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‘s escape from Soviet-run Estonia in 1940. You can read the original story here. This is my fourth follow-up to the tale. You can read my part one here, part two here, and part three here.
Evelyn is one of 174(+) British citizens resident in the Baltic States, who are being evacuated by the British Government by being put on a train from Riga (Latvia) to Vladivostok (USSR), leaving 27th October 1940. Evelyn’s letter gives us the summary. “We left on a through train for Vladivostok and although we stopped for about an hour in Moscow we were not allowed to leave the platform. The British Ambassador, the Consul General and other consulate officials were, however, at the station to meet the train. The Soviet fed us very well in the restaurant car of the train and we had plenty to eat with a lot of caviar – black, grey, and red. The bread was rather awful.“
The train was chartered by the British Government at a cost of about 50,000 pounds, but the long journey across Russia and Siberia was under the control of the Russian Travel Agency, Intourist. (Cairns Post, Qld, 4 Dec 1940, p.4). Many years later my travels in the USSR would also be under their oversight, including having a “guide” join us at the Finnish border and stay with us until we exited some two weeks later into Communist Poland. I had my twenty-third birthday in Moscow. That’s one I’ll never forget.
Okay. Let’s return to the platform at Riga where this unusual convoy is flitting in and out of clouds of steam as they board and find their four-berth compartments. The brakeman is making one last check of the couplings, the sound of steam hissing in his ears. The fireman’s shovel scrapes as he stokes the engine, station attendants go down the length of the train slamming doors shut, the guard shrieks his whistle, clearing the driver to leave, the piston starts to move, the locomotive strains forward, the carriages squeal in protest, a final toot from the engine driver’s horn, and the whole shebang gains speed, settling into a regular chuff-chuff rhythm. The passengers eye each other uncertainly. What next?
Later, some of the refugees reported that this 11 days journey was, “Most dismal. Railway stations were desolate, with windows broken, and the buildings were dilapidated.”
Mrs. L. Russell Green, the correspondent of the London “Observer”, whom I mentioned in part three, takes up the story. “The journey across Siberia was not as arduous as thought. On arrival in Soviet Russia the officials confiscated or sealed all cameras, and the people throughout the journey were doomed to failure to gain any impression of the conditions in that country. At all the principal stops the evacuees got out on the platforms, but were not allowed beyond the barriers, nor were the people of the country allowed on to the platform. But at several of the stopping places the people presented a very poor appearance, with ragged clothes, and gave the general appearance of ill health. The evacuees had a small amount of spending money, but apart from biscuits there was very little to be purchased. Chocolate was unheard of. On the other hand the food provided on the train was very good and the travellers had three meals daily of meat, vegetables, fruit, black bread and coffee, while delicacies included chicken, duck, grapes and caviare.”
Aha! I thought. When Evelyn described the bread as “rather awful”, I expected it would be a dark or rye bread. Perhaps it was made from inferior ingredients, but judging by the standard of the rest of the food, I’m guessing it was simply not to her taste. Despite living in Estonia for so long, perhaps Evelyn still preferred white bread.
Mr Leslie A. Marshall, Riga correspondent for the Exchange Telegraph Company and the London Morning Post for twenty years, another whom I mentioned in the previous post, after explaining that, “it was a wrench to leave a country where he and his wife had resided for over 28 years,” commented that, “although he could not give an intimate description of conditions in Siberia, he had witnessed brisk forest works in the huge forests through which the train passed and sawmills had been very busy. He had also noted that the Soviet Union had also made considerable headway in electrification, and it was interesting to register their achievements in the remotest parts of the country.”
Perhaps those achievements were down to slave labour. When the Soviets deposed the President and Commander-in-Chief of Estonia, they, with scores of other officials, “had disappeared and not been heard of since,” Mrs Green told reporters. History records their ultimate fate in various Soviet-run Siberian prison camps.
There are so many Australian newspaper reports of this journey that I forget where I read what. Sometimes the number of refugees is reported differently. It was reported from London that the British Ambassador to Moscow, Sir Stafford Cripps, “met a special train which arrived in Moscow with 180 British evacuees from the Baltic States.” Somewhere I read that at this stop, one refugee was removed. At Novosibirsk a man who “had a British passport though he did not speak a word of English was compelled to go on, while his Russian wife had to remain behind.” Neither Evelyn Knight or Mrs Russell Green mention these events. Elsewhere a report mentioned the Bukovina refugees joined enroute. That would explain my earlier puzzle about why they would have left Rumania to travel to Latvia. But later it is mentioned they (or more?) joined at Vladivostok.
However, Mrs Russell-Green bears up Evelyn Knight’s letter. “At Moscow, the travellers were allowed on the platform only for 20 minutes, and all endeavoured to interview the British Ambassador, Sir Stafford Cripps.” Of Novosibirsk she says, “The evacuees were presented with a great contrast in the new city of the Soviet. Here great munition works are in operation, and one building is a modern skyscraper, but behind the scenes the town was composed of old, battered buildings, with a poor type of people the occupants.”
Finally the evacuees arrived at Vladivostok, on the extreme eastern part of the continent. But they saw nothing of the city. “The Customs officials examined the luggage, after which the people were taken direct to the steamer waiting in port. Then the boat withdrew from the berth and stood off the city for four days, awaiting the arrival of further evacuees from Bukovina.”
“We were all very glad when we were able to eat English fare on the ship,” Evelyn’s letter tells us. “Here again the food was excellent and we particularly appreciated the fresh fruit twice a day.” The ship was bound for Hong Kong, and Evelyn’s letter is very descriptive about this part of the journey. I recommend it to you, and as a reminder, here is the link again.
The average temperature on the train journey was 40 degrees below zero. Many of the children were suffering from pneumonia, and other evacuees had colds and diarrhoea (too much caviare? – don’t shoot me, it’s a throwaway comment). Dr Wilson, an evacuee I mentioned in an earlier post, had been caring for them. But now, as Evelyn talks about, no-one has clothing suitable for the tropical heat of Hong Kong. News of the government appeal for summer clothing even reaches Australia, and information about their resettlement is reported in all the Queensland newspapers.
When they learn what is to be their resettlement “fate”, not all the evacuees are happy.
To be continued in my next …