Within Range of the Possible
Early in 1918, to the dismay of Russia 's allies, the Bolsheviks concluded with the Germans a separate preliminary cease-fire. The soldiers at the front, who had staged their own local revo lutions, like those at Horserod, identified the cease-fire as a bona fide end of the war and simply went home.
Under the heavy loads the transportation systems broke down all over the country. The movement of people and goods created grave food shortages, especially in the cities. Moreover, in a country that covered more than a third of the earth's land area, attempts at reconstruction according to a new and untried political schema presented monumental difficulties.
With the cease-fire agreement, the speedy repatriation of the pris oners of war became a burning question. For the Germans it was easy enough, just a crossing of the border, and their camp soon stood empty. For the Russians, however, it was a different matter. How were they to get from Denmark to Russia ? To transport them through a Germany still at war was impossible. In Finland, Baron von Mannerheim with his intrepid freedom fighters was carrying on a bitter struggle for liberty and independence, and for a time this conflict closed the direct route across the Baltic to Petrograd . Only one way remained open, through Sweden around the top of Norway to Murmansk . But to move a large contingent of invalid prisoners of war home to Russia by this roundabout way was impractical. This was nonetheless the route that Gleb and two fellow offi cers, traveling on their own, had decided to take, in the hope of eventually reaching Petrograd by train or on foot along the railroad tracks.
After they left, the camp slipped into a state of dissolution. Evacuation was everywhere and on all occasions the main topic of conversation. Departure—how, when, and by what means—occupied the minds of the officers, the soldiers, and the nurses alike. It was rumored that the Soviet government had promised to dispatch ships to Denmark for their repatriation as soon as the situation in Finland made this possible. Was it true? Disbelief aggravated the endless waiting. Meanwhile, another group of officers, fired by Gleb's and his companions' example and too impatient to await word of their success or failure, procured enough money and the necessary visas to start out on the long journey.
As time dragged on, one noticed small gatherings of two or three men detaching themselves from the rest. Most of these were officers, but some also were enlisted men, all of them frightened. Suddenly they could not bear the thought of returning to Russia under the present conditions. They were ignorant of life there under the red banner, they heard only rumors, and hope lingered that a strong counterrevolutionary movement would eventually be organized. The executions, the constant nagging fear of being arrested, the Cheka— the disreputable security police—all loomed large. Russia 's reputa tion for harsh treament of her undesirables had for centuries run like poison through all her political life. The salt mines of Siberia, unimaginable degradation and suffering meted out to rebellious lower classes . . . Now, incredibly, the roles of the classes were reversed. Primitive self-preservation bade them choose with prudence any alternative to repatriation while it was still available. To remain in Denmark, to wait and see, might at least offer them temporary safety from violence, a certain security. Was that not what they were seeking and what they needed so desperately? And for the moment this offer of refuge obscured to them the tragedy of the refugee, the humiliating poverty, the dependence on doles, the bitterness of a futile homesickness, and the isolation through deadly indifference in a strange land and society.
For me there was nothing but blank loneliness. My memories from this period are little more than a blur, all except the tense listening to the resounding footsteps upon the wooden sidewalks and the pain in realizing with a start that they could never be his. My tiny room with its bed, desk, and washstand was a prison cell. Reveille, which used to make me leap from bed, sounded the start of only another long day of emptiness.
Zinaida Andreyevna continued to walk among her invalids, dispensing support and encouragement. Now her face was always serious and brooding. She carried the burden of Russia 's torment and defeat upon her shoulders. The choice of staying or returning to Russia was not hers, but her husband's. And for him there was only one choice. But the soldiers were hers, her Russia, her compatriots, in great need of sympathy and compassion as they had always been, no matter what they did or thought, one class, she and they together. And they gave her in return their respect.
She spoke to me of this relationship, and I tried to emulate her thoughts and actions in my own relationship with my tubercular patients. I realized my inadequacy. I lacked the sensitivity of the Russian.
Trebinsky and Vronsky made touching attempts to substitute for the companionship I had lost. They took me out for walks and made me go with them on excursions, but to revisit these places of recent happiness only sharpened the pain of the memory. They tried to make me laugh, but their efforts often fell through awkwardly. I should of course have laughed if for no other reason than to reward their chivalry and devotion. What Gleb had not even attempted— my adoption into the Russian clan—they accorded me spontaneously and unconditionally.
Spring burst upon the landscape. Overnight the beech trees' tender leaves miraculously unfolded and formed a green-shimmering veil around each tree. The heady aromas of the new leaves and the spring-blooming plants spread beyond the edge of the forest, too potent to be contained within the limited area of their own community.
It was heartbreaking to be unable to share with Gleb the joy I remembered from the springtimes at Svensksund. To me there could be no greater happiness than to experience a springtime with him and to make him realize the promise of it. But he had gone away.
And so this springtime at Horserod passed, wasted as far as I was concerned. I left before the final evacuation of the camp took place, and by then summer had already reached full bloom.
Again an invitation from Tante Jessy arrived at a critical point in my life. Mother and Ebba were also to spend the summer at Egeskov.
Horserod and Egeskov were poles apart. At Horserod I had been forced to face the uncompromising and shocking realities of life. At Egeskov I was offered an overabundance of luxury and security. Smooth service anticipated every move, every requirement not yet felt, and the day's monotonous rounds of effortless activities were often too boringly pleasant even to stir an objection.
How charming this time at Egeskov might have been had my mind been fully open to its lavish tranquillity, its vegetative pleasures! The sun was soft upon the creeping gray and yellow algae that mottled the walls of the castle. Sharply drawn shadows outlined the massive contours of turrets and the angling walls, and the entire scene was reflected in the still black water of the moat. A beautiful, an enchanting place!
My sister and I shared an apartment in the east wing. We liked to dawdle in the mornings, the only undisturbed time of the day we had to ourselves, a time that seemed curiously inadequate to contain all the reading, chatting, and playful activities—such as spitting into the moat to make the carp rise—that we tried to crowd into it. For this reason we chronically appeared too late for the breakfasts rich in cream and honey in the company of Tante Jessy and Mother.
Following his departure from Horserod, Gleb had sent me a postard from Stockholm , then another from Narvik, and another from Vard0, the last outpost before he entered the unknown, the danger zone across the border of Russia . They had contained only brief messages hurriedly written with a purple indelible pencil, half in French, half in Russian. They had told me little of his feelings, his thoughts, and his experiences as he made his way toward home. They had been, nevertheless, proof of a sustained contact between us, however fragile, however thinly extended across the great distance, a hope, perhaps a promise.
After that he had been swallowed by the great unknown. There was nothing but impenetrable silence. Day after day I looked for a letter with a persistence, a last hope that would not die. The postman in his navy-blue uniform would come bicycling up the drive, and I would waylay him before he reached the large entrance doors under the archway, before he could enter the hall to lay the mail on the table.
"Anything for me today?"
"No, miss, sorry, not today."
One day, half on purpose, I missed the postman. What was the use? Everything contradicted my fast shrinking hope that I would ever again hear from Gleb. He had held me in his arms, there had been a love; a need for each other developed between us. It had been not just a dream but a reality. Then why, why had he left me to go straight into the jaws of the Revolution? And he one of the most vulnerable to its deadly dangers.
From habit I drifted into the hall. No one was there. The light summer breeze wafted through the open doors the fragrance of the large flowering rhododendron outside. The day's mail lay on the table in the center of the room already sorted.
There was a letter for me. The strange-looking envelope ad dressed in a strange hand was soiled from much handling. Then I knew in a flash. I grasped it and ran to my room.
A letter was inside in Gleb's handwriting. I tore it open. At first I could not understand the meaning of the words scrawled on that piece of paper. Suddenly to realize that the fragile thread spun be tween us held overwhelmed me. The rest came in a rush, as when in a blush the blood returns to a deadly pale face. Breathlessly I grasped the full meaning of the words. At last I understood the feelings they conveyed. They changed my whole world. And I knew that life was glorious, that he and I were young and in love, that no distance existed wide enough to separate us, that there were no difficulties we could not overcome. No circumstances, no con siderations could come between us, no wars, no revolutions, for at long last he had expressed the words I had longed to hear.
I kept my secret all that day, and then at night, when the house had grown quiet after all had gone to their rooms, I went up to mother's round chamber in the east turret. She was in bed reading. She smiled a welcome. But as I began telling her of Gleb and Russia and my happiness, the smile slowly drained from her face. And the telling plunged me precipitously from the heights of bliss into a disconcerting reality.
"But, child!" she said gently with masterly self-restraint. "But, child ..."
Gradually, as I talked, the difficulties of my plans emerged in a more glaring light. To her they were insurmountable. To me they were simply hurdles that courage and resourcefulness could overcome. I wanted to join Gleb in Russia. The problems of getting into Russia in the midst of a revolution, of procuring a visa and funds to travel were all solvable. There were many ways to get in and out of Russia —false passports, bought visas, marriage by proxy. The conversations at Horserod had centered around these things. And my imagination performed somersaults in order to convince Mother that I could do anything I wanted, that I could sweep away any difficulties. Love could move mountains. Hadn't she heard? Didn't she know?
But I could not convince her. Didn't she see that times had changed, that other values existed besides financial security, position, home, servants, children? The war had changed all that. And I wanted to face it and to be part of it. I wanted to accept the diffi culties as they arose. My place was with Gleb and not here in an almost shameful security. Mother's view was old-fashioned, archaic, timid. Mine was new, enterprising, courageous. Now the time had come when my nursing skills would really become a great asset, when the hard training would pay dividends. Over there, in a country ravished by war and revolution, there must be a tremendous need for good nurses. And when there was less to eat, one ate less, it was quite simple.
Mother looked at me and her eyes were very serious.
"Isn't there a possibility that you might add to his troubles and dangers by joining him now?" she said softly. "I shouldn't imagine a man would feel happy having his wife exposed to dangers and perhaps suffering for his sake."
That silenced me for the moment as I remembered Gleb's strict sense of duty. Mother had scored a point.
Yet it was not so. Now it was my sacred right to share the dangers and the hardships with him. I refused to believe that he would be better off without me. Not now—for he had written, he wanted me. That was enough. Across closed borders and open seas we had come together again. Wasn't that sign enough? And this coming together was meant for life. Our love would triumphantly carry us over everything, poverty, hunger, dangers, even death.
I said, "Mother, you don't understand," as if she had never been young, as if she had never known idealism, enthusiasm. Gleb and I would find a way. We were not afraid.
Mother did not argue the point. Perhaps she realized the futility of battling the tidal wave of change. The whole thing had crept upon her imperceptibly, and she was taken by surprise.
There was a long silence. The night watchman came to the draw bridge below the open window. His voice drifted slowly through the night: "Twelve o'clock—and all is well!"
Mother lay with her head propped against the white pillow, and the blue room was warm and pleasant. And as I looked at her, it seemed to me that her mind had gone wandering somewhere where I could not follow.
To stay at Egeskov was impossible. And finally Mother gave in to my stormy entreaties to let me return to Stockholm , where her apartment stood temporarily empty. I would be more than a hundred miles closer to Gleb, and for a time I needed to be alone.
Tante Jessy, hearing of the reason for my departure, batted her eyelashes furiously. "Nonsense! Psht—psht—never heard of such foolishness!" And with an impatient gesture of her hand she dis missed the whole idea of this ludicrous marriage. "No one marries a Russian nowadays. No financial security—no position—refugees without nationality—psht—psht—impossible!"
Having accepted without question her noble family's choice of a husband befitting her station and with the accumulation of worldly goods and financial security to back her, Tante Jessy could not be expected to sanction such wild marriage plans as mine.
Before Gleb left Horserod, thinking that the contact might prove useful to him one day, I had given him a letter to deliver personally to my cousin Elsa Brandstrom. Her father was Sweden 's ambassador to Russia , and the embassy in Petrograd was still functioning. When Gleb's letter came, I knew that he had met Elsa.
She was a remarkable woman. She looked like a modern Valkyrie, tall and fair. Her blond hair was a soft translucent aura around her face, and her intense blue eyes her most memorable features. Her fearlessness was legendary. During the war she had gone to Siberia as a Red Cross delegate to ameliorate the hard lot of the German and Czech prisoners of war who were held there under appalling conditions. Her remarkable organizing skill and her sense of fairness won for her advantages and improvements for them that saved many a prisoner's life and sanity. In constant contact with lice and disease, Elsa eventually had contracted typhus and nearly died, and the soldiers gave her the name of "the Angel of Siberia."
Now, by putting our letters in envelopes addressed to her, Gleb and I were able to correspond with each other. My letters to Gleb crossed the closed border in the Swedish diplomatic courier's bag; she sent his letters to me in the same way. And the brief interviews she granted him when he came to deliver his closely scribbled messages soon became the only encouragement left to him.
My impetuous proposal to join Gleb in Russia at once met with his instant disapproval. His letter to this effect was tenderly per suasive. Under no circumstances should I come. To tell me all the reasons why such a thing could not be contemplated would serve no useful purpose, he wrote. What he needed most was faith in his good judgment. He talked of the "inside" and the "outside." No one "outside" could even remotely realize the risks such an undertaking would entail for both of us.
"But," he wrote, "to have you as my link with the outside is of utmost importance." This was talking in riddles, but a sunrise of hope dawned within me. Was he actually talking of coming here? The thought brought an almost painful feeling of joy.
"Do you think you could obtain for me a Swedish visa?" the letter continued. "If the worse comes to the worst..."
It was said. It was meant. To be thrown into action was a great relief. Full of eager confidence, I arranged for an interview with Mr. Sager of the visa department in the Foreign Office. I had met him, danced with him, and he was a nice man. He greeted me by expressing encouraging interest in whatever small matter I might have to discuss with him. A handsome, well-groomed man, he had the courteous manner of a rising young diplomat.
My errand was simply stated.
"So you're engaged!" His eyebrows lifted slightly. "My best felicitations, Miss Flach!" A short pause. "But—why a Russian?" His hand made a small deprecatory gesture. "Frankly, I don't ap prove of the idea of surrendering any of our charming young ladies to our estimable neighbor in the east."
I sat stiff and silent, feeling suddenly inexplicably culpable.
Observing my consternation, he said softly, "But who am I to reproach you? My wife—as you know . . ." and he smiled broadly.
Then I remembered the beautiful Mrs. Sager—a Russian. And wasn't there something about her having been a ballerina whom he had met while on diplomatic service in Petrograd ? He smiled again, and the coincidence, I felt, made things somewhat easier.
But I was mistaken.
"At present the Foreign Office issues no visas to foreigners." Sager went into a long explanation about the refugee problem. A lump rose in my throat and I didn't know how to get rid of it. "We're becoming very selective. And a Russian refugee . . . For give me for saying so, but for obvious reasons they're not among the most desirable."
Hope sank. The pride, the happiness in being engaged to Gleb dimmed strangely.
Mr. Sager went on to explain that I would have to provide a promise, a guarantee that Gleb would not stay in Sweden more than three months.
Hope bounced back. That would be easy, and at that moment three months seemed time unlimited. I promised, I bonded the faith of myself and all my family.
"But even so," Mr. Sager warned as he bowed me out, "your request is not likely to go through except as a special concession."
Out in the street, in the sunshine, I happily jumped at conclusions. The visa seemed to be as good as granted, and my next letter to Gleb was full of exuberant plans.
By the time a week had passed, the waiting became tedious. When several more weeks passed, I was in a state of feverish anxiety. What if "the worse came to the worst" tomorrow for Gleb? What this actually meant I could only conjecture. Arrest? Imprisonment? I learned what total helplessness meant.
The summons to Sager's office came as an anticlimax. "The Foreign Office has granted a visa to Lieutenant Kirilin—with reservations. The police commissioner must first approve his entry." Mr. Sager laid his hand on a sheaf of papers on his desk. "I thought your fiance would stand a better chance if you yourself took the papers to the commissioner."
"Who is this man?" The question was abrupt. The commissioner's voice was harsh. He smacked the papers I had given him with the back of his hand.
Hope fluttered uneasily. I told him that Gleb was a former officer of the Imperial Guard, that he had been badly wounded early in the war and taken prisoner, that he had returned home an invalid. "And now his life may be in danger."
"There are many like him," the commissioner observed. A protracted pause. "We're overrun with Russian refugees. Besides, they cannot be trusted."
I was outraged. Gleb was honest, trustworthy, and wonderful and charming besides. But I found it hard to plead with this Swede for my Russian, for I was fighting the distrust of centuries.
Finally he spoke again. "A visa will be granted this man on one condition: that he is out of this country within three months." For a second he fastened his piercing eyes upon my face. "Good day."
Gleb's letter telling me of the death of his father contained few details. Apparently it had been written in a hurry. I had known that his father was failing. Now there was only his sister Marie, the youngest of the family. He was arranging for her to go to their aunt, who lived in Petrograd. He was pleased with this arrangement. The aunt was running a Soviet eating place, and Marie could work there and be comparatively safe. His own need to leave Tsarskoe Selo was becoming more and more pressing, and he planned to do so shortly.
This came as a shock to me. What did it mean? Not to know where he was, to lose contact with him, this seemed to me worse than anything that could happen. How I hoped he had got the visa from Elsa! But there was no word. Again and again I reread his last letter to find a hint about the visa, but there was none.
No letter came from Gleb the following week. It could mean only one thing: that he had left Tsarskoe Selo. Had he been forced to leave? Or worse? And this awful silence dragged on, week after week.
The accounts of the red terror that was sweeping across the un fortunate country, of the persecutions suffered by the bourgeoisie, among whom former officers figured most prominently, were at this time becoming highly intensified. Simultaneously, the counterrevo lutionary activities in the south, east, and north, aided and supported by the Allies, were gaining in strength and momentum. Russian leaders emerged, General Anton Denikin in the south, later succeeded by General Baron Piotr Wrangel, Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak in th e east, and General Evgeny Miller in the north, and in the course of their initial successes they became almost legendary figures. The rumors about these White armies aroused in the anticommunists in side Russia desperate hopes of deliverance at the same time that the menace to their safety and to their lives became greatly increased. And they awakened in those on the outside a hope of a Bolshevik defeat and of a return to the political power they had lost. Most important to most of them was the fact that these men were providing a concerted effort to replace both the old regime and the Communists with something far better, a democracy that would be just and viable.
The gruesome tales that came from inside Russia were no longer at such a great distance from me that they could not touch me. They had become a reality converging upon me with nightmarish insistence. And my question: God, what has happened to him? remained unanswered.
Only one gleam of light penetrated the darkness: Gleb must have got the visa by now, and he must have had some plan in mind when he asked me to get it for him. People were escaping from Red Russia into Finland. The flight across the Siestra Rieka, the tiny creek separating Russia from Finland, was speedily becoming an organized business with guides and disguises that could be hired for a price. I began scanning the papers for the arrival time of the next boat from Finland .
Well ahead of the scheduled time I was at the quay. The darkening days of October lay wet and gray and foggy over the familiar outlines of land and water. Black-headed gulls on black-tipped wings wheeled over the water among the ships, uttering their mournful cries. Winches rattled loudly and the air smelled of fish and waterlogged timbers.
It was a long wait. But finally the gleaming white Finnish boat came into view. Slowly it glided toward the quay. People, gray people crowded its railings. I strained to find among them the well-known face. The Russian refugees were dearly recognizable. Their worn clothing, unmistakably Russian, their hesitating walk down the gangplank, their anxious glances gave them away. Gingerly, hesitating to the last, they stepped off the ship without assurance into the elusive freedom of poverty-stricken exile. And their eyes re flected the conflict between relief from danger and the overwhelming gloom caused by the loss of home and country. Day after day I returned to the quay to witness the same scenes, straining for the miracle that never happened. And I returned home each time more discouraged, more doubtful of a hope ever less likely to become a reality.
No matter how that incredible telegram I held in my hand might have been worded, the shock could hardly have been more severe. Great sorrow and great joy are emotions lying very close to each other. The prospect that I would see Gleb once again, tomorrow, seemed unreal. There was no explanation apart from the terse announcement that he would be in Stockholm the next day. I needed none. Where he came from, why he came, nothing mattered. He was safe, he was alive. Somehow he had managed to escape an environment where the impact of explosive events destroyed all attempts at forecasting and planning. And suddenly I was struck by the amazing significance attached to so trivial a matter as the ability to plan activities and to foresee events with more or less assurance.
The early northern twilight was just about to descend when once again I stood on the now familiar quay. The water in the harbor reflected the lingering glow of the sun upon the narrow gabled houses of the Old City along the waterfront. It illuminated also the masts, the riggings of the moored ships, the dirty sheds and scattered cargo. The place had never looked so bright and so attrac tive to me. I waited, and even though I knew exactly what would eventually happen, how the trim bow of the white ship would glide into view, when it finally did come it seemed to me a breathtaking surprise. My eyes strained across the diminishing distance to the solid mass of gray-brown people at the railings. I saw a hand waving above the heads of the gray mass. It was Gleb.
The white hull of the ship ground lightly against the wet timbers, the gangplank clattered. Uniformed men ran singly down the gang plank and into the customs shed. Presently, in a flood, the passengers poured down and into the shed. I had eyes only for one. Tall, gaunt, hollow-eyed he came, wearing no overcoat, in the frayed brown tunic I knew so well, military breeches, high Russian boots.
Gleb stood before me and I heard one word: "Lisa!"