I left Russia when I was 13 for the United States, which meant that I didn’t get a complete education about my home country in school. This has been and is a source of some embarrassment for me.
The high school I went to in South Florida didn’t really concentrate in great detail on late imperial Russia or early Soviet Union when I was there. We had a general AP European History class that well… was very general.
I don’t remember learning much about the 1917 Russian Revolution. It wasn’t touched upon much or in great detail during my middle school history lessons in Russia. So it became kind of mashed in my memory with the 1905 Revolution and with the World War I dates and facts.
But I do remember an older female English as a Second Language teacher at my high school telling me, upon finding out that I’m straight from Moscow, how she still vividly remembers hiding underneath her desk during nuclear bombing emergency trainings at her school. She told me she had nightmares about nuclear bombs as a kid. I’m also pretty sure she asked me if bears really did walk on Moscow’s streets. (Spoiler: They do not.)
What little I know about what happened in Russia during the early 20th century came from watching films adored by my parents and from the little bits of personal history from my grandparents and great grandparents who would sometimes talk about it with me. Now, “Anastasia” animated film is actually one of those important movies that taught me some of that history as a kid… Yeah, I know…
Recently as part of that self-learning, I found out about an all-female Russian battalion that was active during World War I after watching a recent Russian film. It was called “the Battalion of Death.”
In college, though, I was a bit unfocused. I may have studied too many things. There is a reason people look at me weird when I say I double majored in journalism and biochemistry for my bachelor’s degree. And unfortunately, when you are an 18-year-old immigrant trying to assimilate, the last thing on your mind is learning about the country you came from. That is not an excuse, but that’s how it was for me at least for a while.
In the end, my education should be my responsibility. I realize that as an adult.
Stepping up eagerly and writing this story was my way of continuing to do my own self-learning, however imperfect and incomplete it may be.
Looking at some of the artifacts that Stanford University’s Hoover Institution Library & Archives has from 1917 and the years before and after really blew my mind.
Among those are the original draft of the last Russian czar’s abdication statement, old black-and-white photos of people protesting in the streets… and then the more personal photos of the Romanov family in exile, taken weeks, if not days, before the moment they were all lined up and shot to death.
I got a lot of learning to do. But I also know that history is just that. Sometimes it feels like no matter how much we learn about the past, the less we know it. And the farther it slips away from us, the harder it is to really understand it and know for sure what was going on. That truth frustrates me. But it also humbles me.
Either way, I believe I have a duty to remember at least some of what happened. At least as a way to honor the memory of my ancestors and my great grandparents. Two of my great grandfathers served in WWII.
Also as someone who identifies with the role of journalism on a deeply personal level, I believe in my duty to spread the education and knowledge that I gain.
That said, here is just a few facts about some of that Russian history. The early 20th century was catastrophic to millions of Russians. This is true even if we don’t look at consequences of World War II and Joseph Stalin for Russia, which were also insanely damaging (at least 20 million people died as result of WWII on Soviet Union’s side).
The 1917 Russian Revolution, the Civil War that followed it and the famine of the early 1920s killed millions of people as well. In fact, the Russian Civil War was deemed to be the costliest of civil wars in terms of death toll by the Guinness World Records.
By itself, the period between 1900 and 1930 was a cruel, dark time that I am lucky to have never faced during my entire life so far.
Editor’s note: A version of the post above was first published on my Facebook page.