Pushing Toward China
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, his route to freedom.
AS the train neared the Chinese border - it would cross Manchuria on its way east to Vladivostok - guards locked the doors so no passengers could disembark.
It was November 1915, and my grandfather was a fugitive escaping Siberian exile. Disguised as a wounded soldier returning from the Western Front, he now rode in silent agony toward the border crossing and police inspection.
When the train reached the border, two gendarmes entered his compartment and demanded to see his papers. He had none. But with his right arm bound in a sling, he tried awkwardly with his left to retrieve the only thing he had: the soldier's train pass he had put in a right-hand pocket. The gendarmes watched his fumbling for a moment, then excused him, commenting that a badly wounded soldier wasn't required to show his papers.
``I was dumbfounded,'' wrote Ivan Bogdanovich later. As with each confrontation along the way, he had expected arrest, lifelong imprisonment, or death. Again he credited his escape to Providence, and with a stifled exuberance rode on into Manchuria.
In the evening, five days after leaving Irkutsk, the train arrived in the Russian-administered city of Harbin. Here my grandfather decided to end his long railway journey. As the train pulled into the station, he stepped down to the platform swarming with Manchurian carriage drivers. But he was stopped by a guard who asked why he was leaving the train. Starting to reply that he wished to visit friends, Ivan Bogdanovich saw the guard become momentarily distracted. He quickly grabbed his bags and ran off into the darkness. Not far from the station he came upon an empty carriage. He jumped in and signaled the driver to hurry away.
As he rode, he showed the driver the address of a Seventh-Day Adventist mission, but the driver knew of no such place. Next, he stopped the driver to question a boy walking along the street. Amazingly, the boy said his family were members of that church. Bringing him into the cab with them, they now followed the boy's direction to his house.
Entering the home, the boy presented Ivan Bogdanovich to his mother. What shock she must have felt at the sight of this wounded Russian soldier, who then threw off his sling, proclaiming that he ``had masqueraded long enough.''
In the minutes that followed, my grandfather told the woman his story. Yet for her, his request for refuge created a dangerous dilemma. It was a crime to harbor a fugitive, or to host any overnight guest without notifying the police. What's more, her own husband was then in prison for his religious activities.
After a long conversation and an exchange of information that only church members could have known, the courageous woman offered Ivan Bogdanovich the safety of her home.
MY grandfather had now reached the second of the five ``stars'' in his escape map. He was almost 5,000 miles from his home. With relief he took off his uniform ``with its lying epaulets'' and put on civilian clothing. That night he slept in peace, although as he later wrote, ``to the charges previously held against me by the czar's government was now added that of desertion.''
The next day he discreetly made inquiries about how to leave the city. Although on Manchurian soil, Harbin was controlled by the Russian government and policed more heavily than Russian cities.
Introduced to a Swiss agent whom he heard had helped other fugitives, my grandfather fell prey to an extortion scheme that nearly led to his arrest. In the place where he was to obtain a counterfeit passport, he met instead a police officer who ordered him to follow him to the prison or pay him 300 rubles. It was much more than my grandfather had. The officer dropped his ``fee'' to 250 rubles, then accompanied Ivan Bogdanovich while he borrowed the sum from church members. Only after paying him was my grandfather permitted to go free.
Discouraged, my grandfather next tried a different course. He found a Manchurian guide who agreed to travel south with him by horse to China proper. They would purchase mounts suitable for the long journey at the horse market in the nearby village of Fudziadzian. To avoid the guards at all the roads leaving Harbin, the guide led Ivan Bogdanovich through a field of carcasses and offal at the city's edge, containing, as my grandfather later wrote, ``every conceivable source of vile odors.''
Arriving in Fudziadzian, they began the long process of selecting and buying. After three days they had two good horses and gear.
Starting on their journey, my grandfather dressed now in Manchurian clothes and headdress, they passed their first guards without being challenged. But to my grandfather's surprise, the guide was an inexperienced rider, and not far from Harbin, his horse stumbled into a ditch, laming itself and injuring the guide.
IVAN BOGDANOVICH realized he could not go on horseback alone and the next day they returned to the village to sell the horses. That afternoon my grandfather returned through the field of carcasses to Harbin and the family with whom he had found refuge.
To give up the horses must have been disappointing. For my grandfather, riding was second nature. A Russian from the Caucasus, ``I might almost be said to have grown up on a horse,'' he wrote.
In fact, the only story he ever told me about his childhood was about the day when his father directed him to round up their 11 horses, scattered throughout the woods and hillsides.
A boy of 12, he had set out in the morning. After locating the first horse, he bridled it and mounted, then proceeded to catch the others, one by one. Throughout the day he found 10 horses, and returned them to the corral. But the 11th horse remained elusive. Finally, with the sun on the mountain, and the missing horse nowhere in sight, he sat defeated on his horse. Tears fell on the horse's mane.
My grandfather was an old man when he told me this story, but he remembered well how he suddenly felt then, as throwing his arms in the air he shouted for joy. The riddle was solved. He rode the 11th horse!
I think of him later as a 25-year-old Russian fugitive, spending his last night with his friends in Harbin. The plan to travel by horseback had failed. He had one recourse left. He would walk to China.
As he was packing the minimal clothes and food he could carry on his winter trek, his host put in a Chinese New Testament.
To be continued. Previous articles in this series ran June 13, Sept. 12, Sept. 26, and Oct. 10.