The Bolsheviks at Home
[The following letters, so vividly expressive of the conditions amid which they are written, give an unvarnished picture of what life has become in the country districts of Russia under Bolshevik rule. The writer is an American lady who many years ago married a distinguished Russian diplomat. This gentleman, the ‘Peter’ of the letters, on reaching the age-limit in the service, retired, after more than forty years of active diplomacy in the Far East, and shortly before the war, settled down to the management of his vast estate, seven thousand acres or more, which had been in the family since the times of Peter the Great. Physical misfortunes came upon him, grave bodily disability, and, before the period described in these letters, total blindness. Alec, George, and Oka, frequently mentioned, are sons of the house, Oka being still at the University when the first letters were written.]
BORTNIKI, July 9, 1917
MY DEAR CARRIE,—
I want so often to write, but there is so much one wishes to say and cannot, that I don’t have much heart for writing. If this state of things keeps on most of us will be candidates for mild types of insane asylums. I sometimes feel that something will snap and the nerves give way. How Peter stands it! For several nights we have had the most excited pow-wows until eleven and twelve o’clock, in poor Peter’s bedroom, with peasants.
Finally, seeing matters were getting too complicated for our local committee to handle, I went to town and had an interview, where I felt myself as in the coils of a boa-constrictor. Still, I was advised to send for them in case matters became acute.
A few days ago I telegraphed, and yesterday (Sunday) as I was sitting by the window reading to Peter at seven o’clock in the morning, I saw two men coming up from the landing, one of whom I recognized as one of the central committee. I hurriedly dressed Peter and led him out into the big room. The city man had come in answer to my telegram and had arranged that members of the two committees interested in our harvest fields meet him here; also about fifty peasants.
If you could have heard and seen what we went through from then until 2.30 P.M., when they left!
Our neighbors were violent, menacing, and brutal; the city man quiet, polite, and tried to prevent excesses; but the result is the same — all our fields, except as much hay as will carry us through the winter, by their estimate, taken — the price fixed, but the money confiscated, ‘as all the burden of the war falls on the peasants, the gentry cannot be permitted to get any profit.’
The fields left for our own use were valued, and we must pay the same rent for our own land. Then they claimed we had more horses than we needed and they have the right to confiscate the extra ones, gratis.
When we told the use to which each horse was put and proved that in the winter and ploughing season we found we had not enough, every peasant present, though all knew the fact, and most had worked for us, when fifteen to eighteen horses a day worked, swore that never were more than six horses harnessed in Bortniki.
I turned to one and another by name, and said, ‘Have you a conscience and a God? Answer me truly if, the year around, fifteen to eighteen are not too few?’
And they all in chorus replied, ‘She lies, she lies; they never use more than six; take them from her!’
And not a man was there whose wounds, or those of his household, or horse or cow, I had not treated, and whom we had not helped, sick or poor, and given boards for coffins, or timber to help build, if a fire came.
The whole day was a nightmare. Such a noise, one could hardly hear, and one never knew when the noise might not change to worse. I gave Peter brandy, etc., repeatedly, and he talked quietly, when from time to time the chief came to him; but Oka and I kept the mob in the other side of the house. We are forbidden to sell more cattle, and they have n’t left us enough to feed them. Horses I think we can sell, but we won’t get the money. Altogether, we and all our kind are being hunted like rats; education is for nothing. New spelling is ordered so that our chiefs won’t be illiterate. Schools like Oka’s, and of fine arts, and girls’ boarding schools, are turned into syphilitic hospitals; and the worst of all is the army.
Just now we thank God on our knees that that disgrace is being removed from our boys. An advance is being carried out. I don’t know if you will ever get this. I have had nothing from you for very long. Last night Peter slept very little, but is better to-day than I feared. Oka is reading to him as I write. Our reader has gone. Oka and I are alone, and we have a new intendant. That complicates matters.
BORTNIKI, August 11, 1917
I keep writing, though I get nothing and do not know if you have received the letters and cards I have sent you. The post is suffering now like every other department of our poor country. Alec in Petrograd is two to three weeks without word from us, and I write two to three times a week. His letters are often twenty days on the way. George’s come very quickly and regularly of late, thank God! But he, poor fellow, in addition to miseries untold, gets nothing from us. He has had but one letter in one and a half months! We are very anxious about him, for officers are being mown down by friend and foe alike— ‘thousands and thousands,’ as is officially admitted.
He just wrote under fire after two hundred versts marching, foot-sore and dirty; for since his leave (he was here the first of June for seventeen days), he has not once slept under a shelter of any kind and rains are almost constant.
Last week I had a telegram to go to town to the local Civil Commissariat Department.
As I could not get away that day, we sent Oka. They demanded that we gather in and thresh our rye as soon as possible, and give all we can for seed, offering a price far less than it cost us to raise it.
When a protest was made, the reply, very politely couched, was, ‘If you give it voluntarily we pay four roubles [the price peasants are selling for is eight to ten roubles]; if not we shall requisition (!) it at 2.60 roubles.’
We asked for more prisoners to push the work, and they told Oka they had just sent a supply for our parish and there were three that we could have. Oka returned on the Salegar and reported, and Peter sent him and me in the motor across the lake by our church, where they said the prisoners were. As we hoped to be gone only a couple of hours, we left Peter alone with a maid who can read very simple stories (we are without anyone and are hunting again for someone to read to Peter), and started with Nika Tolstoi, who was to stay by the motor while we went ashore.
On arriving, we found a mistake had been made and that the prisoners were in a village five versts inland. One we found in the village indicated, but were told that the other was several versts farther, and we went on.
In the village, they told us he was in the fields; then they said he was in the woods, and a girl volunteered to go for him. So we sat down on a doorstep and rested.
Finally, getting our two Germans, we started for the long walk back in the twilight. They have been in Russia two weeks and speak only German.
One is a barber, the other a Berlin shopkeeper. Poor recommendations for farm work!
Oka and I had a lot of fun over our position — escorts for two prisoners!
It was after eleven at night when we reached home, and, of course, found Peter worried, as these days one never knows what may happen.
Early this morning I watched our Berlin shopkeeper using ‘moral suasion’ to make a horse go. It seems he had never had reins in his hands, and the horse, of course, was quick to discover it and struck work.
The poor fellow tried patting and coaxing in German, which the horse did not understand. Even pushing and pulling. He not only did not beat him, but, whenever he got up courage enough to strike him with the reins, he carefully patted the spot he had hurt! It was one of the funniest sights I ever saw, and I stood and laughed unseen for some time before I went to his rescue — the big, spectacled, helpless fellow!
Alec has been promoted and has very responsible and hard work. The pay is better, so he can get on, he writes. Before, with all his care (for he is a most unselfish, economical fellow), he could not make ends meet, even with but one meal a day.
I keep sending him rye-rusks to have with his tea, evenings and mornings. He gets bread and soup at mid-day. In cities it is worse than in the country, where so far we have enough rye flour and dairy produce. Everything is given by cards: two pounds of cereal and fifty of wheat flour are given per month, to children under five, and to invalids.
This month, when I went with a physician’s certificate to get the above for Peter, I was refused, as ‘half the country come with certificates,’ though they knew me personally and were aware of Peter’s state. In every way the present ‘ freedom and equality ’ is far more one-sided than ever. The only classes that have no protection, and that no one raises a voice to justify, are landowners and officers. Mill-hands and daylaborers are demanding from twenty to thirty roubles, even more, a day, and eight hours’ work, and Sunday and one other day off. Officers who have to dress well and are in hourly danger and peril get, in George’s position, two hundred roubles a month. We are all in rags, for not a yard of material can we get. I had put off needed replenishing till cheaper times, and now can get nothing.
We heard that shoes had come to Ostashkov, but by the time we went, every pair was sold. Those costing in times of peace ten to twelve roubles selling for 160 roubles! Eggs that at this season should be 17 kopecks for ten are now two and a half and three roubles. Everything in proportion, except when we wish to sell.
In many places the peasants won’t let the squires sell an egg, or a pound of butter. Anarchy reigns everywhere, and I do not see where help can come from for years. All our class would leave if they could, but they cannot. They are not allowed to take money with them nor transfer abroad their capital.
Peter keeps up the greatest interest in everything, but is heart-broken. He will have the papers read to him, though he often sobs when we read.
Day after to-morrow I am going to town, to try to get some help from our committee in the way of giving us legal prices, etc., but do not hope for much. Anyway I won’t give in lying down. I shall keep on my feet as long as I can. It must be much easier to fall fighting than eating out one’s heart.
I can stand all our woes if only the army would again be what it was, and bring this war to the glorious end we might have seen had not the army got out of hand.
Sometimes I feel as if I must go myself and join the brave women regiments; but even if I were free, they would say I was too old, hut I am not! Was there ever a time when the world was so full of heartache? Millions of hearts bursting! Truly the last days must be at hand.
October 5, 1917
I have not had a word from you for many months; but the post is now celebrating in the universal anarchy, and letters, if they come at all, are long in doing so. I do not know if you have received the many cards and several letters I have sent since the changes here. Anyway I write again, to try to get a word through while I can; for later, when ‘Tommy comes marching home,’ our real personal troubles will begin.
Just here I was called by a peasant, who said there was a gathering in a near village and they asked me to be present. I at once drove there and found five villages assembled. The old people are very polite, but the young ones and all soldiers quite ignored me. They said they were waiting for an instructor. who would come and explain. We waited over an hour, and then saw a tall young soldier with the ribbon of St. George (given only for personal bravery in battle) in his buttonhole. He greeted the peasants, giving me a cold stare, and proceeded to explain that the next day all were to gather to vote for our new parish zemnestra; that is, to take the place of the former form of government and of the present committees, etc. There should be four lists of candidates, — peasants, clergy, shop-keepers, etc., and nobles, — but in our parish only two lists are given — peasants and mixed. In the latter the clergy dominate, ‘and of course you don’t wish to vote for the clergy.’ ‘No, no, we have had enough of them. We are mad to vote for abolishing them,’ etc. He explained that everyone must vote for the peasant list—simply write down No. 4, or make four crosses.
The next day I drove to the third village from here, where in the schoolhouse was the place appointed, at nine o’clock. Counting on the tardiness of the people, I arrived at ten, and waited till 11.30, when they began to gather. Outwardly everyone was very polite, even addressing me as ‘Your Excellency,’ and never once as ‘Comrade,’ though all titles are officially demolished.
When formalities began, the secretary, a red-headed man with an inimitable drawl, began rolling a cigarette, first turning to me and asking my permission to smoke. Knowing the price of tobacco and the difficulty in getting it at all, I laughed and said, ‘Certainly, smoke while you can.’ As soon as he began to puff, several voices raised a protest against smoking during the meeting; but my old red-hair drawled, ‘Her Excellency gives her permission and I don’t want any remarks from you.’ And in spite of further caustic criticism he stuck to his cigarette.
As I came home, I kept thinking of the complex character of the seemingly simple peasant. Everyone of those today polite, smiling neighbors, who are threatening us, have been the means of our ruin; for Bortniki is ruined. Their whole herd this moment, as I write, are in our fields, destroying our next year’s rye and clover. They openly say they will rifle our granaries and house. Our timber, which is sold, and we had hoped would have been out during the summer, and payment made every two weeks, is still standing, the buyers being afraid to work; so we cannot get a cent that way.
The absolute anarchy and lawlessness is awful. One of Oka’s classmates was here this summer. His father, an admiral, a very genial, kindly chief, loved by all, was brutally murdered in his bed, simply because he was an officer. His ears and nose were cut off, and eyes gauged out, while alive. I could tell you many such instances, the victims of which we knew personally. This is my great dread for our boys; if it is God’s will that they be killed in battle doing their duty, it is one thing; but to be butchered would be worse to bear.
My brother-in-law Neil has just had his house cleared of silver and all valuables, in a way reminding one of the times of Robin Hood. He was alone in the house, reading his paper, late one afternoon, and did not hear that seven horsemen rode up to the door and were in the room. As he looked up, the leader came forward, saying, ‘Are you Mr. Ponafidine? Charmed to make your acquaintance. Don’t get excited, I beg of you; we can pass a pleasant half hour together while my lads relieve your house of all valuables. I see you have a piano; that is good, we won’t be dull.’ And drawing up an arm-chair, he seated himself beside poor Neil, who, I fancy, was hardly in a state to enjoy the music, though he says it was brilliant. I forgot to say that they were all armed. After a time, which Neil estimates as ‘ hours,’ the other men came back, saying that ‘all was done.’ The leader rose to go, and then reseating himself, said, ‘I’ll play you a farewell march’; at the end of which, he shook hands very cordially and left. The same thing was done in three adjoining estates.
Yesterday I heard there was lentil flour in our cooperative shop, and at once went there. They give us five pounds on each member’s book. I know how to cook lentils, but we never saw the flour and I am experimenting. We had a kind of gruel of it last night which, though not very palatable, must be nourishing and that is all we look for these days. Fish and rye bread are all we have in abundance. Potatoes failed all about us. Few got back the seed. Cabbage the same. I have about two bushels each of beets and carrots, and a keg of sour cabbage — my whole vegetable supply for the winter. Potatoes I give out by weight. If we are not molested, we won’t starve; but I have no hope of being able to keep what we have, or our few cows. So far we have milk and butter for ourselves, but none to sell. Nothing cuts me so much as the destruction of the dairy. I worked so hard to get it as near perfect as possible, and could support the family now had I back my cows. Butter, that was sold before the war for fifteen to sixteen roubles a pood, I could now sell for 220 roubles.
Poor George suffers so, for he hears seldom from us and from Vera, and knows of our dangers. Alec hears more regularly from us. He is in many respects better off than George, but suffers more from want of food. One pound of rye bread a day, soup at noon, tea without sugar mostly, no milk or butter. Oka is in Petrograd. We are waiting to hear his fate.
I am not hiding anything, as we cannot move Peter. I think the best hope of saving his life is to give up everything, asking them to spare him. I have been putting up curtains, etc. and getting the house ready for winter as usual. I had no heart for it, but decided it was best — better for us and though Peter can’t see, I like to have him feel that all is neat and pretty around him, and he asks to know just how each room looks. Also, I don’t want the servants to think we anticipate anything. It is so hard now with the people. I am losing things steadily, linen, etc.; my overshoes taken and, I know, by my maid, who has lived with me for years; and overshoes are not to be had for money now. One cannot keep everything locked. I think I must have fighting blood in my veins, for I feel like fighting for our rights; and when the time comes, I feel I must go down, revolver in hand; but I keep trying to prepare myself to be patient and tactful for Peter’s sake, to try to save him. One comfort is that, if the worst comes, his heart won’t endure protracted suffering, and it will soon be over.
The boys have your address, and I have told them if they survive us, to let you know if anything happens to me. I write you all this so that, if the letter gets through, you will know how we are situated, and if the crash comes, will understand as much as I can write. I also want to tell you, dear Carrie, how much I love you and how much your and Mell’s love has been and is to me. Peter is very brave. We both send you and all your family our best love, and may God bless you for all you have been to us! Perhaps better days will come. I wonder will you receive this!
November 2, 1917
I have written you a number of cards and letters, but though I thanked you in words, you do not know how we thank you for the help you sent, for it is what we are living on, and Peter’s pension; but that, as prices now go, is a very tiny drop in the bucket. I wrote you we had (in June) sold a part of the woods, receiving 10,000 roubles as guaranty money; but a clause in the contract makes us obliged in one month’s time to return the money if timber operations are stopped; so we have placed the money in the bank and, however great our need, dare not touch it.
We have sent Oka off on a delicate and dangerous mission. Feeling that there is little hope of escaping looting, we must try to get our silver in a place of comparative safety. You remember our beautiful Persian service; then your Father and Mother Clement’s weddinggifts to us; a service for twelve given us on our silver wedding anniversary by Peter’s brothers and sisters; also all that I have in the way of jewelry, we have sent to Moscow, to be stored in the government bank. One of our nephews, a young navy officer who has been visiting us, went with Oka, so that they could by turns keep watch all the time. It is costing us a lot to do it, but we feel it is a good investment if successful.
Then we are trying to hide as we can some flour and the cereals we have, oatmeal and buckwheat, our main support now, for bread-riots must soon begin, and if we can save a little, it is something. I never could have imagined such a state as our great country is in. Sending Oka to Moscow, we supplied him with rye bread, oat-cakes, and butter. He just returned from Petrograd, where he had to go; and he and his classmate lived in the latter’s house, empty, the family being on three estates. The boys lived for the five days on the bread and cold meat I gave them, for they could get nothing in Petrograd except at impossible prices in restaurants.
In Ostashkov most of the shops are closed, and the remainder have a big display of empty shelves, and to save strength and time, hang out notices on the doors and windows: ‘We have no buttons, no yeast, no wool, no manufactured goods,’ etc., etc. Of course, all groceries, flour, etc., you get by cards; five pounds of flour a month, one of sugar, and sometimes tea and matches. Cereals, rice, macaroni, candles, we have not seen for over a year; and we, who have our own rye flour so far, get no white flour, of course. Prices are fabulous. Rye flour that was 1 rouble 20 kopecks a pood is 45, butter from 19 to 250. Shoes (if one is lucky enough to find any), that used to cost 12 to 15 roubles, are 150 to 200. Not a yard of any stuff can we get, and it takes the greatest ingenuity to dress ourselves and the seven prisoners. For instance, I am footing winter socks for them with some light felt Caucasian hats I had, and we ‘ patch’ instead of ‘ darn’ stockings, etc.
If we could look upon the war as the limit of our troubles! But it will be the beginning of the end, when they come home to take the land and divide the spoil. If you only knew what the boys are enduring! I look upon the Russian officer with the deepest admiration and sympathy. Living on the meagrest pay, they are, as the papers constantly say, the only class in Russia that has not struck for higher pay. They face enemies on all sides; for the German agents have succeeded in filling the soldiers with hatred for, and distrust of, their officers, and the lives of the latter are a hell. I wake nights with a hard physical heartache, thinking of George and Alec. Poor little Vera is going bravely through these days, anxious every day for George and for us here and her own approaching confinement. Still, she is safer than she could be here, and is with her own family. I write to George four times a week, and he has been six weeks at a time without word of us, and when he knows our danger. I never write the boys any but cheerful letters, and keep back all I can; but they read the newspapers and understand what is going on.
A few nights ago, three soldiers came here and said they were going to search our house. The Intendant could do nothing with them, and they began to be threatening; so Oka and I went out to face them. Mrs. Roper used to say that Oka was the most dignified creature that she ever knew. Well, the dignity with which he spoke to them actually cowed them, and it ended in his giving each a cigarette, and they wished us good-night and went off quite peacefully. I was so amused that I forgot all possible danger and chuckled.
The peasants in our county raised a very large sum of money, and sent agents south to try to get several carloads of flour, as our crops in this part of the country were almost complete failures and few have bread beyond November, and the five pounds a month they get on the card-system is, of course, nothing. This morning I had a talk with one of those who had gone to make the purchase. He had been as far south as Kazan, and found rye, but could not get permission to take it out of the government of Kazan; and so they returned empty -handed. This was our last hope, for now famine will stare us in the face.
All the peasants are well supplied with money. The war has so raised the price cf labor that the peasants and working class get far more than for brain-work. Factory hands, even street-sweepers, are demanding and getting anywhere from 200 roubles a month and up; while officers get 175 or 200, as Alec has. The artificially cultivated (on German money) class-hatred is our greatest menace. The most constantly repeated phrase is, ‘If we kill off all the bourgeoise, we shall have peace, and bread, and then we can ourselves govern the country.’ I have talked calmly and quietly with soldiers, who say it must be done. Even the ‘bourgeoise’ —landowners, capitalists, even priests, who are for some reason included — who have been kind cannot be permitted to live. ‘We must root them all out, even children knee-high.’
In the far east and in the Caucasus, it is not so bad as it is here. I cannot believe we shall see better days for a long time, and the best we can hope for is to escape with our lives, but, of course, quite ruined.
I wish I could write more freely. I think of you so often and so tenderly. Friends are the greatest comfort these days, and the knowledge that there are those who love us and think of us even at a distance is an immense help. How Peter keeps up as he does is a wonder. We, who are well are quite unstrung. It has been said, and I think with considerable truth, that there is not a perfectly normal person in the country. Nerves are strained, and no one, even the richest, gets the accustomed nourishment. Personally, I feel the absence of sugar most. We always, in the East, had so much in the form of fruit, that one’s organism evidently demands it, for I have such a craving for something sweet — anything. Our apples were stolen while green, or we should have had a good supply for the winter; but that is a minor trouble.
This is such a long letter. I fear it may not get through, but our censor is too busy these days to go through letters and I never write anything about the war.
BORTNIKI, November 6, 1917
I want to write you of the last two days. It will give you some idea of the volcano upon which we live. Last evening two soldiers were here until late. They came to inform us that our woods are no longer ours: that, if we need to cut a tree, we must get permission and prove that we need it. In the meantime they brought us a paper, authorizing peasants of one village only to cut 80 trees for timber and 85 cubes of wood. A cube now costs 300 roubles, so you can see how much we could get if allowed to sell; and this is only for one village!
Then this morning early I had to go on important business to the post. I hated going and leaving Peter without Oka, but had to do so. When I came back I found poor Peter trembling in every limb, and almost unable to speak until I doctored him, and the yard full of women with bags. It seems a report had been spread that we have been selling flour and sending it in boats by night. The peasants about are greatly excited, and went over to our local committee and warned them that they would loot us and burn us out.
The committee sent three members, three soldiers, and two soldiers from our neighboring village to examine the charges. As soon as Peter was calm I went out to the barns where they were weighing our grain. I told them that I was deeply cut that such a false charge should be laid to us; that since the orders given us, we had faithfully kept from selling a pound; and they were at liberty to search the place as the people said we had hidden grain.
I myself went everywhere with them, showing them every place from attics to cellars, insisting on opening trunks, etc. When they went through our empty cellar and store-room, and saw the lack of everything, they were amazed.
After weighing all our provisions and calculating how much we would need (at three pounds of cereals a day for 22 persons and one pound of bread a day), they declared we could spare nothing; but the women raised such a terrible row and were so menacing, that the whole delegation came in to consult with us.
They had begun by being very reserved, if not hostile, in their bearing toward us. The leader said to me when he had gone through a part of the buildings, ‘I almost believe you speak the truth!’ At the last he stood up for me bravely, and privately advised me to try and send away what valuables we have, as he doubted if we could escape looting at the least. It was finally decided to take 12 poods to the next village, and there have it decided who was in need; for many who came to-day have bread.
When the women were told that 12 poods would be given them now, their spokeswoman said, ‘I tell you now, in the presence of the lady, when this flour is gone we will come to her again and ask her to give her supply willingly. If she does, we won’t touch her; but if she does not do it willingly, we will take it and kill them all, and burn down the whole place.’ In vain the men argued, explaining that, even if hunger drove them to take food, it would not justify them in murdering and burning, nor would it give them bread. Nothing would move them.
The delegation came back to me and said, ‘What will you do?’
I replied: ‘As you represent our authority and government, it is my place to put the question to you, and ask you what we can do.’
They all laughed and shrugged their shoulders. When the committee left us, in a very friendly spirit, it was with little comfort and with no encouragement.
It is now seven o’clock in the evening; all is quiet, Peter is undressed, and his old man is reading to him the papers, which are full of accounts of horrors; yet he will read every word.
We shall have supper in a few moments, and I am ready for it, as I have had nothing since my morning coffee, as I could not eat my dinner when they were here. Would you like to know our war menu? We had for dinner a gruel of oat flour and a soufflé of squash. Tonight we have tea, and potatoes boiled in milk.
Did I write you that, after being without anyone all summer nearly, we found a most eccentric old bachelor, a retired colonel, a tramp by nature, and ‘a jack-of-all-trades and master of none’—a queer, interesting character, a friend of brother K’s. He has been with us for six weeks, but is running away, partly because he cannot stand it without white bread and tobacco, and partly because he is afraid here; so he is going to the Caucasus. If Oka is here this winter, I won’t need anyone so much, for Oka can write; but he won’t have time for reading, as he must study. We read to Peter all the time, to keep his mind occupied.
We are being overrun with wolves, and a seventeen-year-old girl was eaten near Pakrowsky. I had a letter from George yesterday, dated ten days ago, saying he was ‘alive and well.’ In his last seven days in the reserve, he had shot a wild boar and a wild goat in addition to small game. It is not only an immense help in their very meagre mess, but the sport is the one thing he has to take him out of himself and his surroundings
We had a telegram that Oka had arrived safely in Moscow with the silver, and we expect him home to-morrow.
Bread-riots one can pardon, for to see one’s children without bread can easily upset all one’s morals as to rights of personal property, etc. We have now, according to this month’s report, 770,000 in the government of Twer who have no bread and are dependent upon the miserable pittance of five pounds a month. About us there are many such; and what aggravates the case is the almost failure of our potato and vegetable crops. If we were just ourselves, I would risk sharing our last pound; but we are 22 souls in Bortniki, among them refugees and prisoners who must be fed; and we are on such short rations, as it is, that it goes to my heart. They often go out to work lazily, and say they are so ‘empty.’ It seems cruel when a woman comes and begs me for ‘only three pounds for the children.’ I would gladly give it, but dare not. Even the soldiers to-day warned me not to, for if we give to one we shall immediately have so many that our whole supply won’t go around, and we shall be accused of partiality, with bad results; so one does not know what to do.
I must finish this, to go to-morrow. I drove to the steamer to-day to meet Oka, but he did not come. I go about as usual, quite alone, driving or walking, and so far have had no trouble. To-day one of the women who screamed the loudest at me yesterday, brought her sick child to me, with many low bows and sweet words, as they know so well how to use them, when they ask for a favor. I did what I could for the baby, and neither of us alluded to the past. Peter slept well last night, though he was so excited yesterday; but it is only with bromide that he can sleep.
For some time I have been in the habit of going out at dusk and making the rounds of all our hay-barns in the fields; but now I am a little afraid of the wolves, going alone. When Oka is back, we can go together. It is a comfort in one way when the boys are here, and yet I am relieved when they are not, for I am afraid of their resenting bad treatment of us and only perishing themselves without helping us, especially George. He would never stand calmly by and hear what they say to us, though he bears worse for himself.
BORTNIKI, November 18, 1917
Since my last to you, great events have taken place. How great and of what shadings we know not, for our last newspaper was of October 26 (old style) and to-day is November 4. The telegraph is not working, and we only get many conflicting rumors of great bloodshed in Petrograd and Moscow; and Alec and Oka are there. Oka telegraphed that he would leave Moscow a week ago to-day. The same day, we hear, civil war broke out in Moscow, and no trains leave. Eight days in succession I drove to the steamer to meet Oka, and then gave it up. The first day I did not go, George came unexpectedly, via Kiev. You could imagine what it was to see him; and now, when I lie awake nights, it is such a comfort to feel he is sleeping over my head, and not somewhere in cold, wet trenches and perhaps lying stark and still ‘somewhere in Austria.’
He came unexpectedly to Kiev the evening of the day his little girl was born. The baby, though small, is well and strong. George seems most of all impressed with its fingerand toe-nails and that ‘it isn’t as disgusting as small babies generally are.’ He divides his time between us, poor fellow; but so much of his meagre leave is swallowed up by the long journey, that it only gives him nine days with each of us. We appreciate so much his coming, and Vera wishing him to, though I know it was very hard for both of them. With events rushing as they are, we feel that we must profit by every moment together. If I leave the room, George asks me as he used to when small, ‘Mamma, are you coming back soon?’ It seems as if I cannot let him go again!
We are still in uncertainty. Great fighting is going on in Moscow, and no trains leave. How it fares with Oka we do not know.
Alec got a few lines to us. He was alive nine days ago, but under fire. In the meantime, famine is approaching, for no food-supplies are coming in. In many of our villages there is flour only for two weeks. If you could see how we spend our evenings! In the fluegel we have cut a trap-door to the shallow cellar under the floor, and in pitch darkness George and I carry things down there. We have put there clothing, copper utensils, albums (at Peter’s special request), extra samovars, etc. The fluegel, being brick, won’t burn so easily, and perhaps we can save something.
One of the most cynical episodes of these dark days is the placard just over the bridge in Finland, where some thirty officers were drowned, prodded under water with bayonets when they rose to the surface of the river. The placard reads, ‘Swimming-school for officers’!! Are comments needed? Do you wonder that wives and mothers of officers find the nights very long?
It is a moment that tries one’s faith. Why does God allow such horrors as the world has lived through the past four years? I feel so frozen, I cannot get any comfort. Strange to say, I feel no personal fear. It is not bravery, I think, but callousness. The days pass with less strain. It is the nights, and I am getting worn out for want of sleep.
Snow has fallen, and soon we shall be cut off for a time from the city. George insists on my having everything at hand to leave; but where can one go? No one is allowed to leave the country with money, and Peter cannot be taken far, anyway. The whole country lives in a nervous, waiting, expectant frame of mind, that makes all minor interests and troubles forgotten. The one impulse that grows and deepens is the class hatred, fostered and fed by the clever Germans.
BORTNIKI, November 24, 1917
I imagine you have known through the Associated Press more of what has been going on in our poor tortured country than we have. For ten days we have been without post and telegrams, but rumors, of course, came through of very alarming character, and Alec was in Petrograd and Oka in Moscow! You can realize how anxious we were. Here, too, the people were more and more nervous, sullen and menacing.
It was on one of our worst days that George walked in, and we felt that God had not quite forsaken us. He was gaunt, thin, but of good courage. The day before he left, as unexpectedly, Alec came in, looking like Lazarus raised from the dead! He had lived through the horrors of arrest, nearly been lynched, as so many of our poor officers have been. His soldiers and chauffeurs stood up for him, and he had to order them to keep from violence. It is a long and complicated story, and that he was liberated was a marvel.
He said the prospect of execution lost all its horror in the face of lynching. His colonel told him, when he was released, that he better go home for a time.
We saw dear George off yesterday, and to-day Oka came, having been through real war. Trench cannonade in Moscow turned the whole city into a war camp. Oka had his turn in night sentinel work. He tried to leave when it first began, but the cabby took him from street to street, where they were turned back. He dared not try to get through on foot, as he would have lost his money. He placed our silver in the government treasury, on the eve of the day when all deposits were stopped for want of room. We feel very thankful to God that all our boys are safe in spite of the risks they have been in.
The political outlook is very dark but still worse is the spectre of famine. Some of our neighbors have bought a little flour for 43 roubles a pood (normal price 70 to 80 kopecks!) in a neighboring state, smuggling it over the border, for selling grain from one state to another is forbidden. If help does not come soon from the United States or somewhere, I see nothing but death before us all. Even if they don’t rob us we cannot hold out longer than the last of April. Those who have no flour get it from the government’s supply (four pounds a month just now here), as there is no legitimate private sale of flour or grain. In Petrograd Alec, for a long time, has lived on 3/4 of a pound of bread for two days! At noon, soup of such old salt beef that they put mustard and pepper in to hide the smell! Aside from soup they have a mush of some cereal, and the cereal again for supper; of course, without milk, butter or sugar. And this is the officers’ mess!
The memory of the two famines we lived through in Urumia haunt me still, and when I think of seeing the same things here, it makes me shudder. It seems sometimes as if God had cast us off, or that the last days are at hand when ‘the living shall envy the dead.’ What the next days will bring forth, none can tell. This coup d’état has been the final push, plunging us into anarchy.
Our new commander-in-chief, an ensign(!), says in an order of the day that he will ‘ bring the country to peace over the dead body of the officers,’ as they are trying to persuade the soldiers to be true to the provisional government.
We pray for a strong united government, of whatever party it may be, before the demobilization of our millions, who will come back like locusts. George saw something of an army in retreat, and says he will never forget it. The excesses were very great, and we must expect the same thing when they come back if there is not a stronger hand at home than we now have. The whole country is tired of this reign of terror and lawlessness.
We managed to sell our bull the other day; but the butcher was mobbed, and for a while it looked as though he would lose the meat. The peasants were very abusive and menacing toward me, saying that everything belongs to them now. We sold the bull at half-price as meat goes, and one-quarter of what I could have received formerly at any stud farm.
Since writing, the curtain has fallen on what I think is next to the last act in the agrarian drama.
Early one morning, our local committee and two witnesses from the village nearest us came, announcing that they had heard I had sold a bull, a cow, and three horses, and asked on what grounds I had done so. I told them we had not enough fodder for the winter; also, the cow was the Tolstois’.
They announced that we had no right to sell anything, and showed us a paper, fruit of the last coup d’état, saying that the estate passes into the hands of the committee. The peasants are ordered to watch us, to see that nothing is taken out of the estate; and they proceeded to write down all our property.
We had been for two days negotiating the sale of a young blood-mare that I had brought up and broken myself. She followed me like a dog, even into the woods and fields, never going beyond my voice. She is a very fast trotter, and we hoped to sell her well before we were officially forbidden to do so.
While I went out with these people with the books to verify everything, — live stock, farm implements, etc., — the buyer came in the back door to Oka, and said he would get the mare off if we wished. It was our last chance of raising a cent on the place, and Peter and Oka sold her for 750 roubles, the man taking advantage of our position.
When we went to the stables and saw Mushka’s stall empty, I at once suspected what had happened, but did not know what to say. The first thing, they asked to see her, for she is famous round here. I told them I did not know where she was; that yesterday my husband had almost made a bargain, and perhaps she had been sold. They made a good deal of trouble, but we talked them down.
All day the boys and I worked with them and had to sit at dinner and entertain them! They wrote down even our personal effects, to the last table, chair, and bed, which by the laws of Russia are not liable to be seized, even for debt. Then we were made to sign a paper that we would not sell, or take out of the place, a thing. If we leave to-morrow, we cannot take a pillow or quilt! We cannot kill a chicken or calf for our own use, without going to the committee for leave. When we told them that we may have to diminish still more for want of fodder, they said they would not permit it, but would force us to buy hay. When I said we could not afford it, they smiled and said they would make us find the means. They reproached us very much for having sold horses last year; but we told them we were forced to do it.
When they left in the evening, we were all quite crushed. We are in the position of unpaid intendants who bear the expenses, and of debtors whose property has been seized, and of criminals who are deprived of all rights. We are surrounded by spies, for the woods are teeming with peasants, cutting trees as they wish, and each one has a right to stop and control our work and ask what I have in the sleigh, etc. One cannot stay in the house and get no air, and yet to go out is pain. The woods we sold are being rapidly cut, but the money each two weeks, as we verify material hauled, goes to the committee! They were persuaded to leave us the 10,000 roubles guaranty money we had received, and we are hoping to hold on to it for worse days. One never hears talk of the war or politics, only bread, bread, bread! To-day a pood of flour is 60 roubles.
As the lake freezes and the high passes, I fear that we shall be eaten out of house and home. Yesterday eleven soldiers passed and demanded dinner. Today I fed three, and as yet few can pass, as (he ice is not strong. Yesterday was Peter’s sixth-ninth birthday.