Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

Where's the Crisis?

Now we were thoroughly taken care of: we were fed, driven from place to place, delicately questioned about our past and soon dispatched to Helsingfors. We were not yet allowed to mix freely with the Finnish citizens, so our impressions on the way were only derived from what we saw; but life in U.S.S.R. teaches one to see things which others would leave unnoticed.

In the village beyond the Arctic circle we saw stacks of barley, good cows, well-built, warm houses. A fine road ran through marshes, forests and rocks. Wherever possible, marshes were drained and bits of forest converted into arable land. Red farmhouses with white shutters had flower-gardens in front of them. Those farms evidently belonged to new settlers who must have toiled desperately to clear their land from tree stumps and stones. The small Finnish nation, waging a stubborn fight against exceptionally inclement nature makes it yield more than what the U.S.S.R. with all its enormous natural resources can obtain by forced labor and shootings.

In the morning children rode to school on their bicycles. All were dressed in simple, sound clothes; all looked cheerful and well-fed.

The motor lorry in which we were travelling went at the rate of about thirty-five miles an hour and did not break down once.

Afterwards we were put in a train; the carriage was clean and tidy, the passengers, looking calm and content, had respectable clothes and carried suit-cases.

In this "capitalistic" country the carriages are of one class, sufficiently comfortable for all; in the Socialistic country across the frontier, decent carriages are only for the Soviet aristocracy and foreign visitors; those for ordinary people are filthy.

We were provided with bread, butter and sausage for the journey, and when the train stopped at some station where all the passengers were supposed to have a meal, unknown friends brought to our compartment a big parcel of sandwiches. We were runaways, still under arrest, and utterly defenseless, and yet we were travelling like ordinary passengers and our escort's sole concern was that we should have enough to eat.

"Well, they are an extraordinary people!" the boy said in surprise. "They evidently have enough and to spare if they treat us to chicken sandwiches."

Unfortunately, in Helsingfors I began by giving fresh trouble to everyone—I fell ill and had to be sent to a hospital. From the hospital stretcher I saw a bit of the town, clean as though it had only just been scrubbed, flowers in the front gardens, and shop windows with fruit of all countries and seasons.

I was not very keen on going to the hospital. When I was still rash and self-confident I used to say that I would not go of my own will either to prison or to a hospital. Since then I had had to spend in a hospital three weeks which seemed to me like three years. I was there looking after my boy who was operated on for septic appendicitis. He had to lie on an old straw mattress that was all bumps. There was one attendant to look after twenty-six children in the three surgical wards, and one sister in charge of the whole of the children's section. Soviet hospitals generally are so overcrowded that patients often die on the stairs because there are no beds and no room.

Dirty, ragged, blackened by the forest fire, the wind and the sun, I felt ridiculously out of place in a room where everything was spotlessly white—walls, beds, tables, chairs and the nurses' starched bonnets, collars and aprons. But no one showed the slightest annoyance or surprise at my appearance!

A few minutes after I arrived I was put in the hands of the senior sister who took off my rags, gave me a bath, dressed me in clean things and put me to bed, doing it all so kindly and cheerfully, that one might think she enjoyed it. She covered me up with a white quilt and placed some flowers on the white table beside me.

I felt almost sorry that I was the only one to fall ill and that we were not all three in hospital.

Then they began asking whether I was hungry or thirsty. The substantial-looking senior sister in whose hands I felt like a baby mouse, said to me sternly in broken Russian:

"Madame  wish or not, I run to kitchen."

The kind woman would be surprised if she knew that in the country madame  had escaped from, children in hospitals have even less to eat than at home.

In that hospital, which was the University clinic, I wrote most of this book, feeling as completely at peace with the world as though I had been born again.

The boy came to see me with his new friends, who had provided him with clothes and shoes and were actively engaged in feeding him up.

"Mother, what a market they have here, you can't think! The first time I saw it I thought it wasn't real. On the beach they sell fish. The market women are all fat and look awfully important; they sit under umbrellas and hardly stir, and there's all sorts of fish before them—salmon and cod, and herrings, and carp—anything you like. And close by they sell vegetables and berries and fruit and flowers. I was simply flabbergasted! Bread is sold separately, under cover, rolls and bread rings and cakes. And you can buy as much as you like—even if you are buying bread."

My husband did not come to see me at once because, as the doctor said with some concern, "Monsieur le professeur n'avail pas de pantalons."  I could well believe that. But he came the day after this conversation because the doctor, who was kindness itself, presented him with a suit of his own clothes. The lecture which my husband gave in the Russian colony brought him four hundred marks—his first earnings.

Four hundred marks—that's five hundred pounds of white bread. In U.S.S.R. I would not have earned that in six months."

I was disgracefully reluctant to leave the hospital but the doctor completely cured me; besides, he provided me with a dress, a coat, a hat and a pair of shoes. All that I had on when I arrived was only fit to be burned.

I wish I could also burn the memory of all that I have been through during those fifteen years in U.S.S.R.!

But no, I have no right to do that. We have been spared so that we might tell of the terrible plight of our country, once so prosperous, and remind those who have not been through the misery and servitude of Soviet life that they do not sufficiently value their blessings.

Finland, 1933.