THE Committee for Saving the Country and the Revolution with its usual disregard for facts, informed us one afternoon in the middle of November that Kerensky had rallied round him a huge army of Cossacks and was marching up from Tsarskoe Selo. The first train in that direction left about 6 P.M. We didn't know where it would land us, but we decided to take it anyway. There were three of us, all Americans.
The train jogged along without interruption. We fell into a discussion, and before we were aware we had travelled any distance at all the conductor came in and told us we were at Tsarskoe. Whether or not we had somehow crossed the lines from one army to the other we did not know, but we were uneasily aware of the fact that we carried only Bolshevik passes.
It was already dark and the town looked quite dead, with a single light flickering here and there. Around the station things looked normal enough – people were walking about and soldiers were standing guard. We asked one of the guards for the Commandant and he took us to a little office where a ragged soldier sat writing. He looked up from a pile of papers and gave us a weary smile.
"The station is still in the hands of the people," he said, when we told him we were reporters, "but the Cossacks are just on the other side of the park and I do not know how long we can hold. ..."
"Can we wander through the town?"
"Certainly;" he replied, "but do not attempt to cross the park. One of our comrades was killed there yesterday. She thought she could go over and fraternise with the Cossacks. They shot her just as she crossed the lines. .. ."
I verified this story after I returned to Petrograd. She had hoped to prevent the battle between the Red Guards and the Cossacks which took place a few days later.
We were hungry and looked for the station restaurant. At one of the tables we found a lone Englishman who commented on all our remarks by one word, "Extraordinary!" which he drawled forth in the proper British manner. When we got tired of the monotony of his expression and stopped talking, a Russian soldier leaned over and whispered: "Tell him something else, please. I want to hear him say that word again. ..."
We had cold fish and tea, then wandered through the town. For blocks we did not see a soul. In front of a large barn-like building we met a sailor and a soldier. They seemed to be undecided whether to go into the building or not. At last one opened the door gingerly and a shaft of light came streaming through. We stopped also and looked in. A stout, well-dressed man was standing in the middle of the empty room. We decided from the rows of seats that it must be a small town theatre.
"Excuse me," said the sailor, "but will there be a performance to-night?"
The man on the inside bellowed with rage. "Performance!" he shouted. "Performance, with a battle at any moment? Your damned revolution, I tell you, has ruined my business!"
"Excuse me," said the sailor again, and shut the door.
We all stood there on the street for a moment. None of us knew just what to do. Then we showed our passes to the sailor and soldier expecting them to be friendly. They took the passes and looked them over solemnly and handed them back without a word. We felt sure that they must be anti-Bolshevik but what puzzled us was that they acted more afraid of us than we did of them.
A little further along we met a student and enquired the way to Ekaterina Palace. We walked slowly because it was moonlight and the pretty old town with its beautiful gold and white church was exquisite under the stars. Our route lay along the edge of the park and through the trees, now heavy with snow, we could see the camp-fires of the Cossacks. ...
At the great iron entrance gate to the palace grounds we stopped to rest. On one side was a fountain built in the figure of a huge swan, from the mouth of which water gushed. We stood there laughing and talking until voices reached our ears. Looking up we saw sentries watching us from the wall; their bayonets shone ominously in the moonlight. We remembered the queer way the soldier and sailor had acted and we did not want to make another mistake, so this time we spoke to the sentries.
"What side are you on?" we asked officiously.
"We are neutral," they called down to us.
"We have business with the Commandant."
And so we entered the great gates and came out on the broad road that encircles the palace. It is one of the loveliest old palaces in Russia. Huddled cosily on the top of a knell, it rambles off in numerous ells and courts, as if it had been added to by each successive monarch. Nicholas II., after the 1905 revolution was afraid to come to Petrograd and spent much of his time in Ekaterinski.
We found the Commandant and his officers seated around a wood fire and we presented our passes. The Commandant looked concerned and consulted with several of his staff. Then he came back to us and said: "I am sorry to inform you that you have the wrong papers. It was dangerous. You might have been arrested. We are holding this place for Kerensky, but if you would like to go to the hotel to-night, I can issue an order so that you can secure a room and I will also give you correct passes and deny all knowledge of these. The battle will take place at four in the morning...."
He ordered one of his aides to walk a little way with us into the town.
At the same time that we were stumbling around with the wrong passes, two other Americans, one a former preacher in Boston, turned revolutionist and Socialist, and one, the official interpreter for the American Red Cross mission in Petrograd, started to walk from their hotel in the city to the trenches of the Red Guard on the outskirts. They lost their way and pushed on through the mud for hours. The interpreter was a delicate chap with no stomach for battles. He had been entrusted with both passes which had been obtained at Smolny.
As they went along and darkness came upon them, they grew more and more nervous. The interpreter put the passes in his mouth for fear that they would encounter the Kerensky army and be searched. The passes were not very large and were made out on fine paper. At least that is the only way he can account for what happened – he swallowed the passes!
Shortly afterward they encountered the first Red Guard sentry. He demanded papers. They had none. So he chased them off towards Petrograd in the mud and rain and threatened them with violence if they ever came back again. In fact, the thing that hurt them most of all was that he told them he thought they were German agents. Americans, he remarked, wisely, do not usually speak Russian as fluently as the interpreter.
And while all this was going on we were presenting the wrong passes to the other side and being treated with great friendliness. Revolutions do not run along set formulas.
A few days later, after Kerensky's Cossacks were defeated, a huge procession marched through the streets of Petrograd to meet the returning Red Guards and soldiers. After standing all afternoon watching the demonstration, I went into a little restaurant on Zagorodny Prospekt. A very old and simple peasant came in and begged permission to blow on my fur coat to see if it were real seal. It is not seal, but he decided that it was. We began to talk and he asked me where I came from. I said that I was an American, and for some reason this seemed to excite him. He began to tell every one who entered about it.
I asked him curiously what he knew about America. For at least five minutes he was silent, thinking. Then he arose and gravely announced to the company: "America is a great nation! I know about America. Sewing machines come from America." Then he came over, kissed me on both cheeks, and gave me an apple and a dirty sandwich.