Sunday, July 24, 2016

Escape From the Soviets

Escape From the Soviets, by Tatiana Tchernavin

To update, I still have three UK trip posts to write, and a large pile of books.  My girls went to camp this past week, which gave me some wonderful quiet time, so I sewed a lot of quilt blocks and did a good bit of blogging in the first part of the week, but I had a talk to write, so pretty soon I had to just focus on that instead of blogging.  I delivered my talk today, and I did OK, so now I am back here and ready to go.

My mom gave me this book and it's been on my TBR for a little while, but I've been really excited about it, partly because this was written much earlier in the history of the USSR than most things I've read.  It was published in 1933, and my copy, which is from the seventh printing (1934) contains only an outdated photo of the author's son at age five (he was 12 or so by then) and a note that no photos of the author or her husband could be printed "as they fear that this might enable the OGPU agents in Finland to trace them."

Title page of my copy. 
Tatiana Tchernavin and her husband Vladimir were already adults and married at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, and their son was born in September 1918.  They had not really had much objection to the Revolution; they were liberals and figured anything was better than the autocratic rule of the czar, but like everyone else, they had no idea of what could happen.  Famine was looming just as their son was born, and they were soon desperate for food.  No matter how they (or anyone else) worked, they could not earn enough to buy food, and soon their baby was suffering badly.  Luckily, Vladimir was able to get work at the Agronomical Institute, where they paid wages partly in milk.  They survived three years of famine.

Husband and wife were of the intellectual class; Vladimir was an ichthyologist and Tatiana a historian.  They thought they would be able to find work, and the Bolshevist hostility towards their class took them by surprise.  Tatiana found work for a good long time at the Hermitage, a museum in Saint Petersburg, and loved the job, but was eventually pushed out.  Her husband had to go out to Murmansk for long periods of time.  

They did pretty well for about five years, but then in around 1925, the purges started.  Bolshevik methods of farming and production weren't working, and famine was imminent.  Somebody had to be blamed.  Intellectuals and trained experts in all fields were arrested and forced to confess to 'wrecking,' that is, sabotage of the Communist project.  It wasn't long before most of their friends were gone, and they lived in daily expectation of arrest by OGPU agents, which came soon enough.

How the little family survived arrest, prison, and Vladimir's sentence to a gulag, and how they then managed actually to escape and hike to Finland, makes for a gripping memoir.  I read the whole thing in a day or two, and I think if you're interested in Soviet history it's a must-read.  She actually wrote it while in a Finnish hospital, recovering from the escape.

Later on, Vladimir also wrote a book, I Speak for the Silent, about the Soviet prison system.  I just discovered that it's quite cheap on Kindle, so now it is mine and I look forward to reading it.  Escape From the Soviets is also on Kindle for 99 cents, so you can easily read it if you like!




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