The Issue of Surrender
Gray daylight filtered weakly through the windows. But the house was warm and filled with the smell of wood smoke mixed with fresh lumber and tar. It had just had no furniture in it. The owners were absent; the territory had recently been occupied by the Reds and no one knew what had happened to them.
In the crowded room there was no thought of sleep, anxiety, fear filled our minds. The final decision must on what action to take now, how best to extricate these exhausted men from the claws of a notoriously relentless enemy, from the trap set by defeat. It was a momentous and a brutal decision that in volved the lives of all of us.
Nina Aleksandrovna and I sat on our beds on the floor, the men. Restlessly they paced to and fro, finding no peace of mind. Occasionally some of them gathered into small groups, the possibilities of a last-ditch breakthrough, assessing the chances of success. No one thought of giving up. When life hangs in the balance, hope, however preposterously illogical, is the power that sus tains, the finger that indicates the loophole to success where none exists. Surely there was a way! Finland, the land of freedom, beckoned on the far side of the barrier thrown conquering Red Army. And hope and fear and stubborn deter mination sometimes do contrive the impossible.
Was it suspicion? Was it a creeping sense of distrust in their senior officers that rendered the waiting intolerable? One of the men left the house. I watched Gleb walking across the village street, nervous and tense, dragging his left leg slightly, as he always did when excited or upset and his old wound bothered him.
Nina Aleksandrovna and I remained where we were in silence, each of us in paralyzing suspense. Time went by—an hour—much more than an hour.
At last through the window we saw the men returning. They were walking slowly, wearily. Gleb and Aleksandr Dmitrievich entered the room together. No one spoke. Hopelessness, dejection, utter discouragement were written on their faces. Their lips were pressed together in rigid lines. The silence became almost intolerable. At last I heard Gleb's voice:
"It is decided." And then with grim emphasis: "Surrender." The silence closed upon his words like a lid.
Gleb threw himself on the bed. I lay down beside him, wondering uneasily if I were the only one who felt a cowardly relief at the prospect of escaping a deadly engagement. For surrender temporarily removed the sense of impending disaster. It promised at least a postponement of the threatening fatality. At what price was entirely beyond my sphere of experience.
Gleb stirred. He put his arm around my shoulder, and we became wrapped in our own inviolate privacy, detached from the presence of all the others.
"This is an impossible situation!" he whispered in my ear. It was as if for the first time in his life he had faced the notion of giving himself up, and it revolted him. "Everything was decided before we got there," he said bitterly. "They didn't even ask us our opinion. We pleaded with them, reasoned, begged them to change their minds. We begged them to let us fight, whatever the risks."
His words were those of one who had reached the depth of dis illusionment, whose faith in those he had believed responsible had been destroyed. Capable, brave men had been ignominiously betrayed and their enthusiasm was being turned to ashes.
"They made that decision without us," he repeated, as if this had been their greatest sin. "The Reds are at Kem, armored trains, machine guns. I suppose it would have been impossible, unless we had been on skis. Few of us would be left to continue on the other side. But this—is this better?"
It relieved him to speak. "The terms of capitulation are re assuring enough, on paper. Those wishing to swear allegiance to the Soviets are promised immediate freedom upon arrival at Moscow . An alternative is not mentioned." He spoke passionately. "How could they let themselves be so duped? A Bolshevik promise! Have they forgotten the Cheka, the firing squads, the terror?" He spoke as if I were not there to hear him. "And yet—I wonder. Was the counterrevolution ever the right way to save Russia ? I wonder. ..."
This was the first time I had heard Gleb express doubt about the wisdom and the merit of anti-Bolshevik politics. Once before in Copenhagen he had hinted, but I thought then that anxiety for Marie's safety had influenced him.
After a long silence he spoke again: "Lisa, I can't do it! I can't! We must try to get away on skis somehow. Wait here!"
He got up hurriedly. The door closed behind him and the sound of his footsteps outside died away.
For a long time I waited. Surrender meant no immediate exposure to danger and death. Surrendering, we would still be together, or so I hoped, and his life would be spared. Courage, what is courage? What is the price of courage? To flee, the two of us alone, what would that mean? A rash plan but worth the risk to be together to the end. I tried to imagine running on skis over un known trails, hiding, darkness, interception, fighting with the enemy. Would we know how to find our way, how to avoid detection, how to survive?
Gleb's return interrupted my thoughts. "It's no use. Without a compass or maps we can't do it. Oh, Lisa . . ." He hid his face in his hands. I realized that had I not been with him, he would have gone to his death.
"Perhaps later, Gleb." Later! What a dubious notion! But at that moment I wished so desperately for that "later" that I believed my own words.
"Do the Bolsheviks actually mean what they say with their offer of freedom? Is this fate pushing us? It must be—but now I am so tired. . . ." And almost before he had uttered the last word he fell fast asleep.
I awoke with a start to find Aleksandr Dmitrievich standing over us. "It's time to go, Gleb Nikolayevich." Gleb sat up. "I'm ready," he said quietly.
Stiff and unrested, we packed together our belongings, rolled up our blankets. We took with us every can of food we could find; where we were going, food was scarce. I adjusted the little package of money and jewelry hidden in the knot in my hair; it represented all our wealth.
"It doesn't show, does it?" I asked Nina Aleksandrovna anx iously, turning around for her inspection.
"No, no, it's all right." She spoke nervously, her hands fidgeting. "They search everything for valuables, even sanitary towels." There was suppressed panic in her voice and for a moment it transmitted itself to me.
The men began to leave the house. Gleb and Aleksandr Dmitrie vich went out to harness the horse. The four of us decided to go in the same sleigh. We had not far to go—about fourteen miles.
They had filled the sleigh with fresh hay. The day was cloudy and dull but not cold. Outside the village a soldier in the uniform of the White Army was gathering together our rifles, abandoned by the roadside. By performing this unnecessary service, was he trying to insinuate himself into the favor of the Reds?
Our sleigh moved on slowly. There was no longer any hurry. We talked little. Gleb moved beside me. Suddenly he drew his revolver from the holster. He gazed at it, lips compressed, eyes blazing. Then he threw it as far out as he could into the snow. It fell with a muffled thud. No one uttered a word.
Several of the sleighs in front stopped, and then moved on again. Aleksandr Dmitrievich said softly, "Remember, any fuss is undignified."
We approached the checkpoint. A soldier in Red Army uniform, the first I had ever seen, came toward us. His greenish ankle-length greatcoat flapped loudly against his knee-high boots. A round good- natured Russian face with high cheekbones, expressing neither hate nor pity, looked at us under the peaked felt helmet. The oversized red star in front, sewn on with unmatching thread, suddenly made me think of boys in homemade uniforms playing soldiers in the back yard. His right hand never let go of his rifle with its fixed bayonet.
"Any arms?" His tone of voice was abrupt but not uncivil.
"Please search," Gleb said quietly.
We got out of the sleigh and gave up our remaining revolvers. The soldier gave Gleb a questioning glance, surprised he had none, but said nothing. He searched the hay under the scat .and found five or six cartridges, which he collected and passed to his comrade without a word.
A row developed at one of the sleighs. Voices harsh and strident with pent-up animosity cut into the air, and for the first time in direct conversation I heard the word tovaritsh —comrade. The faces of Gleb and Aleksandr Dmitrievich expressed nothing but bored indifference.
"All right, move on, follow the others!"
We drove into the town of Kem. At long last we arrived at the Murman Railroad, but in what a vastly different way from which we had striven so desperately to reach it! A few people in the streets stood looking at us with strange expressions of fear and pity in their faces; others peered with curiosity from behind the corners of their houses. This was the place, the goal set before our flying column of officers and men by a decamping high command. The cost to get here had been exorbitant in casualties, honor, and freedom. To me the loss of freedom still seemed only a dream, unreal and unimaginable.
They lodged us in unheated barracks at the outskirts of the town. There was a small room at the end of the long dormitory. Four men who had taken possession of it before we arrived immediately offered it to our husbands, and they gratefully accepted this doorless haven of pseudoprivacy. The room was icily cold and there was nothing to sleep on but the bare floor. We were soon busily carrying in the precious hay from the sleigh and spreading it thickly on the floor. Bedding down under the blankets, we huddled close together to generate warmth and comfort. In a few minutes we were asleep, merciful exhaustion obliterating all sensations of cold and the bitter defeat that had turned us into prisoners of the Bolsheviks. . . .
Slowly and reluctantly consciousness returned. And with it came, piecemeal, the full realization of what had actually happened to US, how we came to be here in this dirty barracks, evil-smelling from ft multitude of previous uses. Now no longer were we able to feel a hard revolver under the pillow, to find a rifle leaning against the wall to give a sense of armed security. No longer were there horses to harness, endless distances to travel in cramped positions to reach a goal long since disintegrated.
The thoughts mingled with dreams. What strange rot had at tacked the White forces to cause all resistance on the whole front from Pinega to Murmansk to deteriorate so quickly? How could that fateful error have been committed that sent the last loyal regiment on a fool's errand to support the already tottering Murman front?
The trend of thoughts persisted. What mysterious ideas had motivated the high command in the first place to carry on the fight on the northern front against wiser counsel after the Allies left? And when the breakthrough came, why did it turn a deaf ear to repeated warnings about what was actually happening? The menace of a serious revolt was temporary and quite manageable, they said. It would pass. And so did the last chance of a safe withdrawal.
The idea would not leave me. And after the final collapse, by what reasoning were arrangements for an orderly evacuation totally neglected and two precious weeks allowed to slip by in idle waiting? Why were the icebreakers permitted to leave Archangel empty, never to return, destroying the last chance of escape? Incredible! And to crown it all, then to send the remainder of the loyal troops, the cadre of the White Army officers, all with a price on their heads, on this fatal wild-goose chase, too late—indeed, at the very moment when the high command itself abandoned ship in the only boat left, the Yaroslavl
Gleb stirred, awakening at last from many hours of exhausted sleep.
"Gleb, we were miserably betrayed!"
"Hush, Lisa," he whispered in my ear. "Don't think. Let's just face it together."
Together ... I desired nothing else out of life but that. Whatever hardships were in store for us, nothing mattered provided we were together. Only this! And I said to him, "Should you be lost to me, and I would not know where to find you, or what had happened to you..."
Gleb did not speak. But had I been able to read his thoughts at that moment, I would have known that he had already measured the full implication of these events and had in sober thought accepted the consequences.
There was no rancor against fate when he smiled at me, only love and serenity. "Lisa, I'm hungry! Shall we have something to eat?"
We emerged reluctantly from under the warm blankets into the chill of the dismal barracks. A thin slanting sunbeam penetrated with difficulty the dirty windowpane, announcing that the day was well advanced. Aleksandr Dmitrievich got some water from the guards' enclave. We used half of it to wash ourselves with our handkerchiefs and brewed tepid tea out of the rest. Thus refreshed and sitting cross-legged on our beds of hay, we watched through the doorless opening of our cubicle the figures of our fellow prisoners lounging and moving around among the dirty double-decked bunks in a haze of cold tobacco smoke. Their voices, hushed and dejected, mingled with the sound of their heavy boots tramping on the rotten floor.
For the first time we had unlimited empty hours at our disposal, strangely free from pressure to plan what to do the next hour or the next day. The condition was still too novel to have become irksome. The long idle hours ahead were welcome. And to save energy and enjoy more rest, we crept willingly back under the blankets to sleep, temporarily oblivious of the uncertainties of the future.
A few days later, in the early morning, the prisoners were ordered to line up outside with their belongings. In captivity, where one is bereft of the elemental right to move freely, to plan the next activity in a more or less predictable environment, the dread of change becomes paralyzing. To the prisoner who with enormous effort, ingenuity, and self-constraint has finally adjusted to the situation, any change seems a drastic and frightful threat.
Anxiously I walked close beside Gleb, carrying my bundle, I a minor member of the long column of prisoners shuffling their feet in the snow. I glanced at Gleb's face and a wave of pride and con fidence surged within me. There he walked beside me, young and tall, carrying his bundle lightly upon his shoulder. A look of com plete tranquility illuminated his features, as if the surroundings and his defenseless future were matters that could not touch him. On a few other occasions and in the hospital at Archangel I had seen this same expression when conditions through which he must pass became irredeemable. Where, I wondered, did he get that inner strength of detachment and unshaken dignity that no situation, not even the foulest fate, could demean?
The day was bright with the sun shining on the white snow. The trampling of many feet soon destroyed its whiteness. Finally the long column was drawn up alongside the railway tracks and a long train of boxcars. Their sliding doors opened upon grimy interiors built to hold eight horses or forty men. Now they were fitted with wide wooden shelves, one above the other, and a small wood-burning stove stood in the middle of the floor.
Subdued conversations among the prisoners filled the protracted interval.
"Where are they taking us?"
"Petrozavodsk, they say."
"Somebody said an investigation of some kind. Then to Moscow."
"Investigation? What does that mean?"
A shrug, then silence and more waiting.
"Stand up for roll call!"
We stood up with our bundles at our feet. The droning voice of a Bolshevik officer began calling out names, names that from that moment were entered upon the Soviet lists of prisoners, unlikely to become erased except by a successful escape or sudden death.
"Kirilin, Gleb Nikolayevich?"
"Gleb, why didn't they call me?" He gave no answer, only moved a little closer.
The sun dipped westward in the cloudless sky. We sat on our bundles, waiting, talking, and getting hungrier as the day passed. Time was the one commodity in Soviet Russia of which there was never an insufficiency.
"Line up for rations!"
The mere mention of food made our mouths water. Our supplies had dwindled to a few cans of soup and bully beef and a small bag of tea mixed with sugar.
"What are they giving us?"
"Flour, five pounds. Lisa, for heaven's sake, what shall I take it in? They're giving it out loose!
"Here, take this pillowcase!" someone offered.
Gleb got his flour. "And for my wife?"
"Red Army rations, women don't count!" A leer accompanied the words.
When Gleb came back, Nina Aleksandrovna gave him a sweet smile. "Never mind, Gleb Nikolayevich, with a few cans of soup and ten pounds of flour between us we'll manage until the next time."
Gleb smiled but said nothing. His previous experiences of Soviet Russia did not permit him to be too hopeful as to the next time.
Late in the afternoon they finally ordered us into the boxcars. There was a furious scramble as everybody tried to get the best place for himself on the shelves. Yet the men did not ignore the presence
of us two women. Protecting us from the crush, they immediately gave us the choice places on one of the upper shelves next to the ventilator. With our husbands acting as bulwarks, we were afforded not only a certain measure of privacy, but also the comfort of being near the source of light and fresh air.
We were like sardines packed in a tin. One of us always had to get up to allow the others enough elbow room to of the men had even to forgo the luxury of a small space on the shelves and were forced to huddle on the dirty drafty floor, to await the opportunity of a charitable brief spell on a shelf.
As darkness fell, the guard slipped out and pulled the There was a sound of rattling chains and the iron bolt into its socket. For the first time I experienced the uneasy of being forcibly locked up and robbed of my personal freedom, the darkness nobody spoke. Somebody moved, trying to relieve cramped muscles; someone else scratched an itchy spot. Drowsiness overtook us until in the middle of the night the doors clanged open to readmit the guard. Soon, jolting noisily, the train began to move.
The distance between Kem and Petrozavodsk was about 220 miles. Months of protracted warfare had scrambled communications and in many places damaged the roadbed, leaving an emergency passage to be negotiated not without considerable risk. This caused many delays and added days to the journey, giving us plenty of time to become accustomed to the cramped and hungry life as prisoners of war.
The mechanism of adjustment in human beings is extraordinarily efficient in making terrible conditions quickly seem not only tolerable but livable! Nights spent fully dressed in no more than a scant foot of space by no means prevented me from awakening in the morning quite refreshed. And a small can filled with melted snow served quite well for washing face and hands. Heavy beards soon accentu ated the hollow-eyed look of our companions, although some of tried desperately to maintain a civilized appearance by crouched over a small mirror in a dim corner. It became a daily ritual for the men to sit stripped to the waist and with concentrated interest pick lice from the seams of their clothing, and the fact that Gleb and I had so far escaped an invasion of these typhus-carrying parasites was nothing short of a miracle.
The relations between the guards and the prisoners were distinguished by distant civility. No one suffered any reprisals, and any feelings of hostility and fear were fastidiously kept within bounds. The Red officer in charge wore a perpetually worried look on his sallow face, and we regarded our own guard in his oversized tunic as an inoffensive youth, not overly endowed with brains and given to giggles and practical jokes.
Without sanitary facilities of any kind, the scene at the frequent stops was shocking and tragicomic. With a wild look on their faces the prisoners charged out of the doors in a scramble no guard could withstand to secure half a minute's use of the open-air latrines, nothing more than overflowing holes in the ground. With our husbands standing guard, Nina Aleksandrovna and I discreetly retired under the cars, always with grave risk that the train might start up without warning.
The decrease of the pain as we became more or less accustomed to hunger was a surprise and afforded a certain relief. We found also that abstention from unnecessary exertion and longer intervals between the scanty meals likewise reduced discomfort. With our limited store of soup and bully beef almost gone, we had to think of some way to make use of the flour in the pillowcase. Most of the men simply ate the stuff raw. What else could they do? And this probably accounted for the chronically upset stomachs. Without utensils and other ingredients, not even salt, it was a puzzle.
Suddenly, an idea! A frying pan could be fashioned out of an empty can, with a stick for a handle. Soon I was experimenting with a bland batter of flour and melted snow, baking it in the firebox as in an oven. The bannock that eventually resulted stubbornly stuck to the ungreased can, but when pried out at last proved eatable though rather tough. To improve our diet, Gleb and I allowed ourselves possibly the most extravagant luxury of our lives. At one of the stops, in exchange for one of our blankets, we acquired from a peasant woman a small bag of sugar. She walked away hugging the blanket, and no doubt came out the winner of that transaction.
Emergencies often arose to delay progress. Snow sometimes accumulated in huge drifts in front of the train, and the supply of fuel was depleted. Peremptory orders drove the prisoners out to man the shovels or to cut wood from the surrounding forest to stoke the wood-burning engine. These would have been welcome diversions had it not been for the weakening effects of the prolonged fasting. Frequently our train, which was of secondary priority, was hurriedly shunted onto a siding to let by freights with mobs of free- loading passengers clinging like swarms of bees to the ladders and platforms. Or we were pushed aside to make way for northbound troop trains, from which poured the triumphant notes of the "Internationale", the German song of the radicals turned into a Russian hymn. The song sounded strangely foreign when sung by the Russian soldiers with the red stars emblazoned on their helmets, who filled to overflowing the swaying coaches. Constant hairbreadth escapes from threatening accidents and head-on collisions seemed the normal conditions of the Soviet transportation system at this time. We had, in this respect, the kind of unexplainable luck that sometimes favors the persistent gambler.
As the journey progressed, whispered rumors began to circulate among the prisoners. Significant events were due to occur soon and speculations stirred hope. Hints were passed around about the staging of a mass escape now while the transport was still running close to the Finnish border. Help would be forthcoming; secret Allied missions were just across the border, waiting for the right moment to act. There would be a sign.
Freedom! To be abandoned this way in the clutches of an enemy whose hands were notoriously bloody seemed to the prisoners a betrayal unworthy of great nations like the United States, Great Britain, and France. The intervention in northern Russia had been the fond idea of the Allies, Churchill's especially, and it had been directed at the encirclement of the Bolsheviks. It had lured Russian refugees to flock to Murmansk and Archangel . They had been assured the strong backing of the Allied forces, and they had fought together. Then in the dead of the night the Allies had left. The debacle foreseen by many had followed within months. At this time what actually took place must have been well known abroad. Surely there must be a strong feeling of obligation on the part of the Allies to come to the rescue of their former comrades in arms, to snatch them now from the jaws of a relentless enemy. Any other outcome, the prisoners felt, was unthinkable. But Gleb and Aleksandr Dmitrievich shook their heads.
In the middle of the afternoon a loud report suddenly rent the air, followed by a fusillade of explosions. The train jerked to a stop. The engine and the two cars attached to it became detached from the rest of the train, which began rolling backward downhill, gathering momentum. In the rear someone worked frantically at the brakes as the runaway section approached a curve at high speed. Just in the nick of time the brakeman succeeded in bringing the wildly clattering cars to a jolting halt.
The barrage continued, the loud thunder of exploding shells mingled with the angry reports of small-arms fire. We were all on our feet, listening tensely. Was this the sign? The men pushed aside the guard, who was as shocked and curious as they, and jumped down onto the tracks. They began running alongside the cars, trying to see what was happening.
Then the truth dawned on them. The two cars next to the engine, loaded with captured ammunition, had caught fire from sparks from the engine. And as they stood there listening, watching, the look on their faces changed from high elation to bewilderment to despair. That moment might indeed have been the one single auspicious opportunity for a break for freedom: the guards were distracted, and we were in an isolated wilderness not far from the Finnish border. But no daring leader emerged, and so the moment passed.
The guard locked the doors of the car and the men lay down to sleep, still waiting for the sign. Then a flash, an explosion, and yet another, and the closed car filled with fire and fumes. Everybody sat up.
"What in the name of God?"
The young guard sat by the door with his rifle between his legs, his eyes gleaming in the dim light of the lantern above his head. A mischievous smile played upon his lips. Giggling, he leaned forward and poked the pieces of two spent cartridges from the top of the stove. And the men, no longer believing in the miracle of an Allied rescue mission, turned around and went back to sleep.
At midnight on the seventh day our train rolled noisily onto a siding at Petrozavodsk . The prisoners were allowed to sleep until morning. Anxious thoughts had troubled me during the night and prevented sleep—the terrible dread of the coming change, the menace of the unknown, and the pangs of hunger, for the flour had come to an end twenty-four hours ago.