It was early winter in 1934 when Vladimir, with two other escapees, crossed the Russia/Manchuria border where the Amur River freezes and one can literally island hop from Soviet Russia into Manchuria. On the day of the escape, Vladimir convinced his two GULAG inmates that while they were delivering supplies to the camp with the aid of a packhorse, escape to the Chinese border and freedom was less than a day away. Thus with much hardship, hunger and danger of being shot if caught, they made it. However, Manchuria was not the same as he had left it three years before. It was now a puppet state of Manchukuo under the control of the Empire of Japan. Nevertheless, he was free and he would seek out the Soviet Consul and prove his innocence. After several days’ exhausting walk, hitching a ride when they could on horse-driven snow sled, they made it to a CER station. There, as stowaways, they sneaked rides how ever they could to Harbin and parted company.
Vladimir made it to his uncle Serge’s house, told him of his ordeal leading to his escape and asked for more information about the premature death of his father. Uncle Serge, a younger brother of his late father, also worked for the CER as a Russian/Japanese interpreter. Serge tried to console his nephew and gently told him the little that he knew.
“As you may have heard by now, Volodya, shortly after you left for the USSR, in 1931 the Japanese began the take over of Manchuria. They desperately need the control of the CER, which is still in a peculiar position. The Russians, correction, our Soviet friends, own it! They lease it from the Chinese but the Japanese control it. Most of the staff are white Russians like your father and I. But, as you know, before you left, if we wanted to remain employed by the CER we had to take out Chinese or Soviet citizenship. Very few took Chinese citizenship, some left for Shanghai or Tientsin. They were the smart ones. Most, like your father and I, took Soviet citizenship. We thought it would be better for you also and our brother Nikolai, with whom you stayed in Stalingrad for a while.
“But, alas it only brought us misery. The Soviets still sentenced you and the Japanese resent us. They can treat the Chinese as they like but they have to show restraint with us, as they do not want to antagonize the Soviets just yet. But every now and then the Japanese Gendarmes flex their muscles and overstep their boundaries.
“So it was with your father. He, still with the CER, continued to lecture advanced mathematics at the Institute and was much admired by the staff and students. One day he told me he had had a disagreement with a Japanese official and that the Gendarmes wanted to see him. He thought it either might have been to demand more respect for the Japanese or to accuse him of spying as some relatives such as Nikolai and yourself were living in the USSR. It was in June 1932 – less than a year before the NKVD arrested you – that he was taken in by the Gendarmes and held for several days. I could not get in touch with him. They warned me not to make waves or they would take me in for questioning as well. Your father died at home less than a week after he was released. I believe the bastards tortured him and possibly infected him with something. When we buried him, we kept the casket closed during the service as he was badly beaten. We buried him at the Uspensky Cemetery and marked the grave with a monument. I will show you how to find it.
“There are also rumours that outside Harbin the Japanese are experimenting with some biological germ-warfare. Your father mentioned this to me shortly before they arrested him. Who knows what he stumbled on? Yes, he was only 39; I loved him dearly just as I know you did. Apart from his state of mind that is all I can tell you.
“Oh! And another thing; he frequently appeared depressed of late. He was lonely you know, what with our parents gone, his long separation from your mother, the family split between Manchuria and the USSR and you languishing in the homeland and then the bloody Japs – he had nothing to live for. Sometimes he buried himself in his work. Sometimes your father and I, and (our older sister) Lidia and her husband Nikolay would get together and talk, just as we had done in the old days. This would help us unwind and summon up the courage to go on for a while but not for long.
“You know, Volodya, you need a new beginning and you won’t get it here. Go to Shanghai maybe, make some money and then go to America. That is where I am going. I will not stay here much longer. For now, Russia and Manchuria are finished. Get yourself a nice girl and get married. Here, take some money. It will get you started, and don’t forget to visit your mother.”
Vladimir thanked his uncle and embraced him. “Thank you for everything, Uncle. I will take your advice, but first I must do something.”
So Vladimir visited his mother. “Thank God you are alive and well,” she said. “I don’t want to speak ill of the dead but your fool of a father should have stopped you from going back. He boasted that he could look after you better than I. Well did he? He couldn’t even protect himself against the Japanese.”
“Mama! Let it go, I don’t want to argue with you as soon as I return.”
“Yes you’re right, Volodya. Look at you! You’re skin and bones! Come and have something to eat. And tonight we will have some friends over to celebrate your return; we will have some zakuski, pelmeni and vodochka. Now go wash up and change. I think I still have some of your old clothes in the back room.”
After the homecoming celebration and a full stomach, Vladimir felt better than he had since his arrest almost a year ago now. The nightmare briefly reappeared in his mind, the set up by Haritonov – the rotten scoundrel, the arrest, the humiliation and then a Siberian GULAG. What a mess, with that record he could never return home. He had to clear his name.
The first thing Vladimir did that morning was to visit the Soviet Consul. Shaved, groomed and dressed neatly he sought audience with a Consulate official. He attempted to explain his story of the false accusation leading to imprisonment and escape. The official took Vladimir by the arm, led him to the door and threw him out saying; “You young fool, be grateful that you are still alive, get out of here and don’t ever come back.” His pride hurt and, bitterly disappointed, he realized he could do nothing.
“Find yourself a nice girl.” He thought of what his uncle said, which made him reminisce. I wonder how Klava is? So he decided to seek out his childhood friend Michael Koliagin. His own parents separated and his upbringing alternating between his parents and other relatives and Michael not knowing his, since he was brought up from childhood by adopted parents. They made a good pair. He found Michael working on a car in a small garage.
“So I see you are mechanic now.” “Volodyka(Rough term of endearment for Vladimir)!.
When did you get back? God, what has happened to you? You look like death warmed up. What did they do to you back home? I am sorry about your father.” And so the two friends caught up with each other’s lives. “What miserable luck, Volodya. Never mind, maybe we could get you a job here in the garage. You are partly a mechanic. You have done your chauffeur–basic mechanic papers. I’ll talk to the boss for you.”
“That’s great. Thanks, Michael. By the way, how are the Vajinsky sisters?”
“Well, the oldest Tina she is now married to Alexander Dobrovidov, the fellow that used to tutor you in Chinese.”
“Oh yes he’s not a bad guy. I think our fathers might have known one another, through some teaching connection and the CER. Anyway, what about the other two, God they look alike.”
“Musya is my girl. I plan to marry her one-day, so hands off. Klava, the one you fancy, has a boyfriend, Igor Petrov. She sees him sometimes – don’t think they are serious. I’m going over next Sunday for dinner. Come with me. I’ll warn Musya I’m bringing you along. Her parents are very hospitable, real Russian nobility; the father is not well, poor circulation I hear.”
“Thanks again, Michael. You don’t have to worry about Musya. I’ll only steal a kiss from her when you’re not looking. Yes it’s Klava that I fancy but I don’t have much time for this nobility business. They got rid of it all back home and everyone is equal.”
With the snow melting and Easter approaching, that Sunday afternoon Michael and Vladimir drove up in a car borrowed from Michael’s garage. They entered the modest Vajinsky cottage and were greeted like old friends with typical warm Russian hospitality. The house was warm and cosy, decorated with the small, white flowers called podsnezhniki – snowdrops. An Icon of the blessed Virgin with the Saviour and a glowing lampada – icon lamp, hung in a corner. A white tablecloth covered the table and on it were a variety of non-meat zakuski (owing to the Great Lent) and other delicacies that Vladimir had not seen in a long while. Sturgeon caviar, herring and other variety of marinated fish, pirogi (pies) with cabbage, carrot and mushroom filling, several varieties of marinated vegetable dishes and of course salted gherkins, vodka and a number of home made liqueurs. The hostess, Efrasinia Stepanovna Vajinsky, was a master cook and her daughters good students.
The host, Boris Nikitich Vajinsky, greeted the two young men warmly, introducing the newcomer Vladimir to his wife, his three daughters and Valentina’s husband Alexander Nikolayevich Dobrovidov, Sasha as most friends called him. “But, of course I believe you two gentlemen have met before, Alexander Nikolayevich used to tutor you in Chinese,” said the host, looking at Vladimir.
“Yes,” Alexander Nikolayevich intervened, “he was a good student.”
“Ah, a student is only as good as his teacher,” responded Vladimir.
“Part of the credit must go to Alexander Nikolayevich’s father,” replied the host. “Nikolay Nikolayevich is still considered one of the prominent Chinese language specialists in all Harbin and if we live here in the Orient we should all try to speak the native language.”
“Which native language do you recommend?” said Vladimir with slight sarcasm. “Chinese or Japanese?”
“Either, one, or both,” said Boris Nikitich, “and you are right of course, young man. Klava speaks basic Japanese and works as a cashier at the well-known Aspitian’s delicatessen and pastry store, which the Japanese frequently visit. Oh forgive me, young man, may I call you Volodya?”
“But of course,” replied Vladimir, sounding perplexed.
“Here we are discussing languages and the Japanese. I have heard of your sad loss. Please accept our deepest sympathy on the untimely death of your father.”
“Thank you, you are most kind, Sir.”
“Do not be judgmental of all the Japanese, the Gendarmes like the NKVD tend to attract the worst kind. My boss is a Samurai and he has treated my family with the utmost respect and now that my health is suffering he has displayed extra kindness to me.”
“Forgive me, Boris Nikitich, if I don’t share your views, the Samurai and you are of noble birth and maybe there is some affinity there. But, my father who was an engineer and an academic highly respected at the CER and the Polytechnic did not receive the appropriate respect. On the contrary he died from disrespect, abuse and torture and for that I will never forgive the Japanese and if any one of them ever gets in my way I will show them some of my respect!” At that moment to break the tension, the hostess beckoned all to the table.
The rest of the afternoon passed – more light-heartedly. The plentiful and delicious meal washed down with home-made wine and liquors and vodka made every one very chirpy and as often at Russian dinners everyone spoke at once. Even Vladimir lightened up, telling jokes and stories. So when Sasha asked him what he did in Moscow before his arrest, with a straight face and without the blink of an eyelid he answered, “I drove Stalin around on several occasions, I was a chauffeur at the Ministry of Transport and that was part of my job.” At that point, the table became very quiet until Michael burst out laughing.
“He tells everyone that. The closest he got to Stalin was when the NKVD gave him a putevka – a free trip to a GULAG resort in Siberia; see how they fattened him up.” And so the conversation became lively again, but the host glanced at Vladimir in an uncertain way as though trying to weigh him up.
Prior to going home, Klava and Volodya made plans to meet in town. As the weeks followed, the two met more often. Although, not often enough. Vladimir’s job at the garage and Klava’s long hours at the store gave little time for any get together. Sometimes they would snatch a brief moment to be together or Vladimir would go to the store where Klava worked to buy something as an excuse to talk to her. On rare occasions, they would go to the movies on a Sunday afternoon.
Late one Sunday evening after they parted company, Boris Nikitich sat down with his daughter for a chat. “So Klavunka,” as he would address her in an affectionate way, “how do you find Volodya?”
“I love him papa,” was her brief reply.
“But what about Igor; your steady boyfriend?”
“Igor is a good man and I like him, but I don’t love him.”
“Dear one, I don’t want to run your life, you are getting to a stage where you will have to make these decisions for yourself. But, I do not think that Volodya is the right man for you. He may be hand some, funny, and a go-getter but he is also impulsive, unstable, comes from a broken home, he is without means and romanticizes Russia the way it is not. Precious, I ask you to reconsider your feelings for him or at least do not rush into anything for which you may be sorry later. If in a year or two you still have feelings for one another I will not stand in your way and you will have my and your mother’s blessing.”
Next time the two saw one another, Klava mentioned her father’s apprehension about their developing relationship and suggested that maybe they should not see each other quite so often.
“We hardly see each other now,” Vladimir protested, adding, “He probably does not like me, because I am poor and he thinks I am a Sovietsky. Well I will make something of myself; maybe I will become an engineer like my father, a businessman or a top athlete to prove to him that I can look after you because I love you. You wait and see, nothing is going to keep us apart.”
But fate stepped in. A couple of weeks later, coming home from work tired and angry at the world again, Vladimir spotted two Gendarmes beating up a drunken Russian. Visions of Gendarmes torturing his father flashed in front of him and Vladimir reacted impulsively. Without any hesitation, he ran to the rescue of the victim and making use of his school-time boxing lessons within a brief minute he knocked out cold the two Gendarmes. The victim thanked him profusely.
“May God bless you, young man, for helping me, but now they will be after you. You must leave town now or they will kill you.”
Thus having recently escaped from the Soviet NKVD GULAG he now had to flee once more, this time from the Gendarmes and Japanese-occupied Manchuria. After having said a quick good bye to his mother, then Michael, who drove him to Harbin Station and promised to pass on to Klava the message that Vladimir would send for her when he was re established in Shanghai. Meanwhile Uncle Serge helped to arrange a quick passage on the SCER to Tientsin from where Vladimir would make his way by boat to Shanghai