By: Dr. Tom Taylor
As a social historian I believe strongly that history is OUR story; it is not just the story of elites and the powerful but the story of our lives, the lives of our family and friends. It is the story the common, even the mundane because it is often in those experiences of the ordinary that we often find the true insights into the extraordinary events of human history. I had the opportunity to put this to practice this past fall when I wrote an article, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man: Jan Kozlowski and the Russian Revolution. It has just come out on World History Connected.
Jan was a young man growing up in Russia before World War One. As war and revolution erupted he found himself embroiled in those globally changing events. As the Germans invaded the region around Riga where he lived, he and his mother fled to what they hoped and expected was the safety of Petrograd (St. Petersburg), Russia’s second capital. Those hopes and expectations, however, were dashed when the Bolsheviks seized control of the city in 1917 and Jan and his mother found themselves potential enemies of the new proletariat state. She made the agonizing decision to send him to Siberia in the hopes that he would escape the unfolding civil war. Instead, the civil war found him, and Jan watched his brother get shot by the Bolsheviks. Desperate and alone, he jumped on a passing train and spent the next couple of years fleeing east. Eventually he made it weak, sick and wounded to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. He was barely sixteen. There he met American soldiers stationed in the city, and it was with their support that he eventually made his way to the United States and a new life.
Jan’s story illustrates how these global events impacted and were experienced by an ordinary person. But, for me, it is more than that. You see, Jan was my wife’s grandfather, and therefore the story of his life, flight and exile is the story of our family’s history. And even more, as I explore in my article, it is how we came to know his story that is equally important and fascinating. For Jan his story was a painful reminder of the brother he lost, the mother he never saw again, and the homeland he fled. He never told it to his only son Jon, my father-in-law. When it would come up he’d say, “yea, that was then.” “It isn’t important.” But, when Laurie turned twenty one she asked for his story and he relented. On a few sheets of graph paper and a map he outlined, starkly and cryptically, the traumas of his young life.
As a historian it was an incredible opportunity and challenge to take those sparse notes and to try to unpack Jan and his world. It was an incredible opportunity and challenge to be responsible for my family’s story and to bring it to life, not only for them, but for the larger historical community. I never met Jan—he passed before I met Laurie--, so in those notes I had to understand the man, his feelings and emotions as he watched his brother die and as he struggled for what he thought may be his last breath on the streets of Harbin. I had to negotiate her memory, and that of my father-in-law, a man whom they loved deeply and were close to, yet, also didn’t know in many ways.
Both Laurie and Jon, as you can well imagine, are very invested in the story, and part of the challenge and joy, of the project was their intimate interest in it. We grew closer as I contextualized Jan’s life in a way that they only had faint glimpses of before. Yet, honestly, at times, I felt their interest stifling me as the historian and writer. After all, it was their story but it was my article. Whose judgment was right when we tried to fill in the numerous gaps and disagreements? It was their grandfather or father but I had a historical sense of how one would respond in a given situation. In the end, the writing became better for these discussions. As you’ll see, if you read the article, I tried to not ignore these disagreements of interpretation but rather let them play out in how we try to understand a person and their times. I let the process of how we were trying to unpack his experiences, and the methods we employed to do so, be present in the analysis. And we left the empty spaces of the historical voids empty when we couldn’t make reasonable assumptions to fill them in.