The Russlander, Sandra Birdsell's third novel, was a finalist for the 2001 Giller Prize. In 1989, her novel The Missing Child won the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her short stories have been widely published and her most recent collection The Two-Headed Calf appeared in 1997.
In The Russlander, Birdsell delves deeply into her Mennonite heritage. I was very interested to read this historical novel about the exodus of Mennonites from Russia to Canada, at the time of the First World War, as I was looking for confirmation of what I had learned about this religious community through my husband, who is of Mennonite background.
Certainly the author's research proved to be very accurate. Birdsell explains in the Acknowledgments that she based her book on her late great-uncle Gerhard P. Schroeder's memoirs and journals, and James Urry's None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789-1889. Her research took her to the Mennonite Heritage Centre and Archives in Winnipeg, and she travelled to ancestral sites.
In The Russlander, which means someone from Russia in German, Birdsell dramatizes the events that changed forever the idyllic life of the Mennonites before the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution. The Sudermanns and the Vogts are families who live under the protection of the ruling tsar, free to worship and speak their native language in Mennonite towns and villages on the Russian steppe.
The structure of the novel is ostensibly based on the main character Katherine (Katya) Vogt telling her story to a young stranger who records it for the Archives. She is near a hundred years old and resides in a nursing home in Winnipeg. Since the novel is not in Katya's voice, the reader forgets this shaky frame and is lost in the epic scope, transported back in time and into the community where men and women live according to biblical values, and regard each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
As a Mennonite girl, Katya is portrayed as quiet and reflective. Birdsell captures her early mysticism as she responds to the beauty of the Russian landscape, and lives by the love that binds her securely to her father, mother, sisters and brother.
Birdsell is successful in evoking the peaceable life of this community of farmers. When the war strikes, the men do not become soldiers since they are pacifists but leave their families to join organizations like the Red Cross.
The societal tensions are skillfully developed as the political changes affect and threaten the rituals of Mennonite daily lives, beginning with the denial of freedom to speak their language in public, culminating in the fateful day of the massacre on November 11, 1917. Anarchists overtake the Sudermann estate and fifteen year old Katya hides in a hole in the ground while her father and mother, and most of her family, are brutally murdered. Devastated, "far away", Katya then goes to live with her grandparents in the village of Rosenthal.
Since the story is told as a recollection, interspersed with various letters from friends and family, time is not chronological. We know halfway through the book that Katya is no longer one of the faithful as she reflects in the nursing home that she had learned that "life was a series of accidents", she is a "survivor", rather than part of a divine plan. Words for Katya are inadequate to communicate the horror she, and the other ancient Russian women surrounding her, had endured in their homeland:
Just as their recipes had lacked concise instructions and measures, their Plautdietsch language lacked the necessary words to give the shape to the colours, describe the nuances, the interior shadows of their stories. Perhaps they would have been better off trying to sing them, a hymn with stanzas and a rousing chorus to inflame the heart with a desire to be better at things. Better at loving, at being, or at least, better at doing. In their time, the road to eternity had been crowded with everyday things, chickens, children and men that required constant tending, the earth in the garden crying out to be subdued, and so they were used to singing hymns to remind them that heaven was their ultimate goal, and joy was the best vehicle to get them from here to there.
How do human beings cope with such terror, such losses? How did Katya Vogt and the others in her village do so? Reading The Russlander opens the reader's mind to these questions and affirms the resilience of the human spirit.
The story's meditative, slow pace is interrupted by powerful graphic scenes such as the one when Katya is rescued from her hiding place after the massacre, by Kornelius, a man who plays a pivotal role in her life:
Bull-Headed Henrichs ducked as he came out of the door of her grandparents' house, as though he thought himself tall and not a middle-sized man, whose broad hands were freckled, his knuckles scuffed and enlarged. It was his long face, bristly with gold whiskers, that had presented itself to Katya as the slatted covering of their hole in the greenhouse was lifted. She remembered how the insides of her thighs had stung as her bladder emptied with relief to be looking in the eyes of a Mennonite face.
He will be the man she marries and with whom she emigrates to Canada, one couple among thousands of others from this religious community which is still active in Canada today.
The Russlander seems particularly timely as we have been sensitized as a nation to the devastation of terrorism and hatred so close to home since the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States. ò