Again the train! How I blessed the Czechs for the offer of a seat when I saw the hundreds of people storming the cattle-trucks at the station! The whole of Siberia still seemed to be travelling, and the carriages presented the same picture I had seen in Kerensky and Bolshevik times. The Czechs' car was an exception to the rest, for besides the six or seven soldiers there were in it only Mr. S. of the American Y.M.C.A., Gilliard and myself. Half of the car was a primitive saloon carriage which was put at the disposal of myself and my two travelling companions, while the Czechs used the other half, where they sat round a large iron stove. They were all fine men, wearing the new grey uniform of their army, with grey sheepskin Hussar busbies adorned with red cloth and tassels on their heads. They were very friendly to us, and talked on all manner of subjects in fairly good Russian. All of them seemed to be keen politicians, very democratic in their views, and they volubly discussed the political questions of the moment, both Russian and European, with the wonderful knowledge of the subject I had already remarked among the men in our hospital. They spoke with most ardent admiration of Masarik and other prominent leaders, whom most of them had seen and known.
It took us more than two days to reach Omsk. Soon after we had started, our soldier companions brewed coffee in a pan and produced all kinds of food from their knapsacks. This went on without interruption all the time. They pressed us warmly to take part in their meals, and carefully wiped all the bread and sausages with their handkerchiefs, which had been kept in their boots, before passing them to me ! They were very considerate to the one woman among them, and, though they exchanged jests, they stopped one another when some forcible words slipped out inadvertently, and all of them went out of their way to make us as comfortable as they could. It was with real gratitude that we thanked them when we parted.
On arrival at Omsk we met with a cold reception in every sense. The lack of forests around it causes Omsk to be one of the coldest towns in Siberia. We felt this driving along the endlessly long Atamanskaia, the chief street, in which are most of the Government buildings and the best shops. Though I was well wrapped up and my face was covered with a thick layer of cold cream to avoid frost-bite, I was chilled to the bone and scarcely able to breathe in the thin air. The thermometer registered the lowest temperature I have ever known - roughly, about -62F. below zero (-42 R.). We drove to an hotel, but the people laughed in our faces when we asked for rooms. Every hotel in town had been full up for months.
Where were we to go? I knew no one in Omsk and had no idea of the address of the American Red Cross. Gilliard betook himself to the French Military Mission, while I fortunately remembered the address of relations of some of my friends, and went to them to inquire if they knew of some possible lodging. Mr. X had a prominent post in the administration, but I found him and his wife, with three babies, a nurse, and a homeless nephew of eighteen living in two rooms. They told me that no boarding-houses existed, and that it was impossible to rent a room anywhere, but said they would manage to have me put up somehow and, though they had never seen me before, insisted that I must come and have my meals with them. Mr. X immediately went on his quest and returned with the news that a man who had an office in the house they lived in suggested that I should sleep in this, as it was empty at night. He proposed that I should use his writing-table instead of a bed, and only stipulated that I should leave the premises before 9 A.M. The X family strongly urged me to agree to this arrangement, as it was useless to hope to find any better shelter. I had to accept, though I felt that an eighth person in the X's two rooms during the day might be decidedly too much! The X's themselves did not seem to mind. I discovered that numerous visitors came to see them in the afternoon. The guests occupied every chair and even the window-sills, but this never seemed to disturb anyone. I was not to use the writing-table, however, for the homeless nephew generously lent me his bed, which was discreetly disguised in a corner of the office. I believe the youth slept on the floor somewhere in the house.
My new acquaintances proved to be charming people. The young wife was a delightful companion, and never seemed to object to doing her cooking, washing and mending in the one room that did duty as kitchen and parlour, while the three small babies crawled about the floor and visitors dropped in for a chat and a cup of tea at any hour of the day. Most interesting people came in to see them, and from these I learned all that had happened in Russia and Europe during the months that I had been cut off from news. They also told me that many people whom I had known in Russia had drifted to Omsk; but I was not in the mood to go about and see many people besides those I had to.
One of the first foreigners I met at Omsk was Sir Charles Eliot, the head of the British Diplomatic Mission. I could not believe my eyes when a wire from him was brought to me at Tyumen, just before I left, in which he asked if he could do anything for me. For nearly two years I had not seen a telegram form! An unsigned postcard I had written to my friend Kathleen Conyngham Greene, daughter of the British Ambassador at Tokio, asking her to let my father know that I was still alive, had reached her. The Greenes had immediately wired to Sir Charles to try to find me, and this telegram was the result.
It was strange and unreal to return to a world where people gave dinner-parties, discussed small social events, and worried over minor daily happenings. Everything in ordinary life seemed so unimportant to me, and it was not easy to readjust myself to everyday things. It was with difficulty that I persuaded Sir Charles not to pay me a ceremonious call, for I really could not receive him in the office, nor in the only room of my friends. I felt absolutely lost when I was asked to dine with General Janin or Sir Alfred Knox, the heads of the French and British Military Missions at that time at Omsk. The members of General Knox's staff, Captain V. A. Cazalet and the Russian Colonel Rod2ianko, often came to see me at my office when its lawful owner had "shut up." It was so bitterly cold in my apartment - there was only a tiny stove which was not heated after closing hours - that my guests had to keep on their fur coats during their visit. Cazalet generally came loaded with sweets and cakes, which I shared with the X babies. Poor little "post-revolution" mites ! they had never seen cakes before, for even at Omsk such things were a great luxury, a tiny 2d. cake costing about 3s. General Janin I had known at the G.H.Q. at Mohileff when during the war I accompanied the Empress on her vsiits to the Emperor. The General had changed very much, I thought. I connected this mentally with a black band I saw round his sleeve. He had aged, and his eyes had lost their keenness. He spoke to me with great feeling and respect of the Emperor, whom he had known well.
Omsk was overflowing with people. In the times of the Monarchy it had numbered about 60,000 inhabitants; now, since the Siberian Government had had its seat there, there were upwards of 200,000. All the thousands of refugees from Russia had collected at Omsk, and the housing problem had, in consequence, become acute. Exorbitant rents were asked for the tiniest rooms, and I discovered ongoing to see friends that many of the families of the Government officials spent the nights in the buildings, as I did in my office. In one of the ministries I found a large gathering of old ladies and small children, camping among the desks and stools of the big and cheerless rooms. Out of secret hiding-places bundles of bedding for the babies were produced, while in the next room a party of clerks and their families were drinking tea.
During the day many of these miserable women had to walk about the streets, and when the cold was too intense they took refuge in the houses of their luckier friends who, like my hostess, still had rooms of their own. This explained to me the prolonged calls that people paid each other, generally accompanied by all their youthful progeny.
Among the people I was surprised to find at Omsk was an old friend of our family who had been carried by the general exodus far away from her usual moorings. Though nearing eighty she was still vigorous, both physically and mentally, and had that wonderful versatility seen in so many of my country-women which enabled them to bear the difficulties and trials of their refugee life without breaking down, and which often makes the woman the breadwinner of a whole family.
This old lady had had many sorrows, had just lost an only and idolised daughter, was penniless and practically homeless. Still, she was able to make the best of things, and it was wonderful to see the way in which she managed to attract people and to hold quite a little court, seating herself on a packing-case turned upside down, in front of a ramshackle table in the cold and cheerless offices which were her present quarters. She hospitably dispensed weak tea with lemon. Her financial difficulties did not allow her to offer anything with it, but it was her personality and not the fare which drew numerous visitors to her room. They took turns in going to replenish the small samovar, keeping up an animated conversation all the time.
The whole party belonged to the same part of Russia, the Volga region. They had left the town of X, which had been till then in the hands of the Czechs, when it suddenly became known one evening that owing to the approach of vastly superior Bolshevik armies the Czechs had decided to abandon X without a battle. The Bolsheviks were expected to enter the town on the morrow. When the news got about, most of the intelligentsia resolved, then and there, to follow in the wake of the Czechs, as they had had previous experience of the Bolsheviks' rule and were afraid of reprisals on their return. Acquaintances warned each other of the general departure. A relation of mine was thus wakened in the night by some friends and had less than an hour in which to collect her belongings to be in time to join the rest. People had to take with them only the barest necessities, the things they could carry themselves, for they had to look forward to a long tramp of some thirty-five miles till they reached the town of Z, on one of the great rivers, where several large passenger steamers were in readiness. There lay salvation, for on these boats Siberia could be reached.
All the fugitives had with them only the money they happened to have in the house when they left X. No one could wait till the morrow when the banks would be open, for the Bolsheviks might be on them at any moment. In their hurry and panic the majority took the most useless things with them, and left those they were to need most. A young friend of mine, for instance, dragged her baby's heavy copper warming- pan for a long time, being under the illusion that: she was carrying her most valuable pieces of plate. Another left a beautiful bracelet on her dressing-table, the sale of which would have provided for the wants of the family for some time, taking instead a parcel containing the children's old goloshes. Very few people were able to get a conveyance when they started on their flight. After the revolution people were so impoverished that it was the greatest exception for anyone still to have a carriage and horses. The stream of thousands of fugitives, all trudging along as fast as they could on the highroad on that dark autumn night, must have been reminiscent of Israel's flight from Egypt. Fortunately, it was neither cold nor raining. More than a mile of the highroad was occupied by the compact stream of hurrying humanity. Some stumbled, others jostled each other, the heavy and bulky parcels the majority carried getting entangled with those of their neighbours. In the darkness voices called to each other. "Are you here, Masha?" "Alexander Alexandrovitch, have you found your daughter?" "Petrousha, where is the child?"
As daybreak neared individual faces could be distinguished, and relations found each other in the crowd. Many desperate lamentations were heard when it was discovered that some member of the family had been left behind. It meant a real tragedy. There was small hope of seeing the missing one for years, there was no postal communication between the two sides in the civil war, and people whose relations had fled were exposed to the greatest danger at the Bolsheviks' hands.
Wedged in among the crowd of pedestrians were ambulances and also some ordinary peasants' carts, in which the wounded soldiers who had fought on the Czechs' side were being evacuated. The doctors and nurses walked along beside their patients, trying to cheer them up and to settle the inert bodies more comfortably on the cushions that were quite insufficient to alleviate the suffering caused by the jolts. The men groaned aloud, for, alas! no careful driving can avoid the ruts on our national roads. The slightly wounded, with bandaged heads and arms, also shared the general plight, and walked most of the distance, sometimes arm-in-arm with an ambulance man, and from time to time perched on the edge of a cart, with the soldier's usual insouciance, exchanging jokes and cigarettes with its inmates. In other carts, farther on, travelled the whole of the girls' school, the "Internal de I'lnstitut des Demoiselles," head- mistress, teachers, and pupils. These were surrounded by numerous women and children, and the small fry got a lift from time to time from the girls. The haunting fear of the women's nationalisation laws had prompted the headmistress to take the young girls in her charge out of harm's way.
My old friend had walked valiantly all the time, and seemed to have been rather hurt when one of the wounded soldiers, addressing her as "Grandmother," insisted on her sitting on the edge of his cart. She shared this seat in turns with the young wife of an officer, who had a three days' old baby, but who also walked a great part of the way. It was incomprehensible how they all managed it, and in what a short time they covered the distance. Fear lent wings to everyone's feet and the nervous tension gave strength to the weakest, for all knew that if the Bolsheviks took X before they themselves reached Z they would be sure to be overtaken, for the Bolsheviks had cars to which thirty-five miles was no distance.
As the fugitives advanced many had gradually to unload the bundles they carried, as they could not stand their weight any more. With many heart- burnings they had to throw away on the roadside things that were to them the last mementoes of their abandoned homes. It was seldom that they could find purchasers for their belongings as they hurried through the villages on the way, and when they did find someone they were generally offered a ludicrous price.
But they did it! When they reached Z the feet of the majority were blistered, their boots were torn, children were weeping, and they and their mothers could scarcely drag themselves a yard further. But when they finally embarked on the steamers nothing mattered anymore. They felt they had escaped. How many incurable illnesses were brought on by that night's forced march, how many women had ruined their health permanently by it, no one could say, but they were on their way to freedom and away from the reign of oppression.
Though the conditions of life they found in Siberia were certainly not easy, I never heard these people express regret at their move. It was clearly out of the question to find suitable intellectual labour for so many hundreds of newcomers. Some of them succeeded in this by going far away into the depths of the country, but many a delicate woman had to do hard physical work - had indeed to do anything that she was offered in order to keep the wolf from the door. Several ladies I knew earned their living by stacking firewood for the engines at the stations. (All Siberian railways use wood instead of coal.)
In less congested towns than Omsk the refugees' life was easier, as the demand for intellectual labour was greater and the cost of living cheaper. The conditions, however, were much more primitive. I thought my Omsk friends, the X's, fortunate - for their two rooms at least had some furniture in them and were in a house which had civilised comforts - when I went to see some other old friends in a town farther up the line. These poor people, a consumptive old man who could not work and his wife and daughter, had but one room between them, the furniture of which consisted of one table and a bench, while on the floor lay three large potato sacks, filled with hay, which did duty for beds. I thought of the splendid country place they had owned, and of their former life. And still both mother and daughter worked hard, though their earnings only just sufficed to pay for their food!
I also met an old acquaintance at Omsk in the person of Elsa Brandstrom, the daughter of the Swedish Minister at Petrograd. It brought back old days to see her tall, slim figure, now in Swedish nurse's dress, and to be welcomed by her genial smile. She had done wonderful work for the German prisoners of war, acting as a representative of the Swedish Red Cross. Miss Brandstrom had gone from camp to camp, all over Siberia, for long months in the worst possible conditions, often withessing heartrending scenes. She nearly died from an attack of typhus, but returned to her self-allotted task on her recovery. "A fine woman," all the Englishmen said, giving her their nation's fair appreciation, even though she had helped their enemy. Elsa remained in Siberia to wind up her work. When we parted I saw in her eyes for the first time a flicker of sadness. She thought of her old father in Sweden. When peace was about to be signed it was hard to remain away from him. It was but a momentary weakness. She smiled bravely again, thinking perhaps of all the men who had to wait their turn for repatriation and to whom her staying meant so much. I admired her greatly.
A special thank you to firstname.lastname@example.org for scanning the text for this online edition.
Contact Bob Atchison for comments on this site.
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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