My journey in December 1917 had been an ideal trip compared with our slow progress now and the state in which we found the railways. Refugee trains such as ours, all coming from the west, completely blocked the lines. Famine and want had forced their unfortunate passengers to sell their earthly goods and chattels in Russia and start with their families for Siberia, in the hope of finding work and food. The Government had undertaken their trasport but had made no arrangements of any kind for their ultimate disposal. Whenever they reached a town they found that the local Soviet had put up large notices, saying that in their district there was neither land nor any possibility of housing any refugees. These poor people were therefore moved on and on up the Trans-Siberian line. The trains were kept for weeks at small stations where it was often impossible to obtain any food.

When we were at Ekaterinburg there were said to be 20,000 refugees living in trains. At a junction further on, Kamyshloff, there were still more. The original idea was said to have been to keep the people moving till they found some charitably minded town that was able to house them. But the fighting up the line, where the revolt of the Czech legions was by now a very serious menace to the Bolshevik authorities, prevented the trains ever reaching less densely inhabited regions.

The whole of the population of Russia was represented among the refugees. Here were pure Russians, Poles, and Tartars whose Mongolian features distinguished them sharply from the rest. There were people of every social standing, but peasants predominated. Their clothing was so faded and tattered that neither its original colour nor shape could be more than guessed at. At Ekaterinburg I even saw a Roumanian gypsy family, who had evidently strayed into Russia after the Germans had advanced into their country, and had wandered aimlessly on till they had reached Siberia. The mother, a beautiful young woman, crouched on the ground holding two tiny babies in her arms. The many-coloured rags she wore were a most inadequate covering. Her chest and arms were bare, and she drew her bright shawl first over her head, then over her shoulders, moaning low, either from pain, or to hint at the misery she could not express, for the poor soul could not speak a single word of Russian! A pretty little girl of about five, black-eyed and curly-haired, wearing only a short red chemise, went about at the station restaurant begging by gesture, only too glad to pick up the crusts of bread thrown to her by the soldiers who sat at the tables. The whole of the station, besides the trains, was also filled with refugees. They sat and laid on the floors everywhere, and the authorities did nothing to assist them. The railway company had been ordered by the Soviet to pay a small sum daily to each traveller, but of course, in practice and with such vast numbers, this was impossible.

Those who were in the trains drawn up at the station were luckier in a way. Though they were all packed into cattle-trucks they knew thatthey would be moved one day! They looked upon the train as a home. They washed themselves and their clothes at the railway pump. On the journey, when at last the trains were moved, many cooked their food during the long halts, over fires built up on the ground between the carriages! This was not forbidden, notwithstanding its danger, as everyone did whatever he wished in this reign of disorder.

The infant mortality was immense among the refugees. Nearly every day sad little processions were seen: some poor people, dressed in their best, carrying a small coffin, or sometimes only a cardboard box, with the remains of a puny baby that had now succumbed to cold and hunger. Though it was now June the nights were still very chilly. Dysentery, and other diseases of that nature, claimed many victims among the small inhabitants of the trains. Later on spotted typhus broke out, and was propagated by the vermin engendered by the unutterable, indescribable filth of the trucks. Besides the refugees, the trains were also full of meshetcbniki (bagmen). These were peasants who came from the Russian famine districts to get flour in Siberia and take it back to their starving families. These bagmen simply fought to board the returning trains, all clinging to huge bags from which they would not be separated. Nothing could be done to dislodge these men! They had travelled for thousands of miles in order to get this precious flour, and no orders forbidding them to carry goods in this way were of any avail. They knew that every pood (40 lbs.) of corn meant days of life for their children and they were ready to defend their sacks at the cost of their lives.

Our party was comparatively lucky in having the whole of our van to ourselves. We were only seventeen persons, men and women, instead of the regulation "40 men - or 8 horses."

Some well-wisher had scrawled in chalk upon our carriage that "17 servants of the Tyrant Nicholas II" were travelling in it. This became the cause of much hostile comment at our stopping-places, as can be well imagined. The "17 servants" comprised Gibbes and Gilliard, Mademoiselle Tegleva and myself, as well as maids, footmen, and cooks. It was a varied company: the Tobolsk "odd man" side by side with the Empress's second dresser, M. G. Toutelberg, quite unable at first, poor soul, to grasp the changed situation, but later, when facing actual danger, developing quite unsuspected resourcefulness and courage. There was the fat, clean-shaven butler, in his blue frock-coat, sitting disconsolately on his bag, gazing straight before him but quite alert whenever one of the other servants appealed to his superior judgment, when his opinion, expressed with befitting dignity, was received with respectful attention. It was strange to me to see how these men maintained, perhaps unconsciously, the customary household discipline. Not only did they treat the butler with due consideration, but were always most attentive to us, trying their best to make things more comfortable, carrying the water, working the pump, offering us a taste of their best morsels, poor stuff though it might be.

The under servants were footmen, cooks, and the maids of Mademoiselle Schneider and Countess Hendrikoff - frightened, consumptive creatures, whose racking cough and gasping breath were heard at night by all the inmates of our car. One of the cooks, a thin, dark man - he was "the sauce-artist," he told me - seemed to be a wit. He kept the party in fits of laughter by his sallies, but the best, seemingly, were not for our ears, for they were delivered in a lowered voice, and though they were greeted with much merriment, restraining glances were thrown in our direction. There was not much laughter, though. Apart from the utter discomfort that surrounded them, those poor people had enough to make them feel sad and dejected. They had lost their situations and their hopes of a pension. All had large families and were trained to no other kind of work. Wherever they might go in search of employment their past would be counted against them. Their future was dark indeed, but they spoke little about their personal troubles. They had followed their Emperor voluntarily into exile, and his fate dwarfed all their own anxieties in their minds.

They had all managed to get back the luggage they had taken with them to Ekaterinburg, and their numerous boxes and bundles took up half of the van. During part of each day picnic cooking went on, the iron stove in a corner of the car being used for this. The men-servants managed to get a little firewood, and the smell of frying potatoes generally pervaded our abode for as long as the "odd man's" supply of them lasted. He had had the original idea of taking a bulky bag of this useful vegetable along with his other belongings, and this foresight proved to be a godsend to him and his comrades.

Only the pillows and rugs that Gilliard and Gibbes had with them made it possible for us to get a little sleep at night on the hard benches. We had got quite stiff from sitting on them during the day. We ought to have reached Tyumen on the day after we left Ekaterinburg had our journey followed the usual course. It proved to be otherwise, and we had to stay in our van for two more weeks! We kept it fairly clean by sweeping the floor daily with brooms made of branches which we gathered - without permission - in the woods near the stations. We were in great dread of being invaded by vermin from the neighbouring cars. Our personal toilet was rudimentary and more or less public. The pump used for supplying the engine had to supply us with washing water. An enamel basin, owned by Mr. Gibbes, rendered the greatest service, being used both for personal washing purposes and for laundry. Sometimes, when some of the occupants left the car, we curtained off a corner with the aid of blankets and indulged in more thorough ablutions in turns.

There were dozens of stoppages daily. The train crawled at some twelve to fifteen miles an hour and stopped, sometimes for days, at stations. Many of our neighbours were nearly starving, and the children went about begging for food. If they thought the train would stop for a long time the refugees went out to forage in the neighbourhood, but often they came back without any spoil. It was always somewhat risky to leave the train, for everything was so irregular that it might suddenly be started, and they would have no hope of being able to board another. At the best there was only one refugee train every four or five days!

The station refreshment rooms had all long ago been completely ransacked. For economical reasons the servants used to patronise the soup kitchens that the Swedish Red Cross had opened at some of the stations for the use of German prisoners of war returning home. The people in charge of these soup kitchens used sometimes to take pity on the refugees, and if they had anything over would sell it to them. Everyone came with whatever receptacle he or she possessed, to receive a bowl of hot greyish liquid with plenty of vegetables, among which floated a few black specks - supposed to be atoms of meat! This broth was not very nourishing, but was a decided improvement on the sodden grey bread and pale unappetising sausage, of mysterious origin, which was all we could buy for much money at the shops. I was most grateful when the servants brought me my rations, for with wonderful ideas of court etiquette in their heads they would not allow me to stand in the queues to get it. They said it was unsuited to "my rank"! Everything at all the stations showed utter neglect; even the letter-boxes disgorged their contents, evidently not having been cleared for weeks. Letter-writing was now a useless pastime!

We passed whole rows of broken-down second and first-class carriages standing at stations on the way. Many of these were burned by the soldiers later, as they were considered undemocratic. Sometimes a new first-class carriage stood apart: clean, trim, the blinds down. It awaited some important Kommissar going on inspection down the line.

Large numbers of military trains passed us, bound east, full of Bolshevik troops sent to stem the Czech advance. These troops consisted mostly of sailors, Letts, and former German prisoners of war. Many of the latter had openly rejoiced at the Bolshevik revolution. Even at Tobolsk I had heard that some of the men had boasted that when they returned home the same thing would happen in Germany. Perhaps these very men took part in bringing about the fulfilment of their own prophecy a few months later!

We had several adventures, some dangerous, some ludicrous. In the first category must be counted a narrow escape from railway thieves.

At one of the stations, where the train stopped for several hours, the engine-driver passed down word to the passengers that the whole night would be spent there. We saw an empty carriage on the line opposite ours, and someone suggested that we might move into it for the night. Gilliard, Gibbes, A. A. Tegleva, M. G. Toutelberg and I could not resist the temptation of getting away, if only for a few hours, from the close atmosphere of our van. We prepared for a good night's rest. To ensure our not being disturbed we not only locked the door from inside but tied it up securely with ropes fastened to the handles. As the carriage was unlit it could pass from outside as being empty, and being locked, we hoped no one looking for accommodation would take the trouble to investigate so late at night if this were the case or not. However, the very fact that it was locked attracted an element we had not counted upon -railway thieves. In the middle of the night we were wakened by hearing a rattling at the door and muffled voices. "There are surely valuable goods in here," a voice whispered, "it is locked." "Hand a jemmy here, won't you," another hoarse voice answered.

Monsieur Gilliard, Mademoiselle Toutelberg, and I tiptoed to the door. Mademoiselle Toutelberg was valiant and was for parleying with the men, but we first tried to prevent their entry by setting our backs against the door and holding it literally for dear life. The jemmy made short work with the lock, but the ropes held, mercifully, and we heard the thieves swearing in disgust. "There must be some kind of special iron bolt inside, we ought to get a hatchet." "Idiot," the other voice said, "the noise will attract others. They will come up and then we will have to share what we find. Better try something else while we have time." They moved off. Our sighs of relief were genuine; we had not relished the idea of a hand-to-hand fight with these ruffians who were evidently well armed.

As it was now the middle of June the days were beginning to be very warm, and the want of a proper bath was a great privation. Mr. Gibbes would rush into any stream that happened to be near a station at which we stopped for any length of time. Those Siberian rivers are icy, so goodness knows into what low temperature he had dipped when he came back shivering but clean. Off and on we women tried discreet alfresco tubbing behind some bushes near a station, but though one always stood sentry to warn off the approach of passers-by, it was not satisfactory- and cold! Once our train stopped opposite a village churchyard and we got the usual information that the stoppage would last for four hours. We knew that this meant six hours or many more. I had a brilliant idea, and suggested to my fellow-travellers that a churchyard meant a church and consequently a priest, and that I would appeal to the charity of the clergy and ask him to allow us to bath in his bath-house. He would certainly own one. Monsieur Gilliard and Mr. Gibbes were dubious. They seemed to think the proceeding strange and feared the priest would have no confidence in us! However, they agreed to accompany Mademoiselle Tegleva and myself on our expedition.

This proved to be something of an adventure, but a successful one. We discovered the priest's house, and on entering found the whole ecclesiastical family at tea. Our appearance cannot have been prepossessing, for I noticed that Matouschka - the priest's wife - surreptitiously removed the silver tea-spoons from the table while I harangued her husband. I tried to be as eloquent as I could. I spoke of the respect we owed to his rank, of Christian charity, of the distress of refugees travelling for three weeks in a cattle-van. I dragged in the case of two foreigners stranded in Siberia, and told him we would pay for the fuel, showing him the money. He was vacillating between his own kindness and his wife's fear lest we should bring vermin into her clean bath-house.

Happily, there was a dear old mother on the premises who suddenly became our spokeswoman. "Whoever they are, Batiouschka" (father), she said, "they are people in a dire plight. We do not know their names, or where they come from, but before going to read your Vespers and ask the Lord for a sinless day, how can you refuse?"

This turned the balance. Batiouschka agreed, and the worthy old lady heated the bath for us with her own hands. It did not give us the absolute bliss she had hoped, for she had hospitably stoked it up like a furnace. Neither Mademoiselle Tegleva nor I had ever indulged in the national steam bath before, and in trying to climb up to the highest shelf and steam ourselves we found it - hot! Nor did Monsieur Gilliard, I believe, feel as happy as he should have done when the men's turn came, for he also was not an babitue, and was not attracted by the whipping with birch twigs that the servants suggested to him as a special treat; but we were bathed at last and were loud in our gratitude.

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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