Memories Of The Russian Court

Terrible Days in Peter & Paul Fortress

Morning dawned cold and gray, and so exhausted was I with sleeplessness and the discomfort of a hard bed without linen or blankets, that Lili was alarmed and when the tea arrived she begged the soldier who brought it to have a doctor sent me. But Kerensky replied that the doctor was engaged with War Minister Gutchkov and could not be approached at present. Within a short time I was to be removed to a hospital, and as for Mme. Dehn, she might expect good news soon. As a matter of fact Mme. Dehn was released from custody the next day. Feeling confident that she would be let go, I gave her what jewels I had brought with me, asking her to turn them over to my mother. In return Lili gave me a few necessaries, including a pair of stockings for which later I was extremely grateful because the prison stockings were so coarse and heavy that they hurt my injured leg.

About three o'clock in the afternoon Colonel Peretz, who afterwards wrote a book on the Revolution, came into the room with a group of young boys, former cadets of the military academy, now -commissioned officers of the new army. "Say good-bye, to your friend and come along," I was ordered, and after a quick embrace I parted with Mme. Dehn, my last link with the past, and followed the men downstairs, where a large motor car was waiting. We all got in, the men's rifles considerably reducing the carrying capacity of the seats. As we drove off the colonel began a long and insulting monologue to which I tried not to listen. "Ah I You and your Grichka (Gregori)," I heard him saying, "what a monument you both deserve for helping us to bring about the Revolution." But all that I wanted to learn from him was my destination, an as if in answer to the unspoken question he said: "All night we were discussing the most appropriate lodgings for you, and we decided on the Troubetskoy Bastion in the fortress." At this point we passed a church and, after the invariable custom, I made the sign of the cross. Colonel Peretz flamed into anger at this. "Don't dare cross yourself," he cried with emphasis on the last word. "Rather pray for the souls of the martyrs of the Revolution." Then as I made no response he exclaimed: "Why don't you answer when I speak to you?" I replied coldly that I had nothing whatever to say to him, whereupon be began to revile the Emperor and Empress in coarsest terms, ending with the words: "No doubt they are in hysterics over what has happened to them." Then I did speak. "If you knew with what dignity they are enduring what has happened you would not dare say what you have said." After which the monologue was for a moment or two halted.

Turning into the Liteiny, a street in which many barracks and ministries are located, the car stopped and Colonel Peretz dispatched one of the cadet officers on an errand into a Government building. On his return the colonel delayed matters long enough to make a bombastic speech on the great services to the Revolution performed by the cadets, and again we drove on. Realizing that we were not proceeding in the direction of the Fortress of Peter and Paul, I allowed my feminine curiosity to get the better of my pride and I asked whither we were bound. "To the Duma first," was the grim answer. "To the fortress afterwards." Arrived at the Tauride Palace we alighted at what is known as the Ministers' Pavilion and immediately went into the building. What a sight I Crowding the rooms and the corridors, men and women of all ages and conditions, prisoners of the Provisional Government! Looking about, I saw many people of my own class, among them Mme. Sukhomlinov who for all her manner betrayed might have been a guest rather than a prisoner. We exchanged cheerful greetings and she introduced the two women beside her, Mme. Poluboyarenova and Mme. Riman, wife of a well-known general. Mme. Poluboyarenova, of whom I had heard as a brilliant writer on a 'conservative newspaper (murdered for this later by the Bolsheviki), was quite self possessed, but Mme. Riman's face was wet with constantly flowing tears. A young girl student, a typical Revolutionist who seemed to be in some kind of authority, passed us in a hurry, pausing to say to Mme. Riman: "What are you crying about? You are going to be set free while these two" - Mme. Sukhomlinov and myself - "are going to the fortress." Poor Mme. Riman was crying because her husband was already in prison, but the revolutionary student could not be expected to sympathize with that.

It really is easier to be calm over one's own than over another's fate, as I learned when I found myself, with Mme. Sukhomlinov, once more in a motor car bound for that mysterious prison on the left bank of the Neva, directly opposite the Winter Palace, the Fortress of Peter and Paul. As we left the Tauride the girl student, who after all had some natural feelings, asked me for my father's telephone number that she might notify my parents where I had been sent. "No need to bother about that," broke in the chivalrous Colonel Peretz. "The newspapers will have a full report." "All the better," I rejoined, "for then many more will pray for me."

Rolling into the vast enclosure of the fortress, we stopped at the entrance of the Troubetskoy Bastion. A group of soldiers, dirty and wolfish of demeanor, rushed to meet us. "Now I am bringing you two very desperate political prisoners," shouted the colonel, as the men closed around us. But a stout Cossack, much more human than the rest, assumed authority saying that he was that day acting in place of the governor of the fortress. Preceded by this man, we traversed a long series of narrow, winding stone passages, so dark that I could see only a few feet ahead. Suddenly I was halted, hinges creaked, and I was roughly pushed into a pitch-dark cell the door of which was instantly bolted behind me.

No one who has not been a prisoner can possibly know the sickening sensation which possessed me, standing there in that dark hole, afraid to take a step forward, unable to touch with my groping hands either walls or furniture. My heart leaped and pounded in my breast and I clung desperately to my crutches lest I should fall into that unfathomed darkness. A few minutes of wild terror and then as my eyes grew accustomed to the dark I saw ahead of me a narrow iron cot towards which I moved with infinite caution. In any progress towards the bed my feet sank into pools of stagnant water which covered the floor, and soon I perceived that the walls of the cell were also dripping with moisture. The tiny window, high in the farthest wall, admitted little air, and the whole place was foul with dampness and the odor of years. It reeked with even worse smells as I quickly discovered, for close to the bed was an uncovered toilet connected with archaic plumbing. The bed was hard and lumpy and I do not think that the thin mattress had ever been cleaned or aired. However, that mattress was not to afflict me long. Within a few minutes my cell door was thrown open and several uniformed men entered.

It their head was a black-bearded ruffian who told me tat he was Kutzmin, representative of the Minister of Justice, and was authorized to arrange the regime of all prisoners. At his orders the soldiers tore from under me the ill-smelling mattress and the hard little pillow, leaving me only a rough bed of planks. Under his orders they tore off my rings and jerked loose a gold chain from which were suspended several precious relics. They hurt me and I cried out in protest, whereupon the soldiers spat at me, struck me with their fists and left, noisily clanging the iron door behind them. Wrapping my cloak around me, I crouched down on the bed shivering from head to foot and filled with such an agony of loathing and disgust and desolation that I thought I should die. Not a particle of food was brought me that day, and nothing broke the monotony of the dragging hours save now and again when the small grating in the door of my cell was pushed aside and a gaping soldier looked in. Then came night, hardly darker than the day, but more silent. Weak with hunger, spent with pain I clutched my aching head with my hands and asked God if He had forgotten me. At that moment of extreme misery I was startled and at the same time strangely comforted by a sudden low but distinct rapping on the other side of the wall. Instinctively I knew that it was Mme. Sukhomlinov who was trying to speak to me in the only language prisoners have. I rapped back, almost happily, for I felt that with a friend so near I was not entirely deserted.

I must have slept after that, for the next thing I remember was a man entering the cell with a pot of hot water and a small piece of black bread which he placed on an iron shelf near the bed. "As soon as your money arrives you can have tea," he announced briefly. Tea would have been a priceless blessing in that cold place, but I was so thirsty that I drank every drop of the hot water and was thankful. I suppose I ate the black bread too, bad as it was, for I was very hungry.

How to describe the days that followed, slow-paced, monotonous, yet each one filled with its special need of suffering? On one of the first days a grim woman came in and stripped me of my underclothes, substituting coarse and unclean garments marked with the number of my cell, which was 70. No prison dress seemed to be provided, so I was allowed to keep my own. But in the process of undressing the woman discovered a slender gold bracelet which I had worn day and night for many years and which was locked on my arm. She called Kutzmin and his guard of soldiers and they, indignant that they had overlooked a single article of value, began to force the bracelet over my hand. As the little circlet was not intended to go over my hand their efforts caused me such pain that I screamed in spite of myself. Touched, or perhaps merely annoyed at this, Kutzmin suggested to the soldiers that if I would promise not to give the bracelet to anyone I might be allowed to keep it. But his suggestion met with no sympathy and the bracelet was finally forced over my bruised hand.

The awful food and the still more awful solitude were daily afflictions, and I think they were really the worst of all. Twice a day a soldier brought in a nauseous dish, a kind of soup made of the bones and skin of fish, none too fresh. Sometimes, if the soldier happened to be in an especially vicious mood, he spat in the soup before giving it to me, and more than once I found small pieces of glass among the bones. Yet so ravenous was my hunger that I actually swallowed enough of the vile stuff to keep myself alive. Only by holding my nose with my fingers was I able to get a. few spoonfuls down my throat. What was left I was careful to pour into the filthy toilet, for I had been told that unless I ate what was given me I would be left to starve. Hot water and black bread continued to be doled out in small quantities, but there was never any tea. No food was allowed to be given the prisoners even when it was brought to the fortress by relatives and friends. Neither was any kind of occupation given the wretched captives. We were not even allowed to clean our own cells, a soldier coming in once a week to wipe up the wet and slimy floors. When I begged the privilege of doing this myself the soldier replied: "A prisoner who works is not a prisoner at all." It is true that when he has absolutely nothing to do he is worse than a prisoner, he is a living corpse.

Actual death being too merciful for political prisoners, we were taken out, one by one, for ten minutes every day. The exercise ground was a small grassy court where a few shrubs and trees gave promise of green leaves later on. No words can describe the relief, the blessed joy that those few moments of light and air and the sight of the blue sky brought to my heart. It seemed to me that I lived only for those moments. Of course the walled court was well guarded by armed soldiers and never once did their fierce eyes ever leave me. Still it was a bit of God's beautiful world, a breath of His sweet air, and I breathed it deep into my soul, keeping it there for hope and comfort until the next day came. In the center of the court was a small and dingy bath house where, on Fridays and Saturdays, the prisoners were treated to a sort of a bath. On those days we were not permitted to walk, but I for one did not complain of this. Any respite from the gravelike existence of the cells was a blessing. It was still very cold and when I lay down for the night I never removed my clothes. I had two woolen handkerchiefs, or rather, head kerchiefs, and one of these I tied over my head and the other I wrapped around my shoulders for warmth. Usually I slept until about four o'clock when the bells of a church hard by broke into my slumbers. After that I tried to doze, but very soon came the tramp of boots on the stones of the corridors and the crash of wood which the soldiers brought in each day for their stoves. I always woke up shivering and my first move was towards a corner of my cell where the stones were dry and a little warm from the stove outside. Here I huddled and shook until the hot water and the black bread were thrust in. I had never fully recovered from my illness and the cold and damp brought on first a pleurisy and afterwards a racking cough. I was so weak that sometimes in crossing from the bed to what I called the warm corner I slipped and fell and lay on the wet floor unable to rise. The soldier who thus found me, if he were of the half decent sort, would pick me up and throw me on the plank bed. Otherwise he would merely kick me.

For the first two weeks I spent in the Troubetskoy Bastion the only attendants were men. The soldiers had the keys to the cells and the complete freedom of the corridors. The first lot were men of the 3rd Rifle Regiment of St. Petersburg, but within a few days some of them were shifted and their places were taken by a miscellaneous force from one of the most unruly of the mutinous reserves. Riots and fights between the two bands became an almost daily occurrence and the nerves of the prisoners were tortured by the yells and blows of the battle. My only comfort, aside from the ten minutes' respite of the exercise ground, was in the wall-tapping between my cell and Mme. Sukhomhomlinov's. This had developed into a regular code and we managed to carry on, by alternately long and short taps, quite lucid conversations. Once to our fright the Governor of the bastion, Khoni, caught us at this for. bidden game and threatened us, if it happened again, with the dark cell, a place of unknown horrors, as we knew, for we had listened to the groans and cries of the former police chief Belezky while he suffered there. After the warning of Khoni, Mme. Sukhomlinov and I communicated with each other only in the middle of the night when the snores of the soldiers in the corri. dors guaranteed a degree of safety. Without these cautiously tapped-out conversations I really do not know how I should have lived and kept sane.

The cough which had been afflicting me grew worse rather than better and the only relief that was offered me was a primitive kind of cupping which did the cough no good but covered my chest with black and blue bruises. Finally, at the request of the sanitary soldier who had done the cupping, the prison doctor was sent for. This man, whose name was Serebrianikov, was one of the most dreadful persons I ever came in contact with. He had a red, malicious face, his clothes and person were revoltingly dirty, and to increase their effect he wore on his bulging waistcoat a huge red bow, emblem of his revolutionary ardor. When he came into my cell he literally tore the clothes from my back in a pretended examination, then turning to the soldiers in the doorway he shouted: "This woman is the worst of the whole lot; an absolute idiot from a life of vice." Slapping me on one cheek and then on the other, he began to ask me questions which I cannot repeat here of my alleged orgies with Rasputin, with Nicholas and "Alice" as he called the Empress. Even the soldiers looked disgusted and I shuddered away from him sick with repulsion. That night I was so far gone physically and mentally that I could not answer Mme. Sukhomlinov when she tapped on the wall. All I could do was to cough and shiver and in an incoherent, half mad fashion pray: "My God, my God, hast Thou forsaken me?"

The next morning the soldier who brought my hot water and bread thought me dying and insisted in sending again for the unspeakable Serebrianikov, although I begged him not to. "Send a woman, I implore you," I whispered. But there was no woman to send, and the prison doctor came instead. Declaring that I was merely shamming, this brute again struck me in the face and left saying: "I'll punish you for this. There'll be no exercise f or you f or two weeks after you think yourself well enough to go out." He kept his word, and for two weeks after I ceased to be acutely ill I remained all day in my cell weeping for the clean air and a sight of the blue sky. Little trickles of pale sunlight were beginning to steal through my barred windows, the cold was less intense and I knew that outside, in the world of freedom, the spring had come.

One little bit of good news came at this time. Women wardresses had been appointed to look after the special needs of the women prisoners. Two attendants from a women's prison were the first to arrive, but they were so shocked at the conditions they found in the fortress that they refused to stay. They were replaced by others, one a saucy young person whose sole energies went into flirtations with the soldiers, and an older woman with melancholy dark eyes and the best and kindest of hearts. I cannot. tell her name because if she is still alive and in Russia she must be in the employ of the Bolsheviki. I will call her simply the Woman. Her kindness to me I can never repay, but at least I shall never forget it, especially since I knew that every kind act she did was at her own personal risk. The Woman was on duty only until nine o'clock at night and was never allowed to enter my cell alone. Yet she often managed cleverly to follow slowly when she and the guard left the cell, and she frequently dropped on the floor behind her little pieces of sausage, chocolate, or bread nearly white. In the cell we dared not talk, but when she took me to the bath house we exchanged whispered conversations, and through her I got a little news of the exciting events of the time. The Provisional Government was tottering and the star of Kerensky was rising rapidly. The Imperial Family were still at Tsarskoe Selo, prisoners but alive, and that knowledge gave me a new impulse to live.

I must record one especially kind act my new friend did in my behalf. Easter Sunday came, and sitting on my hard bed I ventured to sing softly a verse or two of a well-remembered Easter hymn. On the Good Friday preceding we had been allowed to leave our cells one by one under guard and to confess to a good old priest, whose distress at our sorry plight so moved him that he heard our confessions with great tears in his eyes. Earnestly this old priest had begged Kerensky to allow him to visit prisoners in their cells and do what he could for their comfort, but Kerensky curtly refused.

I was thinking of him on this Easter morning. The soldiers had been running through the corridors calling to one another, perhaps in jest, perhaps as a matter of habit, the Russian greeting: "Kristos Voskrese," Christ is risen, to which the response is: "Voistino Voskrese," He is risen indeed. I could see that the soldiers had plates of the sugary cheese which everybody eats at Easter and which some of the prisoners received. Not I, because I was considered too wicked, too vile. Nevertheless, because of the trickle of sunshine that stole through the bars of my window, and because the old priest had really given me great comfort, I began to sing. Instantly the soldiers outside commanded me rudely to keep silent. It was too much. I laid my head down on the rags that formed my pillow and began to cry miserably. Then my hand strayed under the pillow, touching something. It was a little red Easter egg left there by the Woman, to make me feel that even in that place I was not entirely friendless. Never did a gift come as such a joyful surprise. I hugged it to my heart, kissed it and thanked God.

I was not forsaken. Indeed the worst was already passed for me, for the next day I was told that on every Friday after I was to receive a visit from my parents, whom I had feared I was never to see again on earth.

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