Memories Of The Russian Court

My Escape from Bolshevik Russia

On September 22 (October 6, New Style) I went in the evening to a lecture in a church. At that time every non-Bolshevist spent as many hours every day as possible in the churches, praying or listening to words of hope and comfort from the priests. The church was, in fact, the only home of peace and rest in the whole of the distracted country. That particular night in church I met some old friends who invited me to go home with them rather than walk the long and dreary, even the dangerous way back to my lodgings. I stayed with my friends that night, and the next morning early I went to mass in the little church where Father John of Kronstadt lies buried. I reached home about midday, and found the place in the possession of soldiers, two of whom had waited the entire night to arrest me, this time as a hostage, the White Army being reported within a few miles of St. Petersburg. My sick mother prepared me a little food, made a parcel of my scanty linen, and once more we bade each other the despairing farewell of two who knew that they might never meet again on earth. I was quickly conveyed to the headquarters of the Chekha where I was greeted with the exultant welcome: "Aha! Here we have the bird who has dared to stay out a whole night."

Thrust into the old filthy, ill-smelling cell room I found a spot near a dirty window from which I could get a far glimpse of the golden dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral. During my whole term in this place I kept my eyes and my whole mind on that golden dome, trying to forget the hell that whirled around me. The woman in charge of the room was a Finnish girl who had committed the crime of trying to run away to Finland. She was a stenographer and clerk, and the Chekha used her by night as an office assistant. Whether by nature or by association she had become as hard and as ruthless as her captors, and her imprisonment had many mitigations. It was her pleasant duty to make out the lists of those who, twice a week, were taken to Kronstadt to be shot, and her reports on the subject which she confided regularly to her chosen comrade, a Georgian dancer named Menabde, were enough to sicken even those of us who had become accustomed to wholesale slaughter of unoffending human beings. We heard little else except death and threats of death in this place. There was an official named Boze in the prison, and often we heard him screeching through the telephone to his wife that he would be late to dinner that night because he had a load of "game" to get off to Kronstadt. Under such conditions pity and sympathy become strangely dulled. On occasions when I was sent to the kitchens for hot water I used to get glimpses of the "game," huddled wretchedly in their seats or restlessly pacing their cells waiting. Often when I returned with the water I found the seats and the cells empty, and although my heart sank and my senses swam, I never felt the screaming horror a normal person would have felt. This dulling of the emotions, I suppose, is nature's way of keeping the mind from giving way entirely. Of course nature took away all human dignity and self-respect, this, too, in mercy. Any prisoner who went to the kitchens was greeted with jeers and foul abuse from the cooks who threw us handfuls of potato parings and withered cabbage leaves, quite as one would throw bones to dogs. Like dogs we eagerly snatched at these leavings, because the prisoners' regular rations were nothing half as palatable, being mostly wormy dried fish and a disgusting substitute for bread.

One day I was called up for examination, and this time a real surprise awaited me. My judge was an Estonian named Otto, not altogether a brutal man, as it turned out. As I approached his desk he regarded me grimly and without a word handed me a letter, unsigned, and reading about as follows: "To the Lady in Waiting, Anna Vyroubova. You are the only one who can save us from this terrible Bolshevik administration, as you are at the head of a great organization fully equipped with guns and ammunition." Sternly the Estonian judge commanded me to tell him the truth about the organization of which I was the head. Of course I told him that the whole thing was an invention, and he astonished me by saying that although the letter had been posted to my address he had very much doubted its verity. Then he asked, almost gently: "Are you very hungry?" Taken off my guard as much by the kindness as by the prospect of food, I fell against the desk murmuring only half aloud: "Hungry? Yes, oh, yes." Whereupon he opened a drawer of his desk and handed me a large piece of fresh, sweet bread. "Go now," he said, "and I will discuss your case with my colleague Vikman. In the evening we will see you again."

At eleven that night I was again summoned, this time before the two men. The Estonian, still kind and courteous, gave me a glass of steaming tea, which did much to lend me courage. Both he and Vikman then put me through a searching examination especially about my relations, real and assumed, with the Imperial Family and with persons of the Court. At three in the morning they released me, more dead than alive with fatigue, Otto telling me heartily that he thought I would be set free within a few days. Vikman, however, declared that my case would have to be referred to Moscow and that I need not expect an early release. I went back to my evil cage expecting nothing. I knew, that the threat of the White Army advance filled with terror the whole Bolshevist population, and that in case of actual battle no life outside the slim Communist ranks would be worth the smallest scrap of their worthless paper money.

Very shortly after my return to the cell room I began to hear my name whispered from one wretched woman to another, and I accepted this without much emotion as a prelude to a boat journey to Kronstadt. Early on a certain morning a soldier approached the door and bawled out: "Taneyeva, you to Moscow." I happened to be exceedingly ill that day, but mechanically I picked up my little handkerchief containing my few possessions, including a Bible, and followed the escort of two soldiers down the steep steps, as I believed, to my death. Perhaps they had orders to take me to Kronstadt, I cannot be sure of that, but I do know that the route we followed did not lead to the Moscow station. We had walked but a short distance when one of the soldiers said to the other: "What's the good of two of us bothering with one lame woman? I'll take care of her and you can go along. It will soon be over anyway." Nothing loath the other soldier, glad to get out of anything resembling work, took himself off while I, in charge of one armed man, mounted the crowded tram and rode on toward an unknown destination. At a certain point we had to change trams, and here occurred an incident so extraordinary that I almost hesitate to strain the credulity of a non-Russian reader by relating it. The second tram had been delayed for some reason, and a considerable crowd of passengers was waiting for it on the street corner. My soldier stood at my side waiting with the rest, but soon he became impatient. Ordering me not to move an inch in his absence, he ran down the street a short distance to see if the tram were in sight. As soon as he turned his back, people in the crowd began to speak to me. A girl in whom I recognized a former acquaintance asked me where I was going, and when I told her she took a bracelet I gave her and promised to carry it, with news of my fate, to my poor mother. An officer of the old army came up to me saying: "Are you not Anna Alexandrovna?" And when I said yes, he too asked me where I was being taken. "Kronstadt, I think," I answered, but he said: "Who knows?" and pressed into my hands a roll of bills saying that they might be of use to me.

Other people surrounded me, mostly strangers, but two of them women whom I had often seen at mass in the small church of Father John. They said: "Why should you be shot? The soldier has not come back. Run while the chance is yours. Father John will surely help you." Encouraged by their sympathy, yet hardly knowing what I was doing, I limped off on my crutch much faster than I could have believed possible, the whole street-corner crowd spreading out to shield my flight. I limped and stumbled down Mikhail Street as far as the Nevski Prospekt weeping and praying all the time: "God save me! God save me!" until I reached the old shopping arcade known as the Gostiny Dvor. Here I caught sight of my soldier running in frantic pursuit of his escaped prisoner. It seemed all over with me then but I crouched in a corner of the deserted building and miraculously the soldier ran on without seeing me. As soon as I thought it at all safe I crept out of the old arcade and turned into the Zagorodny Prospekt where I found a solitary cab. "Take me quickly," I cried to the ischvostik. "My mother is dying." The man replied indifferently that he had a fare waiting, but I thrust into his hands the entire roll of bills given me by the friendly officer, at the same time climbing into the drosky.

Said the ischvostik, "Where shall I drive you?" I gasped out the address of a friend in the suburbs of the city, and the man lashed his half-starved animal into a walk. After what seemed to me many hours we reached the place, I rang the doorbell and fell across the threshold in a dead faint.

My friend and her husband courageously took me in, fed, warmed me, and put me to bed. They even dared to send word to my mother that I was for the moment safe from pursuit, but they warned her not to come near the house as soldiers would certainly be watching her every movement. As a matter of fact my mother was visited by Red soldiers, arrested in her bed, and closely guarded for three weeks. Our maid also was arrested, as was everyone who came to the house. The old Berchick who had spent almost his entire lifetime in the service of our family was taken ill during this period and died. For five days his body lay uncoffined in the house, the Bolshevist authorities refusing him a burial permit. It was for my mother an interval of utter despair, since in addition to the death of Berchick she lived in constant fear of my rearrest. In the opinion of the Bolshevist soldiers, however, I had escaped to the White Army, and photographs of me were posted conspicuously in all the railway stations.

The kind friends who had taken me in dared not for their lives keep me long, and wishing them nothing of harm I set out on a dark night without a kopeck in my pockets and with no certain idea where I could find a bed. I had in mind a religious hostel, a place where a few students, men and women, lived under the chaperonage of an old nun. There I went, begging them for Christ's sake to take me in, and there I was hidden for five perilous days. A girl student volunteered to go to see my mother, and go she did, but when hours passed, a day passed, and she did not return, a panic of fear seized all of us, and rather than expose these kind people to risk of imprisonment and death I voluntarily left the place. What else could I do?

How shall I describe the horrors of the next few months? Like a hunted animal I crept from one shelter to another, always leaving when it seemed at all possible that my protectors might be punished for their charity. Four nights I spent in the cell of an old nun whom I knew, but pitying her fears I put on the black head kerchief of a peasant woman and started in a cab, on borrowed money, for the house of a friend near the Alexandra Lavra on the outskirts of the town. All unknown to me a decree had that day been issued that no one could ride in a cab without written permission from the authorities. Consequently before we had traveled half the journey the cab was stopped by two women police, fierce creatures armed with rifles, who called out to the ischvostik: "Halt! We arrest you and your passenger." Hastily I crammed all the money I had into the ischvostik's hand and begged the women to let me go as I had just been discharged from hospital and knew nothing of the new rule. Oddly enough they let us drive on, but very soon the ischvostik, sick with terror, stopped his horse and told me that he would take me no further. I got out and staggered on through the muddy snow, for it was now late in the autumn of 1918. A former officer whom I had once known well met and recognizing me asked if he might not accompany me to my destination. "No, no," I cried. "It would be madness for you to be seen with me. I cannot explain, only go, go, as fast as you can." I staggered on, dripping with rain until I reached my friend's house. To my now customary greeting: "I am running away. Will you hide me?" she replied: "Come in. I have two others." Thus did brave Russians in those days risk their lives to save those of others. Under her protection I lived ten days, and in her house I met a woman, a servant in one of the Communist kitchens, who having access to food and supplies, afterwards more than once saved me from starvation.

From one such kindly haven to another I fled in the dead of night. Once I was received in the home of an English woman who out of her scanty stores gave me warm stockings, gloves, and a sweater. Another day or two I spent in the rooms of a dressmaker whose husband was an unwilling soldier in the Red Army. Once I ventured back to the student hostel, where they welcomed me and fed me well, one of their number having just returned from the country with a stock of smuggled food. Here I had news from my dear mother from the girl who had gone to her on my behalf, and had, after ten days' detention by the Chekha, got back to the hostel. Some members of the Chekha, she informed me, looked forward to shooting me instantly when I was caught, but others said that it was certain that I was with the White Army and would never be caught.

From the hostel I sought a paid lodging with the family of a former member of the orchestra of the Imperial Theater. These people, however, were very mercenary and would receive me only on advance payment of a large sum of money. Almost everything my mother and I had owned had been sold long before, but I retained a pendant of aquamarines and diamonds, a wedding present from the Empress, safely hidden in the house of a friend. This I had sold for fifty thousand rubles, giving half the money to the musician's wife in return for a few days' shelter in a wretchedly dirty, unheated room. Here I had to cut my hair short to get rid of vermin, and feeling unable to endure the hole I left it. Yet finding my next lodgings even worse, I returned, and here in the midst of discomfort and bitter cold, I had the joy of meeting my mother and also my aunt Lashkerov, who brought me the welcome news that they thought they had at last found me a permanently safe retreat. It was miles from where I was staying, and I had to walk every step of the way, but when I arrived I found my hostess a lovely woman belonging to the Salvation Army. Gladly would I have stayed with her indefinitely but that was impossible as I had no passport and the police began to haunt the neighborhood. She did not abandon me for all that, but got me a new shelter in the home of a good priest and his wife. From here I was handed on from one to another of the priest's parishioners to whom he confided the story of my harried career. Once an Estonian woman told me that her sister had found a Finnish woman who, for a good price, was willing to take fugitives over the frontier, and she strongly advised me to attempt the flight. Some instinct forbade, and it turned out a good instinct, for the Finnish woman, after taking the money, had abandoned the Estonian's poor sister in the midst of a wood, from which she had to return, empty of purse and in deadly peril of arrest.

Cutting the story of my fugitive existence short, I finally found something like a permanent abode in the tiny and happily obscure woodland cottage of a working engineer, who kindly offered to take me in to his bachelor quarters a mile or two outside of Petro. grad. Here I became once more the happy possessor of a passport, true not in my own name but perfectly legal otherwise. In Russia when a girl marries she gives up her passport to the priest, receiving a new one in the name of her husband. My kind old priest gave one of these maiden passports to the engineer, at the same time reporting to the Commissar of his neighborhood that such a passport had been lost. This was to prevent any possible trouble or inquiry. The Commissar obligingly gave the priest a duplicate, signed and sealed by Bolshevist authority. Now again I was a human being, for no one in Russia can be said to have any identity unless he is in possession of a passport. Mine described me as a teacher, and as such I was henceforth entitled to the Communist rations. For the time being I was less a teacher than an unskilled household servant, for naturally I wanted to do everything possible to repay the good engineer for affording me a safe shelter. I knew nothing whatever of cooking or housework, yet I attempted to do both. The engineer himself was absent all day, but when he returned at night he carried in wood enough to last twenty-four hours, and also water which had to be brought from a great distance. Food, of course, was very scarce. My mother and the friendly priest brought all they could, but even so I would often have suffered had it not been for my old acquaintance, the woman who worked in the Communist kitchen. And I here I have to tell another incident which may seem impossible to some readers. One day I was sitting in the little house in the wood, feeling as secure as an escaped prisoner can feel, when I heard a sudden loud knocking at the door. There was no possible place where I could hide, but I sat absolutely still in my chair, hardly breathing for fear of disclosing the fact that the house was not empty. Again came the knock. ing at the door, this time louder and more peremptory than before. Realizing that it was useless to resist, I arose and with a prayer on my lips, I went to the door and opened it. No one was there. Nothing was in sight save the wintry trees and the frozen path that led to the highway. But yes! There almost at the end of the path stood the shivering figure of a little girl, the daughter of the woman in the Communist kitchen.

"Oh!" she cried, seeing me in the doorway. "I have been looking everywhere for your house and I could not find it."

"But you knocked," I said.

"No, I didn't," declared the child. "I haven't been near the house. I just this minute turned into the pathway to get out of the wind. I'm so glad I've found you. Mother has sent you something."

Who knocked at my door twice? The wind? It never did before or afterwards. If you believe in Providence, as I do, you may agree with me that God did not intend me at that time to starve in the depths of a desolate forest. If you prefer another explanation seek it.

In January, 1920, my kind friend the engineer told me reluctantly that he was about to marry and that the tiny room I occupied would have to be given up. I had not the remotest idea where I was to go. Above all things I desired to embrace a religious life, but in those perilous days no convent in St. Petersburg dared receive me. The convents were constantly being raided, and the younger nuns were frequently taken out and forced to work on the streets. No religious house could shelter a fugitive even though she possessed a false passport. Again I became a vagrant, spending a night here, a day there, sleeping in any refuge that opened to me. Towards the end of March I again found a home in the house of a priest and his wife who were as parents to me, and to whom I owe a lifetime of gratitude. Here I found not only safety but work, that blessed anodyne against all trouble.

My passport, as I have said, described me as a teacher, and a teacher I now became, thanks to my new friends, who found me plenty of pupils among the working class children of the neighborhood. I taught them the simple elements, and to children of the more intellectual classes languages and music. My pay was in food, but food in the Bolshevist paradise is worth much more than money, so I was completely satisfied.

By this time my appearance was so changed that I lost all fear of the police or the Chekha. One day when I was slowly walking the long distance across the river to my favorite church, the resting place of Father John, a motor car stopped in my path and I recognized as its occupant the Chekha inquisitor Boze, the man who had several times been my brutal jailer. "Grazhdanka (Citizeness)," he addressed me, "please tell me where to find -" he named a street and number whither he was bound, doubtless on some errand of terror. Giving him the direction, I moved on as fast as my crippled legs could carry me, but I need not have been afraid for he did not know me at all.

So went the year 1920, My mother and I and the good priest's family often discussing the possibilities of escape from the increasing starvation, death, and terror which everywhere surrounded us. People did escape, we knew, but how were we to do it - two women, one old and the other lame? It seemed altogether impossible. Besides, we had almost nothing with which to buy our way out of the country. My only shoes were homemade affairs of carpet, and I was so careful of them that often when walking I took them off and carried them in my hands to preserve them. Another thing, beset with dangers as we were in Russia we were no longer hungry, because I had an increasing number of pupils, and each one meant a tiny portion of food and firewood for my mother, my friends, and myself. But here is a strange and a universally human thing. Food and warmth do not bring content to prisoners, they create courage, and when one day in late October we received a letter from my sister, safe in a near-by country which I may not name, the flame of adventure blazed up in the soul of my brave little mother and in my own heart. My sister suggested the possibility of our getting out by one of the ways that persist in flourishing in spite of Bolshevism and the Chekha, and she offered us, if we succeeded in escaping, the shelter of her own home. I cannot reveal any detail of those secret ways of escape, because they still exist, and must not in any way be placed in jeopardy. Enough it is to say that St. Petersburg is separated from Finland by only a few versts of land, carefully guarded, and by a narrow arm of the Baltic Sea which cannot be quite as successfully guarded. In winter this water freezes, not as unsalted water freezes, smooth and thick and safe for passage, but in rough and treacherous hummocks of mixed ice and snow, with unexpected gaps of half-frozen water opening here and there between the ice masses. Still, the icy Baltic does at times admit of sledge passage, and there are men who make a business of taking over-for a price far beyond what most Russians can afford-refugees who have friends waiting for them in Finland or in countries to the west and south. Sometimes Red soldiers have to be bribed, and often they sell out the people whose money they accept. Sometimes also the men who contract to take refugees over the ice betray their passengers to the Bolshevik guards. Any way you look at it, escape from Bolshevik Russia is about as perilous as going unarmed into a tiger's cage. Yet people dare it, and we did.

It was about the first of December in our calendar, in the year 1920, when we received a second smuggled letter from my sister: "Be ready whenever we send for you." For that promised summons we waited in desperate suspense until two days after Christmas. Then to my mother's lodging came a fisherman and his little boy with the whispered news that we were to go with them on the day following. My mother found means of sending the news to our friend the priest, and he brought it to me. "Tomorrow at four o'clock you go abroad."

The next day at the appointed hour my mother and I, two shivering creatures facing death, but ready, met at a small railway station leading along the Baltic shores. The fisherman's son was also at the station,but obeying instructions, we did not notice him but simply followed wherever he led. Our train journey was short, and at five o'clock, Pitch dark in the Russian winter, we alighted at a poor village, following the boy who carried on his back a bag of potatoes. Alas! In the darkness and confusion we lost him, and stood in the icy cold like lost souls, not knowing where to turn. Suddenly but of the shadows a peasant woman approached us. "Are you looking for a boy with a bag of potatoes?" she said in a low voice, and to our frightened assent she murmured: "Follow me." We followed, although, for all we knew, it was to a Chekha prison. Anybody in Russia may be Chekha, the friend who invites you to dinner, the man who buys your last jewel, the woman who offers to guide you over an unknown road. You can trust no one, consequently, when you must, you trust anyone. We followed the peasant woman into a dim hut, and there we found two fishermen who assured us that they were ready that night to take us across the frozen Baltic to a village on the Finnish side. Their horses and sledges, they told us, were safely hidden, but they would be ready to take us and three other fugitives, a lady, a child, and a maid, as soon as we could safely venture to leave the village. As luck would have it there was a festival and a dance going on that night, and we had to sit in that stifling hut in complete silence until two o'clock. Also we had to pay for our shelter and escape one hundred thousand rubles, which my mother had secured by selling her last treasure, a pearl necklace.

When the last peasant had gone to bed and silence wrapped the village, we stole out through the mud and the snow, and got into the rough sledge. Hardly had we struck the rough ice of the Baltic when the sledge overturned, waking the child who, silent before, now began to cry and to beg to go home. The little thing spoke only French and I can still hear him repeating over and over again in a high baby voice which he did not know imperiled the lives of all of us: "Maman, Maman, a la maison, a la maison." For six hours we drove thus, slowly and cautiously over the rotten ice, one of the men driving, and the other running ahead with a long pole testing the ice for a safe pathway. Often we stopped to listen for possible sentinels, and once in the neighborhood of Kronstadt we had such a fright that I wonder the men dared go farther. Plainly to our ears came the grinding of machinery, and we knew that where there was machinery there were men. We stopped long and listened, until our driver suddenly remembered that the noise was that of an ice breaker several miles out of our highway. By this time I was so stiff and drowsy with cold, so nearly frozen, in fact, that I hardly cared what happened to us. Seeing my wretched state, one of the men took off an extra pair of woolen socks he wore and slipped them oil my feet. The unknown lady who accompanied us also spared me a warm wrap, and by rubbing and holding me dose to their bodies they kept me alive. At eight o'clock of a pale winter morning they lifted me out of the sledge and with the others I stood trembling on the snowy shores of Finland.

"Now you are out of Sovdepia" (Soviet land), said the fishermen cheerfully, "but we are not safe yet, for the Finnish police may catch us and send us back." Hurriedly we climbed the hill to the cottage of one of the smugglers. Here we met his wife, who, gray with fear, came out to meet her husband after his night of peril on the ice. The woman gave us hot coffee, bread, and cheese, but she would not keep us long in her house. We knew that we must report as soon as possible at the quarantine station, and we knew, besides, that the sorely tried Finnish authorities would not be any too glad to see us coming. Do not blame the Finns for this. Every Russian refugee is a burden on their slender resources, and too often a pretended refugee is merely a Bolshevik agent sent to stir up trouble among disaffected workmen. However, on this occasion the Finns received our wretched group with infinite kindness, and made us comfortable during the required period we spent in the quarantine station. Then we went to our separate destinations, all of us to poverty, obscurity, homesickness, to that sunless dime which waits the exile wherever he may go. In the country where my mother and I finally arrived we found my sister, happier than ourselves, because she left Russia before the great horror began, thus saving part of her fortune. My sister gave us food, clothing, a lodging. Except for her bounty we had lost everything we ever owned, home, friends, possessions, country, for Russians now have no country, no flag, no place in the wide world. The best any of us can hope for is an obscure corner in some foreign land where we can earn enough to buy our daily bread, and a quiet place in which to pray every day of our lives: "God save Russia."

I am told, although I can hardly believe it, that in other lands, even in free America, there are beings so deluded that they wish to bring about revolution and Bolshevism. I do not wish for any of them the long nightmare of suffering that I, one of millions, have suffered under revolution and Bolshevism. I pray only that there may be revealed to them the fate of the betrayed who have died and are dying under the criminal administration of the Provisional Government and, later, of Lenin and his fanatical followers. If they can be made to know only in part what my poor, ravished country is today, they will forget their delusions and pray with the exiles: "God save Russia."

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Tsar Nicholas II

Tsar Nicholas II

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