Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin


It had rained the whole day before but towards evening the wind changed and the sky cleared. The villagers were preparing to go fishing or haymaking at dawn.

"If we don't get off to-morrow, all is lost." said my husband. "In another two days your permit expires and you will have to go home. I'll never get sent to a place as good as this again."

"Very well, let us set off to-morrow."

"I'll go to our headquarters to-day and give in a report of my work—they like that—and also remind them that to-morrow is my off-day. Then they won't miss me till the day after."

When he went away, taking the boy with him, I looked for the tenth time over our things. I simply could not get the most essential ones packed into three knapsacks. Sugar and bacon took up a lot of room, and we had to take some rice and a few rusks as well. And we had to have a change of underclothes and something warm, too.

Late in the evening when the boy was asleep my husband and I sorted everything out for the last time.

"We must have a change of leg-wrappers for each one of us." I tore up two sheets for the purpose and our knapsacks grew still more bulky.

"Have you made waterproof bags for matches, salt and sugar?"

I sat down to make them there and then, pricking my fingers—I was never any good at sewing.

We went on packing and repacking till late at night. I grew quite dizzy, and my husband's back began to ache, so we had to go to bed without finishing our job.

I could not go to sleep till daybreak and then it was time to get up. The boy ran to wash himself at the bay.

"We must make haste and finish packing," my husband hurried me. "When shall we tell the boy?"

"On the way."

"He'll wonder why we are taking the knapsacks."

"I'll tell him we are going for a picnic and will sleep out. I'll tell our landlady the same."

I saw that my husband was looking at me in alarm.

"What's the matter?"

"Your dress! It's light blue, it can be seen a mile off!"

"I haven't got another."

"That's dreadful . . . We ought to have thought of that."

"I'll put on my brown overall."

I had just pinned the overall to the window by way of a curtain so that the neighbors should not see that we had gone.

We sat down to breakfast but were too excited to eat.

When we had finished and the boy had gone to get the boat ready, my husband stopped me;

"We can't leave the place so untidy—it gives the show away."

We washed up and tidied the room. We kept getting in each other's way, unable to master our agitation.

"How much longer will you be?" said the boy coming in. "All the villagers have gone. Shall I take the sail, daddy?"

"Yes, do. We are just coming. Take this knapsack. Is it heavy?"

"No. Not if I don't have to carry it far."

He went out. We exchanged glances. How would the boy manage on the journey with that knapsack?

"Have you taken the xeroform?"


"Where is it?"

"I don't know."

We began searching for it. The xeroform had disappeared as though by magic.

"Have we any other disinfectant?"


My husband was in despair. We could not find it. Afterwards, on the journey, we remembered that it was in the pocket of the overcoat which we had decided not to take with us.

"Where is the compass?"

"I brought it here and put it on the table."

"It isn't there."

Superstitious fear possessed me. I knew I had brought the compass into the room. It was not on the table, not on the window-sills. We had had an awful time with that compass already. A prisoner, found in possession of a compass, is shot, because a compass is regarded as certain proof of his planning to escape. My husband had given his compass to me to hide. When a prisoner's relatives come on a visit, the OGPU often makes a search in their lodgings to make sure that they had not brought with them anything forbidden. I wrapped the compass in paper and hid it among the onions in a sieve in the larder. Our landlady wanted the sieve one day and turned out the onions on the floor. I nearly went off my head looking for my tiny paper parcel in that larder. I found it at last under a potato bag, and now it was lost again.

Mechanically I picked up my husband's cap—and there was the compass. He gave it to me again. He, poor man, believed that I was his guide to safety, and really I was a dead weight dragging us all down.

I had no pocket; I wore a peasant kerchief over my head so that my hat would not attract attention. I tied the compass and the map into the corner of my kerchief.

What evil spirit prompted me to do that! Now everything was ready and we had to leave our last shelter.

My husband took me by the hands and kissed me. We were both excited and happy—we were just going to take the first step towards our new life.

We left the room, carefully shutting the door behind us. The village was deserted; only tiny children were playing in the road and an old man sat outside his cottage.

"At last!" our son met us reproachfully. "It's one o'clock. The wind is changing. Where shall we go?"

"Straight on, down the bay."

"It's a head wind, we can't put up the sail."

"We'll row; perhaps it will be better when we get beyond those rocks over there."

We pushed off. The boy took the rudder oar. His father had been teaching him to use it, but he was still very bad at it.

We had to go against the wind and the tide, and our boat moved slowly.

The boy was in excellent spirits, fidgeted about and talked incessantly. My husband felt unhappy and irritable.

What was I to do? If I told the boy that this was not a picnic he would be upset, and it would be difficult in the boat to soothe and comfort him. It would mean more loss of time.

I changed places with the boy. I managed the rudder oar still worse, and he and my husband were continually correcting me. I suffered in silence but at last I tossed my head in exasperation and—I saw the compass and the map slowly sink into the deep water. On my shoulder lay the empty corner of my kerchief that had come undone.

"What?" said my husband, not daring to believe his eyes.

"The compass . . . and the map," I answered, choking.

"Well, it's Fate." said he, looking at me sadly and kindly.

"Why do you take on so, mother? It doesn't matter, we can buy another when we come home and send it to daddy." the boy said naively.

I could not answer. I felt very bad. I gave the rudder to my son and sat down at the bottom of the boat. My head reeled, and I kept seeing the greenish water and the little metal box sinking into the depths. All that had seemed so simple—the bee-line to the West and Finland at the end of it, had now sunk into the depths, too. Should we return? We had not been missed yet. But to buy another compass I should have to go to Leningrad—a journey of almost forty-eight hours each way. It was out of the question. If I could have sunk into the green water together with the compass to save the other two, I would have done it gladly! But it was silly to think of it; one can't make bargains with Fate.

"We shall have to struggle for another two hours if the wind does not drop." my husband said.

He had been rowing for four hours already. His hands were blistered and one blister burst, showing raw flesh. His heart was evidently feeling the strain, he was getting breathless. I took his place for a time but I was not much use.

At the last projection of the shore we stopped to take breath and to see if there was anyone at the end of the bay where our real escape was to begin. There seemed to be nobody there. The wind had dropped. Evening was coming on.

The boy stepped out of the boat and amused himself sprinkling water on dragon-flies settled on the reeds by the shore. "You poor, poor child!" I thought. "We don't know if we'll bring you out of this alive and here you are playing with dragon-flies."

"What shall we do?" my husband asked me quietly. "Perhaps we'd better go back?"

"You decide. If you think we can go without a compass and a map, I am ready."

"If it keeps fine, I shall find the direction by the sun. We shall get to Finland right enough, though it may take us a day or two longer."

"Then let us go."

Rowing was easier now. Suddenly we heard loud human voices. It was the haymakers making a fire and settling for the night. Seeing our boat they called us to join them, or perhaps simply exchanged remarks about us.

We sharply turned into another cove which appeared empty, but at the very end of it we saw the black silhouette of a fisherman. He was fixing his net, moving about leisurely.

The question was, what line would these people take? Our only hope was that it would not occur to them that we were runaways: no one had yet attempted to escape with a wife and a child.

We waited among the reeds. The fisherman finished his job and went away, and the others did not trouble themselves about us.

Then my husband rowed us up to a footpath and left there the basket with the remains of food and the sail, making it look as though it had been hidden. Then he rowed us to the mouth of a stream. We stepped out of the boat.

"Wait for me here; I'll dispose of the boat and come back." He took the boat some distance and tied it up carefully so that it would not look abandoned. It would have been better to sink it, but it is not an easy thing to do with a big sea-boat.

It was about nine in the evening. The sun had set behind the hills and the crests shone like gold. The forest looked one dark mass. The bay was smooth and still. The boy grew silent; he was sleepy and was probably beginning to feel that something was amiss.

My husband came back so noiselessly that we only saw him when he stood beside us.

"Fetch me some water, dear." He drank greedily. "Now, let us go, we must clear out of here as soon as possible."

We put on our knapsacks and walked along an indistinct path blocked by fallen branches and trees. I had no time to think of anything: the knapsack weighed me down, I kept stumbling against the branches, I was gasping for breath and my one concern was not to fall or to lag behind. The air in the forest was moist and hot. My cheeks were burning, my mouth was dry, I desperately wanted a drink. Should we have to walk like this all the way? How would the boy stand it? He was walking well and apparently without difficulty: his father had been training him during these days. If only I did not let them down!

We walked like that for about an hour. The forest was plunged into an even twilight; there was no real darkness.

"Let us rest here and have a drink," said my husband cheerfully but almost in a whisper.

"And where shall we put up for the night?" asked the boy, whispering like his father.

"Darling, we shall not put up for the night at all," I said. "We are going to Finland, escaping from U.S.S.R."

The boy looked at me and, quite overcome, hid his face on his father's shoulder.

"Poor darling daddy. . . ."

His father kissed and petted him.

"You'll have a hard time of it, dear; the journey will be very difficult, but if we escape we shall be free people, there will be no OGPU."

The boy did not know what to say: it was night, we were in a wild forest, we could not return home, we had to go into a strange country. . . . But he understood that it was for his father's sake.

"Let's go." he said.

When we got up from the mossy ground I threw back the veil that I wore instead of a mosquito net. I wanted to have a drink and dab my face with water. Both my husband and my son suddenly stared at me with an expression of utter despair.

"What's the matter?" I asked in alarm.

"Your face is all puffy and swollen. How does your heart feel? Good heavens, what shall we do!"

"Mother, darling, what has happened to you?" the boy whispered, stroking my hands.

"Nothing special. You are absurd, you two. Put on your knapsacks and let's go."

"No, you must take off your knapsack."

"Mother, take it off, give it to daddy," whispered the boy, almost in tears.

I sorrowfully took off my knapsack; my husband slung it on, along with his own. It was a fearful weight and I do not know that his heart was any stronger than mine, but the joy of freedom, the sympathy of the boy made everything easy to him. When we stopped to rest again, he told the boy all about our plans.

"This night we must walk as far as ever we can. We may be missed to-morrow: the haymakers saw us, and we shall not have returned to our lodgings. They'll let the OGPU know. It's just possible that they won't be ready to go after us at once, but they have a cutter and can get across the bay in an hour or two. This path goes to the timber-works, about twenty or twenty-five miles from here. As soon as we get past them, we'll turn towards the mountains and there they won't find us."

"Daddy, is it far to Finland?"

"Yes, darling, it is. About seventy miles as the crow flies, and we may have to walk a good hundred. And when we get there we may have to walk for several days before we find any people. But that won't matter, so long as we have crossed the frontier."

We walked on again, and in the midnight darkness lost the path which we still needed, because it saved us time. The boy was frightened, and when his father went off to look for it, he began to complain that he felt ill and could not walk any further.

"Lie down and cover yourself up with your coat, head and all, so that the gnats don't bite you. We cannot go back because your father and I would be shot. Go to sleep."

He curled himself up on the ground and went to sleep. That was his only moment of weakness; and after all, it was quite natural that he should want to be at home and sleep in his bed instead of walking through the damp, gloomy forest. We never heard another complaint from him.

My husband found the path and we went on. When dawn appeared behind the hills, the forest, ravines and swamps seemed less terrifying. We came upon some buildings, decided that they were the timberworks depot, and having left them behind, resolved to have a little sleep by a fallen pine tree.

"Take off your boots and hang up your leg-wrappers to dry. The chief thing is to keep our feet in good condition," my husband instructed me.

The child dropped asleep blissfully. I could not go to sleep because of my heart, but a drowsiness stole over me. I vaguely felt that the sun was beginning to be warm, but suddenly big drops of rain fell upon me. I had to wake my husband and hastily retrieve our boots and leg-wrappers. The boy slept while pulling on his boots; I tried to push him awake, but he put his head in my lap and went to sleep again. He was warm all over though he lay on the bare ground.

"The path goes further west, the rain will soon stop; we must hurry on." said my husband, who had been reconnoitering. "Make haste; it's five o'clock. We've lost two hours here."

We set off at a quick pace. We thought that we had passed the timber-works depot and that the path led only to the cutting in the forest.

It was a lovely part. In the depths of the valley flowed a fine river, now narrow and rapid like a mountain stream and now calm and wide. High fir trees grew on the steep banks. There was a perfect stillness. It was too late in the season for the birds to sing; we did not see any wild animals. My husband walked ahead, the boy followed him, and I came last; we kept at some distance from each other so as to be less easily seen.

I had not yet noticed anything suspicious when I suddenly saw my husband bend and, as it were, roll down a steep slope; the boy and I did the same.

Over the edge of the slope I saw that there were two or three houses in front of us. At the other bank of the river there was another house. There did not seem to be anyone about.

Panic-stricken we dashed into the forest, crossed a marsh and went up a hill. I lost all sense of direction. My veil was torn in several places, gnats got under it and were devouring my ears and blinding my eyes. Two mackintoshes and a coat rolled up into a bundle which I carried on my back came undone, and I had to take them on my arm. The sun was burning, and there was a moist heat in the forest. I was gasping for breath, and could not catch up with my husband and son: they evidently saw something and ran bending to the ground, going uphill all the way. At last they sat down behind a huge pine tree that had fallen on the ground; they were completely shielded by it. They were going to rest and have something to eat. I could not bear the thought of food; a vein was throbbing in my throat and all I wanted was to lie down. I threw myself on the ground within a few feet of them, covering my head with an overcoat to have a respite from mosquitoes. Hundreds of them had got into my hair, and the lobes of my ears were bleeding with the bites. I did not know how I could readjust my hat and veil while a yellow buzzing cloud of these monsters was hovering over me.

A few minutes passed. My heart was beginning to beat more evenly when I heard the clear sound of an axe quite near. I sat up, forgetting about the mosquitoes. My son, who was lying behind the pine tree, waved to me angrily. My husband crawled to the other side of the tree in the direction of the sound. It appeared that we had settled within some twenty-five yards of a house that was hidden by the trees. I hurriedly pulled on my hat, wrapped up my head with the veil, snatched up the coats in a bundle, and we dashed across a clearing covered with dazzling white deer-moss. Our one thought was to hide, for if we were seen it might be the end of us. Everyone here carried a rifle or an axe and we had nothing. We could not defend ourselves against two or three men and would be caught in no time. It would pay them well to give us up to the OGPU and they would not hesitate to do it.

We ran so long as we had any strength left. At last my husband took us to a pine tree on a steep slope and told us to lie down and rest while he went to scout.

"There are people all round." he said when he came back. "There's a lake and a house over there; I heard voices. We must clear out of here as soon as possible. This must be the timber-works headquarters."

Barely stopping to take breath, he led us on. We went through copses that looked like a park, past a lake with white water-lilies, went down into ravines, climbed hills—I could make nothing of it. It seemed to me that we were circling round and round and would find ourselves in the same place again. But no—he took us to the slope of a hill and said firmly: "The west is over there." It might be, for aught I knew; I was quite sure that left to myself I could never have found either the west or the east and should have perished there, devoured by mosquitoes.

I do not know how far we had walked that day, but we had to stop early, because both the boy and I were completely exhausted. His father found for us a huge fir tree with fluffy branches that almost reached the ground. It was dry underneath, on the thick layer of fallen pine needles. The boy snuggled under his overcoat and dropped sound asleep.

We left our shelter at daybreak. The scenery was beautiful—there was no path and the forest looked quite deserted. We walked on happily, glad that we no longer felt like hunted beasts—and we came straight upon a clearing and a house! Again we had to run, crouching, and hide in the depths of the forest.