An Exile's Bittersweet Reunion
This essay is part of a continuing series about the odyssey of a `religious nonconformist', the writer's grandfather, through Russian prisons to Siberia, and finally on to exile in the West. Previous installments ran on the Home Forum on June 13 and Sept. 12. I STARTED my ``journey'' to Russia in 1966 in Ephraim's, the marvelous old bookstore, since demolished, in Worcester, Mass. I drew down from the high shelves in the back the thick paperback, ``The Portable Anton Chekhov.''
Although I wasn't studying Russian literature in college, I couldn't stop reading Chekhov. I felt I knew his characters, had met them somewhere before. Then my journey took me back and forth in time: Gogol, Lermantov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, and always back to Chekhov.
Gradually, the host of Russian characters - the infinitely suffering, the comic, the noble, the petty, the impassioned, the prevailing, and the simply enduring - peopled my literary and emotional landscape.
Then one day I selected from my own bookshelf a book I had always taken for granted, and had never actually read: ``Escape from Siberian Exile,'' published in 1921. It is the story of my grandfather, a religious nonconformist, and his journey through the prisons of Russia to a penal island in Siberia, then of his escape home to the Caucasus and his flight to lifetime exile.
So as I read of my grandfather's long journey from Russia, it was a Russia I already knew, at least to the extent that one perceives the mind, heart, and soul of a country and culture through the eyes of its great writers. And I understood some of my grandfather's pain in leaving, not only his family, but his homeland - even as in 1915 Russia was undergoing tragic and savage devastation from both internal and external forces.
To leave was not an easy decision. It was forced by necessity one night following a daring maneuver in the town of Birsk on the Ural River. Arrested and banished first to the village of Alatayevo on the East branch of the Ob River in Siberia, my grandfather, Ivan Bogdanovich, and his companion were later sent further to the most northern penal station on the Ob, the island of Kolguyak.
After two weeks on the island, they received a reply from a petition they had sent earlier to Tsar Nicholas II. A church member had smuggled the letter out and sent it to the Tsarina. In the petition, the religious prisoners asked to be stationed not in Siberia, but on the west side of the Ural Mountains in the vicinity of Ufa. The reply now granted them their wish.
Yet no orders were forthcoming, and the two exiles waited. With the cold air of August came relief from the mosquitoes and gnats that had overwhelmed them all summer. But again forest and tundra fires swept through the area, shrouding the island in semidarkness.
Lost in the smoke, two Mennonites arrived on the island. My grandfather had roots in the Mennonite community, and the two woodsmen, on a crew cutting railway ties for the government in lieu of military service, were welcome company.
A second letter was sent to the government, this time via an exiled journalist to Alexandar Kerensky, then the leader of the socialist faction of the fragile Russian parliament. This letter brought results. After two months on the island, my grandfather and Gorelic were ordered to proceed south to Narym, the administrative center of the district.
By canoe and steamboat the two now traveled upstream on the Ob to Narym, and finally to Tomsk, where they boarded a train, this time without guards, for passage back across the Ural Mountains into European Russia.
``In a very happy mood we made the journey of three or four days to Ufa,'' wrote Ivan Bogdanovich. In Ufa, however, the governor ordered them to leave the city, and to go into exile in separate directions. Despite their pleas, my grandfather was separated from his close companion and friend, Elias Gorelic, and commanded to travel to the little city of Birsk, 100 miles away.
In Birsk, Ivan Bogdanovich found a room with a family who treated him like a son. Their own son was a prisoner of war in Germany. But after 10 days, Ivan Bogdanovich received a telegram from the governor ordering him to travel further to a village on the Tartar steppes. He would be allowed to proceed without guard, using his ``wolf's passport'' - good solely for travel to his destination - but he must report to the village police in seven days.
It was now late fall, and the river would soon be icing over. Discovering that the last steamboat of the year was leaving Birsk that evening for Ufa, my grandfather considered what he had never seriously thought of before: escape. He thought of a lonely life on the steppes. And he considered the risks. Within moments he had made his decision. He was going home.
With little time to reconsider, my grandfather packed his bags and carried them to the station. Then he returned to the home of his hosts, said goodbye, and asked if the two daughters in the family, both students in the ``gymnasium,'' might accompany him to the boat.
Back at the station, he calmly asked for a ticket to Ufa. The station master inquired if he preferred a private stateroom. Ivan Bogdanovich replied affirmatively. Then, chatting amiably with the young women, he passed between the two lines of police guarding the gangplank and boarded the steamer. At the whistle, his young friends left the boat, waved, then gave him a bewildered look as the steamer headed not in the direction of exile, but downriver to Ufa.
How he was able to board the steamer without police examination puzzled my grandfather. Indeed, he felt that he had been treated ``as if I were a dignitary.'' Many factors may have come into play. First, he now wore clothes of good quality sent from home, and his eyeglasses, with their black ribbon attached, must have made him look scholarly. Accompanied to the boat by two students, he may have appeared a young professor returning to the university. ``Yet,'' wrote Ivan Bogdanovich years later, ``I need must believe that more than natural influences were exercised in my behalf.''
All night as the steamboat passed down the Ural River, my grandfater kept to his stateroom. Arriving the next morning in Ufa, he bought a train ticket for Samara on the Volga. While waiting for the departure, he walked about town. Cheered by his success in Birsk, he again presented a confident, official demeanor, writing later, ``I concealed myself in that manner that I believed to be most effective; that is, walking boldly about the streets.''
Even as an old man, my grandfather conveyed assurance and dignity. I remember once picking him up at the airport. Beside my ``American'' grandmother, cheerful in her yellow coat, he stood meticulously straight and official, at 90, thin and thoroughly Old World in his black hat and clothes.
Arriving in Samara, Ivan Bogdanovich met a woman carrying vegetables who directed him to members of his own church. From them he borrowed money he would later repay for passage to Tsaritsyn (later named Stalingrad, then Volgograd).
It was now October and few passengers rode the steamboat on the Volga as it flowed toward the Caspian Sea, and the Caucasus. As an exile, my grandfather had reveled in the astonishing sunsets on the Ob River. Now he kept for the most part to his cabin. When he did look at the sky, he saw ``clouds dark and foreboding.'' But as he neared his home, his spirits revived.
Two days of river passage, and then two more days by train took Ivan Bogdanovich ``utterly intoxicated with joy, to the town of my birth,'' his grandparents' home in what is now Soviet Georgia.
Recognized by a family friend at the village train station, he was accompanied to the ``old homestead,'' stepping under the giant acacia tree that guarded the front door. Grandparents and relatives delighted in his presence. Yet they were saddened to know he came now not only as an exile, but as a fugitive. Late at night his grandmother took him gently by the arm and showed him his bed. It would be his last night in the ancestral home.
At his grandparents' home, Ivan Bogdanovich took a hard look at his situation. Earlier, emboldened by his escape, he had planned to live in the foothills of the valley, hiding until the war hysteria had passed. Now, in long conversation with his grandparents and village elders, he knew he would have to leave. He would first travel the 100 miles further to see his parents. With an old friend, he now walked across hills and fields, avoiding roads, to his parents' village. He waited under a bridge while his friend attempted to spare his mother sudden shock by announcing his arrival.
A tearful and short reunion led to the pain of farewell. His mother seemed stunned by grief. Before dawn, my great-grandfather led his son through the garden to the footpath along the Kuma River. ``Then,'' wrote Ivan Bogdanovich, ``I passed out into darkness.''
Despite the agony of once again departing from his family, he faced the awesome and awful odyssey before him ``with hopefulness and even enthusiasm.''
In his mind he remembered the five cities the village elder had mapped out as his route to freedom. They must have seemed as distant as stars to him. They were: Irkutsk, Harbin, Mukden, Shanghai, and San Francisco.