This is Part 3 of Great Uncle Frank’s WW1 memoir. It is 1917 and the Russian Revolution is about to break out. Once again Frank and his father find themselves at the centre of a great conflagration as Russia descends into revolution and anarchy.
In 1914 Frank Calleja and his father left their home in Constantinople to stay with his uncle in Bucharest in Romania fully expecting the war to all be over within a matter of months. Two years later and with the Germans advancing on the Romanian capital, they found themselves once again fleeing from conflict as they made their way to Russia (see Part 1). After several months of settled life in the beautiful city of Odessa things suddenly started to change (Part 2). In this third and final part Frank begins with an account of the assassination of the monk Rasputin as one of the precursors of the Russian revolution. He then sketches out some of the key political events that followed before describing how life changed for the ordinary citizens and refugees like himself in the ensuing chaos.
Frank does not provide much in the way of dates in this part of his memoir, so I have included additional notes and references in […] and italics around key events. It broadly covers the beginning of 1917 to the spring of 1918 but the memoir concludes quite abruptly and before the end of the war.
Part 3: Revolution by Frank X Calleja
First there was the assassination of the monk Rasputin by the Prince Yussopoff [sic. Yusopov]; this illiterate monk, so they say, had such a malevolent influence that he had completely subjugated the whole royal family and a large number of noblewomen. It is alleged that the German agents in Russia would take advantage of this monk and his influence for their own ends. Be that as it may, the young court nobles and the officers, whose wives were completely under the influence of this adventurer, decided to put an end to this state of affairs.
The lot fell on the young prince Yussopoff, who not knowing Rasputin personally very well, thought first to make a friend of him in order to gain his confidence and draw him more easily into the trap that he was preparing for later. He therefore paid him a few visits, which Rasputin returned to Yussopoff’s palace on the banks of the Neva. Reserved at the beginning and even suspicious he [Rasputin] was eventually conquered by the amiability and charm of the young prince Yussopoff.
On the day decided by the prince and his acolytes for carrying out their project [30 December 1916], Rasputin was invited to spend the evening at Yussopoff’s palace. The prince received him alone, his friends remaining hidden upstairs awaiting Yussopoff’s signal telling them that it was all over; all the while entertaining Rasputin pouring him little glasses of wine and offering him cakes laced with cyanide. The alcohol had started to work on the monk, but not the poison, which seemed to have no effect on him. Rasputin got up suddenly and in a faltering walk went to admire the numerous objets d’art that littered the young prince’s apartment. That was when Yussopoff losing patience, got out his revolver and fired it at Rasputin several times. The monk collapsed without even making a sound.
His body was thrown into the Neva [sic. River Nevka] amongst the enormous lumps of ice that were starting to form. It was retrieved some days later and incinerated on the riverbank, to the great joy of all. The distress of the royal family, above all of the Tsarina,was indescribable, who saw in this assassination the “Mane, Thecel, Pharès” and the collapse of all her hopes.
[The reference above comes from the King James Bible, Daniel 5:25-28 – “And this is the writing that was written, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. This is the interpretation of the thing: Mene; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. Tekel; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. Peres; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians”].
A detail on the ineffectiveness of the cyanide, was that the wine served to Rasputin was sweet and the sugar, so to speak, was an antidote: as explained in the Petrograd press which I can’t confirm not being a chemist myself.
Immediately after the assassination of Rasputin, the events pushed on: first there was the abdication of the Tsar [2 March 1917]; the establishment of the [Russian] Provisional Government of Kerensky, [Alexander Kerensky, leader of the Menshevik or Minimalist Party]; its fall and the takeover by the Maximalists or Bolsheviks whose leader was Lenin aided by Trotsky; Lunaciarsky, Tchitchernine and others. [The Bolsheviks seized power following the October Revolution in 1917].
The general armistice that followed the takeover by the Bolshevists [Reds] freed all the criminals who dispersed themselves in the towns terrorising the populations.
The immensity of the Russian territory rendered the task of central government, which had established itself in Petrograd, very difficult. The whole Tsarist administration suddenly collapsed, causing disorder, chaos, armed robberies everywhere. The freed prisoners were joined by this rabble who, in all countries, appear at times of revolution coming from who knows where.
The local councils of the principal towns and villages governed by the Soviets, were powerless to maintain order, being at the mercy of all these louts. No more authority: no more police: assassinations, thefts and acts of banditry multiplied. In the streets in broad daylight, passers by were assailed and stripped of their possessions, even of their clothes.
One day I saw, towards midday in the middle of the Rue de Ribas, a woman whose beautiful fur coat had been forcibly removed by a bandit. He also wanted her shoes, so she told him to get down and take the trouble to unlace them himself. He knelt down and started to undo the laces, while she leaned back against a shop window, pulled a revolver from her corsage and shot her assailant. She quietly took back her fur coat and went. These various events became more and more frequent each day.
[Ed. See also Alexander Albov chapters 11, scenario 3, p.62 which recounts similar scenarios including visiting a friend only to find him stripped down to his underwear by bandits. Workers demonstrations and strikes reduced output and freight trains were being redeployed for troop movements across Russia which stopped food and clothing supplies reaching Odessa leading to major shortages]!
This horror soon added itself to the political horror. The prisons emptied by the armistice were filled afresh by a crowd of innocents whose only crime was to belong to the nobility, the clergy and to the upper middle class. The branches of the detested Tchèka [Cheka – the Bolshevik secret police established early 1918] were established all over the place. A huge building in the Rue de Richelieu had been taken by their terrorist organisation; the cellars of this building which were vast, served as a temporary prison where all the people arrested during the day were thrown Pell Mell; they didn’t stay there for long, and that’s why I intentionally used the word “temporary”. When night fell the motors of old lorries in the courtyard were started up and left to run; their backfiring camouflaging the noise of gunshots in the cellars. This, according to certain reliable testimonies, happened each evening. One of the superintendents on duty, after a good meal, tipsy on wine and a good dose of cocaine, went down into the cellar and brought out one by one the unfortunates who were locked up there. He shot a good number of them with a revolver and then, revolted by his horrible sport, he cried out “dovol’no” Enough! and went back upstairs to sleep off his wine, to start again the next day.
And so, the systematic rule of terror by which the new regime tried and succeeded in prevailing, established itself all over Russia.
The peace restored at Brest-Litowsk returned liberty to millions of soldiers who came to augment the numbers of unemployed and revolutionaries. Sailors, soldiers, criminals, working class Communards and even, revolutionary women, all wearing the red cockade, and armed to the teeth, made the law anew! Above all in the south, where I found myself, the central government of Petrograd [St Petersburg] couldn’t assert control, lacked security and had no authority for the protection of the individual who were at the mercy of the first who comes along, because of its remote location.
[Wikipedia – Trotsky wanted to concentrate Russian resources on the revolution, not on fighting with Germany so the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3, 1918, between the new Bolshevik government of Russia and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire). It ended Russia’s participation in World War I but at an enormous cost. Russia lost half its European territory, huge tracts of agricultural land, 80% of its coal mines and 50% of its industries which were carved up by the Central powers. It was seen as a massive betrayal by many and contributed to the outbreak of civil war between the Whites and the Reds].
The nocturnal attacks on private houses by the revolutionary gangs, and the total absence of protection, obliged the population itself to form a type of civil guard. In Odessa in the residential quarters of the town, there were no private houses or villas but large apartment blocks were everywhere which could contain some 50 families. Each building could therefore furnish 30 men, young and strong, who, in case of attack could defend the women and children. A commissionaire elected in each building, assigned a role and responsibilities to each person and the rota for being on guard during the night. It had been decided at the beginning that if a house was attacked, the “civil guard” of the neighbouring building must go to the aid of the house in question. This was simple in theory, but in practice all these decisions meant nothing. We didn’t have weapons and we couldn’t see how we would be able to defend ourselves against drunken, armed gangs.
In these extremely distressing circumstances that I was going through with my Russian friends, the fact that I was a foreigner didn’t really count and I accepted at the beginning that I would join the civic guard.
Having decided however that the civic guard of each building must go to the help of besieged neighbours made me think. It was normal for me to be in solidarity with the families I lived with, but I didn’t see the necessity of risking my life in adventures which would certainly end badly. The British Consulate being still at Odessa I went to ask advice on the code of conduct. The Consul shared my opinion and entreated me not to take unnecessary risks. The other inhabitants of my building gave me leave to raise the question, being themselves of the opinion that we should just look after our own.
At night, the task of mounting the guard fell to roughly 20 of us young men. We kept watch in twos or threes, never alone and each had a role. That winter was excessively hard, with a Siberian cold of 25 degrees below freezing, especially when I had to take my turn from midnight until 3 am or from 3 am until 6. It was just tolerable when I took my place under the great entry porch from 9 in the evening. Apart from the lack of sleep, the intense cold, anxiety also prevailed amongst us as to what might happen to us if we were attacked. Ears pricked, the slightest sound alarmed us. The rue Tiraspolskaya where our apartments were, was occupied by the firebrand Bolsheviks on one side and on the other by the Ukrainian troops who were rebelling: our building was virtually on the frontier and day and night there was the sound of gunfire and grenades exploding. One night, when I was on guard, towards 2 in the morning, the sound of crossfire detonated suddenly on an enormous barricaded doorway. My two comrades, opening the peephole to see what was happening [outside] found themselves confronted by two or three Bolsheviks, all completely drunk, one of them a woman, their guns slung across [their bodies], grenades in their hands. In a menacing tone they told us that we had fired on them from the top of our building. My comrades did their best to calm them down and persuade them to come back in the morning. The fact that they were drunk and not in possession of all their faculties could have posed a real danger. However by sheer good luck the opposite happened. They went off with a torrent of abuse promising to come back the next day. In the event the next morning, as the porter Vassili unbarricaded the door we saw 4 or 5 revolutionary sailors enter, revolvers in hand. They lined up all us men in the main courtyard, arms above our heads and kept threatening us with their guns. Two sailors accompanied the Commissaire of the building and led him to the top floor, where there was a penthouse which faced the street. Being sober they could examine the windows, all covered in dust and cobwebs and which confirmed that one couldn’t have fired on them from there. For us below, it was the “Rabelaisian quarter hour” [Ed. a well-known french expression referring to the hour of reckoning] waiting for the moment when they came down again and gave us our freedom.
For the few foreigners still in Odessa, the soviets had distributed information to be posted on their doors; these stated that those named were foreign, of such and such nationality, and that he the titular must not be persecuted or molested etc etc. I had one of these notices on my bedroom door but it was pure chance that I was never bothered. What protection could come from such a notice against a band of revolutionaries, for the most part illiterate and almost always drunk.
The situation in Odessa was further aggravated by the insurrection of the Ukrainians who didn’t want to submit to the new regime, taking arms against the soviets to defend their independence. It was the civil war, which didn’t last long. The working class areas of Peressip and of the Moldovanka were in the hands of the communists: the Ukrainians occupied the rest of the town. We lived in uncertainty and fear until the day where the Ukrainians would be forced to put down their arms and submit to their opponents. There were still here and there, several kernels of resistance, which the communists ended up getting the better of.
As if the situation wasn’t already bad enough, the Romanian communist party also wanted to have their “little page of history”. Rakowsky [Khristian Rakovsky 1873-1941] a lawyer of Bulgarian origin, subsequently naturalised as a Romanian and leader of the communist party, knowing that there were thousands of refugees in Odessa come to establish themselves in the south of Russia because of the chaotic situation in Jassy [Iasi], asked Lenin for permission to have his own revolution, which Lenin agreed to.
Rakowsky and his bands of “sans Culottes” began to persecute their own citizens. These, as you might think, almost all belonged to the cream of Romanian society. Among them were the old senator, Jorgulescu and his family who I mentioned above. At the Hotel Metropol where they lived, were also a good number of their friends.
[Rakovsky’s attempt at a coup in Romania was organised around December 1917. It failed but around the same time Rakovsky became leader of the Bolshevik administrative body called the Rumcherod in Odessa. It is believed these persecutions were reprisals on Romanian nationals in Odessa. Ref. Wikipedia].
Rakowsky had already started his demonstration in the streets of the town; followed by his band of fanatics carrying enormous placards with the usual threats in revolutionary times of “Death to the Nobility! To the gallows for the Bourgeoisie” etc
My poor friends no longer left their houses; they were living in terror under the threat of imminent arrest. One evening where, as usual I went to keep them company and to take them the day’s news, I found on the landing outside their rooms, Madame Jorgulescu and her two daughters waiting for me with tears in their eyes, in the grip of an indescribable panic. In a few words some rumours confirmed by the events that followed during the night, had circulated among the refugees on the subject of Rakowsky’s intention to carry out his threats and arrest a good many Romanian citizens from the Elite. They begged me to take the old Senator with me, who in the meantime had come to rejoin his family on the hotel landing. Two other people that I didn’t know, one the President of the Chamber of Deputies, another a member of the Supreme Court of Appeal, came to add their pleas to those of their friends.
What could I do? Refuse? And abandon to their fate these defenceless people? Agree to lodge them at my house for the night, knowing full well what I risked and the risk I took for my father and the family I was lodging with if we were discovered? In these times of danger and revolution, it wasn’t easy to make a decision. After mature reflection, and seeing the despair in the hearts of these unfortunates, I said to myself: “Too bad, I must do what I must do, come what may”. Today, after more than 50 years, I think with terror of what could have happened to us if we had been followed.
I came to an agreement with my friends to meet up opposite the hotel along the wall of the cathedral, which at that late hour was plunged into darkness. I left first advising the three Romanians to each leave the hotel at 10 minute intervals, in order to avoid arousing the suspicion of two communist workers who were guarding the hotel door.
I left the hotel without incident. In those days, when it wasn’t prudent to appear bourgeois I dressed somewhat like a Proletariat. Hat askew and unshaven, I passed between the two guards who stared at me without saying a word and let me pass. I headed towards the cathedral and there under a porch I waited patiently for my friends. They didn’t take long to join me; they had also been able to leave without much difficulty: we set off and headed for the Tiraspolskaya where I lived and which was only quarter of an hour from the cathedral. The old senator held my arm and the other two followed closely behind. From time to time we discretely looked back in order to see if we were being followed. On the way I thought with anxiety of the reception that awaited us. During these terrible times, the great entrances of the apartment blocks closed very early and all the comings and goings of the occupants were strictly controlled by the doorman of the building, who being a Worker, looked through the peephole to assure himself of the identity of visitors.
I arrived at our destination, followed by my three Romanians, I rang and saw through the little peephole the honest face of our old doorman, Vassili. He recognised me and on being told that my companions were old friends, he let us in without any difficulty. It wouldn’t have been the same if his son, Victor, had been there: staunch communist and member of the local council, he would’ve bombarded us with so many questions which I would not have been able to answer.
I took my companions to the little bedroom that my father and I occupied. My father, to whom I had explained the situation, and who in fact already knew Senator Jorgulescu very well, made the best of the situation and accepted the disagreeable prospect of spending the night in a chair. We shared our supper with our guests who struggled to hide their anxiety on the subject of their respective families still at the hotel. I myself was tormented by the idea that old Vassili, seeing that our old friends hadn’t left again despite the late hour, would come to see what was going on. Nothing happened: we chatted quietly, the day’s events being the subject of our conversation: Going over what happened, then helped by the emotion and the fatigue, we slept in our chairs: an uncomfortable sleep, interrupted from time to time by the desire to smoke a cigarette. Five smokers in such a small room finally made the atmosphere unbearable. Half asleep we regarded each other as though through a fog. At last the dawn began to show up; I opened my window and the gust of cold air that rushed into the little room made a shot in the arm for us all which put an end to our torpor. My Romanian friends, impatient to know what had happened in their little hotel during the night, wanted to get off. I advised them to wait until the big gate was opened by Vassili, which would make their leaving less noticeable and wouldn’t have provoked suspicion. At the right time, they left us one at a time, not without acknowledging our hospitality.
A few days later, when I went to see them it was confirmed that the notorious Rakowsky and his band had indeed passed by the hotel the night they stayed with me. He arrested a number of people, including one or two old Generals who hadn’t had the luck to find someone who could put them up. They were apparently taken on board one of the Russian battleships, which were moored in the port of Odessa, and subjected to a load of humiliations and ill treatments. We never saw them again and I wonder what had been their sad fate.
[Ed. In fact in autumn 1917 around 50 prominent Romanian aristocrats and government officials were taken prisoner and put aboard Russian ships bound for Sevastapol where it is almost certain their fate was to be shot. They were saved by the brave intervention of Colonel Joseph Boyle, a Canadian officer with close connections to the Romanian royal family. I cannot say if these were the same people rounded up by Rakowsky but there are definite parallels with Frank’s story. See The Rescue of Romanian Prisoners in Odessa and Joseph Boyle 1867-1923 bio]
As for me, I got off lightly for what some were tempted to call my imprudence for having given hospitality to the three friends hounded by revolutionaries. Nobody noticed anything. The old doorman Vassili who had seen us come back that evening, happily wasn’t there to witness their leaving and I am sure that even if he had been in his lodge he would have understood the situation and wouldn’t have breathed a word.
Frank’s memoir covers events up to the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in March 1918. For what followed I will refer to the memoir of Alexander Albov, (the son of a Polish high court judge also exiled in Odessa at this time).
Within a matter of days, German troops arrived and captured Odessa. The Bolsheviks were driven out, law and order was restored, food and supplies reappeared in the shops and fighting ceased. Albov describes how the terrorised population reacted with mixed feelings; while the German enemy was stripping bare the Ukrainian hinterland they could not help feeling a huge sense of relief to be finally freed from the tyranny of the Bolsheviks.
With Russia out of the War however, German troops could be redirected back to the Western Front but following further major defeats there, the enemy suffered a huge loss of morale. Even though the Germans were losing the War, nevertheless Odessa was now occupied territory and for refugees like Frank and his father, unsafe on a new and different level. Over the summer of 1918 many people took the opportunity to flee the city or get out of the country altogether. This would have been the ideal time for Frank and his father to get out too. We are fairly certain they made it back to Constantinople in 1918 but Frank’s papers are silent on how and exactly when they left Odessa.
As it happens, after the Armistice in November 1918, the Germans left the city and the communists moved back in. Once again there was rioting and terror everywhere, made worse by the fact that this time the Bolsheviks were better organised. This lasted for several weeks until the Allies eventually took over, so I think if Frank had waited until then, he probably would not have got home until early 1919.
In his memoir Frank remarked how much he loved the city of Odessa and initially saw himself settling there permanently. The revolution put paid to that. In the spring of 1919 the Bolsheviks were back again and this time it was they who were staying.
“The iron curtain descended over Russian history with much noise, creaking and screeching. The play was over and people in the audience rose to collect their fur coats and go home. They looked around and saw neither their coats nor homes.” (Vasily Roganov, 1918 in ‘The Apocalypse of our Times’).
Sources and Further Information
My thanks to Esmé Clutterbuck for translating Frank’s memoir and for permission to edit and publish it.
The Russian Provisional Government of 1917, led by Alexander Kerensky – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Provisional_Government
Recollections of pre-revolutionary Russia, the Russian revolution and civil war, the Balkans in the 1930s and service in the Vlasov army in World War II [ca.1972], Alexander Albov, a dictated memoir transcribed by Professor Richard A Pierce, University of California, Berkeley: http://archive.org/stream/recollprerevolution00alborich/recollprerevolution00alborich_djvu.txt
An account of the Bolsheviks’ persecution of Romanian senators and MPs in Odessa: https://europecentenary.eu/the-exile-of-the-romanian-parliament-1916-1918-the-memoirs-of-grigore-procopiu/
A reading list of essays, memoirs and novels of the revolutionary period: https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/8285/revisiting-revolution-reading-list-1917-novels-non-fiction
In part 2, Frank referred to Robinat’s, one of the cafes of the literati where he used to go. Here is some further information. https://cafesixzero.wordpress.com/the-samovar-cafe-fanconis/