Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin


The day rose but there was not a trace of the sun. The father and the son went to have a look round and brought nearly half a saucepanful of large, moist whortleberries. We sprinkled them with sugar and ate them. Now my husband lay down and I walked about watching for the sun. The sky was white all over. I kept glancing up every two or three minutes but there was no change. Suddenly I noticed a slight movement in the clouds. They lifted and began to part.

"Shall I wake daddy?" the boy asked eagerly.

"Wait a minute."

A tiny rim of a flat red disk showed between the clouds.

"Run and wake daddy."

We took our bearings: the valley which led us south the day before, now turned to the west. Further on it turned again, but anyway we could not be certain of our direction for several hours at a time.

Overjoyed, we hastily made ready and walked down towards the river. The bank was overgrown with luxuriant vegetation; a mass of brightly-coloured beetles and butterflies came out in the sunshine. We drank some cold water, which tasted good after twenty-four hours without a drink, and climbed up once more so as not to follow the course of the river which made a large loop.

There had once been a forest fire here: the ground was covered with charred trunks and between them a few tall pine trees stood out.

Nature in these parts lives its own life, going through catastrophes, healing its wounds and hastening to grow masses of flowers and berries while the sun is in the sky for twenty-four hours on end. But it is no place for man; the virgin forest seems to resent intruders.

A whole covey of woodcocks flew suddenly from under our feet.

"I wish I had a gun, we should have had a fine supper!" my husband said with a sigh.

It was very nice walking along the slope, but the river turned sharply to the north.

"We'll have to cross the river. I wish I had thought of it earlier. It may be too deep here," my husband said.

"But I can swim across, daddy. Only how will mother manage? She doesn't swim very well."

"I too can swim if it's not too far. Don't you be so superior."

We came down to the bank. Again the ground grew marshy, willow bushes were in the way, mosquitoes buzzed.

The water is sure to be icy, I am afraid you'll both catch cold."

"Nonsense, and, anyway, we shall have a good wash. We haven't had a bath for six days."

The boy did not share my feelings in this respect. He rather enjoyed not having to wash or brush his teeth.

My husband went into the water first. The water was up to his waist from the first and soon he had to raise above his head the knapsack which he carried in his arms. The water was foaming all round him. We watched his every step.

"The water will be up to my neck," said the boy,

"It will be up to my shoulders, but the current is so strong I shan't be able to carry anything."

"Now it's shallower; he is nearly over."

"He is coming back; make haste and undress. Put your clothes into a bundle, the boots, too, and mind you don't lose your socks."

"Mother, mosquitoes!"

"Never mind, they won't touch you in the water."

His father took him across, defending him with his body against the strong current, then came back for me, and crossed the river twice again carrying over our things. The water was icy, and he was shaking with the cold.

"Make haste and dress, we mustn't be long here, it's too exposed," he said.

"Mother, you are not hurrying!"

"Yes, I am."

"You are washing your face!"

"You'd better do the same!"

"No, I won't. I'll wash it when we come to Finland."

"Well, that's silly: you've washed all over and your face is quite grimy."

Very reluctantly he lifted his mosquito-net and dabbed water on his nose and mouth, blue with the whortleberries.

We were fearfully hungry after our bathe. We had not had a proper meal for six days; now and again we drank water with sugar and ate small pieces of rusks and bacon when we felt faint. We had been too tired to have a real appetite, but now we felt ravenous.

The boy grew quite downhearted.

"It's no joke walking on an empty stomach!"

"We shall soon sit down and have a bite of something. And in the evening we might have some tea."

"All you care for is tea, but I want a piece of bread."

"Step along, my dear. There's nothing for it."

"I am stepping along," he answered with vexation and went on grumbling to himself. It sounded just like a bumble-bee.

At last we came to a sheltered spot and sat down to have something to eat.

Suddenly I felt that someone was looking at me: a few steps from us stood a huge elk, watching us with a gracious and lordly expression. It was a splendid creature, with beautiful glossy fur. It looked well-groomed, content and dignified. Magnificent spreading horns adorned its head like some wonderful crown. Its dark round eyes were intelligent and attentive.

To attract the attention of the others without alarming the animal, I blew on their necks. They looked up and saw the elk. For a few moments we gazed at him with admiration while he looked at us with serene gravity. Then he walked away, glanced at us once more and disappeared.

"Mother!" said the boy enthusiastically. "What a beauty! I've never seen one like it."

"Elks are rare now," his father said. "They've been almost exterminated. In Finland it is forbidden by law to hunt elks, but in Russia they do kill them, of course. Last year they killed five hundred and probably more."

"Do you think it's a Finnish elk, daddy? He looks proud like an English lord and so well-fed. I am sure he is not from U.S.S.R."

"It's not easy to tell by the look of an elk what country it belongs to," my husband said laughing.

It was absurd, of course, but psychologically there was some truth in what the boy said.

In U.S.S.R. everything has been spoiled: the streets are dirty, the houses in need of repair; the rooms damp and grimy; the men are worn out, the dogs are unkempt, the cats are mangy, the pigeons that have not yet been eaten have damaged wings or broken feet. Dirt, hunger, misery are everywhere. There seems to be no beauty or serenity left in U.S.S.R.

"Do you think we can really be in Finland by now?" my husband asked.

"I think so." I answered. "The river does flow west on the whole; our maps were on a small scale and probably did not show every bend of it."

"I can hardly believe it. Well, come along."

We went on. The slope was steep and dry, covered with a pine forest. There was no undergrowth, not even any whortleberry bushes. The sun was shining brightly and we had no difficulty about our direction.

We must have walked a good twenty miles that day and only stopped when the sun went behind a cloud and a wide, marshy valley lay before us.

"I declare that we are in Finland!" said I. I am not sure that I quite believed it myself, but we badly needed a respite from our anxiety.

For the first time since we escaped we lit a bonfire, though we did it in a deep crevice between the hills. My husband brought huge dry branches and small dead trees, the boy picked up small wood, while I gathered some mushrooms and cooked our first soup.

"Mother, and what are you putting in with the mushrooms?"

"Rice and bacon."

"But how shall we eat it without bread?"

"It will be very good, you'll see."

He lay by the fire, dozing, and patiently waited for his supper.

"But how shall we sleep without a fir-tree? It's like sleeping in the street."

"Never mind, you will sleep by the fire. When it gets cold we'll put more wood on."

"Will there be enough for the night?" he asked anxiously, used to there never being enough of anything in U.S.S.R.

"Why, look at the lot daddy is bringing."

He certainly did bring tremendous heap. We had no axe with us, it would have been too heavy to carry and he had to break off the wood with his hands, like the primitive men.

The warmth of the fire, the bright circle of the flames, the smell of hot food—how wonderful it all was! We felt once more like human beings and not like hunted animals.

"The mushrooms are ready."

"All right, I'll just make up the fire properly."

At the top of the small fire over which I had been cooking my husband put a huge tree stump with sticking-out roots, placed some small wood underneath and the flames went up like a big firework.

"What is it?" the boy asked, waking up.

"Our bonfire. Look, isn't it fine? Come and eat your supper." We sat down round the saucepan, close together.

"Don't be in a hurry, eat slowly, it's hot," I warned the boy. With a special feeling of respect for real, hot, satisfying food, we slowly took up in our spoons the thick rice soup with mushrooms and bacon, and ate in small mouthfuls, chewing carefully.

"It's awfully good, mother! Simply delicious!" said the boy in the intervals between two spoonfuls. "Shall we have supper like that every day now?"

"Yes, certainly. As we walk in the daytime we'll pick mushrooms and then cook them in the evening."

"And shall we have tea to-night?"

"I think not, dear; it's too far to go to fetch water."

"Oh, I don't mind, I just mentioned it. I don't want any tea."

"You darling child," I thought to myself. "We've taken you away from home, turned you into a tramp and you look at us with affectionate eyes and are ready to forego all your wishes."

He dropped asleep the moment he swallowed his last spoonful; his face looked rosy and, as it were, rounder, after food. We sat by the fire, talking.

It was our first real conversation since we escaped. My husband was always talking to the boy, telling him about travels and hunting expeditions, so as to take his mind off the danger we were in. They were constantly noticing ant-heaps, mouse and weasel holes, looking out for squirrels, and the boy, who had never before been in the forest and mountains, was not in the least nervous. My husband knew all the trees, the voices of the birds, the habits of wild animals and their footprints.

But he and I were too uneasy to talk to each other. We both knew only too well what our undertaking meant and what the end of it might be.

Only that evening, by the fire, we ventured at last to speak of what lay before us. A warm and happy sense of intimacy descended upon us; long forgotten thoughts and feelings rose in our minds and our far-off youth seemed to have returned to us once more. Timidly and as it were, shyly, we began to think of the future.

A Soviet intellectual has no future, for the future almost always means prison. There is very little chance of escaping it, since it is not crime that brings one but there "social origin" and "social position". No one in U.S.S.R. wants to think of the next day, let alone making more distant plans; people do not like to talk of the future, knowing that it depends not upon themselves but upon the OGPU.

"Surely they won't send us back from there?" my husband said, almost confidently.

"Of course not."

To the minds of U.S.S.R. citizens the words "humanity" and "humane" hold good outside the confines of their native "socialistic" state. Everyone knows that it is no use expecting mercy at home; but out there, where free people live, there must be justice and sympathy, and all that does not exist in U.S.S.R.

"Shall we be able to make a living there?" he asked sadly and yet hopefully.

"We shall. If only we come out of this alive, people will help us."

"We don't know a soul there. Who will help us?"

"Kind people. They won't let us perish, and with a child, too."

"Ah, I wish I were young! I am not sure that I've got any brains or energy left in me."

"If you had enough energy to run away from a penal camp, you'll have enough to make your living out there."

"Yes, I know. I was only wondering. I am certain, at bottom, that I can still do some good work. We'll give the boy a decent education. See how sweetly he sleeps."

When the boy was asleep his little face assumed an expression of perfect serenity and to us, his parents, seemed the most beautiful thing in the world. But even if somebody from outside could see this bonfire in the wild forest and the child, soft and warm as a kitten, sleeping on the ground as peacefully as though all the angels of heaven were watching over him, he would understand what we must have gone through to risk not merely our own but the child's life for the sake of gaining freedom.

We said good night and lay down by the bonfire. My husband lay behind the boy so as to protect him against the cold that was creeping up from the valley. The black night was all around us; the bright and warm circle by the fire was all that we had so far wrenched from Fate.