Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin


I came back from the visit in a confused state of mind. And so, we were going away for good! This life was done with, and we did not know whether we should find our way to a new one. Our native land had given us our fill of sorrow—and yet it was our native land, whoever might be ruling it.

Well, I had to get ready: to sell some things, to buy others, to think out what we should want. Top boots, sweaters, knapsacks, food. . . . He said that sugar and bacon were essential, because they were the most nourishing and compact. I must try and get some rice, prepare a few rusks. We should be a week or perhaps ten days on the way. We should want money. He asked me to bring two or three thousand roubles. Our notes were said to be of no value abroad, but we might have to hire a guide or to bribe someone on the way.

I began selling my possessions; I went to friends, to shops that took things on commission, to second-hand booksellers. I had to be careful not to attract attention, for the least trifle might cause the OGPU to exile me, and that would ruin everything.

It took me weeks to realize two or three hundred roubles, and I had to pay one hundred and fifty roubles for a pair of second-hand boots, one hundred roubles for a sweater; I despaired of ever getting together all that we needed.

I could not ask a single friend to help me because to know or to suspect that someone contemplates escape from U.S.S.R., and not to denounce him, is a crime punishable by at least five years penal servitude. We had to arrange everything unaided, being hardly able to communicate with each other: once a month my husband could send me a letter that passed through the OGPU censorship, and I had to gather my directions from symbolic words and signs we had agreed upon at Kem.

I calmed down only a few days before our departure; there was nothing more I could do, anyway.

I wanted to say good-bye to the Hermitage. I went there like an ordinary visitor, paid at the entrance, and walked round all my favorite halls. I could not help noticing what was still in place and what had disappeared for ever.

Houdon's Diana was sold abroad; in the Italian rooms there were so many losses that it made me feel quite sad. Botticelli's Adoration of the Kings was sold—the only Botticelli that we had in the Hermitage; Rafael's lovely Madonna Alba was sold and so was Titian's Venus with the Mirror. Less than a half, so far as the best and authentic pictures are concerned, was left of the once magnificent collection of Rembrandt. Jan Sobieski, Athene, the portrait of Rembrandt's son, The Girl with the Broom, the portrait of an old woman, had all disappeared. The best pictures of the "lesser Dutchmen", Terburg and Metzu were gone also. Van Dyck's Lord Wharton, Ruben's Helen Furman were missing, and many, many other things. In the French rooms I missed Watteau's Mezzotint;  hardly anything was left of the beautiful collection of Germain's silver and the luxurious "Orlov" service.

As I was about to go I met one of the young assistants. She sank on to a chair in utter exhaustion.

"I am sorry, I simply cannot stand. We are done to death with meetings, committees, plans, reports, and I haven't been able to have any dinner for two days. What were you doing here?"

"Looking at the remains of the Hermitage. I still love it, you know."

"Perhaps one might love it if one didn't work in it," she said sadly. "It seems to me it is nothing but diagrams, schedules, classifications, Marxism, I think you are lucky to have left your post."

"You mean, to have lost my post," I corrected her.

There was so much to do before going away that I hardly noticed how the weeks passed. I felt as though I had not had time to look round before we found ourselves in the train, going along the route that we remembered only too well. We again saw prisoners digging by the railway, the wives going on a visit and shyly keeping apart from other passengers. But I no longer felt one of them—I was going not on a visit but much, much further, and from time to time a wave of gay recklessness came over me.

A group of students sent from the Forestries Institute to act as overseers on timber-works were travelling with us. They were not very cheerful about it. Only a few had been given top boots—the others would have to tramp about the forest in worn town shoes. None were provided with mosquito-nets. The supply of food given them was barely enough for the journey—and they rightly doubted whether they could buy provisions on the spot. They could not refuse going because it had been decided at the general meeting of the Institute that the students were to be sent to timberworks during the vacation.

I could not go to sleep; the northern night was light, the carriage was hot and stuffy, sand and smuts were blowing in at the open windows.

"Why aren't you asleep?" I heard one of the students ask another.

"I was thinking of Mishka. He was murdered last year, you remember?"

"Not in these parts."

"But it was at timber-works, anyway."

The others were arguing about the geography of the parts where they were going; they knew nothing about it. It was settled almost at the last moment which of them were going to Karelia, which to the Urals or to Siberia, so that they had not had time to read up the subject. When I began answering their naive, elementary questions, which I could have answered as a schoolgirl, the whole group of them settled beside me and listened as to a lecture.

"That's fine! A travelling university!" they said approvingly, making notes, and asking more questions. They were sorry I could not come with them: "You would teach us a thing or two."

I very much wanted to tell them that in the part where they were going there were several thousand prisoners far better qualified than I; but this would be "counter-revolutionary propaganda", so I said nothing.

My little boy was in the best of spirits, chattered and sang; he knew quite as many songs as the students.

Travelling in this fashion we arrived at the station where my husband was to meet us, as he said in his letter. We came out of the train, but could not see him anywhere. Gould I have misunderstood him?

"There's daddy." the boy whispered.

My husband was standing at the end of the train; he was obviously feeling very nervous. An OGPU official was standing between him and us.

What can it mean? I wondered. Hasn't he got the permit for our visit? or isn't he supposed to be at the station?

At that moment the OGPU official's attention was drawn to some men quarrelling on the platform; we hastily seized our things, walked round the train and reached some buildings behind which my husband joined us.

He was paler than before and looked quite ill.

"What's the matter with you?" I asked him almost before greeting him.

"Oh, it's nothing. I damaged my back a little. I had to lift a wet net weighing about three hundredweight. I slipped and fell on the hillside. When they lifted the net off my back I couldn't walk and had to crawl to my bunk."

"When did it happen?" I asked, scrutinizing him anxiously.

"Two or three days ago. I am up for the first time today. I haven't been able to lift my head. But I am much better to-day."

Better, indeed! I thought gloomily. What would happen to us all?

"But everything has turned out splendidly: I have received permission for your visit and we have ten days to ourselves. I have hired a room for you with some peasants here, right by the sea. I am just going to take you there."

He brought us to a boat and sat down to the oars. He rowed with difficulty and beads of perspiration came out on his face.

"I've grown very weak during these days." he said apologetically. I couldn't get down any food to speak of."

"And are you hungry now?"

"Yes," he admitted shyly. "But I can wait. No, no, don't bother just now," he said, seeing that I picked up my bag.

But when I produced the remainder of the provisions we had for the journey he put down his oars and we all began eating as on a picnic.

It was only when he felt a little better that I noticed what a lovely place we were in.

The bay was broad and deep; the curved line of the shore was broken by numberless coves. Hills covered with pine forest rose all round; some of the crests could be seen beyond the line of the trees.

There was perfect stillness on the desolate beach. On one of the slopes a miserable tent could be seen.

"There are our prisoners, drying nets," my husband said, pointing to it.

"Is that where you live?"


"Does it leak?"

"Yes," he answered unconcernedly. "At first it was fearfully cold. We shivered like dogs and there was no shelter from the rain. But now the weather is drier and warmer."

I knew that we should go away, but it was dreadful to think of these men, far beyond the Arctic circle, condemned to work in the sea and having nowhere to get warm or dry or to cook any food when it rained, because their tiny home-made stove stood under the open sky.

"Why, it's a wonderful piece of luck to be sent off to this sort of work." said my husband with a smile, guessing my thoughts. "Anyway, one isn't in the barracks and not behind barbed wire. Only fishermen have such good fortune."

He brought us to a peasant cottage. It was much poorer than the one at Kem. There were no shining copper mugs and pans, no down pillows. The old man slept in the attic and the old woman and the grandchildren—their mother was dead—on the floor in the kitchen. Besides fish—if the old man succeeded in catching any—they had milk and butter from their cow. To feed it, the old woman and the eldest granddaughter brought every day branches from the forest; they preserved them for fodder in winter, and in the autumn they dried deer-moss. Almost all the meadows in the neighborhood had been taken for the collective farm. Although the old people were also made to join, they never got anything from it: they were always told that they had not done enough work to secure a share of the produce.

Sugar was such a rarity that no one in the neighborhood had set eyes on it for the last two or three years. There was no tea either. They heated the samovar and drank hot water with berries in it.

The old woman worked from morning till night. When I asked her when was she going to rest, she answered good-humoredly:

"I'll rest when I am dead. The summer is short in our parts; if one doesn't make provision in the summer, there will be nothing to eat in winter. There's branches to get for the cow, berries to pick and pickle, then there will be mushrooms to salt and to dry. It's not like the old times—you can't buy flour when you want it. No pie-baking nowadays. You just have your ration and live on it as best you can."

It was the same story everywhere. Life has been reduced to a mere struggle for existence.

Every morning my husband went to do his work and did not come back to us till the evening. All day long he was watched by the OGPU escort and by his fellow prisoners, who might give him away any moment if they noticed anything suspicious. But at night we were free and could go from the cottage to the neighboring forest. There was a clearing there made by a forest fire. One could see a long way from there and could not be overheard.

"We'll soon be out of this," my husband said. "We must choose a day when I am not supposed to go to work. Then it will be a good twenty hours before I am missed."

"You know, I still don't understand how it is that we've been allowed to come and see you here."

"Ah, it was my marine zoology that did the trick!" my husband laughed. "You remember what it was like at Kem? Sentries all over the place, two hundred miles to the frontier, swamps all round and, besides, one would be missed within a few hours. OGPU knows very well that no one can escape from there, especially with a family. It took some planning to get away from the camp. . . . First of all, I had to convince them that I did not mean to escape and at the same time to invent all sorts of reasons for being sent to different places. I invented a new way of killing salmon and a year ago they sent me to teach it to the fishermen. Salmon is exported to England and I earned them a good many English pounds by that.

"Another time they sent me to investigate all their Fisheries, and my report was of such practical as well as scientific value that even they could not fail to see it. It never occurred to them, of course, that at the same time I looked out a suitable place for our escape. As a reward I was allowed to see you at Kem, but after that was again shut up behind barbed wire all the winter.

"In the spring I was transferred to Soroka and that was worse than ever. I nearly went mad there. Then I made a discovery which in any other country would have made me a rich man. I found a way of utilizing stickleback. It's a fish about nine centimeters long, with bristles on its back, on its belly, on the front fins. It's a voracious little creature and devours other fishes' spawn, and is a nuisance, too, because it gets in between the meshes of the net. Well, I made an experiment with nothing but a primus and a saucepan at my disposal—and obtained from it good oil and fish-meal admirably suited for fodder. Considering our acute shortage of fats and of fodder, it really was an important discovery.

"And this is what saved us. I have been sent to this place because the best catches of stickleback are here and, as a reward, was allowed to see you on the spot so that I need not interrupt my work. The chief of the camp himself signed my pass, convinced that I have put untold riches into their hands. It's perfectly true that if they follow it up, the results will be of enormous value to the country. I have paid them liberally for my ten days without armed escort at my back all the time. But I am not going to work for them anymore. Now we must escape—there won't be another such opportunity."