When I was a Boy in Russia - Vladimir de Bogory

Choosing A Career

I passed my final examinations and received my diploma in 1866, five years after the freeing of the serfs. Immediately the problem of choosing a career in life faced me, for the estate did not provide enough means for us three boys. My drive home, with the diploma in my possession, was a triumphant one. Everybody was waiting for me in the courtyard, and the carriage had no sooner entered the gates than I shouted, "I've passed, hooray!"

Mother kissed me proudly, and I was the hero for several days.

Still the horror of my schooldays hung over me like a nightmare, and many times did I wake with a feeling of dread that another day of trouble and insult was before me. Then, with a start, I remembered that I was at home, and that my gymnasium days were over, whereupon I went to sleep again with profound relief.

That autumn I became a student in the University of Kiev, which is one of the best in all Russia. My plans for the future were quite vague, so I entered the Physico-Mathematical faculty, principally because I was very fond of mathematics. At that time the only open avenues of work to a man of rank and education were the army and government. For the former, a large personal income was necessary to support an officer's position and the routine of departmental work did not appeal to me, so I left the final decision for the future, and meanwhile studied hard and did a great deal of reading. Just at this time the spirit in the University was very dead and lacked vigor and enthusiasm. Many of the more active students had participated in the Polish Revolution and had been sent to Siberia. Those who had remained, therefore, were the less advanced. During the day we attended our lectures, and at night we either read or joined small student societies; the athletic side of college—which means so much in America—was absolutely unknown at the University of Kiev at that time. We had no time for sports, for the work to be done was more than three times as much as in a modern American college. I had not lost my love for games, however, and I became quite an expert in both chess and billiards.

Most of the students were poor, for their parents were only moderately well-to-do, and they had to train for a profession; whereas the sons of rich families remained landowners. We organized a mutual dining-room, to which all contributed. We also founded a mutual aid association, which enabled us to care for those comrades who were having particular difficulty in struggling along through college. Gradually it became a matter of pride to be poor, and those students who had plenty of money never displayed it, for it was considered bad form. We thought it a sign of intelligence for a student to be plainly dressed, and to live simply. Those who were dudes were despised, and were not admitted to our circles and societies.

At the time I did not realize that we were adopting a new attitude in this determination to live the simple life. It was utterly sincere, and it taught us to share equally, it gave a real object in the vague ideals of youth, and, in my case, it laid another stone in the wall of democracy, which I was already building.

Three of my fellow students and I lived in a big room, for it was the custom among us to live together whenever possible. There were many advantages in this arrangement, for not only did it make our expense smaller, but it made life more interesting and less lonely.



We paid eight roubles a month for this room, which is equivalent to about four dollars. Our landlord, Zimenko, was a good-natured old man, whose sole duty was to light the samovar for us.

We started a small library of our own after we had attended to the more imperative needs of our student body, but although this was never more than a name during my student days, it proved to be a turning point. All our books together only filled six shelves, or rather plain boards, which had been nailed against the wall. As the two top shelves were taken up by numerous volumes on naval strategy, donated by somebody at the time of our opening, there was little room left for any very extensive collection. Moreover there was a particularly fine library at the University, which was at the entire disposal of all the students, so there was no real need for our own six shelves of books, except that we all liked the feeling that this was really our own library.

"Vladimir," said Sergius, my roommate, coming in one evening with mystery written all over him, "the police are watching our library. They've already got Zimenko under their thumb."

This was serious news. It was clear that the authorities suspected us. Since there were thousands of volumes in the college library, why should we have books unless they were of a forbidden character, they thought. We called a meeting hastily. Sergius, who was of a cautious habit, was willing to give up the library, but the rest of us, young and full of fight, were actually glad that we had an opportunity of being defiant. As for me, Ivan's expulsion from the gymnasium had settled for good and all the question of my relation to authority. I was a rebel against injustice, and I had grown to hate spying.

Our library had no revolutionary works in it, but we felt there was a principle involved. We were none of us revolutionists then, we were loyal Russians with a deep love for our own country, and a boyish belief that we could set everything right. This was still during the early part of the reign of Alexander II, the Tsar who had freed the serfs, and we felt that the spying and the misunderstandings were due to ignorant officials, not to the government. To ourselves, in a hotheaded (and as I now see, a youthful and immature) way, we made an issue of that library, and even those out-of-date and useless books on naval strategy became priceless possessions. This determination to fight for a principle is deeply rooted in Russian character, as deeply rooted as the desire to succeed is in America. So the right to have books of my own became to me as a banner of liberty under which I was willing to fight.

The idea of democracy became more and more real to us. Since we were accused of having forbidden books, we might as well have them. Books that told about the French Revolution, stories of the American War of Independence, discussion about the life of working people, all these were denied us. In Russia, to-day, there is no such censorship, but this was at a time when the country was in a ferment. We got those books smuggled in across the frontier, and largely because they were forbidden fruit, we devoured them.

Every vacation I went home to Luka-Barskaya, where I spent happy weeks with my parents and Ivan, who lived at home for several years after being expelled from the gymnasium. During the day I used to wander about our estate with a book under my arm, or, frequently, I would take my gun, and bring home game for the table. Ivan had built up a library of picked books, so after supper, seated around the long oak table, he read aloud.

Thus, during those quiet evenings of reading and discussion, the friendship between Father, Ivan, and myself became one of the most vital ties in my life.

While I was studying mathematics, Ivan spent about one year and a half studying music and literature. I still have a book of Ivan's poems. He went to Warsaw and took up music at the Conservatory, and after remaining there a year, he transferred to Petrograd, where he continued his musical education. While he was studying he became interested in a model cheese factory, which had been organized on special lines. This appealed to him as being feasible for our own estate, and he returned home to start something similar in Luka-Barskaya.

The first problem was the organization of a model farm, and he began with the intensive cultivation of a stretch of about fifty dessiatin, or one hundred and twelve acres, which was the nucleus of the tilled portion of the estate. His plan was to help the ignorant moujiks by showing them modern methods of agriculture.

I spent my next vacations working with Ivan, and incidentally learning a great deal about the life of the people. I had always imagined that the moujik, being accustomed to hard labor, did not feel physical exhaustion, as did we who were unused to physical work.

"Volodia," Ivan said, shaking me out of my sleep before sunrise during the summer vacations, "are you going with me to haymaking?"

"Yes," I answered, "I'll be with you in a few minutes."

As the early morning sun rose, we were on the field, together with the peasants, each with his scythe, one a certain distance back of the other. At a signal everybody began work, and we had to keep together. Although I was very strong physically, a few hours of this work soon exhausted me. At the end of the day I was nearly dead, and realized that an over plus of physical work absolutely prohibited mental advancement.

Unfortunately Ivan's attempt failed because the people themselves were too ignorant to support him, and also because he did not have enough money with which to equip the undertaking. Indeed it would have required years of patient education to teach the moujiks a system new to all their traditions, so our estate continued to be worked as it had been worked for many centuries, and Ivan's versatile mind turned to the question of organizing a colony, where he could carry out his ideals. Later, this crystallized into a plan for establishing this colony in America and Ivan joined me in Kiev to gather members for his project. This plan fell through, as none of the members would leave Russia.

Meanwhile, in my desire to help the peasantry, I realized that I could do little for them by my study of mathematics, so in 1869, three years after entering the University, I changed my faculty and began the study of medicine, knowing that there was a great need of doctors among the ignorant peasantry. Our student body had received a strong impetus toward the organization of literary clubs by the arrival of a number of medical students, who had been expelled from the Medical Academy in Petrograd.

Our new literary organizations multiplied so rapidly that it took up much of our time to attend the meetings. We all had our pet ideas, and spent much time trying to convince each other. Many of the ideas were absurd, all were extreme, but they were honest and sincere. The university students believed themselves almost the prophets of a new age, and many of them laid down their lives because of their eagerness to make the world better for the down-trodden moujik. It was folly, of course, but it was a splendid folly, and those college boys thought like heroes and lived and died like heroes.

I was as much of a fanatic as any of them, and my pet theory was that physical labor was the only true kind of work, and that if everyone would live simply and work with his hands, all the evils that come from too great wealth and from poverty would cease. We were fanatical, just as the Crusaders were fanatical. No one could advise us, for we would not listen to more cautious men. We thought them cowards to refuse to join our plans, and did not trust them with our secrets.

Believing as I did, I determined to live up to my ideas. I gave up my university course, though I had spent six years there, three in the mathematics faculty, and three in medicine, declaring that there would be no college faculty degrees in the new age when labor would be all in all, and began my work of leading the peasants to higher and better things than their hard-working lot. Meantime, I learned shoemaking as a trade, that I might truly practice what I preached.

I was never happier than then. It was a time of wonder, of serene ideals and of close comradeship with others who only wished to help their fellow men. Our plans were little more than dreams, then, they were so vague and impracticable, but no Knights of the Round Table ever bore more nobly "the flower of a blameless life" than my fellow idealists of the University of Kiev.

Setting aside our rank as nobles, foregoing every privilege, spending only the money we earned, the university students of that time sacrificed everything to this cause. A trip that I made to Switzerland, in company with Donetzky and a few student friends, crystallized my ideas, and I returned a revolutionist in the true sense of the word. Looking back now, I can hardly understand how we expected to sway all .Russia set against us, small handful as we were. Yes, it was a dream that we could wipe out all class barriers, and make the world anew, a dream that may yet come true, but never, never in my time. Every boy dreams that way, a little; we tried to make the dream come true immediately.

Less than two months after my return from Switzerland the threatening storm broke over my head. I had been active among our peasants at Luka-Barskaya, stirring them up to a belief that in some way they were being robbed of their rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I had then gone so far that I was preparing to organize the peasants into a revolutionary army. I smile now at our quixotic attempts, we were so few and Russia so immense. But the day had come whereupon I smiled no more. The iron hand of power was already knocking on the gate.

Donetzky, who had remained abroad after I had returned home, wrote to me that he was on his way back to Russia, and that he would come for a few days to stay with us at Luka-Barskaya.

The shortest cut was along the railroad line, which he followed, although it was against the law. Misfortune tracked him, for he encountered a gang of workmen in charge of a foreman, who threatened him with arrest. Knowing what was in the package he carried, Donetzky did not dare to risk arrest and search. There was only one thing to do, and that was to run. He started, and would have escaped easily, but that he tripped on a railroad tie and hurt his foot. He was caught and taken to the nearest police station.

By an evil chance, at a place near his attempted escape, a murder had just been committed, so Donetzky, being a stranger, was questioned very closely, and his package was opened. It contained a number of printed leaflets, addressed to "Russian Revolutionists." The mere possession of these was a crime in Russia.

"I've come from abroad," explained Donetzky, "but I ran short of money, so I was walking to Moscow."

His suit-case, left at the station, was brought in, and when it was opened it was found to contain hundreds and hundreds of the revolutionary leaflets, as well as a number of books.

On the fly-leaf of one of them was written my name.

All this had happened about eight versts (five and a half miles) from home, so I knew nothing about it.

That night, about three A. M., I was awakened by a light in my room. I opened my eyes. Before me stood Father with a lighted candle, and just behind him stood the commissary of rural police and a gendarme.

"Vladimir De Bogory Mokrievitch," said the commissary, "a government criminal, Donetzky, was caught to-day, and we have evidence against you. We must search the house. "

"Certainly, "I responded calmly.

But through my mind rushed a bevy of questions. I wondered if there were any forbidden pamphlets in the house. Fortunately Ivan and Mother were not at home.

Nothing was found, so we all gathered at daybreak around the long oak table, where, with a steaming samovar, tea was served during a drawing-up of the papers, which I had to sign. The commissary, under the influence of the tea, became communicative, and told me the details of Donetzky's arrest. I immediately realized that his crime was a serious one in the eyes of the Russian police, and that it was an oversight on the part of the commissary not to have arrested me at once, for mere acquaintance with Donetzky, under such circumstances, would have been considered sufficient cause for arrest. It was morning before the police left our house, and then I decided to vanish.

"I'm certain that the authorities will rectify the commissary's slip," I said to Father, "and then they'll arrest me. I must get away."

I spent that day in nervous apprehension, for I could not escape in the daytime, as I feared the peasants might have been instructed to watch my movements, so I postponed my flight till dark.

That night, after ten o'clock, I left the home of my childhood and was driven to a distant railroad station by our trusted coachman, Stepan, where I took a train to Kiev. Two days later the gendarmes descended upon Luka-Barskaya. I was gone. No one knew where I was. A secret order for my arrest was sent broadcast, and I became a fugitive. I could never again use my own passport. I could not appear anywhere without forged documents, but had to live with friends who could secrete me even from the janitor, sometimes from their own servants.

I was an "illegal." I had become one of the hunted.