This series of posts has been inspired by fellow blogger Derrick J. Knight, who recently wrote the true-life story of his great-aunt Evelyn May Knight escape from Soviet-run Estonia in 1940. You can read the original story here. This is my third follow-up to the tale. You can read my part one here, and part two here.
To recap. Evelyn is one of 174 British citizens resident in the Baltic States who are being evacuated by the British Government as a consequence of the Soviet takeover of Government and life. When the British Consulate closes on 4th September 1940, Evelyn is under the impression they will leave for Finland. However, with the USSR having successfully invaded Finland, and the Battle of Britain in full swing, there must have been backroom negotiations with other nations as to who would harbour these refugees for the duration of the war. At that time in history, Britain still had an empire on which to draw, represented in every Australian schoolroom by “pink bits” on the wall atlas.
Evelyn tells us that, “After spending a night in a hotel in Riga (Latvia) we left on a through train for Vladivostok.” That would make the departure 27th October 1940, with an eastbound destination many days away, and their safety constantly dependent on the good will of the Soviets through whose territory they must travel.
All 174 of the Riga evacuees would end up in Australia, although none of them knew that when they left Riga. On their eventual arrival, they were swarmed by reporters, and what they had to say (or not) gives us a valuable insight in to what they left behind. Settle in with a nice glass of something, as this will be a long post.
I’ll turn first to another group in the party. These were from Bukovina, in the central Eastern Carpathians, which had been ceded to Romania after WWI. The best I can understand as to how these people were part of the exodus from Riga was that Romania, which had been invaded first by Germans and then Soviets, had relinquished Bukovina some months earlier, and British living there were driven out. Looking at the map, I don’t understand how they ended up in the Baltic States, but it is obvious they did.
Let’s hear first from Mr. J. Hearsch, a teacher of English in the Bukovina province, who said “The foreigners were ordered to leave Bukovina when the province was relinquished by Rumania. He was offered a position at the University at Cernauti, but if he had accepted he would have become a naturalised Russian. The Germans had also to leave Bukovina and they were not treated as well as the British. The Russians brought chaos. Food became ten times dearer, and for a week his family could not obtain butter fat, oil or sugar for cooking, and they had lived on salads. Things became impossible and order had not been restored when he left in October. Everything was nationalised and Rumanian capitalists’ property was looted, but not that of foreigners. Russian soldiers did not speak to the Germans at the frontier. Mr. Hearsch said that Jews were treated badly in Rumania in contrast to Russia. (The Telegraph, Brisbane, Qld, 3 Dec 1940, page 9).
Sticking with this same newspaper for simplicity, I turn to another from Bukovina, Dr. H. Wilson, a lung specialist who had been 30 of his 37 years in Rumania, and had been in practice in Bukovina eight years. He said, “At first the Bukovinians were enthusiastic over the Russians coming, but later they envied the British, who were going away. The Iron Guards, although a minority, had started a system of brutality and terror, and many persons made a showing of support for them for safety’s sake.”
The Balts echoed this sentiment. Most of the refugees refused to talk about Russia because of the fear of reprisals on their relatives. “The Russians have long memories, and, if we talk, they will take revenge on people we know who are within their power,” said one of them. A young Scotswoman, Miss Ann Crawford, M.A. (Master of Arts), was not so reticent. “I have no relatives and I am not afraid to tell you what many of the other evacuees would like to say,” she said. Various reporters quoted her, “The Russian military might was just a ‘bogey,’ she said. She was teaching in Lithuania when Russia occupied the country and had ample opportunity to study what she described as ‘Russia’s rabble army’. “You cannot imagine the deplorable state of the Soviet Army which occupied Lithuania,” she told them. “The soldiers had no discipline, no uniforms and no worthwhile material. They lacked all semblance of military force, and I can only describe the Russian tanks as rotten, and the planes I saw appeared out of date.”
Miss Crawford had plenty more to say. “Affairs in Lithuania were rapidly deteriorating when I left. Prosperity had gone and shops were empty. Although they made a display in the windows the goods were not for sale and the people stood in long queues to buy what was available. In my opinion the people of the Baltic States had lost their enthusiasm for Communism after four months’ experience. The Soviet had nationalised the big factories and had taken over all large shops. There was a definite tendency in Lithuania to think that Germany would attack Russia there. The Lithuanians now expect a long war and say that the German’s only hope of winning the prolonged conflict is to get Russian war materials and she will only get them in sufficient quantity by force. The opinion of Lithuanians and Britons was that the Russian army that occupied Lithuania was inferior.”
Mrs. L. Russell Green, correspondent of the London “Observer”, would usually have been the one doing the interviewing, but on this occasion she was on the other side of the notepad. “Estonia was a little paradise,” she said. “The people were happy in their little world of luxury until June 21, when the Russians took over the occupation. Then life changed, and it became misery. Great progress had been made in Estonia since its Independence was declared In 1918. Just over a year ago the Soviet began to exert pressure on the country, and when a few Russian planes were sent over Estonia, no resistance was offered and bases were surrendered. Life, however, continued normally during the winter months, but in June things changed drastically. Soviet troops wanted accommodation and Estonians were given 24 hours to get out of their homes. Finally a decree was issued that each person was to be allowed only nine square metres. Many families had to share one flat, and conditions became almost unbearable. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania lost their ample supplies of food, and on occasions the people had to go without. Before leaving the evacuees had sold as much of their belongings as possible, but they were allowed to take away only £15, although some smuggled larger quantities. Jewellery, except wedding rings, was confiscated.”
Questioned regarding conditions when Estonia was first taken over, Mrs Green said, “One of the first acts performed by Soviet officials was to take over the Press, and nothing had been published that was not Soviet propaganda. A complete black out had been ordered for four days, and it was discovered during this time the Soviet Army used large transports to carry away huge supplies of foodstuffs.”
Another of the press evacuees, Mr Leslie A .Marshall, Riga correspondent for the Exchange Telegraph Company and the London Morning Post for 20 years, said, “Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania would undoubtedly prefer to live under Russian rule than Nazi Germany’s. The reason was simple. For centuries the Germans used to be big landowners and aristocrats in the Baltic area and the natives of those countries were subordinated to them. The facts still rankled. The people in the Baltic were not Communists in any way, and it would take a considerable time to convert them. Nevertheless, they would prefer this to living under Germany, though, among the monied classes, there were many Nazi friends, because they did not want to lose their factories, which would happen under Communistic rule. It became increasingly clear, after the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, that British subjects would no longer be able to work, move or act without hindrance, and they had been glad when the British Consul ln Riga gave them the opportunity to leave.” The Australian reporter added that Mr. Marshall, some years ago, was decorated by the President of Latvia with the Order of the Three Stars for conspicuous service in the literary world.
Among the evacuees was Mr. C. Main, who was inside manager of a spinning mill in Riga (Latvia). He said, “That he had been treated well by the Soviet officials, and they had asked him to remain on, but that would have meant a sacrifice of his British nationality; so he decided to leave with his wife and two children.” Mr Main was an Englishman, who served in the British Army in the Great War. Hopefully I’ll include more of him and his daughters in a later post.
Mr. A. B. Wilkinson, a Yorkshireman, was the manager of a worsted spinning mill in Riga. Mr. J. Yates, originally of Lancashire, was a cotton-mill manager, but for the last few years had been in Tallinn (Estonia). “This is the second time I have been evacuated from that part, of the world,” Yates said. “I was a cotton-mill manager in Russia in 1920, and was then evacuated through Finland during the Russian revolution.” (Sydney Sun Monday 9 December 1940, page 3).
Evelyn’s two elder sisters, Mabel and Ethel, knew all about that. They had to flee St Petersburg in 1917 during the Revolution. Ethel never recovered her health which was damaged by starvation during those months. You can read their great-nephew’s (Derrick J. Knight) fascinating account, quoting from Mabel’s diary, here.
On that note, I will end this post with Miss Louisa Bessel, an Englishwoman fleeing from Russian domination for the second time. She was a governess in South Russia before the 1917 Russian revolution, and like thousands of other white Russians, her employers had been forced to flee through Constantinople to Italy and Paris. In 1924, Miss Bessel went to Estonia, where she was engaged teaching English at the Estonia Embassy. However, not wishing to bend to the will of the Soviet Union, she decided to leave when Russia took over the Baltic States. Perhaps this Miss Bessel was known to the Knight sisters, Mabel, Ethel and Evelyn.
Below are two photos of Evelyn, courtesy of Derrick Knight. As he comments, “The contrast between the stern passport and more relaxed studio images of these early photographs are fascinating.” I agree.
Fascinating also, is the trip across Russia and Siberia that was facing these refugees. More of that in the next post.