When I was a Boy in Russia - Vladimir de Bogory

The Thunderbolt of Terrorism

Although Donetzky's only crime had been that pamphlets dealing with the life-conditions of the peasants and similar so-called "revolutionary" writings were found in his possession, he was taken to Petrograd and condemned to five years' imprisonment with hard labor. Ill-treatment in the jail drove him insane, and he was then sentenced to exile in Siberia, where he died.

There were so many of those young, gallant college boys, the manner of whose death was tragic in its loneliness!

The "revolution" at this time was a very simple affair. The government would not allow us to read any books except those which had been read and approved by the ignorant local police. The government would not allow any criticism of any official. The government would not allow a noble to live otherwise than as a noble, or a peasant as a peasant. To read a forbidden book was "revolution," to talk to a suspected person was "revolution," to speak critically of the Tsar or any official was "revolution," and punishable with Siberia, to suggest that there should be public schools was "revolution," for a noble to enter a peasant's house and wear peasant's clothes was "revolution," and at every point were police spies, and the dark cloud of suspicion hung over the land. We believed in our "Holy Russia," and tried to work for a brighter day. Therein lay our "crime"

With my return to Kiev I definitely began my work of stirring up a revolution among the working people. I still was full of my idea that brain work was wrong and physical labor right, and since we students already had a few friends among some of the men working in a carpenter shop, I went to work in the shop as a journeyman. Gradually I acquired skill. I lived at first in the "Kiev Commune," which was really a revolutionary headquarters to which all those nobles who were toiling among the working people went when they were in town, and remained there either a day or a month, according to their need. It was a wonderful home for us, homeless and often persecuted as we were, and the only question which was asked before admission was:

"Are you willing to go among the peasants immediately?"

If the answer was: "Yes, I'm willing," "Then you are one of us," came the inevitable reply.

The questions of what was to be done among the people, or why one wished to do so, were not asked.

A few weeks after my arrival, when I had my position in the shop, I went to live in a small and unsavory room in the poorest part of Kiev. There was really no reason why we should give up all our comforts and privileges, but this desire for poverty was a part of the movement and every one was eager for the sacrifice. It produced marvelous types, this vast struggle for an ideal, and attracted many men who were noted for their brilliance of mind.

Sergius Kovalik was one of the most versatile of this band of enthusiasts. He gave his entire energies to organizing revolutionary societies among young people in the different towns, and finally gathered around him quite a group of young enthusiasts. They all went to the River Volga region, where they started an effective movement against the government.

In this Kovalik was helped by several other famous revolutionaries, one of whom, Voinaralsky, having means of his own, was particularly helpful. They organized trade training schools in which the revolutionaries, most of whom were nobles, learned some trade preparatory to going out among the peasants. They kept secret headquarters, where revolutionists could hide in safety when too closely pursued by the police. Finally, Voinaralsky went among the peasants, and openly called them to rise against the government and demand their rights. He was so clever and so evasive that he became almost a legend, and the whole network of the Russian Police system could not hold him in. But at last, years later, he and his companions were caught by the police and sentenced heavily as the fomenters of a conspiracy against the government. By that time the revolution was becoming an organized movement. But, as I have said, this was years later.

One evening, even before Kovalik had gone to the Volga, I came for a few hours' chat at the Commune, and, as it was late, I remained there over night, sleeping in the kitchen, I was awakened in the morning by somebody shaking me, and whispering rapidly:

"Quick, get up! The gendarmes are searching here!"

It was fortunate for me that they had begun with the other rooms, but still I could not leave the apartment without passing the police at the door.

A sudden inspiration came to me. I was dressed like a working man, and in the mornings it was usual for water-carriers to bring drinking water to the houses. I quickly picked up an empty pail that was standing in the kitchen and calmly walked out of the apartment past the police. They only glanced at me, for the search was being made among students, and I was dressed as a water-carrier. As I passed them, I took off my hat with a frightened peasant air. A year later such a simple escape would not have been possible, but the police still had to learn their lesson.

After some months' resultless work among the carpenters, we opened a shoemaking place, where we made our own shoes. Kovalik and I started it, and I was the head workman, for I knew something about the making of shoes. Many of the revolutionists came to us to learn the trade. But few of us had money, and we thought it necessary to earn our living. Accordingly, one of the men went to the market with the product of our little industry.

"Shoes like that were made in the time of Peter the Great!" shouted one customer to whom he offered them.

After that we none of us dared to try to sell them. The workmanship of the shoes would have betrayed us, and since the police were looking for me, and Kovalik was also anxious to avoid any questions, we had to give up our shoemaking.

Our next plan was that we should go among the peasants for the purpose of organizing small revolutionary uprisings.

We still held the mistaken idea that the peasants were discontented with their lot and anxious to revolt for better conditions. Why none of us saw the fallacy of this idea I do not know, unless it was that we saw only what we wanted to see.

One of our comrades, Vassia, said he knew something about dyeing, so five of us dressed up as dyers and started walking through the villages. Again we had made a mistake. We believed that the peasants were suspicious of a man dressed as a gentleman, or in the clothing of the privileged classes, as we phrased it, so we had obtained torn and shabby clothes. Consequently peasants regarded us with suspicion. We passed several nights without any shelter. It was the rainy season, and I often woke up soaked through to the skin, cold and miserable. Vassia boiled the dye, and one of us looked for orders, of which we never got any, for the peasants attended to the dyeing themselves. We ate bread and fat for our only diet. It was truly beyond endurance. Three of our companions gave up from exhaustion, and only Stefanovich and I remained steadfast to the idea.

My next attempt to go among the peasants took me to a railroad construction camp, where I worked for some time, several other nobles also being at work there in disguise. The famous Katherine Breshkovsky at this time was also wandering among the peasants. She was finally tracked by spies, and sent to jail, where she refused to tell her right name, or to give any information.

Upon my return to Kiev I found feverish excitement. Spies were watching everybody known to the police. The situation finally became so acute that I decided to escape abroad, but even this was not such a simple matter, for all the Kiev stations were swarming with spies, many of whom knew me by sight. I found a gorgeous disguise as a workman. I had a bright red shirt, with the ends outside the trousers, and a belt, and high boots reaching my knees. In this costume I left Kiev on foot to take a train from a neighboring town, and so avoid all the spies. I succeeded and was safe for several months.

Nevertheless, Father and Mother were constantly harassed, for I was being sought for persistently and without rest. For years the watch was never lifted from my old home, and the police went there frequently. My parents, now old, had to sign a paper in which they agreed never to leave Luka-Barskaya.

I came back again to Kiev, but it was a desolate return. Over one thousand revolutionists had been arrested, many of them our best men and women, and it was only chance that the few of us who remained were still free.

Stefanovich and I finally decided to start a revolutionary movement in the Government of Kiev. We selected as our trade the selling of tin articles, and kept a horse and wagon. But we had no money, and although we sold our goods, they hardly covered the cost of keeping the horse, which ate us out of house and home. Gradually others joined our small beginning. It developed later into a true revolutionary rising.



Meanwhile, I started a new centre among the peasants, and this time I changed the old tactics. Instead of wearing old and ragged clothing, I dressed well, and instead of getting false peasant passports, I lived with one taken from a relative of mine who had died. I found that the peasants were much more anxious to listen to me when they knew that I was educated and a noble, and I realized that all these years had been vainly spent, and hundreds of gallant young men and heroic women had gone to Siberia over a false and mistaken policy, yet our ideals held true. Then the work of organizing riots began. One of our problems was the arming of the peasants, and another the purchase abroad of a printing-press and smuggling it into Russia.

We only had thirty old revolvers, and our next difficulty was the obtaining of money for the buying of arms. In our fanaticism it seemed simple. But, without our knowledge, a spy had penetrated into our organization. Some of us tried to kill him, but failed. This led to his giving out of a vast amount of information, and, as he knew our headquarters and all our work, at a moment's notice we had to scatter broadcast.

To a forest outside Kharkov, as appointed, the dispersed members gradually made their way. By marvelous good fortune every one of us had escaped the clutches of the spies and the gendarmes, and we met in full numbers at the secret place.

I remember few things sadder in my life than that meeting. It remains in my memory as the burying ground of our illusions. There, with the flush of excitement worn away, we looked at each other and at the ruins of our work. Some spoke eagerly of beginning anew, but many of the others showed not only that they had lost heart, but that they had also lost faith. Most of us had discovered the fallacy of thinking that the moujiks were anxious for a revolution, and we realized that it was necessary to organize the reform of Russia by different methods.

Referring to our failure, Ivan said to me one day:

"We have failed because we were too far removed from the people. The gulf between the nobles and the peasant masses cannot be bridged by a mere change of clothing and passports."

Heavy-hearted, many of us shattered in health, shorn of the dreams that had glorified our sufferings, we revolutionists went away from Kharkov. Broken men and women, most of us with nowhere to go, for none could return to homes, and still and forever to be hiding as "suspects," and all young, so young!

While most of us were trying to find some way to earn a living under forged passports, the resolute three, Stefanovich, Deutsch, and Bokhanovsky were really organizing a small revolution, and they used as headquarters a flat in a small house on the outskirts of Kiev, where we also kept our secret printing-press, on which we printed revolutionary pamphlets. Through one of the peasants, who was caught, the three were betrayed, and all were arrested. Bokhanovsky had the key to our rooms, and this was confiscated, but since he would not give the address, there was no danger of discovery for some time. Still, the police began scouring Kiev in the effort to locate the lock into which this key fitted. As this flat was a revolutionary headquarters, its location was not generally known, and aside from the men in prison, I was the only person who knew of it. It was necessary to clear the house of the press and any compromising papers. Although I was in Odessa at this time, I came immediately. Our main difficulty was getting in, for we had no key.

For several days we discussed plans for getting out the large printing-press. We even found three burglars who were willing to rob the house and get the things out, but on the night set for the attempt, the police must have suspected something, for they started whistling, so that we all had to run for our lives. Then we sent a locksmith, who made another key, and one of the revolutionists came to the landlady and told her that he was a relative of Bokhanovsky, who had allowed him to enter the rooms and live there. He had the key to prove the truth of the story. We had the place cleared in forty-eight hours and a few days after that the police located the house, but there was nothing in the rooms. The gendarmes realized that the place had been cleaned out, and began looking for those who had done it. We all scattered.

The arrest of these three of my comrades after the secret conclave in the forest outside Kharkov marks the close of the first period of the revolution, the time when we believed that all we had to do was to make the peasants understand that we were ready to lead them into a newer liberty and a life of greater happiness. All this was the work of a handful of university students, full of the mad enthusiasms of youth, and striving to rid the country of the chains of an old tradition.

Then came an even deeper and more tragic note. A tall, fair young fellow, always exceedingly well-dressed, moody, but as lively as quicksilver, and the very flush of energy, came to Kiev. This was Valerian Ossinsky. He reawakened much of the old enthusiasm, for he had the talent for organization and he had a plan. Political freedom for every one he craved, but—this was a fearful "but"—he believed that the government should be frightened into granting it. And this fear should be created, not by a revolution that attacked a system, but by the selection and killing of those brutal officials, who had become tyrants of oppression. They should know terror for themselves. Sleeping or waking, at home or abroad, the shadow of death should lie over them, and the grisly spectre of Terror should never leave them.

Thus Terrorism began.

Ossinsky's immediate concern in Kiev was the organization of an escape for our three comrades, Stefanovich, Deutsch and Bokhanovsky. We were all helping, and the first thing we did was to bribe a keeper, so that we could safely exchange letters with the imprisoned men. We were fearfully concerned about them, because they had actually organized secret fighting groups among the peasants, and these had been discovered by the police.

I was living with two comrades in a small apartment at this time, and it was here that Ossinsky came with the letters from the prisoners. We discussed numerous plans of escape until we finally settled on one. Michel Frolenko, after much trouble, obtained the position of helper with the warden of the Kiev prison, where our friends were incarcerated. His plan was to work up till he obtained a position which would enable him to liberate the prisoners.

Meanwhile, little by little, the plans of Terrorism gripped even the most peaceful of our circle. I was opposed to it. At our meetings each new outrage only made our anger burn deeper. Most of it centered on Kotliarovsky, the head of an investigation among the peasants to find out the name of every noble who had been fomenting trouble among them.

Even then, I doubt if Kotliarovsky would have been attacked, but that once, when a young girl revolutionist was arrested, he ordered that she should be searched by his men. I have said that we were like knights of the olden time and held respect to a woman as a foundation stone in our ideals. It was when the ignorant officials abused their power and hurled insults at the heroic girl students who had suffered with us in the cause that they signed their own death warrants.

On the night of February 28, 1878, I was awakened by a tapping on my window, which looked out onto the street.

"Who is it?" I asked.

"Valerian," said the voice outside, softly. I let him and two of his comrades in. Ossinsky came in softly, and looking at me through his gold-rimmed glasses, said in a quiet whisper:

"Kotliarovsky is killed!"

I shivered.

"When?" I asked, dully.

"Just now . . . we've come from there."

In a few words he told that he had shot the hated official in the street and that he had fallen instantly.

"You're sleeping here?" I asked.

"Yes—probably the streets are alive with police now."

"Then go to bed we must put out the light right away," I said.

We spread blankets and lay down.

Kotliarovsky was a brute, but—no, I could not make myself believe in Terrorism. I could not sleep.

Suddenly, in the distance, I heard the regular beat of a drum.

"Rousing help," I thought to myself.

"Valerian, do you hear?" I asked.

"I hear."

"Beating a drum," I said.


The other two men went to sleep, but I heard Ossinsky tossing restlessly hour after hour.

The next day we found out that Kotliarovsky had not even been wounded; the shot had missed him and he had fallen from sheer fright. The attempt roused the town. In the name of the famous Executive Committee we began printing proclamations of a revolutionary character, which we used to post all over Kiev during the night. One of us was sent to fifteen years' hard labor when caught sticking up one of these posters.

By this time Frolenko had gained the confidence of the warden, and we knew that at the first vacancy, among the keepers who held the keys, Frolenko would obtain the position. Then he could simply open the cell doors of our comrades.

Our next step was to get rid of a keeper. We chose a drunkard, named Ponomarenko. I dressed up as a rich brandy distiller and went to one of the good hotels. I sent him a message to come and see me, and told him he had been recommended to me by a man for whom he had formerly worked. I offered him work at my distillery, and he could not resist the temptation. He told me that he would resign from the prison, and let me have his passport right away. Since he could not get his passport from the warden without resigning, when he brought it to me next day, I knew the way was clear for Frolenko. I gave Ponomarenko some money, and told him that I had a short trip to make, and that he should wait to hear from me.

Our calculations worked out perfectly. As soon as he left, Frolenko obtained the position of keeper, and we began planning the flight. We decided that the best way was for the prisoners to escape in a boat down the River Dnieper, on which Kiev stands. Then, at a sufficient distance from Kiev, they could take the train and escape. Some of us were entrusted with the buying of provisions, for the refugees could not leave the boat and be seen anywhere, so they had to have a sufficiency of food; others had to buy a cart and horse to take the men from the prison to the river, and then we had to provide them with clothing.

At last all was ready. That night somebody knocked at my window. It was Frolenko.

"Well? What's happened?" I showered him with questions.

"They've escaped," he said, walking calmly into my room.


"Just as we had planned. I got the keepers drunk, so they dozed off, I opened the cell and took them out. At the gate the watchman challenged us. I told him that we were going off duty, and he let us through. That's all."

I watched Frolenko as he told me this simple story, and there was no trace of excitement on his face, except that his eyes burned a little.

"I took them to the river," he continued in answer to my questions, "and you got an awful horse. My arms are still sore from hammering the beast—it wouldn't run. Well, I suppose you'd better give me the scissors—I'll cut my beard."

And Michel gave up the rest of the night to changing his appearance.

Not in Kiev alone, but in Petrograd, in Odessa, in all the larger towns of Russia, Terrorism spread. Scarcely a day passed without news of some outbreak planned, or carried out. A gendarme officer named Heiking, who had been especially active in attacking us, was shot and killed by Ossinsky and his friends. We printed a proclamation stating that the killing of Heiking and the escape of Stefanovitch, Deutsch and Bokhanovsky were the work of the "Executive Committee."

Kiev was in an uproar. It was felt that no official's life was safe. The gendarmes were stirred to savage action. Every suspicious apartment was ransacked.

Above me lived two girl students. The police broke into their rooms and searched. I heard—but there was nothing I could do. Frolenko and the slayers of Heiking were living with me, hidden, for I had secured a false passport and was safe for the time being. Besides, in a cupboard in my rooms was a small printing-press.

Every day were arrests and more arrests. Some were our comrades, many were innocent. Several were hanged. But the man who ordered the first hanging was killed two days later. In every town this happened. The Executive Committee added new officials to its death list, and paid the fatal price. Slowly the net around us tightened. Our days were numbered. The spies added link to link of the chain; they gained admission even to the inner circle, but we could not trace them.

The first blow was the arrest of Ossinsky on January 24, 1879. Then came the fateful day of February eleventh. It was a Russian holiday, so we all gathered in two houses to pass the evening. In the first house where I lived, there was a great number of revolutionists, Brantner amongst many others. I had gone to our other gathering place with the rest of the revolutionists, among whom was Sviridenko.

All were sitting quietly in my rooms, when a knock came and a gendarme entered.

"Is Gospodin (Mr.) De Bogory Mokrievitch here?" he asked.

"No—there is no De Bogory Mokrievitch here," answered one of the men.

"Where is he?"

One of the comrades pulled out a revolver.

"Where is he?" repeated the gendarme, backing toward the door, also drawing his revolver and hammering with his heel on the door. A dozen gendarmes rushed in, and at the same moment Brantner and another of the revolutionists advanced with revolvers drawn. It has never been known who fired first.

There was a fusillade of shots. The gendarmes wore armor, but one was killed instantly by a bullet through his head. The two foremost of my comrades were mortally wounded, but one of them, lying on the floor, shouted, amid his agony:

"Attack them with knives, brothers!"

Brantner, though wounded, went on shooting. The women revolutionists hastily threw compromising documents in the fire while the battle was going on, while others, in the teeth of the pistol fire, gave first aid to their dying friends. The defense was too desperate and the gendarmes finally gave way.

But escape was beyond hope. There was a double ring of gendarmes around the house. One of my wounded comrades reached the gate, where he collapsed, and Brantner fainted from his wound when trying to climb the wall of the yard. More gendarmes came, so many that defense was impossible. Still, so terrible was that handful of men and women in that little room that even the soldiers were afraid to approach, and it was only when the revolutionists agreed not to fire that they were put under arrest.

Brantner and the comrade near the gate were found and sent to the hospital with the two dying revolutionists. The others were taken to the station house.

Meanwhile we knew nothing about all this until the door opened, and we found a solid line of soldiers behind with fixed bayonets. Fortunately, Sviridenko and another man had left a few moments before.

"Surrender," said a voice.

"We're not a fortress," I answered with a smile,

"But your comrades—" began the officer.

I could not hear the rest of the sentence, for the soldiers burst in, and drowned his words.

He searched us all for arms, but we had none, so we were taken to the police station, where we came upon our comrades. From them I learned of the desperate affray.

Sviridenko, who had been caught on the street, suddenly rushed in, with two policemen helplessly dragging on behind.

"They're bound," he shouted, looking at us all, and began untying the ropes that bound us.

"Please calm yourself," repeated the police commissioner, unable to overcome his obedience to a noble; "we'll untie them."

"I want water," shouted Sviridenko.

"Water—do you hear?—quick, get some!" ordered the commissioner, only too eager to be obliging as long as his orders were fulfilled.

It was many years ago, but I can still see Sviridenko, with his pale face wreathed in a mass of black, thick curly hair, bullying the commissioner, who had us in his power.

We were all taken to the Kiev jail. Soon our two wounded comrades died in the hospital and Brantner joined us.

The charges against us were very serious. Whereas some of us were held for armed resistance and the killing of an officer, others, such as myself, were connected with many revolutionary undertakings and had lived as "illegals." Spies came to the prison from everywhere to identify us, and even Ponomarenko was brought to identify me as the wine distiller. I looked him straight in the eyes, and I saw that he did not recognize me, so perfect had been my disguise.

"We know all about it," said the gendarme, trying to break down my guard.

A woman who had been in the hotel was asked to identify me. She looked at me. I saw that she knew, but she only said softly:

"I can't tell."

On April third we were taken to trial, and forbidden the lawyers we wished. We were all sentenced to fourteen years and ten months hard labor, with the exception of Brantner and Sviridenko, who were condemned to death for armed resistance.

When the sentence was passed, one of the women prisoners became hysterical. The police rushed for water, and we all rose from the benches on which we were sitting. There was a general tumult. The spectators also stood up, and some even climbed on their chairs to see better.

"What are you looking at?" shouted Sviridenko. "This is no theatre. It is a disgrace to you making a show of death!"

There was a hushed silence. All sat down quickly, and ashamedly began leaving the court as rapidly as possible.

Ossinsky was tried later—and sentenced to death. There was no hope. Our three comrades were doomed. Sviridenko gave a false name as he did not want his old mother to know of his death. He spoke about her to me many times, as we sat on our cell windows. He died under that false name, to save her a heart-wrench.

I could not think of my comrades' deaths, it seemed too terrible to be true. The last night came. I climbed on the window sill and sat there, pressed against the iron bars, not daring to think of the morrow. It was a warm night, and very still. Everybody was quiet; I think probably all were seated as I was. The only sound was the voice of Ossinsky, as he spoke to his betrothed, Sophia Leshern, who was in the woman's prison across the empty courtyard.

"Four, five, seven, two, eight, zero!" he said rapidly, in the cipher we used.

She answered.

Ossinsky could not keep still. He asked me to sing him Beranger's "Death of a Corporal," It is a song—you may know it—of a death by shooting.

Ossinsky hoped but for one thing, that he would be shot on the morrow; he could not bring himself to think of the scaffold. I sang it, though my throat was wrung with choked-down tears. Twice afterward during that night I sang it to him again.

It was getting very late.

"Sonia!" came Ossinsky's voice.

"Valerian!" she answered.

No more was said.

Next morning . . .