In Search of Evidence
IN an unremitting and indomitable process, life goes on. The healing of the wound, however deeply torn, begins the very instant it is inflicted. The energy and stamina required is actually of no account. The reaction is automatic, a mechanical device of balance disturbed, rebounding.
Three days passed after Olga took me off the train before I was able to pull myself out of the depth of despair. Recollection of those three days is hazy. There was the large room in the Kusnetsky apartment at the military college where Olga kept her three lost and desolate friends under her protecting wing: Nina Aleksandrovna, petite, emotional of a comeliness approaching that of a full-blown shower-drenched rose; Zinaida Vasilievna, too dainty and birdlike to be so badly hurt; and I, tear-stained and dazed. She put us to bed on low camp cots, side by side. She fed us as if we were frail invalids. She talked to us and tended us and kept us sane. Brown eyes darting, arms swinging in quick and decisive motion, Olga carried out her self-imposed task of big sister. And, aided by her strength and devotion, we gradually recovered enough marrow to continue.
Between sobs, tears dripping from her dark lashes, in gesture and voice unconsciously dramatic, Nina Aleksandrovna told us all she knew. A man, a Lett by the name of Kedrov, with a reputation for marked revolutionary zeal and hands stained by terrorist deeds, had been selected as the head of the Archangel Cheka in charge of the "liquidation" of the counterrevolution in the northern territories .
Nina told of the nightly searches and the ransacking of almost every house, of mad manhunts, of executions in cellars against bullet- spattered walls. She described the severe reprisals by the authorities in their frenzied attempts to subdue a population that for the most part had been only unfortunate pawns in a cruel game of civil war, interested in little else than being left to live their own lives in peace.
Kedrov himself, Nina said, hard and ruthless though he was, had taken no personal delight in the bloodbaths; he simply issued the orders. The purely sanguinary enjoyment was entirely the prerogative of his mistress and secretary, a she-devil beyond description. With sadistic satisfaction she wielded her silver-studded revolver on the black nights of mass executions, reserving for herself the privilege of dispatching the first victim. With her own dainty hands she per formed the actual chore of liquidation. And it was on her instiga tion, Nina's informers had told her, that on the night of July 7-8 the party of 500 officers, our husbands among them, had been taken out of the camp at Kholmogory and mown down by machine-gun fire.
Thus Nina Aleksandrovna's story, most of it gathered at Cheka headquarters, where she had gone to plead for information about her husband. As flatly and ruthlessly as the deed itself had been done, they had told her the details.
As the first stunning effects of the story began gradually to subside, I felt for a straw on which to pin a desolate future. Death had brushed very close and I was left with a life yet to be lived. I asked Nina Aleksandrovna if she had any absolute proof that what they had told her was true. Did she see a list with their names? Was it not possible that some of them might have been sent to Siberia secretly?
Nina Aleksandrovna's large velvet eyes fastened upon me with the look of an ailing child being rudely aroused from a state of apathy.
"I have only the word of the man at the Cheka," she murmured.
"Then you don't know if it is true?" I persisted. "Why should these devils tell you the truth?"
"Don't say these things," she protested tearfully. "They were at Kholmogory, that I do know. Zinaida had this directly from her husband, and my husband also sent me a message from there. And now they are no longer there, that I also know. A reliable friend - not the Cheka - told me, and I trust him. I know I can trust him," she insisted.
"Did they give you any of Aleksandr Dmitrievich's belongings?" I went on. Now tears were pouring down our faces; tears came so easily, one could not stop them from falling. "Do you know where they are buried?"
Nina Aleksandrovna stared at me. Her lips trembled. It was cruel of me to suggest hope to her again. "No," she said at length. "No, I don't know, but I am convinced they were all killed." Her words were drowned in a deep sob. Full of fear, her tear-drenched eyes rejected every thought of hope.
For me, hope was imperative. I could not go on without it. Give me hope, and I shall survive! Nothing that Nina had told us contained absolute proof that Gleb had been killed. I refused to believe it without conclusive proof. It had happened, many times, that men in a desperate attempt to survive had dropped a split second before the shots rang out, and thus escaped. Some had even allowed themselves to be buried and then, when all was quiet, had dug themselves out of the mass grave and crawled into hiding. Legendary stuff? Some of it, yes. But some did survive, lived like savages in the forest until they were finally rescued by local people with enough guts and humanity to risk saving a fellow human being. And thus some, after years of absence, eventually returned home. Why could it not happen again? Gleb had endurance, infinite patience; he was tough. And without making dear in my mind what an escape would have cost him in hardship and mental anguish, without recognizing limitations, at this moment I burned with the thought that someday perhaps he would come back.
Emotionally exhausted, I searched in vain for a sentence, words to express to my friends my profound appreciation for the wonderful comradeship we had shared, to tell Olga something of how grateful I was for all she had done. I wanted to make our leave-taking meaningful and memorable. But I found none. And in the late afternoon I could only kiss them a wordless good-bye.
An hour later I found myself once again trudging wearily up the Myasnitskaya, loaded down with my baggage. When Anastasia Denisovna opened the door, her only greeting was a sigh of relief; she asked no questions. The unexpected return of someone believed lost was in those days just as common as someone's disappearance forever. Later, at the supper table, with an equal lack of emotion, the Grigoriev family listened to the tale I had to tell them about Gleb. When I finished, they informed me with their usual casual kindness that the small room on the fourth floor still stood empty.
At this epoch in Russian history, Communist leaders and workers were being invited from outside the Soviet Union to observe firsthand the infant Communist experiment. Welcomed by Pravda with fanfares and with red carpets actually spread before their feet, the visitors were put up in the elegant suites of the former luxury hotels, now pragmatically named Soviet House No. 1, 2, and so on. They spent most of their time touring model schools, nurseries, hospitals, and factories under the supervision of well-instructed guides. It would not be entirely fair to accuse the hosts of creating these model circuits overnight by a supreme effort, purely for show, to deflect attention from the squalor and want that was obvious even to the most carefully shielded visitor. In part, at least, they embodied something of the great revolutionaries' visions, now being gradually put into practice and shown not without some justifiable pride.
A delegation of British Communists and unionists was the first to arrive. It was followed by others, a group of Finnish workers among them. One day Mr. Hellman told me about the arrival of a Swedish delegation. Through them, he pointed out, I might have a good chance of discovering my husband's fate. No doubt I could with their help gain access to some influential person in the Kremlin.
Early the next morning I called up Kata Dahlstrom, one of the delegates, a woman well known in Sweden for her vividly red views and militant attitude. A voice speaking in halting Russian answered the telephone. I told her my name and asked for an interview at some suitable hour that day.
"Certainly, come up any time. No, let me see, I have a conference at the Kremlin this morning. Three o'clock this afternoon? How would that be?" I said it would be fine. "All right. Then you will meet the others too," she concluded. Obviously, it never dawned on her that the request could come from one of vastly different political color.
With heart pounding, I appeared at the hotel at the set time. I felt like a bee gone astray, entering a strange hive. I walked into the lounge, but there was no one to direct me. A few people came and went, guests evidently, men absorbed in their own thoughts and plans, one or two women in severely tailored suits, all with red ribbons pinned in their lapels. I mounted the stairs and at the top of the first flight saw an open hall. A young man in trim blue uniform, a revolver tucked into the holster at his belt, sat behind a desk writing. I took him for the Cerberus guarding the entrance to this distinguished Communist guesthouse, and I was right. He looked up at me inquiringly.
I told him I had an appointment with Comrade Dahlstrom, the Swedish delegate.
"Your passport, tovarishch!" he demanded harshly.
The request was a shock. The only passport I had was the document issued by the former Russian consul in Stockholm before my journey to Archangel. Not daring to leave it behind in my room, I always carried it with me. To show it would reveal the whole story of my counterrevolutionary connections. But the man's insolence suddenly set fire to my temper. I whipped out the condemning paper.
The man rose from his seat, momentarily speechless.
"This!" he cried, disdainfully flicking with the back of his hand my double-eagled becrowned document. "This is no Book of Labor. This is glaring counterrevolutionary evidence! Where are your Soviet credentials?"
This was the first time I had heard of the Book of Labor, the individual identification without which no one could legitimately exist in the Soviet Union .
"I have no other credentials."
"You are a damned bourgeoise," he snapped. "You should be arrested!"
Where my courage and detachment came from at this moment, I have no idea. The threat did not touch me at all.
"Call up Comrade Dahlstrom at once, tell her I am here!" I ordered. And coming a bit closer to him: "If anything should happen to me, she knows who I am...."
He seized the receiver and called her number. When I heard her answering, I snatched the receiver out of his hand. Speaking in Swedish: "Mrs. Kirilina, Miss Dahlstrom. I'm having a bit of trouble. The man down here won't let me pass...." I hung up, and we stood glaring at one another for half a minute.
Steps came rippling down the stairs and a diminutive woman in a simple brown suit stopped on the bottom step. She surveyed the situation. Her fresh young face was keenly alert.
"I am Elin Linderoth," she announced in Swedish. "Mrs. Kirilina, you are to come up at once. Comrade Dahlstrom is waiting for you."
"He won't let me pass," I said with a sly look at the enraged receptionist.
Elin Linderoth took a few steps toward him, the color in her cheeks mounting, her small fists knotted at her sides. "The comrade has come to see me," she said with emphasis in broken Russian.
"But she is an enemy of the Revolution!" the man said. "She has got no credentials."
"I will have no interference with my friends," she quickly interrupted. "You understand? You are not to stop her when she comes. I personally guarantee her loyalty."
With these words she turned on her heel, and I had only a second to recover my offending passport and throw my antagonist a look of triumph. She took my hand and we ran upstairs as fast as she had come down.
Kata Dahlstrom received me with warm friendliness, a bit surprisingly, as she had no idea who I was or what I wanted. A formless woman in a styleless gray woolen dress, her gray hair standing on end around her plain face, she gave the impression of having a total disregard for method and order. She spoke nervously, constantly interrupting herself, as if her brain formulated ideas more quickly than her tongue could put them into words. For years she had been considered one of Sweden 's most radical socialists. She had spent a lifetime propounding the rights of the worker and she had been an untiring champion of the underprivileged. Because of her militant attitude and her distinctive face and figure, the caricaturists had pounced upon her as a favorite subject for malicious ridicule, but she met all their attacks with unruffled indifference. In her present association with prominent international Communists and socialists she was accepted as the undisputed dean; both her intelligence and her whims were highly respected. The distinction of culture and wit belonged to her naturally and wrapped the whole of her shapeless and untidy person in impressive dignity.
The friendly atmosphere that met me when I entered the room gave me an immediate sense of confidence, and I felt no hesitation in relating to these people surrounding Kata Dahlstrom, fierce revolutionaries though they were, the full story about Gleb and his disappearance. Frankly and in plain words I told them exactly what had happened. My story was received with remarkable sympathy, and Kata Dahlstrom promised that she would arrange an interview for me with Comrade Leon Trotsky.
The staging of this portentous meeting required several days. Meanwhile, I spent much time in the company of Elin Linderoth and her husband. Tall, lean, with a friendly pleasant expression in his gray eyes, he was a convinced socialist. Despite differences in temperament, outlook, and background, we found ourselves drifting into a friendship based on mutual sympathy and tolerance. Elin often drew me into long discussions on socialist ideology. Ever since Miss Palmquist's well-meaning but ill-contrived attempt at Svensksund to introduce me to socialism, its idealism had appealed to me and lingered at the back of my mind. Now Elin explained the fundamental ideas of the Revolution as envisioned by prominent socialists, such as Maksim Gorki - its reasons and justifications. With ardent enthusiasm she spoke of the single unseverable society of equality and equity, as opposed to the "divided society," which she considered ultimately doomed. At the same time she drew deft comparisons between the theories of social democracy and those of pure communism, the latter now being put into practice in the Soviet Union. And in so doing, she subtly emphasized the difference between the ruthless dictatorship of the latter and the balanced moderation contained in the principles of the former. It amazed me to find so many similarities between Elin's political creed and the ideas Gleb had discussed with me and which he had regarded as practical and acceptable for his wholehearted participation in the rebuilding of Russian society.
Yet, though I had to agree with many of Elin's arguments, I could never agree with her excuses for the executions and atrocities committed in the holy name of the People's Revolution. What was to her an occasional necessity during violent political upheavals was to me totally intolerable. No goal, I told her, could be considered either idealistic or desirable that trampled souls and crushed spirits in the process of attaining its fulfillment. I refused to concede that the Revolution, merely by squelching all resistance in blood, could indeed be called victorious. But in the passion of our disagreement I failed to realize that the very same castigation could often with equal reason be leveled at the political opponents of communism. I forgot that passion, not reason, usually fires the defense of clashing political ideas.
Elin insisted on my accompanying the Swedish delegation on its tours through the factories and other institutions it visited. She felt I should see for myself the great social reforms that were actually being accomplished. So I went, and I saw factories, schoolrooms, and nurseries that were so polished and well set up that they had obvi ously been prepared for the benefit of the visitors. Children drilled in revolutionary parades sang the "Internationale" with gusto, as other children before them had sung "God Save the Tsar." Workers cleanly attired and glowing with well-being impressed us with their zealous revolutionary activities, all of which appeared to me over emphasized but to my companions gave convincing proof of the Revolution's signal success. And it was only natural that it should be so. Had they been acquainted with the overwhelming contrasts I had seen, the crowds of people at the stations and in the trains, the mobs at the marketplaces, the degrading filth and feculence of the prisons, and beyond all this if they had known the anguish of fear and insecurity that was the lot of almost every citizen of Soviet Russia, they might have judged what they saw slightly differently. And yet...
A few days later Kata Dahlstrom informed me that she had been unable to arrange an interview with Trotsky, but that Anatoli Lunacharsky, commissar of education, had promised to see me and do what he could for me. Mr. Linderoth was to escort me to the Kremlin the next morning at eleven sharp.
Like beams radiating from the sun, the main streets of Moscow run in all directions from the Kremlin, the center. Asiatic, Tatar in design, raised by the toil of serfs, its diagonal turreted brick walls, their color mellowed through the centuries, contain the emblems and the relics of Russia 's historical past. Within, the former Imperial Palace with its white facade and the tall slender Tower of Ivan the Terrible vie for room with several churches, their golden onion domes on sunny days exploding with suns of their own. Symbols of love and piety, these churches within this bastion contrast strangely with the historical actualities of Russia 's dark ages, past and present.
With my escort, whose identity opened all doors, I walked through the Red Gate past the helmeted guards. Rounded cobblestones worn uneven by uncounted footsteps covered the courtyard. We slipped into the palace through a back entrance and mounted a flight of stairs. In a spacious anteroom outside tall closed doors we stood waiting.
Softly the doors opened and a dark, plain-faced woman motioned to me. The vast room I entered was dimmed by heavy draperies. A few soft chairs and an enormous desk stacked with orderly piles of papers were the only furniture. Behind the desk sat Lunacharsky. A face of sharp intelligence confronted me. The pointed goatee streaked with gray, the well-shaped open forehead accentuated by its receding hairline belonged to a man of culture and refinement. The look of sympathetic interest in the dark eyes took away some of my nervousness.
Lunacharsky rose and greeted me courteously. He motioned me to be seated and asked me to state my mission. His voice was soft and urbane. When I had finished, he looked at me sharply.
"These events are unfortunate," he said, "but under the circumstances I am afraid unavoidable. I regret your distress and that I cannot do very much for you. However, I shall write a letter to Comrade Menzhinsky, who is, as you know, the chief of Moscow Cheka. I shall ask him to give your case special consideration. As a former White officer, your husband comes under Menzhinsky's jurisdiction."
He began dictating the letter to his secretary. When it had been typed he read it carefully, then folded it into an envelope that he left unsealed. He rose and with a few courteous words handed it to me. The secretary ushered me out into the anteroom.
With the precious letter clasped in my hand, I crossed Red Square and went through the Ivorsky Arch and up the wide avenue past the Bolshoi Theater to Lubyanka Square. Spacious as Russia herself, the wide thoroughfares were ample enough not to appear crowded though many people were out hurrying past me on this sunny warm afternoon. Crossing the square, I stood before the tall former apartment building that now housed the dreaded Moscow Cheka. I was breathless from nervousness. Within minutes I would know Gleb's fate with certainty.
At the wicket in the entrance hall I presented my letter of introduction. The soldier, cap nonchalantly pushed back, was pressed by the signature.
"So you want to see Comrade Menzhinsky?" he said gruffly as I quickly recovered the letter.
He spoke over the telephone at his elbow and I heard Lunachar sky's name mentioned.
"Here, Ivan," he shouted. "To Comrade Menzhinsky!"
My guide took me upstairs through a maze of bare passages and rooms. No broom had reached into the corners where the light husks of sunflower seeds had whirled away to gather in piles with the dust. Finally we stopped before tall ornate doors. My guide knocked and I was ushered inside.
The room was narrow and deep. At the far end huge windows rounded at the top opened upon the square. A man stood in one of them looking out, his long thin hands clasped behind his back. Menzhinsky turned slowly and I faced a cadaverous-looking man with sharply outlined facial bones and a hard mouth above a dapper pointed beard. His eyes were black as night against the pallor of his skin, yet seemed fired with the unholy light of fanaticism. With a nervous movement he took the letter I held out to him.
"What is your errand?" he asked coldly. His piercing glance and icy manner intimidated me. I felt my self-control slipping.
"It is about my husband, Gleb Nikolayevich Kirilin," I began, trying to keep my voice steady. "He was among a large group of Archangel officers taken prisoner at Sumskiy Posad. They were brought to Moscow , to the Ivanovsky camp.
Menzhinsky remained silent, merciless, and I continued, swallowing to check the tears: "He was transferred to the Pokrovsky camp and on the night of June sixteenth he and about five hundred of the other prisoners disappeared. I have been told they were deported to Kholmogory. Please . . . can you . . . Where is he?"
I stopped. Menzhinsky had moved slowly around to the desk. He stood there examining his long fingernails. In front of him lay Lunacharsky's letter.
"Why should I tell you?" he finally asked.
"Because I am his wife—because I must find him—and I must know what happened to him!"
A burst of mirthless laughter broke from his thin lips.
"What, madame, if I cannot tell you?" he taunted with mocking suavity.
"But you must know," I insisted, hardly noticing the sarcasm of his words. "You have the list of the prisoners, you must be able to tell me what has happened to him. He is in your power. You have released some of these prisoners. The terms of the surrender guaranteed that they would all eventually be released."
Menzhinsky's eyes narrowed and his voice was impatient when he spoke again:
"This serves you nothing, madame." He began pacing to and fro. Suddenly he stopped in front of me and every word was sharp and distinct: "Men like your husband are malicious counterrevolutionaries!"
I stood rooted to the floor. Tears poured down my cheeks, choked me.
"I beg of you, please, tell me!" A knock on the door interrupted me. Menzhinsky walked across the room to the doors and with a gesture of affected elegance flung them open. Those outside came in, and he motioned them to the far end of the room. Then, bowing blandly, he indicated the open doors.
Frantically, my mind in a whirl, I searched for words to make this man tell me the truth. "Please tell me, what have you done?"
"I bid you good day!" Menzhinsky bowed again and I felt myself, in effect, pushed out of the room.
It was all over ... so abruptly. Somehow I reached the street. For one awful moment I had stood locked in contest with the man who held the secret of Gleb's fate ... and I had lost.