My Reminiscences (1)
Ekaterina Olitskaia grew up on her parents' estate outside Kursk, in southern Russia. Her father, a one-time revolutionary, prisoner, political émigré, and Zurich-educated agronomer, was a gentleman farmer who tried to combine his admiration for the Russian peasant with his enthusiasm for scientific agriculture. Her mother, a wealthy aristocrat, was a medical doctor with a Swiss degree who never became certified in Russia because of the couple's banishment from large cities. Olitskaia was raised by her Russian nanny and French and German governesses before being sent to a school in Kursk, where she became a socialist. In the fall of 1916 she and her friend Olia were admitted to the Stebut Agricultural Institute for women in Petrograd.
On February 18 the workers of the Putilov plant went out on strike. The strike spread, and by February 22 almost all the large factories of Petrograd had joined in. Our institute was supposed to go on strike and stage a demonstration on the 23rd, but revolutionary events forced us to change our plans. On the morning of the 22nd we were still lying in bed when Olia's mother, who had gone out to buy some bread, came rushing in very excited. She told us that all the stores were closed, and the streetcars were not running. She had seen large crowds in the streets and heard shots being fired. Olia and I leaped out of bed, threw on our clothes, and, ignoring her mother's desperate pleas, ran out the door to go to our institute. The city was overflowing with people. Large crowds were gathering under revolutionary appeals that had been pasted on fences and walls. Some policemen were trying to disperse the crowds and tear down the appeals. The farther we went, the thicker the crowds became. We could not even reach the institute. The bridges were being cordoned off by the police, who had formed a thick human chain to hold back the people. Carried by the crowd in one direction and then another, we tried to make our way to another bridge. It, too, had been cordoned off. A large group of demonstrators was moving toward us down Kronverksky Avenue, a red banner floating in the wind over their heads, when, suddenly, a Cossack detachment emerged from a small alley not far from where we were. In their black sheepskin hats and flowing black capes, they came riding straight at the demonstrators, with their whips raised high in the air. At that moment I ceased to existexcept for my eyes, which were glued to the Cossacks. "It's really going to happen! Right here in front of me, they're going to bring their whips down on the people's heads. They're going to trample them under the hooves of their horses ..." The Cossack detachment cut into the crowd. The crowd parted and pressed up against the buildings on either side. Then I heard a loud "Hurrah!" Never before or since have I heard such a cheer. Restraining their horses and still holding their whips high in the air, the Cossacks rode through the middle of the crowd. The demonstrators greeted them with shouts of "Hurrah!" and tore their hats off their heads. Having passed through the crowd, the Cossacks disappeared. The demonstrators closed ranks and resumed their march in our direction. Frozen and silent in a paroxysm of fear, we did not understand right away what had just taken place before our eyes, but when it finally came home to us that the Cossacks had not brought down their whips and had refused to disperse the crowd, everyone went wild. Some people started crying, others hugged each other. "Hurrah!" we shouted at the demonstrators. Our crowd joined the demonstration, which kept growing and expanding. It must be the revolution! What else could it be? It's the revolution! It will prevail! Even the Cossacks are with the people!
On that first day of the insurrection Olia and I never did make it to our institute. All day long we just walked in the streets among the crowds, not knowing where we were going or why. We shouted greetings to the soldiers who had joined the people. We yelled "Never again!" in front of burning police stations. Somewhere in the distance we could hear shooting. On some streets the secret police were shooting at people from their attic hiding places. I was very happy. I was also quite lucky. During the entire February Revolution I never saw a single dead body, a single lynching. The February Revolution that I witnessed was bloodless.
At night in our room we had endless conversations about the struggle and the revolution.
"What would you do if you found out that a plainclothes policeman was hiding in our apartment? Would you inform on him?" my sister Ania kept asking.
I answered without hesitation: "Of course, but it would not be informing because it would be part of the strugglein defense of the people's rights and in defense of the triumphant revolution."
I had no doubt that the revolution was going to triumph. As we watched the police and court archives going down in flames, I felt humbled by the majesty of the fire but a little upset about the destruction of the archives. Then someone explained to me that they were being burnt not only out of hatred but also as part of the revolutionary plan, in case we lost. So I tossed my head and laughed at the doubters.
The next day Olia and I decided that nothing would deter us from reaching the institute. We did not want to watch the revolution; we wanted to make it. But what needed to be done? We had to get to the institute to receive our instructions. As we made our way from the Petrograd District to the Finland Station, we saw the same crowds of defiant people, the same barricadesmany of them abandoned and no longer needed, and streetcars standing still or overturned. Something I hadn't seen before were the army trucks loaded with bread that had been brought in from the barracks. They stopped at bread lines and distributed bread among the women.
I was right. The Stebut Agricultural Institute for Women was buzzing with activity. Everyone was completely exhausted. A Georgian girl, whom I had met and liked at the beginning of the semester, said: "We need people at the medical post and the cafeteria," but the kitchen manager did not give us a chance to choose.
"Come with me. My girls are on their last legs. We need help."
Olia and I followed her into the cafeteria. It was empty. The tables were bare; there were no tablecloths. The floor was dirty and covered with cigarette butts. We were just starting to clean up, when Valia called out: "No time for that, Comrades! The fire in the oven is going out!"
While we were carrying wood and kindling for the oven, the cafeteria had filled up with soldiers and workers. They had stacked their guns against the wall and now sat rubbing their freezing hands, talking loudly, and laughing. We started running around with bowls full of hot cereal. From morning till night we handed them out to cold, hungry men. There was nothing else left to eat: only tea, cereal, and mustard in unlimited quantities.
Trucks full of people kept pulling up to our cafeteria. Each of them had a student from the Military Medical Academy in charge. In those early days medical students served as both officers and doctors.
"Feed these people, Comrades," they said to us. "And make sure it's hot. Whatever it is, it's got to be hot!"
The weather in Petrograd was clear and very cold. All the plants and factories were closed down. The blanket of smoke that always hung over the city had lifted. During the day the sky was incredibly blue; at night, with all the electricity cut off, it was very dark and the sky was covered with stars. For five days without a break we ladled out hot cereal, carried wood, and kept the fire going. The soldiers who came to eat told us about what was going on in the city. At first there were very few of us working in the cafeteria, but then more and more girls came, and I finally decided that they could do without me and asked the revolutionary committee of the institute to transfer me to another job.
"The Tauride Palace has asked us for more people," I was told. "Get a pass and go present yourself before the military commander of the Tauride Palace."
Petrograd was seething with anticipation and excitement. The Tauride Palace was one of the main magnets for popular grievances, hopes, demands, and demonstrations. Happy and excited, Olia and I walked through the streets of Petrograd. I had not bothered to go to the Tauride Square before. The last Duma sessions had not interested us, but now we were inside its historic halls. The square was full of people. Right in front of the entrance, somebody was standing on a truck making a speech, as was the custom in those days. After standing over a hot stove for so long, Olia and I were totally enraptured by what we heard. Speakers followed one after another. At the other end of the square somebody else was speaking from another truck. Having squeezed our way through the crowd, we used our passes to report to the commander of the Tauride Palace. He put me at a desk in front of Kerensky's office. I was supposed to check the passes and make sure that the citizens who were aimlessly wandering around the palace did not interfere with the work going on behind closed doors.
I got bored sitting at that desk. While in other halls the revolution was being debated and celebrated, speeches were being made, and bitter arguments were being conducted, there it was completely quiet. People with or without briefcases kept going by, and I could hear fragments of sentences, sometimes calm and sometimes agitated. I did not feel that I was really needed there, and when I was asked to accept special dishes intended for Kerenskywhose very name was pronounced with a kind of aweI lost all patience. I was deaf to the argument that after long hours of intense work Kerensky needed a light, nutritional diet. Chuckling, the commander offered me another job: "There's work that's very important, but that nobody wants to do. On the ground floor there's a cafeteria where our troops are being fed. They need someone to slice the bread down there."
I sliced bread from morning till night, loaf after loaf, till my hands bled. Each night Olia and I would walk through the deserted streets to the Petrograd District. The city was under a curfew, but we had our passes so we didn't have to worry about the checkpoints. Still, life was crazy, and there were other causes for worry. Often, when we got home, Olia's mother would tell us how dangerous it was outside and how she and other pedestrians had had to crawl over some bridges on their hands and knees because of the shooting at street corners. We simply laughed as we pictured Anna Vasilievna crawling over a bridge on her hands and knees.
While some things were falling apart, others were being organized. Unions, committees, and associations were springing up everywhere. Even the thieves were organizing themselves: I once saw an announcement that at a certain time under a certain bridge, the pickpockets would be holding their organizational meeting. All over town ralliesplanned and spontaneouswere taking place. People were making speeches from trucks, balconies, hilltops, and the bases of statues. All kinds of exciting news kept arriving: the Petrograd Revolution was being supported by Moscow; Rodzianko had formed a government; Nicholas II had abdicated in favor of Michael; Michael had also abdicated. New parties and local soviets of worker's representatives were being organized. New and ever more complicated issues were being raised. Passions were being inflamed. However, we inexperienced young people never imagined that there were any serious contradictions within the workers' movement since we just tended to agree with whomever had spoken last.
In late March or early April, when the first revolutionary storm had passed, our student organizations issued a new directive: "Return to your hometowns, Comrades; you are needed in the provinces." At the same time we started getting letters from home, asking us to come back. Our parents were worried about us. I was reluctant to leave Petrograd. As I was leaving my institute, I somehow sensed that I would never return. Shortly before our departure, after we had definitely decided to return to Kursk, my sister talked me into going to see our aunt, Marusia. On the way home we had an argument. Ania had never been interested in politics, had never belonged to any political movement, and had always tried to catch me in some inconsistency, carelessness, or insincerity.
"I'm not sure I know what I wantprobably just to live in peace, without gunshots and fires," she was saying, "but I do know that you are not being honest with yourself. Just imagine that all your ideals come true and they take Father's land away. What would we live on? How would you pay your tuition?"
My sister had hit a raw nerve. I had often argued with my friend Raia about whether my father was an exploiter. I was absolutely certain that my father was not running his Sorochino estate for profit and that his goal was not to exploit the peasants but to help them and spread knowledge among them. In fact, the conditions under which they had to live and work only made his project more difficult. My father and I knew this, but from the outside, even for Ania, our father was an exploiter, and we were living off the exploitation of the peasants. This made me even more impatient for a revolutionary resolution to the agrarian question and for an end to the awkward situation in which our father and all of us found ourselves. "We'll live like thousands of people do. And Father will be working and making more money than ever, and he'll be a lot happier. I can understand when other people say these things, but when you, knowing what you do ... You think we're living off the peasants and want to go on living like that." "It doesn't depend on me. It is not what I want at all, but it's the way it has always been and still remains, no matter what you say."
The provinces were slow to join the revolution. The workers' movement had been decimated during the years of reaction. When we arrived, Kursk did not even have any party cells. They were gradually being resurrected, mostly by young people who clustered around two or three adults. I remember how we welcomed one of them, a peasant Socialist Revolutionary named Pianykh, who had been freed by the revolution after twelve years of hard labor. This frail and kindly old man was our icon, but he could not become our leader. We needed a specific cause, and soon we found it. We were preparing a congress of student socialists in order to join forces in the name of the revolution. At the same time we were organizing general education schools for the workers. Workers streamed in; the City Duma donated a building; and students became the teachers. Armed with books, we lectured on Russian history, literature, political economy, and mathematics. We felt powerless to give the workers the knowledge they needed. They thanked us fervently, although we were really studying along with them. Often the students would enlighten their teachers just by posing timely questions. Strange as it may seem, the revolutionary editions of magazines and even newspapers rarely made it to Kursk that spring.
The railway station was about two versts from the city. One could buy many newspapers there. The student union talked the City Duma into giving us one of the city's newspaper stands. There we sold the periodicals of all the socialist parties. The money to purchase the first order of newspapers and magazines was raised by collection among the citizens of Kursk. The stand was staffed by students, who worked for free, of course. We took turns going to the railway station, buying the periodicals, and delivering them to the stand. We worked shifts, and all profits were reinvested to expand our operation. Finally, the city was regularly receiving the press of all political persuasions. We carried the People's Voice, New Life, People's Cause, Pravda, and other socialist newspapers and magazines.
I will never forget the May Day celebrations in Kursk in 1917. They truly represented the sheer, boundless joy of a free people. The crowds savored the words, slogans, red banners, and revolutionary songs. Everyone was galvanized by the liberty, equality, and fraternity that had been achieved so quicklyor so we thought. In less than a month, life demonstrated to me and others that the struggle for the people's happiness, fraternity, and equality was just beginning.
Sometime in late May the Congress of Student Socialists of Kursk Province, which we had been preparing, finally took place. By then, party organizations in Kursk had gathered strength. The City Duma was divided into political factions. Both my mother and Raia's had joined the Social Democrats. My sister, Dutia, who had also returned to Kursk, signed up with the Bolsheviks. I, along with several friends, became a Socialist Revolutionary. Joining a party was extremely easy, and people were joining in droves. Our student community also split into parties, and from the very beginning the congress was divided into factions. Even when we sat down at the table covered with a red cloth, we arranged ourselves according to party affiliation. It was clear that there could be no unity among student socialists. We had been able to join forces against the tsar, but a joint effort to build a new society was proving impossible. The students could not reach a common decision on a single issue: (1) immediate peace or war until victory; (2) the earliest possible convocation of the Constituent Assembly or the immediate seizure of power by the soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies; (3) the solution of the agrarian question by the Constituent Assembly or the immediate revolutionary seizure of gentry lands by the peasants. We argued about all these issues and were unable to reach a consensus.
The October coup swept away the old leaders and brought in new ones. The Bolsheviks and Left SRs began running Kursk. Many young people found themselves in responsible positions. For instance, Matvei Rozhdestvensky, an eighteen-year-old law student, became the commissar of agriculture, while Munia Kogan, who was the same age, was appointed one of the editors of the only Kursk newspaper.
I could not find any SRs. They were either in prison or underground. Most members of the intelligentsia were boycotting the new regime. I could not accept what was going on. I was dismayed by the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the closing down of socialist newspapers, and the banning of the SR Party. I did not want to see my good friends, Matvei and Munia, and could barely stand my sister, Dutia.
In 1918 all industry, factories, plants, banks, houses, and trade were nationalized. It was a difficult time of rain and disintegration, of total confusion both in the army and at workplaces. It was a lot easier to destroy than to create something new. Some people boycotted the new regime; others were not trusted; and still others wanted to build a new life but did not know how. Millions of petty entrepreneurs and artisans, both in town and in the villages, took advantage of the shortages and engaged in rampant speculation. The violent methods of War Communism corrupted the leaders and infuriated the people.
Crude antireligious propaganda, the confiscation of church property, the mockery of popular beliefs, and the attendant moral collapseall this I saw with my own eyes in Kursk. All this was, in one way or another, a part of my life.
The peasant unrest of the summer of 1918 was something I only heard about. I heard about the so-called struggle between the poor peasants and the kulaks, about the formation of the committees of the poor (the main power in the village), and about the raids on villages by worker detachments to confiscate the excess grain needed by the starving cities.
Peasants were being dekulakized. Anyone who expressed discontent was a kulak. Peasant families that had never used hired labor were put down as kulaks. A household that had two cows, a cow and a calf, or a pair of horses was considered kulak. Villages that refused to give up excess grain or expose kulaks were raided by punitive detachments. So peasants had special meetings to decide who was going to be a kulak. I was astonished by all this, but the peasants explained: "We were ordered to uncover kulaks, so what else can we do?"
Village assemblies elected kulaks the way they used to elect elders. To spare the children, they usually chose childless bachelors.
Most workers in Russia had ties to their villages. When the general collapse reached the factories, the workers survived by manufacturing small objects such as lighters, which they sold at the market, or by going back to the village, where they alarmed the peasants even further with their stories about the disintegration of the economy.
Peasants couldn't buy anything: there were no sacks, no ropes, no axes, no matches. There was no soap in the stores; it had to be bought in back alleys or secretly at the market. According to the ridiculous rumors that were circulating, this soap was made from the bodies of little children who had been kidnapped and murdered for that purpose.
All the valuables confiscated from the rich townspeople, the village kulaks, and the churches were carried away and piled up somewhere. Some things ended up in the confiscators' pockets or disappeared later from warehouses. Who didn't take things in those days! Even Dutia brought home a couple of icons in metal mounting for our maid, Akulina. She claimed, of course, that nobody wanted those icons, but that did not change the facts.
Books, paintings, and albums from private collections were taken to public libraries, where they were dumped in cellars. Nobody recorded or catalogued them.
In libraries, undesirable books were being taken off the shelves according to special lists or following the orders of newly appointed librarians. The entire history of Russia found itself beyond the pale: Kliuchevsky, Platonov of course, Elpatievsky, Karamzin. In the early years of the revolution only Pokrovsky was held in high regard. Leo Tolstoy got into trouble for his religious and philosophical works, but in the heat of the battle Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Resurrection were also swept off the shelves.
I felt completely alone in Kursk with my alarm and indignation. I could talk to Father and argue with Dutia until I was blue in the face, but that was it. The vicious gossip, the rumors, the whispers in dark alleys, the endless jokes and sarcastic criticisms made life unbearable. All non-Communist organizations were deep underground. I did not have any ties with them.
Finally, a friend of my parents who came down from Moscow to streamline the tanning industry, got me a job in the Kursk District Tanning Commission. All Kursk tanneries had been nationalized and were, along with all the shoe factories in the province, run by the workers themselves. The commission was headed by a young worker by the name of Mukhin. He was a Bolshevik, of course, and was full of energy, but, alas, was also semiliterate.
Our friend got me a position in the department of statistics. I was very nervous because I was afraid I might not be up to the job. It turned out to be true. As soon as I came, I was given an abacus, which I had never used before, and sheets of paper with long columns of numbers. I did not know anybody in the office. Trembling with fear, I sat down at my desk, pulled the abacus closer, and started counting. All around me, people were walking and talking, and I could hear the rattling of typewriters. I never once raised my eyes. I even refused the cup of tea that the cleaning woman brought for me. Over and over again I added up the numbers, and each time I got a different result. The numbers had been typed very neatly and clearly, but the sum total remained a mystery to me. At the end of the day I went home in absolute despair. The next morning I did not want to go back, but my parents prevailed upon me.
At work I was in for a surprise. Mukhin had transferred me from the Department of Statistics to his own office as an assistant secretary. "You'll be my personal secretary," he said.
They brought in a tiny desk and put it in the director's office. Across from me, at a large desk, sat Secretary Logvinov. He and I were on our own. Mukhin was gone for most of the day. Logvinov gave me a register book and a pile of sheets with executive orders printed on them. "You'll be keeping the order book," he said.
There were quite a few orders. I worked hard for about three days, but when I had copied them all, there was nothing left for me to do. I would get one, maybe two, new orders a day, but my working day consisted of eight hours! When I asked Logvinov what I was supposed to do, he said: "Just sit there quietly. I don't have anything to do either."
"Why do you need an assistant then?" I asked.
"Director's orders," he grinned. "What's your problem, you're getting paid, aren't you?"
Mukhin had a very young, pleasant wife, a simple worker in a shoe-repair shop. They had a little daughter. Every once in a while his wife would drop by our office, and we would chat. She was a simple, friendly, but uneducated woman. At first I did not pay any attention to Mukhin's kindness to me. Sometimes I thought he was showing off because he wanted to convert me politically.
Once, the wife of the chairman of the city executive committee came to see Mukhin. He fawned and fussed over her. "So this is how the Bolsheviks receive their bosses' wives," I thought. From a drawer in his desk Mukhin took out a piece of beautiful kid leather. Then he summoned a cobbler, who took her foot measurements right there in the office. "He's our best cobbler," said Mukhin. He motioned for the man to stay, and turned to me: "There's enough here for two pairs of shoes. Would you like to order the same kind for yourself?"
Of course I would. The cobbler measured my feet, too. Within a week our shoes were ready, and absolutely dream shoes they were, too. But when I modeled them for the other employees, it turned out that none of them had ever been able to get any leather, except perhaps by special permit, and, even then, black calfskin at best. There was a special ban on using kid leather to make shoes for the general population.
I began to get suspicious. Mukhin was not around. He was in Moscow on business. So the matter had to wait until his return. As soon as he got back, he put a little package on my desk.
"This is from Moscow. To go with your new shoes."
Inside the package were silk stockings, an incredible luxury in those days.
"How much do I owe you for the stockings and shoes?" I asked uncertainly. I was wondering whether I could afford them. I was making three or four hundred thousand rubles a month at the time.
"Oh come on!" he said. "It was no trouble at all. And anyway, the shoes don't have a price because you can't get kid leather like this in any store."
The blood rushed to my face. "So this is a present from a director to his secretary?! Who told you I would accept this kind of present from a director?! I absolutely insist on paying for the shoes." And I threw the stockings on his desk.
Red-faced and confused, Mukhin said, without looking up: "I'll ask for a bill."
I stormed out of the office. I was sure that I had lost my job. But when I came back the next morning, the only change was that my desk had been moved to the common room and placed by the partition. I had been formally transferred to the records department. I was very happy with my new job and with the fact that I was suddenly popular in the office. At home I waved my new shoes under my sister's nose and yelled: "See what your proletarian directors and chairmen's wives are up to! Bribes, theft, adulteryeverything the way it used to be under the capitalists!"
I observed life around me with silent indignation. Instead of a bright world of peace and liberty I saw a world of violence and bitter fighting. People who had until recently freely expressed their hopes and ideas were becoming secretive. Instead of improving, the material situation was getting worse all the time. I still have a postcard issued by the Central Committee for Assistance to the Starving. It cost 1,250 rubles. One kind of injustice had been replaced by another. To curb peasant discontent, the authorities sent out Chinese and Latvian detachments. People told terrible stories about the atrocities they had committed. Who could we trust? What could we trust in?
The mumbling and whispering of the Philistines was repulsive to me, but free criticism did not exist. Even Novaia zhizn', which was published by Gorky, had been closed down. The tendentious Communist press was the only source of information available. We knew nothing about life in Russia. I had heard rumors of an uprising in Yaroslavl, a mutiny in Kronstadt, a Czechoslovak struggle on the Volga, of Kolchak in Siberia, and of countless anarchist bands.
The rumors concerning Kolchak and Yudenich were followed by rumors of an offensive by General Denikin. These were more persistent and more believable. Denikin's army was moving toward us, and moving incredibly fast.
The Communist press talked about the outrages perpetrated by the Whites, about their ties to foreign invaders, about the estate and factory owners who followed the Denikin army, about the return of the land and factories to the capitalists, and about atrocities, floggings, hangings, and anti-Jewish pogroms. All this I could believe, but they also said that the SRs and the SDs were supporting General Denikin and his army that consisted of White Guardists and old tsarist generals. This I absolutely refused to believe. Neither the SRs nor the SDs were capable of joining the tsarist generals.
The prospect of Denikin's army entering the city seemed all the more unsettling because my sister was a Communist. We had no doubt that Denikin's men were killing Communists and persecuting their families. If Kursk fell, my sister might be arrested and maybe even hanged. Anything was possible ... Also, the persistent rumors of anti-Jewish pogroms perpetrated by the White Army meant that the families of my closest friends, Raia and Shura, were in real danger. But while nobody around me wanted Denikin to come, their disgust with the Communists kept growing. The closer the Denikin detachments got, the worse the terror became. The town was paralyzed with fear. Sometimes it seemed that they were doing this on purpose. On one of the last nights, twenty-four representatives of the Kursk bourgeoisie were arrested. They were not accused of anything in particularthey were simply taken hostage. Among the twenty-four was Korotkovthe same Korotkov who, as mayor, had helped us organize student rallies. All of them were taken to Orel. In Orel all twenty-four were shot.
Hostage-takingthe very notion made me think of barbarism. In those days everybody was drawing analogies between our revolution and the French Revolution. Some people were saying that the Great French Revolution had also known hostage-taking. At first I had not wanted to believe it, but then I had rummaged through my books and discovered that it was the terrible, cruel truth. So much the worse for the French Revolution.
Kursk was preparing to defend itself against Denikin. Everyone expected decisive battles to take place outside the city. People were not allowed to walk outside after dark. But at the very last moment it turned out that the defenders had been betrayed and that all the cannons had been sabotaged. The city was surrounded. The troops were retreating; the Bolsheviks were running away. Meanwhile, the population knew nothing. At 3:00 P.M. a light carriage stopped by our front door. Out climbed the woman who had been running an orphanage in the building of the old Noblemen's Assembly. Helped by her husband, she pulled three large wicker baskets out of the carriage and asked my mother to keep them. She did not say what was inside the baskets. Nor did she tell us that the Bolsheviks were surrendering the town to the Whites.
My sister, who was a member of a special defense detachment, had not been home for two days. That night Ania and I were invited to a friend's wedding. Everything was very modest, simple, and fun. Because of the curfew, we celebrated all night long. In the morning the whole noisy crowd said good-bye to the newlyweds. Their house was at the edge of the city. The streets were empty and quiet. In this silence the sound of hooves striking the cobblestones rang loudly and clearly. A mounted detachment appeared from an alley and rode off toward the center of town. They were Denikin's men. On the shoulders of their gray coats glistened the long-forgotten officer's epaulets. Denikin's troops were marching solemnly into Kursk. They knew there would be no fighting and that they were expected by their people. The troops were followed by carts full of food: white bread, flour, and sugar. All these delicacies were being handed out to the population.
The city was tense, and so was our house. We had lived through the Bolsheviks. We knew what they were like, but nobody knew what Denikin's men would be like. The army was passing through the city, occupying the station and mounting guards along the railway track. Fearing anti-Jewish pogroms, my friend's familythe mother and childrenmoved into our house as soon as they heard about the arrival of the Whites. Only the father stayed behind. The best gynecologist in Kursk, he was a nonparty person of generally liberal views. His wife belonged to the far-left wing of the SDs. Many even considered her a Bolshevik, but she had never belonged to the Bolshevik Party. Because of my Communist sister our house was not very safe, but the fear of pogroms brought people anyway.
On the surface everything was peaceful. The Whites had not yet formed a civilian administration, but they were busy advertising themselves. Long-forgotten goods were being handed out from carts, and Soviet thousand-ruble notes with the word "trash" printed across them had been scattered all over the city. Office employees returned to work, but the managers were gone. No one knew what was going to happen to the various institutions. The Tanning Commission employees decided to save all the office property. Fearing looters, they decided that the employees should take everything home: one person would take the typewriter; another, the paper; and so on. I was supposed to hide the counting machine. We pledged to keep everything until life returned to normal. The city grew silent as people waited for what would happen next. Grand announcements by our new masters were posted on walls. People read them but kept their doubts to themselves. Everyone was skeptical of these new promises.
The peaceful flow of our life was interrupted by two events. Somebody told my mother that Dutia, armed, had been seen on the outskirts of the city when the Whites were already on their way in. She had been trying to get to the train station, but it had already been taken. My mother became alarmed. Meanwhile, because of the apparent calm in the city, my friend's mother had decided to go back home. It turned out, however, that the situation was not as calm as we had thought. Twice in the two days that had passed since the arrival of the Whites, soldiers had broken into their house and demanded ransom from their father because he was a Jew. He had given them the money, and they had left.
"Now," he said, "the worst is over. From now on I'm not giving them another cent."
But soon they heard the sound of rifle butts beating on their door again. Another group of soldiers demanded money. The father said that he had already paid twice and that he had nothing left. The soldiers ordered him to come with them. Without his coat or hat, he was led down the street by about six soldiers. Fortunately, a White officer appeared from around the corner. He questioned the soldiers about what was going on, cursed them rudely, apologized to the doctor, and escorted him home. He refused to come in: "Our men are also capable of outrages, I'm afraid. If anything happens again, please complain to headquarters."
Notices signed by the military commander were posted all over the city: "In case of rights violations on the part of the military, the population is urged to complain immediately to military headquarters and to the military commander of the city. Banditry and looting will be dealt with by the full force of the law, including execution. In case of searches, demand to be shown a warrant signed by the military commander of the city."
Reading these announcements, I suddenly remembered the baskets that had been brought into our house and stacked up in the front room. I was sure that our place would be searched. When I got back home, Mother was not there. I decided not to wait for her and started opening the baskets. Akulina helped me. The baskets were filled with linen taken from the Noblemen's Assembly: tablecloths and towels of the finest quality with the satin-stitched emblems of the Assembly. Imagine how we would have looked if the search had revealed all that! There was so much linen that I panicked: I had no time to burn it all and no place to hide it. I grabbed the scissors and started cutting off the emblems. Akulina stood over me and lamented: "Such fine work going to waste!" I threw all the cut-off pieces into the stove. When Mother came home, she did not reproach me. She, too, wondered why anybody would want to impose these baskets on us. Mother was in pretty bad shape at that time. She never said anything, but, looking at her face, I knew that she never stopped thinking about Dutia. Had she managed to escape? Had she been arrested? Was she alive?
On the fourth or fifth day of the White administration they came to search our place. Judging by the behavior of the people doing the search, Dutia had not been arrested. The soldiers were restrained, but thorough. We knew they would not find anything, but we did have somebody else's chests that had been in the house for almost three years. This is how it happened. We had taken in a lodger, an officer and his family. Shortly before the revolution the whole family had gone to visit some relatives and never returned. We had never heard from them since then, and their things were still where they had left them, untouched. We explained this to the search party. They decided to open the chests. We did not have the keys, of course, so they had to break the locks. In the very first chest they found arms, but the soldiers' suspicions abated quickly. In the other chests were some officer's things as well as sugar, grain, and flour. The food was rotten and covered with mold. One glance was enough to show that it had been there for a long time. Their commander announced: "The weapons will have to be confiscated. They are supposed to be turned in."
We did not mind. They listed the arms in their inventory and set them aside. I noticed, however, that our lodger's military boots had been placed in the same pile. They had not been listed in the inventory. I pulled them out.
"Don't touch anything!" yelled the officer who was in charge of the search.
"What do you mean, don't touch?" I said. "You haven't included these boots in the inventory." Mother was pulling at my sleeve, but I would not be stoppedI wanted to know if Denikin's men robbed people during searches.
"Would you like to leave with us?" snapped the officer.
"With or without you, but I'll certainly go to your headquarters and ask for an explanation," I answered.
The search was over. The soldiers left with the arms and the boots. I argued with Mother:
"Why do they post those notices? I'm going down to headquarters."
I was getting dressed when the bell rang. On the porch stood the officer who had just left. He handed me the boots.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled. "I shouldn't have taken them, but you know ... my prestige with the men."
Prestige my foot! Just scared of headquarters, the thief!
The Whites had occupied the city and all the surrounding area. They were moving quickly toward Orel and Tula. I still could not make up my mind. There were no SRs or SDs with them, of course. The posters did say "All power to the Constituent Assembly," but in the meantime ... Actually, in the city itself there were no atrocities and no terror. Communists were being arrested. My mother was interrogated and then released. Suddenly Raia's mother was arrested. We were all very worried. Then later in the day an orderly came and brought a note from her asking for her robe, slippers, towel, and toothbrush. We calmed down. A week later she, too, came back. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, but my own life was not going anywhere. I mean, my public life. Everything was dominated by the military. We were on the front line.
A friend of mine had a neighbor, who taught German. Her husband, an SR, had been sentenced to death under the tsar but had managed to escape and, in 1905, had emigrated to England. We liked Olga Afanasyevna and were friendly with her son, Seva, who was two years older than we were. Seva was a student at the Petrograd Polytechnic. During the war he had been drafted, had enrolled in a military school, and, upon completion, had been sent to the front as an officer. His mother had not heard from him since the revolution. Now she had received a letter from him. Seva wrote that he was in the White Army and that he would get a leave of absence to come see her. We were amazed that Seva, whom we had considered prorevolutionary, could be with the Whites. I could not wait for him to come, hoping that he might help me sort things out.
Seva did come, but, unfortunately, he could not sort things out for us. He told us that he had joined the Whites because the officers had had their epaulets torn off; because their officer's honor had been violated; and because he had been loyal to his oath.
"We joined the White Army because it stood for the Constituent Assembly; because any government should be legitimate; and because at the front we had had enough of the chaos and slackness that bordered on treason. We were suspected, distrusted, insulted, and sold off. Finally, we joined the White Army because we valued the honor of our arms."
None of these arguments convinced us. We wanted to know what the White Army would bring the people. Sera evaded our questions. He kept talking about the White Army's mission to liberate Russia and to guide it to the Constituent Assembly, which would decide the fate of the people. As an officer of the White Army, there was probably nothing else he could tell us. But it seemed to us that he was disappointed in the White movement and had only stayed out of inertia. When we asked him about the Jewish pogroms, atrocities, and floggings in the villages, his answers were vague: "The commanders are trying their best to put an end to it. A lot depends on the unit that enters a city."
He also talked about the heroism of the Russian officer corps. He was the first to tell me about the "psychological attacks," in which officer battalions, armed with nothing but riding crops, had marched against the Reds in closed formation. As the dead ones fell, the live ones had closed ranks. They had marched unarmed, singing and smiling, and the Red Army men had broken down.
But Seva also talked about drunkenness and corruption. He did not criticize the White Army. He simply described things, leaving me to draw my own conclusions. The White movement appeared to me to be rootless, disjointed, and doomed. There was no one idea that could inspire all its participants. Seva spent less than a week in Kursk and, apparently without much enthusiasm, left to join his unit at the front.
The Whites were in Kursk for a very short time. The reorganized Bolshevik army forced them to retreat as quickly as they had come. Though during their stay in Kursk the Whites had not committed any atrocities, their departure was marked by a terrible tragedy. There was no fighting in the city, but there was panic. A lot of representatives of the bourgeoisie were leaving with Denikin. Loaded down with suitcases and bags, the fugitives were in a hurry to get out of the city. The prisoners who had been arrested by the Whites were neither evacuated nor released. When the Whites left, the last Cossack detachment broke into the prison and hacked the inmates to pieces. The news spread quickly, and many people went to the prison to identify the bodies. Without a word my mother went, too. She was brought back in a cab. We brought her inside and helped her lie down on the couch in the living room. Even then Mother did not say anything. Breathing heavily, with her heart beating quickly, she just lay there, wondering if the mutilated woman's body she had seen was her daughter's. At that moment Dutia was hurrying home, afraid to think what the Whites might have done to her family. I was standing by the dining room window. Suddenly I saw my sister. She was wearing a trench coat and a sheepskin hat, and I did not recognize her at first.
"It's Dutia," I shouted and ran to open the door.
The Bolsheviks celebrated their return with a horrendous campaign of terror. Actually, there was nobody left for them to persecute. Everyone who had been in any way connected with the Whites had left with them. But they suspected each and every one of us. There seemed to be no end to the searches and arrests.
Another May Day was approaching. Once again the city was preparing for the celebration. I stayed away from all public life in those days. I felt sad, depressed, and jealous, but I could not go against my conscience. In any case, the popular festival had been replaced by official, state-directed solemnities.
My younger brother's student friends told me with indignation that the Committee on Popular Enlightenment had sent them the texts of the slogans that they were supposed to write on their banners. "If they'd at least offered to let us choose which banner we wanted to carryif only for the sake of appearances! Not to mention that attendance is obligatory!"
On May 1 I stayed home during the demonstration. I didn't have a job, so nobody could force me to demonstrate under threat of being fired. In those days, all rallies, meetings, and demonstrations were compulsory.
How had the young people agreed among themselves? Who had given them the idea? In any case, every student had a narrow strip of red cloth in his pocket. On the square, when their column reached the tribune where the city authorities were standing, the students threw down the official banners, tied their mouths shut with the strips of red cloth, and passed by the tribune in total silence.
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