Sveborg before the War was one of three principal naval stations of the Russian Empire, the other two being Kronstadt and Reval. Sveaborg occupies a number of small islands in the Bay of Helsingfors. The bay itself, shaped like a rather narrow half moon, is so enclosed by these wooded islands that in winter the salt water freezes solidly. In summer the islands are green and lovely and a few of them, not under military control, are used by the Finns as pleasure resorts. Even in the darkness and in the unfortuitous circumstances of our arrival I could see that the main island might be a very attractive place. Up a steep hill we panted, past a white church surrounded with trees, and at last reached the place of our confinement, a long, dingy, one-storied stronghold. A young officer and several very dirty soldiers took our records, and Erika and I were pushed into a small cell with two wooden bunks covered with dust and alas, nothing else. The place smelled as only old prisons do smell, and the only air came in through a small window high in one of the walls. Wrapping ourselves in our coats, we lay down on the hard planks and tried to sleep. In the early dawn we got up, our backs aching and our throats choked with dust, but the irrepressible Erika laughed so heartily and sneezed so comically that I found it impossible to lament our surroundings. The place was a dreadful hole just the same, no proper toilet facilities at hand, and of course no opportunity of washing, to say nothing of bathing. We had to pay for our food at the rate of about ten rubles a day, at that time no small amount of money. The food was not very bad except that Stepan, the commissary, used to wipe our plates with a disgustingly dirty towel which he wore around his neck, the same towel being used in a laudable attempt to wipe the dust from our bunks.
Climbing on the bunks, we had a view through the window of a new building going up, the workmen being women as well as men. At the same time we got a glimpse of the detective Manouiloff who, ever pessimis. tic, held up three fingers as an expression of his belief that we had only that many days to live. We, how. ever, ventured the guess that we would not remain at Sveaborg more than a month. It was a mere hazard but it turned out a fortunate one. ' We remained just about a month. It was a queer life we lived during that month, surrounded by tipsy and irresponsible men whose officers seemed to fear them too much to insist upon discipline. The officers, especially one fine young man, did everything they dared to make us comfortable. After the first ten days our plank beds were furnished with green leather cushions which might have made sleep a comfort if they had not persisted in slipping from under us about as soon as we dozed off - Somewhat later, a week perhaps before our liberation, these cushions were replaced by real mattresses stuffed with seaweed, wonderfully luxurious by comparison with the bare boards. The prisoners were exercised every day in the open under Sveaborg guards and the gaze of a crowd of Finnish Bolshevists. These people seemed at first immensely diverted by the pomposity of the Siberian doctor Badmiev who, in his long white robe, tall cap, and white gloves was certainly a curious spectacle. Soon they tired of him and turned their stolid, expressionless eyes on the other prisoners with what intentions we could only conjecture. Badmiev continued to be a center of interest in the prison. Erika, his faithful disciple, demanded the privilege of attending him, and this was granted. Every day he sat crosslegged like the Buddha he so much resembled, dictating endless medical treatises to Erika. In the evenings he used to put his lamp on the floor at the foot of his bunk, strew around it flowers and leaves brought from outside, burn some kind of ill-smelling herbs for incense, and generally create what I assumed to be the occult atmosphere of his beloved Thibet. Erika, scantily clad, always attended these seances and gradually they appeared to hypnotize the sailors, who thought highly of the doctor's professional powers. Indeed towards the end I often heard them swearing that whoever left the fortress, they would at least keep their highly esteemed tovarish Badmiev and his Siberian Tibetan lore.
In sad contrast to the condition of Dr. Badmiev was that of the poor editor, Glinka Janchevsky, who being without money was treated with the utmost contempt. Housed in a wretched cell covered with obscene drawings, the miserable man spent most of his time lying on his wooden bed wrapped up, head and all, in his overcoat. He used to creep to our cell door with a glass of hot water iia his hand begging for a pinch of tea and, if we had it, a little sugar. Every day he used to ask pathetically: "When do you think we shall be let go?" Like all journalists, he was famished for news, and whenever I got hold of a stray newspaper I used to read it to him from the first column to the last.
The vacillating conduct of the Bolshevist sailors to. ward the prisoners of Kerensky I can only ascribe to the increasingly bitter conflict going on between the weak Provisional Government and the Bolsheviki. The sailors hated us because we were "bourgeois," but they spared us because Kerensky desired our destruction. The officers good-naturedly brought me flowers from outside, an occasional newspaper, and even letters from people in Helsingfors who knew my history and pitied my fate. Sometimes I was even invited to tea with the officers, and twice I was taken out of prison, ostensibly for examination, but really to attend services at the little white church on the island. The guards were rough and kind by turns, sometimes uttering horrible threats against all the prisoners, sometimes bringing me a handful of the wild flowers they knew I loved to have near me. Discipline was lax, and we never knew from one day to another what might befall. For example, the padlock to my cell got lost and for several nights the door was left unlocked. One can imagine how I slept! On one of these unguarded nights the cell was invaded by a group of drunken and lustful men. Erika and I fought them, screaming at the top of our lungs, until a few sober and better-minded sailors came to the rescue. A day or two later, when a rumor spread that we were all to be hanged, I among the first, I for one felt less terror than relief. Anything, even hanging, seemed better than this lunatic prison where the guards drank, played cards, and wrangled all night, and where the mens attitude towards Erika and myself, the only women, was by turns dangerously savage and dangerously friendly.
Besides the Kerensky prisoners the fortress sheltered eight or nine prisoners charged with crimes ranging from theft to murder. Some of these whom we encountered in the exercise yard looked like very decent men, shining perhaps by contrast with the rowdy Revolutionists I had seen in the course of two imprisonments. For these unfortunates and for the guards we bought cigarettes, thus establishing more cordial relations. Nobody knew or could guess what was going to happen to us. One day appeared the president of the Helsingfors Soviet, a black-eyed Jew named Sheiman, who assured us that we were to be sent back to St. Petersburg, and that we might as well have our things ready by nine o'clock that night. Nothing happened that night, nor did we, for some reason, expect anything. The next day Sheiman came again with his bodyguard of soldiers and sailors, and told us that his Soviet refused for a time to release us. It appeared that telegrams had arrived from Kerensky and from Cheidze, the Georgian leader in the St. Petersburg Soviet, urgently demanding our return. The Helsingfors Soviet might have obliged Cheidze, but they would not honor any demand of Kerensky's, so there we were. The Provisional Government and the St. Petersburg Soviet sent over several deputies, Kaplan, a small, blackbearded man, who smilingly told us that there was no possible hope for us; Sokoloff, the famous, or rather
infamous, author in the first instance of Order No. 1 which was principally responsible for the breakup of the army; and Joffe, the little Jew, who, a few years later, became influential enough to be included among the delegates to the Genoa Conference. After their visit, I don't know why, prison discipline became still further relaxed. We had visitors and the attention of physicians if we needed it. We were informed that henceforth we would not be regarded as prisoners at all, but only as persons temporarily detained. Two hours a day after this we were allowed in the open air, and I became very friendly with the Finnish women carpenters at work on the new building on our island. These good souls brought me bottles of delicious milk, and one day the building foreman, a Moscow Russian, invited me to his house to tea, and here 1, a poor pris. oner, was treated with such deference that I was actually embarrassed. Not one of the family would eat with me or even sit down in my presence.
At this time Erika and I were given a more commodious cell furnished with the seaweed mattresses of which I have spoken. But to our horror we found the walls covered with the most frightful scrawls and pictures. The sailor guards, however, brought water and sponges and with many apologies washed off the disgusting records as well as they could. I was thankful for this a few days later when all unexpectedly I received a visit from my dear mother. It had been some days after our parting at the frontier before she and my father learned that I was in prison. Immediately they had gone to Helsingfors to appeal to Gcneral Stachovitch, the Governor of Finland. But he advised them to avoid trouble for themselves, perhaps for me also, by going quietly back to St. Petersburg. My parents gave him money for me, which I never received, and despite the Governor's advice they stayed on in Helsingfors in faint hope of seeing me. Dr. Manouchine, my mother told me, had returned from a long visit in the Caucasus and was doing what he could to get me released. My mother also gave me news of the last struggle to maintain the army, the conflict be. tween Kornilov and Kerensky, ending, as everyone knows, in the death of Kornilov. These two were about equally hated by the Sveaborg sailors who would gladly have murdered them both. They had begun to speak with unbounded admiration of Lenin and Trotsky, especially of Lenin, who they declared was the coming saviour of Russia.
Bolshevism was in the air, and for a moment it assumed a really benevolent aspect. I remember a deputation of Kronstadt Bolshevists who came to Sveaborg to inspect us and to review our entire case. Some of these men were very civil to me, asking many questions about the Imperial Family and the life of the Court. At parting one said to me naively: "You are quite different from what I thought you'd be, and I shall tell the comrades so." The very next day another deputation came and, characteristic of the confused state of the public mind, these men were as brutal as the others had been kind. They stormed down the prison corridors roaring: "Where is Vyrubova? Show us Vyrubova!" I cowered in my cell, but when the guard came and admonished me, for my own safety, to show myself to the men I gathered courage to speak to them. Totally unprepared to see the terrible Vyrubova merely a crippled woman in a shabby frock, the men suddenly quieted down and made civil response to my words. "We didn't know that you were ill," said one of the men as they prepared to move on.
Although we did not know it at the time, our fate really hung on the outcome of a Congress of Soviets which was then being held in St. Petersburg, and to which both Sheiman and Ostrovsky were delegates. Sheiman returned to Helsingfors and visiting my cell told me that both Trotsky and Lounacharsky were insistent on the release of Kerensky's prisoners. That evening, he said, would be held a secret session of the executives of the Helsingfors Soviet at which he would urge the recommendation of Trotsky and Lounacharsky. If the executives agreed the question would then be referred to the entire Soviet, made up principally of sailors of the old Baltic fleet. That evening I was invited to tea in the officers' quarters, and while sitting there the telephone rang. "It is for you," said the officer who answered the call. I picked up the receiver and heard Sheiman's voice saying briefly: "The executive has voted unanimously for the release of the prisoners."
There was little sleep for me that night, but tired as I was by morning, I greeted happily the unkempt cook and his messy breakfast plate. All day I waited with the dumb patience only prisoners know, and at early evening I was rewarded by the appearance of Sheiman and Ostrovsky. "Put on your coat and follow me," said Sheiman. "I have resolved to take you, on my own responsibility, to the hospital." To my nursing sister, who had spent the afternoon with me, he gave orders to go to Helsingfors and wait for further direc. tions. At the prison gate Sheiman signed the necessary papers, and hurrying me past two gaping Bolshevist soldiers, he led the way down a bypath to the water. Boarding a small motor launch manned by a single sailor, we started off at high speed for Helsingfors. There was one bad moment when we approached a low bridge occupied by a strong guard, but at Sheiman's directions, uttered in a short whisper, I lay down flat in the launch and we passed unchallenged. The first stars were shining in the clear autumn sky as we reached the military quay of the town. We ran in under the lee of a huge warship and stepped ashore. There was a motor car waiting and the chauffeur, who evidently knew his business, started his engine without a word or even a turn of his head.
Sheiman spoke only one sentence. "Tovarish Nicholas, drive to -" naming a street and number. At once we were off, my head fairly swimming at the sight of electric lights, shaded streets, and people walking up and down. Turning into a quiet street we left the car, all three of us shaking hands with the discreet driver. Bidding Ostrovsky find my nurse and my small luggage, Sheiman conducted me to the door of the hospital where a nice clean Finnish nurse took me in charge and put me to bed in one of the freshest, airiest, most comfortable rooms I have ever occupied. "Take good care of this lady," were the last words of the President of the Helsingfors Soviet, "and let no one intrude on her." His words and the assured smile of the nurse were good soporifics and I fell almost in. stantly into a deep sleep.
Two days later, September 30 (Russian), Sheiman came to see me with the news that Trotsky had ordered all the Kerensky prisoners back to St. Petersburg, and that he, Sheiman, had personally seen to it that my nurse and my aunt, who was at that time in Helsingfors, were to accompany me. Sheiman himself, and also Ostrovsky, who was unfortunately very drunk, went with us in the train which left Helsingfors that same night about half past ten. It was an unpleasant journey, the prisoners being in a state of wild excitement, and many of the red-badged officers more or less tipsy. With my aunt and the nurse I sat in a corner of a dirty compartment praying for the day to come. At nine in the morning we reached St. Petersburg, and Sheiman, still solicitous of my welfare, escorted the three of us to the Smolny Institute, once an aristocratic school for girls, now the headquarters of the St. Petersburg Soviet. Here I had the happiness once more to embrace my mother, who, with relatives of other prisoners, waited our arrival. Many Soviet authorities were in the place, among others Kamenev, a small red-bearded man, and his wife, a sister of the renowned Trotsky. Both of the Kamenevs were extremely kind to us, seeing that my companions and I had tea and food, and expressing the hope that I should soon be out of trouble. Kamenev telephoned Kerensky's headquarters asking leave to send us home, but as it was a holiday nobody answered the call. "Well, go home anyhow," said Kamenev, leaving the telephone, but Sokolov stopped us long enough to make us understand that the prisoners all had to appear the next day before the High Commission in the Winter Palace. I never saw the Kamenevs again even to thank them for their kindness, but I read in the Kerensky newspapers that I was on terms of intimacy with them and was therefore a Bolshevist. It was even stated that I was a close friend of the afterwards notorious woman commissar Kolantai, whom I have never seen, and that Trotsky was a familiar visitor in my house.
Thus ended my second term of imprisonment. First I was arrested as a German spy and intrigant, next as a counter-Revolutionary. Now I was accused of being a Bolshevist and the name of Trotsky instead of Rasputin was linked with Mme. Hardly knowing what next was in store for me, I reported at once to the High Commission. Here I was told that their inquiries concerning me were finished, and that I had better see the Minister of the Interior. At this ministry I was informed that I was in no immediate danger but that I would remain under police surveillance. I asked why, but got no satisfactory answer. Later I learned that the tottering Provisional Government wanted to send me and all the "counter-Revolutionists" to Archangel, but this move Dr. Manouchine, who was still very influential, was determined to prevent.
From my uncle's house, where I had first taken refuge, I moved to a discreet lodging in the heart of the city and from this place I never once in daylight ventured out. This was in late October, 1917, and the Bolshevist revolution had begun in deadly earnest. Day after day I sat listening to the sound of rifle shots and the putter of machine guns, the pounding of armored cars over the stone pavements, and the tramp, tramp, tramp of soldiers. Russia was getting ready for the long promised constitutional convention which turned out to be a Communist coup d' etat. Once in a while the husband of my landlady, a naval man, came to my lodgings, and it was he who gave me news of the arrest of the Provisional Government, the siege of the Winter Palace, and the ignominious collapse of Kerensky while women soldiers fought and died to hide his flight! The scenes in the streets, as they were described to me, were appalling, and soon it was decided that my retreat was too near the center of hostilities to be at all safe. About the end of October I was taken by night to a distant quarter of the town to the tiny apartment of an old woman, formerly a masseuse in my hospital. Here came our old servant Berchik, keen to protect me from danger, and here we stayed for a month, when my mother found me a still safer lodging on the sixth floor of a house in the Fourtchkatskaia, a cozy little apartment whose windows gave a pleasant view of roofs and church steeples. There for eight months I lived like a recluse, once in a great while venturing to go to church, well guarded by Berchik and the nurse. The Bolshevik Government seemed successfully established, and its policy of blood and terror and extermination was well under way. Yet in my hidden retreat it seemed to me that, for a time at least, I was forgotten, and my troubles were all over.
Next chapter: XXI
Website © Bob Atchison 1998, 1999 | Comments on the website | Search all Alexander Palace sites by Keywords | Website built by Pallasart Web Design.