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Гражданская Война 1917, сводный линклист - - Nicholas Svindine. The treasure of the white army

История >> Мемуары и жизнеописания >> Гражданская война >> Гражданская Война 1917, сводный линклист
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Nicholas Svindine. The treasure of the white army


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

Wrangel's army.


Publisher's Note

     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.
I. Officer of the Czar
1. Siberian Spring

     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 vacations.

     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 snow.

     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, junkers.

     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.
2. First Feat of Arms

     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 administrative districts).

     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 to bits.

     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 sending you."

     "But Colonel, I shall never return. You saw what the soldiers did to me."

     "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 fever.

     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 compartment.

     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 try."

     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.


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