HAD I been told in January 1917 that the year would see me an exile in Siberia, completely cut off from my people, penniless, drifting from place to place, often in fear of my life, I should have thought the idea preposterous. I was at that time lady-in-waiting to the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia and was living with the Imperial Family at the Tsarskoe Selo Palace. I had many friends and no material anxieties. My parents were in Denmark, where my father was the Russian Minister. My busy life was pleasant, the Empress and her daughters were wonderfully kind to me. My two colleagues, the other ladies-in-waiting, were real friends. Though during the preceding two years rumours of smouldering political unrest in the country had added to the anxieties and suspense caused by the war, the approach of a tragedy unparalleled in history did not seem possible.

In March 1917 the Russian revolution broke out and the Emperor abdicated, and for five months, as a voluntary State prisoner, I shared the Imperial Family's imprisonment at the Tsarskoe Selo Palace. When the Kerensky Government decided to remove the Emperor and his family to "an unknown destination," which proved to be Tobolsk in Siberia, I was unable to accompany them, as I had to undergo an operation for appendicitis. I managed, however, to extract a promise from the authorities that I might join the Imperial Family on my recovery.

My convalescence lasted longer than was expected, but at last the day came when I could make preparations to start on my long journey. I little knew how long, nor how uncomfortable it was to be. In any case this was to me a matter of indifference, as my one desire was to rejoin the Emperor and Empress in their captivity. It took weeks to get the necessary permits to allow me to leave Petrograd at all. I obtained the final papers from the Kerensky Government on the very last day of its existence. On the next, November 7, the Bolshevik revolution broke out. This stopped all railway communication for several weeks and rendered my journey more difficult and even dangerous. The papers I had got with such trouble were no longer valid and I had no hope of obtaining others from the Bolsheviks, who would certainly have arrested me had I shown myself to them. My journey to Tobolsk had therefore to be a secret undertaking, for the Bolsheviks would have been quick to suspect a Monarchist plot if they heard of people going out to join the deposed Emperor. The Kerensky Government was still recognised in Siberia, and I knew that once I got there the permits I had would still hold good.

I was accompanied on my journey by my faithful old friend Miss A. D. Mather. She had been my mother's friend and companion since her earliest girlhood, and as soon as my nursery days were over she became my governess and was like a second mother to me. Miss Mather had stayed with my parents in Copenhagen after I left Russia to become the Empress's lady-in-waiting, and now, my mother having died, had come to Petrograd to be with me during my operation. She was a wonderful woman, always keeping her own distinct individuality in any surroundings, and the most true and understanding of friends. I tried to suggest to her that neither the journey to Siberia nor conditions of life there were suitable for a foreigner, especially to a woman of sixty, but she brushed aside all my objections. I could not go on such a journey alone, and if I went she would go with me. The way in which this quiet little old Scotch lady adapted herself to the most difficult situations was little short of marvellous. Though she was slight and delicate looking she had an iron determination and perfect self-command. She held her own before even the fiercest Bolshevik, never letting herself be hampered by her very bad Russian. Her keen sense of humour helped her to see the worst trials in the light of an amusing adventure and she would not allow herself to dwell too longingly on the thought of her beloved Scotland. Naturally the comfort of her sympathetic presence meant all the difference in the world to me.

In order not to disclose my identity, an acquaintance in Petrograd kindly volunteered to get us some railway tickets, and one evening in December he actually brought me three sleeping-car vouchers for next day. He had got them with much difficulty, and each was issued for a different town far up on the Trans-Siberian line, for, on his advice, in order to disarm suspicion. Miss Mather and my maid were to pretend to be fellow-travellers meeting by chance. We hurriedly made our last preparations and on the momentous day arrived at the station, separately, in accordance with the parts we had to play. The Petrograd station was in a state of indescribable chaos. As soon as passenger trains were run again, all those who could possibly do so fled from Petrograd to the provinces where Bolshevik rule was not as yet generally recognised. All time-tables had been done away with, and every traveller, with his family and all his belongings, sat for long hours in the waiting-room till the train he intended to go by eventually started. In these democratic times there were of course no porters. Some brave souls, who had risked being compromised by associating with us, had come to see us off, and they lent a willing hand. There was great difficulty in getting into the train at all, for the current axiom that "might is right" was applied here. When the signal to leave was given a general stampede took place. All the passengers rushed on to the platform and into the train, each one taking up at least twice the room he shouldhave done, for all had to carry for themselves the numberless bags and bundles of which my travelling countrymen are so fond. Lucidly some eventually got out again. They did not intend to go to Siberia at all and had only forced their way into the carriages in order to inquire about the train's destination. There was an awful moment when we three were finally settled in a compartment of the Trans-Siberian. A sailor, now evidently a high railway official, came to look through our papers. (No one was allowed to leave Petrograd at the time without special permit.) He seemed to belong to the crew of the Imperial yacht and might have recognised me, but luckily it was quite dark in the carriage and he was so much absorbed in Miss Mather's papers and studied her English passport so intently that he had no time to look at mine. It was fortunate, for this document was my old diplomatic passport with the Imperial arms and Monsieur Sazonoff's own signature!

The journey to Tyumen, the junction for Tobolsk, was supposed to take four days. Thence we were to have a drive of two hundred miles to Tobolsk itself. Our expectations were doomed to bitter disappointment, as the railway journey alone was to last nine days! This was the last month during which the "Trans-Siberian de luxe" was run, and even now nothing in the train's appearance conveyed the idea of luxury. All the coverings of the seats had been ripped off by our predecessors for their private use. In order to prevent the horsehair from appearing, dirty canvas covering had replaced the plush. Many of the windows were broken, all the brass bolts were missing, the water in the dressing-room did not run, and the whole carriage had evidently seen much ill-treatment.

After the train had started, a man in ragged clothes who proved to be the guard brought us a candle as a great luxury! By its light we discovered that we had a fourth occupant of our compartment in the shape of a lean young man with a strong likeness to Maxim Gorky. He wore a peasant's black shirt and high boots, a style of dress much affected in those times, and was deep in a number of one of the most extreme Communistic dailies. At first he scowled at us from behind his paper, but though civility was certainly not the fashion then, he gradually unbent and offered to take one of the upper berths. Owing to the difficulty of leaving the compartment he spent the greater part of the journey on the top of his shelf, reading his papers, the violence of whose opinions he seemed to appreciate. "Good stuff, this," we heard him remark. "This is strongly put." He lived on stale black bread which he extracted from a nondescript bundle, and most obligingly got out from time to time at the stations to fill our huge kettle with hot water. People versed in Siberian travel had made us invest in this, and it was a boon, as for many days we had to live mainly on tea.

When we left Petrograd there were only a few passengers sitting in the corridors. (Every compartment was, of course, over-filled.) The next morning, however, at Vologda, where the Moscow line joins the Siberian, the train was literally stormed by soldiers returning from the front. These men had left their units without the sanction of any authority. The army was in full dissolution. After the revolution of March 1917 a violent pacifist propaganda had been carried on in the trenches, and after the November upheaval the last vestiges of discipline had disappeared. The men swarmed in, carrying the most extraordinary luggage of every kind of article crammed into canvas bags and pillow-cases, or made up into bundles. They completely blocked up the corridors, and sat not only on the end platforms of the coaches but on the buffers. They clung to the steps outside, sat and stood in the dressing-rooms and, in short, pervaded everything, filling the carriages with the noise of their brawls. They were nearly all the class of soldier that we had seen in the streets of Petrograd during the last months. Their luggage showed what their occupation had been. They were carrying all the loot they had amassed during their stay in the capital, as well as all the firearms that they had been able to take with them on leaving the front. Out of their bundles protruded brass candlesticks, china, pieces of stuff, as well as every possible kind of weapon. In addition some of them carried one or two rifles under their arms, and at every man's belt hung a revolver or a dagger, or a couple of hand grenades. Among them were a few of a milder appearance, poor fellows, wounded or maimed, who were being invalided home from some hospital. These kept away as much as they could from the others, and stood silently huddled together, shoulder to shoulder, like sheep in a pen, for long hours at a stretch. Soon the men in the corridors forced themselves into the compartments. Luckily for us, we had only some of the wounded soldiers in ours, and even these left us in the course of the night. On the second morning we reached Viatka and after this travelled on at a snail's pace, losing and gaining hundreds of passengers at every station. At each stop the soldiers rushed out in a body to throw themselves on the food stalls, which displayed more and more provisions as we got further from Petrograd. Other soldiers forced their way in, and many of those who got out were never able to return. This was nearly my own fate. I too got out to buy some bread, and when I tried to force my way back into the carriage I found it was utterly impossible. Dozens of men were already clinging to the steps and showed no inclination to make way. My travelling companions and all my belongings, including my papers, were inside and it was vital for me not to be parted from them. One of the men suggested that I should be helped "up," as "a few fellows were already up there." I did not quite realise what "up there" meant and was not a little horrified when I found myself being hoisted by obliging hands on to the roof of the carriage! Here two soldiers were already reclining. I clamoured to be taken down, but the train had started and I had just to cling to the ventilator with all my might. The slowness of the train's progress was my salvation. Its rate was about sixteen miles an hour, but it seemed to me an endless time before we reached the next station. The carriage roof was domed and slippery. I sat astride the ventilator, clinging on with both hands, but at every curve of the line I felt I was gliding off. Luckily we passed under no bridges and it was only about zero P., a mild temperature for those parts. My two travelling companions gave me useful advice, but seemed to think me hopeless as a roof-traveller! It was they who asked their comrades to help me to get inside the train, saying with a friendliness born of having shared the same plight, "We must get her down or we shall lose her on the way." My relief at being once more inside our carriage can be imagined. I must honestly own that I had never been so much frightened in my life. I had always been particularly bad at gymnastics of any kind, and I believe it was sheer desperation that enabled me to overcome the awful giddiness caused by my "exalted" position.

Between Viatka and Perm we locked our door at night against the invasion of newcomers, for the last contingent seemed specially militant. Eventually they hammered loudly on the doors of all the shut compartments, demanding an entrance and threatening "death to the bourgaui." Some of the travellers opened the doors of their compartments, and the number of occupants was immediately increased to such an incredible extent that every one had, literally, a soldier sitting on his or her knee. On the advice of our "Gorky" we four pretended to snore loudly, to make the men outside think that the place was full of heavy sleepers. Happily they did not break open the door to investigate, and contented themselves with banging on the panels, shouting "Wake up, bourgaui!" alternating this with threats of hanging, murder, etc., the whole seasoned with the most forceful language. Next morning, when we tried to get out we found to our horror that this was an utter impossibility. The door was completely jammed by the compact mass of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in the corridor, and the handle could not be moved more than an inch or so. We had to remain prisoners in our coupe for nearly twenty-four hours, reduced for food to the young man's black bread, and for drink to some tea I had in a thermos flask.

We were beginning to get uneasy as to how the journey would end, when an incident occurred which seemed at first alarming, but which turned out better than we expected. The principles of equality now in force insisted that no one train could travel faster than any other. Ours was still officially an express - the extra fare being scrupulously charged - but had to crawl along at a snail's pace, as the military train in front of it objected to being outstripped. This greatly irritated our twaristchi (comrade soldiers), who sent a message to our engine-driver, threatening to shoot him if he did not increase his speed. He pointed out that there was a train just ahead, and this pacified the soldiers for a time, though they made up their minds to overtake their rival at the very first opportunity. In that land of freedom everyone considered that he had the right to regulate the movements of trains as well as of everything else.

The welcome opportunity arose very soon. The engine of the military train broke down and it had to stop at a station for a new one. On board this train was a detachment of Cossacks who had, wonderfully enough, kept some spirit of discipline and military tradition. For some private reason of their own they sounded a bugle which seemed acutely to irritate the nerves of our fellow-travellers. After a short discussion they made up their minds that the Cossacks were "old regime." Their new engine could be requisitioned as a punishment for their political opinions, and two engines would ensure an increase of speed to our train. This was no sooner said than done. Our soldiers poured out on to the platform, and while one party rushed towards the coveted engine, the other invaded the station-master's office in order to force him to give the necessary orders for the change. When the Cossacks realised what was going to be done they also got out of their train. Soon the sounds of shouting and of violent altercations filled the air. The Cossacks crowded round their engine, vehemently protesting against giving it up. The other party retaliated by unearthing several machine-guns from their baggage and prepared for battle. A bugle was again sounded, with the result that a stream of Cossacks with rifles in hand poured out of the carriages to reinforce their comrades. Things seemed to be getting serious. Travellers "with experience of such incidents" tried to let down the windows, but these were frozen and jammed. This, it was explained to us, was a necessary precaution, for fear we should be cut by the splinters of glass when the firing began. Luckily, just as the signal for the first volley was given, our train began unexpectedly to move. Some of the soldiers had profited by the preparations for the fight to couple the much-desired engine on to our train. A terrible scurry ensued. A few of the men managed to jump in, but to our great joy the majority remained at the station. The corridors were less packed. We could at last get out of our compartment, though it was still difficult and elicited many oaths from the soldiery.

The Cossack incident was the theme of conversation and discussion all through the following day, and the bourgoui and their numerous crimes and defects were happily forgotten.

The soldiers' conversation was most instructive and gave an insight into their mentality at the time. One man, for instance, a real Bolshevik type, with abundant locks in picturesque disorder - a style of coiffure much admired in the Red Army lamented loudly that most of his luggage had remained at the station where the Cossack incident had taken place. "This is my reward for having tired myself out beating the station-master," he said. "My arm is quite sore." The statement was received as a perfectly lawful grievance by his hearers, and was the cause of much sympathy. On the whole the mood of our travelling companions had improved. The most riotous element had remained at the momentous station and physical fatigue had quenched the warlike spirit of the rest. They profited by the increase of space to lie down, one on top of the other, wherever they could. They laid on the floors of the compartments and in the corridors; some even got on to the luggage racks. Many had come all the great distance from Poland and had probably travelled the whole way in the same conditions. They were so tired that they slept anywhere, standing, sitting on the ground, on their bags, never seeming even to feel their comrades when they stepped on them in trying to squeeze past.

For a long time I had noticed one man who was especially haggard and weary-looking. He had apparently stood out in the cold on the end platform for six whole days. He looked ill, his coat was old and tattered and his boots were worn out. He had no large bundles of loot and ate only dry bread washed down with a glass of tea when some of the others thought fit to ask him to join them at their meals. Silent and immovable, he leaned against the wall, the picture of patient misery. The others laughed at him, calling him the "lunatic" when he did not take part in their talk. I asked him why he was standing out in the cold, now that there was more room in the corridor. "I don't mind," he answered, "there will be an end to it soon. But I will not be with 'them " - jerking his thumb in the direction of the others. "They are 'possessed.' Nothing is sacred to them, and I would rather freeze than listen to their talk. I advise you, too, to keep clear of them. They have no conscience, they are evil men." So he remained aloof, and I always remember his plain, pock-pitted face, the patient look of the old Russian soldier in his eyes, and the sadness of the battlefield that seemed to be stamped all over him. He was certainly one of those who had really fought for his country during those tragic years, and not, like the rest, a product of the revolution.

The last two days of our train journey were uneventful. The crowded carriages had, in a way, proved a blessing to us, as they had prevented any examination of our papers by Kommissars on the way. Even Kommissars could not force themselves into the trains and no demand was made for our papers, which would have disclosed the object of our journey and would probably have led to our arrest. Now we were out of the zone of acute danger. After we had passed Ekaterinburg, the first town in the Ural region, the weather became milder and the window-panes clear again. We were able to see the scenery, wide expanses of forest covering the slopes and gradually rising towards the Ural Mountains.

We passed somewhere the well-known pillar on one side of which is inscribed "Europe" and on the other "Asia." We were at last in Siberia, that vast part of Russia so little known even to many Russians, where is found every kind of climate from the Polar cold to Southern heat in the Altai regions, and where advanced civilisation exists side by side with the primitive conditions of old-world life.

A special thank you to 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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