quarters, the response was biting.
My mother, Agnes Spicer, always feared going back to Russia, when she lived in Netherhill, Saskatchewan, even after the Soviet Union dissolved and long after Stalin was dead and buried. In particular, she worried how her sister, Nela’s husband, Kostantin, a highly decorated war hero, would judge her.
My mom, the POW branded as a traitor by Stalin, along with 2 million other Red Army soldiers who’d been captured by the Nazis during the War. Kostantin Arhipov: War Hero. Defender of the Motherland. Patriot fighter who lost his leg to a Nazi land mine during the 900-day siege of Leningrad.
In the end, my mother’s fears were completely unfounded.“Kostya” (the affectionate form of Konstantin) embraced her warmly, and, in fact, became her confidante, for hours of private conversation out on the balcony as the rest of us slept during those magical 21 days in Chusovoy in 1992, not even a full year after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
He described to her how he’d used his own army knife on the battlefield outside Leningrad to dig out white larvae that grew in the open, festering leg wound, ripe with gangrene. What my mother told him in return, only the walls of the balcony, will ever know, I fear. But perhaps, an anecdote, a detail still remains in tact in the memory banks of my octogenarian aunt.
My 89-year old Aunt Nela is my best chance for a first person glimpse into those war years that splintered the family forever. I have waited twenty years for the chance to ask her directly. My heart is beating hard. When the moment finally comes, she stops me in my tracks with a single, searing question: “Did you ever think why your mother never wanted you to know?”
It was as though the ghost of my mother was speaking to me directly, through the eyes and words of her sole surviving sibling.
“Just exactly what kind of a film are you making?” she asks, and then, a coup de grâce:
“I am sure, she would not approve.”