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The Russlander

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Katherine (Katya) Vogt is now an old woman living in Winnipeg, but the story of how she and her family came to Canada begins in Russia in 1910, on a wealthy Mennonite estate. Here they lived in a world bounded by the prosperity of their landlords and by the poverty and disgruntlement of the Russian workers who toil on the estate. But in the wake of the First World War, the tensions engulfing the country begin to intrude on the community, leading to an unspeakable act of violence. In the aftermath of that ...
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Overview

Katherine (Katya) Vogt is now an old woman living in Winnipeg, but the story of how she and her family came to Canada begins in Russia in 1910, on a wealthy Mennonite estate. Here they lived in a world bounded by the prosperity of their landlords and by the poverty and disgruntlement of the Russian workers who toil on the estate. But in the wake of the First World War, the tensions engulfing the country begin to intrude on the community, leading to an unspeakable act of violence. In the aftermath of that violence, and in the difficult years that follow, Katya tries to come to terms with the terrible events that befell her and her family. In lucid, spellbinding prose, Birdsell vividly evokes time and place, and the unease that existed in a county on the brink of revolutionary change. The Russländer is a powerful and moving story of ordinary people who lived through extraordinary times.

Author Biography: Sandra Birdsell was born in Manitoba and, until recently, has spent most of her life in Winnipeg. Her first novel, The Missing Child (1989), won the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her second novel, The Chrome Suite (1992), and her most recent collection of short fiction, The Two-Headed Calf (1997), were both shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Her two previous short story collections, Night Travellers and Ladies of the House, were reissued in 1987 as Agassiz Stories. Her most recent novel, The Russländer (2001), won the Saskatchewan Book Award for Fiction, the Saskatchewan Book Award for Book of the Year, and the Regina Book Award, and was a finalist for the GillerPrize.

Sandra Birdsell’s fiction has been anthologized and has appeared in literary journals and Saturday Night magazine.

She lives in Regina.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“It is a compassionate, well-developed family story of love, loyalty, faith, hate, loss and betrayal.…It is a story that could be told by any family displaced by war and revolution.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“With her formidable gifts for psychological observation and her uncanny details of daily life a century ago, Birdsell weaves a place as important as any in our literature. By showing how power is often foisted upon us from an outside world, The Russländer illuminates, with an artistic glow of the first rank, the intimate certainty that evil will not dominate kindness, truth, or love.”
–Jury Citation for the Giller Prize

“Entrancing.…Birdsell has outdone herself.…There is a temptation to quote The Russländer in full. It’s that good a novel.”
National Post

“Realistic, dramatic, dense.…The Russländer is profound.”
Quill & Quire (starred review)

“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

“Superb.”
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.”
Maclean’s

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780771014505
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
  • Publication date: 9/18/2001
  • Pages: 360

Meet the Author

Sandra Birdsell was born in Manitoba and, until recently, has spent most of her life in Winnipeg. Her first novel, The Missing Child (1989), won the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her second novel, The Chrome Suite (1992), and her most recent collection of short fiction, The Two-Headed Calf (1997), were both shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Her two previous short story collections, Night Travellers and Ladies of the House, were reissued in 1987 as Agassiz Stories. Her most recent novel, The Russländer (2001), won the Saskatchewan Book Award for Fiction, the Saskatchewan Book Award for Book of the Year, and the Regina Book Award, and was a finalist for the Giller Prize.

Sandra Birdsell’s fiction has been anthologized and has appeared in literary journals and Saturday Night magazine.

She lives in Regina.

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Reading Group Guide

1. From the opening of the novel, we know that most of the Vogt family perish on 11 November 1917. How does this massacre affect the experience of reading the novel? Why does Birdsell choose to put this tragic information in a position that affects everything up to and including the description of the massacre [pp 251-266]? If one begins with violence and mayhem, how can the narrative proceed from there?

2. Katya thinks a great deal about her name and her initials. She writes her initials in the frost on the window [p 5] and imagines her "name chiselled in stone" [p 397]. She traces the grooves of initials on a silver cup with her tongue [p 48]. The tsar, we learn, has multiple names [p 15]. Does the act of naming, or of losing a name, change one's identity? What is Katya's relation to her name and to her initials? Does a name come from oneself or from one's place within a family or a community?

3. When Katya gets a notebook, she copies pieces of advice and recipes into it [p 105]. Sometimes her recipes are so imprecise as to make the recipe more a possibility than a useful set of instructions, as when she makes a series of substitutions for krejkelmooss [pp 299-300] or "famine fare" [p 355]. Why do many chapters end with recipes? Why are the recipes imprecise?

4. Relationships in The Russländer evolve through letters. Why does Birdsell choose to reveal aspects of relationships-between Greta and Dietrich, for instance-through these letters, as opposed to through Katya's point of view? What can letters convey that other forms of narrative cannot convey?

5. The Mennonite community within which the Vogts live is initially described as an oasis or an Eden. More specifically, the Privol'noye estate appears as a well-regulated, if hierarchical, paradise. Are these oases believable? Do they endure? Is the Mennonite community, represented as a paradise in the novel, sustainable in a world torn by violence? Is this idea of an oasis or paradise largely in Katya's recollections? Is this idea determined by the Mennonites' faith? Is paradise a place or a set of communal relations?

6. Property ownership diminishes as the German army, then the anarchists, then the Bolsheviks, then the Communists sweep across the land. How does ownership of a silver cup, a loop of safety pins, or an estate create strife in the novel? The Mennonites in The Russländer occasionally reflect that ownership is, in fact, antithetical to their belief in life on earth as a transit to a heavenly home. Why, therefore, do they take such stock in land and buttons and dresses and things? How does property ownership square with spiritual development?

7. What is the relation of people to animals in the novel? Leeches prognosticate weather. Horses die in the road. Chickens commit suicide to avoid laying eggs that pay exorbitant chicken taxes. Yet is there any single way of viewing the relationship between Mennonites and animals in the novel?

8. Food preparation and food consumption preoccupy the women in The Russländer. What social significance is attached to food in the novel?

9. Katya, recalling her childhood, often thinks of a voice calling her: "Then someone called her name. She would remember for the rest of her days that someone had called, and would hear the voice among other voices in a crowded restaurant, coming to her on a lake shore . . ." [p 74]. The voice of Caruso later floats out from the phonograph [p 112]. After the massacre, when Katya takes charge of her two sisters, she calls them, as if she were their mother [p 323]. Why does this calling affect Katya so much? What relation does the voice that calls have to the parentless child?

10. Whether skating, holding their breath, or riding piggy-back, the children in The Russländer play all sorts of games. What rules govern these games? Are the games divided according to girls' and boys' games? Are the games played in teams or by individuals?

11. What is the relation of Katya to Greta? Why, among all the members of her family who die, does Greta hold more prominence than others in Katya's imagination?

12. The narrative techniques of The Russländer defy convention. Birdsell structures her story according to Katya's recollections of the 1910s in Russia. The narrative, consequently, has an impressionistic quality to it. What limitations does Birdsell impose on the tale of the massacre by keeping largely to Katya's point of view? What advantages does this restriction have?

13. Katya tells her tale to Peter Unger many years after the fact [p 340]. Does memory impede or alter the story? What does Katya forget or repress? Is memory a reliable guide to a tale of such horrific proportions? Why does she tell one story-of bandits entering the village-instead of another-of the massacre [p 322]?

14. The epigraph to the novel, by Anna Akhmatova, draws attention to acts of witnessing: "I stand witness to the common lot, survivor of that time, that place." What does it mean to bear witness? How does history filter through a witness? What does Vera witness that Katya does not? How does looking, as a requisite part of witnessing, guide Katya's responses to the world? Do Katya's beliefs inhibit her from witnessing accurately? Does her position as daughter of a foreman on a prosperous estate prevent her from witnessing objectively? Why do the bandits not want to leave a "witness" [p 265] to the massacre?

15. Katya notices smells throughout the novel: lavender, blood, pickles. What relation does smell have to memory? Does smell evoke effects other than sight or sound?

16. Women visit back and forth in The Russländer. They often continue to work while talking. What social function does "the visit" have? What is the connection between working and talking? Why do the women often tell different stories among themselves that they would not tell before men or children [p 347]?

17. Contrast Greta and Dietrich's courtship with Katya and Kornelius' courtship. Why does the former not work out, whereas the latter, despite terrible adversity, does succeed?

18. Katya often remarks on the distances between towns, villages, and countries. Does distance magnify or diminish the emotional connection that one has to a place? Why are the North American tourists who come back to look at ladders and ruined foundations so nostalgic for the lost Mennonite community, despite the distance that separates the past from the present? Why does the past seem so alive for Katya, even though she narrates her tale decades after it happens?

19. Katya survives. Does she have symptoms of "survivor syndrome," namely a guilt about having outlived most of her family? Why does she not tell her story until Peter Unger prompts her to? Why is Peter Unger ostensibly the right person to hear her story? Is he an appropriate listener because he has no immediate personal connection with Privol'noye?

20. The Mennonites, as non-resisters, have passed-down stories of persecuted ancestors: "a book of Mennonite martyrs" [p 77]. Is Katya's story a story of martyrdom? Can other characters in the novel-Abrams, for example, or the Vogts-be considered martyrs? Must one have faith in order to be a martyr? Is Greta more of a martyr than Gerhard or Peter Vogt? If so, why?

21. A tree is chopped down. A chicken is stolen. Katya's bells go missing. Theft begins with small objects in the novel, but escalates into a general, and horrifying, principle. What moral stance does Birdsell or Katya take on theft?

22. The Mennonites speak in a German dialect called Plautdietsch while living in Russia. They express distrust of the Russians. In Canada, some Mennonites lament having to learn English. The novel, written in English, therefore has several screens of language. Katya transcribes David Sudermann's letters from gothic German script into English. Is story-telling in The Russländer a translation from one language to another? Does every story call into question its own credibility [p 271]?

23. Inside is inside and outside is outside, Katya recites. Does this principle apply as much to labour and class divisions in the novel, as it does to hygiene and order [p 97]?

24. In what ways does the Mennonite community create and regulate identity? Does that community sustain identity in times of crisis? Why does Willy Krahn take in the three Vogt sisters who survive the massacre?

25. Abrams has rolls of fat. Pravda has no legs. Other characters have sores on their lips and bodies. What is the Mennonite conception of the body? Do women have a different relation to their body than men? Does shame or modesty enter into the conception of male and female bodies?

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