Global Resilience Solutions > Tiptoeing Through Hell: Resilience through impossible times

Tiptoeing Through Hell: Resilience through impossible times


How can we as human beings endure the unendurable?  And what if, in addition to physical hardship, the challenge comes from an unbearable social or political evil?  Among the many ways humanity has devised to torment itself, physical danger is often paradoxically the least stressful.  What really gets us is social inequity, whether personal injustice or the struggles of poverty or mistreatment by powerful institutions in our societies.


Nicholas Poppe, a renowned scholar of Mongolic languages, lived through arguably the worst times the human race has ever experienced – the complete insanity of the Soviet Union during Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, followed immediately by Hitler’s invasion of Russia during the Second World War. His memoirs are a remarkable testament to the achievements of a purposeful man with a strong sense of his own values and a lot of prudence in the midst of impossible situations.


Born in Shandong Province in China, son of a Russian diplomat, Poppe lived through the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War in his youth.  Nevertheless, he managed to complete his linguistic studies and was by the early 1930s head of the Department of Mongolian Studies in the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.



Things Get Worse


Soviet academia in the 1920s had carried on almost as normal, despite the universal shortage of the necessities of life.  Books were still written and scholars still spoke their minds and interacted with their counterparts in other countries.  The 1930s brought an end to that, as denunciations and political tribunals became the norm and unqualified Party members were brought in to fill the places of scholars exiled to Siberia or shot.  Poppe witnessed friend after friend falling afoul of the Party and the secret police, and was himself interviewed by the latter several times.


If you’re asking how political a book on the Mongolic languages could possibly be, well, Poppe could tell you.  He had to rework his treatment of the history of Mongol languages because of a political fear that an obscure academic text written in Russian might spark a pan-Mongol political movement – Mongolia at the time was an abject client state of the Soviets.  If that seems ridiculous, one of his son’s schoolbooks was destroyed because someone thought that he could see the face of Trotsky in the tree on the cover.


But what really put him danger were his associations with foreign scholars and academic institutions – several of Poppe’s colleagues were condemned for their associations with “Nazi” or “Capitalist” institutions.


Through all of this, Poppe kept doing his job the way it was supposed to be done as far as he could, but careful observation and prudence allowed him to do this.  He was keenly aware of how the system worked, and so he covered himself wherever possible.  Though he was of German ancestry, he got identity papers which stated he was Russian, telling the authorities that his grandfather had been Czech.


He refused to serve as a translator for Soviet forces attacking Finland, saying that he was a scholar of Mongolian languages and knew nothing about Finnish.  He concealed his total fluency in Finnish from the authorities for several years.  Poppe liked the Finns, and managed to get an accurate picture of Stalin’s embarrassing attempt to subdue Finland by reading Iranian newspapers – the only foreign papers not heavily censored by the Party.


It was a situation in which carrying on with normal life seemed almost impossible.  One incident shows the absurdity of the times.  Poppe had been helping the Red Army find accurate maps of the frontier between Mongolia and Japanese -held Manchuria during the negotiation of a border dispute.  Afterward, he asked a Russian general if he would mind getting his troops to survey some of the scattered monuments on the Mongolian steppe.  The general was happy to oblige, but it never happened – he was killed in Stalin’s purge of the officer corps shortly afterward, along with the majority of generals.



Much Worse


When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Poppe, who had no interest in either the Soviet or Nazi causes, made it his priority to protect his family, and to find a way to get them to the West if possible.  His family had been on holiday in the Caucasus, and so he went there, escaping Leningrad barely in time to avoid the brutal siege that killed over six hundred thousand of the city’s inhabitants.  In the Caucasus, he tried to keep his head down until the Soviets were forced to withdraw.  They traded one evil for another.  Before their withdrawal, the Soviet secret police exterminated all of their political prisoners.  When the SS arrived, they began gassing Jews.


Poppe, fluent in German, often interpreted for German army officers.  Life for most people was far easier and safer under the Germans, because unless you were a Jew or a member of some other group Hitler wanted to exterminate, they didn’t tend to care about you.  This was a very different situation from, for instance, the Ukraine, where the Slavic population also became subject to racial policies.  Poppe, who had become an interpreter by pointing out that the Germans’ interpreter was mistranslating, although he himself deliberately mistranslated when it could help people in danger.  Once when Poppe was accompanying German officers to a sanatorium for sick children, the administrator said that they had a number of Jewish children there.  Poppe translated this as ‘There are children of various nationalities here.’


Another incident involved an ethnic group known as the Tat.  No, you’ve probably never heard of them and you’re not alone!  In any case, they practiced Judaism, but Poppe put together historical and linguistic evidence that they were ethnically Persian, and had always been classified as such in Tsarist times.  Just to make sure, he suggested that the Tat community throw a big party for the German officers.  The Germans enjoyed themselves and pronounced that they didn’t care what religion the Tat practiced as long as they weren’t racially Jewish.  So Poppe very probably saved the entire Tat ethnic group from extinction.


When the Germans withdrew, Poppe knew from experience that anyone with any links to them would be imprisoned or shot by the Soviets.  He therefore took the opportunity to move his family geographically closer to his goal of living in a democratic country and went to Germany.  Working for the Germans as an analyst on Soviet and Central Asian political and cultural issues, he was already convinced that the Nazis were doomed.  He attempted to keep his son from getting conscripted into the German army – fortunately, his son’s unit, largely conscripted from occupied Alsace, surrendered at the first opportunity.


He nevertheless met many other people who had escaped Soviet oppression into the arms of the Germans, something that had been easy to do at the beginning of the war.  Poppe, like many others, believed that if not for Nazi ideology, the Germans could have had the wholehearted support of the Soviet population simply to abolish their own regime.



Are You Kidding Me?


Unfortunately, the victorious Allies did not at first distinguish between these refugees from Soviet oppression and supporters of Nazism.  Countless people were given back to the Soviets and faced certain death.  As a result, Poppe spent several years hiding from the Soviets while trying to care for his dying wife before he was able to find Allied officers who would clear the way for him to emigrate, first to Britain and then to the United States.


If he had spent several years waiting for the Allies to get over the idea that Stalin’s regime was a trustworthy partner just because they had been against the Nazis, Poppe arrived in America just in time for it to swing too far in the other direction with the advent of McCarthyism.  Once again, in front of a Congressional committee, he was asked to denounce one of his academic colleagues, this time as a Communist sympathiser, which he refused to do.



I’m just trying to live quietly over here…


In the end, Poppe and his sons did escape the insane situations they had been born into, and Poppe continued his prolific academic career at the University of Washington.  Through a lot of patience, principled persistence and prudence, he managed to navigate through some of the worst events in human history with his sanity intact.


What saved Nicholas Poppe and his family in the end were a few simple RESILIENCE principles that all Warriors should keep in mind:


1. Know the Signs of the Times:


“When it is evening, you say, `It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’
And in the morning, `It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” ~ Jesus Christ (Mt.16:2-3)


The fundamental principle here is to know and understand in depth the trends in thought going on around you.  All human cultures have their own blind spots and delusions, which evolve over time.  Do you see those of your own culture objectively?  Where are things heading on a societal level?



2. Know Your Enemy:


Because he could read the signs of the times, Poppe understood the psychosis behind both the Soviets and the Nazis.  And, because he had a keen analytical mind, he understood that the Soviets and the Nazis were completely different.  He did not make the critical mistake (which the West would continue to make for decades) of thinking they were the same.  By understanding the differences in their worldviews and motivations, Poppe was able to navigate his way through and play one off against the other.



3. Take Care of Yourself First:


You’re no good to anyone if you yourself are seriously ill or imprisoned.  Poppe understood his responsibilities as the head of his family and was very careful to ensure his own safety so that he could look after everyone else.



4. Know When to Be Defiant:


During the first purge of the Academy of Sciences, when all the other academics were cowering in fear before the Soviet Secret Police, Poppe’s wife, Nataliya, took the opposite tack.  Accused by them during a public meeting of being the daughter of a Tsarist general, she stood up, looked them right in the eye and said, “Yes, what of it?!”  Her accusers were so shocked that they backed down and never bothered her again!



5. Protect as Many as You Can:


Poppe didn’t just focus narrowly on protecting his own family – he helped everyone in danger he possibly could, no matter what side they belonged to.  And, as we’ve noted, he almost certainly saved the entire Tat ethnic group from extermination.



6. Get Out of Dodge at the First Opportunity:


There’s always somewhere on the planet where insanity is minimized and where you can live a normal life.  In the words of a Pakistani woman now working to improve the status of women in her native land, “Living in Canada taught me how right things could be.”  Once you’re “out of dodge” you can then decide whether you want to get back into the fray or not.



Most of us have had the incredible good fortune of growing up and living our lives in peaceful circumstances, but as Warriors we always have to keep in mind that there is nothing permanent in this world…



~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

~ Anthony S. Rodger, M.A.

  1. Posted 2 years ago

    A fascinating story. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Posted 2 years ago

    A fascinating story. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Posted 2 years ago

    As fascinating as the article is I think the lessons are more important. Where do you stand when you see an injustice occurring? Are you silent? Do you speak up? Do you act? Do you hide? How strong are your convictions?

  4. Posted 2 years ago

    Very thought provoking, as always.

  5. Posted 2 years ago

    Thank you. So inspiring.

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