Memories Of The Russian Court

My Ordeal in Prison

Visitors in prison! Who but one who has spent days and nights of anguished loneliness behind bolted doors can possibly imagine the joy of such anticipation? I looked forward, almost as toward freedom itself, to the first Friday when I should see my beloved parents. I pictured myself running forward to embrace them, I could see my father's kind and loving smile, my mother's blue eyes full of happy tears. How we would sit, hand in hand, and talk over all that had happened since our parting! They would bring me news, messages, perhaps even letters from those other captives in Tsarskoe Selo. I should hear that the children were well again and the Empress's deepest anxieties were removed.

Alas I the harsh reality of my foolish dreams. When the day came I limped, between armed soldiers, through the long, gray corridors to the visitors' room, and there at the end of a long wooden table which divided us like an impassable gulf I saw my mother. There was no embrace allowed, not even a touch of hands. My mother tried to smile, tried to look at me with the love I craved, but in spite of herself her face paled and an expression of horror congealed her features. I stood there before her white with the pasty whiteness of prison, my uncombed, unkempt hair hanging about my shoulders, my dress dirty and wrinkled and an unhealed cut ploughing a bloody furrow across my forehead. To the question she dared not ask I touched the ugly wound and told her it was nothing. I could have told her that a soldier named Izotov, in a fit of animal temper, had knocked me against the edge of the cell door, and that the cut had received absolutely no attention since. Had we been alone I should have wept the whole story out on her breast, but we were not alone. Standing over us like inquisitors were the Procurer of St. Petersburg and the terrible Khoni, governor of the Troubetskoy Bastion, and afterwards governor of the fortress itself. Ten minutes only were allowed us, and at the end of eight fleeting minutes Khoni, watch in hand, roared out: "Two minutes left. Finish your talk." But we had no talk. Sobs choked our words, the few commonplace words that in such circumstances can be spoken. We could only bid each other be brave and trust in God's mercy. We could but gaze and gaze at each other through streaming tears. Then they separated us.

When the next Friday came I resolved to make myself a little more presentable. I had no mirror but I begged the Woman to loan me a small, cracked fragment. They had taken away all my toilet articles and every single hairpin, but the Woman gave me two hairpins of her own and, combing my hair with my fingers I arranged it more or less neatly. Every day I washed and cared for the cut on my forehead and when the visiting hour at last arrived I fancied that I looked rather more like myself. This time the preCiOUS ten minutes were spent with my father, and because he had been prepared in advance for the wretched object his daughter had become our brief interview was less emotional than that of the preceding Friday. Brave and erect my father held himself before those brutal jailers, and my heart glowed with love and pride to see him. We managed to exchange a few sentences and my father told me that he had obtained permission to send me money to buy tea and a few other comforts. He told me that he and my mother had waited three hours to see me and because it had been ruled that they could not both be admitted on the same day that my mother was standing close to the door of the next room just to catch the faint sound of my voice. These words roused Khoni to a perfect fury. "So!" He fairly yelled. "But I'll spoil that game," and rushing out he slammed the door between the two rooms. My father flushed crimson but he spoke no word nor, of course, did I. A single protest might have meant punishment for me, and for us all no more visits.

I saw my father only three times, my mother a little oftener, as her health was the better of the two. The money my father sent me did not reach me except in very minute sums. By far the greater part of it was kept by the jailers, and gambled away. Not satisfied with that, the men warned my father that nothing except payment to the prison heads would save me from death, or worse still from assault by the soldiers. My father had long ago been deprived of his income, but he and my mother sold some valuables and gave it to the blackmailers who wanted it only for more gambling. Their sacrifice gave my parents a little peace of mind, but it did not save me from three of the most horrible nights I spent in the fortress. On each of these nights my cell was invaded by drunken soldiers who threatened me with unspeakable things. On the first occasion I simply groveled on the wet floor and prayed the man, in the name of his mother and mine, to let me alone, and, drunk as he was, my words actually penetrated his dark soul and shamed it. The next men were less drunk but were far more bestial. At the sight of them I threw myself against the wall and pounded frantically, screaming at the top of my lungs. Mme. Sukhomlinov heard and understood. She screamed too, frightfully, and with all her might shook the heavy door of her cell. This brought the guard and once more I was saved. The third time I was so paralyzed with fright that I could not scream. I simply fell on my knees, holding up my little ikon, and begged like a trapped animal. The man hesitated a. moment, spat on me contemptuously, and left. The next day, half dead with shame and fear, I managed to tell the Woman all that had passed. Indignantly She went to the Governor of the fortress, and after that even I, "the worst woman in prison," was spared the ultimate insult.

Although we could not know it, things were gradually changing for the better in the fortress. A little physical improvement was apparent. The cold had lessened and in our short walks in the prison yard we could see that lovely spring, with its fresh green leaves and springing flowers, had come to stay. I remember one day seeing in the grass a little yellow flower. It may have been a buttercup or a dandelion thing else we ordinarily call weeds, but to my eyes it was an exquisite thing. Audaciously I stooped and picked it, hiding it quickly in the bosom of my dress. The next visiting day I showed it to my father and dropped it on the table. On leaving the room he con. trived to get hold of it and after his death in 1918 I found it, carefully preserved among his private papers. I never picked another flower in that prison yard, although once I tried. But this time a guard caught me, and struck the flower from my hand with the end of his rifle.

Things were improving under the surface, but aside from the welcome change in the weather conditions seemed for a time no better. In the cell adjoining that of Mme. Sukhomlinov was my old friend General Voyeikov, who was tortured almost as pitilessly as myself. My heart ached for him. In cell 69 was for some time the police detective Manuilov, but when he was removed to another prison the writer Kolichko was placed in the cell. Kolichko, poor wretch, was so overcome by his arrest and imprisonment that during the first nights he sobbed so long and bitterly that I found it impossible to sleep. I was so unhappy that I began to pray for death, and once I even resolved to end my life. I had no weapon but a rusty needle which I had picked up and carefully concealed, but I had heard somewhere that there was a spot at the base of the brain which if punctured ever so little would cause death. Before seeking that spot I felt that I must say adieu to my brave little friend Mme. Sukhomlinov, and so softly I rapped out a farewell message on the wall. Her quick mind instantly divined my intention and without losing any time she sent for the Woman and my rusty needle was taken away from me.

It began to be sultry in the Troubetskoy Bastion and the air in the cells became thick and foul. My small window, which looked out on a narrow court and a high wall, admitted little light and no breeze at all. I used to climb painfully up on the iron shelf which did duty for a table and pressing my face close to the bars I breathed in all the air possible. Instead of seeking the warm corner of my cell I now sat for hours together with my body against the wettest and coldest stones. My despondency increased every day, and I almost ceased to pray or to believe that the universe held any God to whom the prayers of captives could ascend. Yet all the time God was sending me help.

One day a soldier came to my cell and roughly bade me get up and go with two guards for examination. Not knowing exactly what that meant, I rose from my cot and followed the men to a room in the fortress where the High Commission of Inquiry appointed by Kerensky was then in session. Bewildered by the sudden transition from the bastion to a room full of comfortable furniture, and almost blinded by the brilliant light and sunshine, I had all I could do to answer their few inconsequential questions. I have described this first examination in another chapter, and I shall not repeat it here. It was so foolish that afterwards in my hot and ill-smelling cell I actually found myself laughing, and it had been a long time since I had laughed. judge Rudnev, the only one of the commission who showed himself fair-minded or even capable of just judgment, was present at the inquiry, but I do not think he said a word. Afterwards he was charged with full responsibility of my case, and I appeared before him no less than fifteen times. At the close of the first of these personal interviews I thanked judge Rudnev warmly. Astonished, he asked: "For what do you thank me?" And I answered: "For the happiness of four whole hours of sitting in a room with a window, and through it a glimpse of green trees." He did not reply except with a kind and sympathetic look, but I knew that his heart was touched, and that he received a new conception of what life meant to a prisoner.

Better things still were to come. Without our being aware of it the revolutionary mania had begun to subside a little and those men among our guards who had once been clean and decent were now getting back to their normal state of mind. Poor soldiers! Never let me forget that they were not to blame for the torments they inflicted on me and other prisoners. It was not they who invented the black calumnies that made me seem a creature undeserving of mercy or any clemency. It was not they who fashioned the cross on which I was crucified. The soldiers did only what they were incited to do by men and women far above them, people who conspired to crush me that they might crush the Empress. The soldiers I forgive, but I cannot yet forgive those others. The fate of the Imperial Family, the ruin of Russia, is on their souls. For what they did they have never shown any penitence, but those rough soldiers in the fortress repented and did what they could in atonement. One of the head guards was a man, handsome in a rustic sort of fashion, who at first had treated me with great insolence. One morning this man opened my door, hesitated for a moment, and then said in a low voice: ."I am very sorry for you. Please take this," and vanished. "This" was an apple and a small piece of white bread. Another morning the soldier who brought my breakfast spoke in a grumbling aside but loudly enough for me to hear: "What idiocy to keep a poor sick woman in this place." One night the window in my cell door was pushed aside and in a trembling voice someone begged me to give him my hand. Tears fell on it while the unseen friend told me that he was -a boy from Samara, and that it broke his heart to see women caged like beasts in such holes. He must have had a good mother, that boy. Perhaps they all had, for it became almost a habit for men passing through my corridor to slip me bits of bread, sausage, or sugar.

The most wonderful piece of good fortune came through the soldier in charge of the prison library. This man visited my cell one day, and after giving me a keen look which I could not understand he laid the library catalogue on my cot and went out. I had little interest in the dull books at our disposal, but when one sits hours in utter idleness he makes occupation out of almost nothing. I opened the catalogue and turned the leaves. To my astonishment out fell a folded paper. Cautiously I opened it and read these words: "Dear Anushka, I am sorry for you. If you have five rubles I can get a letter to your mother." For a long time after the incriminating paper had been destroyed I sat trembling in doubt and foreboding. I had barely five rubles, and if I gave them would they be gambled away? Was the letter a trap ? Was it merely an effort to get me into trouble ? I did not know, but on a bit of blank paper left in the catalogue I wrote with my stub of a pencil: "I have suffered so much already that I cannot believe that you wish to do me any more harm." Folding the five rubles and the paper into a tiny note, I tucked it into the catalogue and waited. After a while the librarian returned, and this time I read in his silent gaze that he was asking for my confidence. The next day he came back and again left the catalogue on my bed. This time I seized it eagerly and shook its leaves. A letter from my mother dropped out, a short letter, for she had been given only a few minutes to write, but I read and reread it until I knew every word by heart.

Then began a smuggled correspondence with my father and mother, they gladly giving money to the men who risked their own liberty by carrying the letters back and forth. The letters reached me in prison books, in the sheets of my bed, under the tin basin which held my food, and once even in a soldier's sock dropped carelessly on the floor. In this sock was concealed a note from Lili Dehn, free now and in correspondence with the family at Tsarskoe Selo. There was a slip of paper enclosed with a tiny white flower glued to it, and in the Empress's handwriting: "God keep you." Another precious souvenir of the Empress sent me by my mother was a little moonstone ring long ago given me at Tsarskoe. Tearing a rag from the lining of my coat, I made a bag for this jewel, and begging a safety pin from the Woman, I pinned it inside my dress. The poor librarian. This was the last favor he ever did me, for falling under the suspicion of the Governor, he was abruptly discharged. The letters, however, had done me so much good that I was in every way better and more cheerful. I felt in touch with the world again. I knew in a general way what was going on, and though not all the news was pleasant it gave me a sense of being alive and not altogether hopeless. I knew now what tireless efforts were being made in my behalf, and I felt that in the end something must come of them. My parents had done everything humanly possible to move Kerensky but without any definite success. The first appointment with him was made through his secretary Shalpern, and although my parents were naturally exactly on time Kerensky kept them waiting for two hours. When at last they were received my parents were told that the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, Rasputin, and Vyrubova were responsible for the Revolution and would have to suffer for it. My parents had heard this before, but it was new to them to hear from Kerensky that he knew that I had a great many diamonds from the Archbishop Pitirim and for that and other reasons nothing could be done for me. Later he softened a little and ended the interview by promising that my whole affair would be investigated. My parents then contrived an interview with the minister of Justice, Pereverzev. They made two appointments in fact, for the first one Pereverzev deliberately broke, going out for the day while my parents sat waiting in an ante-room. The next time my mother went to the Ministry she was received and was civilly treated. Pereverzev also promised that a fair investigation would be made. By this time the Special commission of Inquiry was sitting and my mother managed to see the president, Muraviev. She took with her a letter from his brother to me before the abdication of the Emperor. In this letter I was warned of plots against me and was advised to leave the palace. I had replied to this letter, and my mother had a copy of my reply. I had written that I would never leave the Empress. My conscience was clean before God and man and I would remain to the end where God had placed me. I was astonished that a soldier should advise me to run away from a battlefield. Muraviev who at first had been very harsh, changed after reading the letters. He even asked my mother to allow him to read them to the commission. They were significant, he said. As soon as my case had been referred to judge Rudnev he called my parents to the Winter Palace, where he had his office, and talked with them, asking a great many questions, for nearly four hours. In this examination, for it was really that, my father and mother were allowed for the first time to defend me, to make explanations of obscure charges, to e my life story to the man who was to judge me. No one else gave them such an opportunity, not even the Georgian deputy Cheidze, then very prominent in the St. Petersburg Soviet. Cheidze was kind and said that he would do anything in his power to help me to get justice, but I do not think he ever did anything. Members of the Provisional Government, Rodzianko and Lvov, to whom, while they were still in power, my parents had written begging to be received, never even replied to the letters.

One day, sitting in my cell and remembering what had been written me in the smuggled letters, another wonderful thing happened. In the noon meal of fish soup which I must eat or starve I found a large piece of really decent meat. I ate it greedily, of course, and the next day I ate another piece which had mysteriously arrived. I took the first opportunity to ask the Woman where the food came from, and she told me that it was a cook, a poor man whose duty it was to carry food to our bastion. He too pitied me, she said, and she thought he might be will-Ing to run almost any risk for me. So almost at once I was again in correspondence with my parents. This cook did more than carry letters, the brave man. He brought me food, chocolates, clean clothes, linen, stockings, and even a fresh frock. Growing bolder, he ventured regularly to take away my soiled linen and to replace it with clean things. All during those months in the fortress I had washed my linen and stockings in cold water, without soap, and in the night had hung them up in the warm corner on a hook improvised from a broken hairpin. Of course they were never clean, nor even, when I put them on, very dry, and now they were stiff with dirt. Can anyone imagine what it was to me to feel a clean, soft, smooth chemise against my skin?

I am sure the cook could never have done so much for me had not the guards closed their eyes to his activities. They were nearly all friendly now, and used to talk with me through the window in my door. In spring a number of pigeons flocked around the fortress and their constant sobbing voices got on my nerves. I spoke of this to one soldier who expressed surprise. "I was shut up here once," he said, "under the old Government, and I didn't find the birds bad at all. I used to feed them through the window." "You had a window in your cell," I exclaimed. "Then it couldn't have been as bad as this." And he assured me that it wasn't as bad under the Autocracy as under the beneficent Provisional Government and the Soviet. The prisoners had much better food and they could exercise two hours a day in the open.

Another prisoner of the Tsar's government, a noncommissioned officer named Diki, who had been very harsh to me in the beginning, now showed me kindness. Instead of robbing me, as of old, of every little privilege, he began to allow me an extra five minutes or so in the courtyard, he, too, saying that in the old days prisoners were better treated. Another of the guards in the courtyards, a man whom I had bitterly hated, and with cause, told the Woman that he wanted to speak to me. Afterwards while walking he approached me and I looked into his coarse face, deeply pitted with smallpox, and listened in fear at what he might have to say. Stammeringly he told me that he had just returned from a leave spent in his home in the Government of Saratov. Visiting his sister's house, he was amazed to see, hanging under the ikon in the corner of the room, a photograph of me. "What!" he had exclaimed. "Do you have that shameless woman's picture in your house?" Whereupon his brother-in-law retorted: "Never dare to speak against her who was like a mother to me for two years in Tsarskoe. I was in her own hospital in the end, and it was like Heaven." The brother-in-law had charged the guard with all kinds of messages to me, telling him that they prayed for me daily in his family and hoped for my release. "Forgive me for being unjust to you," said the poor soldier, and offered me his hand. This was the first news I had of my hospital, and I learned with joy that the Provisional Government had not closed it. Later I heard that the Government had not only carried on my work but had added five new buildings. None of my nurses or orderlies had left, though their openly expressed faith in me might easily have secured their dismissal. Some of the invalids had petitioned the Duma for my release, and another group, indignant because a revolutionary newspaper declined to publish their letter refuting the usual slanders about me, wanted to leave the hospital long enough to blow up the office building! They were good at heart, those misguided Russian soldiers, those poor ignorant children. I know them, and whatever they have been forced to do in these years of horror, I still believe them sound and good of soul. In the last days of my imprisonment in Peter and Paul the guards did not even lock my cell door. They used to linger and talk, and sometimes they brought paper and pencils that I might make sketches of them to take home. I was rather clever with a pencil in those days.

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Tsar Nicholas II

Tsar Nicholas II

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