Exiles in a Cold and Lovely Land
I'M learning the geography of Russia, Imperial Russia of 1914, tracing with a finger on the map the long route from my grandfather's home in the Caucasus to his banishment on the East branch of the Ob River deep in Siberia. In the early years of the century, the Czar had announced full religious liberty for all Russians, including the ``sectarians,'' as the Protestants and others were called. In the year of the Great War, however, my grandfather, Ivan Bogdanovich Jacques, experienced the hollowness of that proclamation. In December 1914 in the city of Odessa, where he had traveled to assist the local pastor in evangelistic work, he was arrested.
Loud knocking woke him at 1:30 am. He opened the door to the police. In a parody of politeness, the officer apologized for the late hour, explaining that he had been to the theater. Then he told Ivan Bogdanovich he must come with him to the police station. He should bring a blanket but no valuables. My grandfather offered no resistance, so the officer dismissed the accompanying guards, and the two walked through the empty streets to the station.
At the police station my grandfather was taken to a prison cell. When the guard swung open the door, my grandfather stepped back as if struck. The stench from the six-by-ten-foot room was overwhelming. The cold cell had no ventilation or sanitation, except for a bucket. Shoved forward, he heard the door lock behind him. Inside were six prisoners, four of them Baptists, a fellow Seventh-Day Adventist, and an actor.
Two days later the small group was sentenced without trial to banishment to Siberia for as long as war conditions prevailed. Then they were transferred to the main jail outside Odessa. Here they joined a throng including criminals, war and other religious prisoners. The group also included several young Russian Jews, arrested, ironically, after returning home from study abroad to serve their country in the war. Here my grandfather also met Elias Gorelic, a fellow church worker who would become his closest companion throughout the journey and exile on the Ob River.
In the crowded city jail, the prisoners ate coarse bread and soup from one large common bowl. The next night they were ordered to prepare for transport. In the prison yard they were searched and assembled into marching columns, four abreast. All but the religious prisoners were shackled by twos, some by both legs and wrists.
Then with swords unsheathed the guards drove the prisoners out in a run to the train station. Despite the cold and their inadequate clothing, their bodies soon steamed with perspiration. My grandfather found the fresh air exhilarating.
The fresh air ended when the prisoners were herded into barred railway cars. All night they rode, and all the next day. By late evening they arrived in the capitol city of Kiev.
In Kiev they were transferred to street cars and taken to the jail. Throughout the tedious searches, they stood outside in the cold. That night in their cells they were given no food. The religious group recited the Lord's Prayer together, and several of the criminals joined in.
At dawn the prisoners were again on their way. Outside the prison gate, an old man handed each of them a small loaf of bread. Years ago this ``little father'' had seen his own son banished to Siberia. Now, each day he gave bread to the exiles leaving Kiev. ``A delicacy indeed the light bread was to me,'' my grandfather later wrote.
The prisoners were now marched through deep snow the four miles back to the train station. Continuing by rail to Kursk, my grandfather found in this city ``the hour of our severest trial.'' From the station they marched nine miles to the jail. During the search, a drunken guard forced Ivan Bogdanovich to completely disrobe, then threw his clothes in all directions. The ten religious prisoners, now including an old Jew, were taken to a cell where the walls were green with mold. Water dripped from the ceiling.
The only way they could withstand the cold and dampness was to be in constant motion. Wrote my grandfather, ``If we stopped for a few minutes, the cold became unendurable.'' Using the warmth of their bodies to get a few moments' rest, they would lie on top one another, changing positions every few minutes, often jumping up to run again. At mealtime they relished the bowl of hot water they got with their hard bread.
For one week the small group suffered in this cell, all of them developing ailments and hearing loss. With prayer they combated the ``absolute hopelessness'' they felt.
Their ninth day coincided with a visit from a state prison inspector. As a result, the religious prisoners were taken to a new cell. Here, providentially, their new guard expressed kindness to them and prepared palatable food.
Although they had relief from the killing cold, the exiles now experienced a new dilemma. The room was circular with an arched ceiling, and the absence of terminal form tormented their nerves. Their eyes could find no place to rest.
It was now nearing Christmas. My grandfather longed to resume the journey to Siberia, even though that also meant the likelihood of kicks and beatings from the Black Angels, as the transport guards were called. Yet they remained in Kursk. The day after Christmas an Orthodox priest came to bless the prisoners.
On certain days the prisoners were escorted to the yard for fresh air. Ivan Bogdanovich treasured these moments. From his prison bread, he saved crumbs for the crows that flew down from the wall. He envied them their freedom.
Finally, after three weeks, they left Kursk and were transported to Tula where they were imprisoned for three days with approximately 100 criminals. Then they crossed the Volga River to the city of Samara. Wading through knee-deep snow, they passed through three gates into the prison searching room. In Samara church members brought them food and money. But the jail was full of thieves, and most of the food was stolen. They never saw their money again.
In one cell my grandfather met a Prussian pastor with many members of his parish - men, women and children - taken into Russia as prisoners of war. This pastor amused the others by keeping a written tally of the vermin he caught on his body.
After 16 days in Samara the exiles finally crossed the Ural Mountains into Siberia. Arriving on Sunday in Chelyabinsk, they marched five miles through the city to the prison. The people in the streets clapped to see them, assuming they were prisoners of war and their presence a sign of victories at the front. Little did they know, as my grandfather later wrote, that ``in truth some of us were loyal Russian citizens.''
Ivan Bogdanovich now found the march painfully long, and the weight of his pack almost unbearable. Earlier he had nursed his friend Elias Gorelic through illness. Now Gorelic would care for Ivan Bogdanovich as the exiles traveled to Tomsk and finally by sled on the frozen Ob to the fishing village of Alatayevo. (See ``Banished to Siberia: Exiles on the River Ob'' on the June 13 Home Forum page.)
My grandfather wrote about his experience in a book published by his church in 1921, titled ``Escape from Siberian Exile.'' The binding on my only copy is broken, and the pages are fragile. Yet as I retrace his journey, his careful account of hardships, I feel the current of love he had for his homeland.
There's something about suffering that binds the oppressed to the earth, to the land, its rivers, its cities - creating a spiritual deed, perhaps, that even though denied by the oppressors becomes impermeable. If suffering is the inheritance of the meek, so much more then does the earth become theirs. So much more does their home, and their homeland, belong to them in a spiritual as well as physical way.
My grandfather was not the only one in his family to face imprisonment, deprivation or exile. His brother, in military service when Ivan Bogdanovich was sent into exile, later died in Siberia under Stalin. My great-grandparents died during the early period of the Revolution.
This is, in part, why a piece of me, a root of my thoughts and identity, finds fertile soil in the Soviet Union, a massive country of such enormous resources and cultural richness, yet the vast landscape of prolonged suffering for many.
Yet, as I look through the eyes of my grandfather on his way to life-long exile, I see not only suffering, but the beauty of Russia, and the beauty of the human spirit. I see him outside the prison yard in Kursk, sharing his bread crumbs with crows. And I hear him on a night march in -40 degree weather marveling at the bright moonlight on snow-covered fir trees.
I feel the silence on the River Ob, deep in Siberia, where he could hear the paddles of an approaching boat an hour before it came into sight. And I see in my mind's eye, as Ivan Bogdanovich must have seen again and again, the yellow autumn leaves of the giant acacia tree that stood in front of his grandparent's house in the Caucasus, the ``ancestral home'' he would visit only once again in his life, and then briefly. The story resumes on Weds., Sept. 26.