The Stories We Tell and the Stories We Take

Posted on 7 October 2018

Use of the Hammer and Sickle

in Former Soviet Territories and Outside These Areas

What do you say when someone tells you their father was sent to the Gulag? He came back from the war and off he was sent – Stalin’s orders, to the lager! Z.’s back was to me as she hunched over my bed, fixing the sheets, curling into even less space than her short body could claim. “He came back from the war, from the front, with children’s books in German, because I was studying German, you see?” A German book claimed a life where a war could not.  

Ghosts occupied every shadow of the apartment. Molotov-Ribbentrop. A siege. Young girls, starving but never quite dead. An unlikely reunion shattered. Two old women. And I, in their home. I will tell a fraction of their story, but I cannot take it. It is not mine.

In 1918, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Anatoly Lunacharsky held a contest: what should represent their new regime? As the Bolsheviks consolidated power after the October 1917 Russian Revolution, they realized they needed a new seal, for symbols are powerful. The hammer and sickle won and in the summer of 1918, it was adopted by the Fifth Session of the Soviets and became the emblem of what would become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

2018, Seattle. The Soviet Union is nearly 27 years dissolved and yet its symbol lingers: I find it on t-shirts, on flags at protests, as bathroom graffiti. I ask—and argue—about it and two themes emerge. Its bearers either are complimentary of the Soviet Union, or at least of Lenin, or they assert that the hammer and sickle is not a Soviet symbol, but a symbol of the broader working class.

Left: Hammer and sickle graffiti in a Seattle bathroom. Right: Saint Petersburg House of the Soviets with Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle looking out onto the street.

If you ask what the Soviet Union was for those who lived in it, you will not receive one answer. Not even if you ask only one person. The experiences of that period span possibility. Some long for its return and I have seen them, resolutely gripping portraits captioned, “Stalin, our hero.”

And then there are some truths. From the start, the Soviet Union was a police state. Lenin founded the secret police, the Cheka, whose name later was the KGB. It was under Lenin that the first forced labor camps were created; these were the foundation of the Gulag. Under Stalin, between six and nine million noncombatant Soviets died from deportation, preventable hunger, and work in concentration camps. Different ethnic groups were systemically, deliberately decimated. The entire Chechen and Ingush populations, half a million people, were deported to Central Asia as punishment for “collaboration.” During the Holodomor, four million Ukrainians, 13% of Ukraine’s population, starved to death as food was confiscated in a government campaign. Through the decades of the Soviet Union, Jews could not hold certain jobs or attend certain schools. And on it goes. Some people had good lives; others were crushed by the regime, or if not crushed, subdued. I know people in both groups. And I hold the suffering of the latter as important.

“Our entire tragedy lies in the fact that our victims and executioners are the same people.” – Quotation in Anna M.’s story in Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Left: Lenin on a Seattle utility pole. Right: Lenin by Finland Train Station in Saint Petersburg after being bombed on April 1, 2009.

Who can claim a story? Each person can claim their own story, their own experience. Maybe they can even claim that of their family. Their lives are many little truths that coalescence into one larger grey and muddy truth, with its nuances and exceptions, its complexities and shortfalls. These larger truths are bound by history and stretch into the future.

Symbols are an attempt to encapsulate a story, to represent that larger truth. So who can claim the hammer and sickle? Who can tell its story? I would posit those who have lived it.

And so, in an admittedly non-scientific survey, I posed the following question, in Russian and English, to Russians and/or people who live in the former Soviet bloc: “What do you think the hammer and sickle represents? What does it mean to you?” The answers came in from friends and friends of friends, stretched across the world. Given my limited reach, relatively few people answered, but all who did have a story that interfaces with this symbol.

Feelings about the hammer and sickle ranged broadly, from horror to neutrality to slightly positive.

“To me it is a rather terrible symbol, like the swastika.”

“First remembered: “Вот вам молот, вот вам серп/ Это наш советский герб/ Хочешь жни а хочешь куй – все равно получишь х*й” (sorry) – In English something like: This is Hammer, this is Sickle. It’s our Soviet Blazon. May you harvest, may you forge – you’ll get f*cked anyway.”

“For me the symbol itself represents a regime that sowed fear, paranoia and suffering.”

“The hammer and sickle as the quintessence of the soviet planned economy and generally the state machine which grinds down people in every way: as a worker, as a professional, as a consumer, as a social unit of one kind or another.”

“For me personally, this is one of the state symbols, I don’t experience any emotions about it.”

“Nothing is purely black or white :-) … just do not forget that back in 1917 peasants in Russia were owned by the local land owner like slaves.”

The most common sentiment within this array was not a strong reaction to the symbol itself, but recognition of it as a symbol of a regime that, while it impacted people differently, was ultimately judged negatively by the respondents.

“For me personally it’s an archaic symbol of the old and failed regime. I don’t particularly have negative or positive reaction towards it. I do believe, that the Soviet revolution was a negative turn for the Russian people, a lot of really bad stuff happened under Lenin and Stalin. However, a few good things that came out of it were women’s rights, one of the greatest education systems, industrialization and development of the agriculture. It all was on the verge of collapse at the end of the 80s, however. So for me personally, the symbol stands for a failed attempt at Socialism.”

“On a personal level, my grandma sometimes looks back on those times with nostalgia, thinking about how everyone worked together and lived in similar conditions, and was happy even though they didn’t have much. So, I have conflicted feelings and opinions about it……Overall, my feeling is that the Soviet leaders wanted people to feel like they were living in an era filled with light (the light of socialism) – but if one looked closely, one would notice that the blazing object above them wasn’t the sun, but just a cheap lightbulb…”

“For me a hammer and a sickle are a true symbol of the Soviet Union and collectivization. That’s it. It’s just a symbol. But speaking about my emotions when I think about the Soviet Union time, they are mostly negative.”

Feelings about the Hammer and Sickle

Within these answers, people also associated the hammer and sickle with different things, or with many things: the Soviet Union as a political entity, art and culture, the working class. Though a justification of the symbol’s use in Seattle is that it represents, among respondents that association was less common than the Soviet government connection, even though my question did not mention the Soviet Union.

Associations with the Hammer and Sickle

These are reactions, feelings stemming from lives lived under the story of the hammer and sickle. This symbol flew above them, their families. Should those without this experience, then, claim representation through this symbol; should they say what it stands for?

Or can we accept answers from those with experience, even when they vary, even when we have to hold many truths in one hand?

“I understand the ideals of socialism, but whenever I see hammer and sickle used to mark something “progressive” or “revolutionary” in the west by the young rebel socialist kids, I can only cringe, because clearly, they have no clue about what it was like to live in the Soviet Union.”

“As I lay awake on my plank bed, the most unorthodox thoughts passed through my mind—about how thin the line is between high principles and blinkered intolerance, and also how relative are all human systems and ideologies and how absolute the tortures which human beings inflict on one another.” – Eugenia Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind

Absorbing stories from people who were there has shaped my perspective. I’ll take it from them. Even if it’s not a uniform answer, it’s an experienced one, and each holds an individual truth. And I will hold the truths of those who really suffered above all, because this suffering cannot be negated.

It’s Victory Day and, as usual, the television oversees our breakfast. The news is, of course, showing us images of the war and the Siege of Leningrad. “I can’t watch it, change it,” I. says. Z. switches to the culture channel. Same thing. The omnipresent television is turned off. After we eat, Z. and I. leave to participate in an event honoring veterans of the war and survivors of the blockade. That afternoon, I stood next to a sea of Soviet flags as the veterans’ parade flowed by. My Russian friends had flowers to give to veterans and so I brought them home. The elevation and the suffering collided that day.


Left: Victory Day Parade in Saint Petersburg. Right: My blokadnitsi hosts, I. and Z.

Symbols hold stories. Do not take these stories if they are have not been lived by you and yours; rather, take the time to understand. Listen and share – but do not claim what isn’t yours. Claim the stories you have experienced. Create your own symbols to encompass them and to imagine the future.

Recommended reading (fiction and non-fiction)

  • Anything and everything by Svetlana Alexievich, but especially Secondhand Time
  • Anne Applebaum – Gulag: A History
  • Anne Applebaum – Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, 1921-1933
  • Masha Gessen – Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region
  • Eugenia Ginzburg – Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind
  • Nadezhda Mandelstam – Hope Against Hope
  • Andrew Meier – Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall
  • Sofi Oksanen – Purge
  • Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago
  • Lyudmila Ulitskaya – The Big Green Tent
  • Catherynne M. Valente – Deathless

The Paris Marathon & I

Posted on 27 August 2018

Sometimes, things just work out. My partner, Ben, was going to be attending a work conference in Nice in April and we could take a bit of time off work beforehand to travel. Even better, my friend, Ellie, was living and working in Paris so we could visit her as a part of the trip. Ellie and I ran our first marathons at around the same time, and though she has outperformed me by far since then, running a bunch of others, we had been talking about doing one together for a while. So, when Ellie pointed out that the Paris Marathon would be taking place when Ben and I were planning to visit, we decided to sign up. It would be my second marathon.

I started training in mid-December after returning from Mexico. Training for a marathon is difficult. It takes a significant chunk of time and your body gets tired (which, on some training weeks, is the point). I work full-time, and I would get home during the dark and rainy Seattle only to have scheduled a ten-mile hilly training rain, after which I would pretty much only have time to eat and go to bed. But, I wasn’t unhappy with this for the most part; the prospect of going to Paris and running the marathon with Ellie was something I was very much looking forward to.

Tip: if you’re training for a challenging race, planning on a destination event really helps your motivation!

I find the skills I have gained from running help me travel (especially solo), and vice versa. If you’re running, you have to be okay with a certain level of discomfort. You also have to be comfortable on your own (unless you are lucky enough to always have a running buddy) and able to spend time in your own head without stirring up too much anxiety. And, importantly, despite sometimes feeling nervous or reluctant, you have to take the first steps—almost always you’ll be really glad at the end.

Arc De Triomphe, Paris

The race starts at the Arc De Triomphe.

About the Paris Marathon

Distance: 26.2 miles / 42.129 kilometers
Date: April 8, 2018
Number of participants: 55,000 (one of the largest in the world)
Swag: A small running backpack, a t-shirt, and a medal (the shirt and the medal are given after you finish)
Nutrition: Water and fruit every 5 kilometers

Though the prospect of running with one of my best friends in Paris helped push me through training, two other factors also did. One was that a blogger I had followed for some years, Meghan, also signed up for the race and as we started chatting and getting to know each other, we discovered we had loads of similarities. We ended up getting our pre-race dinner together (but forgot to take a photo, whoops), and it was really cool to meet in person. The second was the #ParisMarathon Girls Facebook group. Though the amount of posts admittedly got a bit overwhelming at times, it was a terrific resource and a great place to ask questions or share concerns. It also helped hype me for the race. Best of all, I reached out to the group about doing a run in Brussels the weekend before the race, and a woman named Anne invited me to join her run club’s outing in the Sonian Forest, which turned out to be great fun.

Eiffel Tower & I

Exploring Paris before the race. Notice I wore an old pair of running shoes to protect my feet since I was walking a lot!

The race preparation had gone well, so I was feeling confidence alongside my nervousness by the time race activities rolled around. Because Ellie was working, we went to the race expo to pick up our bibs the day before the race and it was packed. Actually, the way to the expo on the metro was even more crowded than the expo itself. The hot metro ride over didn’t make me too keen on staying at the expo for a very long time, so we did a quick look around, got some items we needed for the race, and left.

The morning of the race, I ate my pre-run standard of toast (with nutella instead of peanut butter and honey), wrote split times on my arm in sharpie, and Ellie and I wrote N.O. on our arms in honor of our late Russian professor. It was the second warm day of the year, and even in the morning it wasn’t too chilly which was good because we had to wait for our wave to start. I’ve never done such a large race, but Ellie, who has, also thought the congestion was an issue. It was difficult to get into our airlock, the lines for the portapotties were astounding, and getting to the starting line was a crush. This set the tone for the race: though there was a section in the middle of the race when it was a bit less packed, we were weaving the entire time. According to Ellie’s watch, we added more than a third of a mile in distance at least. It was also frustrating to vary our speed so much, especially since the key to running a strong race is holding an even tempo. The race course passes many of Paris’s landmarks, but I barely noticed them because I was too busy watching the people in front of me so I wouldn’t accidentally run into them.

Notre Dame, Paris

We ran near here and got a view of Notre Dame, but I didn’t really notice…

Though the intense crowdedness dampened my enjoyment of the race somewhat (I began stressing out about not making my desired time due to the crush and being caught behind people), the course itself was a nice one. Having trained in Seattle, it seemed quite flat to me though there are a couple of noticeable hills and a few ups and downs as you go through underpasses. Chunks of the race go through the parks Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne, which were especially welcome given the bit of shade on offer.

One notable aspect of the race, at least from my U.S.-centric perspective, was the hydration stops. They were giving out actual water bottles, which I found fantastic. Here, people give out waxy paper cups, which are hard to drink out of, and then are tossed. The water bottles were easy to carry and drink from, and there were huge recycling bins with targets to toss the bottles in when finished. I found this more convenient and less wasteful. However, at the stops they also handed out fruit and banana and orange peels created a bit of a danger zone. I’m also more used to eating gels so I carried those with me instead.

Ellie and I ended up able to keep pretty even splits throughout the race, despite having to weave through the crowd. It was excellent running with her, since when one of us lagged a bit, the other had some wind, and in that way we pulled each other along. I felt strong until about mile 23, at which point I think I was getting a little too dehydrated, but, with some whimpering, I managed to hold pace until the end.

We finished in 3:52:12. I was very proud of this, since my original goal had been to make it in under four hours. Even better, I felt good running up until almost the very end. We crossed the finish line and immediately hugged each other. I was wiped after our sprint to the finish and really wanted some water, but they handed us our medals and shirts before our hydration, which I found slightly questionable. Nonetheless, once I had a bit of food and drink in me, I quickly rebounded and felt really happy.

I would recommend the Paris Marathon if you don’t care much about your race time, or if you really want to do a race in Paris. It is a nice route and well-supported. However, due to the congested route, I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re attempting to set a personal record. That said, I did set a PR and I am really glad I did it, especially with my A+ race buddy!

Ellie and I post-Paris marathon

After the race!

Before Us / Beneath Us

Posted on 20 August 2018

There are over 6 million people artfully scattered and stacked in tunnels beneath Paris. The problem of overflowing and stinking cemeteries in the late 18th century was answered with the availability of tunnels leftover from limestone mining centuries prior. Between 1786 and 1860, bones from a handful of cemeteries were relocated into these passageways, but more than that – bones were carefully arranged into decorative walls and pillars. The catacombs of Paris aren’t open in their entirety to visitors, but their sheer volume is conveyed by the mile that is.Paris Catacombs I

It takes about 45 minutes to wander through the ossuaries. The scale of death expands and compresses. Each bone you see belonged to a person, a life in its expanse – and bones are stacked above one’s head, well over an arm’s length deep, noted because there are arm bones in the stacks, skulls interspersed carefully and artfully in the front before the organization dissolves into piles toward the back, less visible. It’s entropy made visual, I suppose. Life becomes bones becomes dust.

Paris Catacombs II

Six million people is over a billion bones. Six million people is, perhaps, half a billion filaments of love. Six million people is more stories than that. Take your range of emotions, the number of people you care for, the depth of your own universe; multiply it by six million. That’s the Paris catacombs. By 7.4 billion – that’s the world today. By over 100 billion – that’s the number of Homo sapiens who have ever lived.

Paris Catacombs III

For those who don’t know, I work in environmental policy. Every day I am confronted with the enormity of my work, the depth of need, the near-unstoppable momentum of societies through time. One person can make a change, but that is a rare person. Most of us will be bones in the ground or ashes in the sea and memory of us will fade away, like those of my great-great-grandparents. Perhaps an accomplishment will live on, will nudge society’s trajectory. But here I am, trying with much of my might – and I alone cannot stop climate change. Or whatever it may be.

Paris Catacombs IV

There’s the world outside, and there is the space within. Everyone is home to their own expanse, their own universe, and it’s hard – perhaps impossible in full – to completely comprehend the vastness of another’s, though they certainly exist in parallel. When you feel a total loss or an encompassing joy, the impact of that emotion is your universe.

What I’m getting at is, while you perhaps cannot change the universe, you can change a universe.

Paris Catacombs X

Each skeleton has its story, and most skeletons, I think, shaped another’s story. I am telling myself that matters, too.

A Taste of Bruges

Posted on 4 August 2018

The two most common reactions I’ve gotten when I mentioned visiting Bruges have been, “oh, it’s so cute!” and “oh, it’s really crowded.” Both are true; it’s crowded because it’s cute. And yet, we managed to miss the crowd crush and enjoy our few days in the city.

Bruges Markt

We arrived by train from Brussels (so comfortable! so convenient!) and wandered through the drizzle with our backpacks to where we were staying. This set the tone for our stay: walking under grey skies and in the rain. We did get some sun while there – and some strong downpours – but in large part, we had to content ourselves with being wet. We still walked around, but I suspect many others did not, leaving the streets to those of us who accepted getting damp.

Bruges StreetBegijnhuisje, Bruges

Bruges is a canal city, and the center of the city is surrounded by a circular cut lined by a trail, parks, and even some windmills. Pedestrians have right of way everywhere, and taking cars into the city center is discouraged. As such, Bruges is tremendously walkable and that’s how we explored the city – by foot, for kilometers.

Bruges SwansBruges Canal

I’m an adamant proponent of wandering around in new places. Rather than pursue one sight after another we covered as many streets as we could, yes, seeing sights along the way. Walking outside of the center’s core also meant that we were often the only people walking on a given block. Wandering these streets gave us a better glimpse of residential life in Bruges, and allowed us to slow down and notice the details.

Bruges LightBasiliek van het Heilig Bloed

I also appreciated Bruges’ waffle stands, its chocolate shops, the veggie burgers and fries on offer, and the beer (the lambics!). What a treat to stroll around, taking in the sights, and when it began to utterly downpour, duck into a bar.

View to Jan van Eyckplein

On our last morning there, I ran the canal around the city center. The parkway stretched out ahead, windmills marking the way into the distance, and the canal reflected the blue of the sky that had been lacking for most of our stay. I decided I needed to come back – not just to Bruges but to other Belgian cities we hadn’t been able to visit. And by bike.

Run around Bruges

Walking around Bruges may not have been the most adventurous thing I’ve done, but it was downright pleasant.

A Haunting

Posted on 10 June 2018

My most vivid memory of Saint Petersburg is this:

Listen. The cold sun glares at me as I walk along the Fontanka embankment. I walk southwest to where the canal meets the Neva, and then turn around and walk back on the other side. I keep my gaze fixed straight ahead and step in time to the music in my ears. The grey of the streets and the buildings blends with the blue of the sky where the white light of the sun rubs them together. As a woman, I stick out with my flat shoes and casual clothes, but I’m stopped and asked for directions anyway. I’ve been here long enough, have been walking around long enough, to often answer.

Fontanka Embankment

I walked a lot. I walked from school to where I assisted English classes to where I DJed at a club to meet friends at various chain cafes to where I stayed. At the time, it was a compulsion, almost. I didn’t know what else to do and I did not want to be anywhere. Walking was being alone, it was creating a space for myself with my music, floating through the public but detached, aloof, closed.

Specific sites were ignored for whatever streets I knew I could follow and not get lost on. But I walked through courtyards that struck me more than any palaces. They had a story I could relate to somehow, some way. They spoke to me and did not affront me with their grandiosity as men with piss-wet pants lay and old women prostrated themselves on the sidewalk before them. The contrasts frightened me. I was stabbed to the core. Fellow students drank in bars as I sat with them counting my cash and choosing the cheapest drink on the menu. I let myself withdraw from the frivolity and the laughter. I couldn’t.

Discomfort dogged me where I stayed. Resentment at my hosts for picking on my misunderstandings and American accent spun into resentment of myself: what are my struggles when they survived the Siege of Leningrad? So I turned this fury outward again, wishing I could spit at the people lining Nevsky as Victory Day approached with posters of Сталин, наш герой—Stalin, our hero. People pushed me on the tram, on the metro, as I waited for friends in front of the bookstore. Move, girl, they said. Pushed me to the side like everything else, away.

Frozen Fontanka Eternal Flame, Mars FieldI looked at everyone else through a sheet of glass. I couldn’t quite make contact. Maybe it was language, maybe it was my disturbance—or should it have been labeled political awareness? I was apart from those who were having a good time, and I was apart from those who were truly suffering, or who had across history. Ghosts following me batted at my head, “you don’t deserve sadness.” As I lay with my upper body spread across the kitchen table, my hosts, ghosts in their own way, repeated: “you haven’t seen life, you don’t deserve sadness, don’t drink.” I would retreat to my room and, where no one could see me, place my fingers on my throat in the shape of a gun.

The conclusion came to me: I’m weak. I should be having a great time, this is a special period of my life, and yet. Undeserving. Unattractive in my gloom. Unwanted. The sunset grabbed onto the sky for extra time as the May days lengthened. I walked down the embankment, flowers for my hosts, the blokadnitsi, in hand as fireworks burst over the rooftops in celebration of ending a period of death that really did not end. There was a group of men at a corner by my house who stuck their cell phones in my face and took photos as my hands shot up, blocking them, blocking them all.

Victory Day Fireworks 2009

Disturbance reverberated in me, and why? I increasingly separated from others because they didn’t have it. The annoying it, that made me half a second too slow to smile, that oozed from me and polluted everything. Perhaps it was my novelty, but a Russian group of friends continued to invite me to events and I was grateful in a way, as I glided along with them like a shadow, watching. Or maybe a black hole, absorbing.

As the days grew lighter, as the sun became sharper, nearly all of the novelty from the slushy and dusky winter of my arrival had worn off. I packed my bags as the semester ended unable to comprehend my exact feelings about leaving. In the early morning, the moist air sat heavy and cool on my shoulders I sat across from the statue of Pushkin waiting for my bus to Helsinki.

Pushkin Statue, St. Petersburg

Months later, in the village pub, one of my professors looked at me very earnestly, with a caring that I could rely on, and said, “since you’ve returned from study abroad, you’re so much more confident. You just don’t care what others think anymore.” And though, at that time, it wasn’t yet fully true, maybe the battering had hardened me somewhat. But there were still raw wounds. Every so often over the years, a scab will break and there’s an open pit beneath it, and I can tumble in. Russia did not give me that, but it did scrape off a scab.

Throwing oneself around the earth has implications. If done well, it can be molding. One can absorb and learn and be better, only there’s much of this world that is harsh and if you face it and draw it in under your skin, and if you have that pit where it may fall – there’s that.