THE PENDULUM SWINGS ROUND
Most of the population lived in a great state of tension, produced by the laws and restrictions,so numerous that it was difficult to follow them, and the slightest infringement of which meant imprisonment. For us there was, besides, the dread of being permanently cut off from Ekaterinburg should the White Army [Buxhoeveden's footnote: The combined forces of Czechs and the anti-Bolshevik armies were known by this name.] surround Tyumen.
Up to now no series of executions had taken place as in other towns. The local Soviet was evidently considered too mild, for towards the end of June the former president of the Omsk Soviet, a man renowned for his cruelty, arrived, and was promptly elected by the soldiers to the same post at Tyumen. This man, Schebaldin, became the all-powerful ruler of our destinies from this time on to the taking of the town by the Czechs three weeks later. I met him several times in the street. His face was typical of the class that was then in power. He was clean-shaven; his long, lank, black hair half veiled a broad high forehead, and his dark sparkling eyes had a hard and piercing look which gave something diabolical to his expression. People maintained that Schebaldin was not quite sane, and the decrees he issued seemed to support the idea. These decrees numbered twenty-nine, and they followed each other in quick succession. In the first he ordered the arrest of all former officers, threatening those who tried to evade it with capital punishment. All the other decrees were full of the same threat. "To be relentlessly shot" followed the mention of every possible offence. These outpourings were interlarded with the usual sentences about the "Glorious Red Revolution," international ideals, etc. It seemed strange to see these decrees, which held a death sentence for so many people, stuck up beside placards advertising cinemas and balls. The Bolsheviks were extremely fond of dancing, and, curiously enough, whenever there were rumours of Bolshevik reverses a placard announcing a public ball would immediately appear. Of course the curfew restriction of 8 P.M. did not hold good for these.
After Schebaldin's advent no one was safe. We had to restrict our walks, fearing to attract attention by our "Petrograd look," which still excited some comment from people in the streets. We several times had narrow escapes from being arrested. On the very night after our arrival at our lodgings, a party of soldiers invaded the house for a domiciliary visit. The first room they entered happened to be ours. We were so completely exhausted after our weeks of sleepless nights in the van that neither Mademoiselle Tegleva nor I woke up when the men came in, though their entrance was by no means noiseless. They marched up to our beds and made some unavailing attempts to rouse us. Seeing that this seemed a hopeless task, they remarked that we were probably drunk and had better be left alone, as we should not be able to answer coherently when we woke up! The bareness of the room and our battered bags evidently gave them the impression that we were proletarian relations of the owners of the house. They examined the first bag they hit upon, contemptuously tossed aside the worn-out clothing it contained, and went away to continue their search in the rest of the house. Our hosts evidently managed to convince the men that they possessed nothing of any value and had no anti-Bolshevik tendencies, so the dreaded visit passed off successfully.
Fortunately, none of the party chanced to fall upon our papers, for most certainly the presence of several members of the Emperor's household on the premises would have aroused suspicion as to the truth of our hosts' assertions, and they would have disbelieved them had they even sworn that they did not know of our antecedents.
Another time we spent a most uncomfortable day after my chance meeting with one of the most militant of the Ekaterinburg sub-Kommissars. I went to the railway station, and as I was opening the heavy door leading to the restaurant, it was pushed open from the other side. My feelings can be imagined when I saw myself face to face with this Kommissar! As the man knew that we were supposed by the Ekaterinburg authorities to be in exile at Tobolsk, my walking about in Tyumen might strike him as unlawful. What if he thought it his duty to report the fact to his chiefs? Dire would be the results! He looked at me, but I saw no signs of recognition in his eyes. Was he going to follow me, or would he instruct the Soviet to find out my address? We could be traced easily in such a small place. My memory proved to be better than the Kommissar's, for he evidently did not know me, and no search was made for me. Had I been arrested, all our party would certainly have shared my fate, for a few days after this incident I saw a harmless clerk I knew - a foreigner - being marched down the street between two soldiers. He was soon set free; but it was symptomatic.
Most of the foreigners, and all the townspeople who could do so, managed to leave Tyumen by stealth, generally at night. Their houses and belongings were immediately confiscated, and Schebaldin promulgated a new decree, threatening to shoot anyone who was caught leaving the town. Pickets were placed at every exit. Among the people who fled were the brothers Kolokolnikoff, immensely rich merchants who had built and endowed a splendid commercial school and had always spent great sums on the charities of the town. The whole family left, except two young boys of seventeen and fourteen, the sons of one of the brothers, who were still at school. On them Schebaldin vented his rage at having lost his wealthiest prey. When these poor boys refused to disclose their parents' whereabouts, they were imprisoned, and when they still disclaimed any knowledge on cross-examination, Schebaldin had them shot in cold blood, having previously submitted them to the most inhuman treatment. Their bodies were thrown down a deep well, where they were found after the Bolsheviks' retreat.
Seething indignation now spread to all classes. Schebaldin was not content with "bleeding" the merchants, but turned his attention to the rich peasantry. He sent detachments of Red guards into the villages to requisition foodstuffs for his army. In order to soften the blow he decreed that the rich peasants' land should be divided among the "village proletariat." In the paper in which this order was given, he said that all priests found inciting the peasants to disregard his orders should be shot by his men without trial. This infuriated the rural population. At a sitting of the Soviet the peasant members lodged a protest against Schebaldin's decree, which they considered an encroachment on their rights of self- government. They were out-voted, left the Soviet in a body, and did not return. From that moment the Soviet consisted only of soldiers and workmen, and these did what they liked.
I heard an echo of the public mind in the street one day as I stopped, ostensibly to read a poster, but in reality to hear what an elderly peasant was saying in low tones to a knot of people assembled around him. These were small shopkeepers and peasants who listened attentively to his words. To my astonishment he was denouncing the Bolsheviks. He was speaking of the murder of the young Kolokolnikoffs and holding it up as a proof of the senseless injustice that was going on. He went on to say, "We peasants have money in plenty, it is true, but what can we get for it? The shops are empty. We can neither build houses nor till our ground, for we have neither material nor instruments. Our wives cannot get any stuff to clothe our children. To get a single pair of shoes we have to spend what in former times would have kept a whole family for a month. We were promised that war should end, and the war is still going on, and the worst war we have ever seen, for now the Bolsheviks are fighting our own brothers. Truly we must say that we have never seen worse times than these, and we can only hope we shall soon be rid of the whole lot up there." He pointed to the Soviet building. His listeners assented, but as their voices got louder the sentry in front of the building ordered them to disperse instantly as, under martial law, no public meetings could be held. The crowd obeyed, of course, but went away muttering so loudly that it was a sure proof that the regime was tottering.
Towards the middle of July the news of the taking of Yaloutorovsk by the Czechs had filtered through. The town was quite close to Tyumen. Ambulance trains filled with wounded arrived daily. As the Soviet could not announce any victories and still wished in some way to fan the warlike spirit of the civil population, they decided that the funeral of the men who had fallen in battle should be the occasion of a great political demonstration. Placards were posted up announcing that the funeral of the fallen comrades was to take place on the next day with the utmost ceremony. The spot chosen as their burial-ground, where their memory was to be ever present in the minds of the citizens, was a pretty little square in the centre of the town. It had just been laid out by the German prisoners of war, some of whom were excellent gardeners. These men had lavished much loving care on it, and it actually possessed flower-beds, a rarity in those parts. Incidentally, it may be mentioned that the water reservoir of the town lay quite close to this square. The Bolsheviks never troubled their heads about this, and the bodies, which were not properly buried, poisoned the water, and thus were said to be the cause of the subsequent cholera epidemic.
On the day of the funeral the route the procession was to follow was lined with troops, while all the town authorities assembled at the station to meet the funeral train. At the last moment it became known that there were twice the number of dead that had been expected. In consequence the number of coffins that had been prepared was not sufficient, and the whole stock at the local undertakers had to be hastily requisitioned. As they could not supply the necessary quantity of coffins for men, coffins for women were taken to make up the deficiency. The gaudy pink and white "shells" that the taste of the local inhabitants demanded for their female relatives did not look very suitable, but perhaps no worse than the red boxes that had been prepared by the Soviet. The horrible impression these produced was heightened by the fact that the red paint was still fresh and left red stains on everything that touched it. When the train arrived there was the greatest difficulty in putting the bodies into the coffins, which were mostly too small. It was a gruesome picture when the open coffins, out of which arms and legs protruded, were carried down the street. The whole crowd stood silent. If the Bolsheviks had wished to create an impression that would be fatal to the idea of civic funerals they were certainly successful.
Even the least religious people looked on aghast at the horrible sight. When the procession started it was even worse, for the jolts made the dead men's limbs move about as if there were still some life left in the poor creatures! One of the chiefs requested the crowd to show their patriotism by helping the soldiers to carry their dead comrades, but no one volunteered. Anything reminiscent of a religious ceremony was carefully avoided, and no priest was allowed to approach the grave. The band played the "Marseillaise," which, after the revolution, was only considered in the light of the first song of liberty and not at all as the French National Anthem, and this was followed by the usual "International." Before the bodies were committed to the earth a political meeting was held. The outpourings on this occasion surpassed even the usual oratory, so great was the speakers' desire to stir up popular indignation against the Czechs and against the bourgeois who were supposed to be acting with them. One fanatic went so far as to suggest arresting and shooting all the people living in one street, first in the houses with even numbers, then in those with odd ones. The next street should follow, and so on, till the population should be imbued with salutary fear! Happily this bloodthirsty demand was not put into execution. As it was toned down it only resulted in a series of arrests.
The situation was getting desperate. The proximity of the White Army resulted in very few peasants coming to market. They one and all refused to take the currency in use by the Bolsheviks, and demanded to be paid in old Tsar money for their wares, of which there was scarcely any to be found in the place. We seriously asked ourselves if hunger would not be added to everything else. Happily Monsieur Gilliard had proved himself to be most far-sighted. A couple of weeks previously he had surreptitiously managed to buy several large round cheeses for us, in case of emergency. These he gallantly agreed to keep in his own bedroom, as we had no choice between this and our female dormitory, and to have them there was impossible as the room was so small. The weather was warm, and the cheeses ripened, and by this time poor Monsieur Gilliard was acutely aware of their presence. However, we were delighted to attack them, and they became our staple food.
The Bolsheviks now forbade the ringing of church bells. It was feared that they might be signals. The last Germans had also left, only their Red Cross representative remaining in the soldiers' camp. There had been several German officers on the Bolshevik staff, and others, who had been prisoners of war, lived in the town, waiting to be sent home. At the beginning of our stay we saw some of those connected with the Soviet staff driving about with their German orderly sitting on the box. The departure of the Germans was another sign of the approach of the Czechs, who were, of course, on the side of the Allies, and into whose hands the Germans were not anxious to fall.
Great excitement became noticeable among the Soviet people. Men on horseback were stationed before the staff building day and night. Several of the most important Kommissars left - it was officially given out, for instructions - and subordinates were left in charge. One morning the whole of the market-place was surrounded by soldiers and everybody was ordered to produce his or her papers. Some of the women had left theirs at home, and were taken to the Soviet nearly frantic with terror. After their identity had been established they were released. It appeared that the reason for this raid was that the Bolsheviks heard of the presence in the town of a reconnoitring party of Cossacks. Not a single one was captured, and the next day a poster was stuck up on one of the houses on the outskirts, in which it was said that twelve Cossacks had been in the town on the previous day and that they had now safely returned to their unit. The poster was signed "The Cossacks"!
After the fifteenth of July we heard distant firing from time to time - the sound of the Czechs' artillery. Would the town be besieged and shelled, and would the Bolsheviks defend it to the last, as they proclaimed? The thought of the shelling of a town consisting mainly of wooden buildings was not too encouraging. Besides, the Bolsheviks usually completely lost their heads when they were hard pressed and made short work of all non-Bolsheviks on whom they could lay their hands. But at least events were coming to a climax. Anything was better than living under the cloud of impending catastrophe as we had been doing.
On the evening of July 19 all the inhabitants of the streets leading to the Toura [Buxhoeveden's footnote: Tyumen lies on this river] were kept awake by the rattle of carts rapidly travelling up and down. Mounted men were heard clattering by at a great pace, shouting orders. People living near the Soviet saw the building brilliantly lighted up and soldiers, carrying great bundles, loading carts outside it. We sat up, as did most of the townsfolk, and late in the evening a loud tapping was heard at the front door. Our land- lady's boy hastened to open it. Some sailors stood outside it asking to see the owner of the house. The boy demurred, but they were evidently in a great hurry. They told him that they had no time to lose, and that: he should immediately produce all the horses there were in the stables. The boy answered that these had been confiscated long ago. The sailors went to inspect, and finding some harness, possessed themselves of it and hurried away. When I looked out of the window later on I saw the same party leading a fine grey horse which they must have got from somewhere farther on.
Afterwards a batch of soldiers came and asked if there were any silver in the house. This also had already been requisitioned, so they contented themselves with some metal coffee-pots, being evidently in such a hurry that they took the first thing they saw. Most of the houses in the town had such visits and the noise in the street lasted the best part of the night. When we awoke next morning not a sound was to be heard. The landlady's boy, when he went out to reconnoitre, saw an empty street. Even the Bolshevik sentry usually posted at the corner had disappeared. The boy ventured farther, and in a quarter of an hour rushed back, shouting at the top of his voice, "They are gone, gone!" so loud that the neighbours heard him. All the windows opened. Heads appeared; men and women ran out. People would not believe at first that the news was really true, for the Bolsheviks had reigned more than six months at Tyumen, but already posters had been put up on the main street, signed by the old Town Council, announcing that it had temporarily taken over the administration.
It appeared that on that night the remaining Kommissars, knowing that the town was being surrounded, had decided to avail themselves of the only means of escape open to them, and had all embarked in the steamers that they had kept in readiness during the last fortnight. All the money in the banks and government offices, all their most important papers, as well as all the valuable stores they could possibly take away, were shipped on the thirty-seven steamers lying in the river. When the members of the Soviet were on board, the soldiers, both in the barracks and in the trains in the station, did not see the good of being left behind to fight, so the whole lot left simultaneously. To tills was due the fact that the end of the Bolsheviks' rule was unaccompanied by any bloodshed. Strangely enough, before leaving the town, Schebaldin had himself gone to the prison and had given the order to set all its inmates free. This order included ordinary offenders as well as the political prisoners and the people kept as hostages. Some said that this sudden access of humanity was the result of a misunderstanding, as Schebaldin had been expecting the arrival of a detachment of soldiers to execute such people as he should select. These soldiers had preferred to board the steamers, being afraid of being left behind if they came too late, and had never appeared, so that Schebaldin had given the order for all the prisons to be emptied.
The Town Council immediately formed a kind of militia from among the inhabitants to keep order until the Czechs' arrival. The streets were full of people who were in such a state of excitement that men and women who had never met before talked with animation to each other, relating their experiences and inquiring the latest news of the Czechs. Friends embraced each other as they do at Easter. All that day carts kept arriving full of young men, whose bearing proclaimed them to be former officers, coming to offer their services. As every cart passed the crowd broke out into loud cheers. Towards evening it became nearly impossible to squeeze through the street, for the White Army's vanguard was expected at any moment. Many of the women carried flowers, and every window and balcony was tightly packed with people. A little after 8 P.M. a band of horsemen rode slowly up the High Street. The Cossacks! It is impossible to describe the enthusiasm of the people at that moment. The crowd went wild. Women wept, men threw their caps in the air. With the greatest difficulty the Cossacks were able to advance. Officers headed each detachment. Men and horses were nearly spent with fatigue, for after several days' battle they had advanced in forced marches for two whole days in order to make a sudden descent on Tyumen and forestall its final looting by the Bolsheviks. Though the men were dusty and travel-stained and their horses bore withess to a thirty miles' ride that day, they had still kept the outward appearance of regular troops which their predecessors had decidedly lacked, and officers and men wore the old Cossack uniform. The townspeople organised a banquet for them on their arrival. Carts had gone round from house to house to collect food. All those who were asked gave what they could, and one could realise the relief felt at the change by the quantities of every kind that were given. Even the poorest people contributed something, and though it was a Sabbath and the Jews could not cook on that day, the Jewish community, wishing to show their share in the general rejoicing, sent their Sabbath wheaten loaves as their offering. I believe the Cossacks sat down that night to a repast such as they had not dreamt of for a very long time.
The red Soviet flag had been hauled down, and now the white and green flag of the Independent Siberian Government was flown on all the flagstaffs. These colours had been chosen by the Directorate - the name by which the Independent Siberian Government at Omsk had called itself - to symbolise the snows and woods of Siberia. The new flag fluttering over the buildings was the outward sign of the end of Bolshevism. Alas! this did not last. The next year saw the Bolsheviks reinstated, this time to stay till the present day.
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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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