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Death of a Past Life

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Reincke, Robert N. Death of a Past Life. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2006.


Robert N. Reincke, age 38 at the time of the book’s publication, was descended from aristocratic Baltic Germans who held important positions in Russia long before the arrival of the German farmers who developed the Volga and Ukraine. Reincke grew up listening to his grandparents Nina and Nicholas Katschalin and mother Josephine Krummel Siewert. In
this novelization of their experiences, he tells chronologically how his family fared during the turmoil in Russia during the first half of the twentieth century, and how they eventually came to the United States.

The author’s family was incredibly wealthy and lived in St Petersburg and then in the nearby village of Tsarskoe Selo. Readers will recognize the name of the village because Catherine the Great lived in its Catherine Palace. Reincke’s grandmother Josephine existed in a world
where servants did all of the work. She was surrounded by jewels, fashionable clothing, art, literature, music, sophisticated discourse, beautiful costly objects, and proper manners. Her family shuttled between the city in the winter and country dachas in the summer. Her
husband Leonid, though a habitual gambler, was a mover and shaker in the international financial world that supported the Russian government and had vast inherited property, a goodly part of it accumulated by his father Karl. Other family members were involved in automobile manufacturing and drew income from apartment buildings in Russia and faraway Berlin. But even in tsarist times, they were not immune from problems. Josephine's parents were sent for three years to a Siberian village. It was an unsettling experience, but they appeared to do quite
well in their place of exile and eventually returned. Early in the story, the novel’s main character becomes Nina, Josephine’s daughter and Reincke’s grandmother, and readers see most of the story through her eyes.

Little by little, in the first dozen years of the twentieth century, Josephine and her children came to comprehend the unrest that was bubbling up around them, but for awhile they maintained their usual way of life. Then their world imploded. In a disorienting amount of time, they lost their home and property. Leonid was saved from immediate arrest because he claimed not to own it. They moved to a country village, and Nina learned to do the jobs that go into daily living. They had to stand in long lines to buy basic necessities and even had to grow some of their own food. Josephine clung to the old social and behavioral perfectionism, but Nina grew and adapted, becoming, in many ways, a new woman, more confident than she would have been in her
former setting.

Reincke assumes that the reader has a basic knowledge of how the Russian Revolution unfolded. That "background noise" to the family’s story influenced them mightily. Workers rioted and millions of soldiers died fighting World War I. Czar Nicholas II created a representative
Duma but quickly dissolved it. The czar’s family was discredited by the influence of Rasputin, deposed, then killed. A new order took hold. The Bolsheviks, later called communists, won a civil war and assumed power. These rulers declared new laws and new social norms. Huge numbers of people were sent to Siberia, this time to camps from which few returned.

The story continues to unfold as the family, especially Nina, coped with the horrendous dislocations of the times. There was the constant problem of having enough food and clothing, and this was exacerbated by the hostility of the government to those who produced it. In the midst of this, Nina became educated in technical drafting and got a job in a factory. Josephine fled to to Berlin with her two youngest children and took charge of thriving family business interests there. Others of their extended family scattered.

Nina married Nicholas Katchalin, a high-status man with serf roots, who avoided military service through a subterfuge. They learned to evaluate Communist propaganda. They moved back to Leningrad, where they found themselves during the Nazi siege. They became caught up in the
suffering and starvation and could leave only because they had a young child, the child who became Reincke’s mother. Sometimes they were Russian, sometimes German, as necessity demanded, and the dual identity became more complicated when World War II came along. Reincke says that Nina’s brother, who returned from Berlin to Russia, was "caught between
two dictators," but this was true of all of them. Fear became a constant companion. Black vehicles appeared in the darkest hours of the night and took away neighbors, never to be seen again. Living quarters were cramped and became mysteriously available--or word had it they
would be soon. There are dark hints in the story that terrible things happened that have never been told. For example, Stalin, at one time, ordered that all camps were to be vacated and nobody knew what happened to the people who were in them at that time. Reincke’s grandfather Leonid was 'tried' and sent to the camps, never to be heard of again.

Nina, Nicholas, and their daughter Anni went to live in Yaroslavl on the Volga, where they identified with the Volksdeutsche. They had to deal with the Nazi invasion and finally became caught up in the flight west ahead of the Russian army. The family, fortunately, wound up in
the American sector of Germany. After the war, they found it hard to support themselves in the weakened German economy. The old wealth was long gone and their skills did not transfer well. They found a sponsoring family and were able to go to America in 1949.

This reviewer feels it was unfortunate that the author did not seek out professional guidance in writing this story. He uses a wordy style that makes the book hard to get into. He wants to pack as much information as possible into the story, but that makes parts of it hard to read. He switches point-of-view character frequently, and it is sometimes hard for the reader to keep the large cast of characters straight. An editor would have corrected his punctuation and caught
incorrect use of homonyms.

This book packs quite an emotional punch. Reincke listened carefully to his grandmother and mother and made good use of a brief account written by his grandfather. The text of this account was included in the book. To his credit, Reincke researched the Russian revolutionary
era carefully and learned the political history and the commonly-reported experiences of the persons caught up in it. The difficulties with the text make this book more useful for research than
for enjoyable reading. But, since it deals with a group not usually portrayed in the literature of the Black Sea Germans--the Baltic Germans--and melds their experiences with those of the Volksdeutsch, readers who want to extend their knowledge of this era will appreciate having it on the shelves.

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