From the Land of the Living Death
THE SIBERIAN LETTERS OF CATHERINE BRESHKOVSKY
‘ PETROGRAD (via London), March 17. — Madame Catherine Breshkovsky, who is known as “the grandmother of the Russian revolution,” has been invited by M. Kerenski, minister of justice in the new cabinet, to return to Petrograd.’ — News Item.
Babushka — in English we can come no nearer the meaning of the word than ‘dear little Grannie’ — has lived to see her dream come true: her dream of a free Russia, delivered from the Romanoffs, from the ‘ Bochophiles,’ from despotism, into the safe-keeping of the Russian people and the social democracy. Ever since she was five years old and scandalized her sweet Christian mother by giving away her little velvet cloak to a peasant child, Babushka has been dreaming this dream; and now she is seventy-three. For the dream’s sake she has spent thirty of these years in Siberian exile; several years of her youth in solitary confinement in a Petrograd prison, and two years of her later life in the dread fortress-prison of Peter and Paul. Since she was twentysix, she has not been free from police surveillance, and the record of those forty-seven devoted years is one long succession of hardships and persecutions heroically and even gayly endured. Hard labor in the mines at Kara, solitary confinement in Irkutsk — these are some of the horrors which Babushka has borne for her faith.
More than once she has tried to escape, — the last time in December, 1914, when, dressed as a man, she got away from Kirensk and evaded the police for several days before they recaptured her driving toward Yakutsk on the frozen river Lena. If younger revolutionists grew faint-hearted, it was enough for them to remember that somewhere in farthest Siberia Babushka was keeping the fires of hope alive, and immediately the spark in their own hearts blazed afresh. No one knew better than she did the value of this ardent and indomitable example to her comrades. When her American friends urged her to let them arrange for her release and banishment to America, she wrote in her quaint and charming English, —
’I cannot and shall not forsake my poor boys even for the happiness to spend my last days amidst such friends as you are to me. So, dearest, and I am sure that you will understand me and love me no less for that. I am the mother of a large family which is accustomed to see me devoted to their interests and to share their fate, bad as it is. Now, represent yourself a mother forsaking her children, and going to those who are rich and happy without her. Not only my boys here, but all the youths over all the country would be grieved and their faith in their grandmother would be broken. For myself, I confess, the life you desire me to lead, would be a difficult one for me, who is accustomed to an existence very scarce and modest. And think of the feeling of a mother, leaving her children scourged by their foes, and going herself to enjoy a company where one finds only friendship, love, and worshiping! What would you say to it? . . . If till now I am something in the eyes of my countrymen and yours, it is for my sincerity and the simplicity of my existence: no artifice of any kind. I am afraid, even, I would not suit quite well to such a rich country as yours, accustomed to have great talents of every sort at her service. I have no talents, you saw it yourself. But my simple nature suits my people’s simple heart, and we do understand each other and love each other mutually. We are slow in our doings, we are deprived of ambition, that stimulates the doings of others, but we are faithful to our ideal which is brotherhood.
‘You will comprehend me when remembering that for half a century all my being is full (from top to toes) of one straining: to improve the moral, mental and economical life of my people. It is a too long habit, and one cannot break the ties that unite him with the existence of his folk. And what an example it would be to my youngest comrades! God forbid!
‘You shall know once, for the rest of my life, that I am a creature full of gratitude, and prize every token of friendship and goodness. One thing is wondering me a little, it is the admiration of my character and patience to endure my fate. First, I shall say, there are many and many people with us, which proved not less if not more courage and grandeur of soul during all their life; so many young people that died as very heroes. Secondly, we Russians, we are a people of religion; we have one in our soul, through all the nation, and the worshiping of the beloved Idea is our national trait. This capacity to appreciate the worshiped Idea above all the rest of the material world makes us strong, and willingly to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of it.’
In 1906, in the interval between her two banishments, Madame Breshkovsky came to the United States to raise money for the cause of Russian freedom, and it was during this visit that she made the friends in New York, in Boston, in Chicago, to whom the following letters are written. In addition to her national trait, ‘ the worshiping of the beloved Idea,’ she possesses in a peculiar degree the genius for friendship, as these ardent and faithful letters bear witness. They date from 1910, when she was released from the fortress-prison of Peter and Paul, and sent into perpetual exile in Siberia. Besides the messages from Babushka herself, we have also side-lights upon her Siberian life, in extracts from letters written to her anxious American friends by other comrades of hers. The letter which follows is from a fellow exile who saw her as she passed through Manzurka on her way to Kirensk, in September, 1910.
‘ When Babushka passed here in August last, she was so exceedingly bright and kind that it was hardly credible that she is nearly seventy years old [sixty-nine], having just got out of prison after three years’ seclusion. A full figure with rosy face (I paid special attention, there were no wrinkles), sparkling eyes and gray hair, showing from under her hood and hanging on to her forehead.
‘ The convoy (they were traveling on carts from Alexandrovsk all the way) stopped beyond our village to change horses. It was quite a camp of 250 human beings surrounded by a chain of escort. Among this crowd, in gray coats under gray sky and rain, her imposing figure struck every one at once. It seemed to me that since 1905, when I saw her last, she became younger. Her spirits were high. A crowd of young people accompanied her. This brightened and encouraged her and colored the impressions she produced upon us. And what was remarkable was that this was after five days of a cruelly hard journey, all the time under pouring rain, on a shaky cart, the nights spent in ötape barracks or about bonfires. It was enough to prostrate anyone, whereas our Babushka looked as if she was at a students’ party.
‘We were admitted inside the chain of the convoy, so that we could see her, so to speak, in her home surroundings. She formed the centre of the party, and was the object of general attention, not only of her political comrades, but also of criminals and the soldiers of the convoy. A curious fact — when we traveled under escort to our destination in April, the convoy repeatedly inquired from us, “When is Babushka coming up? God grant us to see her.”
‘The prison in Irkutsk was also expecting her. The whole imprisoned and exiled Siberia waited with amazement, and sometimes with reverence, to see this “miracle woman.”
‘Unfortunately, the convoy stopped at Manzurka only a short time, as it had to make another stage that day. There was hardly time to speak to her, so many wished to see her and pay respects to her. She was joking almost all the time. Kissed us all.
‘We hardly had time to exchange greetings, remember common friends, yourselves amongst others, as the guards approached her and said, “ Please Babushka, to get up on your cart.” . . . On the same cart with her was traveling another comrade who had just served his term of hard labor. Pointing to him, she said, “This is my friend. He took care of me all the way.” There was also a third passenger on the same cart, a feeble woman, so exhausted and tired that she could hardly sit up. “A sectarian,” said Babushka in an undertone. “And this is our dear kind Starosta,” pointing to a tall bright student, the deputy of the party.
‘She was dressed in a sort of dressing-gown of superior shape and cloth and some peculiar hood.’
Babushka’s first letter from Kirensk was received November 15, 1910.
‘DEAREST AND BEST FRIEND ALICE STONE BLACKWELL,
‘MY GOOD AND LOVELY FRIEND HELENE DUDLEY!
‘Five years and a half ago I answered, when you asked me to remain with you in America, that in five years, when all shall be restored and ordered in Russia, I will come back to you and remain with you as long as it pleases you. In my mind, “restored and ordered” signifies: Russia renewed and quietly working at her further progress. Certainly, in saying so I did not pretend to believe my desires would be punctually fulfilled; certainly I know the great historical cataclysms do not pass without “flux and reflux” of success and mischief, without many and many new efforts and battles, before the end shall be obtained and the plan fulfilled.
‘But, dearest friends, I did not foresee that the recommencement of my relations with you would follow from the place I am in. And yet your old acquaintance is once more in Siberia, farther from your charming homes than ever. But what is the distance if our mind, our imagination, our fancies, can transport us everywhere we wish, and represent to us all the scenes, the images, we remember and love? So I feel myself, and instead of fixing my attention on all sorts of disagreeable conditions environing my everyday life, I prefer to visit all the places and all the people who made me content and happy. In doing so I feel myself always among the best company there are in the world. It must not be understood I am quite deprived of good company in reality. There are a few people who have access to my person and who take care of my little needs and help me in my few wants. Two families (of exile too) prevent my material wants; a young banished man takes me to walk around the little island whereon is situated the so-called “town,” Kirensk, surrounded by two rivers, the immense and cold Lena and the less majestic Kyrenga. The boy helps me to heat my oven and to make my few purchases. The two years and eight months of Petropavlovsk fortress having spoiled sensibly my health, the young man is of great use to me, for my gait is not yet sure enough, and it will take some time before my forces and my celerity rejoin me to the point as to let me exercise my feet without the aid of anything. The winter is rude in this country. The cold falls over 56 degrees below zero, and perhaps during two or three months the out-of-doors will be inaccessible to me. Nevertheless, I hope to restore my health and live to the day I see you again, dearest and faithful friends. Why not?
‘All my doings and every pace are surveilled day and night, and my position into exile is little different from that of the imprisonment; the guardians are permitted to wake me even into the night, to see if I am safe. There is always one of spies surveying me at some distance.'
The next letter is to M. Nicholas Tchaykovsky, who with Babushka was charged with revolutionary conspiracy in 1908 and imprisoned in the fortress of Peter and Paul, but was acquitted on evidence brought from America.
' KIREVSK,November 10, 1910.
‘ I wanted to write you a cheerful and jolly letter as both these states of mind are not foreign to me, — on the contrary, it is a long time since I have laughed as much as since my return to the world from solitary confinement; and here I often laugh at every trifle and look lovingly at the few youngsters who would like to take care of me and whom I like to see about me. But just on account of these youngsters, I am suffering a good deal of discomfort at present, not to say sorrow. From the very beginning, it was known that every one calling on me was entered on the “book of life.” In the course of time it came to the notice of the police surveyor that some called on me seldom; others more frequently; that some did not stay long, others remained to chop wood, sweep out the rooms, go for provisions, or else to work at some foreign language or sit and wait until the time came to close the chimney with its heavy flue-plates; or else to take the old lady out for an airing or to the bathhouse and back, a trip of almost half a mile.
‘All these services were undertaken mostly by those who had more time at their disposal, who had no necessary work the whole day. Particularly there was a young man living within a mile and a half of the town, behind the Lena, supporting himself by odd jobs with little help from his relatives. He came every day after dinner for two or three hours; he was very kind to me and very attentive to all my household needs. He got into trouble once because he had given me a ride in his boat (it was only in the beginning of September), and now he is being constantly reminded that he has no right to remain in the city after eight o’clock in the evening. Well, about a month ago, another young man came, an assistant surgeon, who does not want to practice in such places, where there are neither medicines nor any other hygienic necessities. He got employment as a carpenter at the city wharf, quickly made a success of his trade, and was already in hopes that by the end of winter he would overcome all the difficulties and secrets of carpentry and house-painting, and in the spring would open somewhere a shop of his own. Being inclined to do favors for friends, he called on me daily after his work and gave me massage treatment; in the afternoon he would call to take his scanty portion for dinner so as not to have to go one and onehalf miles to attend me in whatever it might be necessary.
‘ It appears that this sort of laborious life was considered a crime. The Ispravnik (district captain of the police) has taken away from him his passport (a yearly one for traveling over the Kirensk district, which he had just obtained), then arrested him, imprisoned him, and on Saturday he is sending him away escorted by gendarmes to that volost [district] from which the assistant surgeon had come to Kirensk. Then again yesterday and to-day they are summoning other persons to the police for examination — a short list of seven or eight names, alleged to be people particularly intimate with me. On another list all those who visit my hut are recorded. What will be done with them, I cannot imagine, unless they station an armed guard to drive away all those who step upon my grass-plots.
‘Aside from the fact that I like people generally, that a feeling of gratitude is deeply lodged in me, and that distressed young lives are particularly affecting to me, so that I am simply ashamed to be the cause of anybody’s misfortune or trouble, I see that complete loneliness threatens me within a short time, either in the form of a hut or prison here, in Kirensk, or somewhere in Bulum, on the Arctic Ocean, where they send exiles for complete isolation. What they are afraid of, and what they imagine, I cannot understand at all; I know only that I would rather stay in Bulum with white bears than to see how, on account of me, they are persecuting other people and depriving them of bread and of the most necessary freedom. They are even going to send away the sick so that they may not pass me on their way to the hospital.
‘Now the boasting begins: to-day, at last, came the package with my prison belongings (coat,dresses,etc.). Taking into account things sent by you and donations received on the road and here, it appears that I have a half a dozen “costumes,” one finer than the other. In other words, such a wealth as I have never before accumulated since I was born. I have hung them about the walls and I look at them and think: what shall I do with all these things even if I should order a wardrobe! And as to handkerchiefs and gloves, so many have accumulated that I can’t imagine where to put them all. To my relief your gingham will go for shirts for the boys (I intend to cut as many as four out of 15 arshin).
‘The new handkerchiefs I have given away to neighbors who have been kind to me, and everything that is old I have left for myself except the beautiful blanket, which I hide under my pillow in the daytime and at night spread over my ordinary everyday one, which has seen many things in its day. It seems that even my old cloak is about to go into retirement. I have acquired two wadded coats and a few warm skirts — in a word, enough to get married on (such a bride!), and the people are still dissatisfied and are always grumbling, “A fur coat, grandma, a fur coat, by all means a fur coat! ” I will show them a fur coat! Soon I shall have a bearskin for my feet; but so far nothing but a calf skin from Yakutsk lies under my table as a beautiful rug and warms my feet, which are clothed in felt shoes and rubbers. The hut would be good in every respect, but there is a draft from the floor, and the cold comes in. But we shall overcome that with the bear’s help.
‘Heigh-ho! my life nothing but a genuine carnival! Abundant of earthly gifts and sincere love of the kind friends more than the wickedness of the enemies, so that the cup of joy outweighs that of bitterness.’
The following extracts are taken from a letter received by Miss Blackwell from an old friend of Madame Breshkovsky, a Russian gentleman, who was in constant communication with her.
‘Everybody who came to see Babushka, these guardians stopped and asked who they are and what they come for? It makes such a trouble, not only for Babushka, but for her landlord or house-owner, that nobody liked to let a room to her. For this very reason she lived so long in a miserable semi-rotten hut, which she liked because it was solitary, so that the guardians did not bother the hut-owner, the hut staying apart, with the windows looking in the snowy desert. For her health’s sake I insisted to change the lodging and to find a more comfortable one. After long consideration she decided at last to let a little house with two little rooms and one kitchen. She gave me two most important objections to such a change. The first was that the more comfortable lodging can spoil her character and definitely corrupt her spirit. She will live in a comfortable house of three neatly furnished rooms, — ‘salons,’ as she called them, — meanwhile some other of her comrades exiles, after hard and long day work (if they luckily have one), hardly could find a hole in the warm stall of some lucky native landlord to spend the night.
‘ In her last letter she writes me that she changed her lodging at last and is now settled in her three neatly furnished salons. And she finds her provision is at hand: by and by she feels herself corrupted. . . . The criminal thought is knocking in her head: how nice it would be, if out of one of her pretty salons to make a bath-room and to furnish it with a comfortable bathtub, where she could warm her sick legs! One of her comrades, who is an expert, is ready to realize this ideal, and is going to install a self-made tinbath. I hope she is now so corrupted, that in the next letter she will tell me of the realization of this great enterprise. She is cherishing the idea that the other of her comrades will find many chances to wash their poor bodies from time to time and to enjoy themselves in the most American style. You see, with money in hands it is possible even in the Russian hells to get some comfort and enjoyment.
‘There is no person in the world who can prevent her from doing that, what she considers as her duty. Above all things, she bothers herself in visiting sick native people, in giving them good counsels how to feed the children and so on. Very often she brings them her milk, part of her own daily food. In answer to my teasing reproaches for her unreasonable philanthropy, she sneered at me, saying that I am greatly mistaken in my appreciation of her conduct. She is a very sly old woman; she says, in giving a trifle to these poor and little surrounding wretches she gets more in return from them for herself. They are so stupid, she says, as to bring her all the sweets they can get in that arid region: the butter, different kinds of berries, eggs, little cakes, and so on. They are stupid, because she is alone and is the only one, and cannot give them much, but they are hundreds and multitude, and little by little, bit by bit, they bring her much. And they help her with such an impression and love (in answer for her pretended attention) that she cannot help receiving the donations. “So, at the end, I am in gain,” concluded the sly Babushka. “Light gains make heavy purses,” she says. In a word, she is a really incorrigible old woman. However, by force of her indomitable energy and goodnatured character, she is spreading everywhere an atmosphere of consolation among the suffering people.’
The young men of Russia are not the only ones to whom Babushka has been a guide and an inspiration in her exile. Ernest Poole, who wrote a sympathetic account of her life, George Kennan, who saw her during her first exile in Siberia, Lewis Herreshoff of Rhode Island, and Arthur Bullard are among her American correspondents.
(To Arthur Bullard)
‘KIRENSK, January ,1911.
‘Bullard, my boy! Already in Panama you grind yourself into pieces and will be old at forty. I would have you always young and active, but without excitement, better to say, without too much strain. It is so delightful to know our friends in good health and strong body and soul; and it makes us so sad when hearing that one of them is sinking in his forces. Pray do not exhaust your nerves, preserve your capability of travail for the future too. It cheers me up to know here and there are boys and girls that keep in their hearts an unexhausted desire to aid the world to do better. Such minds and characters are those flowers that embellish our earth. Think only how gloomy and cold it would be without the best.
‘ Yes, my friend, you must work, you must love and feel heartily, you must make efforts to improve yourself and others, and yet you must learn to be more abstract, to consider the world with its phenomena with more coolness, — all the phenomena, not excluding those that concern us personally. You know, dearest boy, for long ago, I am sure, that the person which cares much for the welfare of her own, and is much affected with all what happens in the sphere of her own life is much more enerved and tired with the world, than the person whose mind is resting on the questions that concern mankind in his wholeness. I don’t mean that one can live like a machine, never hurt by the acridity of the atmosphere created by our silliness and ignorance, by the mischiefs that come over and over in a very wonderful miscellaneous form and quantity, but one can take the habit to struggle through all his existence and never be disappointed, never exhausted. More philosophy, more contemplation, more perception into the future, — you know well yourself how to do, and it is only my longing for your welfare that makes me speak about questions so thoroughly studied by every one interested in the existence of his psychology. I will know you safe and conserved.’
(To Ellen Starr)
‘ KIRENSK, January 25, 1911.
‘ Certainly I was wrong when saying you would lose the vivacity of your feeling toward me, my beloved friend, my dear Ellen Starr! The American women are not so expansive in words and manners as we Russian women, but the stronger they are in their faithfulness, the deeper is the bottom of their attachment once conceived. That I knew always, nevertheless it was difficult to be persuaded that people so much and constantly occupied with everyday matters, so much working for a great deal of all kinds of people, so devoted to the welfare of their entourage as you, as our kind Helena Dudley, could have time to think about a far-off friend, buried into Russian prisons and Siberian forests. . . .
‘As to my young man, who continues to be my devoted nurse, he is so much pleased with the flattering words you and Alice gratify him, that it seems to him almost impossible to be so much appreciated — he is very modest. Each of the letters from America I perused with him once more for his sincere satisfaction. He is a social-democrat, but the difference of the programmes here in exile, as well as in the prisons, is very often annihilated by the necessity of sympathy and friendship. The use of personal capacities, and often the want of what one would desire, make the people less fanatical, less dogmatic.
‘O dearest Ellen! forgive me my English! But I heard so many times in Chicago and everywhere else such words: “Your bad English is better to us as your good French,”that I consent to be laughed at, and to have my writings mended by your amiable hand that you permit me to kiss as tenderly as I can.
‘P.S. Thirty years ago all the correspondence of the exiles was read and examined. Now I found the matter changed. No letters can be read without a special permission of gendarmes. They know well that I never permit myself to write something doubtful or compromising; nevertheless their curiosity is without end, and the habit of persecution and espionage is so old and big that never are they tired to do it. Now, during the festivals of Christmas, when here many young people took pleasure to disguise themselves and to go through the town with their masks, my keepers were afraid I would escape in that manner, and they ran about like mad men searching and looking after every one, intruding themselves in every house suspected to be the place of my visit. And I was sitting in my cabin reading or talking with one of my friends.’
(To Alice Stone Blackwell)
‘KIRENSK,September 6, 1911.
‘Your two large letters are with me, dearest and best friend Alice, my excellent daughter. Why I write to you in English and not French? Because I feel myself nearer to you, to Isabel and Helena when speaking the same language with you. I like very much this rich and original organ of expression of our thoughts, but it is yet dearer to me for being your usual mode of communication. It seems to me I am your relation not only in mind but corporal too. With the difference that you possess the language to perfection, and I am learning it. So permit me to express my wishes and all my feelings in English and try to understand me, knowing my character and my habits. Farther: you were jalouse about my mentioning the boys only. The matter is that in all the district of Kirensk there are a thousand boys and only 8—10 girls dispersed over. Here into the town I have had only one. The exiled and condemned women, which are not in the prisons of “ travaux forcés” are settled part into the West of Siberia and part into the South districts of Irkutsk, and only those that were not judged and sent administratively are settled into the regions of Yakutsk, fifteen hundred miles to the north.’
‘September 7, 1911.
‘Yesterday this letter was interrupted by the visits of a squadron of gendarmes and policemen. They came to make a search in my lodging and turned over all my correspondence and all the papers and magazines in my room. They remained an hour and a half, and as there was nothing to be sequestered, the gendarme could not go away without taking something, and he took the photographs where I am with some of my comrades and which I sent you lately at your request, my dearest daughter. Again the police of Kirensk are troubled about my safety, again the chief himself is tripping around my cabin every night now, in fear that I may be transported in some secret place and vanish away. . . . It is very disagreeable, for the neighbor’s hounds are barking for hours after these nightly visits and I cannot sleep. So it was all the last winter and now begins the same repetition. I laugh very much about these fusses, and yet I am fidgeting on the fate of those who are visiting me, the boys who cannot avoid contact with me because they have no one else to nurse them.’
‘November 13, 1911.
‘Helena Dudley! Alice Stone Blackwell! Isabella Barrows! Ellen Starr! Euphemia Mackintosh! Lucy Smith! Lillian Wald! Arthur Bullard! and all my beloved friends!
‘Like a queen into a palace, like a princess into an armchair, like a scholar before a large table, surrounded by magazines, papers, letters and a lot of beautiful post-cards, is sitting your old Catherine proud and happy, strong and well. It would take a great deal of inspiration to depict all the benefits of my new apartment, and I will do it another time. This letter will announce only: (1) Having space enough to walk from one corner of my house to another (passing through three chambers and a line of 30 feet), I remain at home all the time, day and night, having no desire to take cold and to get the influenza. The same cause forced me to command a bath that will stand in one of my chambers and which will be heated by a little engine, attached to one end, so that the traveling of one half a mile to take a bath, as it was the last winter, is excluded from my pastime.
‘In my life, outside the change of dwelling for a better one, there is a change concerning my custody: now there are four men spies going around my house and looking into my windows. They are two to accompany me when I am going out. This escort is so disgusting that I have no wish to walk out of doors. What of are they afraid to keep me imprisoned, I don’t know! I see only they think me able to vanish like a cloud before their eyes. But I am patient and will endure.’
Sometimes she cheered her anxious friends by writing gay bits of vers libre on postcards.
Soon, very soon, thank to your goodness,
I have my bath in my own room.
And soon again instead of linen
I shall be wrapped in Jaeger’s wool;
The samovar will wait on table,
The Chinese tea will smell the best;
And your old friend renewed, reyounged,
Absorbs the sugar, milk and bread.
She could have many, many others
Of delicacies of the world,
But the old stomach is so trained
That can’t endure no sorts of dainties.
But for the space, and light, and air —
I have them for the rest of life.
I will be merciful and never more
Write in verses. Forgive me.
‘ KIRENSK, 27 March, 1912.
‘DEAREST ALICE, my best friend!
‘If it were not for a cruel climate which extorts so much forces and expenses for food and clothing, we would make many improvements in our life, for there are many skillful, crafty and clever people among us; but without money, tools and provision — it takes many years of persevering efforts to attain some amelioration in this mode of life. All you earn during the short summer, you eat it during the long winter, when the country presents an immense bare wilderness. No plants except the big trees, no birds, no movement from place to place, except the mail post speeding on six or seven sleds with two horse to each. The convoys runs very fast, or fast enough, considering the state of our roads, always very bad. The little clockots [bells] are ringing far and aloud, and all the inhabitants, especially our boys, are running toward the post-house, where they receive the same answer: not ready, tomorrow. But nobody here is so rich on post days as your old friend, quite spoiled with the riches and attention coming from every part of the world. And perhaps it is my small demands which make me content with my lot. But, when compared with the lot of others, certainly I am the happiest of all. Now that my excellent Platon is too often “unwell,” I took a young girl into the house; she dwells with me and serves me. She is a Siberian native from a Slavonish race. But all the Russian peasants that inhabit Siberia for some centuries arc very different from those of Russia. Here they become rough, deprived of benevolence and gratitude, very selfish, cupid [covetous], and always suspicious. It is the result of a rude struggle with the wild surroundings, from one part; and also because all the time Siberia is under the rule of the Russian government she receives for administration all what cannot be suffered even in Russia, and it takes time before the latter can make themselves believed and trusted. Moreover, the natives are not apt to discern a true politik from a falsified one. And hundreds of such are here too, for the government throws, in one heap with people struggling for the right, many unworthy people having no connection with any honest doing or suggestion. So the fiends are spoiling the reputation of all the mass of politiks, as we are called here. We have much troubles on this account, much afflictions, and much judgments which ended sometimes with the exclusion of the guilty person from the society of the rest. One cannot be severe enough in such a position as ours is. If one will conserve his human dignity and keep up one’s fight for the right, he must be an example for the rest of the population in all his concerns; in his exterior as in his interior life. And here, where no other means exist to prevent degeneration but the self-control and the general opinions of the comrades, here we must be stronger in our principles than when elsewhere.'
Next comes the translation of a letter written in French by Madame Breshkovsky to Mrs. Isabel C. Barrows. Mrs. Barrows had sent Madame Breshkovsky Mr. Brockway’s book, Fifty Years of Prison Service. After reading a part of it, Madame Breshkovsky wrote to Miss Blackwell that she did not think highly of Mr. Brockway, and that several of the officials whom he praised most highly had met their death at the hands of prisoners, whom they had presumably ill treated. Mrs. Barrows saw the letter containing this criticism and wrote Madame Breshkovsky a protest against it. The reply from Madame Breshkovsky follows.
‘KIRENSK, February 18, 1913.
‘ MY EXCELLENT SISTER ! MY BELOVED ISABEL!
‘I must tell you that it is just the difference in character between our two peoples, the Americans and the Russians, which keeps us from mutually understanding each other. At first, for instance, ignorant and grotesque as are our people, and consequently our criminals, they are particularly susceptible to the smallest kindness, to the least indulgence, even on the part of their persecutors. The expression, “He is our father,” is always used in good faith in regard to the officials who pay the least attention to the needs of their subordinates, and never in my life have I heard of prisoners permitting themselves to ill-treat guards who were at all good, or who were even just to them. I must tell you that our people acknowledge the law, and are always ready to obey it, and it is only a clear injustice, an intolerable persecution which makes them impatient and rebellious. But everything that is just, everything that is benevolent toward them, they appreciate and respect. But, as the whole world knows, these poor people are ill-treated to the limit, in their everyday life: they are still more so in the Russian prisons, where every monster of a jailer has a right to tyrannize over the prisoners as much as he chooses. The most hideous of these scoundrels sometimes get the fate that they deserve; they fall by the hand of a rebel, who, in most cases, is avenging the outrages endured by all his comrades, and not his own personal wrong. As for cases of officials who were straightforward and courteous being murdered, I have never heard of such a case anywhere.
‘Mr. Brockway’s experience tells us just the opposite, and he gives many instances where the best-behaved officials were killed quite young by the convicts, who had not even been illtreated by them. It is quite possible that the independent character of the Americans cannot endure either restraint or control, and that, not being able to put up with either, they permit themselves to take a personal revenge; while the Russian criminals stand forth in general, as avengers of the evils felt by their whole community, evils borne for a long time before being punished.
‘In addition to this difference between our characters and ways of behaving, we have yet another, not less clear and significant. Whereas Americans (like all Anglo-Saxons) are punctual in their business, and in all their conduct regarding their duties and their mutual relationship, we Slavs, and, above all, we Russians, suffer greatly from the fault of nonchalance. On the one hand, this fault makes us fall short in many good things: makes us lose our time, our energy, even our knowledge, without deriving the necessary profit from them.
‘On the other hand, in view of the severe laws, the coarse customs, the rude manners, the despotism in all the corners of our daily life, a rigid punctuality would make life, especially in the prisons, utterly unendurable. And it is in these cases that the Russian nonchalance permits the prisoners to breathe a little bit even in these frightful dungeons. In consequence, the Russian people abhor officials who are martinets. Knowing that the rigidity of the régime carried out in all its severity would make life impossible, I venture to believe that the frequent murders mentioned by Mr. Brockway in his book are in part the result of the incessant torment which must be experienced by the individual subjected to a régime which deprives him of all liberty, even in relation to his smallest wishes and needs. It is possible also that the Russian people, knowing that they have by their side a constant and implacable enemy, which is complex and so to speak indefinable, may turn its eyes rather toward this complexity, hoping to be rid of it once for all. Hence individual cases of atrocities, horrible though they may be, are borne with patience, or rather with stoicism.
‘We are accustomed to daily cruelties and face them as inevitable facts. For instance, one day lately, an exile who was ill was obliged to leave the hospital before his strength was reestablished. The doctor told him to stay in the city, so as to be able to make visits to the dispensary for some time longer. But the police had him arrested and taken to the place where he was to be sent, two hundred versts from here. The cold was intense, the invalid’s clothes were too thin, and behold, after two days of a miserable journey, the poor man was brought back again with his hands and head severely frozen. The doctor had to amputate his fingers and both ears, leaving him maimed for all the rest of his life. To-day we have had the grief of burying another comrade, a very intelligent Jew, who, not being able to get a passport, — Jews are not allowed to have passports, — not being able to go anywhere to find work, almost died of starvation. You will understand, my beloved sister, that, having before me in the past and in the present an endless series of such pictures, it is not prison reform that I am thinking about, it is not to that object that I should like to direct the strength and attention of the public, although I venerate the beings who occupy themselves with it, but that I should like to see the whole modus vivendi changed so much that the population of the globe should not be subjected to sufferings from which they could be relieved with advantage to the whole world.’
After wearisome changes from Kirensk to Yakutsk, from Yakutsk to Irkutsk, and back again, Madame Breshkovsky was sent, in 1916, to Minusinsk. Her last letter to Miss Dudley, dated November 5, 1916, was sent from this town, which is only about one hundred miles from China.
MY BELOVED FRIEND HELENA!
I have to answer your many cards and letters, but I will not find words and sayings to express my feelings of love and gratitude. I wonder often where from comes such devotion and prizing of my timid person by a set of women and men always in action, always sacrificing themselves to the welfare of their country, always ready to make all their possible to improve the welfare of other nations and countries! Instead of doing so, I am like a salt herring in a big barrel, conserved to nobody knows what end, and waiting, waiting without end. My straining and my activity are become now so short that I see myself as an oyster in its shell, only thinking and endeavoring to understand the meaning of what mankind as a whole is doing. I turn and re-turn the facts, the sayings and writings of different minds of different people in different countries.
' Now I am amazed to see how masterly is England, how firmly she holds the bridle in her hands, wisely overlooking the affairs of the world. I wish only she may be as sincere and noble as she is wise and strong. But it would be a great mistake from her part to settle the affairs selfishly and with partiality, for in this case no good would be accomplished. Yet a long, or better, a continual peace is necessary; the desolation is too profound to be cured in a short time. The countries have lost all their best forces and we must wait till the young generation grows to be of use. We have thousands and thousands of orphans around us, and if we do not use all our efforts and means to elevate and instruct them, we have no future. The “children question” is the more serious and insistent of the age. I have a lot around me, the poorest ; we are good friends and the little I do is already a relief in their dull and needful life. Many of them visit the school and need books and clothes. It is awful to see how the world is foolish! They are writing in every paper about food and fuel, and they are forgetting that if the race is gone, there will be nobody to eat and to provide. For shame!’