The American Scholar

My Family’s Siberian Exile

FOR MOST OF US, Siberia looms as vast and empty in our imagination as it does on the map, but for me, that emptiness has always carried a hint of longing for a past barely remembered. I come from a family of ethnic Ukrainians who numbered among the six million people whom Stalin forcibly relocated to “special settlements,” less restrictive versions of gulag labor camps, in remote reaches of the Soviet Union. My mother, an exile from birth, grew up in Siberia, and it was from there, after my grandparents divorced and my grandfather returned to Ukraine, that she and my grandmother emigrated to Cleveland, where I grew up.

My mother quickly scrubbed away any trace of her heritage, but my grandmother held fast to Ukrainian traditions. The church was the center of her spiritual and social world. Her grasp of English stayed shaky because the women she worked with at a machine factory on the city’s west side had also come from Eastern Europe. She was a constant presence in my childhood and never failed to bring pierogies, stuffed cabbage, or other pungent hallmarks of Ukrainian cuisine when she came by. Only when I got older did we grow close. I discovered that she was a gifted storyteller with a good sense of humor. I admired her work ethic and how much more she cared about people than material things. In college, inspired by the prospect of speaking to her in her native language, I started to learn Ukrainian, and before long, I was traveling to the places that formed the backdrop of her early life.

I spoke to my grandmother extensively about her experiences in exile, slipping a recorder on the table between our mugs of tea. She had been deported from a village near Lviv, Ukraine, at 22, a newlywed with a child by her first husband, who had died during the war. By the time she left Siberia, she had spent almost half of her life there, working in coal mines. When my grandmother died in 2013, at age 88, I worried that a defining chapter of our family’s history was in danger of being forgotten. I envisioned the future whittling her life down to myth: Once upon a time, there was an ancestor of ours who lived in Siberia …

At 31, I was old enough to grasp that my grandmother’s death was not an aberration in the order of things but its true order. I wanted to create a story of her life that would resist oblivion. Although I trusted the essence of her recollections, I knew that time had blurred and distorted her memory. I started searching for information to complement my grandmother’s accounts. But barely anything, in English or Ukrainian, turned up about the circumstances of her exile. I

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