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Authors: Sandra Birdsell

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The Russlander

BOOK: The Russlander
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The Russländer

“Masterful. … She weaves historical fact and domestic detail into a meticulous portrait of a tightly knit community driven to the brink of existence. … It's impossible not to see Katya and her family in the faces of the fleeing refugees as world events once again sweep innocent people into a maelstrom.”

Ottawa Citizen

“Compelling. … We think not so much of the story as the process of memory and reflection, the ability of language to convey a remembered reality.”

Toronto Star

“Birdsell has reached deep for her story, and that of countless immigrants to a new land, and come up with treasure as precious as that silver, two-handled cup that serves as a totem throughout this novel about remembrance and redemption.”

Hamilton Spectator


Edmonton Journal

“An important book. … It shows how easily we can destroy our world, but also that we have the ability to rebuild it.”

Globe and Mail

“I think it's both beautiful and brave, and very, very moving.”

– Ann Jansen, CBC Radio

“[Birdsell] documents in chilling, unsentimental prose man's unspeakable capacity for cruelty towards his fellow man. … As relevant as today's headlines.”



The Missing Child
The Chrome Suite
The Russländer

Night Travellers
(1982) and
Ladies of the House
reissued in one volume entitled
Agassiz Stories
The Two-Headed Calf

Copyright © 2001 by Sandra Birdsell

Cloth edition published 2001
First Emblem Editions publication 2002

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.

National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Birdsell, Sandra, 1942-
The Russländer / Sandra Birdsell.

eISBN: 978-1-55199-686-8

I. Title.

8553.176R87 2002         
87 2002

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and that of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation's Ontario Book Initiative. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents either are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.


McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
The Canadian Publishers
481 University Avenue
Toronto, Ontario


For my mother,
Louise Schroeder Bartlette,
in memory of
Judy Scott


No foreign sky protected me

no stranger's wing shielded my face

I stand a witness to the common lot

survivor of that time, that place


November 15, 1917

Massacre at Privol'noye

Eleven people were piteously slain by bandits at the Abram Jacob Sudermann estate of Privol'noye on November 11.

The dead are:
Abram Sudermann
Aganetha Thiessen Sudermann    
Peter Vogt
Marie Schroeder Vogt
Margareta Vogt
Gerhard Vogt
Johann Vogt
Peter Vogt
Daniel Vogt
Mary Wiebe
Martha Wiebe

Ältester Wiebe (no relation to the Wiebe sisters) brought news of the massacre to Nikolaifeld church members on November 13. Kornelius Isaac Heinrichs of Arbusovka happened upon the murders late in the day of November 11. All who were slain were found outside on the yard, with the exception of the young Gerhard Vogt, who was found slain on a field near a haystack, where it is believed the bandits caught up with him as he attempted to escape. The victims had either been shot, or had had their throats cut. Abram Sudermann's head had been severed, and lay some distance from his body. Kornelius Heinrichs heard a noise coming from inside the house and looked through a window where he saw a baby crawling around on the floor amid broken glass, its night-clothes bloodied. There are three other survivors who managed to hide, and escaped with their lives.


And they shall say, This land that was

desolate is become like the garden of Eden …

–EZEKIEL 36:35

he would always remember the awe, the swelling in her breastbone when she'd first seen her name written, Lydia guiding her hand across a slate. When she had learned to make her name she began to put herself forward, traced K.V. in lemon polish on a chair back, through frost on a window, icing on a cookie. K.V. Which meant: Me, I. Which was: Her. A high-minded child, body small for her age, and so alive. She had come to realize that she'd been small from the size of her own children and grandchildren. She'd been a tiny yeasty and doughy person going to and fro with a huff and a puff, as though the day was all she had, and at the same time, thinking the day would go on for good. As though she were living in eternity.

More than likely she had been born near-sighted, and her nest of yellow hair grew long and wispy, too fine for anything but a single plait that her mother intertwined with spun wool so the braid would not curl like a pig's tail and expose the nape of her neck to the chill of a witch's kiss. Being near-sighted was not a hindrance. She learned this from early on, through inference and the attitudes of people
around her. What went on beyond the borders of her Russian Mennonite oasis was not worth noticing.

Because she was born female she could expect to dwell safely within the circumference of her privileged world. Her time would be consumed by the close-up busyness of a girl learning to be like the virtuous woman of Proverbs, by the work of becoming a ruby. Young girl busyness, such as noticing that the sun had overheated the classroom in which she sat, a corner room of the east wing of the Big House. Potted geraniums on the sills had begun to exude their distinct odour, and a Swiss clock hanging on a wall between two windows ticked unobtrusively. She was Katherine Vogt, the second-born daughter of the overseer of the Abram Sudermann estate, Privol'noye. Daughter of Peter Vogt and Marie Schroeder Vogt; Katya, her parents called her, the diminutive an expression of their affection.

While Abram Sudermann and his brothers Isaac, Jakob and David held their annual business meeting in an office at the front of the Big House, Katya supposed that her father, Peter, was impatient for their meeting to end and for his anticipated visit with David Sudermann to begin. She didn't know that her father's anticipation was for more than a visit, that he waited to hear whether or not the brothers had decided to fulfill his longed-for dream to farm his own land. She didn't know that the outcome of their meeting would set her father planning a future that wouldn't come to pass. But this was not the only story about to be interrupted. She was seated with children at a table in the classroom, studying a blank sheet of paper her tutor had given her and rehearsing silently what she was expected to recite at a Christmas Tree program that evening.
Ihr Kinderlein kommet, o come one and all, to Bethlehem haste to the manger so small

“Dear children, listen to me,” their tutor, the spinster Helena Sudermann, said. Her voice rose effortlessly above the give and take
of the children's conversation that had turned sleepy-sounding in the heat of the sun.

BOOK: The Russlander
9.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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