Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

A Happy Time in Spite of All

Famine lasted for about three years, from 1918 to 1921. For the Bolsheviks it was the period of "military communism" when they felt ready to rebuild not only Russia but the whole world.

For the people it was "famine" no one calls that period by any other name.

The Bolsheviks, safely ensconced in their warm flats in the Kremlin, provided with special rations and guarded by the Tcheka and the Red Army, indulged meanwhile in the most daring and fantastic plans.

The people were dying off from typhus and famine. When villages and whole districts rose up in sheer despair, detachments of the Red Army exterminated the rebels men, women and children and burnt down the villages.

Strong-minded Communists merely shrugged their shoulders: if capitalists have a right to send millions to be slaughtered in senseless imperialistic wars, why not sacrifice a few scores of thousands for the sake of a happy socialistic future?

It was only when rebellion spread from villages to towns and there was a mutiny in the "citadel of the revolution", Kronstadt, that Lenin made concessions and introduced NEP—the new economic policy having first ruthlessly punished the mutinous sailors.

To the Communists NEP is a disgrace, a shameful retreat. The very reference to it is styled "counter-revolution", even though Lenin himself introduced it "in earnest and for a long time".

For the country NEP meant deliverance from famine. The prodrazoyorstka, i.e., tax in kind imposed upon the peasants in an arbitrary way, utterly out of proportion to their means, was replaced by prodnalog, a tax which though still very high, was at any rate definitely fixed once for all. Trade on a small scale and small concerns of the home-industries type were allowed.

In the course of one year the country recovered to such an extent that bread, vegetables, butter, eggs, meat appeared on the market and ration cards somehow disappeared of themselves. There was enough food to go round.

Salaried workers and factory hands were worse off than the peasants at that time: pay was low and money did not recover its value at once, but anyway there was no starvation: if one could not afford meat, there was plenty of bread and potatoes of which none but the Tchekists and Communists had enough during the famine.

It was said that the ideals of socialism grew somewhat dim during the period of NEP—but is it a crime against Socialism to have bread?

The intellectuals were, perhaps, in the worst position of all: we were paid very little, and the Communist supervision was not easy to bear. But the slackening of Government control and the recognition, in however small a measure, of private initiative, gave us more freedom in our work.

My personal affairs at that time took a bad turn: I was dismissed from my post at the Pavlovsk Palace Museum. After a few months, however, I was recalled by the authorities and offered another job in the same Commissariate. It appears that the Communist, who was the cause of my dismissal, had himself fallen from grace. To tell the truth, neither he nor I deserved such a summary dismissal, but it is a peculiarity of the Soviet Government that not being good judges of character they do not trust anyone and build a great deal upon accidental favoritism.

The Communist in charge of the museums was a slow and stupid man.

"We've been a bit hasty about you," he said without the least compunction. "We want you, so choose any post you like."

"Give me my old job at Pavlovsk." I answered, for this seemed the most sensible way of rectifying the "mistake".

"No, things are going well there, partly thanks to you. Other portions of the museum front are quite bare."

He was not much of a talker and spoke in stereotyped phrases.

"I know every article in Pavlovsk and can answer for my work." I insisted.

The man picked up a calendar and not deigning to reply to me wrote down "Appointed to Peterhof from May 15th."

"On the fifteenth you must be at Peterhof."

At that moment a dirty, disheveled man looking like a regular burglar, burst into the room.

"Comrade Timofeyev, here's an assistant for you: she will take charge of the technical part, and you of management and administration. Don't make any trouble, and prepare a lodging for her."

"I'm all right, it's all one to me," the man answered gloomily.

That was the custom: non-party workers were put under the control of Communists, utterly ignorant, sometimes dishonest and invariably rude and suspicious. Our energies had to be divided between work and struggle against our overseers.

I knew that Peterhof included not one but ten palaces, beginning with the house of Peter I and ending with that of Nicholas II. They are scattered along the coastline some five miles long. Since the Revolution all the smaller objects in them had been taken for the sake of safety to the Big Palace and hastily deposited there without any arrangement. Some eight thousand objects had to be sorted out and returned to their original places; all the palaces were to be put into order in the course of the summer. There were not enough qualified assistants, and I had for helpers fourteen students of the Institute of Arts whom I had both to teach and to put on tasks which they were not competent to perform. That meant being on one's feet from nine o'clock in the morning till night. At the same time I was perfectly certain that as soon as I had done the chief part of the work the Communists would get rid of me because the post would then be a good one and somebody would want it. That was exactly what happened. But, still, it was a wonderful, and in its way, a happy time: I worked to my heart's content, and Peterhof, one of the most neglected show-places, became one of the best.

It was very exciting to come down early in the morning to the garden of Monplaisir—Peter the Great's summer residence. When I took charge of it they planted flowers there for the first time after the Revolution, put palms, laurel and orange trees in tubs and the "fine kitchen-garden" came to life once more. The Tsar's house looked neat and clean as on a Dutch picture. An upholsterer was making curtains for the windows and the glass doors which till now had been whitewashed. A carpenter was restoring the oak panels to which the Dutch pictures were being returned from the Big Palace and the Hermitage. A cabinet-maker was repolishing the two-hundred years old Dutch furniture brought back from various offices where some of it had been taken in the days of Tsardom. The old members of the staff were happy to take up once more the work they loved. An old attendant, who had been at the Palace since Alexander II's reign, was so inspired by the work of restoration that he forgot all the wrongs he had had to suffer since the Revolution, after a lifetime of restful and honorable service.

He always met me with some piece of joyful news: "Will you come and have a look at the kitchen?" The kitchen decorated with Dutch tiles of the early eighteenth century had been washed spotlessly clean. "I washed it myself, I climbed right up to the ceiling. I wouldn't let the charwomen do it, for fear they'd damage the tiles. I just let them do the floor because that's stone. Look at the pewter dishes in which oysters and pickled lemons used to be served to the Emperor Peter I—they are all here. But the faience ones have disappeared, though they are in the inventory."

The old man put on his spectacles and sternly examined the inventory.

"Quite so. There should be eight large dishes and four small."

"I have found some in the store-room." I comforted him, "and the Museum Fund will give us a few. I hope to bring them next week together with the missing pictures."

"That's splendid! The public is very pleased. Working people particularly like our Palace. Last Sunday more than five hundred visitors came to see it."

"And in the Big Palace there were over two thousand, they did not close till eight in the evening. They must have had fifty to sixty thousand during the summer."

It was the same in all the ten palaces which were being turned into real museums, giving a clear picture of Russian life and culture for the last two hundred years.

The architect was having a struggle with the fountains, mending them, patching up the old pipes, thinking out new devices and, one after another, the fountains began to play.

"Just look at them!" the old workman in charge of them said delightedly, watching the strong jets of water fall into the basins.

Those old attendants were very helpful. Like us, they valued this remarkable place for what is of real worth in it. New attendants, as faithful and devoted, were being trained under them. And the general atmosphere of respect for the work and the art of the past had a sobering influence upon the unruly crowds that simply flooded Peterhof during the summer.

Weekdays and holidays I was at my work from morning till late at night. I should not have had a chance of being with my son at all had he not followed me about everywhere riding on a stick, inventing all sorts of harmless games for himself in the Palace halls or playing by the hour in the sand by the beach pavilions. He did not need a nurse now—every keeper in the park was his bosom friend; all the dogs knew him—he played with them and they came to the house for food. He was growing up free, happy and trustful, perfectly confident that the world which did not extend beyond Peterhof—was a lovely place.

During that time my gloomy overseer was looking after the management, obviously not forgetting himself. Money desperately needed for repairs never reached us. Everyone knew that he was a thief, and I asked several times for an inquiry to be held. A committee was sent to see into the matter, but he gave them such a fine meal and so much to drink that they went back without doing anything. His doings did not come to light till the autumn when he was put in prison, in spite of his being a Communist—the sums he had embezzled were enormous. And to think that men like him, who had no scruples about stealing public money, were put in charge of us, allowing us to work as though it were a favor!