Translated from the French by Leonard Mayhew
Hart-Davis, MacGibbon London
Copiright 1973 by Editions Robert Laffont, S.A.
To the memory of my brother, Ivan, who was killed at eighteen years of
age in Russia during the Civil War while serving in the ranks of General
This unusual story of high adventure was discovered by Robert Laffont,
the well-known French publisher, who responded to a mysterious note which
read as follows: "I have an extraordinary tale to tell. But I cannot reveal
my identity unless you are interested in its publication. I am, in effect,
the keeper of a number of secrets. Place an ad in France-Soir. Indicate the
hour when I can telephone you and meet you personally. The ad should read as
follows: Robert Laffont asks Nicholas to telephone him on ------- day,
------ hour." The result is Nicholas Svidine's dramatic account of the
legendary White Army treasure, which has been acclaimed by the French press.
The story of my odyssey with the "treasure of the White Army" will
bring down criticism on me from every side. My Russian fellow exiles will be
incredulous. Many others will say that I had no right to keep the existence
of this fortune a secret. They will tell me that others had a right to know
about it. But the truth is that I didn't know whom to tell. And I sincerely
believed that no one had a better right to the "treasure" than I.
Actually, however, in the end the "treasure" and my many attempts to
recover it ruined my life and brought me nothing but terrible moral and
physical anguish. I risked my life for it. Others died for it. If it had not
been for the treasure I could have led a normal life -- done normal work and
earned normal satisfactions.
It's too late for regrets, but enough is enough, and I am forgetting
about the treasure. It will never be found, because I could never possibly
describe where it is and how to find it. After so many years even the
landscape must have changed considerably. No, I am the only one who might be
able to identify the place, but I shall never go back to Bulgaria to try.
I will be condemned as well for having sold secret information to
several governments. But the fact is that these countries struck good
bargains -- whatever they may say now. And it kept them on their toes. Even
the Soviets have no complaint; most of my "information" came from their
weekly, the New Times, which at that time had a small foreign circulation. I
shall explain why and how I became an "informer" for the United States and
for Nationalist China.
I know only too well the risks involved in publishing this story,
because I have already suffered the most cruel punishment -- exile.
NOVEMBER 1920. The steamship Vladimir was docked at Theodosia, on the
Black Sea, the decks, cabins and hold all filled with Cossack soldiers.
There was no room to budge. From the city came the constant sound of gunfire
and bombs. To prevent the Reds from getting our stores we had set fire to
warehouses that were filled with all the things we had lacked so sorely at
the front: uniforms sent by the English, canned food, everything we had
needed. Thousands of riderless horses galloped in confusion all over the
beach while their Cossack masters wept at having to abandon these comrades
who had saved their lives so often. Those of us on board were anguished at
the sight of the English cannons that had arrived just too late to help us.
The soldier-workers and the Greens -- Bolshevik partisans who operated in the
forests and mountains -- wanted to block our escape but were afraid to
advance on us even now. Defeated by superior numbers, ironically, our
departure was a kind of victory: our enemy's bitterest defeat was its
powerlessness to keep us from getting away. The last Cossacks mounted the
gangplank, their rough faces twisted with confusion and despair. None of us
had ever been outside Russia. Now we were leaving forever.
Eventually, I found a warm place to sit, propped myself up against the
smokestack, and looked back over my short life. I was twenty-two. I had
grown up on a small estate in the Cossack territory of Kuban. My family had
lived for generations in the Caucasus, a land with rich resources, pleasant
climate and natural beauty. But when Russia conquered the Caucasus my
grandfather had decided to settle on the Kuban.
All the men in my family had been soldiers. No other way of life had
ever occurred to them. My great-grandfather had fought the fierce Cherkess,
a people of ancient Islamic culture who were unbelievably fanatical and
fiercely courageous -- and armed by the Turks. And the men in my family were
giants -- my relatives considered it tragic that I had stopped growing at six
feet. Only half jokingly, my father and grandfather had dubbed me a freak.
My father was a strict but scrupulously fair man whose rewards and
punishments were always deserved. He was six feet six inches tall. My mother
adored me but she interfered between us only when she thought my father had
gone too far in finding fault with me. Since family custom dictated that I
be "toughened up," I was sent at eight years of age to a boarding school a
hundred and twenty miles away. I hated it at first, and would cry myself to
sleep each night. But I got used to being away from home except for
When world war broke out in 1914, I was a teenager, the kind of student
who did just enough to get by. My father had died two years before from
wounds he had received in the Russo-Japanese War. When war came, my whole
upbringing had led me quite naturally to dream of gallant exploits. I was
disgusted with myself that I was too young to join, but the war ground on
and by the end of 1915 I was seventeen, old enough to volunteer. I had set
my heart on becoming an officer.
The army had lost so many that an accelerated officer training course
had been established -- four months instead of the usual two or three years;
you could complete your course work after the war if you lived that long. I
was still technically a year too young to be eligible for the military
academy, but it was now possible, because of the circumstances, to take the
examination whenever one felt ready. I didn't tell my mother, but I began to
try to cram a year's work into the shortest possible time, and I often
studied until the early hours of the morning. After three months, I notified
the director of the school that I was prepared to take the entrance
examination for the military academy. Because of my mediocre school record,
he thought I was just mouthing off. But I persisted, and he finally gave in,
warning me that no special allowances would be made and that he was all but
certain I would fail. But I passed the difficult examination with flying
colors, much to his surprise.
"All those years you've been pulling the wool over our eyes," he said,
"pretending to be a second-rate student."
"1 want to go to war so much, it has worked a miracle," I told him.
I had not given my mother even a hint of what I was up to because I
knew she would object. And of course when I showed her my report card and
told her I wanted to enter the military academy, she was vehemently opposed
and refused her consent. Since I was a minor, I could not join without it.
But a month of arguments, pleading and tears finally won her permission, and
on a day that was glorious for me and sad for her, I donned my uniform and
set off for the reserve battalion stationed at Ekaterinodar, the capital of
the Cossack Kuban territory. I had requested assignment and been given to a
military academy that had just been established at Tashkent in central Asia,
a region I had read much about in school, so, carrying my free railway
ticket and all my documents, I said good-bye to my mother and family and set
out on the long trip.
Anyone who has not experienced the immensity of Russia firsthand cannot
grasp what a voyage lay ahead. It was freezing cold and the train was so
packed that I counted myself lucky to find a tiny space in the baggage
compartment. Even the corridors were crowded with soldiers on their way to
and from the front. Near Tzarizin (later Stalingrad) a snowstorm nearly
buried the train, and it took two days of going hungry and nearly freezing
to dig ourselves out. The returning soldiers were frantic at the thought of
losing precious time from their short leaves. All the way to Samara
(Kubichev) on the Volga the train inched slowly forward between mountains of
On the other side of the frozen Volga, I changed trains for Tashkent.
Now, even the third-class cabins were almost empty. The countryside was a
constant surprise to me. The Russian forests had given way to desert plains
where only small bushes, called saksaule, could grow. Whenever the train
stopped, the nomadic Kirghiz rode up on their ponies to stare at the demon
locomotive; the railroad was new in central Asia, and the people of the
steppes would ride hundreds of miles to see it.
At last we reached Tashkent. We discovered we were only part of a
steady stream of Cossacks arriving from the Don, Kuban and Terek
territories. The director of the military academy was overwhelmed by us all,
and put us on a railroad car and off we went to Irkutsk in central Siberia.
I found Siberia even more dramatic than central Asia. Even though it is
intensely cold in western and central Siberia, there are seldom any strong
winds, and so it is not unpleasant. The air was so still that the smoke from
the engine rose straight up into the air; there was not the slightest
breeze. The most extraordinary thing, though, was the overwhelming, absolute
silence that fell whenever the train stopped. It was haunting. Occasionally
the quiet was broken by a piercing sound like the crack of a gunshot, as a
tree would explode in the thirty-below-zero cold.
The military school at Irkutsk consisted of a long, one-story building
with a huge courtyard in front and riding grounds behind. It had been
established in 1872 to train officers for the crack Siberian divisions. We
were welcomed by the director, who declared us officially student-officers,
We had four months to be transformed into officers. Into those four
months, we had to cram what would take two years in peacetime -- classes,
drills, riding. We were up at 6 A.M. and retired at 10 P.M., with only two
hours in between to ourselves. Each night I threw myself exhausted onto my
bed, wondering whether I could stand the intellectual and physical
punishment. But in a month's time my young body had become so hardened that
I no longer felt the least fatigue.
Spring in Siberia is the most beautiful I have seen anywhere. It
happens suddenly as the bright sun melts the last traces of snow. We used to
take map training on the other side of the majestic Angera River, and from
there we could see a breathtaking woods, all white birch surrounded by the
freshest, greenest grass in the world. Once I gave in to the temptation to
stretch out on the grass -- but I leaped to my feet the second I touched
ground: underneath the green grass, the earth is eternally frozen. On a day
in May, a few days before the end of our course, we took a train to Lake
Baikal, about thirty-eight miles from Irkutsk. It is the deepest lake in the
world; the water is like crystal and the banks are a scene out of a fairy
tale. It was warm so I put on my bathing suit and dived in. To my shock, the
water was so cold I felt as if I were being boiled.
And then we were commissioned as sublieutenants. Foreigners could not
possibly understand what that meant to us. In czarist Russia an officer was
received everywhere, and admired and respected by everyone. He had to wear
his uniform at all times in public, and no one, especially women, could
resist him. And there were many courtesies. For instance, at the theater,
officers never remained in their seats during intermission. Even the Czar
observed the formality.
By custom, the entire school was turned over to the new graduates on
the eve of graduation. The officers all stayed away and the school orchestra
played only for us. Legend has it that the famous poet Lermontov, who had
been a junker, had designed the ceremony we observed. We danced and sang the
whole night long and in the morning we took our time getting dressed since
there were no officers to make us hurry. We put on our new officers'
uniforms, still with our cadet insignia on the epaulets. By 9 A.M., we were
assembled in the courtyard. The authorities arrived with the
governor-general of eastern Siberia at their head. For the last time we
listened to the command "Come to attention!" as the director read the
telegram from St. Petersburg that said that we were commissioned. Then we
broke ranks and dashed to the dormitories to take off our cadet insignia.
Back in the ranks, we were greeted as "my fellow officers," and then we all
filed past the officers, who shook our hands and congratulated us. We
thought it unbearably moving that the customs were observed even though we
were "twelve-day wonders."
After the ceremony, we were each issued twenty-five rubles. Many of my
older comrades went to one of the numerous geisha houses, but I had decided
to have dinner in a good restaurant, and I had a date with a pretty young
Siberian girl I had met on leave. Then I took her to a concert by the famous
singer Plevitskaya, who had sung before the Czar. Two days later, our
arrangements were made, and we started on the long trip back. I was sad to
leave my girl, and the marvels of Siberia, but I had a month's furlough and
I longed to see my family and home.
i WAS APPOINTED to the renowned 22nd Plastonais battalion -- of the
Cossack infantry. We were deep in the mountains on the Caucasus front, and
life was very hard. There were almost no paved roads, which was particularly
hard on the injured who had to be moved to hospitals, since everything had
to be moved by mule. We were always short of provisions, and when food did
arrive, it stank so much we had to force ourselves to eat it. There was no
firewood in those cold, barren hills. And at night, hungry jackals prowled
close to our tents. War wasn't the game I had dreamed about as a boy;
suffering attacked before the enemy.
When our battalion moved to the front lines I heard for the first time
the sounds of bullets whistling by me. Like us, the Turkish artillery had
only small mountain cannons but the cannonballs made a terrible noise as
they echoed over the cliffs and through the gorges. I soon learned, however,
that there was more danger from rifle bullets, either hitting directly or
ricocheting off the rocks. The first day on the front lines three of our men
were killed and several wounded.
Our commanding officers planned a major offensive. Because one of our
lieutenants had been seriously wounded, I was assigned to direct the
reconnaissance operation. October 4, 1916 -- I remember the day clearly. I
set out at nightfall with twenty Cossacks. My orders were to push forward
about two miles to a demolished Turkish village. The night was very dark and
windy. I divided the men in two, one group under my command and the other
led by a sergeant who was infinitely more experienced than I.
If the first detachment were ambushed, the other was to counterattack
from the rear. We wrapped our boots in cloth to dull the noise of our heels
on the roads. As we got near the village, we came upon a man sitting on the
ground. One of our soldiers jumped him and pinned him to the ground, holding
his Cossack dagger to his throat. I heard him say the word kardash
("friend"); he was unarmed. One of the soldiers who spoke Turkish soon found
out that he was an Armenian, and that his family had been killed by Turkish
soldiers. Only he had escaped. He had been hiding in a cave for several
days, was without food, and was now trying to find the Russian troops. He
told us there were more than fifty soldiers and two officers in the village
and that they had at least two machine guns. I decided to dare it. I
signaled the other group that they were to attack from the left as we came
in from the right. The Turkish position was directly in front of us.
Our battalion was called the plastounis (from plast, theword for bed)
because they were famous for surprising their foes at night by crawling up
on them on their bellies. This is the way we moved now. It took us an hour
to advance another half mile, but we surprised the Turks and took them in
twenty minutes. We captured one officer and nineteen troops, and lost four
killed and seven wounded. From a distance of two and a half miles the main
Turkish force opened an artillery barrage, but the Russian artillery
returned their fire to protect our retreat and we got safely back with the
Armenian, our prisoners, the two machine guns, and documents that would
prove useful. For my first feat of arms I was promoted to lieutenant and
received the order of St. Anne, which is worn on the saber and bears the
inscription "for courage."
That Christmas on the front was the saddest of our lives. Cold and
hungry, all we could think about was the gaiety and beauty of the
traditional Russian Christmas celebration. (We had no way of knowing that
this would be the last Christmas of the Russian Empire.) During January and
February the cold was so intense we could not undertake any serious action.
But we knew that spring would bring a major campaign designed to knock
Turkey out of the war.
News from Russia arrived a week late, and we were stupefied when we
learned that a revolution had broken out in St. Petersburg, and that the
Czar had abdicated in March 1917. I had been raised with a deep devotion for
the monarchy, and these events seemed to me unbelievable, even
.catastrophic. The ordinary Cossacks were as broken up as we officers. None
of us could imagine living without the Czar. The Cossacks had always been
the main protectors of the throne, and they wondered what then-fate would be
in a republic and feared that the revolutionaries would never forgive their
support of the Czar.
The Russian infantrymen on our right had received the news with
boisterous joy; we could hear them cheering in their camp. Ten days later
they sent a delegation to find out how the Cossacks, whom they disliked
anyhow, would react to revolution. They were astonished and angered to
discover that strict discipline still prevailed among our troops -- none of
us would wear the red ribbons that decorated their coats. We begged them to
go away and leave us alone, but that infuriated them further and led to
threats against us. After that our general ordered the Cossacks on a double
alert -- against the Turks and against our fellow troops.
A few days later, the famous order N1 of the new government arrived,
abolishing all discipline in the army. All military formations, large or
small, were to be governed by committees elected by the soldiers. The
committees were to be in charge of everything, even military operations. The
rejoicing of the ordinary soldiers can be easily imagined; they hated their
officers. Many of the officers of the regular army were severely harassed,
and some were even arrested for their harsh treatment of the men. The
Russian soldiers were furious when they found that the Cossack committees
were ninety percent officers (as opposed to only three percent -- mostly
young revolutionary officers -- among the regulars).
When the soldiers learned that the new government was promising to give
them confiscated land, they had only one idea -- to get home before the
distribution was completed. They deserted the front en masse. The Cossack
formations, however, maintained discipline, closing their ears to
propaganda. But by November 1917 our presence on the front was no longer of
any use. The Cossacks started to return to their stanitzas (villages, or
At every railroad station along the route, soldiers ordered the
Cossacks to turn over their officers, and the Cossacks, with machine guns
mounted on the trains, would reply, "Come and get them." Thousands of
officers were assassinated during these days, but not a single Cossack
officer was touched.
During a stopover at Prochladnaya, I put over my uniform an overcoat
that had been lent me by a friend who was the battalion physician. I didn't
think my officer's gold braid could be seen, or that the tiny gold crown on
my fur hat would betray me.
"Look, comrades," a soldier called out, "There's an officer disguised
as a soldier."
A crowd gathered around me and I was forced to remove my coat. On my
uniform were my lieutenant's epaulets. The soldiers seized me and began to
carry me to their camp behind the station. I was sure I was going to be torn
Two Cossacks who did not even belong to my battalion saw what was
happening to me and dashed to their trains yelling, "Quick! The soldiers are
going to kill a Cossack officer."
About a hundred Cossacks grabbed their rifles and chased away the
soldiers, who were beating me as they dragged me along. The Cossacks charged
after them with bayonets. My would-be executioners left behind one dead man
and ten seriously wounded. Some from my battalion carried me to the
officers' car, where my doctor friend gave me a big glass of vodka. "Those
bastards did a job on you but there is nothing serious." I was covered with
bruises and both my eyes were so blackened I could barely see.
Our train started up again. A division famous for its revolutionary
ardor was waiting at the Goulkevitchi station. Whenever a train arrived they
would ask if there were any officers aboard. They would drag their
unfortunate victims out of the cars and murder them with unbelievable
cruelty. As we pulled in, we saw some soldiers but they simply stared at us
with hatred. The station-master told us that they had got wind of the
incident at Prochladnaya and had decided to let us be.
Our regiment arrived finally at Tichoretzkaya, a maJoir railroad
junction where everybody was given leave buit me. Our commander, Lieutenant
Colonel Postovsky (who was to play an important role in my life), did not
want my mother to see me in the condition I was in. It was hard to be so
close to home and not to be able to see my family after such a long absence.
Even more, the thought of being seen in such a state by one very special
person with blond curls and wonderful blue eyes was worse.
Ten days later my face was almost back to normal, and the cuts and
bruises could be passed off as signs of valiant deeds. But as I was packing
my few belongings to go home, the colonel summoned me.
"You cannot go on leave. The commander-in-chief of the Cossack
divisions has ordered me to send an officer to Baku on the Caspian with a
confidential dispatch. You are the only officer I have that I trust. I'm
"But Colonel, I shall never return. You saw what the soldiers did to
"I know it's dangerous, but it would be for any officer. I have had
word that most of the soldiers have left the railroad stations. It's less
risky now. You will take the Rostov-Baku express, which has an armed guard
under an officer."
I was given no choice. I was handed a large sum of money and documents
asking the authorities (but what authorities?) to assure my safe passage. I
went to Tichoretzkaya, where I caught the train for Baku. It took two days.
In Baku I bought my mother and brother Christmas presents -- a case of the
local mandarin oranges. I also came down with a fierce sore throat and a
Just before I was to leave for home, our train was overrun by soldiers
who were fleeing the front. Compartments that were intended for four people
had to accommodate eight, and even the corridors were packed. I wore an
enlisted man's coat over my officer's uniform. I was prostrate on an upper
berth and obviously sick as a dog. Thinking I was one of them, the soldiers
kept asking me what was the matter. I pointed to my throat and whispered a
few words in an indistinct, hoarse voice, conscious that my accent might
give me away.
My fever rose and, off and on, I lost consciousness and sank into
delirium. I was blinded by my own sweat, and from the overheated, crowded
One of the soldiers said to me, "Comrade, you should take off your
overcoat. It's hot in here and you are burning up. We will just lay it over
you." Some of the others rose to help him. I was too sick to care. When they
took my coat off and saw my insignia, there was a disquieting silence. Then
someone said, "There must be a medic on the train. Someone should ask in the
other cars." A very young soldier replied, "You're right, comrade. I'll
Soon he was back with a medic, who swabbed my throat with some
awful-tasting medicine. It worked like a miracle and, by morning, I was a
lot better. He came back later and gave me some more medicine, and by
evening I was almost myself again.
I was astounded and very moved by the way these soldiers treated me.
They were always solicitous, asking me how I was, and whether I needed
anything. At each stop they would fetch boiling water to make tea. All
during the three-day trip these companions looked after me, and when I
arrived at Tichoretzkaya the whole car came out to shake my hand and wish me
a safe trip home. A little while before soldiers had tried to kill me. Now
other soldiers were doing all they could for me, with great kindness.
When I reached the stanitza, I delivered my report to the colonel as
well as the receipt for the package. He complimented me for a job well done,
had the treasurer advance me three months' pay and gave me a paper for an
unlimited leave. I would never return to my battalion. It no longer existed.
Leave papers in hand, I set out for home and my mother, who was
overjoyed to see me all in one piece. It was two days before Christmas 1917.
I forgot about the dire political situation, the Bolsheviks, the threat of
civil war, and the soldiers on the trains looking for officers to kill and I
thought only about my joy in being home at last.
The next day my mother told me that my close friend, Lieutenant Joukov,
had been killed just a few days before. He had survived the war, his own men
worshiped him, and he had been assassinated by soldiers from his own
country. I was beside myself. I dreamed of rallying the Cossacks of my
stanitza to revenge the Cossacks.
In fact, the czarist government had always had an incredibly foolish
relationship with the Cossacks. They were the protectors of the throne, the
bodyguards of the Czar and his family, and yet they had always been looked
on with distrust. It was a policy that was based on the memory of the
revolts of the Zaporov Cossacks-now only about half of those who lived in
Kuban -- under Stenka Rajin and Emilian Pougatchev, both Don Cossacks.
Pougatchev had threatened the reign of Catherine II. The government had then
adopted the policy of colonizing the Kuban Cossack territory with Russian
peasants, who were encouraged to buy land on low-interest loans from a
specially constituted bank.
The intricate social organization of the Kuban Cossacks endured in
spite of all this. To rid herself of the trouble some Zaporov Cossacks, who
lived in the southern Ukraine, Catherine II had moved them to the rich lands
of Kuban, which had been conquered from the Turks, along the banks of the
Kuban River, one of the swiftest and most dangerous in the world. With this
act, the government both neutralized the Cossacks militarily and
consolidated its new frontiers.
When a Cossack reached sixteen, he received from the government a piece
of land called a nadel. The parcel varied in size depending on how much
reserve the stanitza held, but it was generally thirty or forty acres. Every
four years the land was redistributed, a system that impoverished the famous
black soil. As the Cossack population increased, the nadels became smaller
and smaller and the Cossacks, especially those who lived along the Caucasus
frontier, grew steadily poorer. They, the masters, became poorer than the
Russian peasants who had been thrust into their midst.
The government was not really giving the Cossacks much of a gift when
it ceded land to them. As soon as he receive his nadel, at sixteen, the
Cossack began his military service, though he remained in his stanitza until
he was twenty-one, and only then left to join his regiment. A special
instructor oversaw his military education. By nineteen, he had to have all
his own equipment -- uniform, boots, linens, saber and dagger, and a horse if
he served in the cavalry. Each year his equipment was inspected. The
government supplied only a carbine to the cavalrymen and a rifle to the
infantrymen. Equipment was an enormous outlay for these men, who had then to
serve actively for five years, and then remain at the disposition of the
State as reservists.
While he remained in the stanitza, the young Cossack did not merely
undergo intense military training; he also continued his regular schooling
with a tutor. By the time he joined his regiment, he was a first-class
soldier. Since the officers were usually Cossacks, the discipline in the
regiments was a family affair. Courts-martial were very rare, and only
convoked for the most serious offenses.
Life in the stanitza was based on a strict code of honor. In my own I
never heard of a divorce, a theft or of any dishonesty. Money was loaned and
borrowed on a man's word.
The Cossacks very rarely intermarried with the Russians in their midst.
They were very pious, and their own marriage ceremony was extraordinary. The
Orthodox rite is very solemn and beautiful, but among the Cossacks it
achieved a singular romanticism. The groom, in his full dress chercheska,
would gallop through the village with his closest friends, all firing their
pistols into the air, to I meet his bride. She came out to meet him with her
attendants and was escorted to the church by the groom and his companions.
After the religious ceremony the feast i would begin at the bridegroom's
house. The dowry -- I furniture, linens, maybe even oxen harnessed to a wagon
'! -- was exhibited for all to see. Late in the evening the newlyweds were
led to their room by the svacha, the matchmaker. The next morning she
triumphantly exhibited the sheets as proof that the bride had been a virgin.
The feasting lasted three days. The czarist government did not trust the
Cossacks. The ataman, their administrative chief, was always a Russian, just
as the Czar's bodyguard was always commanded by Russians or German-Russians.
The Civil War proved how fatal this policy had been for the Czar, and
how unfounded the mistrust had been. When the Bolsheviks took power, the
transplanted Russians joined them and fought the Cossacks who joined the
White Army. (Later Stalin declared the Russian peasants kulaks and they lost
MY MOTHER WAS VERY WORRIED about me, and urged me to go for a while to
Ekaterinodar, where she thought I would be safer from the Russians. She was
not afraid for herself or my younger brother, because she was on good terms
with the Russian peasants. To please her, I went, but I found the city in
turmoil. The garrisons of Ekaterinodar were filled with soldiers who had,
for a number of reasons, stayed behind instead of returning home. It was
almost as if they had received some mysterious order to await events. The
famous General Kornilov had arrived in the Don Cossack territory and was
fighting the Bolsheviks. He was a remarkable man. During the war he had
commanded the famous Iron Division. Wounded and captured by the Austrians in
the Carpathians, he had escaped, crossed Austria, and reached Russia. He was
commanding a corps on the front when the Revolution broke out. At first, he
was on good terms with Kerensky, who named him commander-in-chief, but
relations between them quickly cooled. Kornilov schemed to be rid of
Kerensky, and thereby had him arrested and imprisoned in the small city of
Bichorv. With the help of his personal guard he escaped and reached the Don.
On my arrival in Ekaterinodar I saw a notice in the regional newspaper
from a Colonel Galaev inviting officers to Join a detachment he had formed
to keep order in the city. His small troop was temporarily lodged in the
empty junior seminary near the railroad station. I presented myself to the
colonel, who made a strong impression on me. He received me graciously and
informed me that I would serve as a simple soldier like all the others in
the detachment. I would have to remove my officer's epaulets but he made me
head of the machine gun section, which was my specialty. I had two heavy
Maxim machine guns and two light Colts. Besides sidearms we also received
regulation Russian army rifles. The date of mv enlistment, January 9, 1918,
was the day that determined the rest of my life.
Another detachment similar to our own was under the command of Captain
Pokrovsky, who held the Cross of St. George, awarded only for the highest
acts of heroism. Pokrovsky impressed me even more than Galaev. He was a
medium-sized man with an unforgettable face. His hawklike eyes both
attracted and disturbed me. They were cold and ice-gray, and seemed to reach
into one's soul. His movements were violent and brusque; his voice imperious
even with his superiors. An unusual man, he had so impressed the ataman of
the Kuban Cossacks that he had made him commander-in-chief of the troops in
Ekaterinodar, and then colonel and general in quick succession, though he
was not a Cossack.
Our two detachments were to disarm the soldiers who spent their time at
Bolshevik propaganda meetings. We put their arms, including their cannons,
into trains. As a reinforcement for my section, I received two young female
first lieutenants. They had been students at the time of the Revolution and
had taken advantage of the rights granted women by the provisional
government to take accelerated officer training in Moscow. They were named
Barkache and Zubakina, both very pretty girls. They demanded that they be
treated as any other officers, and once we had all got used to this, we got
on very well. And they were very brave, as I was to learn a few days later.
Toward the end of January, my section was ordered to accompany some
officers from another section to Ekaterinodar to inspect trainloads of
merchandise. We had received a report that the Bolsheviks at Novorossisk,
the great Black Sea port that they held, had sent arms and ammunition to
fight against General Kornilov at Rostov-on-the-Don.
I left the women officers in the barracks and ordered them to clean and
grease the machine guns. At the station we searched the trains and found
nothing. As we waited on the platform for the rest of the detachment, which
was working on the other side of the tracks, a very long train, loaded with
merchandise from Novorossisk, pulled in. It was crowded with soldiers
returning from the Turkish front. They recognized us as officers.
"Look, comrades! They are not satisfied with having drunk our blood for
centuries. Now they aim their guns at us and our brothers."
The heckling led to more serious insults and threats. The situation was
becoming dangerous. We couldn't abandon the comrades we were waiting for.
The senior lieutenant, Roschin, ordered me to go for the machine guns, and
the others to take cover in a small brick building at the end of the
I ran out of the station and jumped into a carriage. I had to pull my
gun to persuade the driver but a few minutes later I was at the seminary.
Barkache and Zubakina helped me load the two heavy machine guns onto
the wagon. As we approached the station I heard bullets whistling. The
soldiers were firing on the small brick building. Russian stations do not
have gates, so we would have to try to drive the wagon right up to the
platforms where the long train was stopped. I ordered Zubakina to shoot at
the cars. With the other machine gun I opened fire on the soldiers who were
shooting at our comrades from the platforms. The soldiers began to jump onto
the train, or tried to take cover under the cars. The engineer, a Red, saw
that things were going badly and pulled the train out.
Another five minutes and we would have been lost. They would have torn
us apart. There were many wounded and dead on the tracks, and we telephoned
the hospitals to send people to care for them. The episode had serious
consequences; it unleashed civil war along the Kuban. As it turned out, the
Reds had been getting ready to attack; we found an attack plan on the body
of a Red officer.
Within a few hours our intelligence informed us that the Novorossisk
Bolsheviks were organizing a punitive expedition. Trains loaded with armed
soldiers were on their way to Ekaterinodar and would arrive at night. We
were in great danger, since we were at most two thousand fighting men, all
officers. Ataman Filimonov held a council of war. Colonel Galaev was to
defend the city along the railroad track. Pokrovsky was to set out under
cover of dark and attack the Reds from the rear. I would put my machine guns
near the railroad bridge and defend the track and the paved road, the only
access to the city, which was surrounded on all other sides by an impassable
I placed a heavy machine gun on each side of the bridge. The women
sublieutenants, protected by steel shields mounted on their guns, fired in
bursts as the Reds opened fire on our position, which was only about fifteen
yards wide. I fired from the bridge with the light Colt, also protected by a
I had never heard so many bullets whistling around my head. Thousands
of soldiers were aiming their fire at our small position. The women showed
extraordinary courage and coolness. I was afraid they were taking too many
risks by standing up over their shields and I yelled to Barkache to get
down. But she stood up for a fraction of a second to turn the gun around and
add water to cool it, and in that instant was shot in the heart. A short
time later Colonel Galaev was killed in the same way.
Finally, when Pokrovsky arrived and attacked from the rear, the Reds
fled with heavy losses, abandoning their weapons and the trains. But our
victory was saddened by the death of Barkache and our commander. In the
evening we brought their bodies to the seminary to prepare them for burial.
As the funeral procession passed through the city on the way to the
cemetery, the whole population lined the route.
Captain Pokrovsky was made colonel and commander-in-chief of the entire
garrison. The fighting continued to rage. The Reds were furious at their
rout and were determined to take revenge. Replacements joined them from
every direction and we were sorely pressed, particularly since eighty
percent of the population were partisans of the Reds.
Civil war is the ultimate horror. I was in a battalion that was
directed against my own stanitza. When I heard the cannons, I knew they
might be killing my loved ones or destroying my home. And there was terrible
savagery and ferocity on both sides. When at last I saw my family again,
they told me that the grocer's two sons, with whom I had played as a child,
had enlisted in the Red Army and had sworn to cut me to ribbons if I fell
into their hands.
That war was full of ironies. There was a rich mujik, a man who owned a
hundred and twenty-five acres, had more than twenty horses, and thirty
cattle and much other livestock, in our town. Yet his three sons immediately
joined the Reds. One of his neighbors, also a mujik, who lived by making
Russian ovens, had a wife and seven children, and was as poor as Job. Yet he
joined our detachment and fought the entire war in the famous Kornilov
Several times during this period my life was spared against all odds. I
left my machine gunner's section to join the cavalry. My grandfather had
served Czars Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II and had retired in
1907 as a general. After his retirement, he had raised horses and had taught
me from the age of two all the skills of a horseman. So, when it was decided
to create a sotnia (mounted section), I was named first officer. I bought a
horse from a former Cossack commander, a beautiful animal but with two
faults: he was unwilling to follow other I horses, being used to the lead
position, and he was shot from under me.
After the capture of my stanitza, my commander told me to go back to
Ekaterinodar for a few days and not to stay where everyone knew me. "If the
Reds retake the stanitza," he said, "your relatives may pay dearly for you."
With my orderly, I started back to Ekaterinodar, about fifty miles
away. That evening I arrived at a convent of nuns located halfway between
the stations of Platnirov-skaya and PIatunovskaya. I knew the place very
well. The mother superior, a venerable old lady, had been a great friend of
my grandfather. She told me that the Reds were burning down all the
convents. There was a small Cossack detachment there, about forty men, on
their way to Ekaterinodar to join the fight, commanded by the sublieutenant
Kedrovsky, whom I knew so well.
Like many Russian convents, this one was by a high wall and resembled a
fortress. My horse had lost a shoe and I sent my orderly to take him to the
stanitza about three miles away to be reshod. When he left, the massive
single gate to the convent was barred and sentinels were placed at the gate
and in the bell tower. The front lines were shifting constantly, so that one
could expect a Red band at any time. After dinner, the mother superior
escorted me to the guest room, while the sublieutenant and his men remained
I was sound asleep when firing broke out. A nun woke me at i A.M. The
Reds had surrounded the convent and Kedrovsky was seriously wounded.
The Cossacks were firing back from the bell towers but we were short of
ammunition. Kedrovsky had been carried into the chapel and I could see that
he did not have much time left.
"We are done for," he whispered. "There are too many of them. They have
two cannons and we only have twenty-five cartridges apiece. Hide. The
Cossack troops may be able to save themselves somehow, but for you and me it
is certain death. You know how these pigs torture officers. Don't fall into
their hands alive."
A Cossack dagger and the nine-millimeter Colt I had received in
military school were the only weapons I had. The Red cannons were bombarding
the convent and shrapnel was falling everywhere. I left Kedrovsky and went
back to the courtyard.
"We can't hold out much longer," a noncommissioned officer told me. "I
am going to talk to them. They have promised not to kill us if we open the
gate. They don't know you're here. Hide somewhere and no Cossack will betray
But where? Surely the Reds would ransack the convent from top to bottom
and I would be discovered. I was nineteen, not ready to die. To be killed in
battle was one thing, but to kill myself or die under torture was
I shook hands with the sergeant. Kedrovsky had died. The terrified nuns
were hiding in the cellars. "I have a place that nobody knows about," the
mother superior told me. "My poor daughters are so frightened they might
betray you out of fear. You will be safe if the Reds don't stay too long."
She took me to a dark corner of the main church, where there were a
number of icons. One icon was very large and so old that nobody knew what
saint it represented. The mother superior pressed something at its base, and
then drew the icon aside. There was a small cubbyhole
where I could just squeeze in. "They won't find you here," she said.
"I'll come back when the danger is over. Don't move, and don't smoke."
She moved the icon back in place and I was left in the darkness with
only the air that filtered through a small crack in the wall. For a while I
listened to the artillery and rifles. It was silent for a brief moment.
Then, shots and wild screaming. Afterward, I learned that the Reds had
massacred all the Cossacks. Only one, a fellow my own age, had been rescued
by the sister-cook, who had hidden him in a dish closet.
The Reds were searching for convent treasure. I heard them approach
with the mother superior. They were warning her that thev would kill her if
she didn't tell them where it was. They were so close that I could hear
their swearwords and their heavy, drunken breathing. They looted the church
for about a half hour. In spite of the cold and my cramped quarters, I fell
I was wakened by someone shaking me and I thought the end had come.
When I opened my eyes, I saw some officers and Cossacks, with the mother
superior. "Come out of your hole, friend," said a captain I did not know.
"And thank the mother superior for saving your life. Everybody else was
I was so stiff I could hardly walk. By the time they got me to the
courtyard I saw one of the Cossack detachments from Ekaterinodar. About two
hundred Red soldiers had captured the convent as they had been returning
from a village where they had looted a State vodka factory. Dead drunk, they
had been on their way to the railroad station, where another Red detachment
was quartered, when they had come upon the convent and heard that there were
While I had slept, the situation had reversed. Exhausted from the
fighting and drunk on the mass wine they had looted at the convent, the
soldiers, even the sentinels, had fallen asleep. The Cossacks in a nearby
stanitza had managed to alert a detachment on its way to the front. The
battle was short and the Reds were wiped out. Only twenty were left alive to
bury the dead, and then they were shot. That was what the Civil War was
My orderly returned with my horse, and I set out again for
Despite some victories, our resistance was doomed. There were just a
few of us, and masses of Reds were arriving from all sides. We had no
reserve ammunition, while the Reds had the leftover reserves of the Russian
army at the front.
The noose was tightening around Ekaterinodar. Our superiors -- Ataman
Filimonov, Colonel Pokrovsky and some generals from the front -- decided the
only way to escape being annihilated was to retreat to the mountains to the
south on the Black Sea. I don't think they had anv idea of how we would
survive in the mountains or where we would find food for thousands of men.
How would we defend ourselves? It was a desperate decision but it was our
only choice. The situation became more critical as hordes of civilians and
retired officers who were afraid of falling into the hands of the Reds
In February 1918 we left our beloved city only to run immediately into
a line of Bolshevik troops. After a few days of fighting, we were sure the
end had come for us. Everyone was put into the front lines, even the
civilians and the old men. But toward the evening of the third day somehow
we broke through. My mounted detachment had the responsibility of protecting
headquarters from a surprise attack.
A horseman galloped out of the woods, leaped from his horse before
Ataman Filimonov, and threw his arms around him shouting, "Kornil, Kornil."
He was one of our Cherkess allies and had brought us unexpected good news.
General Kornilov and his tiny army were just eighteen miles away. We had
thought he was still in Rostov-on-the-Don, but he too had evacuated under
pressure. He had hoped to join us and wait for better times -- for the moment
when the Cossacks, who were observing strict neutrality (ninety percent of
our men were ex-officers), would understand what real threat the Bolsheviks
were to their whole way of life.
Pokrovsky was scheduled to meet Kornilov the next day but Pokrovsky
himself had only been named major-general the evening before by Filimonov.
This was bound to offend Kornilov and the other generals. Filimonov did not,
in their view, have the right to make appointments. Now he had acted as the
head of an independent state, and this could only add to the tension between
the Cossacks and the Russians. Pokrovsky, because he was not a Cossack, was
denied a role in the joined armies.
The meeting of our two small troops under Kornilov's command was to
take place in the stanitza of Novy-Dmitrievskaya. We hoped to persuade the
Cossacks to rise, so we thought it essential to retake their capital,
Ekaterinodar. So, at the beginning of March, our army was once again before
the city. Ekaterinodar was defended by ten times our strength, and fortified
by heavy artillery against our measly ten cannons and two thousand shells.
Even so, we might have taken it if General Kornilov had not been hit by a
shell. His death was a terrible blow. It overturned all our plans. He was a
Cossack general and immensely popular. If we had taken Ekaterinodar, he
could have rallied all the Cossacks of Kuban, the Don and Terek. His
successor, General Denikine, did not have the same relationship with the
men. In any case, he decided to raise the siege and to move us to the
territory of the Don Cossacks where, it was rumored, the Cossack contingents
had begun to converge.
We went through a village called, in Russian, "The Colonies." It was
where the Germans who had been transplanted to Russia under Catherine II
lived. With elaborate security, we buried Kornilov. (The next day the Reds
discovered his grave and dragged his body through the streets of
Ekaterinodar.) had hoped to join us and wait for better times -- for the
moment when the Cossacks, who were observing strict neutrality (ninety
percent of our men were ex-officers), would understand what real threat the
Bolsheviks were to their whole way of life.
Pokrovsky was scheduled to meet Kornilov the next day but Pokrovsky
himself had only been named major-general the evening before by Filimonov.
This was bound to offend Kornilov and the other generals. Filimonov did not,
in their view, have the right to make appointments. Now he had acted as the
head of an independent state, and this could only add to the tension between
the Cossacks and the Russians. Pokrovsky, because he was not a Cossack, was
denied a role in the joined armies.
The meeting of our two small troops under Kornilov's command was to
take place in the stanitza of Novy-Dmitrievskaya. We hoped to persuade the
Cossacks to rise, so we thought it essential to retake their capital,
Ekaterinodar. So, at the beginning of March, our army was once again before
the city. Ekaterinodar was defended by ten times our strength, and fortified
by heavy artillery against our measly ten cannons and two thousand shells.
Even so, we might have taken it if General Kornilov had not been hit by a
shell. His death was a terrible blow. It overturned all our plans. He was a
Cossack general and immensely popular. If we had taken Ekaterinodar, he
could have rallied all the Cossacks of Kuban, the Don and Terek. His
successor, General Denikine, did not have the same relationship with the
men. In any case, he decided to raise the siege and to move us to the
territory of the Don Cossacks where, it was rumored, the Cossack contingents
had begun to converge.
We went through a village called, in Russian, "The Colonies." It was
where the Germans who had been transplanted to Russia under Catherine II
lived. With elaborate security, we buried Kornilov. (The next day the Reds
discovered his grave and dragged his body through the streets of
BY NIGHT, across the violent winds of the steppes of the northern
Caucasus, we marched toward the Don. Each evening as we would start out only
the general staff knew what our route was to be. Nevertheless, the Reds
succeeded regularly in discovering the stanitzas where we halted, and
bombarded us with artillery fire. We were so short of guns and shells that
we could not fire back except in grave emergency. Our supply corps was the
closest Red detachment; when our shells or cartridges ran dangerously low,
we raided them.
I took part in these expeditions often. On the steppes of Kuban, one
night, we were only a few miles from my village, where my mother and younger
brother still lived. I hadn't seen them for months, and was frantic to know
if they were all right, but I could not leave the column. I had been
assigned to be General Markov's liaison with General Denikine for that
It was pitch dark, the clouds blotted out any trace of moonlight, and a
cutting wind blew in our faces. We were wearing Cossack burkas, long, black
felt water- and wind-proof capes which served at night as sleeping bags. We
marched eight miles north, then turned south to throw the Bolsheviks off our
trail. We had to cross the railroad tracks, a movement which took several
hours and was very dangerous since the Reds might easily telephone our
position to the armored trains, who could bombard us. To keep the trains
from getting too close to the column as it crossed the tracks, teams of
sappers would blow up the tracks a few miles away on both sides of our
That night I was following General Denikine's personal bodyguards.
Wrapped in my burka, I had laid the bridle on the horse's neck and begun to
doze off. I was roused when my horse stopped. The column, two or three miles
long, had halted and everybody had dismounted. We stretched our stiffened
limbs and lay down, covering our heads with our burkas. Next to me was a
kurgan, one of the mounds on which the Cossacks a century before had lit
their signal fires to warn of Cherkess attacks. I climbed one side of the
kurmn to get out of the wind, attached the bridle to my leg to keep my horse
from wandering, and fell asleep. After a while, the cold woke me. When I
opened my eyes, I leaped up. The column had disappeared. My horse, grazing
on the fresh grass, had dragged me gradually down the kurgan.
The wind had died and the sky was cloudless. Overhead the moon shone
brilliantly; it was absolutely silent. I put my ear to the ground to see if
I could pick up any sound of the column and wagons. I could hear nothing. I
was quite alone in this vast, dangerous steppe.
I was frozen with such intense fear that I was physically ill. I gave
my horse his head in the hopes he would find his own way to our column. I
knew the Red cavalry would be close behind. He didn't run, he flew. The
noise of his hooves resounded like thunder on the dry ground.
After about an hour, I saw a dark line against the gray horizon. To
make less noise, I rode along the side of the road, where the earth was
softer. After a while, I realized that the dark line was a row of trees
planted along the railway tracks to protect them from snowdrifts. I knew the
road would lead to a crossing, but I didn't know what might await me there,
so I turned to the right.
When I was five hundred yards from the crossing, I thanked God that I
had made a detour. Through the unbearable silence I heard the sound of a
train slowly approaching. The armored train, I thought. I dismounted and led
my horse into the shadows of the trees. Apparently the Reds had repaired the
section of track we had blown up and were searching for the place where we
The train had stopped at the crossing house, and I heard what I assumed
was the Reds interrogating the railroad guard. I could not distinguish the
words. The talking stopped but still the train did not move.
It might stay there until dawn. It was already 3 A.M., so I didn't have
much time and the only safety lay on the other side of the tracks. But to
cross I would have to go through woods, down along a road that sank three
yards below the surrounding ground. The other side was easier. It was only
about a yard high, no trouble for my horse. But I would have to do all of
this without the men on the train hearing me, and there was no wind to drown
out the noise.
I pulled off farther to the right, leading the horse by the bridle. He
was used to the front, so we accomplished this easily. Then he saw the
tracks glinting in the pale moonlight. I pulled at him with all my strength
to get him to cross them. He was afraid of the slippery rails and would not
budge. All this effort made a considerable amount of noise.
I could hear my heart beating, and despite the cold I was bathed in
sweat. The only solution was to mount the horse, which might lessen his fear
and encourage his instinct to obey his rider. I made the sign of the cross
and leaped into the saddle and, for the first time ever, struck him with my
crop. Surprised and offended, he made such a leap that he almost fell
between the tracks, and I had difficulty keeping my mount. Everything
happened quickly. I found myself half stunned, lying against a tree. The
horse was standing next to me trembling. I could hear the drops of sweat
falling from his body onto the ground. My face and hands were scratched from
the branches and I had an enormous bump on my head. My whole body hurt but I
didn't have time to think. The Reds must certainly have heard. I forced
myself to my feet and led the horse through the woods.
A few minutes later, I was on the steppe once again and relieved. I was
on the right side. I heard voices from the crossing and then the train began
to move. They were searching for the source of the noise. I whipped the
horse with my crop and he leaped forward. Immediately, I heard the sound of
machine gun fire aimed in the wrong direction. But now the Reds heard the
hoof beats on the dry ground. They couldn't get me with a machine gun so
they fired a dozen cannon shells. All fell short, except one that landed
about two yards to my left.
I galloped God knows where for about twenty minutes. But the horse was
about to fall from exhaustion and so I stopped for twenty minutes. I was
certain now that the Reds were not going to get me that night. The moon had
disappeared behind clouds and a morning fog indicated that I was near a
river. My body was aching and the bump on my head was swelling. I stretched
out on the ground and heard ahead of me the sound of wagon wheels. "Come on,
old friend," I said to my horse, "one more effort and we are home free." The
horse, Kochevoi, sensed our friends were near. He let out a whinny that
could be heard for miles. A half hour later, I was with my column. By
morning we had reached the stanitza of IIinskaya, our next stop on the Don
road. I was worried, as I presented myself to the headquarters staff, that I
might have been needed during the night to transmit an order to General
Markov. There had been nothing. I had not been missed.
Our march was difficult, slowed down by the necessity of pulling the
supply wagons, by the civilians who accompanied us, and by the wounded.
Since we were always on the move, the wounded could not be properly cared
for, and even slight wounds, easily cured in normal circumstances, could be
In view of the desperate situation, our command decided to leave the
wounded behind in Diadkovskaya. At the same time they freed a communist,
Polouian, with great ceremony and asked him to watch out for them. I said
farewell to the wounded sorrowfully.
Finally, we reached the large stanitza of Ourpenskaya, which was near
the government seat of Stavropol. This was not a Cossack city and many of
its men had joined the Red Army. General Denikine received the news that
many Cossacks had risen against the Reds and were ready to join us. Two
regiments of Kuban Cossacks arrived. Our situation now seemed a bit hopeful.
Denikine decided to march to the Don and soon our army was settled in the
two Don Cossack stanitzas, Olguiskaya and Metchetins-kaya.
The Cossacks of these towns had fought hard against the Reds. They had
removed all the tracks that connected the Rostov-on-the-Don to the
Ekaterinodar-Tzarizino line. We arrived on the eve of Easter and for the
first time in a very long while we had time to celebrate in style.
During the next month we received reinforcements. The situation was
looking more favorable. All over the immense empire, groups like ours were
forming. Denikine decided to leave the Don and set out on the conquest of
the Kuban. It was May, a beautiful month in southern Russia. Our army of ten
thousand fighting men started out on the return trip to Kuban. We were glad
to get away from the Bolsheviks, at least those in the northern Caucasus.
Soon we lost our legendary general, Sergei Leoniko-vich Markov, a tragedy to
us. It happened after we had captured the railroad station of Chablievskaya,
on the Novorossisk-Tzarizino line. The battle was virtually over when I saw
the general walking between two warehouses. He returned my salute, visibly
delighted at this first victory that cut off the Reds from the east. At that
moment, a Red shell, fired by the armored train as it retreated, exploded
over his head. He died almost immediately. The deaths first of Kornilov then
of Markov changed the course of our destiny. Even so, I think that there was
never such a small army, almost without resources, that accomplished such
exploits against an enemy infinitely superior in numbers, arms and
A few days after the death of General Markov, I was almost killed
during the attack on the Red infantry at the railroad junction of
Tichoretskaya. But we captured Tichoretskaya and that opened up the roads to
Rostov-on-the-Don and Ekaterinodar and to the southern Caucasus. The
Bolsheviks had to abandon an enormous amount of materiel, which we
recovered: two armored trains with their battleship guns, hundreds of wagons
loaded with ammunition, and many other supplies. The victory also had
political significance. It demonstrated our strength to the population, and
encouraged those who, even though they hated the Reds, had feared to join
us. The arrival of our army in Cossack territory and our victories against
the Reds had an immediate result. Everywhere the Cossack stanitzas rose
against the Communists and our army mushroomed. Day and night, Cossack
detachments arrived to join us.
General Pokrovsky was still in disgrace for having accepted promotion
by the Ataman Filimonov. He was biding his time. As great numbers of
Cossacks began to join us, there was a need for a man like Pokrovsky to
command. When he was named commander of the Cossacks, he asked me to be his
aide-de-camp, but I chose to join a Cossack detachment serving under him
that was commanded by one of my uncles.
Pokrovsky was pitiless with both the Red soldiers and civilians. After
we captured Timochevskaya, the people as usual denounced the Bolshevik
sympathizers, who were mostly peasants from the interior. He had twenty
gallows built and placed in a circle in the main plaza. One stood apart. It
was for an officer who had been conscripted by the Reds but who had declared
his intention to rejoin our side. When the Reds retreated, he had remained
behind and hidden himself. Pokrovsky had him hanged anyhow. Practically all
captured officers were hanged. To escape, it was not enough to plead that
one had been forced into service. One had to prove that he had acted against
On August 2, 1918, a memorable date for me, we entered Ekaterinodar
once again after six months' absence. Most of the people gave us a wild
welcome. As we marched down the streets they shook our hands and invited the
officers to dinner. After this, I received three days' leave to go see my
family. I had had no news of them for several months, and I was apprehensive
as I approached home. I was overjoyed to find my mother and younger brother
well. They had heard from a Cossack who had seen me in Ekaterinodar that I
was safe and sound. During the three days we spent together, my mother told
me about life under the Bolsheviks. Many of our belongings and household
goods had been requisitioned. The Reds had taken all my father's small arms,
and even a pair of binoculars he had won in a pistol competition. As he took
them, the soldier told my mother that they would be useful in helping aim
the cannons against us as we attacked. The essence of civil war is irony: my
father's binoculars might have helped kill me.
My mother had not been badly harassed, though my seventeen-year-old
brother had been arrested. But he had soon been released after some peasants
my mother had once helped intervened. Leaving them was terribly painful. If
I had realized that I would end up fighting in a civil war, I would never
have Joined the army. Now it was too late. "Long farewells bring useless
tears," says the Russian proverb. I got on my horse and galloped away to
hide my tears.
My regiment was already far away and it took me three days to catch up
with it. The rout of the Reds was complete in the northern Caucasus. Cities
and stanitzas fell to us one after another. Kuban Cossacks, officers, and
even soldiers whom the Bolsheviks had not succeeded in converting, flowed
into our ranks. We were now one hundred thousand strong. Young as I was, I
knew the czarist regime was dead and that Russia needed serious reform -- but
why must neighbors kill each other, destroy their farms and livestock, and
raze their homes?
Nicholas Svindine. The treasure of the white army
IT is NOT MY INTENTION to record the history of the Russian Civil War;
that has already been done many times. I have recorded these reminiscences
of my youth so that my later adventures will be understandable. For two
years I fought in numerous battles, was wounded, had four horses shot from
under me, and was lucky enough to survive.
Without pretending to be a historian, I would like to suggest why the
Army of Volunteers, as we were called, fell short of total victory over the
Bolsheviks, even though our victories brought us very close to Moscow. We
were so few. We had subdued an immense territory, populated by tens of
millions, but our rear was always exposed and could furnish us with no
reserves. The orders for general mobilization were ignored. Those who were
drafted hid in the forests.
Because we had no real supply system to speak of, we had to live off
the population and we made enemies of the people everywhere. If my horse was
killed, I had to replace it by requisitioning one from someone who had until
then sympathized with us.
The situation with clothing was even worse. For two years I was issued
absolutely nothing, and to avoid being eaten alive by lice, I had to
requisition whatever I needed from the populace.
The government of the volunteer army issued its own money, called
kolokoltchiki, but it wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. The
population of the conquered areas accepted it only when they had no choice.
It is clear why our presence was not always welcome, especially since our
victims were usually from among the less well off. The privileged had
connections and they could make things hard for us if we bothered them.
People who owed their lives to us would complain to the high command about
the smallest requisitions.
Lenin, among others, recognized the real reason why we and all the
White armies -- those of Kolchak, Deni-kine, loudenitch, and later Wrangel --
were defeated. So long as our armies were made up of volunteers who were
enemies of Bolshevism, everything was all right. But when we had to
conscript the peasants and our Red prisoners, our situation became
After coming so close to victory, the volunteer army gave way before
the avalanche of the Red forces and their partisans behind our lines. We had
few munitions and weapons, and the Allied powers gave us practically
nothing. After the French sailors at Odessa mutinied, the Allies were only
confirmed in their desire to get out of Russia, where their soldiers might
be contaminated by the new ideology.
We could see that the end of Denikine's army was near. I wanted to say
what I thought might be a last good-bye to my mother. When I arrived home, I
was upset to learn that my brother had enlisted in the guard regiment
commanded by my uncle. I had hoped he would stay home to care for my mother.
The previous year he had enlisted in another regiment, but I had asked the
commander to send him home, since he was a minor and had enlisted without
our mother's consent. He had returned, but, as with me, his whole background
pressed him into the fight.
Our house was full of refugees, mostly Don Cossacks who had abandoned
all their possessions so as not to fall into the hands of the Reds. On my
last night home, I invited a few friends and a good accordionist and we
spent the evening dancing. About l A.M. some Cossacks from our stanitza
knocked on the door. "Lieutenant," one of them said, "the Reds are only
twelve miles away. They'll be here by morning. You must leave right away.
They'll kill you if they find you here."
One of them saddled my horse. Six cavalrymen from my regiment had come
for me. They had been with me for more than a year, since my last visit
home. As I led the horse to the courtyard gate, my mother walked with me.
She looked at me for a long time and then blessed me. I kissed her and
leaped on my horse so as not to prolong the scene, and galloped off with my
Cossacks. Nobody said a word. We had all been through the same drama.
We rode all night in the direction of Ekaterinodar. The next day, all
the roads leading to the city were clogged with refugees and soldiers. The
city was unrecognizable. It had been very clean, even pretty. Now it was
filthy, crowded with men and horses, and there were drunks everywhere. Our
soldiers had pillaged the State-owned vodka factory and everyone, it seemed,
had a bottle. I had no idea where to find our regiment, so I decided to
press on toward the Black Sea, because I knew that in case of retreat our
division would go to Touapse. I said good-bye to my friends. No one knew
what the future would be.
We practically had to fight our way across the railroad bridge, which
was the only way out of Ekaterinodar in the direction of the mountains.
Toward evening we arrived at a large tobacco plant that belonged to a Greek.
Some girls who worked in the tobacco curing houses lived in one of the
buildings. We asked if we could spend the night with them. I fell madly in
love with one of them, a marvelously beautiful young woman. Our idyll lasted
only the night and we parted the next morning with breaking hearts.
When I got to Touapse, I learned that my regiment had already passed
through, moving toward the Georgia border. Georgia had declared its
independence from Russia. I caught up with it at Adier, a tiny and charming
village beyond Sotchi.
General Rasstegaev, who commanded my regiment, told me that it was now
part of a cavalry brigade of which he was to take command. He made me his
adjutant because I was good at writing reports and orders. But the
appointment was meaningless; a few days later the brigade had ceased to
The mountain forests surrounding us were filled with Red partisans, the
"Greens," who attacked continuously, while the Qth Red Army pressed us from
the coast. Our Cossacks were increasingly demoralized.
Now, we were ordered to Georgia, where we would certainly be disarmed
and interned according to international law. The brigade was assembled and
the order given to move toward the border, a few miles away. The general
turned his head only to discover that half the brigade had not budged. He
galloped back, with me following.
"What are you doing here? Didn't you hear my orders?" he shouted at
them. The general began to curse them, castigating them for their
disobedience. It was a dangerous game to provoke three hundred Cossacks who
were afraid of nothing or nobody.
The only officer with them was a young lieutenant, a good friend of
mine. At last he came forward and saluted his commander. "General, we have
decided not to go to Georgia. We prefer to wait here and surrender to the
The general's face turned crimson. Without a word, he wheeled on his
horse, rode over to those who had followed him, and ordered them to return
to their lodgings. I knew that he was deeply humiliated. Not only had the
Cossacks refused to obey him, but the lieutenant and at least fifty of them
were from his own stanitza.
An hour later, a cargo ship dropped anchor a good way from shore; Adier
had no harbor. The sea was very rough, and a small boat lowered from the
ship had a terrible time getting to shore.
I went out to meet the landing party and asked what they had come for.
The ship's second officer replied that they had been sent to pick up as many
men as possible and take them to the Crimea. "But," he added, "we cannot
take any horses. We have no way of loading them, and besides, we are
anchored practically in the open sea."
The general asked his Cossacks whether they would agree to embark for
the Crimea without their horses. Their answer was immediate and unanimous;
they would rather go to Georgia. At that point, the general made a mistake
that cost him his command and his commission.
Overwhelmed by betrayal, he wanted only to get away as soon as
"Pity, I shall leave alone, and you will accompany me," he said to me,
"but I absolutely demand that they take our horses." He explained to the
second officer that they were thoroughbreds that could not be left to the
Bolsheviks. The officer agreed but only at our own risk. It took five hours
to get the horses on board, and they were so frightened and exhausted that
they took a week to recover.
When we arrived at Theodosia, an ancient city founded by the Greeks, we
presented ourselves to General Babiev, commander of the Cossack division.
Shortly afterward, Rasstegaev was dismissed for having abandoned his
Cossacks. (I saw him years later in Paris, singing for tips in a cabaret. I
was too embarrassed to speak to him.) I was sent to the famous Wolf
regiment, which had been established during the Civil War by General
Schkouro. I was not held in blame, since it was assumed that I had had to
follow the general's orders. A few days later, most of the Cossacks still at
Adier were evacuated to Theodosia without their horses. Those who did not
follow the general were conscripted into the Red Army.
Without their horses, the Cossacks had lost their souls. Fortunately,
new mounts were found for them two months later. General Denikine was forced
to resign his command. The head of the new "Russian Army" was General Piotr
Nikolaevitch, Baron Wrangel. A very cultivated man, he had been a mining
engineer before becoming a soldier, and had studied at the famous Nicolas
Cavalry School at St. Petersburg and later at the War College, where he had
finished first in his class. During World War I he had won the Cross of St.
George for having captured a German battery at the head of his squadron.
During the Civil War he commanded the Cossack divisions and was very
popular. He was the most liberal of all our generals and the most hated by
the Bolsheviks, who called him the "Black Baron." They judged correctly that
his very liberalism made him the most dangerous of their enemies. Alone
among the White generals, he had a program for the future of Russia, if his
troops should be victorious. He abolished reprisals against Red prisoners
and forbade requisitions from the civilian population. But he had come to
command too late, and he knew it.
Immediately after he took command, he began to work out plans to
evacuate the troops abroad in case of defeat. He made arrangements with the
French government, the only foreign power that recognized his authority.
Although he took the precaution of planning for a possible evacuation,
Wrangel was not a man to give up without a fight. His plan was to break out
of the peninsula and try to incite an insurrection while the Reds were
having trouble on the Polish front. But his calculations left out one
essential consideration: the Russian people could not forgive Wrangel for
his foreign family alliances.
During this new brief war, I had another proof of my extraordinary
luck. Early in May of 1920, a week before our army broke out of the Crimea,
I had been in the trenches with my regiment, facing the Red lines. One
morning, the commander had ordered me to take a few Cossacks that night and
try to capture prisoners.
Between our lines and the Reds there was a wide no-man's-land where
there were nightly skirmishes between reconnaisance parties. I chose a few
Cossacks whom I knew to be adept at this kind of operation and we worked out
a plan. To kill time during the afternoon, as we waited, I played a few
hands of cards and won quite a lot of money. By evening, however, I was ill
with chills and a high fever. When it was time to set out, I was running a
temperature of 104. I could not possibly go on such a mission. Another
officer went in my place. In the morning we learned that the reconnaisance
party had fallen into an ambush and no one had returned.
My illness was diagnosed as typhus. It left me completely exhausted;
nonetheless, it had saved my life. I was
sent away for a month's convalescence, and then repined my regiment.
When General Wrangel realized that his offensive against the superior
Red forces was doomed, he took a long shot. That was when he decided to
invade part of the Kuban Cossack territory, hoping to stir the population
against the Bolsheviks, of whom they had, by this time, some experience. His
hopes were illusory. This was the last offensive of the White Army -- and it
was the battle that claimed the life of my younger brother.
Only the Cossack regiments were to invade Kuban from the coast of the
Azov Sea, but our preparations were apparently known to the Reds well in
advance. The landing was to take place near the stanitza of
Primorsko-Akchtars-kaya on the eastern shore of the Azov Sea. The landing
was easy, following a short bombardment of the shore. This was the last time
I saw my brother. His regiment, formerly the personal guard of the Czar, was
the first to set out on a landing barge. My regiment was to follow close
behind. My last sight of him was as he stood in the prow of the landing
barge, smiling and waving to me.
As we should have expected, the landing was a fiasco. The Cossack
population did not budge. Those whom the Bolsheviks considered bad risks had
been removed before we landed. In any case, the Cossacks had not forgotten
their grievances against the White Army. There is a Russian proverb that
says, "Never spit in a well; you may need to drink from it someday."
For the first time, we were facing a new Red Army, better outfitted and
equipped than we were. It was clear from the start that they were
unbeatable. On the evening of August 22, the day my brother was killed, the
First Cossack division, commanded by General Babiev, arrived at the stanitza
of OIguinskaya, with a great number of Red prisoners. Almost immediately, he
had to order us out, without a chance to rest either ourselves or our
exhausted horses. He had been informed that the Red cavalry was attempting
to cut us off from our base. With us were two companies from the Konstantin
Military School of Kiev and two cannons. He left only two sections of mv
regiment, my own included, in the stanitza, along with the cadets and the
We were glad of a chance to catch some sleep. But we had also been left
in charge of a few hundred prisoners, and we didn't know what to do with
them. They were mostly boys of eighteen to twenty who did not understand the
war at all. We couldn't let them go nor could we kill them. Soon, our
dilemma was solved for us. A patrol, coming in from the opposite direction
General Babiev had gone in, notified us that a large force of Red cavalry
was advancing toward the stanitza. Since cavalry cannot fight in a town, the
director of the military school, the highest-, ranking officer among us,
ordered us to withdraw immediately to the north, in the direction of our
landing base. We had to abandon the prisoners.
Our cavalry detachment left the stanitza last. A little over a mile
from the village, we spotted a full Red cavalry regiment facing the village
from the east. When they saw us, they advanced in attack formation.
We were only about a hundred and fifty and would be overrun easily
without even the chance to resist with honor. All we could do was retreat,
and even then our chances of getting away were almost nil. We knew what
would happen to us: the officers would be slaughtered and the Cossacks taken
When the Reds were about five hundred yards from us, ;: they
broke into a full gallop. We drove our horses to the ; utmost of their
endurance but the Reds' horses were in much better condition, and they
gained on us. They were now only a hundred yards away. Behind me, I saw that
the front rider had seen my epaulets and had picked me out. His saber was
My horse was slowing down. I put my sword away and ^ took out my
pistol. I would take a few Reds, and use the last bullet on myself. My
orderly's horse fell just in front of me. There was nothing I could do for
him. The Red horseman was still behind me. Though he wore no insignia, he
was clearly the leader of the regiment. I fired twice and missed. But the
third time, I saw him fall less than fifty yards behind me.
We were all resigned to die -- and then we were miraculously rescued.
The two companies of cadets, who had been hidden by a tall growth of
sunflowers, were suddenly visible, and getting ready to fire on the Red
cavalry. One company formed the first line, kneeling on one knee, and behind
it stood the second. On their flanks were two heavy Maxim machine guns. They
waited for us to get close. As soon as we had spotted them, our two
detachments split in two, going off to the right and the left.
The Reds were practically on top of us, charging with such screams and
curses that even seasoned soldiers would have been terrified, but the
students did not move a muscle. Then came a curt order, and all hell broke
loose. The Red horsemen, cut down by the rifle and machine-gun fire, turned
back. Our two cannons had been brought up in the rear and they opened fire
on them as they fled.
The field was filled with dead and wounded men and horses. It was an
incredible experience in every way: the courage and coolness of the
students; the savagery of the Red attack, its courage and fanaticism. We
learned later that there had been three regiments against our two companies.
But such defeats were of no use now. It had been over for us ever since the
failure of our ill-advised landing.
We were ordered to the coast, where boats were waiting to take us back
to the Crimea. I asked about my brother's regiment and was told it was due
in an hour. I went under a tree to wait. The heat was unbearable. I was
terribly anxious and went out to the road to watch, hiding myself behind
shrubs. At last, in the distance was the glorious standard of His Imperial
Majesty that had been awarded to the regiment for its valor in the battle of
Leipzig in 1813. My grandfather, father, uncles, cousins, my brother and I
myself had all served under it.
The regiment had almost passed by and there was still no sign of my
brother. Then I saw Berejnoi, his friend, a boy of the same age who had
volunteered at the same time. I called to him and he came toward me. His
manner was enough to tell me what I feared to hear. "Where is Ivan?" For a
long moment he did not answer. "He was killed the day before yesterday." I
had been waiting for these words, but they struck me like a blow in the
face. Berejnoi told me how Ivan had died, and that he had been buried with
another officer and two Cossacks in the stanitza of Grivenskaya with full
military honors. Some of his belongings had been kept for me.
My brother's death affected me so that I could not bear the idea of
going back to war. When I got back to the Crimea, I told my commander that I
had to have some time off. He consented, and I returned to Theodosia with a
small detachment of veterans of the Civil War. I was then twenty-two years
The news from the front was very pessimistic. Under pressure from the
Reds, the army had been forced to retreat to the Crimea, which was protected
by fortifications, some built by the Tartars and some by us. Our army
thought they had foreseen everything, but the fierce cold was a surprise --
and a costly one. The only unfortified part of the Crimea was along the
stormy Sivach Bay, which was on the army's right flank and was to have
formed an invulnerable barrier against the Reds. But the supposedly
unpassable Sivach froze overnight so thick that the Red cavalry crossed it
easily and attacked from the rear. That was the end of the White Army.
SO, NOW I WAS ON BOARD the steamboat Vladimir as it got under way to
leave Theodosia. The Black Sea is often stormy in the winter, but that
November day it was extraordinarily calm. It seemed to me that even the sea
understood the tragedy of men about to leave their homeland forever.
The good weather lasted all the way to Constantinople, which was lucky
because many of the boats were old and all were overloaded. Even a slight
storm could have caused a catastrophe. That night there was a cold wind and
I pushed my way below deck, but the air was so stale I couldn't stand it for
more than five minutes. I found a small space on deck amid all the heads and
legs, wrapped myself in my burka, and for the first time in my life, fell
asleep outside my homeland.
In the morning the cold was intense. The waves were higher, and the
boat began to pitch. On the horizon we could see a large two-stack ship and
near it a smaller ship.
Small boats were passing between them. The smaller ship, the Caucasus,
terribly overloaded with men, was slowly sinking. Fortunately, it stayed
afloat until all on board had been evacuated.
The sun rose higher and warmed us somewhat. I was terribly hungry.
Before we had left shore I had been able to find a large can of English
corned beef, but no one had been willing to sell us any bread, since they
knew that our money would be worthless after we departed. I opened the can
with my Cossack dagger and began to eat with my fingers. When I saw the
haggard faces of the others, and how they gazed at my every mouthful, I
offered to share the meat with the men around me. One of them had a few
pieces of bread and we ate that with the canned meat. It was very spicy and
made us frightfully thirsty. One man volunteered to go for water. It took
him an hour to fight his way through the crowd and return with a bucket of
foul-smelling water that we drank with pleasure.
To pass the time, I decided to search the ship for friends. I received
nothing but hostile looks since I had to trample on people's feet in order
to move. The men were used to the worst after two years of civil war, but it
was particularly difficult for the few women on board.
At last I found some officers from my former regiment near the prow.
Because we were facing into the wind it was colder there than on the decks,
but also less crowded. We made a sort of tent around ourselves to block the
wind and stayed there together. The next day we saw some low mountains split
by a deep crevasse, the entrance to the Bosporous straits. On both sides
stood the ruins of forts that no longer threatened anybody. Turkey had lost
the war and Constantinople was occupied by French, English and Italian
In front of us and behind us, ships of our armada waited for permission
to enter the straits. Mixed in with great ships like the Don, the Rion, and
the Kherson there were smaller boats of every description, about a hundred
altogether. Anything that could float had been used in the evacuation.
As our ship entered the Bosporus, I forgot my troubles and the hunger
and cold. There was Asia on one side, and Europe on the other. At the Golden
Horn, I could scarcely contain myself. On the left was Scutari, in front of
Istanbul with its dome of Sancta Sophia and the minarets of hundreds of
mosques. Our whole armada was assembled in the strait, accompanied by
warships of the occupying powers. Not far off was the magnificent cruiser,
the General Kornilov, and the elegant yacht, the Loucoul, which carried
General Wrangel, his family and staff. The General Kornilov, pride of the
Russian navy, which had been launched in 1915, was to be taken by the French
to Bi-zerte, where it rotted away because the French refused to return it to
the Soviet Union. The Loucoul later sank in the Bosporus.
The noonday sun made us forget the freezing cold of Russia. As soon as
we cast anchor we were surrounded by small boats filled with Greek and
Turkish merchants selling all kinds of supplies. Almost nobody had any
foreign money, of course. For a loaf of bread or a kilo of figs, the vendors
would take a wedding ring. One could buy some bread and some halvah for a
pistol. The goods and payments were raised and lowered in nets over the side
of the ship. To persuade us to deal with them rather than the Turks, the
Greeks would make the sign of the cross in the Orthodox fashion. Most of us
on the boats had eaten nothing for three days and many gave away anything
they had for some bread. I had two automatic pistols, a gold watch, a gold
cigarette case, my dagger with its silver handle, and a gold cross and chain
that my mother had given me. It was all I owned in the world, and in spite
of my hunger, I could not part with my possessions.
Shortly afterward, I was glad I had made that decision. A motor launch
was headed for us loaded with bread. Because there was not enough to go
around, the crew began throwing the bread up onto the deck; but the railings
were high and a good deal fell into the water. It made me feel sick to see
this food being lost, so I gazed instead at the city's panorama. Suddenly,
out of nowhere, a magnificent loaf of bread, which must have weighed almost
a pound, landed in my arms. I finished it off in short order and began to
feel more optimistic. It is amazing what a loaf of bread can do for a hungry
Alongside the small boats of the merchants, there were other small
craft pulling up. These held families of officers who had been evacuated a
month or two earlier, searching for husbands, fathers and brothers. It was
an almost impossible task, and even if they did find them, it was still
useless. We were forbidden by the Allies to disembark.
In the evening the sailors told us that our ship was lifting anchor and
that we would be put off on some Greek island. Eventually we learned that
the island was Lemnos in the Aegean Sea, populated by a few very poor
people. It did not seem a very cheerful prospect. As we got into the open
sea, the boat began to pitch wildly and many were seasick.
As we passed through the Dardanelles the next day, we saw the wreck of
the French heavy cruiser, the Bove, which had been sunk by a mine during the
world war. Toward evening we made out the outline of our "promised land," as
one compatriot called it. The land looked gray and sterile. It made me
They put us off in groups on a peninsula that was connected to the
island by a narrow isthmus. The peninsula had been an Allied naval base
during the world war. There was a large building that desalinated seawater,
and next to it some wooden barracks. Farther on stood an immense wooden
warehouse, its walls painted with pitch, and beyond that some houses that
must have been occupied by the headquarters staff during the war. Far off on
the right we could see the Greek city of Moudros, and on the other side of
the isthmus was the village of Portianos.
We were each given bread and a can of pate, and were issued tents large
enough to hold ten men. Soon a city of tents arose and the place looked less
forbidding. It was terribly cold and we shivered inside the tents, though
they were secure and quite waterproof.
Exhausted, we soon fell asleep, but around midnight we were awakened by
an uproar -- shouting and the sound of wood being ripped apart. The Cossacks,
frozen inside their tents, were dismantling the warehouse, the only wood on
the island. We took our share. By morning, the warehouse had disappeared. We
forgot one detail, however. The planks were coated with pitch and let off a
suffocating black smoke when burned.
As the days went by, the camp took on the appearance of a real city,
but it was only appearance. There was nothing inside -- no source of heat, no
beds or covers, no water to wash ourselves or our clothes. Crowded together,
we were soon infested by an enormous army of lice, which we could not fight
off. It was a horrible existence.
Our legal situation was also precarious. When General Wrangel realized
that his army could no longer resist the Red Army, he had appealed to
foreign governments to aid the refugees when they left the Crimea. Poland
had just concluded an agreement with the Reds, and that had freed the Red
Army to fight Wrangel. But, during a dangerous time for Poland, when
Boudienny's Red cavalry was advancing on Warsaw, Wrangel had helped the
Poles by breaking out of the Crimea and marching toward the Ukraine. To show
its gratitude on behalf of its Polish ally, the French government had given
de jure recognition to the Crimean government. Therefore, it was normal
enough for Wrangel to appeal to France to save the lives of his followers.
The French agreed to assist the refugees until they could migrate to new
The French commissary supplied us with daily food: a loaf of bread for
every five persons (shipped all the way from Constantinople, it was almost
inedible by the time it arrived), a can of corned beef for every four
people, a spoonful of margarine each, and a little sugar and tea. We put
everything except the sugar and tea into a large pot and this "soup" was our
daily nourishment. It left us chronically hungry.
But the French did not neglect their own interests. They confiscated
all the Russian ships as well as all their supplies. This caused terrible
privation. They ordered the Cossacks shipped to Lemnos and the regular
detachments to near Gallipoli. The situation of the regulars was even worse
than ours; the land there was an absolute desert. To keep us from escaping,
the French treated us not as allies but as prisoners of war.
There were some English soldiers and one officer on Lemnos, charged
with dismantling their base, but their barracks were some distance away and
we saw little of them. Our sources told us that one could get all sorts of
supplies in the Greek village, from which we were cut off. I wracked my
brain to find a way of getting there. There came a day when I was so hungry
that I decided to give it a try, come what might. I would have to cross
through the English zone and then pass the posts of the Cherkess, who were
guarding us for the French. Since I didn't have a penny to my name, I took
along an Austrian pistol that I had captured. In Western Europe, if someone
offered a gun to a grocer, he would call the police. But, in the East, a
pistol is the easiest thing in the world to sell.
I knew that the only safe way out was right through the English
encampment and I thought if I could get through there, I wouldn't have to
worry about the Cherkess guards. I passed the barracks without seeing a
soul, and I was sure that I was safely on the open road when I heard
footsteps gaining on me. I decided to head for an outdoor privy I saw
nearby, but as soon as I was inside realized that I had made a mistake.
Through a crack in the door I could see an English officer heading straight
for the privy, and for me.
He approached and I heard him swear when he saw that it was occupied.
First come, first served, I said to myself. I waited for him to go away.
Unfortunately, that was not his attitude. He kept pounding on the door and
swearing. After a few minutes, I realized I had no choice and opened the
door. When he saw me, he got so angry I thought he was going to hit me. The
only thing I could think to do was draw my pistol and say "Russian officer."
He got the message and backed off. I also backed away until I had passed the
barracks and the way was open. Later, I learned that the privy was "for
officers only," and that, although he was the only officer in the
detachment, British military discipline allowed no exceptions.
In the village I was astonished to see the main street lined with
shops. I went into what looked like the best of the lot and was overwhelmed
by the variety of the merchandise. I wondered who in this poor village could
afford all these preserves, canned meats, honey, and chocolate. Soon I
realized that all these goods were a burden to the proprietor. Only a short
time before, there had been a sizable English garrison nearby with plenty of
money to spend. When they departed, the merchants were left high and dry.
So, my entrance was greeted with warm smiles and handshakes.
Before offering my pistol for sale, I asked the prices of some of the
goods. After I had figured out how much I wanted would cost, I decided on
three hundred drachmas for my Austrian pistol. The merchant, as I had
foreseen, was anxious to bargain and made a counteroffer of two hundred.
After some haggling, we agreed on two hundred and fifty, and I chose what I
wanted. I was so hungry that I couldn't wait until I got back to camp. I ate
two cans of sardines, some salmon, ham, and chocolates so fast that the
Greek merchant could barely believe his eyes.
In the evening I made my way back to camp without incident, and shared
some of my food with my companions, who had not expected me to come back
with such treasure. From then on I was the go-between between the village
and camp. My comrades awaited my arrival with impatience. One day they told
me about a Russian soldier who lived in a nearby village. I asked to meet
him and two days later they introduced us. He was a sailor, not a soldier,
and had been wounded during the war and cared for in the English hospital.
By the time he was well, the Revolution had broken out, and he had married a
Greek woman and settled down on the island.
Since he spoke Greek quite well, he was a great help to me as an
interpreter. He advised me that pistols were very much in demand and that I
had been selling mine much too cheaply. A few days later, I arrived in town
with three pistols and asked a thousand drachmas apiece. The merchants
pointed to their foreheads to indicate that I must be mad. I walked out of
the store. At the edge of the village they caught up with me and the real
bargaining began. Two hours later, we had agreed on eight hundred drachmas
At this point the English soldiers left the island, and the Cherkess
guards took over the part of the line they had been covering. This made
getting through much more difficult, but for a while I was able to slip
through between two outposts. By now I was obsessed with the idea of
escaping. My sailor friend told me that there were several bands of Greek
smugglers. If I paid them well enough, they could get me to Greece or
Turkey. I had no money, but I still had my gold cigarette case, which
weighed two grams. I asked my friend to introduce me to them.
The smugglers were enough to strike fear into the heart of the timid.
They were big, rough men, windburned from the open sea. They invited us to
share their meal and we accepted. After eating and prodigious drinking, they
fell to singing. When that was over, the serious conversation between the
"captain" and me began. To my great surprise, he spoke Russian. He had been
born in Odessa and had lived there until he was twenty-five. He had had to
leave the city in a hurry to escape arrest for killing a customs official.
When I heard his story, I decided not to trust myself to his mercies, but I
continued the negotiations. I told him I had no money but that I owned a
gold cigarette case. He was pleased, until I told him that I had left it in
the camp and would show it to him when we met next. He didn't much like
that, but agreed to take me to Salonika in two weeks, since he was going
there on business.
When we left, I told my sailor friend that I would never dare to go to
sea with those ruffians. He insisted that I was wrong to judge them on their
appearances, that they were honest men in spite of their trade. I decided to
postpone my decision until the next meeting. I had a little reserve of
provisions, so I delayed a few days before returning to the village.
Three days later, an old colonel whom I had known for a long time came
to me. He was dying of hunger, he said, because he couldn't digest the
rations issued to us. He offered me his Mauser and asked me to trade it in
the village for something he could eat. I could not refuse this old, sick
man the opportunity to eat some decent food before he died. I promised to
I got there without any problem and sold his pistol easily, since he
had also supplied some cartridges, a very scarce item. I bought some food
for him I was sure he would like, and on the way home I was thinking about
how pleased he would be. But when I arrived at my usual crossing point, I
found an outpost manned by three Cherkess soldiers. Whichever direction I
went, I found more guards. It was getting later and later, and I knew things
would be even worse in the morning.
One side of the small peninsula where our camp was located faced the
open sea, but the other side was bounded by a bay where the water was
relatively shallow and calm when the wind blew from the land. That night the
wind was blowing from the center of the island. I crept to the shore and
found the water was very cold but shallow enough to walk in. I still had
about a mile to go to reach the camp. I packed the colonel's supplies and my
clothes around my shoulders and waded in. I walked out to about ten yards
from the shore; nobody could see me from shore. The water was up to my
chest. I was frozen.
About halfway across, the wind suddenly changed. It began to blow into
my face. The waves were over my head. The undertow grew stronger and I began
to lose my footing. At this point, the shore was rocky and forbidding, and I
couldn't climb out of the water. I thought of ditching the colonel's
foodstuffs and my clothes. But where could I find new clothing -- I decided
to fight it out. Once more, Lady Luck came to my rescue. The wind suddenly
shifted. I slowly made my way to a safe part of the shoreline and later
reached camp, frozen and exhausted but alive.
Our situation was more desperate with each passing day. With the hunger
and cold, the increasing filth of our clothing and living quarters, many of
the Cossacks and officers began to think they would die on that miserable
island. We were told that General Wrangel had gone to Bulgaria and
Yugoslavia to ask asylum for his soldiers. Meanwhile, the French had
announced their intention to cut off their aid to the refugees. Shortly they
showed their hand: "Enlist in the Foreign Legion and your future will be
secure." France had a Moroccan war on its hands and needed experienced
soldiers. Many Cossacks enlisted, and some returned to Russia to take their
chances there rather than die on Lemnos or in North Africa.
I WOULD NOT ENLIST in the legion, but neither could I return to Russia.
I would certainly be hanged on the spot. I kept trying to think of some way
to escape, and I would certainly have ended up going with the smugglers if
some good news had not reached us at last. General Wrangel had obtained the
agreement of the Yugoslav government to accept the women, children, sick,
wounded and elderly refugees on Lemnos. A ship was to come for them in a few
days. Of course, I didn't belong to any of the groups that were to be
When the day of departure dawned, a huge Russian ship, the Kherson,
appeared on the horizon. It was too large to get close to the island and a
small Greek boat was brought out to ferry the passengers. A crowd began to
gather very early in the morning and boarding was set for 9 A.M. Since I had
nothing better to do, I went down to watch. The arrangements were being
supervised by the Russian commander who, when he saw me, whispered:
"Nicholas, do you want to get out of this place?"
"Do I? But how?"
"Take a piece of paper out of your pocket and pretend to show it to me.
I'll pass you onto the ferry. When you get aboard, hide until it's time to
board the Kherson. From there on, you're on your own."
I looked for a hiding place on the ferry. The decks and cabins were
full; I would have to go down into the hold. The first hold was too close to
the deck to be safe, but, as I searched, I found a small opening in a
corner. This led to a lower hold which would, I thought, make a safe hiding
place. So I climbed down the iron ladder into the darkness. I couldn't see a
thing. I felt around me and came on some empty crates. I sat down on one of
Suddenly, I heard something move nearby and then something brushed
against me. Rats. I tried to build a barricade around myself with the
crates, and then I sat down with my back against the hull. I had thought
they would leave me alone, but I was wrong. The rats attacked me from all
sides. Picking up a plank, I began to swing left and right, but this only
served to madden them. Several jumped on my legs and bit me before I could
knock them off.
I was so desperate I almost called out. At that moment, the ship's
engines started up and I would not have been heard, in any case. I found
another plank and with the two of them I battled the rats for a quarter of
an hour that seemed like an eternity. I could feel the plank hitting against
what seemed like a carpet of rats but they kept jumping onto my legs and
Then the boat slowed down, and a few minutes later it stopped
altogether. I made my way toward the ladder, literally walking on rats and
kicking them out of the way;
as I climbed up the ladder two of them still clung to my legs. At last
I reached the upper hold and then got onto the deck. I was safe but
everybody was staring at me;
there was blood all over my hands and legs.
The Greek captain saw immediately what had happened to me. I explained
my dire situation to him in French, and he took me to his cabin, where he
washed and disinfected my wounds. After he had bandaged them, he urged me to
seek medical help on board the Kherson. What he had been able to do was
inadequate, and my wounds were likely to become infected. And rats can carry
As soon as I reached the deck of the Kherson, I was taken charge of by
a nurse, who led me to the infirmary. The ship's doctor examined me all over
as I told him what had happened. He had my clothes burned and told me to
wash thoroughly. What a pleasure it was to put on clean clothes again. Under
the attentive care of the nurses, I began to revive.
I tried not to think of the future; how would I survive in foreign
countries where I knew nobody? I had no job skills and not a penny in my
On the morning of December 31, 1920, the Kherson pulled into an inlet
between some mountains. Passing through the Gulf of Kotor we steamed into
the great harbor of Katarro. In front of us was Mount Lovtchen, on which was
perched the kingdom of Montenegro; to our right, in the distance, we could
see Albania. We gradually approached the little port of Zeienika, where we
were to disembark.
The cafes and restaurants reminded me that I was hungry. I didn't want
to sell any of my "treasures" but I had been given some slippers on the ship
and I was carrying my new English leather boots in a sack. I put them on
sale in a cafe. After a little haggling, I had a hundred crowns in my
pocket. As I left the cafe, I ran into a captain whom I had known quite
well. He had fifty dinars. Pooling our resources, we had enough to celebrate
the New Year in style. We went to a cafe that was frequented by Russian
refugees, most of them wounded officers like my friend the captain. They
invited us to join them, and then the drinking began. We drank to our
country and to a quick return; we drank really to forget our exile and the
uncertain future. I drank so much that I do not remember how I ended up in a
barracks with my friend. But I had nothing to fear. No one asked me any
questions and I was put on the list to receive free food and four hundred
dinars a month. The king of Yugoslavia welcomed us like brothers. Later, all
the Cossacks on Lemnos were evacuated to Yugoslavia, where many of them were
assigned to border patrols. Many Russian officers and physicians were able
to find positions in Yugoslavia that resembled what they had had in Russia.
My leg wounds were a source of concern. They were healing very slowly
and the treatments I received from a Russian doctor did not seem to help
much. I was also worried about proper clothing. After my clothes had been
burned on the Kherson, I had been given some that had been disinfected so
often that they smelled to high heaven. They were also too small for me. My
captain friend told me that there was a warehouse of civilian clothes in
Zei-enika sent by the American Red Cross.
I went to see Mr. Rodzianko, the head of the Russian Red Cross in
Zeienika, but to my surprise I was refused any help. I was so angry that I
began to plan my revenge on him and, at the same time, get what I needed.
Each week we went in groups to baths, which were next to a deep and rapid
creek that ran down from the mountains. We entered the baths from the side
away from the creek, there we left our shoes and hats. Then we went into a
large room on the creek side, where we took off our clothes, made a package
out of them, and put them inside a steam cylinder to be disinfected. After
we bathed, we emerged on the other side, where we found our shoes and hats
and retrieved our clothing from the opposite end of the steam cylinder.
After I undressed, I waited for everyone else to go into the baths. I
made a pack of my clothes and put two heavy stones inside it. Stark naked, I
walked back out and threw the bundle into the creek. Then I went into the
bath, washed thoroughly, and came out with all the others to wait for my
clothes to be taken out of the disinfectant. When they didn't turn up, I
began to protest loudly and to complain of the cold. I was given a blanket
while everyone searched high and low for my clothes. It soon became clear
that they would not be found. An attendant was dispatched to Rodzianko, who
finally relented. I was issued clean underclothing and a splendid suit. The
label in one of the pockets read, "Wood & Saxe, Tailors, New York."
That was one thing solved. There remained the problem of my legs, which
were giving me more and more trouble. The camp physician sent me to the
hospital in Ragusa (today Dubrovnik), which was located in an enormous
former convent with endless corridors and rooms of every size and shape. The
physician in charge was the former chief medical officer of the Austrian
army and there was also a Russian doctor. Soldiers of the new Kingdom of the
Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes served as nurses. I spent a month there and was
very well taken care of. Toward the end of my stay, I learned that my uncle,
the colonel of the former Escort of the Czar, now called the Kuban guard,
was also in Yugoslavia.
I was just getting ready to leave the hospital when I became deathly
ill. Two days before I was to leave, I had gone to the toilet at night with
almost no clothes on. The hospital had no electric light after 10 P.M. There
were small alcohol lamps in the rooms but no light at all in the corridors.
The toilets were quite far from my room and I got lost in the unlit
corridors. I was terribly cold and I called out to the nurse but the place
was so huge that I wandered for almost an hour before anyone heard me. I was
trembling like a leaf. In the morning I had a high fever and developed
pneumonia. For two weeks I was between life and death. Even after the fever
had passed, it took me two weeks to recover my strength. I had to stay in
the hospital another month.
Finally I was discharged from the hospital. The administration gave me
a new civilian suit, a little money, and a ticket to the city of Novi Sad,
where my uncle was living. His wife had left Russia to join him three months
earlier with their son and two daughters. Novi Sad had belonged until
recently to Hungary and had three names -- Novi Sad in Serbian, Neusatz in
German, and Ujvidek in Hungarian -- and its population was as mixed as its
names. The children playing in the streets spoke not only three national
languages but also Yiddish, for there was also a sizable Jewish population.
It was a wonderfully charming city on the Danube.
My aunt was an enterprising woman. She had managed to save her valuable
jewels and with the money had bought a hotel with a superb cafe. (Two years
later, she and one of her partners lost control of the establishment to the
third partner. But in the meanwhile, I lived the high life.) I had the best
room in the hotel; I ate in the cafe and my aunt gave me pocket money. She
bought me two new suits in the latest fashion. It was a soft life, but I was
uneasy living off my relatives. So one day I decided to go to Belgrade in
search of any former comrades who might be there. Belgrade had suffered
terribly during the war from bombardment by the Austrians across the Danube.
Rebuilding was going on everywhere.
After several days in Belgrade I was involved in a dramatic incident
and my good luck saved me once again. The parliament building had been
renovated and was to be dedicated by the prince regent, the future King
Alexander. He was to be accompanied by President Pasic. I found a spot along
the parade route near a large building where construction work was going on.
In order to see over the mounted guards along the street, I stood on a small
pile of bricks. I could hear the cheering in the distance and then the
church bells began to ring. There was a foreigner standing next to me, a man
of medium height who could not see over the guards. Since I was tall enough
to see the parade from ground level, I gave him my place on the pile of
bricks. The parade came along and I could see the regent and Pasic, seated
in an open carriage.
After that, things happened so quickly I couldn't tell what was going
on. The horses fell under their traces;
there were people covered with blood. The police were running in all
directions. There had been an assassination attempt against the regent. The
foreigner next to me was stretched out on the ground, his face covered with
blood. As I tried to reach him, the police arrived and carried him to an
ambulance. Next day I read in the newspapers that he was Swiss and had been
hit by a bomb fragment. He had been blinded. Given my height, the shrapnel
would have hit me in the chest if I had stayed standing on the bricks.
5. Farewell Mother Russia
AT THE RUSSIAN EMBASSY in Belgrade I ran into a fellow officer who had
been attached to the same brigade as I at the outbreak of the Civil War. I
had not laid eyes on him since those days.
"My dear friend," he said, "you are just the man I have been looking
for. Of course, I had no idea I would find you here though I knew you were
in Yugoslavia. I have just returned from Bulgaria, and I had a talk with
General Pokrovsky in Sofia. He asked me to try to find you and to set up a
meeting with him there. Here is a ticket. His address is marked on the
I was startled. I had not even seen the general for ages and had never
felt sympathetic toward him. I disapproved of his cruelty to the enemy and,
as well, his behavior toward the Cossacks. Why on earth would he wish to see
me? Out of curiosity, and because I was bored and wanted to do something
new, I decided to go anyhow.
I went back to Novi Sad to tell my aunt and uncle.
They tried to dissuade me from going without being quite sure why. My
uncle knew Pokrovsky and didn't think highly of him. But I had made up my
mind, and two days later, I took the train for Sofia. I didn't have a
passport, but I managed to get through both the Serbian and the Bulgarian
customs with a sort of identification that my uncle had written out on some
of his leftover regimental letterhead.
When I arrived at Pokrovsky's house, his orderly informed me that the
general was in Tirnovo, the former capital of the Bulgarian kingdom. The
next day I found him in a house on the outskirts of the city. It belonged to
a Bulgarian colonel who was an adversary of the government. Pokrovsky
greeted me warmly: 'T am delighted to see you, molodoi [young man]. I'll
tell you later why I sent for you. First, let's go eat. But forget the
General Pokrovsky. I am incognito here. I am Captain Ivanov."
The political situation in Bulgaria was complicated. Czar Ferdinand of
Bulgaria had sided with the Germans during the war, against the sentiments
of most of his people. After the war, he had been exiled, and his son Boris
had succeeded to the throne. A general election had given a majority to the
Austrian Party, which was leftist, though not communist, and the president
of that party, Stam-bolisky, headed the government. To add to its troubles,
the country was regarded by the Allies as a former enemy.
With help from the Allies, General Wrangel had persuaded Stambolisky,
heading the new government, to allow refuge to some of the exiled survivors
of his White Army. But it was not sitting well with Stambolisky. These
foreign soldiers, with rightist political attitudes, could well side with
his opposition and assist in a coup d'etat. And the Soviet Union was unhappy
with him for granting asylum to its mortal enemies. But the White Russian
Army and its leaders were scrupulously neutral regarding Bulgaria's internal
affairs. Their dreams of returning to Russia had been encouraged by the
mutiny of the sailors at Kronstadt against the Bolsheviks, and incidents of
fierce partisan resistance in the Caucasus.
I was still bewildered by Pokrovsky's summons. I was very young and
much too junior to be any help to him. But after a splendid dinner he handed
me a hundred dollars and told me to go to a certain address in Burgas and
wait for him there. "I will tell you there what I want you to do."
I told him good-bye, and by the next evening I was in Burgas, the large
Bulgarian port on the Black Sea. The address the general had given me was a
large building on the outskirts, surrounded by a high stone wall. It had
been rented by a Russian colonel who was living there and posing as a
businessman organizing a small commercial fishing company. A large vessel
from Constantinople was sitting in the harbor.
The ship was commanded by a Greek captain who was originally from
Kertch in the Crimea. The crew of six were all from Odessa and had been
longtime volunteers in the White Army. The ship was to land supplies for the
partisans on the shore of the Black Sea. At first, I thought this was the
mission the colonel had in mind for me. I knew that part of the world and my
name was well known to the Cossacks who were resisting the Reds there. I
would have accepted such an assignment in spite of the dangers; besides any
patriotic motives, it would have given me a chance to look for my mother and
maybe to bring her back to Bulgaria. This was not what the general had in
mind. General Pokrovsky, now Captain Ivanov, arrived one night soon,
accompanied by his orderly, a Cossack noncommissioned officer who was
utterly devoted to him. There was a lieutenant colonel in the house who also
lived under a false name. General Pokrovsky said, "Now, gentlemen, let us
talk about serious matters." And, turning to me, "I have summoned you,
molodoi, for two reasons. First of all, you come from an excellent family,
renowned for its honor and its sense of loyalty. I remember your
grandfather, who served three emperors without the slightest fault, and who
was a hero of the war of 1877. I also knew your uncle, the colonel of the
Imperial Guard, and I have had the honor of being his commanding officer. I
know also that several members of your family have been killed by the Reds.
Not long ago you lost your younger brother. You yourself have served under
me, and even if your inexperience has caused you to make a few mistakes, I
know you to be courageous and trustworthy. The second reason has precisely
to do with your youth and physical strength. You will need both."
The general then told me the rest. When Denikine had finally realized
that victory was hopeless, he had named Pokrovsky director of the military
affairs behind the lines. In this position he had been charged with
gathering all the deposits of both State and private banks, as well as the
contents of private estates whose owners were assumed dead or in flight. The
money was intended to support sabotage and intrigue against the Reds. He had
hidden everything he had got hold of in a secret place known only to two or
three people. We sat at the table listening as the general paced the room
and spoke in nervous bursts.
"According to what I have learned from our Bulgarian friends,
Stambolisky's police are planning an action against me. There is a traitor
among us who has denounced us as an organization that intends to continue
the resistance against the Reds. The Bulgarian government is friendly to the
Soviet Union and is under severe pressure from them for having even admitted
us. It is urgent that we hide our treasure in an absolutely secure place. It
is well hidden now, but not safe enough. A really good search might uncover
it, and that would mean the end of our cause. We must decide where and how
to hide it better.
He turned to the two colonels and the lieutenant colonel. "I have asked
you, gentlemen, to give me your suggestions on how to find another hiding
place. What have you to say?"
The lieutenant colonel answered. "Excellency, the colonel and I have
given it a great deal of thought. I have personally explored the territory
around the city for about fifty miles. I believe the only really safe hiding
place must be away from the city, in a heavily wooded area, and I think I
have found the spot. It will take a tremendous amount of work. Fortunately,
we have our young comrade with us now, but I wonder if even he can manage."
"I can assure you," I responded grandly, "that nothing will be too
"Very well, molodoi," said the general. "I am counting on you."
All night we discussed the project. The lieutenant colonel and I would
look over the location the next day. Then the general led us downstairs into
the cellar. The lieutenant colonel removed about twenty bricks from one of
the walls. They were so well matched to the rest of the wall that it would
have been impossible to find the hiding place without tearing the whole
cellar apart. I could see only part of the treasure but what I did see
amazed me: foreign currency, bushel baskets of diamonds and emeralds, silver
plate and gold. A fabulous treasure.
Then it dawned on me why the general had had the bricks taken off and
was removing some of the treasure. He was going to take some of the money
for his own needs and give each of us enough to support ourselves before the
treasure was buried. Early the next morning, he bade us farewell and
promised to return. We felt somehow that we would never see him again.
We had decided that we would divide the treasure four ways and bury
each portion a half mile away from the other. We got right down to the task
of exploring the forest for hiding places where we could work without being
noticed. We roamed all day without seeing a soul within a radius of six or
seven miles. Still, we planned to work only at night and search for our
hiding spots during the day.
The lieutenant colonel went off in search of some cases the Russian
army had used to store rifle cartridges. And I was sent to find some waxed
paper we could wrap the currency and stock certificates in to keep them dry.
I had to go to Sofia. I thought from there I might get a letter to my
mother. I was worried sick about her; most of my relatives were either dead
or in prison. It was very complicated to get a letter from Bulgaria into
Russia. Germany was the only country that had postal relations with Russia,
so one had to send a letter to Germany with a request to the postal
authorities there to forward it to Russia. Along with my letter I sent a
return envelope marked to myself, "General Delivery, Sofia."
When I got back, the lieutenant colonel and I got to work. The treasure
had been brought out of Russia in six or seven large zinc cases. It was only
when I was helping the lieutenant colonel divide it up to put it into
smaller cases that I got any real idea of how large it was. In spite of my
youth and inexperience, even I could see that it was worth a fabulous sum. I
have forgotten what figure the colonel cited, but I know that it turned my
head. I still remember, fifty years later, how awed I was.
One case contained thousands of gold rubles and presented us with a
terrible problem, since we had only about twenty smaller cases and the
original containers were too large to hide. Finally, we bought two
medium-sized iron water tanks for the gold pieces, but we had to lug them
into the forest empty, then bring the gold pieces out in sacks and fill
them. We later buried these in the third and fourth hiding places. We had a
terrible time, as well, with about four hundred and fifty pounds of platinum
-- the purest in the world, the colonel assured me -- but at least it was
molded in flat bars and didn't take up as much room as the gold pieces. We
wrapped the platinum bars in heavy rags and put them inside burlap bags and
then wrapped the whole thing in big leather pouches. These were to go into
the first and second hiding places. Another large part of the treasure was
made up of about forty-five pounds of jewelry set with precious stones,
diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. Some of the stones were huge and must have
represented large fortunes just by themselves. There were some smaller bags
with pounds of loose, uncut precious stones of various sizes. Then there
were a number of wooden boxes literally stuffed with foreign notes and
currency, most of them English pounds. The stock and bond certificates were
interesting because they represented some of the greatest companies in the
world. I remember there were some from de Beers diamonds, and from the
Canadian Pacific railroad. Besides the valuables, one case contained
documents which, General Pokrovsky told me, would be enormously important
for future historians. The band the documents were tied with was inscribed
in red, in Russian: "Top secret. Of the greatest importance to the State." I
can still see the inscription as if it were before my very eyes. How would I
evaluate the treasure as a whole? It's hard to give even an approximation.
But I would estimate that it was worth over a hundred million dollars.
Our first expedition took place a few days after I got back. We set out
early in the evening, since the first spot we had picked was a very long
way. We had hidden our tools there. I had bought three powerful flashlights
in Sofia. It was exhausting work. The lieutenant colonel was an old man and
had a heart condition. The ground was frozen and we had to dig a deep hole
at least three and a half feet. It was summer and so daybreak came just as
we had gotten the cases in place. We filled the hole in, camouflaged it and
hid our tools, and then walked a half mile. At that point we fell on the
ground and slept all through the afternoon. Afterward, we waited for dusk
before we dared return to the house.
The following night, on our second expedition, we had a bad scare. We
had just begun to dig when the lieutenant colonel suggested that we stop and
eat something. We were leaning against a tree, relaxing, when we heard
footsteps about a hundred yards away, then voices that were not speaking
Bulgarian. I recognized it as Turkish because it resembled Tartar, which
some of our servants had spoken.
We drew our pistols-we had been ordered to kill anyone who came upon us
and to conceal their bodies.
Whoever they were, they halted and remained there, in silence, for
almost an hour. We thought there were five or six of them. Finally, they
moved away, in the same direction from which they had come, toward the sea.
When we had finished our work we went to examine the spot where they
had remained for so long. It was light, and after searching for a bit, we
found a natural excavation hidden under a thicket. Inside it was all kinds
of foreign merchandise. Our visitors had apparently been Turkish smugglers
who were delivering their goods to their Bulgarian connections.
Our discovery could have had serious consequences. We had chosen their
hiding place as a site to bury part of our treasure. If the smugglers had
come upon us, we would have had no choice but to fire. Given the numbers
involved, there would have been some doubt as to the outcome.
But the rest of our work proceeded smoothly, and we were relieved when
it was over. Our main concern was the colonel, who was having a great deal
of trouble with his heart. After our work was finished, he admitted that he
had had several attacks. There was no way to get any medicine for him.
It was now a full month since I had mailed the letter to my mother and
I was impatient to get to the post office in Sofia even though I could
hardly expect a response so soon. Nonetheless, as soon as I arrived in Sofia
I went there and, with great apprehension, inquired at the general delivery
window. I almost fainted with emotion when the clerk handed me the envelope
I had addressed to myself a month before. I walked out of the post office,
feeling almost drunk, and sat down on a bench before the magnificent
cathedral of Alexander Nevsky.
I saw a tiny bit of paper and unfamiliar writing and knew that my fears
had been justified. "Dear Nicholas," the letter read, "I am a Cossack who
used to work in your home. When your letter arrived, they tacked it up on
the bulletin board in the meeting room of our soviet. I am terribly sorry to
have to tell you that your mother died on April 21 last year of typhus. I
hope you are well." My mother was forty years old. I walked around for
several hours and then returned to Burgas. The two colonels tried their best
to console me. To pass the time, the lieutenant colonel and I had gotten
into the habit of going to a cafe frequented by Russians, where we played
chess. We met a young Bulgarian who was employed in the police headquarters
and who, like the majority of Bulgarians, was a Russophil and disliked the
One evening, quite late, we had just finished our chess game. He walked
in and stood facing me and with a movement of his head suggested that we two
step outside. I followed casually. He was waiting for me behind a tree. "You
must leave immediately," he said in Russian. "A few minutes ago I received a
telegram for the prefect from Sofia. It contains three names: yours, the
colonel's and the lieutenant colonel's. The prefect is ordered to arrest you
immediately and send you to Sofia under heavy guard until the authorities
arrive from the capital. You must hurry. I have to deliver the message
"Thank you, my friend," I said. 'Tell me how much time we have to
collect the colonel and a few things."
"At most a half hour," he replied. "And don't forget that the prefect
has a car."
We shook hands, and I went in to get my friend. I asked him to follow
me without wasting a moment and on the way to the house I explained what was
happening. He was worried about the colonel. "He is old and sick; we cannot
leave him alone here. What are we going to do?"
When we got there, we told the colonel what was going on and asked him
to get ready as fast as possible and to gather any compromising papers. As
he was getting the papers together, he clasped his hand to his heart and lay
down on his bed. "It is nothing," he said. "It will pass." And with that he
closed his eyes and died. "He is better off," my friend said. "He could
never have stood what is ahead of us."
We kissed him, and recited a prayer for the repose of his soul. Then we
took our handguns and the money and papers and left. The closest border we
could head for was the Turkish. To avoid the police, we circled the city. In
the distance, we could hear the siren of the prefect's auto.
It was a dark, warm night and we made good time. As we walked along we
tore up the papers we had taken with us. The area between Burgas and the
border was sparsely populated and heavily wooded. It was a simple matter to
avoid the few villages.
When day broke, we found a well-covered hiding spot in a grove and
slept there for several hours. When we awoke, we were dying of hunger and
thirst. A little way along we came to a large farm. The lieutenant colonel
guarded our arsenal while I went to get something to eat and drink. I had a
heavy walking stick with me, luckilv, because no sooner had I entered the
yard than I was attacked by a half-dozen savage dogs. They had me backed up
against a wall when an old woman appeared from the house. She chased the
dogs away, yelling at them and throwing stones.
She lived alone in the house with her young grandson. I explained to
her that I was Russian and that my friend and I were looking for work in the
forests. I showed her my money and asked her if I could buy something to
eat. She sold me some bread, two dozen eggs, a wheel of cheese and a large
jug of milk. That was fine, but how was I to get out by the dogs? The old
woman worked out a stratagem, coaxing them into the stable with some cheese.
While they were fighting over it, she closed the door and I got away.
As day broke on the third day, we saw a barrack with the Bulgarian flag
in the distance. This was the border. We moved off the road and waited until
dark to try to pass over. It was very hot, but we found a small stream where
we could drink and wash ourselves. The day dragged on and we got
increasingly nervous. Greek troops were guarding the border, since all of
what had been European Turkey was occupied by the Allies. At last, night
came and we moved out slowly. We clambered into a stream, but there was no
way of knowing in the dark when we had crossed over to the "other side."
The night was completely still. We would have prayed to heaven for some
wind or rain, even a storm, rather than that quiet in which our every step
resounded. We held our pistols ready and agreed that we would not fall alive
into the hands of the border patrols. We walked for about another twenty
minutes, about ten yards away from each other. I was just about to say to my
companion that we had probably crossed the border when we heard a shout
fifty yards behind us, "Stoi!" -- "Halt" -- in Bulgarian. We were still not
A hundred yards ahead lay the shadowy outline of the forest, and
bullets whistled around us. One passed so close to my right ear that I was
briefly deafened. One more burst of energy and we reached cover. Bullets
struck the tree trunks. We were so out of breath and tired that we couldn't
run any more. Our only recourse was to resist, to return fire until we had
recovered enough strength to move on. The lieutenant colonel took cover
behind a thick tree trunk, and I lay down behind a felled tree.
Immediately another foe appeared -- a Greek patrol drawn by the sound of
the Bulgarian firing. They could not see what was going on and began firing
back at the Bulgarians. They soon saw their mistake and began firing in our
direction. They could not see us, but from the echo of the bullets as they
hit the tree trunks, we knew they were both in front and behind us. We were
in a cross fire. Without a word between us, my companion turned his fire on
the Greeks, who were nearer to him, while I aimed at the Bulgarians. We had
semiautomatic weapons and we fired in short bursts to conserve our
ammunition. Off and on we would hear cries of wounded men. We were in a much
better position: invisible in the shade of the forest, while we could spot
their patrols against the horizon as the sky grew lighter.
I held off their advance by hitting three of the five men who remained
able to fight. Nonetheless, our situation was worsening. The patrols would
certainly be reinforced, and our ammunition was running out. I had only two
charges left. I was dashing to my companion when I heard his firing stop. I
reached him crawling on my hands and knees, but he was dead, a bullet in his
I could still hear firing behind me but the bullets were no longer
whistling by. I then took my friend's ammunition, money and papers, fired
another round, and took off through the underbrush. The forest was not very
dense, and soon I was able to stand up and run at full speed.
III. The Treasure of the White Army
SINCE i HAD had some rest during the shooting match, I set out on an
all-day, all-night marathon. Though I stopped from time to time, I was
utterly exhausted by the end, too tired even to feel hungry. My mouth was so
dry I could hardly swallow. As I stood at the edge of a small wood at dawn I
could hear dogs barking in the distance and headed in that direction.
I was moving along cautiously when I saw a man watching me from behind
a bush. I took out my Mauser. He called out "kardache," the Turkish word for
friend. I had come on a "pomak," one of those Bulgarians who had been
converted to Islam by the Turks. We spoke to each other in Bulgarian. I
explained to him that I trying to get to Constantinople to look for work,
because there was none to be found in Bulgaria, and that some Greeks had
fired on me as I was crossing the frontier and I had returned their fire. He
replied that he hated the Greek dogs and would help me as much as he could.
He offered me food, though all I wanted was something to drink and some
He led me to a small thatched log cabin. He took care of about two
hundred sheep that belonged to him and his family and hated the Greek
soldiers, who were constantly stealing them. There was a huge jug of cool,
clear spring water. He smiled at me as I gulped it down. Then he piled some
sheepskins in the corner and I threw myself on them. The shepherd covered me
with skins until I was completely hidden. I had my arms ready to defend
myself in the event of danger. I might be discovered at any moment by a
Greek search party, or the shepherd might betray me. He had an honest face --
and guests are sacred in his country -- but I couldn't know what was going on
inside his head.
I fell asleep immediately and when I awoke, it was night. I had slept
away the entire day. The shepherd was sitting on a stool near the doorway
and when he saw me emerge from the sheepskins, he smiled and wished me a
"The Greeks were here looking for you. You and your friend killed a lot
of them, and some Bulgarians, too. They looked in here but didn't see
anything. They told me I would get a reward if I saw you and reported your
whereabouts to the police. I gave them a lamb to get rid of them." I was
ashamed that I had doubted his goodwill. I shook his hand warmly and thanked
I felt strong again and hungry enough to eat a sheep. My host gave me
an enormous piece of cold mutton and some homemade cheese, which I washed
down with spring water, since wine is forbidden to Moslems. As I ate, my new
friend counseled me on how to avoid all the traps on the way to
Constantinople. The most dangerous places, he said, were on the outskirts.
They were occupied by French, English and Italian soldiers, who patrolled
all the roads leading into the city. I might be arrested and thrown into
prison for entering Turkey illegally. Not to mention the gunfight at the
border -- the Greeks had better not learn that I had taken part in that
battle. (There had been two Greeks killed and three wounded, and the
Bulgarians had one dead and five wounded, as I later learned.)
I had to get moving. The Greeks might come back at any time. One last
time I thanked my Bulgarian friend and gave him my automatic pistol. Tears
came to his eyes. I couldn't have kept it anyhow. It was too heavy and hard
to hide, not to speak of incriminating. I cautioned him that it could get
him into serious trouble and warned him to keep it hidden.
I practically had to lose my temper in order to get him to accept
twenty English pounds, a small fortune to him. Furnished with a supply of
meat, bread and cheese, I set out at about 10 P.M.
I moved along a narrow path, my Mauser in my hand, a bullet in the
chamber. It was a clear night. The clouds had disappeared and the landscape
was brightly lit by a half moon. Suddenly, two uniformed figures loomed in
front of me, Greek policemen. But they had made a bad mistake. Instead of
carrying their carbines at the ready, they had them slung over their
shoulders. I didn't want to kill them but I had to do something. I fired at
their legs and they crumpled with screams of pain.
I ran most of the night, then slept for a couple of hours in a thicket,
ate something, and started out again, avoiding the villages. From the top of
a hill I saw a Greek patrol in the distance.
At dusk I came on a small stream and decided to spend the night there.
My feet were killing me. I bathed them in the stream for a long time and
rubbed them with grease from the mutton. I found a sheltered spot and spent
a peaceful night, and in the morning I felt refreshed and ready for the
road. That day passed without incident. But my shoes were falling apart,
which was a serious problem. The ground was rocky and in a day or two I
would be barefoot.
I spent the next night near a stream and in the morning I decided to
risk everything. I had to find a hamlet where I wouldn't be discovered by
the police but where I could buy a pair of the woven shoes the peasants
wear, which are comfortable for walking in the mountains and forests. In the
afternoon, I spotted a tiny hamlet, just a few houses around a small mosque.
I had no choice but to dare it since I also needed more provisions.
As I entered the village a pack of dogs set up a terrible racket and
some Turks came out of their houses. I greeted them with "Shalom alechem"
the common greeting in all Moslem countries. They began to speak to me in
Turkish but I indicated by sign language that I didn't understand. They were
neither hostile nor friendly -- merely suspicious. They exchanged anxious
glances and asked if I were Greek, English or French. I told the truth: "I
am ourousse [Russian]."
To my great surprise, their attitude immediately changed. They began
shaking my hands and slapping me on the back. One of them led me by the hand
into his house. Then I grasped the reason for their change of heart. My
Turkish host kept repeating over and over "Kemal Pasha [Ataturk], ourous
kardache" Kemal Pasha was battling the Greek army in Asia Minor with arms
supplied by the Soviet Union. The Turks did not make any distinction between
Red and White Russians. All Russians were "kardaches" to them.
A crowd gathered around me while I ate. I explained that I was trying
to get to Istanbul (the Turks disliked the name Constantinople), showed them
my tattered shoes and a five-dollar bill. (The rest of the money was tied
around my waist in a cloth belt.) No one would take my money but in a few
minutes they had set before me several pairs of boots of the kind worn by
Balkan peasants, made of strips of sheepskin. They are so light you hardly
know you have them on. One wears them with long woolen stockings the women
weave, and a pair of these were brought to me. Then I was escorted to the
fountain in the courtyard of the mosque, where I washed my feet, put on the
stockings and my size 44 shoes, and felt like a new man.
I spent the night in this hospitable village. All evening long I heard
patriotic songs in which I could distinguish only one word: Kemal Pasha. The
Turks were incredibly proud of his victories over the Greeks. On the other
hand, they detested the Allies, who occupied their capital, and explained to
me in sign language that it would not take their hero long to throw them
The next day the entire village accompanied me to the Istanbul road. On
my back was another gift from these Turkish peasants, a large embroidered
cloth bag full of provisions. Once again, they adamantly refused any
payment. As I walked along I thought of the wonderful people I had met since
crossing the Bulgarian border and of the age-old traditions that make a
stranger a cherished friend to them.
Of course, the Turks knew nothing of my adventures with the patrols and
I had no way of explaining, as they pointed out the road to Istanbul, that I
had to avoid the direct routes. So after a few kilometers I struck off on a
path that ran parallel to the road and two days later I sighted
Constantinople. Night was falling as I arrived at Galata, an outlying
district of the city on the Bosporus. I was glad it was dark, as I was
filthy and my clothes were torn and unkempt. While I walked through more and
more densely populated neighborhoods, people stared at my strange getup and
I grew more and more dismayed. As I turned a corner, I saw two men whose
clothes identified them as Russian soldiers. I asked if they could tell me
where I could spend the night.
We were standing under a streetlight. One of them looked at my costume
and said, "Where have you come from in that condition?"
"I walked all the way from Bulgaria. Tomorrow I will go to see our
"Are you an officer?"
"Yes. "Then maybe you're part of this Bulgarian business that veryone's
"I don't know what you're talking about. I Hed from Bulgaria to escape
"Very interesting. We are a Russian naval and a merchant marine officer
and we live in a rented house a few steps away. Come and tell us your tale
and let's see what we can do for you."
My appearance caused a sensation among my clean, well-dressed hosts.
"Where did you find that ragamuffin?" one of them asked the officer who led
They all laughed. But they stopped laughing when they heard where I had
come from and why. Everyone crowded around to listen. Someone showed me to
the shower they had built for themselves, and each one brought me a piece of
clothing from his modest wardrobe -- one, trousers, another underwear, a
shirt, and so on. When I had shaved and looked human again, I sat down at
the table and told them the whole story, except the part about the treasure.
They, in turn, filled me in on what had happened after the defeat at
Burgas. The newspapers had been full of it. Stambolisky had turned against
our organization in Bulgaria, which had wanted to continue the fight against
the Bolsheviks by any and all means. Colonel Samokhvalov, our chief of staff
in Sofia, had been arrested and imprisoned. The membership roll of the
secret organization was found in his desk. Except for the colonel and
myself, who had been alerted in time, everyone had been arrested. General
Pokrovsky had been killed by the police during arrest and General Koutiepov,
commander-in-chief of the Russian troops in Bulgaria, had been expelled.
So, General Pokrovsky, the colonel, and the lieutenant colonel were the
treasure's first victims. There would be others. I was so upset that I
couldn't sleep in spite of my exhaustion. I was the sole survivor among
those who knew about the treasure. What made it all the more strange was
that I had learned of its existence only recently, and that those who had
gathered it were all dead. I was overwhelmed by the responsibility.
Should I speak to the highest ranking Russian military authorities? The
three of us had solemnly sworn to General Pokrovsky not to reveal anything
without his explicit permission. But now the general was dead and my promise
had no more force. Whom should I tell? Considering the moral standard of our
high-ranking officers -- with the exception of Denikine and Wrangel-the
treasure would certainly be misappropriated in short order. By the next
morning I had made a decision to speak of the treasure to no one for the
time being. It was securely hidden, though I had no way of recovering it.
Later I would confide in someone I trusted absolutely.
I had breakfast with the officers, borrowed a little Turkish money, and
promised to return in the evening. I set off downtown. The first thing I had
to do was change some money to buy some clothes. At Galata I found a Greek
money changer and changed fifty English pounds, quite a large sum for the
All the foreign diplomatic missions were still functioning in
Constantinople. The Russian military attache was quite helpful when he'd
heard my story. On the spot, he provided me with identity papers, in Russian
and French, under the name of Sergei Orel, as he thought it would be safer
not to use my real name until public interest in the Sofia affair died down.
He asked me whether I had any money. I was faced with a dilemma. If I said
yes, it would seem strange, given the general poverty of the Russian
refugees. On the other hand, I knew he couldn't be very well off and it
embarrassed me to take money I didn't need. I replied that two or three
Turkish pounds would do me for the moment. He seemed relieved and added,
since I had told him I had borrowed the clothes I was wearing, "I'll give
you a letter to Mme. IIovaiskaia, the general's daughter, who is secretary
to Miss Mitchell, the head of the American Red Cross. She will outfit you
from head to toe."
I thanked the general sincerely and promised to let him know my address
as soon as I had found somewhere to live. At the headquarters of the
American Red Cross, Mme. IIovaiskaia provided me with a fine blue pinstripe
suit (with a label from a Philadelphia tailor), shirts and underwear, shoes,
and even a hat.
A month later, I received a visit at my small hotel in Galata from an
officer who served the military attache. His superior wanted to see me as
soon as possible. The next morning, when I went to the embassy, the general
received me promptly. He led me into a private office and closed the door
carefully. His first question took me off guard.
"What do you know of the treasure General Pokrovsky was guarding?"
"What treasure, Excellency?"
"You know nothing of it?"
"I only met General Pokrovsky, under whom I had served in Russia, two
months before I fled Bulgaria. The general never spoke to me of any
treasure. I have no idea whether such a thing exists."
"In that case, essaoul, let me ask you where you got the money you have
been spending. You told me you had no money and I lent you five Turkish
pounds. Now you are living in a hotel that, modest as it is, costs a pound a
day. You eat in a restaurant every day that must cost another pound. You
bought a suit from an Armenian tailor. Over and above this, I know that you
have given over one hundred Turkish pounds to various refugees. Allow me to
ask you where this money -- a small fortune for a refugee -- comes from."
They've been watching me ever since I got to Constantinople, I said to
myself. If only I had told him that General Pokrovsky had given each of his
aides a small amount. Too late now. "It is true, Excellency, that I had no
money when I arrived. What I did not say -- and I don't know why I should
have-is that I brought a few valuables from Russia, including a heavy gold
cigarette box signed by Faberge. It was a family heirloom and I didn't want
to sell it but as you know, there is no work here and I was forced to." (In
fact, I had sold it in Yugoslavia.)
"In that case, you can tell me to whom you sold it."
"To an American tourist on the Mauritania. I didn't want to sell it in
a jewelry shop. They're all run by Greeks and Armenians. You know what a
ridiculous price they would have given me."
He was looking me in the eye and I stared back. Then he asked me to let
him know where I could be reached if I left the hotel, but I never saw him
I stayed at the hotel two more months, until my money ran out, and then
I moved into a boardinghouse for refugees where it was only five piasters
for a bed for the night. It was a wooden building and, like many Turkish
houses, harbored a fantastic colony of bedbugs that were impossible to get
rid of. The only solution would have been to burn the whole thing down,
bedbugs and all. The beds were made of iron and we burned out every possible
hiding place on them with gasoline. Then we set the legs in tin cans of
gasoline but the damned bugs crawled up to the ceiling and dropped down on
us while we slept. Sometimes, when I was half crazy with them, I would take
my bedclothes and sleep on the lawn of one of the abandoned cemeteries in
Then the day arrived when I didn't even have the five piasters. It was
winter, an unpleasant season in Constantinople, with icy winds and rain
almost every day. I was facing disaster and had nowhere to turn. Once more,
good luck intervened. On the main street of Pera I saw someone who looked
familiar. We gazed at each other and then we fell into each other's arms. It
was like a miracle. At the military school at Irkutsk, my bunk and
Teliatnikov's had been next to each other. He was from Tashkent, had been an
assistant manager of a bank, and was forty years old; I was then just
eighteen. Now he told me of how he had escaped from Russia through
Vladivostok, had roamed over half the world and ended up in Constantinople.
For two years now he had been the chief accountant at the Nobel Company, the
principal owner of the Baku oil fields. The Bolsheviks were selling Nobel
his own oil. My friend thought it couldn't last because the communists
needed the oil badly themselves and were only selling it for foreign
credits. He loaned me a little money and promised to try to help. Two days
later he arranged for me to come to work for Nobel as a gasoline salesman.
So there I was, with a Crimean Tartar driver who spoke Turkish. Every
day we went to a different neighborhood in a specially equipped wagon drawn
by two mules carrying twenty- and fifty-liter cans. Most often I had to
carry them on my shoulders because the streets were too narrow or too steep
for the wagon. The driver helped me but it was still very hard work. I stank
so of gas that people turned away as I passed. I had to sleep in the stable
with the mules but I got pretty good pay, ate three meals a day, and my
compatriots envied me my job. Twice a week it brought me to the rear of the
famous Pera Palace Hotel, where I gazed at the lovely women on the arms of
the Allied officers. The Italian officers, with the comic opera uniforms,
were the most elegant.
I still did not know what to do about the treasure- whether I should
abandon it forever or tell the right person. Who was the right person?
I worked at Nobel for four months and got to know Constantinople as few
foreigners do. I also learned to speak Turkish in order to bargain with the
grocers. But when Nobel stopped buying oil, I was out of work again.
After a few days of near panic, I heard that the English army was
hiring Russian refugees to work on their bases in the Dardanelles. I had no
idea what kind of work it was but I had no choice so I signed on for a year.
A boat took us to an English base on the right bank of the straits facing
Chanak, where we were lodged in unheated Turkish army barracks. We slept on
the bare wooden floor and shivered with cold day and night. It rained all
the time and the wind was freezing. We could never get our clothing dry.
Canned meat and soup were the only hot food we had and so we were
perpetually hungry. We used to steal a few cartons of food once in a while
but eventually we stopped as a point of honor. We worked hard and long in
the rain and mud. The English noncoms treated us like prisoners even though
we were free workers. A lot of the time, we worked unloading heavy cases of
shells. I wondered why the British were stockpiling so much militarv
material when their war was over. Kemal Pasha was continuing his successful
campaign against the Greeks but the English had remained neutral in that
About a month after I arrived, we were ordered to unload cases of heavy
artillery shells. Four men could hardly lift the cases. Since I spoke
English, my comrades designated me to inform the sergeant that we could not
and would not. The cases were unwieldy and if one fell, we would be blown to
bits. The sergeant was well aware of this and kept his distance. I
approached him, but instead of listening to our complaint, he started to
curse at me as only an English sergeant can. "You have no right to insult
me," I said. "I am not a prisoner or a slave."
He went wild, and dragged me by the arm to the major in charge. I took
off my cap. The major put his on. He sentenced me to a hundred and
sixty-eight hours (why a hundred and sixty-eight hours instead of a week?)
in prison for disobedience. I was not permitted to utter one word. They
locked me in a barbed wire enclosure with two tents where there were three
other Russians, who were being punished for refusing to eat corned beef
It was the first time I had ever been locked up. At the crack of dawn
we were rousted out with yelling and swearing. All day, with only a short
break for lunch, we were made to run on the double to the beach, fill a
fifty-kilo bag with sand, run back to the prison with it, and empty it onto
a pile. When the pile was large enough, we took the sand back bag by bag to
where we'd gotten it. When we slowed down, the English soldiers threatened
us with long clubs.
One night after it had rained for twenty-four hours the tents were
flooded up to our knees. We complained to the guards but all they would
allow us to do was fill some sacks with sand and pile them up so we could
squat on them. We were trembling with the cold, our teeth chattering so that
we could barely talk.
The next day I told my companion, a sublieutenant, that I had decided
to break out and that he was welcome to come with me. He agreed. I had
noticed that by lifting the barbed wire where we gathered the sand you could
dig a ditch deep enough to slip under. The next night the rain stopped but
there came a very strong wind, almost of hurricane force. Our tents were
almost blown away but fortunately it was a dark, starless night. We waited
until very late and then slipped out of the tent. We filled some sacks with
damp sand and slipped them one by one under the wire. This opened up a
narrow passageway. It took a long time and we were very nervous. The guards,
who slept in a small wooden barracks at the far end of the compound, could
emerge at any moment and they would almost certainly shoot us. Our hands
were bleeding from the barbed wire. My companion was smaller than I and
slipped out easily. I had some trouble but I finally managed to squeeze
We took the road that ran along the strait to Gallipoli. Late in the
morning, when were some distance from the camp, my companion suddenly
shouted, "Watch out. They're after us." Sure enough, there were two British
soldiers on bicycles with dogs about a kilometer away and moving toward us.
There was nowhere to retreat to. On the right was the water, and on the
left a steep rise covered with thick underbrush. Ahead about three hundred
yards away there was a small bay, where four men were unloading stone blocks
onto the bank. Without stopping to think, we 'dashed toward them. They were
Turks. I explained that the English were after us because we didn't want to
work for them and as soon as they heard the magic word ourousse they said,
"Jump into the felucca."
When the English soldiers got there five minutes later, we were one
hundred yards from the shore. The dogs were barking angrily at having lost
their trail and the English soldiers concluded that we must be underwater.
They waited around for an hour or two before returning to base. In the
evening, the Turks reentered the cove. It was too late to work so they
dropped anchor about fifty meters from shore and invited us to spend the
night. We accepted gratefully. They gave us tincture of iodine for our hands
and a meal of grilled fish and sour milk. Our hosts began to sing and again,
over and over, we heard the name Kemal Pasha. The night passed uneventfully
and early the next morning, we thanked our rescuers and pressed on to
The appearance of the city, which was empty and abandoned, was
sinister. It was bizarre to see a good-sized city inhabited by nothing but
wild cats, who would run when we approached, and by pigs darting in every
direction. Finally we found a few French soldiers who were
guarding the lighthouse, and four Russians -- the sole survivors of
General Koutiepov's army, which had been evacuated into Bulgaria and
Yugoslavia. A single trace of their encampment remained -- a pyramid of
stones. Every soldier and officer had brought one stone to build it, the
inscription read. This moving monument was all that testified to the fate of
an "army of chevaliers," as one French writer called it.
The Russians told us that the Greek population had abandoned the city,
when Kemal Pasha's army reached the opposite shore of the Sea of Marmara. It
was better to be a refugee in Greece than face the Turkish soldiers, who did
not treat Greeks gently.
When I got back to Constantinople, I faced the same problems as before:
I was a penniless refugee in a city where there was no work to be found.
There was a three-or four-month waiting list to emigrate to America and even
then I would have had to have at least twenty-five Turkish pounds, which I
had no way of getting.
Once again, a solution presented itself -- to enlist in the Foreign
Legion. My companion and I went to the recruitment office and were
interviewed by a French officer. "Formal swearing in," he informed us "will
take place at Fort Saint-Jean in Marseilles. In the meantime, you will be
lodged and fed at the post here."
He gave us a note for the commanding officer. The post was a formidable
building surrounded by high walls that looked more like a prison than an
army camp. We arrived at mealtime, and for the first time in three days ate
all we wanted. It wasn't very good, but as the saying goes, we didn't look a
gift horse in the mouth. However, we realized immediately that we were
trapped. Once inside there was no getting out. The next day, a transport
ship arrived from Marseilles. Some legionnaires who were being demobilized
for illness or wounds stopped at the post on their way back home. There were
Serbs, Bulgarians, and Rumanians. Needless to say, we asked them about life
in the legion.
Their response was unanimous: "The legion is living hell. You work on
the roads twelve hours a day in the broiling sun. At night, as often as not,
you have to fight , since Morocco is in open revolt. The discipline is cruel
and punishment is brutal. The only relief, when you get your lousy pay, is
to get drunk enough to forget."
All we could think of was to escape. In two days the transport would
leave for Marseilles and formal enlistment, which would mean five years of
hell. But we didn't know how escape would be possible. We had noticed that
certain trusties went out in the evening, and there were also some civilian
employees, mostly Greeks, who left for the night. They had to show their
exit permits to a noncommissioned officer. On alternate days, the officer in
charge was a Sengalese who did not even read the papers, just waved the men
on. My comrade and I did have Russian military identity papers. We waited
for the Sengalese noncom to come on duty and got in line. We flashed our
papers at him and he let us pass. Once outside, we ran as fast as we could.
The next day I remembered that the owner of the Russian newspaper in
Constantinople, a man named Maxi-mov, had known my father. I went to ask him
for work. By chance, the man who had distributed the papers to the retail
dealers had just left for America, so I inherited his menial job. It paid
just enough to feed me and allow me to feed my blood to the bedbugs that
infested the quarters reserved for Russian refugees. I couldn't go on like
this. I had to find a way to get out.
One day I read in one of the newspapers I distributed that a ship
headed for Marseilles with a French regiment would also take Russian
refugees who had French visas. I was off that day, so I went up to the
Galata port. Maybe I would have a chance to say good-bye to someone I knew.
And I did meet a lieutenant I had known. He had studied at the conservatory
and now led a Russian orchestra and had a three-month engagement in a
nightclub in* Nice. Out of the blue, he said: "Do you want to go to France?"
"Of course. What a question! But how? I have no money and no visa."
"But it's very simple, my friend. Get your bags, get on board, and I'll
tell the boarding officer that your name is on the group passport."
I ran home, grabbed my two bags, ran back and up the long gangplank
right into the arms of the boarding officer "Passport?" he asked. From below
the orchestra leader yelled up, "He's with us. His name is on the group pass
After a bit he came on board and hid me with their baggage. I waited
there for six or seven hours, scared to death. Then I heard the most
beautiful sound imaginable, the ship's whistle; we were under way.
Eventually, my friend came to rescue me. "You can come out now. Even if they
find you out, there's nothing they can do. You're on your way to
The crossing took five days. The French soldiers fed me from their
9. At Loose Ends in Turkey
so, FOR THE FOURTH TIME, I was fleeing, leaving behind what little I
possessed. What would become of me in Marseilles? The thought tormented me.
But when we arrived, it turned out that there were about twenty of my
compatriots on board in the same fix I was in, with no passport or visas.
"These damned Russians," the commissioner of the port police said with a
tolerant smile, "they keep arriving from all sides." They let us in and
ordered us to go to the Russian consulate to get proper papers and then to
report to the local employment office.
It was September 24, 1923. Everything was odd in this land of my dreams
that I now saw for the first time . . . both strange and enchanting. After
four years of nightmare, the French were living life to the hilt. There was
a lot of construction and workers were needed everywhere. Things were cheap
and one could actually live on one's salary. In their effort to forget
hardship and bereavement, the French were living as if there were no
All of us were offered work in the Departement of the Aisne in a metal
factory near Soissons, not far from Laon. We were issued tickets for the
train and set out, hungry and somewhat bewildered. None of us had a penny in
his pocket and we were happy Just to get where we were going. Our good humor
was short-lived. We disembarked, not even at a station, but at a makeshift
wooden barrack. The surroundings looked like a picture of the moon --
completely barren, not a tree, nothing but trenches and excavations. We
asked a railroad clerk where the metal factory was. He gazed back at us with
an ironic expression. "The factory? Well, you see the road that goes up the
hill over there? When you reach the top, you will see your factory." He
smiled. In spite of our hunger, we formed a small military detachment and
marched off, singing. We got to the top of the hill. There was no factory.
There were about twenty barracks and long rows of something we could not
make out. (They turned out to be piles of shells and shrapnel.) A youngster
came along on a bicycle and I asked where the factory was. "What factory?"
he asked. I showed him the paper that had been given us in Marseilles with
the name of the factory. "There is no factory here. Look at your papers. You
see, it's in Alsace. All we do here is to gather the shells from the fields,
defuse them, and send them to the factory."
We had been tricked once again. Now we were under contract for a year
and we had been lied to about the nature of the work, and not told anything
of the dangers involved. We agreed that we could not accept it and that we
would announce our decision as soon as we arrived at the barracks. As we
drew closer, we could see that one of the barracks flew the banner of the
Red Cross. I asked to speak to whoever was in charge, and a man came out
immediately to greet us. When we told him our decision, he blew up. "How
dare you? Do you think I'm an idiot? You signed for a year's work, your trip
was paid for, and now you refuse to work. You are asking to be put in jail.
I'll telephone the police to come and arrest you."
"You are the one who should be under arrest, monsieur," I replied.
"Look at my papers. It says in black and white that we are supposed to work
in a metal factory. Where is the factory? We've been lied to and we're not
such idiots that we're going to get killed for a few francs. There is a Red
Cross barrack full of injured men. We're the ones who are going to
He changed his tune. "Listen, the work really isn't dangerous and I'll
raise your salary if that's the problem." We laughed at him and went off to
find the mayor.
"This is not the first time," he told us, "that these people have
deceived their workers. You are absolutely correct to refuse. My advice to
you is to go to Laon and apply for work at the labor office."
We had eaten nothing for two days and I felt as if my legs were about
to cave in. I had made friends with a lieutenant about my age and we had
decided to hang in together. The others had left before us, so by the time
we arrived at the employment office, they had already been hired by a
threshing factory. The only jobs left were on a farm in the village of
Chalandry -- it was called the Chateau-Chalandry and was about seven miles
away. We must have looked pretty sour at the prospect of such a long walk
because the office manager finally asked us when we had last eaten. When he
heard, he gave us some bread and butter.
We walked to the farm by fields of sugar beets. We ate one of them and
felt a little better. I remember that we arrived at the farm at suppertime.
We had expected something grand because it was called a "chateau," but it
was only a mediocre farm with a silly-looking tower, from which it must have
gotten its name.
The farmhouse was in the middle of a large courtyard surrounded by
barns. We saw an old man, one of the owners. He ran the farm with his
brother-in-law. "Do you know how to do farm work?" he asked. My companion
did not speak French so I answered for both: "Yes, sir. We know all about
farms. We used to be farm workers." He looked at us skeptically. "I don't
really believe you were farmers, but we'll see about that." He looked over
our papers and then invited us into the kitchen for something to eat. "If
you work as well as you eat," he said, "I have made a good bargain."
After supper, he took us over to a ladder. "Climb up there," he told
us. "There are blankets and someone will wake you in the morning."
I was so exhausted that when someone waked me up I felt as if I had
slept for only an hour. After a measly breakfast, we went out to pick beets.
We had arrived at the hardest work season of the year. We used huge
pitchforks to load the beets onto horse-drawn wagons. The beets were deep in
the earth and it took tremendous effort to pry them loose. We were weak from
malnutrition, and by noon of the first day our hands were bleeding. My
friend was in better shape than I was, and not nearly so done in. "You do
what you like," I told him as we walked back to the farmhouse for lunch,
"but I can't manage. Look at my hands."
"I'm still okay," he said, "but if you have to quit, I'm going too."
Just then the other owner came over to me. "From now on you'll be in
charge of the cows. You'll be told what to do." I accepted this new
assignment gladly, and slept contentedly in the barn with my cows for the
next eight months.
I took care of the cows and the whole dairy as well. Usually, I had to
get the hay ready and load it. I was badly exploited, working twelve hours a
day for a few dollars a month and lousy food. The older brother was at least
agreeable, but the younger one was plain mean, stu-. pid and brutal. I used
to fantasize about punching him in the nose, but I never did it. I had to
earn enough money to get away and find something better.
I don't really regret those eight months. Working on the land is
healthy and satisfying and I had never worked with my hands before. I got
back some measure of physical strength and even acquired a bit of patience.
When I had saved about two hundred and fifty dollars I left. My
companion had already quit. I went to the Employment Office in Laon and
found a better-paying and safer job in Resigny as a wagon driver at one of
the processing plants of a huge dairy company. Each morning I drove a wagon
all around the neighborhood, collecting about two thousand gallons of milk.
I got back to the plant about noon. The milk was processed, and in the
afternoon it was loaded onto trucks in cans and early the next morning sold
in Paris. It was pleasant work, especially in the summer. The Ardennes
forest reminded me a little of my native Caucasus. I planned to stay long
enough to save five hundred dollars and then try my luck in Paris.
I used to subscribe to a Paris newspaper to keep up with what was going
on in the rest of the world. And since I was absorbed by the affairs of the
Russian emigres, I also took the two most important Russian-language papers
that were published in Paris. Rut all this time I was thinking more and more
seriously about "my" treasure . . . the treasure of the White Army.
It was crucial for me to understand the interconnections between the
various groups of emigres to figure out whom I could eventually go to for
help to recover at least part of the treasure. I had already made one firm
I would not offer the treasure, or any part of it, to the exiled
Russian military organizations. These organizations had sprung up
everywhere, under the leadership of General Wrangel. Later, after his death
in 1928, General Koutiepov assumed the role of leader. Rut the Civil War was
over. We were defeated and in exile. All we could do now was to adjust to
our new circumstances and understand that there was no possibility of
overthrowing the Soviet regime from abroad. General Koutiepov and all the
exiled class of officers dreamed of nothing else; I shared their passions,
needless to say, but I had come to terms with reality. Many Russians,
blinded by their hatred of Rolshevism, could not understand that aggressive
action against the communist government from abroad would only reinforce the
regime. The White organizations were riddled with provocateurs and double
agents; even General Skoblin, who had commanded one of the most brilliant of
the White regiments, had betrayed us. General Koutiepov and his successor,
General Miller, were both kidnapped, to the consternation of the French
press. What kind of organizations were these, whose leaders could be
kidnapped in broad daylight in the middle of Paris? I was not going to share
a single kopek with any of them. I would go after a part of the treasure and
try to recover enough to finance a full-scale expedition. Then I would share
it with the Russian schools, our disabled veterans and the Russian churches.
In the meantime, there I was at Resigny and the drudgery at the dairy
plant. The manager was a bastard. He paid us eighty dollars a month, though
we got enough to eat and a decent place to sleep. Rut I noticed that he
preferred non-French-speaking employees and I soon discovered why. He was
cheating us. Each month as we received our pay, we signed for it on a list.
I noticed that he kept his finger over the place next to each name. Finally,
one day, I had had enough, and I pushed his hand out of my way. He was
cheating each of us' out of one hundred francs. Eleven of us at one hundred
francs apiece each month . . . not bad! I went to the manager and told him,
"Monsieur, either you pay us what you owe us, or I'm going to write to your
superiors in Paris."
The next day, he called me into his office. "Okay, I'll pay you but not
"No, either you pay everybody or I'm going to report you."
I realized, of course, that after this I could not stay on under any
circumstances. Finally, he gave me my missing back pay for seven months. The
Polish workers were afraid of losing their jobs so they settled for the one
hundred francs that had been "omitted" from their last wages. I said
good-bye and went on my way.
I knew that a former Russian soldier was the manager of a plant about
twelve miles from Laon that rented farm equipment out to the local farmers.
I got a job as a tractor driver and worked at harvesting the wheat near
Vervins. It was summer and the life was so pleasant that I didn't give a
thought to the treasure. When the harvesting was finished, I worked at
plowing with the same machine.
By now I had saved what I had planned on, but I decided to accumulate a
bit more. I didn't know Paris, and I was both attracted and intimidated. How
would I manage in that vast city with no friends or acquaintances? So when
the plowing was finished, I took a job in a nearby sugar-processing plant.
Toward the end of November, as I was going about my work one day, I saw two
foremen and two policemen approaching.
"Are you Sergei Orel? Do you have an identity card?" I gave him my
card. "Okay, get your belongings and come along."
"We have a warrant from Laon for your arrest. You are accused of
stealing." I was terrified.
"But there must be some mistake. I've stolen nothing."
"You can tell that to the judge. We are only carrying out our
The gendarmes were riding bicycles, so I had to trot along between
them. They didn't handcuff me; they were quite decent to me, in fact.
It was a Saturday, so I had to spend two days in the police station
before I could be transferred to the Laon jail. The jail was in an ancient
monastery, with thick walls and long corridors. I was outraged at being held
as a suspect without trial, much less a sentence. According to the law, work
in prison is optional, but I was put to work as soon as I arrived. The
building was freezing cold-it hadn't been heated in centuries -- and was
almost unbearable once the sun had gone down. We were made to get into our
nightclothes and march double time over the cold stone floors to our
dormitory. Once we were inside, the doors were locked and nothing could move
the guards to open them. After several days, I was at last called before the
judge for a preliminary hearing. Before he said a word, I demanded to know
why I was being held.
He replied, "I have issued a warrant against you on a complaint that
you robbed a worker at the Maggi Dairy at Resigny."
The theft had supposedly occurred on a Sunday, over a month before; a
suitcase belonging to one of the workers had disappeared. I asked how I came
to be accused and the Judge informed me that the manager had suggested that
I was the guilty party.
I explained to the judge why the manager might wish to get even with
me, and that at the time of the theft I had been forty miles away from the
scene. To be absolutely sure of my alibi, I asked for a day so that I could
figure out exactly where I had been that Sunday. I sat up all night doping
it out, and by morning I had it all fitted together. At the time of the
alleged crime, I had been playing billiards with Cassart, a former military
policeman. I reported back to the judge and he promised to call Cassart.
Cassart backed me up, and twenty days after I had been arrested, the judge
let me go.
I was released just before Christmas. After that experience, with more
than twenty-five hundred francs in my pocket, life looked rosy. I took the
train for Paris and settled into a hotel near the Gare du Nord. I was
fascinated by Paris. For the first three days I hardly slept. I wanted to
Then it was time to think about finding work and lodgings. I had the
address of a Russian who had worked at the Resigny dairy and was now working
at Joinville-le-Pont and lived on the Quai de la Marne. I moved into a small
hotel near him. I still had twenty-two hundred francs left after my Parisian
"extravagances." Instead of looking for a job right away, I decided to get a
driver's license. That way I would have a skill to sell instead of having to
apply as an unskilled worker.
In a month I had obtained my license both for pleasure driving and for
trucks and I found a job as a truck driver at a mill near Troyes. The pay
was good, although the work was hard. I had to load and unload hundred-pound
sacks of flour. I intended to keep the job for only a few months, as all I
needed was enough money to work out a scheme to get at the treasure. I would
spend everything I had, my money and my strength, to get my hands on that
treasure. I had had enough deprivation.
When I got back to Paris, I had almost five thousand francs, a good
suit and overcoat. I was quite presentable. Again I settled in
Joinville-le-Pont, which was then a charming little town. Since automobiles
were rare in those days, most Parisians spent Sundays and holidays in the
towns around Paris, especially Nogent-sur-Marne and ! Joinville,
where there were plenty of nice restaurants and [ taverns. I moved into a
little hotel and the man who a owned it became a good friend. He
only charged me sixteen francs a day for a very nice room and full board,
I began to look up people I had known in Russia who were now living in
Paris, preferably civilians or acquaintances of my family. That took some
time, as there were an enormous number of Russians spread all over Paris. I
finally met the former district attorney of St. Petersburg, who had known
both my father and grandfather. He was almost fifty years older than I but
he seemed to enjoy my company. We met regularly to have dinner and to
I began to realize that my friend knew many important Parisians. I
decided to tell him about the treasure after swearing him to reveal not a
word about it to anyone, even if he decided not to help me.
"I believe I can help you, though," he told me. "But, before
introducing you to the person I have in mind, I want you to understand that
he is a very important man and won't get mixed up in anything that could
hurt his reputation. But I have known him for a long time and he is very
pro-Russian, and I think he will help."
After I had given it some thought, I told him: "I don't think it is
necessary to tell him where the treasure came from. It would be wiser to
tell him that it had belonged to my family."
I saw him a few days later. "Everything is okay," he told me. "The
person I was telling you about is the Marquis de Navailles, chief of the
European department of the French Foreign Ministry. He will receive you in a
few days. If he agrees to help, under no circumstances offer him any reward.
He would kick you out."
A few days later I was ushered into the office of M. de Navailles. He
was a big man, with a ruddy complexion and exquisite manners, an
eighteenth-century aristocrat. I told him my tale. He agreed to help me "on
condition that your story is true." I assured him that no embarrassment
would come to him. He gave me a personal letter to the French ambassador at
Sofia, asking him to accept a package from me and to forward it to him. He
also gave me a letter to the police requesting a French passport for me.
That very day I received my passport and a visa for Bulgaria. The only
problem that remained was money, and somehow the former prosecutor found
another five thousand francs for me. I was on my way to the treasure.
10. France in the Twenties
i TOOK THE ORIENT EXPRESS for Bulgaria in January 1927. The winter had
been severe in France, and I was hoping it would be warmer in southern
Europe. But it was even colder there.
Hoping the weather would warm up, I delayed a few days in Sofia. But it
did not change and I had to keep moving to avoid arousing the suspicions of
the Bulgarian police, who took careful note of the arrival of every
foreigner. I couldn't stay in my hotel just doing nothing. So I told the
desk clerk, who was undoubtedly a police agent, that I had to go to Plovdiv,
the second most important city in the country, to look into the tobacco
market there. Plovdiv is on the railroad line to Burgas. I spent a day
purchasing my digging tools and work clothes and then continued on to
Burgas. I could definitely not spend more than twenty-four hours in Burgas
without arousing suspicion. Why would a foreigner come to such a small city,
where there was nothing to do, in the dead of winter?
I arrived in Burgas in the morning and spent almost the whole day
looking for a place to change my clothes. That night I went to the public
park near the beach, which was deserted at that hour. In an icy wind, I
changed into my work clothes, hopping up and down to keep from freezing. I
checked my street clothes at the railroad station, drank some hot coffee,
then set off to the first hiding place. It was growing colder and colder. In
spite of my warm clothing, I was trembling like a leaf. A strong wind bit my
face and slowed me down. I didn't reach even the nearest cache until nearly
midnight, and then it took me a half hour to locate it with a flashlight.
Everything was in order; no one had discovered our secret. I tested the
ground. It was frozen hard as a rock. I tried to dig, not at the actual
site, so as not to betray it, but a little distance away. Useless. It would
take dynamite to break the ground. I was furious that all my effort, my long
trip, had been in vain. I would return to Paris empty-handed.
In the morning, half-frozen, I returned to Burgas and took the train to
Sofia. Before returning to my hotel, I went to the public baths to change my
clothes. The frigid weather continued; there was no way of knowing when it
would end and I couldn't stay where I was. I returned to Paris.
My friend, the former prosecutor, was disappointed with me. I gave him
my passport and M. de Navailles' letter and asked him to explain to
Navailles why I had failed. I was worried about the money he had loaned me.
I did not know whether he had borrowed it from someone else. One night, as I
tossed and turned in bed trying to find a solution, I decided to go see my
former commander, General Postovsky, who was a great gambler. The next day I
went around and asked him to take me to his gambling club that evening. I
needed to make some profit on my last thousand francs.
"You've come at a bad time," he said. "I've had a losing streak for a
week and I've lost more than fifty thousand francs. All I have left is three
thousand. But if you wish, come along. I'll try, but I make no promises."
I gave him my wallet and he played baccarat for both of us. By 2 A.M.
he had won seventy thousand francs for himself and more than twenty thousand
for me. I practically had to drag him away from the table.
I returned the money I had borrowed and went to Join-ville to rest. I
regretted that I had been so precipitate. I should have waited for spring to
go to Bulgaria. The next expedition time I would plan more carefully. And I
would need a companion.
After a few days of relaxation, I decided to get started doing
something. I knew that Lieutenant General Rafalo-vitch, who was a former
commander of the Cossack cavalry and a good friend of my family, was living
in Brussels, He was a man of absolute integrity and loyalty. I went to see
him. He was very glad to see me but I did not tell him about the treasure
right away. I waited for about a month and then I told him the whole story.
He listened to me carefully.
"I have been expecting you to speak to me about this business. I've
heard some rumors about a war treasure taken out of Russia by General
Pokrovsky. They say that you know where it is. Some people even claim that
it has been in your possession since Pokrovsky's death. I am glad that you
have told me the true story. You must realize that you are in a very
delicate and dangerous position. If either the Reds or Whites ever become
convinced that you know where the treasure is, your life will be in danger.
They will kidnap you, torture you to obtain the secret, and then they will
"I've thought of all that," I replied. "But that still wouldn't give
them any chance at all of finding the treasure. Even if I gave someone a
detailed description of the general location, they still couldn't find the
exact spot without digging up the entire area, about twelve square miles.
Once I was dead, no one could find it."
"All right," he said, "I'm convinced. But what are you going to do?" I
explained in detail my plan to recover the treasure and what I intended to
do with it afterward. He asked for a few days to think it over.
When I returned, he said, "I have concluded that you are right. I agree
that it would not be wise to talk to the Russian authorities in Paris. In
the first place, they couldn't do anything without your help. And once they
got their hands on it, it would disappear. Like you, I am against any
attempt to attack the Bolsheviks from abroad. Furthermore, I believe you
have demonstrated a right to the treasure. Keep me advised. I will try to
help. But you must be careful; you will be in bad trouble if word gets
It was the spring of 1927 and it was to be two years before I found
just the right man. During those two years in Brussels I became
administrative director of the famous Russian chorus, the Cossacks of Kuban.
One day in Brussels I saw a man on the street dressed in the costume of the
Kuban Cossacks. I could not believe my eyes -- for as he came closer, I
recognized George Vinnikov, a great old pal who had been in my regiment. We
went into a cafe and he told me his story. Because he had had musical
training, in Yugoslavia the ataman of the Kuban Cossacks, General Naoumenko,
had commissioned him to form a Cossack choir. For several years the choir
had remained in Yugoslavia but eventually it began to receive invitations to
perform abroad. They were in Brussels to give three concerts. Naturally, I
attended the opening night. The next day at lunch, Vinnikov remarked: "It
would be so much more convenient if we had someone who knew this part of
Europe and could speak the languages. I know only a bit of French and the
rest speak nothing but Russian. We always have to find a translator." Then
out of the blue, he said: "We need someone exactly like you. How about being
our director?" I was taken by surprise and told him that I didn't know
anything about that sort of business. "And," I said, "right now I don't have
the kind of money to do a lot of traveling, and that would be necessary,
"Yes," he replied, "you would have to be our advance man, make all the
arrangements, sign contracts, and so forth. But, naturally, you would be
paid the same salary as I, and your expenses would be taken care of." I
explained my difficulties with the police. "Listen, Nicholas," he replied,
"I have known you for a long time and I know that you are incapable of
dishonesty. We would be honored to have you." I agreed on condition that
General Naoumenko give his approval, and I wrote him explaining my
situation. Two weeks later I received a letter from the general confirming
my appointment. I contacted all the great impresarios of Europe and arranged
manv appearances. The choir was a great success everywhere.
In 1929, a construction engineer of Russian descent, a man named Arian,
introduced me to a Belgian diplomat, Baron K., a counselor at the Belgian
embassy in a neighboring country. He had been stationed in St. Petersburg as
a young man and had married a Russian woman. He agreed to help me get the
treasure out of Bulgaria.
Arian knew only the bare outlines of the plan and I assured his silence
by promising him a generous commission. Unfortunately, I did not realize
that his business was in trouble and that he was deeply in debt. Our plan
was for the baron to go to Bulgaria after me, receive a suitcase from me
containing part of the treasure, and take it out of the country in the
diplomatic pouch. In a few days he had obtained a passport and a Bulgarian
visa for me under the name of Nansen. I was to leave first. We would
register at different hotels in Sofia. I would proceed to Burgas, return to
Sofia, meet the baron at the Belgian legation, and give him my suitcase.
I arrived in Sofia and waited four days, but there was no sign of the
baron. I was frantic. At the legation I finally found a message. He had
fallen ill en route and was in Belgrade. He asked me to wait in Sofia, as he
hoped the doctor would allow him to move in two or three days. Four days
later, another message arrived: he was worse and had to return to Brussels.
He promised to continue our business when he had recovered.
This was a terrible blow. I went back immediately and visited the
baron's bedside. He was very upset that he had been unable to complete his
voyage. He promised again that we would resume our mission as soon as
possible. I went to see Arian, who was very cool to me. I could not
understand until he finally blurted out: "You know I don't believe a word of
this story of the baron's sickness. I think this was a diplomatic illness. I
think you carried off the affair and are keeping it from me so that you
won't have to pay me my share."
"You are out of your mind," I told him. "Even if you don't believe me,
do you really think the baron would risk his reputation and career for a few
pennies? Go ask him yourself."
I learned later that he had indeed gone to the baron, who had thrown
him out of the house.
A week later I was arrested on a charge of suspicion of swindling.
Arian had brought an accusation against me to the Belgian police. The story
was all over the papers.
I protested, of course, but I was held for thirty days. Six months
later, the case was dismissed for lack of evidence, but my reputation was
ruined. No end of false stories had appeared in the Belgian press and the
police had sent inquiries about me to a number of other countries. There was
nothing on the books against me anywhere, but I was labeled undesirable and
effectively barred from several countries forever. This was a ghastly
situation for a stateless person.
I had not a cent, no means of leaving the country much less reaching
Bulgaria. I was near the end of my rope when I found a jeweler who was
willing to lend me the twenty thousand francs I needed for my next
expedition. I put it in a bank while I made my preparations and waited for
my chance to go back to Bulgaria.
Then one morning I received a summons to appear before the police. I
was accused once again of swindling. The jeweler had decided that I might be
going to skip out with his money, and instead of asking for it back, he had
gone straight to the police. When I heard what the accusation was, I
immediately wrote him out a check, but I was condemned to a month in prison
anyhow. I appealed the sentence, but the appeals court sustained the
sentence w absentia since I was out of the country at the time. When
I returned, I found that I was to be deported. I had either to leave
immediately or face an indeterminate sentence.
I was desperate to get hold of some money and a passport that would get
me into Bulgaria. I wrote a friend of mine, a former Russian officer who was
living in Switzerland, and asked him if there was any way I could borrow
fifty thousand Belgian francs. I promised to pay him back double that
amount. He was an old friend and I knew he would trust me. He wrote back
that he didn't have such a sum but knew someone who would lend it to me if
he guaranteed the loan. He would arrange for me to meet this person in
I entered France via Luxembourg and had a meeting with this man. A few
days later the money came; I was obliged to return it in three months. Now I
had to obtain a real passport, not a forged one. I had heard that this could
be arranged at some of the consulates in Berlin. I went there with a Belgian
woman friend. She suggested that she go around to the consulates. They might
be nicer to her than to me.
I waited for her all one day while she inquired around. Finally, she
returned. "Done," she said. "You have your passport." She had been to a
half-dozen consulates. When she had told them that she wanted a passport for
a friend, some of the officials had simply laughed at her, others were
angered. She was ready to come back empty-handed when she had passed a sign
that said "Consulate of Panama." She had decided to give it one more try.
The consul had received her courteously and listened to her. He finally told
her to have me come in person. I was leery of a trap but there was nothing
else I could think of to do.
He was very hospitable. As character witnesses, I was able to give him
the names of two persons living in Berlin whom he knew. A few days later I
received my passport, for which I paid thirty thousand Belgian francs.
There was no question of entering Bulgaria officially, since the
passport carried my real name. I went to the Yugoslav border town of
Zajecar, hoping to find someone to get me across the border. I finally found
two men who agreed for three thousand dinars. Meanwhile, I stayed with my
uncle, who was a supervisor at the copper mines about eighteen miles away.
One day the men who were to smuggle me across saw my wallet bulging with
money. They exchanged glances, and I decided I had to be more cautious.
At last, we set out one midnight, walking for a couple of hours.
Finally, my guides told me we were three miles inside Bulgaria and it was
time for me to pay up. I handed over the money, and while they were counting
it, put my hand on the pistol in my coat pocket. As I had half expected,
they both pulled knives and demanded my money, watch and ring. I made a
motion as if I were reaching for my wallet, but instead pulled my gun and
put a bullet in each of their heads, then I ran like hell. About a half mile
farther on I threw my pistol into a stream. As I was walking along the road
to Vidin, following the course of the Danube, I ran into a patrol of five
policemen who demanded to know why I had fired my gun. I answered that I did
not even have a gun. They searched me but decided to take me to Vidin for
questioning anyhow. This arrest put an end to my elaborate plans.
Of course, I denied that I had anything to do with killing the two men,
whose bodies had since been discovered, and the police admitted freely that
they were not really concerned about that. They were just as happy to have
two fewer smugglers to worry about. After two days, I was transferred to the
prison in Sofia. The police there were most anxious to know whether I had
entered Bulgaria illegally. I made up an elaborate story which they did not
believe. The fact was I had mailed my Panamanian passport to General
Delivery in Burgas and by this time it had already been returned to
It was a disaster. The man who had loaned me his money, not having
heard from me for so long, had naturally concluded that I had run off with
it and he denounced me to the police. A short time later he died.
When I finally got back to Switzerland by way of Yugoslavia, I was
arrested and extradited to France. Later, I was cleared of the charge he had
I was getting desperate. I would do anything to reach the treasure. I
decided that the first thing I needed was a good lawyer. Through an
acquaintance I was recommended to one in The Hague. I sold a camera and my
gold watch to get the money to visit him. I will call him simply Leon. We
struck up a friendship right off the bat. After I had told him the whole
story, including my problems with the law, he said he would help me. He was
quite rich and did not need any money. I believe the romantic, adventurous
side of the undertaking appealed to him. He agreed to finance my first
expedition; after that, I would have enough money to pay for a hundred.
IT WAS THE MIDDLE OF SUMMER and we decided to get started right away.
We had a simple and workable plan. We would go by train to Constanza in
Rumania and sail from there to Constantinople. I had not been in Turkey for
a long time and, we hoped, would not be recognized. I was to stay in
Constantinople for a few days, and then take the boat alone to Burgas, do my
job, and telegraph Leon in Constantinople. He would get on the Orient
Express, which goes through Bulgaria on its way to Paris, having wired me in
care of General Delivery at Plovdiv. I would be waiting at that station and
would pass the package to him. In those days the Orient Express was all
first class and the border guards treated the passengers with deference; his
bags would not be opened until he reached Paris, and he would get off before
that. I would take a boat up the Danube and meet him in Lausanne. The day of
my departure arrived. The boat, the Bulgaria, was in the middle of the
Bosporus, and I was the only passenger. I was rowed out by some Turkish
sailors. The sea --was so rough that I almost lost my passport as I climbed
the ladder to get on board. Since I was supposed to be a Panamanian, I could
not speak Russian or show that I understood Bulgarian. I managed to
communicate with the crew in German and English.
When I arrived in Burgas, I checked into a hotel and let it be known
that I was waiting three days for the departure of my boat from Routschouk.
I spent my first day there on the beach and that night went fishing. (This
would explain my overnight absence from the hotel the following night.) I
decided to go after the treasure on the second day.
That night was warm and there was a full moon. I got to the hiding
place nearest the city about i A.M. After digging for about an hour and a
half, I found the cases. We had marked them to indicate the contents. The
first contained jewels. The next contained securities and English currency.
I took the jewels and papers and replaced the cases, and covered over
the trenches so that no one could tell that there had been any digging. I
returned to Burgas without incident .and buried my tools on the beach. I
knew it would be difficult to get back into the hotel without arousing
suspicion about my package, since I had departed empty-handed to "go
fishing." So I left the package at the door, and as I entered I asked the
desk clerk to fetch me a bottle of wine. Then I ran back for the package,
carried it to my room, and hid it under the bed.
Next I wired Leon as agreed, and by evening I had his answer. He would
pass through Plovdiv in two days. Now was my first opportunity to examine
what I had. There were beautiful jewels, about one hundred grams of cut but
unset diamonds, about one hundred foreign bonds, and twenty-five thousand
pounds sterling in currency.
The next day I took the train to Plovdiv. I went to the station the
next day and saw Leon debark from the train. This was the moment of danger:
I had to pass the bags to him inconspicuously. He took them and said,
"Everything is all right. I sent the steward for a bottle of mineral water."
This was our entire conversation. It was ten days before I saw him again, in
Lausanne. When he arrived there he had deposited the treasure in a bank. The
operation had been a marvelous success -- but it was not over yet. We had to
exchange the money and sell the bonds and the jewels. Leon was a tremendous
help because he had so many contacts. All this took two months, but brought
us a handsome sum.
When the expedition had finally worked out so well, I went back to
Brussels illegally and renewed contact with some old and faithful friends.
Naturally I shared some of my wealth with the Cossacks of Kuban. But nothing
lasts forever. Several years later my friend Lieutenant Vin-nikov, founder
and guiding spirit of the choir, fell ill and died in Brussels, and without
him the choir split up into several groups. A quintet managed by the
talented Svet-lanov brothers from the chorus enjoyed some success in Europe
for a number of years, but that was the end of the Cossacks of Kuban.
After our successful expedition in Bulgaria Leon and I traveled a good
deal, particularly to Vienna, our favorite city, but also to Berlin, Prague
and Budapest. While we were enjoying ourselves, however, we never lost sight
of the fact that we were going to recover the rest of the treasure. We had
long since decided that the only effective way to get at it was to go to
Bulgaria as tourists on a yacht and that we would have to buy one, rather
than rent it, so that we wouldn't be saddled with a crew we couldn't trust.
We searched for the right vessel for over a month and grew discouraged.
One was too large, another too small. One day Leon received a letter from a
friend in Rotterdam telling him that the kind of boat he was looking for was
anchored at Cannes. We went there immediately and fell in love with the
yacht at first sight. Leon went to England and bought it, retaining its
registration, which was Panamanian. Many yachts had this registration, but
it was a lucky detail because of my passport. It was perfect for us. It had
two powerful engines, six cabins and quarters for a crew of five.
It took us two months to get ready. The most complicated task was to
find a reliable crew. We put together an international team: three Dutch
sailors, a German mechanic and his wife, who would serve as maid, a Russian
cook and an English captain. Leon deliberately chose a crew who did not
understand French so that we could talk freely. We took on board a great
supply of all sorts of provisions and invited two beautiful women we knew to
add the proper touch of posing as rich tourists on a cruise.
We departed in midsummer, sailing at a leisurely pace. We stayed at
Naples for three days and visited the famous Blue Grotto on the isle of
Capri to please our companions, and a few days later we stopped for a few
hours at Lem-nos, where I had had so many adventures, to buy some fruit and
fresh bread. After a two-day stopover at Constantinople we headed toward the
Bulgarian coast. First, we anchored at Varna, a larger and more pleasant
city than Burgas, as it might have looked suspicious if we had gone directly
to Burgas, bypassing a tourist attraction like Varna. We spent a week there,
lolling on the beach.
Finally, we headed for Burgas. The customs officials did not bother us;
they were concerned only with those who actually arrived in port. We moved
back and forth from the boat with sacks and bags to get them used to our
moving about. I found my tools where I had buried them on the first
expedition. To explain our overnight absence to the ladies and the captain,
we said that we were going to visit Russian friends of mine who lived
We set out early the first evening. I carried my Mauser, though Leon
was unarmed. Even though the first hiding place was still half full, I
decided to go straight to the second, and we got there about 11 P.M. An hour
later, we had finished. But I was only able to take out about half the
valuables because Leon was scared and kept urging me to hurry. I realized
that for the next expedition I would need a different kind of man; you can't
ask a bourgeois lawyer to be an adventurer, specially when the affair had
little or no heroism to it. We were back at the seashore at about 2 A.M. and
had located the place where I was planning to hide the tools. We buried the
tools and rested a while. Then we started out at a leisurely pace. We didn't
want to get to town too early.
After walking for about ten minutes, we heard "stoi" ("halt"). That's
it, I said to myself, the customs police. I had forgotten that the customs
would patrol that part of the beach at night since it was an ideal spot for
smugglers to land. The voice came from the brush at the edge of the beach. I
sized up the situation immediately: if we remained on the beach we were done
for. I told Leon to follow me and ran for the cover of the brush. We heard
the order to halt again but by this time we were hidden. We were each
carrying a bag full of valuables. "Run toward the town and wait for me near
the station," I said to Leon. I decided to fire on the police if they
pursued us. A few seconds later, the customs man (who, as I had surmised,
was alone) fired in the air; I fired two shots in his direction and he
apparently decided to leave us alone.
I reached Burgas without any trouble and found Leon at a bistro near
the station. He was gray. "I'm not a Cossack, you know," he told me. We
bought a few pieces of fruit and some vegetables and put them into our
sacks. When we passed the customs officials at the port, they greeted us as
casually as usual, and we reached the boat without any difficulty. I put the
sacks into a storage space near my cabin that I always kept closed. No one
We spent the next day on the beach and the following day we left Burgas
for Constantinople. We decided that we had to be alone to take inventory of
what we had, so we put the women off the boat in Trieste, in spite of their
tears and protests, and gave them money to go back to Brussels. We cruised
around the boot of Italy and left the boat at San Remo, then made our way to
Switzerland by train. Once again, thanks to his connections, Leon was able
to sell everything. After our business"was done, Leon had to return to The
Hague to take care of some business.
Even after I had given away about three-quarters of the money from my
last expedition, I still had quite a bit. However, I knew that war was
imminent and I was determined to get back to Bulgaria as soon as possible.
Leon tried to dissuade me, listing all the difficulties that the tense
political situation would create. I knew he was right, but I couldn't accept
a quiet life. He offered to lend me whatever I needed to get established in
Brussels, but I could not undertake any legitimate business, since I had no
legal documents with my real name. I decided to go to Bulgaria one more
AT THE END OF FEBRUARY of 1939 I set out by train for Naples, and went
from there to Constantinople by ship. Then I had to figure out some way of
getting into Bulgaria. I met an old acquaintance there by chance, the
ex-police chief of my hometown. He imported hams from Bulgaria and he went
back and forth to Burgas all the time. The hams were shipped on Turkish
feluccas, which sailed to Sozopol, a city south of Burgas, to collect wood.
Of course, he knew the captains of all these boats, so I had him introduce
me to a couple and I made arrangements to go to Burgas on one boat and come
back on another.
The morning I arrived in Burgas I found the fourth hiding place, the
closest one to where we had landed. Everything came off without a hitch. As
before, I took only part of what was buried. This time I managed three of
the six cases, as well as three unopened cases in each of the other three
hiding places -- twelve cases in all, still a sizable fortune. The felucca I
was to return on was not ready to leave, so for the next five days I helped
load it. We got back to Constantinople without incident and I managed to
slip by customs. I still had my room in the Pera Palace Hotel.
I had so many valuables with me that I thought it would be prudent to
deposit some of them, mainly the stocks and some of the diamonds, in a bank
vault and plan to come back for them later, and so I did this. I was worried
that I would be thoroughly searched at customs in Naples. That did not turn
out to be the case, surprisingly, and I made my way peacefully to Leon's
home in The Hague. He was grateful to see me safe and sound, and confessed
that he had been very concerned. However, he refused to go back to
Constantinople to recover what I had put in the bank, which put me in a very
difficult position. Convinced that war was imminent, I wrote to the bank and
asked them to advise me how I could authorize a person to open my safe
deposit box. They wrote back with instructions on how to proceed. Leon still
refused to go, so I had to go to Constantinople by myself. He advised me to
find a buyer, at least for the diamonds; I could leave the stocks in the
Constantinople branch office of any of the major European banks.
At Anvers I located a diamond merchant who agreed to make the trip, and
who was ready to buy the diamonds from me on the spot. I drove across
Germany, Austria, and Hungary and as far as Belgrade with my new Belgian
girl friend. The merchant, who was Jewish, didn't want to travel through
these countries, so he took the Orient Express and met us in Belgrade. We
all spent a very pleasant evening the first night we were there and then
agreed to meet early the next morning. My girl friend and I arrived on time
for our appointment. But the diamond merchant was late, and when he arrived
he acted very disturbed and announced that he had to return home
immediately. I protested vigorously, but then, because I knew that his
concern had to do with the persecution of the Jews by the Germans, I did not
I phoned Leon to tell him that I would have to return to The Hague
because the merchant could not continue on with me. He told me instead to go
to Budapest and that he would join me there. So my girl and I went there and
settled into a hotel in the heart of the city, on the charming island in the
Danube. The manager knew me, since I had stayed there several times before.
One day, I saw him wearing an army officer's uniform and when I asked him
about it, he explained that the political situation was very grave and that
the government had mobilized some of the reservists. That evening he came to
our room and advised me to leave the country immediately. "If war breaks
out," he said, "you will be stuck here, and if America comes in, you are
bound to be interned." We decided that this was good advice and that we
should leave immediately. If war did break out and I was caught with a phony
passport, I could be arrested as a spy. We left Budapest on August 25, 1939,
one week before the war began. It took us a long time to reach the
Luxembourg border. All the roads in Austria and Germany were clogged with
military convoys. When we finally reached the Moselle and the bridge that
connects Luxembourg and Germany, a nasty surprise was waiting for us. No one
was being permitted across. We had to sit there all day before we were
finally allowed to go over. The next day we reached Brussels. Immediately I
went to the beautiful apartment I had there, furnished with rare Russian
books, icons, and other objets d'art. An old girl friend was living there as
housekeeper, since she was out of work. I decided I'd better stay off the
streets, as there were all sorts of rumors about German parachutists and
spies and I did not want to take the chance of being taken for one. Then I
had a piece of bad luck (or was it good fortune in disguise?). The woman who
had traveled with me to Budapest phoned to say that her stepfather, who was
a French citizen, had just been mobilized and was to return right away to
France. She very much wanted me to meet him before he left and, against my
better judgment, I agreed. I walked the half mile that separated my
apartment from hers and when I was almost there, three men approached and
showed me their badges. One said: "Police. Let me have your papers, please."
When I reached into my pocket, my heart almost stopped. My passport was
not there. I had not taken the time to transfer it from another coat. But I
couldn't tell the police that, because I was renting the apartment under a
different name from the one on the passport. The only thing I could think of
to do was to say I had left it at my hotel. The police said I had better
come along to the station house and explain everything to the officer in
charge. They would send someone to my hotel to find the passport. But when I
got to the magistrate, I decided I had better tell the truth, especially
since he knew me. "This is going to cost you a month in jail," he said,
"since you have already been formally expelled from the country once." So I
found myself in jail again, cursing my carelessness.
The next day I appeared before the judge to be arraigned. Much to my
surprise, he greeted me cheerfully. When I asked him why he was so cheerful,
he replied that he had just signed a warrant for my arrest on a charge of
swindling. "Do you know Mr. ----?" It was the diamond merchant. Now it
dawned on me why he had left so precipitately in Belgrade. An associate of
his had gone to the police looking for information about me. Needless to
say, he had found out that I had been accused of swindling twice and had
been expelled from Belgium. He had warned his friend to get away from me as
soon as possible. Since the diamond merchant had not suffered any losses at
my hands, he was willing to drop the whole matter. But the law followed its
inexorable course. The judge had presented an indictment on the grounds that
I had wished to swindle the man and I was sentenced to eighteen months in
prison. I appealed, and that charge was finally dismissed; but I was still
charged and convicted of using a false name when I had written to the
To add to my woes, I received another sentence of four months in prison
for something I had not done. It had all begun a year before when I met a
pretty girl one evening at the movies. I had walked her home and we had
agreed to meet again. A few days later, we went to see another film that was
restricted to adults. When she was asked for her identity card, she said she
had forgotten it and so I guaranteed the ticket taker that she was nineteen,
which is what she had told me. Later, as we were having a drink in a cafe, I
caught a glimpse of her card when she opened her pocketbook. I was shocked
to see that she was only sixteen, and decided not to see her again. (Belgian
law is very strict on the corruption of minors.) I told her I was going off
on a long trip. Then one day while I was serving my sentence in prison in
Brussels, I was called to court and there she was. She had testified that I
had seduced her. I learned only later that she had bragged to her friends
about having had an affair with a rich foreigner and that one of her friends
had told her parents, and that they had gone to the police. Having started
the whole mess with lies, she couldn't stop lying now. I was found guilty.
As the war began to rage in earnest, food grew scarce and life in
prison was a nightmare. We were given only a little bread with some
margarine melted into it and warm water. I became so undernourished that my
legs and feet swelled up horribly and I had to be transferred to the prison
hospital. The food was better there and after a month I was all right. I was
told by the police that I was to be detained even after my sentence ran out,
because I was considered a menace to the public order.
Each day we strolled in the prison courtyard, I saw members of the
Gestapo. They had taken over part of the jail for their own prisoners. I
knew that if I told them my real name and that I had been an officer of the
White Army, I could get free. And after a while a German officer did come to
the library, where I was in charge, to inspect the books. I told him I was a
Russian and how it was that I had ended up in prison. He found my story
incredible. "You're out of your mind to stay here," he told me, and he
offered to let me go right away if I would take a job with the German
authorities; my knowledge of languages would make me very useful. It was
July 1941, a few days after the German invasion of Russia. I refused. I knew
what the Germans were doing to my country.
But just about this time, I had the luck to be transferred to a
minimum-security prison that had been built for emotionally disturbed people
along with all the other foreign prisoners.
I was treated quite differently from the other prisoners. The camp
director had decided that my sentence was unjust, and although he did not
have the authority to do anything about it, he made me librarian there and
gave me complete freedom to come and go as I pleased. I could have escaped
at any time and I often thought of doing so, but I decided against it
because I did not want to betray the director's trust. One horrifying day
the Germans discovered that there were some Jews among us; they quickly
transferred them to German camps. My hatred for the Belgian authorities made
me reluctant to do anything for that country, but I did help the Belgian
resistance in one small way. Near the prison there were some mines where the
Germans forced Russian prisoners of war to work. Many of them used to escape
and join the partisans. I used to write notes in Russian which the Belgian
underground would give them, urging them to tell the Germans nothing if they
Soon, I had terrible news. The woman whom I had left in charge of my
apartment had never communicated with me in any way, in spite of my many
letters. Finally I appealed to the authorities to get in touch with her. The
news came back that she had sold all my beautiful possessions and that I had
But soon after that, at last something good happened. I received a
postcard in Russian, mailed from Brussels, from a woman I didn't know. She
had heard of my plight and wanted to help. Even before I had finished
writing her a letter, I was summoned to the director's office. A magnificent
package of bread, chocolate, tea, sugar, brandy and cigarettes had arrived
from her. We corresponded all through my internment, and I learned that she
was the wife of the proprietor of the most elegant Russian cafe in Brussels.
I did not know what she looked like, whether she was old or young, pretty or
not. I asked her for a picture and discovered that in fact she was young and
lovely. She used to complain about her husband in her letters. So I decided
to go on the offensive. I wrote her a love letter. For a week I was in
agony, not knowing how she would respond. Then one day to my great surprise,
I was summoned to the visiting room, and there she was. We fell into each
other's arms and that began a love that was to last for eight years.
ON SEPTEMBER 14, 1944, after a short battle, the English occupied
Rekam, near the prison. All night German and Allied shells crisscrossed
overhead. The fighting was so close that we could hear a burst of artillery
fire from one side and an explosion on the other almost simultaneously. We
were near the Siegfried Line, which the Americans were bombing constantly. A
few months later, on January l, 1945, the Germans launched a last desperate
air offensive. The furniture and buildings trembled and danced but we were
The clock had struck the hour of freedom but for me it was canceled out
by an arbitrary and cruel decision. My conduct in camp had been exemplary;
it was attested to by both the director and Father Stefan Gervais, a
Franciscan friar to whom I had given Russian lessons. Nonetheless, the
police gave me one month to leave the country under threat of being
reinterned. I was refused the status of political refugee to which I had a
legal right, and was a stateless person.
Back in Brussels I found my benefactress. She had taken a small
apartment for the two of us. At last I felt sure I had someone by my side
who loved me for myself, not because I was rich or handsome or exotic. After
she had left her husband, she had bought a laundry and she had worked there
day and night to keep us going. My beloved Maroussia told me also that
somebody else, a man I did not know, had intervened with the Belgian
authorities to get me released. Victor Breslav was a Russian engineer who
had lived in Belgium since before World War I and was a top executive in a
large plant. After the Liberation he had applied for Soviet citizenship, and
was subsequently elected secretary-general of the Union of Soviet Patriots
in Belgium. When he had heard about me through Father Gervais, he had
informed the authorities that he would guarantee me a job at the union.
Needless to say, I was hesitant to go to work for those who had for so long
been my mortal enemies. But things change, and patriotism perhaps does not
depend entirely on who happens to rule one's country. Anyhow, I was
Working for the Soviets brought down on me the hatred and contempt of
my fellow White Russian emigres, even though my work was humanitarian and
not political. My first Job was to fill out forms for the Soviet Red Cross,
which was trying to locate persons who had been forcibly transported by the
Nazis and who might now be in territory occupied by the Russians. Most of
the inquiries were for Jews. Sadly, I never found any of them, although we
did locate some other Belgians. Later, I was put in charge of a small
Russian language revue. As a result, I was identified in the Belgian, French
and English press as a Soviet spy. I found this so ridiculous that I did not
even try to refute the charge. How could anyone think the Soviets would use
me as a spy -- a former White officer, now so conspicuously in their employ?
A year went by after my liberation from prison camp and my life was
poisoned by the police. Each month I had to go through the ordeal of having
my Belgian visa extended for another month. Sometimes, it took days or even
weeks. If my papers were to lapse before I got a renewal, I was in constant
danger of being picked up as an illegal alien. Often I had to stay away from
my own apartment for fear of being arrested. One day, when Maroussia and I
were alone in the apartment, two plainclothes police came looking for me,
and I had to hide behind a cabinet in the kitchen. They came so close I
thought they might hear my breathing. Finally, after long efforts by some
well-placed persons who had taken an interest in my case, I was granted the
right to remain in Belgium. The Soviet commercial mission put Breslav and me
in charge of an export-import operation for agricultural machines and
produce. My material situation was immeasurably improved and we were able to
move to a larger apartment and even buy a car.
I had no time to think about my treasure, and I had really given up all
hopes of recovering it. Bulgaria was now communist and it would be all the
more dangerous for me to take risks there. And now that I had found
contentment with Maroussia, I had no desire to take up my former life of
Nevertheless, my love for my poor and hard-put country got me involved
once again. In spite of the terrible sacrifices the Russian people had
endured during the war, the USSR was the target of hate-filled propaganda.
Some people were seriously proposing that Bolshevism could be exterminated
because of Russia's weakness. I cared only for my people, who could not
endure another bloodlet-ting. I was obsessed by the thought that I could do
something to help, and finally I believed I had found a way. Since it was
chiefly Americans who were preaching a crusade against Russia, it was they
whom I had to influence.
I composed a stenographic record of an imaginary top-secret meeting in
the Kremlin attended by all the Russian military leaders and presided over
by Stalin. I managed to give it a certain authenticity because I had had
military training and because I had read every Soviet publication that came
into Belgium. The supposed occasion for the meeting was a threat to the
Soviet Union by its former allies, England and the United States. Stalin had
called his military advisers together to determine the capabilities and
preparedness of all units of the Soviet armed forces. The military men had
made their reports with absolute frankness, and they all exhibited the
greatest optimism. One of them had declared that the Soviet Union would have
its own atomic bomb within a year. (I was absolutely astonished when this
turned out to be true.) I thought the report sounded realistic and detailed,
and that any potential enemy, having seen it, would think twice before
attacking Russia. Now, I had to get it to the Americans.
My first thought was simply give it to them without asking for any
money, but I concluded that I would not be credible. They had to believe
that I was acting for a member of the Soviet consulate or embassy. So I
approached an inspector of the Belgian security police whom I had previously
met and told him that a Soviet diplomat who wished to defect had asked me to
be his intermediary. I explained that he had authorized me to make the offer
for him, because he knew there were Soviet agents in the American service
and he wanted to remain in Europe. I asked for a million Belgian francs,
half on delivery of the document and half a month later. This appeared to
convince the inspector, who returned a few days later with an affirmative
response from the Americans. He furnished me with a Russian alphabet
typewriter, and while Maroussia worked each day in the Office of
Repatriation, I typed out the "minutes." Finally I told the inspector to
inform the Americans that the document was ready for delivery. The next day
he informed me that someone would wait for me in a room in the Hotel des
Boulevards and give me the first five hundred thousand francs. I was then to
go to the Soviet consulate, pass the money on to the diplomat, and return to
the hotel with the document.
As I entered the hotel room, I could see a large bundle under the
bedspread. I had no way of carrying it except in my pockets, and I didn't
know how I was going to manage that since I already had the document in my
pocket and I was not going anywhere to pass the money on to anyone.
If I came back from the consulate with the money still on me, I would
be found out. And I would surely be followed when I left the hotel. I did
the only thing I could think of. I stuffed the money into my pockets and,
just as I got to the door, I pulled the document out, handed it to the
startled agent, and said, "I am going to pass the money on." He started to
say something, but I was already halfway down the stairs.
Outside the hotel, I took a taxi to the consulate, followed by two
When I arrived, I had the bad luck to run into the consul, Skobelov.
"There you are," he said. "I want to talk to you for a few minutes. Take off
your coat and come into my office." I couldn't refuse but I couldn't go in
there with my pockets bulging with all those bills. "Excuse me a moment," I
replied, "I have to have a few words with the secretary first. I'll be with
you in a couple of minutes."
As Skobelov started upstairs to his office, I went out the front door
onto the street. Pretending not to see the two cars that followed me, I
crossed the avenue and took a streetcar that stopped a few steps from my
home. I wrapped the money in oilcloth and buried it in the coal bin in the
Then I took the tram back to the hotel. The American agent was furious,
and demanded to know why I had rushed out of the hotel. I said the reason
was obvious. Clearly, he was not alone in the hotel and I was well aware
that they could easily have taken the money back once they had the paper. He
wanted to know why I had gone home after I left the consulate and I don't
remember exactly how I got around that. It was clear that he did not believe
me, but I felt it didn't make much difference. The only thing that mattered
was that they couldn't prove the document was counterfeit.
Though they had promised not to try to find out the name of the Soviet
diplomat who had sold the information, I was soon summoned by the Belgian
inspector, who had been the original intermediary, to meet some American
agents at the Hotel Metropole. They bombarded me with questions. I just kept
saying that I knew nothing more than I had already told them, and I kept
repeating that they had promised not to ask for the defector's name.
As we were talking, I heard a funny noise in the next room. I jumped up
and threw all my weight against the door that opened into the adjoining
room. This sent three inspectors of the Belgian security police, who had
been listening at the door, sprawling to the floor and made the American
agents furious. One called in two more colleagues. By this time, I had had
quite enough. I had my pistol in my pocket and was ready to use it if I had
to. I told them the affair was over and I did not wish to see any of them
again. Thank God, they let me go. If they had tried to stop me, I would have
shot them dead before they could have made a move and then I would have had
to take refuge with the Soviets and been sent back to Russia.
I did not know then that the Soviets knew all about my history in the
affair of the treasure.
Now I had quite, a bit of money, though the Americans, as I expected,
never paid me the second half. For some time my life went along without
incident. I put the money in a bank vault so as not to arouse the suspicions
of the Belgian police. After a few months I thought my income plus
Maroussia's salary would be enough to explain an improved standard of
living, so I bought a new car.
This peaceful situation was not to last, however. One evening we were
at a meeting at the Union of Soviet Patriots hall in Brussels. As it was
breaking up, Consul Skobelov rose to speak. "Comrades, I have some good
news. The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union has authorized
the return of one of our members -- Nicholas Svidine." I thought I must be
dreaming. Ma-roussia almost fainted. This was very mysterious and
frightening. I was not even a Soviet citizen and it was common knowledge
that I had been an officer in Wran-gel's army. I certainly had not requested
a passport. The audience applauded and everyone shook my hand. I accepted
their congratulations and said nothing.
After the meeting, Maroussia and I went to see Breslav, who was the
secretary-general of the union. He thought the whole thing was bizarre and
agreed to go see the consul the next day. When he came back, the told me the
consul demanded to see me personally. I asked him to accompany me.
When I arrived, the consul delivered the following speech: "We know
with absolute certainty that you were in Bulgaria with General Pokrovsky at
the time that he was killed by the Bulgarian police. We also know that he
was in possession of a fortune which, of course, he had stolen from the
Russian people. You are the only one who remains of his entourage and we
also know that you have;on occasion, sold large quantities of valuables and
diamonds. We regard this as proof that you have knowledge about the
treasure, and what remains of it. Besides this, we have the records of a
counterrevolutionary group in Germany that pursued you for two years, though
they failed to find you."
He was silent for a moment. I said nothing.
"Now you belong to the Union of Soviet Patriots. Since you have lived
abroad, you have committed no hostile act against your country, and you have
not been active in any of the White organizations. During the war your
behavior was absolutely correct. We are aware that you were harassed by the
Belgian police at the instigation of the White Russian emigres. Now,
however, it is your duty to give back to the Russian people what rightfully
belongs to them. It is for that reason that the Soviet Union invites you to
return. You will be paid back generously, and decorated. A few days from now
a Soviet ship will stop at Anvers and take you on board."
As I listened to all this, my first inclination was simply to refuse. I
hesitated. I thanked the consul for the goodwill of the Soviet government
and asked for a few days to think things over. Breslav, whose situation was
delicate, warned me to be very careful. Maroussia begged me to refuse. This
suggested a new tack.
The next day I went back to see the consul. I explained that I was
living with a Russian woman who was also a member of the Union of Soviet
Patriots. "You know, when I think of how she saved my life during the war, I
realize I could never leave her here by herself."
The consul made it plain that this put him in a difficult position with
his superiors. But after thinking it over for a few moments, he promised
that she would be permitted to follow me shortly. "I will not go without
her," I insisted.
For two months they left us alone. Finally, the consul summoned me.
Maroussia had been granted permission to return to the Soviet Union. I
thanked him and went straight to Breslav's. "Now," he admitted, "you are
really in a spot. If you refuse to go, you lose your job and will be
expelled from the union." I didn't care, I told him, and I reminded him that
even though he had left Russia before World War I, he didn't want to go
back. How much more so in my case. I had fought the Soviets for two years,
my whole family had served in the White Army, and everybody was dead. No
matter how you sliced it, the whole deal was unacceptable. I was not a
Soviet citizen, I had not requested citizenship. How dare they simply order
me to return? "You will have to so inform the consul," I concluded.
When Breslav returned, he told me that the consulate was in an uproar
and the consul himself wanted to see me. I agreed on the condition that we
meet in Breslav's home. That night, over dinner, Breslav asked me why I was
in such a state about going back to Russia. "But it's obvious," I told him.
"I'm afraid." He seemed unwilling to just accept that. He asked me why I was
afraid and told me I would be given a hero's reception. Even he did not seem
to understand why, after having lived all these years on my own, I would be
so resentful at being handed a fait accompli by a government I had no
relation to, and every reason to resent and distrust. Furthermore, I assured
him, after all these years, I was not sure I could find the treasure; it
might have been discovered and taken away (I was pretty sure this could not
be true, but I spoke with conviction). "How would the authorities react to
that? I would be a traitor, an officer of Wrangel's army, an enemv of the
people. It would mean Siberia."
The next day even Breslav advised me to refuse. If it had not been for
the money I had gotten from the Americans, I would have been desperate,
because I couldn't get a Belgian work permit. And now I had lost my job.
SO I BEGAN TO THINK about the treasure again. I had to have a good deal
of money to go after it again, and now I would have to obtain a new passport
under a different name, since the Soviets knew all about me. I also needed
at least two people to help me, and that too would cost money. I couldn't go
to anyone for backing. They would want to know who I was, and if they
breathed one word to the Belgian police, I would be arrested again as a
I had to make some money. Every morning Maroussia applied a yellow
liquid to her hair. When I asked her what it was, she told me that her
father, who was a doctor, had invented a way of restoring color to graying
hair. After a number of experiments, I was finally persuaded that it did
work. We planned to merchandise it, and I christened it Serebrine, from the
Russian word for silver. At first, we were refused permission to manufacture
and sell it in Belgium but after it was tested in government laboratories,
we got a license. We set about the task of introducing it to the market with
our extremely limited resources.
Our business went only moderately well. A bottle of Serebrine sold for
a hundred and thirty Belgian francs, and though sales were good, we didn't
gross enough to cover our costs. Advertising was very dear, and even though
we sold only for cash, our expenses ate up seventy-two percent of what we
took in. I had tried to raise capital from a number of sources, but some
were skeptical about the product and others had imposed unacceptable
conditions. It would be a pity to throw in the towel so soon. We had put up
a lot of money and effort into it, and we had never had a single complaint
from a customer. In fact, we had letters from all over the country
testifying to the product's effectiveness. We had no outstanding debts on
Serebrine, and if I had had a job, I could have liquidated the business, but
I could not get a work permit, and if the Belgian police were to discover
that I was unemployed, they would expel me from the country without a
I was so worried I could not sleep nights. This was the time of the war
between the People's Republic of China under Mao and Nationalist China under
Chiang Kai-shek. My sympathies were with Mao, who seemed to be the weaker.
The Americans were completely on Chiang's side and were pouring an enormous
amount of aid into his campaign. He was using their money for luxuries. I
decided to get hold of some of that money.
First of all, I studied everything I could find on what was going on in
China. I received some Soviet journals that were not very widely circulated
in the West. When I felt I knew enough to discuss the Chinese situation with
anyone, I called up the Chinese ambassador in Brussels. I told him I had
something important to communicate to his government and asked to see him as
soon as possible. The next day I went to the embassy and was received by the
ambassador, a man of infinite charm and refinement.
The plan I had devised to assist Mao -- like the document on the Soviet
meeting that I had furnished to the Americans -- has never been found out as
phony. I told him there was a Soviet headquarters organized to offer
assistance to Mao, located in Kharbin, a Russian city in Manchuria. From the
Soviet publications, I knew the names of the generals stationed in Siberia
and who among them had contacts with Mao. Because I was able to include many
of the real facts about the situation and the personnel in Manchuria, my
story rang true. My connection with the Union of Soviet Patriots was also
well known (only Breslav knew that I had been expelled) and I still went
regularly to the restaurant run by the union. It was generally believed that
I had been relieved of my duties in order to prepare for my departure to the
Soviet Union, or because I had received a new assignment.
The Chinese ambassador was enthusiastic about my offer to pass him
information about Russian aid to Mao. He cabled Marshal Chiang immediately,
and a few days later he informed me that my offer had been accepted. He
would pay me for any information I gave him on a scale running between two
hundred thousand and five hundred thousand Belgian francs. I accepted. For
the next three years I passed on all kinds of false information and was well
paid for it.
But eventually the arrangement came to an end. One night the ambassador
summoned me urgently. I was afraid I had been found out, but I could hardly
refuse to go. We met in a supper club in the city and the ambassador was
very nervous. Chiang had told him to obtain exact intelligence on the Red
strategy for the inevitable battle at the Yellow River. I had never before
been asked for such precise information; ordinarily, I furnished rather
general information about Soviet assistance and various projects. I told him
information would be hard to come by, that it would take at least two weeks,
and that I could not guarantee anything. For the next two weeks I pored over
all the news sources I could lay my hands on, and I stared at a map of China
that I kept in my apartment. Then I prepared a report and presented it to
the ambassador, pretending, as I always did, that I had got it from a Soviet
diplomat in Brussels who had connections in Moscow. Once again, my so-called
information turned out to be correct. Chiang's army was defeated and had to
withdraw to Formosa. A week later, the ambassador called me again, but I
decided to call this particular arrangement to a halt.
I furnished other such "interesting" information to a number of
embassies, including the Mexicans. One day as I was leaving their embassy,
carrying the cash I had just been paid for a "document," I was picked up by
two policemen and taken to a nearby station house. They confiscated the
money (though they gave me a receipt). The ambassador had his information
now, and evidently he wanted his money back. However, since we both posted a
claim on the money, neither of us could get it. Some time later, the
Mexicans threatened to denounce me to the Soviets unless I withdrew and
allowed them to recover their money. I did what they asked but they
denounced me anyhow.
I was obliged to tell the whole story to the counselor of the Soviet
embassy in Brussels. He scolded me for giving their counterintelligence
service such a bad name. I explained that after the Union of Soviet Patriots
had thrown me out I had no other way to make a living. He was understanding
but had no advice to offer. He was very flattering about the "document" I
had sold the Americans, although he said that any Soviet expert would have
known it was false right off the bat from some of the language. "Anyhow,
congratulations," he said. "It was a great job."
I don't want to name all the embassies to whom I sold information, but
there were many. My career in this line of work came to an end, however,
some time later in Switzerland. I had fallen ill in Vevay and couldn't pay
my hotel bill and, as a result, I was not thinking clearly. I wrote the
United States embassy in Berne offering them important information from the
Soviet Union. But I neglected to keep my fingerprints off the letter and
they checked them as a matter of course. When I telephoned the embassy to
follow up, I was told to go to a cafe near the federal capitol. There, I
would get a telephone call and be told the exact time and place for a
conference. I was suspicious, but I had no choice. When I arrived, the cafe
was empty except for two very engrossed couples and a lone man reading a
newspaper. It looked too well-staged, but I sat down at a table and ordered
a coffee. A few minutes later the telephone rang and the owner announced, "A
call for Monsieur Nicholas." I waited a moment before I got up and said,
"That's me." I hadn't taken three steps before all five of them had me
The man who had been reading the newspaper was a Swiss federal police
inspector named Muller. Very politely, he asked me to come along with him. I
told the police that the Americans had cheated me of some money a few years
back and that I was simply trying to get it back. They held me for about
three weeks and then Muller, again very politely, invited me to leave
So I returned to Brussels, where the sales of my homemade secret
documents had been providing me with the capital to finance the Serebrine
enterprise. Business was better and I was looking forward to future
prosperity. Unfortunately, just then I got myself into another tight spot.
While I was still on good terms with the Soviets, I had undertaken a project
for them in order to raise money for another expedition to Bulgaria. I had a
franchise to import typewriters from East Germany -- then the Soviet zone of
occupation -- and to sell them in Western Europe. I had to pay for shipping
and insurance and had to borrow over a million Belgian francs from four
different individuals; the business and financial arrangements were very
complicated. I was late in repaying my creditors.
Two of them, to whom I owed altogether six hundred thousand francs,
were getting impatient. To get them off my back, I paid them off, but I was
still in debt to the tune of another six hundred thousand francs. I was
looking for a way to raise the additional money.
To add to my troubles, the chief inspector of the Belgian security
police had it in for me. Somehow he learned that I owed P. two hundred
thousand francs, his investment in the German typewriter deal plus interest.
Once he found out, he persuaded P. that I had to be deported as a security
P. visited me. "Listen," he said, "this typewriter business is dragging
on too long. The money I loaned you isn't mine. It belongs to my uncle and
he is getting very nervous.
"What can I do? Why not bring him here and I'll explain things to him."
"That's okay but he won't believe you unless you show him something in
writing. You must have something official in writing."
"Nothing but the original letter from Berlin that you read."
"So what? Make something up. We'll show it to him and tear it up
"Okay, bring him around to your house tomorrow. But I must have your
word of honor that I can tear up the paper as soon as he leaves."
I went to the consulate and typed some notes about shipping and other
details on Soviet letterhead. The next day P. introduced me to his "uncle."
We had a drink and chatted about this and that. Then I brought up business.
I assured him that everything was going well but that if he wanted to
withdraw his investment, I would repay him the following week. As I said
this, I took out the letter and handed it to him. He read it carefully and
then folded it and calmly put it in his pocket. "What are you doing?" I
said. "Why are you taking my letter?"
"Because it is a forgery and I am placing you under arrest," he said,
pulling out his police badge. I was convicted and put in prison.
Needless to say, the Serebrine company foundered. Maroussia could not
keep it going alone, and when I was released, I was issued a travel permit
and ordered to leave Belgium. It was clear that I would never obtain the
legal right to settle anywhere with such a document. My only choices were to
get a passport of some kind or give up, and I was not ready to give up. I
bought myself a good passport and with it I operated in several European
countries as a clandestine export-import liaison between Western and Eastern
Europe. Naturally, this was entirely extralegal, and I was often assumed to
be a Russian spy. At one point, an official of the Ministry of the Interior
refused to issue me a permit to settle in France because I had not paid any
taxes. But how could I pay taxes when my official identity was false?
For four months I did manage to live legally in Paris but it meant
going to the police headquarters constantly to get my permit renewed, and
the official from the Ministry of the Interior hounded me incessantly.
Finally, I was assigned to live in Rennes, in Brittany. Rennes is a charming
city, but I looked everywhere for a job, and after two months I had to face
up to the fact that there was nothing there I could do. I had to get
someplace else. To lead the kind of clandestine life I did, you have to have
at least three passports. It's very tricky. I was arrested once in Nice for
using a false name and not having a residence permit and sent to prison in
Aix-en-Provence. Because I was a middle-aged man, I was assigned to the
infirmary and there I made a new and extraordinary acquaintance. For
whatever reason, a man presented himself at the prison one fine day and
simply said, "I am Paul Leca. I want to give myself up." I had been
immediately impressed with the deference with which both guards and
prisoners treated him. It turned out that Paul Leca was a famous gangster,
who had been involved in a theft of some of Begum Aga Khan's jewels. He had
subsequently disappeared in South America for a while. His return was
signaled by a series of gangland murders in Corsica and southern France.
Various inconvenient witnesses were being eliminated one by one. He was a
fascinating person and we spent a lot of time chatting about his adventures.
Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to get to know him better. The
court of appeals upheld my sentence and I was transferred to Les Baumettes
to finish out my term.
I brought a case of sausages from Leca to some of his friends there,
and because I was known as a friend of his, I was once again put in the
infirmary, a relatively comfortable spot.
Two years after that, I received a letter from Leca. He was out of
prison and wanted to get together. He invited me to come to Nice, in the
south of France, where he owned a restaurant. I was vacationing in Alassio
in Italy and I wrote him that I preferred to meet there, since I was trying
to steer clear of places where the police were likely to be on the lookout.
He arrived after a few days and we had a splendid reunion. Leca made me
several propositions, any of which would have bought me all the residence
and work permits I could use, if I had simply accepted and then gone to the
police. But I assured him I would do no such thing, thanked him for his
friendship, and declined.
About this time I got interested in the tierce, which is a form of
racetrack gambling very popular in France. I had come to the conclusion that
it is possible to win quite a bit of money if one played the tierce
systematically. Of course, it is necessary to place substantial bets. I
figured out a system that has worked out quite well over the years, and I
managed to win between sixty and one hundred thousand francs a year. But it
is hard work. So that's the way I lived, betting and moving around. But I
also met the last woman in my life. We have been together for almost eleven
years and, even in the hardest times, she has never let me down.
I DIDN'T THINK MUCH about the treasure then for a long time. But every
so often the thought would come to me that if I died it would be gone
forever. I finally decided that I had to do something about it, even if I
couldn't find anybody to help. I finally wrote to the Bulgarian ambassador
in Paris, telling him what was involved and offering to share what was left
with the Bulgarian Government. He wrote back to say that he had forwarded my
letter to Sofia. When I telephoned the ambassador a month later, he asked me
to come to the embassy. I preferred to meet at a cafe nearby. He indicated
that his government was inclined to accept, but wanted to know my
conditions. I told him I would offer a proposal shortly.
My plan involved a friend in Paris who was a former member of the
National Assembly. I approached him with it. The two of us would go to
Bulgaria together, posing as simple tourists, during which time I would show
him the first hiding place. At our ages, it would be physically impossible
for us to actually dig it up. When we were back in Paris, I would inform the
Bulgarians that my friend could conduct them to the first hiding place, but
that he did not know any of the others. Whatever they recovered was to be
transported to the French consulate, where it would be appraised by a
Parisian expert whom I would send. My half of the treasure would be given to
my friend to give to me.
The Frenchman and I agreed, but when I laid it out to the Bulgarians, I
saw at a glance that it was unworkable. It was clear to me that they would
immediately alert the Russians, who would claim the treasure as their
rightful property. The plan had been impractical, but at least I was sure
that the treasure was not in any immediate danger. Before I did anything
more about it, however, I decided that I ought to go to Bulgaria to make
sure that the hiding places were still intact. But it was a long time before
I was able to make the voyage, only a few years ago. And that trip was a
series of adventures.
I thought I might try to enter Bulgaria from Greece, where I had a
friend who had been a fellow officer during the Civil War. Somehow, I had
never been able to accept his invitations to visit him and his Greek wife.
Now I went there to see them to tell him my plan. He said I had come to the
right man. He could help. All I needed was a small solid boat and a reliable
crew. He knew a captain who smuggled, but who was a man of his word and a
good sailor. He arranged for us to meet. We went down into the old section
of the city near the port and were admitted into a whitewashed stone
building by an old woman. The captain was there, a giant of a man with a
magnificent black beard and incredibly large hands and arms. My friend
explained: I had to land in Bulgaria, stay there for about three days, and
then go to an Italian port. The captain agreed to take me, and set a
reasonable price. I was to take a regular ferry to the island where he kept
I had no trouble finding his boat in the little port. It looked like an
ordinary fishing boat, with a sail and a motor, about twenty yards long. The
captain was in the interior of the island on business. While I waited for
him, I stayed at his house, which was luxurious and exquisitely furnished
with Oriental rugs. He threw a party for me the evening he returned, with
members of his crew and a small orchestra. Greek wine and the local cognac
flowed like water and a whole lamb was cooked on a grill.
Two days later we set out. I had paid for my trip in dollars and the
captain had said that he was going to purchase Bulgarian tobacco while we
were there. He promised me that he would not sell it illegally until after
he had landed me at an Italian port. We left the island about 4 P.M. As we
came close to the entrance to the Dardanelles toward evening, the captain
told me that a storm was brewing and that he would have to put in at a small
port on one of the islands. We didn't make it, however. The waves grew huge
and the wind howled. The boat pitched so deeply that I thought it would turn
over. I was certain we would sink. I lav on my bed, since I could not stand
without cracking my head against the walls of my cabin. The storm raged
until 3 A.M. and then began to calm down. About 5 A.M., as dawn was
breaking, I looked outside the cabin. I could hear the captain's voice just
outside my door. When I opened it, there he was, and I have never been so
happy to see anyone in my life. He smiled at me through his magnificent
beard. "So, you are still alive."
He had not been able to reach any of the islands, of course. And, in
fact, for the moment we had had to stay as far from land as possible so as
not to be driven onto the beach. There was some damage to the boat but
nothing serious. It could be repaired in a few days and then we would
continue on our way. Eventually, we stopped at a small village on one of the
islands, where I spent a very pleasant two days. Then we went to
Constantinople, where we purchased fuel and provisions. The next day we
pushed on and soon we had entered the Black Sea, which I have always been in
But before we got to Bulgaria, the captain came to my cabin. "I don't
know why you are going to Bulgaria," he said, "and I don't care. All I ask
is that you do nothing to cause trouble between me and these people. As far
as I'm concerned, you are a tourist on a pleasure cruise. And you know
nothing about my business. Right?" I assured him that he had nothing to
worry about. "I have come to check on some personal business," I said.
"That's all." It was the truth.
Before I even thought seriously about trying to recover the treasure, I
had to make sure it was still there. I had no doubts that it was, but I
wanted to find out whether the terrain had altered. Perhaps the woods had
been cut down, or somebody might have built on the site. We landed, and
after the usual formalities, the captain headed for Plovdiv, the center of
the tobacco market. He gave me three days' leave before I had to be back at
Disembarking was easy. The customs officials were very friendly. The
city had changed tremendously since I had been there last and I did not
recognize many of the streets. I strolled around all that day, and set out
on my expedition toward evening. I was wearing old clothes so as to melt
easily into the general population.
By daybreak I had reached the first hiding place. It was undisturbed.
By late afternoon I had found the other three spots. They too were
untouched. All this had taken longer than I had planned and I was physically
exhausted as well. Since I couldn't leave until it was completely dark, I
stretched out to catch a nap. I must have been asleep for about three hours
when I was awakened bv voices nearby. Two men were talking and were
evidently awaiting a third person. They may have been bandits. In any case,
I was afraid to move even an inch because the noise of the dry leaves would
have given me away.
I drew my pistol slowly. My back and legs were aching. I didn't know
whether they were armed. This went on for about two hours, and then I heard
a dog barking. The Bulgarians called out. It must have been their friend
with his dog. The damn dog would certainly discover me. In a few minutes,
the dog had picked up my scent. He began to bark and growl. At first the men
must have thought he had found some animal. He was right on top of me and I
was sure he was about to go for my throat, when I shot him in the snout,
leaped up with my gun drawn, and ordered them to hold their hands up. I had
taken them completely by surprise. To my relief I could see they were not
armed, though each carried a big club. I told them to throw their clubs
down. They realized immediately from my accent that I was Russian. All to
the good. It made them all the more careful. I asked them what they were
doing there. They told me some cock-and-bull story about looking for a lost
dog. I said that was nonsense and that they could be shot as thieves. "Get
out of here, fast," I said, and they set out running.
By about 5 A.M. I was almost back at the port. I lay down in a small
woods nearby for about an hour and then went back on board. Once back in my
cabin, I slept for fourteen hours, almost till midnight. I had some supper
and spent the rest of the night reading. Early the next morning, I heard the
captain come back aboard and went out to greet him. "We will leave
tomorrow," he said. "I haven't been able to do any business but I hope your
affairs went well."
As we entered the Aegean the captain asked whether it was all right
with me if we changed course. "It will add two or three days to the trip,"
he said, "but you will see islands most tourists have never seen." I had
nothing bet ter to do and it seemed like a delightful prospect. That night I
went to sleep peacefully.
About i A.M. I was awakened by shouting and screaming on the deck. I
could hear people running around and falling down. I ran up to see what was
going on. I couldn't believe my eyes. There were about twenty men attacking
our crew. The captain was fighting like a madman, with his back up against
the mast. I saw him pick a man up and heave him into the sea. Then someone
hit me over the head.
When I came to, I had a fierce pain in the back of my neck and I
couldn't move. My hands were tied behind my back and there were irons on my
ankles. And I was thirsty as the very devil, my mouth so dry I couldn't even
call out. I had a fantasy that I had fallen into the hands of men who knew
about the treasure and were going to torture me to find out the secret.
I was in a dark room and on land. I couldn't hear a sound, and I could
barely make out my surroundings. Then I lost consciousness again. When I
awoke the next time I was astonished to find myself in a well-lighted room,
lying on a clean bed. Just as I was getting ready to call for help and ask
for something to drink, a young man came into the room with two pitchers,
one of cold water and the other of white wine. He spoke to me in Greek,
which I could not understand. Nor could he comprehend any of the languages I
tried out on him. Then he began to count with his fingers. When he saw that
I still did not understand, he lowered the lamp and raised it again, holding
up seven fingers. I understood that he was telling me that I would have to
wait until seven o'clock. He was not wearing a watch but when I pointed to
his wrist, he held up his fingers to indicate that it was 11 A.M. I pointed
to the wound on my head and groaned. He left and came back after a few
minutes with an old, toothless crone dressed all in black. When she saw my
wound, she began to scold the young man. Then they both left. I thought I
wouldn't see them again.
After a half hour they returned. She was carrying a bowl of hot water
and a big wad of absorbent cotton. He had some cold meat, goat cheese, and
bread and fruit. The woman gestured for me to turn over. Then she washed my
wound with water and bathed it with an evil-smelling liquid which, to my
surprise, eased the pain. Then she set a plate full of food in front of me.
They both wished me kalispera, "good night," and left.
My appetite had come back and I ate heartily. I was still trying to
understand what in the world was going on. At last, even in my state, I
dismissed the idea that it had anything to do with the treasure. The only
person in Greece who knew anything about it was my Russian friend, whom I
trusted absolutely. I decided to put it out of my mind and try to get some
When I woke up the next morning, two men were standing over me, staring
at me with curiosity but with no apparent hostility. "Good morning," one of
them said in fairlv good French. "How did you sleep?"
"How could I sleep well when here I am kidnapped and tied without
knowing why? What's going on?"
The one who spoke French translated for his companion, who was clearly
his superior. They were both well dressed in European style. The more
important man wore an expensive suit and a gold watch. He wanted to know who
I was, what I had been doing on the boat, and how long and how well I knew
the captain. I asked if they were from the police and they answered, "We are
as far from the police as the moon is from the earth."
They were gangsters. The captain and I had agreed on what my story
should be if anyone wanted to know what I was doing on board his boat. So I
told them that I was a former officer of the Russian White Army and that
therefore I couldn't safely enter any communist countries. But I had had my
heart set on going to Bulgaria to see my only sister, who had married a
Bulgarian. This seemed to satisfy them. I hoped the captain had stuck to our
They wanted to know if I knew why the captain went back and forth to
Bulgaria. I said I didn't and that if they knew the captain, they also knew
that he was not the kind of man one questioned too closely. Without another
word they turned to leave, and the interpreter said, "Monsieur is satisfied
with your answers. You will learn his decision this evening."
I looked out through the barred window. The building was about two
hundred yards from the sea and in the distance I could see a tiny island. I
was almost certainly on one of those tiny islands in the Sporades and
therefore far from any of the main routes. The time passed slowly as I
waited to learn what "Monsieur" had decided. It was quite late when the
interpreter finally returned. He handed me an envelope.
"Monsieur regrets," he said, "that you have been so badly treated. Here
is a thousand dollars. He wants you to accept it to make up for the unjust
treatment you have received. Tomorrow, a doctor will come to take care of
you. In the meanwhile, the old woman who took care of you last night will
look after you. In a couple of days you can leave here with the captain,
provided he agrees to make retribution for the harm he has done us. If he
refuses, we will take you to any port that you choose. There is only one
condition: you must swear to tell no one what has happened. It is to your
advantage to accept this condition, because the police are after both the
captain and us and I promise you they will give you nothing but trouble if
they find out about all this."
I swore I would speak to no one. Immediately after-ward, the old woman
and the young man came with fresh bandages and food. They also had a large
jug of cool white wine. The old lady was so gentle with me that after she
had cleaned my wound, I kissed her on both cheeks. She placed her hand
softly on my head and said something that I would have given anything to
understand. When they left, I ate, then drank the whole jug of wine and
threw myself on the bed quite drunk. The next morning the young man woke me
and escorted me to another building. It had the same plain exterior but was
very luxurious inside. He took me to a bathroom, where I was overjoyed to
find my baggage, my papers and my books. I shaved, bathed, and changed my
When I came out, he was waiting for me. "In a few days," he said, "you
will be far from here, and I believe your friend the captain will be the one
to take you. He is being quite reasonable and there is peace between us
now." I was delighted. He led me into a drawing room, beautifully furnished
in the Middle Eastern style, and offered me some strong Turkish coffee. Just
then a small man, also dressed in the European style, appeared in the
doorway and announced in perfect German that he was a doctor. He examined my
wound and pronounced it not serious. The swelling was already going down. He
reban-daged it, and advised me to keep it covered for three days and after
that to let nature take its course.
These gangsters were treating me so graciously that I was beginning to
feel at home. I was almost ready to forgive them for my injury and the
brutal way they had treated me. It must be a matter of two rival gangs
involved in the same illicit traffic. All I hoped was that my part in their
adventures would soon be over.
I saw the captain again about noon. The door opened suddenly and there
he was -- covered with bruises and almost his entire head in bandages. He
threw his arms around me and kissed me on both cheeks. "My friend," he said,
"I am so glad to see you. I hope you are feeling better. Forgive me for this
frightful experience. I had no idea. One day they will pay for it. Someone --
it had to be someone in my crew -- betrayed me. I'll find out who it was and
then he had better watch out."
The young man came to lead us to another room, where we were served an
excellent lunch. The captain told me that he had lost two men. The cook had
been killed and a sailor had been fatally wounded. The attackers had also
had two killed, both by the captain himself. The boat had suffered some
damage but would be able to embark in a couple of days. I thought it best
not to ask what had been the cause of the trouble. Once before, I had asked
him what I had imagined was a harmless question and he had changed from a
friendly companion into a cold, terrifying stranger.
That evening, the chief, who was leaving the next day, gave a banquet
to celebrate his reconciliation with the captain. We ate bounteously and
drank gallons of wine until four o'clock in the morning. Everybody got
drunk, including me. The men drew their pistols and started firing into the
ceiling. At the end the chief brought two pretty dancers who had entertained
during the evening to the captain and me. Unfortunately, I was so drunk that
I fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed.
That afternoon the captain and I walked around the island. I tried to
find out where we might be by referring to Lemnos. He pretended not to
understand. Honor among thieves. He would not betray his own enemies.
The next day, the captain was as anxious as I to leave. Since there was
no wind, he started up the engine, and soon we were far from the island. The
two missing crew members had somehow been replaced. The captain was in a bad
mood. and I understood he was brooding about the traitor who had given away
his course and the enormous sum he must have had to pay to ransom himself,
his crew and his boat.
He got his revenge on the traitor that night. After dinner we were
playing checkers when he announced suddenly that he was going to retire. I
was exhausted and only too willing. I fell asleep immediately, and was
awakened by such terrible and bloodcurdling screams that I covered my ears.
I was sure the captain was extracting a confession from the suspect.
The next morning he asked me if I had slept well. answered, "Never
better." But about noon I noticed that the old helmsman was missing. The
captain himself was at the rudder. Three days later he let me off at the
same port| from which I had embarked, and before I left he gave me back the
money I had paid him. "You were almost killed and it was all my fault," he
said. "Take this money and don't give me any argument. Just keep all this to
When I saw my old Russian friend again, I had to tell him all about my
trip. He was terribly upset that he had put me in such danger. "Not at all,"
I told him. "I had to see if it was still there."
I spent a week with him and his wife, and though they wanted me to stay
longer I decided I had to get away from Greece. I wanted to go home. All
that was left for me now was to dream about the treasure of the White Army
buried in an obscure Bulgarian forest.
Only I know where.
11. The Treasure Stays Where It Was
Популярность: 10, Last-modified: Sat, 09 Mar 2002 08:34:21 GMT