Witness to a revolution

Russia 1917

Russia 1917

Michael Kyriazopoulos, Fightback (Auckland).

As I approach the end of my life due to Motor Neurone Disease I have been reading the fragments of memoirs recorded by my maternal grandmother in the final years of her life. Virtually all of what she wrote centred on her experiences as a refugee in Russia, which clearly left a deep impression on her.

On wintry days I remember my mother looking intently at the crystal formations on the window panes. Slowly and carefully she would translate these delicate patterns into fine crochet work – fragile and intricate as spiderwebs. Mother was a person who combined her fine gifts with practicality, this would get us through the harsh days that were to shatter our beautiful world. Yes, my early childhood was filled with warmth, love and comfort.

So it begins. My gran was born Mary Blumenstock in 1907 in Tukums, Latvia. Her Jewish family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, keeping a maid and a summer house. Mary’s father was a successful timber merchant, but one day everything changed forever with the outbreak of the First World War. Her father and brother joined the Imperial Army and Mary and her mother went to live in a refugee settlement near Syzran. Although the language was foreign to her, Mary quickly picked up Russian and before long had won the school essay writing competition. She received a bag of sweets as a prize which she shared with her classmates and teachers. Her story was adapted as a school play which raised money to buy shoes and clothes for refugee children.

Mary helped her mother rolling cigarettes from which they eked out a meagre livelihood. Two and a half years after coming to Russia with the war still raging the situation was bleak:

Milk was now becoming scarce and the bread tasted dry as wood shavings. We could not buy kerosene for our lanterns, nor candles or soap. Our school meals usually consisted of two potatoes in their jackets and a small piece of herring. We also had a mug of black coffee without sugar, which I would give to another child. One of my potatoes I slipped into my pocket to take home to mama.

My gran recalled their clandestine preparations for the festival of Passover when Jews traditionally eat Matzah, unleavened bread. Matzah was banned in Russia and it was forbidden to even bake it yourself. Mary’s job was to keep a lookout while the women worked quickly and quietly, tracing tiny holes in the round shapes of dough before placing them in the oven.

One morning just as the school bell was ringing Tzarist police were pursuing a group of students. The students jumped over the school wall and the police started firing at them. Mary’s beloved school teacher Anna Michaelovna was shot while trying to shield the children. She later died from her wounds and Mary was distraught for days. Thereafter the street fighting became so fierce that school was closed and Mary was obliged to stay indoors. Eventually Mary became sick of being cooped up and announced to her mother she was going to the shirt factory to find a job. She was give the task of sewing buttons and at the end of the month she was given two Roubles. After a few months it became too dangerous to walk the streets: the wounded and the dying lay in the gutters. The factory then brought work to their house for Mary and her mother to complete each day.

Mother and daughter befriended Vanya, a peasant who worked on the nearby Sameluk estate. He would often bring over the Sameluk’s little boy Peter as a playmate for Mary. Vanya also became their main source of news, informing them that masses of soldiers were now deserting and fighting on the side of the Bolsheviks. Mary overheard Vanya saying that the Bolsheviks would take away the estate from the Sameluk family and that would leave him and his wife without livelihood or a home.

Eventually the school reopened but there was no sign that the war was coming to an end. One afternoon Vanya brought in the news that the war minister had ordered their soldiers to fight on the the last man. They had mobilised a big squadron to the front line and had driven the German army back. Mary was glad her mother could not fully understand his words as she would have only been worried about her son Jacob.

As Mary was dressing for school one winters morning a sudden explosion ripped right through the window and made a hole in the opposite wall. As she stared out the hole she saw an elegant sleigh appear leaving the Sameluk estate:

I watched as it drew nearer and saw Peter seated between his two sisters. They were facing Madame Sameluk and the english governess. The two girls were wearing long fur capes with hoods, while Peter wore a grey Papcha – a tall karakul fur hat and a shakell – a military-style coat, he looked like a miniature Cossack. His mother and the old governess, who was a duchess, wore black fur capes. The whole sleigh was covered in fur blankets and saw the girls each had fur muffs. Their hands won’t be freezing I thought as I rubbed my own hands together.

In November 1917 Vanya and his wife appeared on Mary’s doorstep with the news of the storming of the winter palace and the arrest of the Tsar and his family. The couple started crying and making the sign of the cross over their hearts. As Mary recalled, “Mama and I could not feel very upset at the arrest of the Tsar, we were only concerned about getting home and reuniting with our family.”
At last they received a letter from Jacob. He was now working for a co-operative belonging to the People’s Organisation which was being run by the new government. Mary and her mother could at last visit Vanya’s family in their little icon filled hut, which the Sameluk’s would not have allowed before.

On a hot July day in 1918 Mary witnessed an extraordinary sight while walking home from school:

People were dancing in the street, there was singing and shouting and laughter everywhere. There were large pictures of Lenin hanging from the building draped in red silk. Men were throwing up their hats into the air and people were embracing. I knew something had happened, but what? I tugged on a tall man’s sleeve. “Excuse me sir, what has happened, why is everyone so excited?” I asked.
“Why, have you not heard Tsar Nicholas and the Tsarina and the children have been executed. Even that devil Rasputin too!”. I stared at him in horror. How could the death of the royal family cause such joy. Were they responsible for all those thousands of young soldiers being slaughtered on the battlefields. For all the orphaned children, for so much suffering. If so I began to understand the rejoicing of the people.

Vanya told Mary that officials had come to the estate and told him he could stay in the hut, but would be required to submit a daily account of all the produce. However Vanya was worried about this task due due to his poor spelling. Mary offered to teach him, “And soon Vanya was writing all the words he needed, such as eggs, potatoes, chicken, apples and so on. He was very proud and eager to learn.”

At last it was time to go home, Mary’s mother caught a fever travelling on a cattle truck on the train. The train track to Tukums was too badly damaged so they had to alight at Shmalden Forest in Kurland. They got a ride by horse and cart into town which Mary’s mother paid for with her wedding ring. When they finally reached their street the buildings were completely bombed out. They found shelter in a relative’s home that had been completely looted. Mary attempted to nurse her deteriorating mother, picking wild berries and mushrooms from the forest to feed her. However she died before her father returned.

I find my gran’s resourcefulness as a young girl truly astonishing. She was constantly doing street collections for the refugee fund even though she and her mother were destitute themselves. It is remarkable how some seventy years later she was able to vividly recall a special fish soup meal made by her mother, or a gift of yellow plums from Vanya. No doubt a consequence of living on the brink of starvation.

From the uprising of 1905, drowned in a bloodbath of Tsarist reaction, through to the days of hope of the Bolshevik Revolution rapidly followed by the Civil War, the Russian Revolution always had a heavy dose of tragedy. Of course isolated as it was in a backward country, the infant workers’ state eventually succumbed to totalitarian Stalinist counter revolution. It’s enough to make many faint-hearts throw their hands up in despair of any prospect for a classless society. But such despondency is misplaced. We should instead recall William Morris’s words in A Dream of John Ball, in which the narrator ponders, “How men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”


  1. Janine Booth says:

    What a brilliant, personal recollection. It is so important to keep these stories alive alongside the facts and figures of official histories. You’ve done a real service, Mike.

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