East Across the Steppes

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This article continues the story about the author's grandfather, a so-called religious `nonconformist,' in the last years of czarist Russia. The series has followed the arrest of Ivan Bogdanovich Jacques on religious grounds, his struggle to survive the Russian penal system, and now, after his escape on the Siberian steppes, his preparations to leave his homeland for good.

THE war was west, so my grandfather went east.

It was now late October, 1915, two years before the October Revolution that would change Russia forever. Having escaped from exile in Siberia, Ivan Bogdanovich Jacques had returned to his home in the Caucasus. But he was a fugitive now, and in long discussions with his family and village elders, he realized he must leave the country.

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After an agonizing predawn separation from his parents and sisters, Ivan Bogdanovich spent the day out of sight with a close friend. Then he walked to the train station and bought a ticket for Irkutsk, 4,000 miles to the East.

Ironically, this meant a return to Siberia just as winter was arriving. But to go towards the Western Front, where the disastrous war was raging, was unthinkable. And below the far end of Siberia was Manchuria, China, and the Pacific port of Shanghai.

Not sure if he would survive the first encounter with authorities, he boarded the train. During the night the train stopped and a gendarme entered his compartment. The officer searched his baggage, then held his lantern, for what seemed like minutes, close to my grandfather's face. Without speaking, the gendarme then abruptly left and the train continued. Years later my grandfather would write: ``I cannot explain this incident, except as I explain to my own heart many incidents of that journey - on the supposition that divine power interposed to ward off harm.''

Although he felt relief with the passing of each town and city, his apprehension intensified as the train passed through Ufa, from which he had earlier escaped. Finally, the train crossed the Ural Mountains into Siberia. Here winter had already arrived, and the glittering frost was brilliant in the morning sun.

For eight days the train crawled east. Nearing Irkutsk, the provincial capital in the belly of Siberia, not far from Mongolia, my grandfather again grappled with anxiety. The journey would be much more dangerous in border regions. On the route to Vladivostok, the railway passed through Manchuria. With no passport or other papers, he would certainly be arrested.

Traveling with him on the Siberian railway were mostly men in uniform, many of them wounded. As they rode, my grandfather had become friendly with an injured military engineer, who had discharged and was returning home. From this soldier came the offer to sell him both his uniform and railway pass to Vladivostok.

Arriving in Irkutsk, the two hired a sleigh and drove to an address my grandfather had previously been given - the home of a Protestant pastor. Here they talked briefly with the family, then went into another room and exchanged their clothes. Was it only war-inflicted suffering, cynicism, and need of money that led this engineer to trade identities with my grandfather? Or was there a deep and perhaps unarticulated empathy that made him become, at great risk, a ``secret sharer'' in my grandfather's flight?

In any case, Ivan Bogdanovich now began a more complicated practice of deception. As a young church worker who had already suffered much for his beliefs, this deception troubled him. Yet he felt that the opportunity was providential, and with the now-civilian engineer he returned to the train station. His companion pointed out the train car for wounded, then disappeared.

To complete his disguise, Ivan Bogdanovich had asked his hosts to wrap his right arm in white muslin. This ``injury'' would not only justify his presence with other wounded soldiers, but would excuse him from the necessity of saluting.

But when he boarded the train for Vladivostok, Ivan Bogdanovich found he needed an additional disguise. As soon as he was seated, the other soldiers crowded around the new passenger. What regiment was he from? How had he been injured? What action had he seen? His mind racing, my grandfather quickly feigned deafness. Shouts in his ear had no effect. ``Shell-shocked,'' he heard someone mutter. He was saved from further questions when a kindly middle-aged soldier assumed a protective role and ordered the others to leave him in peace.

This soldier also acted as spokesman when the conductor asked my grandfather for his pass. How difficult it must have been for him to conceal his emotions as the pass was examined, then returned to him stamped. ``I felt like shouting for joy,'' he later wrote.

The next challenge came hours later when the train stopped at a station and Sisters of Mercy led the injured soldiers to a dining room for soup and bread. After the soldiers had eaten, the sisters started changing the soldiers dressings, and one offered to re-bandage my grandfather's arm. Just then the train whistle blew, and my grandfather quickly excused himself and re-boarded the train.

En route again, the deaf soldier with the injured arm - isolated from those with whom he had found refuge - stared out the window. He drew solace from the mountains, as the train climbed into the high country on the southeastern side of Lake Baikal, finding them beautiful after the dreary steppes.

He also found solace in a volume of poetry of Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov he had purchased at the train station. Lermontov, a 19th-century poet and novelist, had lived in exile in the Caucasus, near my grandfather's home. He was banished there after he angered Czar Nicholas I with his poetic denunciations of the lack of freedom in Russia.

Growing up, I never knew my grandfather liked poetry until I read his story of his escape. I wish I could have shared Lermontov with him. I like now to think of Ivan Bogdanovich as in 1915 he rode slowly towards China in a train full of wounded soldiers. I can see him disguised in his army greatcoat, leaning against the drafty window frame, one arm bound in a sling, the other hand holding the poems of Lermontov below his pince-nez spectacles.

He must have felt a kinship with Lermontov, sharing his love for freedom, and his love for the wild mountains and fertile valleys of the Caucasus. This little book would again help my grandfather, in a way he could not then imagine. To be continued. Previous articles in this series ran June 13, Sept. 12, and Sept. 26.

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