Memories Of The Russian Court

1918 - Things Get Very Bad

Towards the close of the summer of 1918 life in Russia became almost indescribably chaotic and miserable. Most of the shops were closed, and only the few who could pay fantastic prices were able to buy food. There was a little bread, a very little butter, some meat, and a few farm products. Tea and coffee had completely disappeared, dried leaves taking their places, but even these substitutes were frightfully dear and very difficult to find. The trouble was that the Bolshevist authorities forbade the peasants to bring any food into St. Petersburg, and soldiers were kept on guard at the railway stations to confiscate any stocks that tried to run the blockade. Frequently the market stalls were raided, and what food was there was seized, and the merchants arrested. Food smuggling went on on a fairly large scale, and if one had money he could at least avoid starvation. Most people of our class lived by selling, one by one, jewels, furs, pictures, art objects, an enterprising class of Jewish dealers having sprung up as by magic to take advantage of the opportunity. There was also a new kind of merchant class, people of the intelligentsia, who knew the value of lace, furs, old china and embroideries, who dealt with us with more courtesy and rather less avarice than the Jews.

My mother and I fell into dire poverty. A home we had, and even a few valuable jewels, but we clung to everything we had as shipwrecked sailors to their lifebelts. We could not look far ahead, and we viewed complete bankruptcy with fear and dread. I recall one bitter day in that summer sitting down on a park bench weary and desolate as any pauper, for I had not in my pocket money enough to go home in a tram. I do not remember how I got home, but I remember that in that dark hour a former banker whom we had long known called at our lodgings and told us that he had a little money which he was about to smuggle to the Imperial Family in Siberia. He wanted us to accept twenty thousand rubles of this for our immediate needs, and gladly we did accept it. Very soon afterwards the banker suddenly and mysteriously dis. appeared, and his fate remains to this day a profound mystery. I do not even know if he succeeded in getting the money to Siberia. However, with the hope he inspired in me I began to think of possible resources which I might turn to account. My hospital in Tsarskoe Selo had been closed by the Bolsheviki, but its expensive equipment of furniture, instruments, horses and carriages still remained, and I employed a lawyer to go over the books and to estimate what money I could realize from a sale of the whole property. To my dismay I learned that the place with everything in it had been seized by my director and head nurse who, under the Bolshevist policy of confiscation, claimed all, ostensibly as state property but really as their own, for they had become ardent Bolshevists. I made a personal appeal to these old employees of mine to let me have at least one cow for my mother who, being very frail, needed milk. They simply laughed at me. My lawyer took steps to protect my rights, and the result of this rash action was that the former director denounced me to the Chekha as a counter-Revolutionist, and in the middle of an October night our home was invaded by armed men who arrested me and my nursing sister, and looted our rooms of everything that caught their fancy. Among other things they took was a letter from the Emperor to my father explaining the conditions which led him to assume supreme command of the army. This letter, treasured by me, seemed to them somehow very incriminating.

Driven ahead of the soldiers, I went downstairs and climbed into a motor truck which conveyed us to the headquarters of the Chekha in Gorohvaya Street. After my name had been taken by a slovenly official I followed the guard to one of two large rooms which formed the women's ward of the prison. There must have been close to two hundred women crowded in these rooms. They slept sometimes three to a narrow bed, they lay on the tables and even on the bare floor. The air of the place was, of course, utterly foul, for many of the women were of the class that never washes. Some were of gentle birth and breeding, accused of no particular offense, but held, according to Bolshevist custom, as hostages and possible witnesses for others who were under examination or who were wanted and could not be found. In the early morning all the prisoners got up from their narrow beds or the hard floor and made their way under soldier escort to a toilet where they washed their faces and hands. As I sat miserably on the edge of my bed a woman came up to me introducing herself as Mlle. Shoulgine, the oldest inhabitant of the place, and therefore a kind of a monitor. It was her business, she said, to see that each prisoner received food and to handle any letters or petitions the women might desire to send out. I told her that I desired to send a petition to the head of the Chekha, or to whatever committee was in charge of the prison, asking the nature of the charges against me, and begging for an early trial. This petition was duly dispatched, and very soon after a very large man, a Jew, came to see me and promised that my affair would be promptly investigated. The soldiers on guard spoke to me kindly and offered, if I had money, to carry letters back and forth from my home. I gave them money and was comforted to hear from my mother that Dr. Manouchine was once more working for my release. Although not a Bolshevist, the doctor's skill was greatly respected by the Communists, who had appointed him head physician of the old Detention House. There was a student doctor attached to our prison, and merely because he was a friend of Dr. Manouchine and knew that I was also, he was courteous and attentive to me. So potent is the influence of a truly great character.

The five days I spent in that filthy, crowded cell will never leave my memory. Every moment was a nightmare. Twice a day they served us with bowls of so-called soup, hot water with a little grease and a few wilted vegetables. This with small pieces of sour black bread was all the food vouchsafed us. Some of the prisoners got additional food from outside, and usually these fortunate ones divided what they had with the others. There was one beautiful woman of the half-world who daily received from some source ample food, and like most of the women of her class she was generous. I was told that she had been arrested because she had hidden and helped her lover, a White officer, to escape, and that she felt proud to be suffering for his sake. Perhaps it was from friends of his that she received the food, yet women of her kind, God knows, very seldom meet with gratitude even from those who owe it most.

Although I was accused of no crime and had no idea what accusations could be brought against me, I lived as all the others lived, in a state of constant anxiety and fear. All day and all night we heard the sound of motors and of motor horns, we saw prisoners brought in, and from our windows we could see great quantities of loot which the Bolshevist soldiers had collected, silver, pictures, rich wearing apparel, everything that appealed to them as valuable. In the courtyard we could see the men fighting like wolves over their spoils. It was like living in a pirates' den rather than a prison, and yet we were often enough reminded that we were prisoners. One day all the women in my room were roughly ordered into a larger room literally heaped with archives of the Imperial Government. With soldiers standing over us we set to work like charwomen to sort the papers and tie them up in neat bundles. Very often in the night when we were sleeping exhausted in our cell rooms the electric lights would suddenly be turned on, guards would call out names, and half a dozen frightened women would get up, gather their rags about them, and go out. Some returned, some disappeared. No one knew whose turn would come next or what her fate would be.

The name of my nursing sister was called before mine, and within a short time she returned smiling to say that she was to be sent home at once and that I should soon follow. Two hours later soldiers appeared at the grating and one called out my surname: "Taneyeva, to Viborg Prison." I had spirit enough to demand the papers consigning me to this dread women's prison, but the soldiers merely pushed me back with the butts of their guns and bade me lose no time in obeying orders. I still had a little money with which I paid for a cab instead of walking the long distance to the prison, and I begged the soldiers to stop on the way and let me see my mother. For this privilege I offered all the money remaining in my purse, which the soldiers took, also bargaining for the ring I wore on my hand. This I declined to give so they philosophically said: "Oh, well, why not?" And stopped the cab at the door of my mother's lodgings. Of course my poor mother was overjoyed to see me, even for a moment, and so was old Berchik, now almost at the end of his life. Both assured me that everything was being done in my behalf and that at the Viborg prison I would be in less danger of death than at the Chekha headquarters. I might even hope to be admitted to the prison hospital.

A little heartened in spite of myself I went on to Viborg, which lies in a far quarter of the town on what is known as the Viborg side of the Neva. A rather pretty, Bolshevist girl was in charge of the receiving office, and when I pleaded ill health and asked to be sent to the hospital she promised to see what could be done. Viborg prison was one of many which during the first frenzied days of the Revolution were thrown open, the prisoners released, and the wardresses murdered. I do not know how other women were induced to take their places, but I do know that the women in whose charge I was placed were so kind and considerate that had any attempt been made against them the prisoners themselves would have fought in their defense. The wardress who locked me in my cell stopped to say a comforting word, and because she saw that I was shivering with cold as well as nervousness, she brought me bread and a little hot soup.

After some hours I had another visitor, Princess Kakuatova, accused of being the ringleader of an anti-Bolshevist plot, who had been six months in Viborg and was regarded as a "trusty." Among other privileges she had the right to telephone friends of new prisoners, and at my request she telephoned messages to friends who could be of use to my mother if not to me. The princess brought me a little portion of fish which I ate hungrily, and I think she was also instrumental in finally getting me into the prison hospital. This was after I had fainted on the floor of my cell, and everyone in authority, including the prison doctor, knew that I was in no condition to endure the noisy confusion of the huge cell house The hospital was a little cleaner than the rest of the prison, but it was a pretty dreadful place just the same. For nurses we had good-conduct prisoners, women of low type who stole food and everything else they could lay hands on. They stripped me of my clothes, substituting the prison chemise and blue dressing gown, and took away all my hairpins. I was given a bed in a room with six other women, one of them a particularly awful syphilis case, and two others, very dirty, who spent most of their time going over each other's heads for vermin. I stayed in this ghastly place a very short time, a woman doctor and a prisoner of my own class, Baroness Rosen, succeeding in getting me transferred to a better ward. Nevertheless the whole prison hospital was horrible. The trusties in charge of the wards were in the habit of eating the meat out of the prisoners' bowls, and fighting for food among prisoners throughout the institution was a daily occurrence. I can describe Viborg prison and most of its inmates in one word-beastly. Many of the women were syphilitic, most were verminous, some were half mad. One who slept near me had murdered her husband and burned his body. Nearly all sang the most obscene songs and held unrepeatable conversations. Mostly they were so depraved that the doctor in his rounds showed that he was afraid of them. Yet there were among them a few women who, like myself, had led sheltered and religious lives, and who were only now learning that such abandoned specimens of womanhood existed on the earth. There was no attempt at reforming the women. Once there had been a church attached to the prison, but this the Bolsheviki had closed, substituting a cinema to which on special occasions some of the prisoners were admitted. Not many political prisoners had this privilege because they were treated much more rigorously than common criminals. It was the common criminals also, the thieves, murderers, prostitutes, who were released in advance of "counter-Revolutionists," those accused, however vaguely, of political activities.

All the prisons of St. Petersburg by this time were so crowded with so-called political prisoners that even the women's prison was obliged to receive an overflow of sick men prisoners. This wholesale imprisonment of anti-Bolshevists naturally led to the shooting of thousands of citizens, shooting being simpler than feeding and housing, and in addition an economy of effort on the part of those charged with the mockery Of trials. Later the Chekha dispensed with this mockery, but in those days prisoners were given the pretense of a hearing. I can testify to their futility, because I went through more than half a dozen trials and in no case was I accused of any crime, tried for any definite offense, or given anything like a fair hearing. On September 10, 1918, word was brought to the Viborg prison that on the next morning I was to be taken away not to return. This seemed to be a death sentence, and all that night I lay awake thinking of my poor mother and wondering what would become of her alone in the midst of the Bolshevist inferno. Silently and long I prayed for her and for the peaceful release of my own tried soul.

Very early in the morning I was summoned, my own clothes were given me, and I was led to the receiving office of the prison. Here two soldiers waited, and I was taken out between them and marched to the headquarters of the Chekha. In a small, dirty room I underwent an examination by two Communists, one of whom, Vladimirov - nearly all Jewish Communists assume Russian names - being prominent in the councils of the Communist central committee. For fully an hour these men did everything they could to terrorize me. They accused me of being a spy, of plotting against the Chekha, of being a dangerous counter-Revolutionist. They told me that I was to be shot at once and that they intended to shoot all the intellectuals and the "Bourju," leaving the proletariat in full possession of Russia. They continued this bluster until from sheer weariness they stopped, then one of the men leaned his elbows on the table and with a smile that was meant to be ingratiating said confidentially: "I tell you what. You relate the true story of Rasputin and perhaps we won't have you shot, at least not today." I assured the man that I knew no more about Rasputin than they did, perhaps not as much, since I had no access to police records and they had. Then they wanted to know all about the Czar and the life of the Court. As well as I could I satisfied their curiosity, which was that of ignorant children, and at the end of an exhausting interrogation they actually sent me, not to a wall and a firing squad, but back to the filthy cell in the Viborg prison. I dropped on my dirty bed, swallowed a little food brought me by a sympathetic fellow prisoner, and resigned myself for what next might happen to me. What happened was astonishing. A soldier came to the door and called out: "Taneyeva, with your things to go home."

Within a short time I stood trembling and weak on the pavement in front of the prison. I could not have walked to my lodgings, in fact I felt incapable of walking at all, but a strange woman observing me and my piteous condition approached, put her arm around me, and helped me into a drosky. I had a little money, perhaps fif y rubles, and I gave it all to the ischvostik to drive me home. Here I found an amazing state of affairs, the general immorality and demoralization into which Bolshevism was driving the people having penetrated our own place. Everyone was turning thief, and my nursing sister, who had been with me since 1905, whom my mother had treated like a daughter, had become inoculated with the virus of evil. The woman had not only appropriated almost all the clothes I possessed, but had stolen all the trinkets and bits of jewelry she could lay hands on. She had even taken the carpets from the floors and stored them in her room. Not daring to attempt to regain any of this property I asked the nurse to please take what she wanted and leave the apartment. "Not at all," she replied. "This place suits me very well and as long as I choose I shall remain." She had embraced Bolshevism, not I am sure from principle, but as the safest policy, and in time she became rich in jewels, finery, and miscellaneous loot. It was months before we finally induced her to leave, and after her departure I have reason to believe that she did everything she could to keep me in trouble with the Bolshevists.

By this time the Communist regime was fully organized. The whole town was divided into districts, each one under command of a group of soldiers who had full license to search and rob houses, and to make arrests. Every night the search went on. At seven o'clock all electric lights were turned off, and when, two or three hours later, they suddenly flashed up again, every soul in the district was seized with fear, knowing that this was the signal for the invasion. Often women were included in the searching parties, terrible women dressed in silks and strung with jewelry, stolen of course from the hated "Bourju." Seven times our home was raided, once on the authority of an anonymous letter charging that we were in possession of firearms. Once more I was dragged off to an interminable examination, this time before the staff of the Red Army in a house in Gogol Street. The close connection between the Chekha and the Red Army was apparent because in the two hours during which I sat in the ante-chamber waiting examination a Lettish official of the Chekha passed freely in and out of the committee room, occasionally throwing me a reassuring word. My case would be settled favorably, he said, and it was, for the committee after bullying me for a length of time, dropped the subject of concealed firearms, assumed the snobbish and half cringing air with which I was becoming familiar to the point of nausea, and began asking questions about the Imperial household. They produced a large album of photographs and made me go through it and identify each picture. Finally the head inquisitor told me magnanimously that I could go home, cleared by the highest authority, but that soldiers would go with me and make sure that there were no revolvers or pistols in the house. The search was made anew, and then the men left, obviously disappointed that practically nothing worth stealing had come to light.

Two things of importance were happening in those days. The White Army was approaching St. Petersburg,and in all the streets soldiers were drilling in anticipation of a battle. Airplanes whirred overhead, and once in so often a shell screamed over the housetops. We prayed for the coming of the White Army, and at the same time dreaded the massacres we knew would precede its entry into the town. The second thing that marked this date was the Communist system of public feeding, free food being furnished by cards distributed according to the status of the individual. The Bolshevist authorities and the soldiers of course bad the most food and the best. Next came the proletariat, so called, and last of all the "Bourju" was provided for. These of the lowest strata in society got hardly anything at all and would have starved, most of them, had it not been for the food smuggling which constantly went on, the peasants from out of town boldly bringing in bulky parcels, and taking back in return for their food, not Bolshevist money, which they disdained, but everything they could accumulate in the way of furniture or dress materials. They even accepted window curtains and table linen, anything, in fact, that could be fashioned into clothing. These same peasants before the Revolution had been expert spinners and weavers, but now they scorned such plebeian occupations because it was easier to barter grains, milk, vegetables, and other produce for the last possessions of the townspeople.

We went on living, somehow, parting with clothing and furniture, burning boxes and even chairs for fuel, walking miles for stray bits of wood, praying for the success of the White forces, praying for protection against what must happen before that success could be achieved. My mother all these days was very ill with dysentery, which was rife in St. Petersburg, and I had that additional suffering, for I knew that it would take little to bring her frail life to an end.

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