The Skhodka and the Tcheka

I

THE autumn of 1917 began with a cloudy sky and signs of gathering storms in the political world, and of fresh causes of anxiety to us. When the Bolshevist revolution broke out, one of our sons was an officer in the Imperial Army, stationed just then in Petrograd. Our youngest son had gone to Moscow, to take our silver and jewelry there; for, with the disorganization in the army and the threatening advance of the Germans on our railway lines, we felt that at any time we might get into the sphere of action, or at least be raided by the disorderly elements which were showing themselves.

For two weeks we suffered great anxiety for the fate of our sons. There were no newspapers, no telegrams could be sent, and the rumors that were flying about represented the streets of Moscow and Petrograd as flowing with blood, and it was said that all old officers were massacred. Though we knew there must be much exaggeration, there was still much cause for worry.

To our great relief, the eldest arrived one day, but changed, I think for life, by what he had seen and experienced. He escaped with his life, thanks to the men in his own company. Up to the time we left Russia, he had to remain in the Red Army, as did all others of his class, whose lives were spared. The Bolsheviki, all through, have shown a profound knowledge of human nature. How to deal with each class, to arouse enthusiasm, or terror, as their policy in each case may dictate. For the officers of the old régime whom they wished to keep in their service, they invented a measure diabolical in its cleverness. Each officer was made to sign a paper stating that, in case of his joining the Whites, or disappearing, his parents would be held responsible; and, knowing full well the significance of these words, however fearless they might be personally, none of the officers had the courage to leave those dear to them.

Our youngest son had sent us a telegram from Moscow the day before the revolution, saying that he was leaving for home that night; and for two long weeks we heard nothing of him, until one day he too walked in, decidedly the worse for wear.

My eldest son was at home on leave off and on, but the youngest was in Petrograd most of the winter. The Lyceum, where he was a senior, was closed, the buildings being used as hospitals; but his class was permitted to graduate. The professors guided their studies and held the final examinations in private houses. So my husband and I were very much of the time alone. This same winter an event took place — one of many that made us realize how much we personally had to be thankful for.

At the end of the lake, some three or four miles from us, was the estate of my husband’s sister, the Princess Schakhoffskoy, who lived in Petrograd during this time, suffering great privation. It was never considered safe for her to return and try to save anything on the estate or in the house; but her husband’s brother had a place adjoining her land, and kept an eye on her property. From the beginning of the revolution he had suffered much indignity on account of his title, but his property had not, as yet, been even controlled. On Christmas Day, my husband asked me to go to see the Prince, as he was rather infirm, and also to take him a secret letter from his sister, sent to our care.

I drove the few miles across the lake on the ice, and found the Prince sitting down to a tea-table that was already very different from ours, bearing such luxuries as jam and white biscuits, which we had supposed to be things of the past. As we sat chatting over our tea, a maid announced that three soldiers wished to see the Prince. Excusing himself, he went out, but soon returned, half-angry and half-amused, and told me that a soldier of the adjoining village and two blue-jackets from a village a little farther on, came to ask why I was there. They were not satisfied with his telling them that it was not the first time I had been there, that my husband was his cousin as well as connected by marriage, and that I had come knowing that he had been sick, and to wish him a Merry Christmas. They insisted that I had come at his request, to take off and hide his valuables, and they threatened him and me with dire punishment if it was found that I had carried anything back with me. Neither of us regarded the matter very seriously, and I left without forebodings. The next morning, very early, we were surprised to see our cousin drive up to our door. He asked if we would take him in as he had lost everything. I took him at once to my husband’s room and brought him something to eat, while he told us his story.

It seems that, as I drove through the village on my way back the day before, the soldiers had shouted to me to stop; but I had not heard the voices, as it was a very stormy, windy day, and my horse was a fast trotter. They claimed that ‘the more they called, the faster I went, evidently wishing to escape with something.’ Taking this as a startingpoint, they succeeded in arousing the whole village. Now every person in that village, if taken separately, was friendly to the Prince, who had always been good to the peasants. Indeed, he had been a sort of father and counselor, to whom they went in every trouble. But here were a few hotheaded youths, with revolutionary arguments at the tips of eloquent tongues, who succeeded in getting the whole village, and soon a second one, to join in an attack on the Prince. They gave him only a short time to gather a few belongings and changes of clothing, such as he could carry in his hands, and turned him out. He, like everyone else, had hidden money and valuables in various places in the house; but in the excitement of the moment, he could not remember where, and so saved next to nothing. After much talking, he persuaded them to let him have one of his own horses with which to drive to a neighbor’s, where he spent the night, and came on to us the next day.

The peasants had immediately looted his house and that of my sister-in-law. Later they burned the house down, and when we left Russia, of the Schakhoffskoys’ house and estate nothing was left but ruins. Rare plants and trees even were torn up; the library was taken and the books dumped in the street for anyone who cared for them to pick up, and they went mostly for smoking, if the pages were of thin paper. Large mirrors, too high to enter the houses in the villages, were sawed in two. One such was placed in an open shed pending the operation; and the herd coming home in the evening, a ram caught sight of a handsome rival, and immediately stopped to investigate. Running back a few steps, with lowered horns he charged the intruder — and shattered the mirror.

Our cousin did not feel that, he was safe with us, so went on to Tver the same day, where he remained some months, returning finally to the country in the summer, but to an adjoining county. Here he was one day falsely accused of setting the peasants against Bolshevist military service, and was arrested on a Thursday, with the assurance that he would be tried Monday morning. Early Sunday morning he and seven others, one of whom was a priest who had publicly prayed for the Tsar, were led out, half-dressed, to be executed without trial. The priest received the confessions of his companions and absolved them. They were all shot down, the Prince to the last moment standing by his principles and loudly denouncing the Bolsheviki.

II

But I have anticipated, in following out this case to the end, and we must go back.

Shortly after this event, the village immediately adjoining our estate had a secret meeting, at which it was decided to ’loot the estate and house, and turn the Ponafidine family out of Bortniki forever.’ The document bearing this clause was signed by every householder but four. This resolution was taken to the other villages, for their endorsement and participation.

I think that this movement was largely due to the speeches made in that village by the Commissar of Agriculture, as described in a former article.

Our Volost militiaman, who took the place of the old police, was one who, from his youth, had spent the summers in Kronstadt as a boatman, but the winters at home, in a village near us. All the education he had received was in the village school, when it was held, as it was for many years, in a building furnished by my husband, together with heating and lighting. This man was very loyal to us. He not only saved us in this instance, but, at the expense of much personal persecution, he stood by us in every crisis through the years that followed, and whatever success we had in hiding and saving anything was due to his help. We always knew that, day or night, we had a faithful friend who would come at our call.

Learning of this plot against us, he went to our parish committee and told them that, if this resolution was to be carried out, it would be an everlasting disgrace to our parish; that all the Ponafidine property, when divided among so many villages, would mean so little for each individual, that it would not pay for the stigma that would be cast upon them. The Volost committee immediately sent the militiaman with seven armed men; among the latter was the president of the committee himself. Sitting by the bedside of my husband, I saw, with a thrill of horror, one of my sons passing the window, surrounded by a group of armed men. My heart sank; his life was always hanging by a thread, as he was an ex-officer of the Tsarist régime, and I thought that this time the thread had snapped. A moment later, I saw him laugh, and realized, with a gasp of relief, that these men could not be enemies.

Assuring my blind husband that the steps he would soon hear in the house were those of friends, I went to the door to meet them. They told me the story, and said that they would spend the night with us to protect us, and that they had already sent to summon a Skhodka of all the five villages nearest us.

I put the omnipresent samovar on to boil, and after tea, they went to the village to attend the Skhodka, and I set to preparing dinner for them all, as best I could with our meagre supplies.

About two o’clock in the morning, they returned, very much excited, and heated from the long and violent meeting, — where lungs count for more than logic, — and between bites of supper, they told us the result of the meeting, often jumping up and walking about in their excitement. They said that the Skhodka was very unsatisfactory,and so violent that the president of the committee had been obliged to dismiss it and to give directions for having a general parish council held at the Volost headquarters in two days, with delegates from each village. Until the result of that meeting could be known, he promised to have a well-armed company of our friends stay with us.

The Volost council was duly held and passed a resolution to the effect that we were not to be molested in any way until the time came when the fate of our estate and property, along with those of all others around, should be officially decided by the central committee. The resolution ended by saying that, if these orders were disobeyed, the offenders were to be ‘drowned in the ice-holes of the lake.’

After the delegates returned, a deputation came to us from the village where the whole trouble had originated. I wish I could portray that scene. About a dozen peasants stood in our large living-room, looking as sheepish as boys caught stealing their neighbor’s apples. My sons and I faced them, and our guard, including the Commissar, stood in the background. The spokesman began by dwelling on the good relations that had always existed between us, and regretting that certain young people, carried away by revolutionary propaganda, had got out of hand. But he denied that they, as a village, were against us, and claimed that the matter had been greatly exaggerated by the militiaman, and that we might be assured of their friendship, etc., etc.

The president of the Volost Committee listened to it all, and before we could answer, stepped up to the spokesman and said, —

‘So you as a village took no official action in regard to turning the Ponafidines out, after looting them?’

‘No, no we never wished it,’ they all answered.

‘Then what is this? Listen.’ And the president of the committee drew out a copy of the minutes of the first meeting, containing the famous clause, and also read off the signatures, pointing to each one of those present whose name was mentioned. ‘Is this true?’

They all stood there twirling their caps, and finally one stammered out, —

‘Everything in life is possible; perhaps we did do foolish things.’

It was such a flat childish explanation that we all smiled. After a few friendly words, they filed out, and we had no more trouble with them.

Control visits, but usually goodnatured ones, still took place, and they, more than anything else, showed us what children these were, playing at governing the country during those first years. I remember one such visitation, to search our house for ‘alcohol, arms, and counter-revolutionary literature.’ The men went all through the place and house, and finally settled down by my husband’s bedside, to write the protocol. The chairman of the commission spent many perspiring minutes over it, but could produce nothing satisfactory, and one after another of the party attempted it with much sucking of their pencils. Finally, united efforts resulted in a remarkable document, which I think I can remember word for word. It was to the effect that ‘the undersigned, after carefully searching the estate and house of Citizen Ponafidine, for alcohol, arms, and counter-revolutionary literature, found nothing suspicious excepting agricultural implements’!

After signing this formal document, they all examined it carefully, to see if it could be improved upon; and at last someone suggested that they add the words, ‘Legally testified to that this copy is a correct one.'

‘That’s the way all official documents end,’ he explained. And the rest, awed by his superior knowledge, laboriously made that amendment to their protocol.

III

All that winter (of 1917-18) we continued directly under the peasants’ rule, seldom coming into contact with the city Bolsheviki. We had, however, to go to town occasionally on business; and during one such trip, my youngest son was witness of one of the many terrible sights of those years, which must always remain impressed upon his brain.

As he was passing through the streets of our little country town, his attention was arrested by an unusual scene. The president of the executive committee, on a velocipede, whip in hand, was chasing a Red Army man, who was running down the street as if for a championship. They were soon out of sight, and my son went on, rather amused, wondering what it all meant. On his way back, passing the square that is the busiest part of the city, he again saw those two, surrounded by a crowd of people. Someone was reading a document. Curious to know what was going on, my son went up and heard enough to realize that the paper being read was a statement declaring that the fleeing Red Army man was accused of stealing a suit of clothes from the Commissar of Agriculture, and that he was condemned to death. My son and everyone else in the square supposed that this was merely a preliminary trial, or, at the worst, that the man would be taken back to prison and then to the place of execution; so they all remained waiting to see what would happen next.

The young man was made to sign his own warrant, and then curtly told to turn round. He did so, and a man in the dress of a blue-jacket stepped up and, placing a revolver at the base of the accused man’s head, fired, killing him on the spot. The effect on all present — men, women, and even little children — was terrific. Not a word or a sound broke the stillness. The crowd simply melted away, while a cab drove up, into which the body was tumbled and all was over. My son came back to the inn where I was awaiting him, as white as a sheet with horror at the sight that he had involuntarily witnessed.

Toward the end of the summer of 1918, an abortive counter-revolutionary conspiracy was formed, with its headquarters on a little island opposite our town. It was discovered prematurely, and many arrests and executions followed, and hostages were taken from many county families.

Our two sons happened to go to the city at that time, on necessary business, and they were arrested there by the chief of the militia himself, accompanied by a number of Red Army men. No explanation was given them. They were carefully searched; all valuables were taken from them, and locked up, and a receipt was handed them. They were then ordered to be confined separately, and this fact troubled them more than anything else. The rooms to which they were taken were, in each case, so full as to make it impossible to find room on the bare floor to lie at length. There were not. seats enough, either, so most of the prisoners used either to stand during the day, or sit on the floor.

That, night they were pretty blue, being separated, and fearing the effect that the news of their arrest might have on their father. Late at night, a member of the Secret Service of the Tcheka went his rounds; and, to their astonishment, my sons found in him an old acquaintance. In fact, he had practically grown up on our place; his mother had been for many years our laundry-woman, and his father, of whom we were all very fond, in spite of one great failing, had been our waiter, when not drunk. Both his parents were always very devoted to us. This boy, for he was not more than seventeen, though occupying a responsible and very unsavory position, was as much amazed as my sons. He at once gave orders to have them placed in a room together, and promised to do all he could the next day for their liberation. We learned afterward that he kept his promise; for his testimony, more than anything else, probably convinced the Tcheka that our sons had not been implicated in the late conspiracy.

The hostess in the primitive little inn, where we always put up when in town, as did my husband’s parents before us, took the arrest of the boys greatly to heart, and ran all over the city to our friends for advice; and she gave them what was still more practical — bread and potatoes. She also wished to telegraph me; but our sons asked her not to do so, hoping that they might be released before the news reached us.

On the second day a man came to me who had happened to be at the same inn and had seen the arrest, and he told me all he knew, which was not much. I was quite in despair. My husband’s health was such that I had never left him for a night since the stroke that had caused his blindness in 1914. The state of his heart also was such that I feared the shock. On the other hand, I knew with what wonderful calmness and heroism he always met a crisis, and I felt that there was nothing to do but to tell him. He took the blow as I expected he would, and told me I must, go at once to the town and try to save our sons, and that he could get on quite well alone.

A schoolteacher near us was an old friend of ours, and I at once wrote, begging him to come and spend the night with my husband. I also sent to our friend, the militiaman, asking him if he would come and take me to the city, as the one steamer a day that passed us had already left, and I had no one on the estate whom I could trust to take me. The militiaman had just killed a steer for his winter supply of salt beef; and when my message reached him, he was beginning to skin the carcass. Laying down his knife, he said to his wife, ‘Go and find someone to help you. I cannot leave our lady in her trouble.’ And only washing his hands, without even waiting to change his clothes, he came to us at a run.

While he harnessed a horse, I got together some food-supplies, not knowing how long the prisoners might be kept, and prepared everything to leave my husband as comfortable as possible. His was by far the harder fate—to lie there in the darkness, imagining the worst; for he knew that some of the hostages taken in connection with the lately discovered plot had already been executed.

It seems that, soon after I left, a cousin came to visit us; and as my husband heard her carriage drive up, he was convinced that it was someone from the city, come to arrest us. When our cousin entered, she found him almost in a collapse, and, had she not possessed considerable medical knowledge, I doubt if she could have pulled him through the severe heart-attack he had. She stayed with him until I returned, and, had I known it, I should have had one worry the less to keep me awake that night.

In the meantime, we were driving swiftly to a village, from where we hoped to get a row-boat to take us across the lake, at a narrow point, the quickest means of reaching the town. This village, unfortunately, was that day celebrating its annual fête, and no one would go on a fête day for mere money. But when we arrived, not only the relatives on whom we had counted, but a number of other peasants whom I knew, on hearing of my trouble, said they would take me if no one else would.

I shall never forget that night’s row. The evening was so beautiful, that it seemed to mock my sorrow, and never did five miles seem so long. The militiaman and the rowers, all simple peasantfolk, showed their sympathy with exquisite tact, trying to keep up my courage without seeming to do so, and talking and telling stories, to attract my attention from the thoughts which they knew were torturing me.

It was quite dark when we reached the town, and we went to a little inn, where we learned that my sons were still awaiting trial, and that food had been sent them each day. That night I could do nothing but go and walk around their prison, wondering behind which of the barred windows my sons were lying.

Early in the morning, the militiaman managed, under the pretense of carrying them food, to get word to the boys that I was there. A little later I went to the prison, and, as I came up to where a number of guards and Red Army men were standing, one of them, a huge, burly fellow, stepped forward, and with profane words almost pushed me off the sidewalk, laughing loudly, but at the same time, he managed to whisper, ‘Meet me in the garden.’ I took a second look, and recognized him as a man who used to work for us; and taking the hint, walked rapidly away, followed by the laughter of the company.

Going to the little lakeside garden, the pride of our small town, I walked about until I saw my friend sauntering around at the opposite side. He passed me several times before he managed to slip a note into my hand, and whispered to me to come at nine o’clock to see the chief of the militia. ‘Ask him to hasten the trial and forgive me if I am very rough with you again,’ he said as he left me.

I found a safe spot where I opened the note, which proved to be from my eldest son, asking me to demand a trial. He said that there were many confined with them who had been there months, and might remain much longer unless someone pushed their cases; that, if I made a sufficient demonstration, I might succeed in hastening the trial.

Our steamer was just leaving the pier, and I wanted to send a note by the captain to my husband. I had nothing much to tell, but I felt sure I should succeed; so I wrote him cheerfully and said that no later than the next day I hoped to be home with both boys. But my heart was heavy. As I went to the boat, a lot of peasants were there buying their tickets, and they surrounded me, expressing their sympathy and denouncing the Bolsheviki in such terms that I was frightened. I begged them to stop, for fear we all should be arrested, and then, who would remain to fight? The attitude they took touched me very much, and their indignation that our sons, ‘who had never done anything but attend to their own business and never went to meetings or political gatherings,’ should be arrested. They offered to go home and gather a Skhodka — their panacea for all evils — and draw up petitions. I thanked them, and told them that they had better wait and keep still as yet. Perhaps, later, I should have to ask their help.

At nine o’clock I appeared at the prison door, and brought on myself again a volley of abuse from my friend. ‘There she comes again, to bother my life out. about her precious sons. To get rid of her, I ’ll take her in and turn her over to the chief.’ Continuing to mutter, he led me into the prison. Before opening the chief’s door, he whispered, ‘Stick to it that they be tried to-day’; and I went in.

It is awful to stand before a man who holds the destinies of those you love in his hand, and to feel that you personally may be able to win, or to antagonize him. In those days the passage from the faintest suspicion or accusation to the ‘ wall ’ (where executions take place) was often very short and simple, and we had little hope of a fair trial when one of our class was accused.

I was greeted very roughly at first; but when I gave my name, the chief of the militia softened and asked me to be seated. I told him that I had come in regard to my sons. I did not know what the charge was, but could say in advance that I was sure that there was some misunderstanding, as they kept strictly to their farming work, and had not been connected with any political movements; and I asked the chief, as a great favor, that he have them called that day to be questioned, as I feared to leave my husband so long. I also asked for leave to see my sons.

He promised me that he would send them immediately to the Tcheka (none of my readers can know the thrill of horror that that name gives us in Russia). He added that I could see my sons now, or after the trial; but, if at once, I must understand that I would go with them under convoy to the Tcheka, and share what came to them. I thought fast, and just then, seeing our doctor pass the low open window, I asked the chief if I might speak to him before answering.

‘Yes, if you speak to him in my presence.’

So, leaning out I called the doctor back, and asked him if, in case of my detention, he could send a trained nurse, or doctor’s assistant, at once to stay with my husband.

The doctor took the situation in at a glance, and said I could be assured that, he would see to it that my husband would be cared for. So, thanking him, I turned to the chief of the militia, who had been standing close to me, and said, ‘I am ready. Take me to my sons.’

He took leave of me very politely, and ordered a guard to escort me to my sons, and then to have us all sent to the Tcheka.

We passed through long corridors, and then to a small courtyard, upon which opened the one window of the room where they were confined, and I saw, among the thick mass of heads crowding at the open window, my sons. It is an ugly thing to see the face of one you love behind iron bars, especially during a revolution. The door was unlocked, and my sons came out, followed by the wistful, envious eyes of the unfortunate ones who remained, with no one to bring up their cases.

We were marched like convicts through the well-known streets, where everyone knew us, but no one dared show signs of recognition, much less of sympathy. Brought to the Tcheka, we had long to wait in the anteroom; but the door leading to the room occupied by the chief of the Tcheka and his secretary was often opened. The president of our local Tcheka was one of the most sinister men in the government at that time — a former railroad engineman known for his brutality. He invariably questioned people with a revolver and a Cossack nagaika on the table before him; and in moments of excitement flourished one or both around the head of the unfortunate being he was questioning. And it is said that he sometimes did more than flourish the nagaika.

Among the guards who had accompanied us was our friend, and he considerately drew off all the guards but one, and told him he need not keep his rifle in evidence — this, to spare our feelings. The anteroom in which we sat served also as an approach to the room occupied by the ‘Espolkom,’ or Executive Committee; so that many were constantly passing back and forth. One of our friends, seeing us sitting there, managed to say to me, ‘Tell the boys not to mind the revolver when they are questioned: he may strike them, but won’t shoot.’ I passed this word of encouragement on.

At last our names were called and my sons went in separately. Our loyal militiaman had hung round us all day, and was now seated by us in the anteroom. How brave that act was can be understood only by those who know how dangerous it was at that time to be classed as the friend of an aristocrat, or in any way to attract the attention of the dreaded Tcheka. Our young Tchekaist also passed through repeatedly, and always stopped to offer my sons a cigarette.

When my sons went in, the secretary, whom we happened to know, made no sign of recognition, and was very curt; but when his chief left the room for a moment, he offered the boys cigarettes in silence — which were refused in silence; but my sons knew that they had a friend at court.

After each of us was questioned, we were all told that we must write separately all we knew on a certain subject, and a list of the questions was given us. The secretary, bustling around to place us separately, contrived to leave us alone a few seconds, and this was long enough for us to plan in English what we were to write, so that our information, set down separately, tallied at every point. After many questions and much talk, to our infinite surprise we were told that we were free; and all that was demanded of us was that we sign a paper declaring that we would not leave the county without the permission of the Tcheka. And so, without making the acquaintance of the revolver or the nagaika, we were escorted back to the prison, where, on presenting the receipt, my sons received back their money, watches, and pocketbooks — everything, in fact.

We went back to the inn, and I think that, after all, it paid to be arrested, to experience the full sweetness of liberty. I thought then that nothing would ever make me complain again. All the supplies I had brought for my sons we left for their less fortunate comrades; and, with our good militiaman, who was as happy as we were, we returned home, even before the time when I had promised my husband to do so.

We afterward discovered that the arrest had been caused by information being given that our sons had gone to the city to meet members of the counter-revolutionary conspiracy.