East Across the Steppes
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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?