According to the account in Robert K. Massie's book, Nicholas and Alexandra, one pearl wasfound among the bone splinters and ashes after the murder and burning of the last royal family ofRussia. The family's tutor recognized it as belonging to the Czarina, the earring
she alwayswore. The horror of this family's ending is only one of many million atrocities committed forthe sake of ideology in the 20th century, yet I see it connected to my own family's history andexperience in that country around the turn of the century.
I think of three women when I read this story: Czarina Alexandra, who chose to hold fast to thepower of monarchy, to her family, and her understanding of God's will; Anna Akhmatova, thepoet who chose to stay in her country with her people through the anguishing years of therevolution and its aftermath; and my grandmother, Helena Wiebe, who lived with few choices,then chose to take her own life in an act of desperation. Because the lives of these three womenin Russia overlapped in time and circumstance, I became interested in exploring their choices inthe light of
the pearl of great price.
The story of Alexandra's pearl was the beginning inspiration of my poem
Finding the Pearl. Isay that
her hand swerves the path of our century, as she persuades the Czar to make decisionswhich allowed ruptures in government, a space for the revolution to begin and flourish. Thepoem waited unfinished for about a year, the first stanza dangling in its open space, asking thequestion,
so what? What illumination might be found here? I unexpectedly found a hinge intothe next part after I looked at Vermeer's paintings of women once again, their pearls and facesglowing.
Finding the Pearl1
They burned the body parts for days,
pouring acid on the stubborn bones, dropping
the ashes into a mine shaft. Even then,
the old tutor, weeping, found evidence,
the Czarina's pearl earring,
one of a pair she always wore.
In 1916 her hand swerves the path of our century
as she writes her letters—the Czar fires
writhes in his bed, the blood spreading undetected.
Pearl in the tutor's hand,
the nacre which hardened into layers
of death, the sky of Siberia iridescent
over the vast fields of bones.
And the fire in the pit still burns.
I think of her when I see Vermeer's women
in the daylight of their rooms, pearls gleaming
on their ears and held in their hands.
After a lifetime of painting, his brush
made their faces more luminous,
the layers of years building into
such light. Like the pearl of great price—
you sell everything to get it, the Gospel says,
then hold it loose in your hand.
Not the clutching loves of nation, child
or even God, but a beauty that gives itself away.
You walk the museum galleries gazing
at the treasures, then turn another corner
and there it is, the face you didn't know
you were looking for, open as light,
its fires and its tides.
The question remains: how do you hold the precious pearl loosely in your hand? What sort ofdevotion does not clutch, but gives itself away, like beauty?
My grandmother's life intersects with Anna and Alexandra as one of three women among themillions who dealt with difficulties and unrest in the early 20th century in Russia. She was adevoted wife and mother without any particular power or notice, yet by her action and herinability to endure, she became the very source of my existence. A bitter irony. A twist in thehistory of victims and heroes. How might I see her with Anna and Alexandra as participants inthe quest for life and love?
My father rarely spoke of his Ukrainian childhood. Once or twice during my childhood, Iremember him bringing out his Russian passport, showing us the important and strange wordswhich gave him permission to leave that country in 1909. His only reference to the Czar wasthe occasion when someone came to the village and for a few kopeks allowed viewers to seephotos of the royal couple and their fine furniture.
In 1894, the year of my father's birth, Russia was ruled from St. Petersburg by the powerful CzarAlexander III. His dominions were vast and his rule was severe. This Czar's father hademancipated the serfs, yet the peasants were still poor and taxed, and many of the socialadvances had been reversed. While the palaces and Orthodox churches were glittering with goldand icons, the peasants were taught that suffering was good.
As God wills, the Russian toldhimself.
1894 was also the year of the Czar's death, and in his place, son Nicholas, 21, and Alix, aGerman princess-newly married--became the new royal couple. Alix, a granddaughter of QueenVictoria, had much to learn in the new court as she converted from Lutheranism to Orthodoxyand the Russian way of life. In this time of mourning, she soon became a chief support andcounsel to Nicholas. After her children were born, she was also devoted to their care, willing tomiss some of the pomp and ceremony, and choosing simpler ways to live. Meanwhile, the worldwas changing.
During the last years of the 19th century, Lenin was smuggling Marxist literature into Russia andjoining with others to organize a movement. By 1905 Russia was paralyzed by a general strike,Trotsky became a leader, and Bloody Sunday occurred. Workers peacefully marching towardthe palace were shot down by the military. During World War I Alexandra became moreentrenched in guarding the monarchy and persuaded Nicholas to dismiss statesmen whoattempted to initiate a representative government. The birth of her son after four daughters onlyincreased her hope for the monarchy to continue as the will of God. This son was to be the nextheir, and when he was found to have hemophilia, her desperate tactics and faith in the wildRasputin as spiritual counselor resulted in deeper entrenchment.
My first introduction to Anna Akhmatova was in a graduate class on poets in translation. Westudied 20th century Eastern European poets, particularly, which moved me rather naturally toexplore the Russian poets of that time. The poetry of Akhmatova drew me into further study ofher life and work. She was born in 1889, daughter of a naval engineer, and was raised in theCzar's village outside of St. Petersburg called Tsarskoye Selo. She began writing poems at ageten, after a serious illness. The innocent world of her childhood ended suddenly in 1905 whenshe learned of the destruction of the entire Russian fleet by the Japanese. It was a shock whichlasted her lifetime, she said,
this senseless act. That year her parents separated, money becamescarce, and Bloody Sunday occurred. Anna, however, continued to write poetry, and in 1914 shepublished her first collection of poetry, a book of love poems. After her marriage to NikolayGumilyov, she and he became part of a new school of poets called Acmeists, a reaction toFrench Symbolism. Acmeists demanded a return to earth, a deeper understanding of Europeanculture, and a
conviction that God can be found through the here and now on earth, that life is ablessing to be lived. While these theories would be severely tested, her lifetime of writingremained connected to her real-life experience and to the basics of this movement.
Akhmatova's biographer, Amanda Haight, writes that
early she found her necessity to be apassive instrument dependent on the grace of God, the Word, the living link between heaven andearth.2 Later, with much struggle and devotion, she identified with the suffering of her peopleduring the years of war and famine. She chose to stay in Russia, unlike most writers,memorizing her poems, then destroying them, when her writing became considered criminalactivity. Her husband was executed and her son was held in prison for years. As a preface to hermoving poem
Requiem, she writes of standing in line for hours day after day in hope of seeingher son. Another woman recognizes her and asks,
Can you describe this? And so she did. Asthe poem progresses, she traces the suffering of Mary the mother Jesus at the foot of the cross astransformation. She would participate in that transfiguration, and as a faithful witness, she couldbe part of the healing for herself and her country. To be silent would become a crime againsthumanity. Her devotion and faithful witness was a gift to her people and the world. She died in1966, a hero of survival and contribution. In the
Epilogue she writes,
If they think some dayin this country / To raise a monument to me . . . she will consent, but it must be
here wherethree hundred hours and more / I stood and no one unbolted the door. / Because even in blesseddeath I'm afraid / I'll forget the noise Black Marias made / And the ugly way the door slammedshut / And the old woman's howl like a beast that was hurt.
My father didn't know the poetry of Akhmatova, and he rarely spoke of his brothers and sisterswhom he left in 1909. He carried his pain in a hidden place. When I became interested in hislife story, after I had children of my own, I pressed him for more details of the deaths of hisparents, not realizing the pain I was causing.
Grandfather died from a stomach illness, andGrandmother became ill not long after that, was all he could offer. Yet, when he received hisfirst letter from his youngest brother after Stalin's death, he wrote us about his joy in receiving it,even as the letter bore the news of the deaths of his three sisters and brother.
His mother, Helena Wiebe Wiebe, was born in 1864 in the Chortitsa region of Ukraine, the firstsettlement of Mennonites from Poland around 1800. I have only one photograph of her as partof a family portrait taken in about 1902. I learned about her suicide only the day after my fatherdied, that secret which he bore in sorrow and shame. I then mourned a double loss. In ourhallway now hangs an amazing life-size portrait of the family painted by our son-in-law as aninterpretation of the photograph, a reminder of both tragedy and survival.
Because farmland became scarce to buy in the Molotschna region of Ukraine where manyMennonites settled, my grandfather moved his growing family several times, seeking to leasesome fertile soil. Grandfather was not a willing farmer; he preferred doing woodwork, such asmaking and decorating wagons for his children, and carving guitars and violins which he playedand shared with his wife. Uncle Peter in his writings acknowledged considerable friction in themarriage, grandmother wanting successful farming, and grandfather preferring to make beautifulthings. She also spent many months nursing her husband in his fatal illness during which timehe was seeking to invent cures.
There were, however, happy domestic scenes-the joy of parents dressing their little ones in newshoes that their father had cobbled, and new striped stockings which their mother knitted. Christmas was celebrated with a tree and decorations, and the traditional filling of plates onChristmas Eve by their father. Church services were described, my aunt singing solos, mygrandfather doing some lay preaching. My father in his brief descriptions remembered climbingthe chalk hills near his village. He would go up higher and higher, then look down on the littlehouses, wondering if his mother was looking for him.
After grandfather died, my grandmother became poorer and increasingly despondent. Thechurch elders brought food and clothes, bur she was unable to bear her loss and hung herself inthe barn. Rumor has it that my father found the body. The year was 1908.
What possible treasure, like the pearl, is recognizable in these three women's stories? What sortof light can be found? Other than difficulty and tragedy, are there commonalities? Surely thesethree women are separate portraits, like Vermeer's women who turn to us in shadowed rooms,their silent gaze calling to us. The difficult circumstances of each woman cannot be compared,nor can their responses be judged by me a century later. Rather than comparison, I venture someobservations.
As I walked the grounds of Peter the Great's summer palace and visited the Hermitage, I sensedmore deeply how Alexandra was caught in a time which was testing centuries of tradition,power, and religion bound together. I see her devotion to God, country, and family as admirable,yet inherently tending toward idolatry. To the end she clutches, even as she prays, sewing theroyal jewels into the bodices of her daughters before the murders. Certainly Alexandra'sdevotion, like any mother's, was distorted by her fear of loss, especially of her son. She held thepearl tightly, one could say, the way she understood her role. To hold loosely would haveresulted in chaos, and yet, I imagine the possibilities of a representative government which mighthave resisted totalitarianism and the rule of Stalin, which could have saved my uncles and auntsfrom starvation and death, and perhaps even her own life and the lives of her husband andchildren.
As the tragic events unfolded, Anna Akhmatova recognized the need for change in her country. What was false should fall-any system, whether monarchy or communism, which fails to bring a level of freedom and nurture to people. She longed for integrity and compassion in leadership. Although she suffered severe losses, she was blessed with long life and time, at the last, to offerher gifts. After her son was released from prison, she found that they could not live together forlong. She had several lovers during her life; she was not the ideal wife or mother. Yet herpoems and friendships offered hope and dignity to her people in such a crucial time. Herunderstanding of the pearl was not about a strict morality, but generosity, compassion, andjustice. Her open spirit and her poems became part of the healing and strength of many peopleduring the grim years of totalitarian rule, then later, for others like me who mourned losses,trying to find language for tragedy in my own family.
I don't know if my grandmother held her family tightly. Only recently have I learned that hersuicide happened after my uncle Peter made his decision to migrate to Canada. Her eldest sonwas forsaking her, she may have thought, leaving her with my father, age fourteen and hisbrother, fifteen, plus four little ones. After her death Peter would send for these brothers,arranging for farmers in Saskatchewan to pay the ship fare which they would repay with farmlabor.
Did she throw the pearl away with her decision to take her own life? Surely she would not havetaken Jesus' words to
lose your life to gain life as permission. Yet, in essence, she saved thelife of my father. Her three daughters would all die in the Stalinist famine, and the baby boysgrew up to become young men with families thrust into the Second World War, only theyoungest surviving to write my father a letter in 1956.
Three women and the pearl. Piety, devotion, creativity, and the limits of human endurance.
Abeauty that gives itself away, I say in the poem. The
nacre that hardened into layers / of death,the sky of Siberia iridescent / over the vast fields of bones remains, but the glow of those whosuffered survives in the living who remember them. The parable of the pearl of great priceclaims that the Kingdom of Heaven is the loveliest thing in the world. It is more beautiful thanother pearls, and requires selling everything else to buy it. In the context of the Sermon on theMount, I think of the Beatitudes as the layers of nacre, the iridescence offered by thoseunexpected sources of bliss—the
blesseds of mourning and humility, mercy, peacemaking, andpersecution. All three of these women were caught in the calamities of earthly kingdoms. Inremembering them, perhaps I am called to respond to their choices with these very layers. Inacknowledging their intertwining lives, I am invited to rest in the mystery of my own existence. My grandmother's face comes alive in the hallway portrait, and I find myself reaching up tostroke her cheek.
After eighty years of no one in my family in direct contact with my father's family, I traveled in1989 to Karaganda, Kazakhstan, to which my uncle Willie's family had been exiled, and enteredthe lives of my cousins, survivors of the terrors. When we arrived at their home, a daughter gaveme a bouquet of daisies, and after hugs and greetings, we sat down at their request to singtogether the ancient hymn
Holy God, We Praise Thy Name. Its last verse translated intoEnglish is this:
Holy Father, holy Son, holy Spirit, three we name thee. Though in essence onlyone, undivided God we claim thee, and adoring bend the knee, while we own the mystery. Then we sang the folk hymn
Gott ist die Liebe, a song which we had sung in our separatechildhoods in separate and distant countries. A visiting cousin from Siberia wept as we sang,remembering his survival as street child and orphan.
The nacre flows over an irritant in a cold, chaotic ocean and slowly becomes a thing of beauty. My father crosses that ocean alone at age fifteen and washes up on the shores of Canada. Several years later my mother sees his face in the church choir,
the face you didn't know / youwere looking for, open as light, / its fires and its tides.