Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

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It was incomparably easier to walk when we had two strong men with a good axe to help us. When we put up for the night they chopped plenty of enormous logs and had no difficulty in keeping up the fire. The following day the way was easier: we often came across well-trodden paths, burnt out places, cuttings in the forest. Small hills were red with big ripe bilberries; in the birch woods we found bushes of raspberry and red currants. Horses with big bells round their necks ran out of the forest and looked at us from the other side of the river.

"That's the creature that deceived me," said my husband. "I lost my knife through them. I sat down to peel some mushrooms and suddenly heard the sound of a bell. I rushed to see—there was no one, and in my excitement I must have left the knife behind."

"But what did you eat, daddy?"

"Nothing at all. I had a drink of water now and again and went on. I tried to bake mushrooms on the fire, but they tasted so horrid I couldn't swallow them."

"And mother cooked a lovely soup one day. You know, I got quite sick of eating mushrooms, and mother made a soup with what remained of rice and bacon, and we also found a handful of crumbs in the rusk bag. It was awfully good."

Towards midday we came to a big and very beautiful river. The high hills on either side were covered with a splendid forest. It would have been very difficult to walk here because the sloping banks were piled with blocks of granite. The men put us in a boat and rowed us down the river.

It was anything but a quiet journey: every quarter of an hour we came upon rapids and recovered our peace of mind only after emerging from them. First we heard a dull roar and saw big stones showing from the water; the boat was sucked in by the stream, and the water boiled up suddenly, foaming and seething; the boat, thin as a shell, was tossed about, carried against the stones and past them. One of the Finns rowed with all his might without looking right or left, the other leaned out as far as he could to see better, shouted something in a wild voice and guided the boat with his oar. I cannot think how it was that we safely passed each time these awful rapids. All that was required of us was to sit perfectly still at the bottom of the boat until we were in calm waters once more.

In normal circumstances I should have considered such a journey a perfect madness because some of the rapids were like real waterfalls, but since we were being taken in the boat, I thought no more about it. Anyway, it was more comfortable than climbing and hurting one's feet against the granite.

The parts where we had been vainly looking for people were so deserted because the river was the only means of communication, and the rapids made it inaccessible. People only went there for hay, timber and fish. There was a big rich village below the rapids, but in the upper reaches of the river marsh and forest stretched for hundreds of miles.

Our race over the rapids continued till late in the evening.

"This is where I spent my second night." my husband said, pointing to a place.

"Did you make a fire?" asked the boy, who was growing more and more impressed by his father's exploit.

"Yes, but it soon went out. I couldn't be bothered. I was chilled to the bone and as soon as it was light, I went on. And at this spot my boots fell to pieces. Beyond this bend of the river there are some huts and poles for drying hay. When I saw some cow droppings here, I ran on like mad. Do you see that fence and house over there? It turned out to be a barn. The first house you come to is more than two miles from here. They have a funny arrangement here: houses are fenced in all round, without any gate or opening; there are some steps fixed to the fence for people to climb over. It's to prevent cattle getting into the yard. At first I felt very shy about climbing a fence."

"Were they frightened of you, daddy?"

"No. They are a very kind people. In that house there was only a woman with a child. She took me across the river to a peasant who remembered a little Russian. How clean their houses are! Simply spotless. Curtains over the windows, pots with flowers on the windowsills."

"Daddy, and did they give you something to eat?"

"Yes, they did. They gave me milk—I believe I drank a whole jug-full—and curds and bread. They began making coffee, but just then the frontier guards rode up on their bicycles."

"What a pity!" the boy said sympathetically.

"Why, you silly, I was in a hurry to get back to you."

"Still, you should have had some coffee. And what then?"

They took me to their office. I explained everything to them, drew a map and showed your photograph. They liked it very much. Then the senior guard asked me to take off my knapsack, I thought they wanted to search it. I didn't care, there was nothing but woolen stockings and wet leg-wrappings in it."

"And what did they do?"

"It seems they packed it with provisions."

"How splendid! Sensible people! "

"Another funny thing was, I kept telling him that I must go with them for they would never find you without me, and he was saying something in Finnish. At last he lost patience, put my knapsack on my back and pointed to the door, and off we went."

The boy was highly amused.

"Daddy, and where are they taking us now?"

"To the frontier guards' office."

"And will they give us something to eat?"

"Sure to."

We landed when it was quite dark, and walked quickly down a sandy road. It was warm walking, but we were quite frozen sitting still in the boat all day. There was a smell of fresh straw: in the darkness we could barely distinguish huge stacks of barley in the fields.

The village was a good two miles long; all the houses were in darkness; we were the only people in the street.

We stopped at last before a clean-looking house with a high porch. The shutters were closed but sounds of a gramophone playing a gay waltz came from within. Our guides knocked at the door; it flew open. Cries of welcome together with the loud waltz greeted us, while two huge dogs barked on the steps.

We could not make out how many people there were and what they were doing.

It was a big room with a huge stove, a stand for rifles and two tiers of iron bunks, neatly covered with clean counterpanes, checked white and blue. There was a large deal table and benches.

One feels awkward in a room after such a journey as ours. Everything was clean, neat and tidy, and we were wet and dirty and looked like scarecrows. In all this noise and commotion, my son and I rightly guessed who the most important person in the place was.

Small and thick-set he kept running in and out of the kitchen. His movements were full of such meaning that the boy could not take his eyes off him.

"Mother, what is he turning?"

"A coffee-mill; he is grinding coffee-beans."

The boy could not understand: he had never seen real coffee since he was born we had only barley or baked oats coffee.

"Look what he is bringing!" the boy almost shouted. "A plate full of butter! Just look! Whatever is he going to do with it?"

Presently this delightful cook, whom we shall never forget, invited us to the kitchen to have coffee. A fire was burning brightly in the oven, saucepans were boiling on the top, and by the window a small table was spread with a white tablecloth, china cups with a design of flowers were set for each one of us, with a sugar basin and a cream jug in the middle. The rolls in the bread basket were so white that the boy felt a little doubtful about them.

And all this in a frontier guards' barracks!

We sat at the table drinking real fragrant coffee, while the cook stirred something in a big saucepan, chatting to us amiably in an incomprehensible language.

"What is it, mother?"


"But it is white?"

Soviet macaroni is grey because it is made with unsieved flour, so he was puzzled by it.

Meanwhile the cook opened two tins of pork and turned them out into the saucepan.

"Well, I never!" said the boy.

After that he did not want to leave the kitchen at all and only ran out of it for a minute to tell me in great excitement:

"Do you know what he did with that butter? Would you believe it; he put it into the macaroni! Well, they certainly are not starving in Finland! You know, they wrote in Lenin's Sparks  that the peasants here have no bread and run to us, to U.S.S.R. Not likely!"

Soon the cook set the big table for supper, brought black bread, butter, milk and a huge tureen of macaroni. All sat down and began eating quietly and decorously. The boy ate slowly and seriously.

"It's a good idea to have cold milk on the table," he remarked. It's a great help—one takes a drink, and then can eat a little more."

When the meal was over the cook went to wash up; somebody brought for my son and me a large hay-bag, a pillow and a woolen blanket. My husband was given a vacant bunk on the top tier. The others got into their bunks and put out the light.

"Mother, how nice, how warm, how soft!" said the boy as he dropped off to sleep.