Background to The Siberians Series

Arlette (Sukhov) Cykman  1941 – 2021

More than ten years ago in Thailand Arlette Cykman, the last remaining member of the Sukhov family, approached me with a remarkable account of the family’s struggle for survival during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the horrendous four-year civil war that followed. Her request was simple – to write her family’s story before she died. She was already old and in declining health.

Arlette had been born in Shanghai. Her mother Vera Sukhov was Russian and born in Siberia during the Civil War, and her father, an Egyptian-Armenian, had met Vera in Shanghai. Arlette had taken the surname of Cykman from her Polish-American stepfather after her mother remarried following World War Two.

I spent several months interviewing Arlette at her home in Thailand. Her detailed oral history was richly augmented from diaries, mountainous files of documents and newspaper clippings, family photograph albums, and mementos. Amazingly all of this survived the family’s struggles through the major wars and revolutions of the twentieth century, and their repeated flights. Now Arlette, the last in the direct Sukhov line, had become the custodian of this extraordinary family archive.

The Sukhov family had been in Russia at the time of Russia’s involvement in World War One, and one of the family members fought against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. They were there at the time when revolution swept through the country, and they were involved with the “White” coalition that fought against the Red Bolsheviks in the civil war.

Written histories of the Russian Revolution mainly focus on the causes leading up to October 1917, and the revolution itself as depicted by the storming of the Winter Palace, the symbol of ultimate victory by the Bolsheviks. For the rest of the population, those not living in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) or Moscow but spread across the vastness that is the Russian nation, this was far from the reality they witnessed in their own region.

            Little has been written about the civil war, and there is good reason for this. The conflict pitted Russian against Russian; it was not so much about territory lost or gained, but a vicious clash of diametrically opposed political ideologies. The true death toll will never be known. The best estimates suggest more than 250,000 died – from the fighting, and from disease, hunger and the bitter cold. The “Red” Bolshevik forces did ultimately prevail after four long years; but the death toll was so high, and the divisions within the population so deep, that the new rulers of Russia desperately wanted to “paper over the cracks” and pretend it didn’t happen. Even in Russia today the Civil War is a subject to be avoided, and museums and archives have deliberately expunged most references to the conflict.

Similarly, the Western Powers wanted to downplay their role in the Civil War. Largely for their own political and economic interests, they supplied the White forces with armaments, and even put their own troops on the ground in Siberia and the Crimea. But when it became apparent they had backed the wrong side, they withdrew and left the crumbling Whites forces stranded and set up for defeat. The intense residual bitterness felt by the Bolsheviks over the Western Powers’ involvement underpinned the Cold War between the East and West for decades.

Several books by Western authors have been written about the Civil War, but these mostly attempt to unravel the complex military and political history of the conflict. There is little about the effect on the general population, apart from horrifying statistics of death and disease.

The Sukhovs were a middle-class Russian family, a family of moderately wealthy merchants, as well as factory owners and small landowners who had established themselves in Siberia over three generations. They lived in the town of Barnaul in the southern Altai Krai region, a long way from the political cauldron of the cities in “Western Russia” on the other side of the Ural Mountains.

During the revolution their awareness and comprehension of events would have been limited to letters from family, the hearsay of travelers, weeks-old newspapers, and occasional information coming in over the telegraph. But the conflicts and political upheaval going on in their own town, and in the countryside around them, were real and present. They could hold on and survive for a while, but sooner or later they would need to decide what to do – stay and fight with all the inherent risks, or abandon everything and flee for their lives.

This is not written as a family history. Nor is it a documentary treatment of the conflict. But it is their story – as imagined through their eyes by a writer in another country and in another time.



Photos from the Museum in Moscow