UNDER BOLSHEVIK RULE
Two weeks after we had left Ekaterinburg we at last arrived at Tyumen. We were told at the station that we should not be sent any further. No reason was given for this, but we learned later that Tobolsk, which had been assigned to us as a place of exile, had overthrown the Bolsheviks some ten days after the Imperial children had been removed to Ekaterinburg. There had been no bloodshed. The population had simply declared its allegiance to the anti-Bolshevik Government that had been formed in Eastern Siberia and the Kommissars had fled. Had the Grand Duchesses been left at Tobolsk, who knows if they might not have been saved?
There was much discussion at Tyumen as to whether we were to be arrested or not. Happily it was proved that we were harmless, so we were ordered out of the train and told to settle in the town, which we were forbidden to leave on any pretext. We were at the last actually sorry to say good-bye to our van, for there, at least, we had all been people bound together by a common interest and kindly disposed and helpful to each other. None of us knew a single soul in Tyumen. Money was scarce. The paper which we had been given by the Ekaterinburg Soviet was a kind of bill of lading, branding us as outlaws. It excluded us from all hope of getting work. All those, even servants, who had had anything to do with the Court were looked at with suspicion if not with hatred.
Still, fate was merciful. Monsieur Gilliard chanced to meet a foreigner who heard of his plight, and gave him the address of some acquaintances of his who were eager to let their rooms to decent people, fearing that the Soviet would foist some undesirable lodgers on them. Our first attempt failed, as the people were afraid to take us in when they heard who we were. I was turned away from another place with much abuse for being a bourgoui, but finally we managed to find two rooms in a fairly comfortable house. In one Monsieur Gilliard took up his quarters, and in the other were Mademoiselle Tegleva, myself, and one of the maids. Mr. Gibbes settled down in another place by himself, and the servants, with much difficulty, found some miserable rooms in a distant part of the town. They were glad enough to get even this shelter, and hoped to better themselves when their antecedents should be forgotten. We were very lucky in being four together, and Monsieur Gilliard was a rock to lean on. He really played Providence to us women, and his presence and that of Mr. Gibbes was a special protection, for foreigners, and particularly republicans like Gilliard, were still treated a shade better than the Russians during the first weeks of our stay. All our names. Citizen Gilliard, Citizeness Buxhoeveden, etc., as well as those of the other inmates, were written on a black-board prominently nailed on the front door of our house; this was another leaf taken from the history of the French Revolution. As our names meant nothing to the people, we were not molested.
We had, however, still to register ourselves at the Kommissariat. This was an anxious moment, as our papers dated from pre-revolutionary days and we knew that this was always considered objectionable. Yet there was nothing to be done but to put on a bold face. I entered the Kommissariat alone, lay companions remaining in the background so as not to make it appear that we belonged to each other, in case our names, joined together, might arouse some memories and questions as to our past. The harassed individual who was at the head of the office was seemingly specially busy that day. The local Kommissar combined with other duties all the functions formerly held by the police. He was a kind of "maid-of-all-work." He saw to the registration of the inhabitants, to the orders in town, and delivered as well every possible certificate, from those allowing weak infants an extra supply of gruel and sugar to the permits for marriage and divorce.
These marriage certificates had to be supplied by the Kommissar, as the Bolshevik Government did not recognise religious marriage and no kind of civil ceremony had replaced it. The certificates were obtained without any trouble. The parties had only to appear with two withesses, who attested that the people were not already married to anyone else, or if they had been, that they were now divorced. People could marry and be divorced as often as they liked, and no one bothered to inquire if the withesses told the truth or not. They were not made to take the oath, and if their statement proved to be incorrect, the people were just unmarried! It was, I believe, a very cheap proceeding and cost about two shillings; but as yet only the Bolshevik soldiery availed themselves of these matrimonial facilities.
I watched these various activities till my own turn came. The assistant Kommissar studied my papers lengthily; he was a soldier and seemed to have some difficulty in reading. He stumbled painfully over my name, and at last gave a kind of phonetic rendering of it, remarking "One has to be drunk in order to pronounce this gibberish." This witty remark caused great hilarity. I smiled ingratiatingly and hastened to repossess myself of my papers. He scribbled something in his book - I doubt if anyone could have read my address as he rendered it - and the ordeal was over. I took good care never to go near the place again, and did without all the sugar permits, etc., which could only be dispensed by the Kommissar. I thought a further examination and stamping of my passport too risky a proceeding to be repeated.
The room occupied by my two companions and myself was a tiny one. There was no furniture in it except three beds and one table. Such close quarters were sometimes rather trying, but we were a protection to each other, for there was not much safety for women in those times, though the decree for nationalisation of women, which had been passed in some parts of Russia, was not in force at Tyumen. Whenever we went out either Gilliard or Gibbes accompanied us.
The town was under martial law, and no one was allowed to walk abroad after 8 P.M. It was a great military centre of the Bolsheviks and was full of soldiery. We also met sailors from the Baltic Fleet, who played a great part all over the country after the revolution. It was the fashion among them to discard their vests and to be very decollete in consequence, and the height of elegance was attained by long cap ribbons which hung down their backs, reaching nearly to the waist. They could be seen walking about with a lady on each arm, as the navy seemed to be in great favour. Both they and their lady friends openly flaunted jewellery in the form of rings and bracelets, the wearing of which was prohibited to the population. These were the men off duty. Others, with hard, intent faces, hurried about to and from the Soviet building.
We had great difficulty in providing ourselves with food, though a market was held daily, for living had become frightfully expensive since the Soviet had fixed prices for all produce, and all wares except milk and butter were rapidly disappearing. Siberia was literally overflowing with butter, which could no longer be exported, and in some places the peasants greased their cart-wheels with it to put it to some use.
The shops were nearly as empty as those at Tobolsk had been, and people stood in endless queues before them. The Bolsheviks did not suffer from these hardships. They had special facilities for getting what they wanted, and money in abundance, so they could pay the fancy prices that the underhand dealers demanded for those articles which they still managed, in some mysterious way, to produce. The unfortunate people who were not in Bolshevik service could get no work, and these lived by selling the last of their belongings, most of which was clothing. This was now very precious, as no material could be obtained, and the Bolshevik ladies liked finery. I paid for my dinners for a whole week by the sale of a pair of new white washing gloves that I happened to have in my bag.
Every bit of material the people chanced to have was turned to account. The result was sometimes startling. I remember meeting a man wearing a suit, evidently made by his wife, which must originally have been a pair of old wine-coloured rep curtains. He did not seem to mind, and perhaps his dress was a safeguard, for in those times a man wearing a collar and a woman with a hat instead of a shawl on her head were looked upon with suspicion. It savoured of bourgaui tendencies, i.e. of counter-revolutionary sympathies. We ourselves looked like real proletarians, for our clothes, the same that we had worn all the winter, had got woefully shabby. We kept them together as best we could, often having to draw threads out of the material to do our mending, as only white thread could be bought, and that was so expensive, ten shillings the reel, that we had to think twice before getting it. We became experts at camouflage. I used to cut up pocket-handkerchiefs to make soles for my thin silk stockings as I could not get new ones of any kind, and consoled myself with the idea that no one could guess what they looked like inside my shoes. We had to exercise the strictest economy in everything, for nobody could tell how long we might have to remain at Tyumen, and for my part the small sum of money I had was fast dwindling down, so that as time went on I sold nearly all the fittings of my dressing-bag to cover my daily expenses.
Monsieur Gilliard and I met some neutrals, among them a few Danes, who happened to be in the town. All of them I ever came in contact with during my travels in Siberia were most kind and friendly, for my father's name was well known in Denmark, but they could do nothing for us here. We could not even go and see them for fear of compromising them, but we had the comfort of knowing that if something happened to us we would at least get decent burial and our people would hear the news.
From the Danes we heard that there was truth in the report that the Czech legions, whose original intention had been simply to fight the Bolsheviks in order to force their way through the country to their homes, had been joined by anti-Bolshevik Amur Cossacks. This combined army was advancing towards Tyumen from Omsk, but as the usual lies, proclaiming great victories, filled the Bolshevik news, telegrams posted up at the street corners, no one knew the real state of affairs. We just had to be patient and wait for events to develop. We knew nothing about Ekaterinburg and were unable to communicate with anyone. We dared not own to each other the anxiety we felt for the Imperial Family's fate should Ekaterinburg be taken by the Czechs. Would the prisoners be taken away, or what would happen to them if the town were surrounded and the Bolsheviks became desperate?
In order to find some kind of occupation for both of us I spent most of the day teaching Monsieur Gilliard English, and we worked at it from morning to night. We went for our dinner to a local restaurant much in vogue among the soldiers. Here for a very high price we got a plate of cabbage soup and a piece of beef. It was a wretched place. Everything which could easily be taken away by the clients had long ago been dispensed with. The deal tables had no cloths, wooden spoons and two-pronged steel forks had replaced their vanished plated brethren. The crockery was none too clean, but the food was abundant. This was particularly appreciated when our financial straits allowed us the luxury of a restaurant dinner only every second day. On the intermediate days we lived chiefly on tea and eggs. The place, of course, was full of soldiers and their ladies, and the smell of foul tobacco and leather boots mingled with sour cabbage filled the unaired rooms, and we generally tried to sit on the veranda. The frightened waitresses ran about attending to the orders of the soldiers, who spent recklessly, eating and drinking the most expensive items on the menu. It was impossible for a respectable woman to enter the restaurant unescorted. I only once attempted this, but some ten minutes later had to escape by a door at the back with the help of a friendly waitress.
The evenings we spent at home, sitting all together, for we had to be very careful of our small stock of candles, for which we had to pay dear. Our rooms had no electric light, and we could only allow ourselves the luxury of lighting one candle for a couple of hours. We went to bed early, undressing in the dark, and those long sleepless nights were not the least of our trials.
We saw little of our hosts. They were busy, for they had to do most of their housework themselves. Servants, as a class, had disappeared, and were besides a great danger. Denunciations were well paid for by the Bolsheviks, and if you displeased your servant there was always a risk that she would go and denounce her employers to the authorities and in that way add some extra roubles to her pay. People were arrested on the slightest plea. A woman I knew was heavily fined, and barely escaped imprisonment, for having told her coachman to address her as "barinia" (mistress), and not "citizeness." Her housemaid went to the Soviet and reported this, and it sufficed for a charge of counter-revolutionary tendencies to be filed against her.
We heard of constant arrests for quite unimportant reasons. The Soviet system of getting money for their wants by levying a contribution on the townspeople had worked very successfully at first, but as no one could touch his bank deposits, and all private accounts at the banks were stopped by a previous decree of the Soviet, the people had not the wherewithal to pay up any more. It was then that the arrests of the richer classes began. Merchants and the bourgeoisie were put into prison for even the slightest infringement of the regulations, and their relations, knowing the treatment they would be exposed to, hastened to pay bail for them. As there was no ready money available, their womenfolk sold the last bits of jewellery they still possessed, but paid whatever was the sum demanded.
Gradually the arrests extended also to less prominent people, and towards the end of the Bolsheviks' rule even the foreign subjects were not exempted from this risk. Several men I knew were taken to prison, and even the wife of the oldest British resident in Tyumen, Mrs. X, spent three days in the women's gaol, being held responsible for her husband's absence. Her telegrams to the British Consul at Omsk asking for his help were not sent off, and the other foreigners had difficulty in proving that Mr. X, being an eight days' journey away from Tyumen, could not instantly appear when he was sent for.
All the prisons were over-filled in consequence of these methods. Instead of four or five inmates in every cell there was usually thrice the number. No distinction was made as to sex, men and women being huddled together in one room. When they were taken for their outings in the courtyard the soldiers jeered at them, and if any prisoner dared to answer back he was threatened with immediate execution. In order to keep the prisoners in salutary awe of the authorities this was even rehearsed sometimes, and once, so an eye-withess told me, only a warder's presence of mind saved their lives. On this occasion the men were awakened late at night and ordered to get up and prepare to go out, as they were to be shot. They were all led out and drawn up in a line along the outer wall and asked for their last messages to their relations, as the detachment that was to put the sentence into execution was already on the way. The poor people waited for about an hour for the arrival of this detachment, but instead an officer from the Soviet appeared, who announced that there had been a mistake and that the execution was put off for another day. The relief on hearing this after the intolerable suspense of the last hour was such that one of the prisoners, a strong man of some thirty-five years, fainted outright.
It appeared that the chief of the prison was drunk when he gave the order for the execution, and that one of the warders, seeing his condition, sped to the Soviet, where he luckily found a member on duty. That man, not having heard of any order for this wholesale murder, sent the officer to stop it.
The prisoners' relations were allowed to provide them with food, but the gaolers, fearing that some communication might be hidden in the dishes that were brought for them from their homes, generally poured the whole dinner into a dirty pail, which was then taken to their cells. In consequence of this, not only did bread, meat, and pudding swim in the soup, but the soldiery often amused themselves by adding cigarette stumps and even other still less appetising items to the mess, till it became quite unfit for human consumption. One of the arrested men's wives, who saw it, told me this, and said that the gaolers' behaviour was so disgusting that she had to send a message to her husband begging him not to touch the food she had brought him, and her fear was not that he had remained hungry but that the message had not been delivered and that he had eaten his unsavoury dinner.
Trials were a farce. There were no longer any regular law courts; the old penal code was abolished and no other existed. For every kind of offence people were brought before a revolutionary tribunal, the members of which were all appointed by the Soviet and consisted almost exclusively of Red guardsmen. These men were instructed to give their judgments according to their "revolutionary conscience," as there were no staple laws. Their conscience always prompted them to apply totally different punishments to the proletariat and to the intelligentsia for the same offence. Capital punishment was a frequent sentence. The accused had not the right to choose his own counsel. "The Public Defender," usually a soldier appointed by the Soviet, was his spokesman. At Tyumen the Public Defender was the owner of a small restaurant. We often saw him looking after his customers, having evidently just come back from a trial, as he still wore a band on his arm on which his official title was written in red letters. His appearance could not inspire any confidence and he had no legal qualification whatever, but perhaps, as he was an innkeeper and these people have generally a professional geniality, he may have been more humane than the others.
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Other books on Russian History from the Alexander Palace Association:
The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna by Sophie Buxhoeveden | Memories of the Russian Court by Anna Vyrubova | Thirteen Years at the Russian Court by Pierre Gilliard | Last Days at Tsarskoe Selo by Paul Beckendorff | St. Petersburg - Imperial City | Charles Cameron - Imperial Architect by Georges Loukomski | Tsarskoe Selo in 1910
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