by Marie Marshall
As this year marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, here is a story set in the years leading up to it.
You ask me if I was his bodyguard? Or rather you tell me I was his bodyguard and hardly wait for me to confirm it. So why do you want to know, comrade? I can tell you nothing worth hearing. There must be other records somewhere more use to you, if you want to find things out. Why not go to the top and ask comrade Khrushchev? He’ll know, if anyone will. He says there were ‘mistakes’ made, he has denounced the ‘cult of personality’, so it beats me why you are so curious about all this anyway?
All I know is this. In nineteen-oh-six or thereabouts, I was in London for the great Social Democratic conference. I wasn’t a delegate or anything like that – I was young and I had come along for the adventure. I loved the adventure. All the ducking and diving in the shadows, all the drinking, the cursing, the toasts – down with capitalism, down with autocracy, down with the Tsar – all the disguises, the robberies, the swindles. All that was back in Russia. It was so much more exciting than the politics, and I don’t care if that is a shocking thing to say. But the politics was good too, for all that. During the conference, and the days on either side while we were in England, people would sit late into the night, arguing over a bottle of London spirits, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were drinking buddies but hated people in their own party, Internationalists and Jewish Bundists got pie-eyed together and sung the ‘Marseillaise’ and the ‘Internationale’, and then screamed denunciations at each other in the conference room. The girls who came along for the ride… well… had come along for the ride. I guess some of the strong personalities there had seduced them, in one sense or another. People like the ‘Old Man’ – that’s what we called comrade Ulyanov, even though he was young enough then.
No, I wasn’t there for that kind of ride! I was one of ‘Comrade Soso’s Dykes’ – does that shock you? Look, I was just a country girl, daughter of a wagonner and a half-Chuvash seamstress. A runaway, if you like. I got in with the revolutionary crowd in provincial towns, and earned my keep as a lookout during armed robberies – that’s how the revolution was financed, don’t look so damn shocked. Then it was on to Moscow. Oh it all seems to have happened within the space of a week, when I look back, but I must have bummed around for a good couple of years. Then I got the chance to help smuggle delegates out of Russia for the conference. They needed a woman or two to pretend to be someone’s respectable, bourgeois wife, and so I became an actress for the Party. In fact I made two trips – Moscow, Petrograd (yes all right Leningrad, but it was Petrograd then, or Sankt Petersburg to keep the Tsarina happy), Helsingfors in the Grand Duchy, and Copenhagen, and then back again to pick up a second husband. The conference was due to be in Copenhagen but some petty bureaucrat or spook knackered that for us, and we went right into the belly of London, right into the heart of another capitalist empire – “Oh be thankful for those idiots in liberal democracies,” we all used to say.
The meetings were almost farcical. There were uniformed police – British ‘Bobbies’ – taking notes, taking the names of anyone and everyone who went in or out. I gave at least six different ones. They were more interested in the English people who came in there of course. They couldn’t have cared less about what happened thousands of miles away in Moscow. I doubt if any of them even knew where Moscow was. Then the Old Man took me aside, and my friend – she always insisted in going by a boy’s name, Ilya, even though If anything I was the more butch of the two of us – and told us he wanted a guard put on someone. He wanted him kept safe at all costs, because he was vital to the revolution and he was always getting up to mischief. We wondered whether the old man thought he was a spook. The Old Man picked us because we weren’t about to get seduced by anyone, and because we were tough, and dedicated Bolsheviks. He knew we had seen the gendarmes and Cossacks at work back home; we knew how cheap human life was and we weren’t sentimental about squashing a few insects if necessary.
This man, the one we had to guard, I’ll never forget meeting him. Actually I had already seen him around and wondered who he was. He was going by the name of Ivanov, but everyone called him Soso. That was his nickname. Right from the start he told me to use it. That’s how the Old Man introduced him to my and Ilya too.
“I want you to meet comrade Soso,” he said. “Look after him. Don’t let him stub his toe.”
Soso pretended to scowl at the Old Man for saying that, but his eyes were twinkling. He looked to me like he came from the Kavkaz Mountains, maybe an Ossetian, but then how would I know what an Ossetian looks like anyway. His hair was bushy and swept back. He was unshaven, he had a moustache and a beard, and a bad complexion. He wasn’t big, and he walked with a bit of a limp, and I think his left arm was paralysed, or half-paralysed, some unhealed injury maybe, but he wasn’t weak. In one of the drinking bouts I saw him put his arms round the waist of a man four centimetres taller and several kilos heavier, and just lift him right off the ground.
Ilya and I used to work eight hour shifts babysitting Soso. When he slept, at his lodgings, one of us would have a bedroll and sleep across his doorway. At the time we didn’t know whether we were keeping him in or keeping folk out. We weren’t allowed to leave his door; we even had our own pot there on the landing, if we needed to piss. Ilya used to come and bed down with me, and keep me warm, and kiss me, and we’d make love… very quietly… and you can wipe that leer off your face, comrade. It was a tender thing. It was good. And how would you know different anyway!
You can stop stamping your foot. I’ll tell you all about comrade Soso – it’s my story and I’ll tell it exactly how I want to.
Soso liked to go wandering at night. Some of the delegates went up to the music halls and restaurants in their spare time, pretending to spy on bourgeois society, but really they were green with envy and enjoying being celebrities amongst London’s radical artists and writers. Middle class intellectuals the lot of them, who would run a mile from a real revolution. I have squashed better bugs. Soso used to like to go down into the streets where the fog was, where the crime was, where the prostitutes and the cheap pubs were. He loved all that, down in the East End. He loved to see all the low-lifes, all the thugs, and he wasn’t scared. I went with him, and I got to like all that too, in my own way. Maybe I liked it because he liked it. Anyhow, it was during my shift that he went out most of all. I was dressed in man’s clothes, and carried a revolver, and I went with him.
“Tania Petrova,” he would say – or did he simply call me Tania? I can’t remember… “Tania Petrova, these are the kind of people I mixed with in Baku, in Gori, in Tiflis. They’re essential. Forget radicalising the thinkers, forget preaching propaganda; get the scum of the streets on your side, recruit the psychopaths, the knife-men, the racketeers. That’s the way to run a revolution. Rob and ransack to pay for more guns, use the guns to mow down the gendarmes and the Cossacks, recruit more and more thugs, bring them on-side. Rob more banks, trains, coaches – for more money to buy more guns, and explosives too. Otherwise when the big revolution comes, you’ll have this corrupt underworld out of control. Get it under control first, use it, make them your eyes and ears, make them your teeth and nails. It’s the only way. The bourgeois are too squeamish for the job.”
He said all this to me as we walked through those dark streets, breathing in fog and soot and coughing it out again. He would spit on the pavement, and I would spit too. A spit for a spit. He talked in Russian to me, but he had an accent.
“But Soso,” I remember saying. “Won’t that bring corruption into the revolution? We are Communists, Bolsheviks, people with ideals and principles.”
He laughed. “I would punch your face if you weren’t my friend! The revolution is corrupt and corrupting. It is corruption taken to the extreme. No, it’s above corruption, beyond it, it transcends it. Haven’t you read Machiavelli? The Prince is far less boring than Marx. I read Marx, interpret it by Machiavelli, and preach the Gospel according to Ivanov. Did you know I once trained for the priesthood? In order to be true revolutionaries, we must be corrupt beyond anything that has ever been before; this is because we are going to overturn everything, smash everything, start from the ruins and build on top of them. It is going to be glorious. And do you know what, Tania, it’s going to be such fun!”
“But isn’t it capitalism that is corrupt?” I asked.
“Capitalism? Of course capitalism is corrupt, but it is stupid too. We must never allow capitalism to get smart, Tania. No, we must destroy it for good, and soon. While it is still stupid. You realise that when we hang the last capitalists they will have sold us the rope with which we do it!”
Once he showed me he had a pistol in his belt. I showed him mine, and he beamed at me. He liked me. He really liked me. He said so. No, no, no I wasn’t one of his women. You just don’t get this, do you! But I liked him back. I really liked him too. He was… good to be with.
I learned more about politics from the two or three nights he and I escaped together into London’s back streets than I did from any political lecturing. We talked about spies, and the Tsar’s secret police. He reckoned our ranks were riddled with informers, and I was shocked by this. To me it seemed ridiculous that anyone could mouth revolutionary slogans without total belief in them. Surely they would choke. Surely there were no spooks amongst us.
“Don’t be so damn dense!” he said to me. “If the Okhrana hasn’t got at least half a dozen agents amongst the delegates in the conference… no, a dozen… then it isn’t doing the job the Tsar pays for! I admire the bastards, you know. They’re devious, clever, two-faced. They are right in our midst. You know of course that we have people in the gendarmes working for us, and people in the ministries in Moscow. But our penetration is nothing compared to theirs. They are so professional. They have us by the balls, and most of us don’t realise it, or don’t want to realise it. We can’t have a meeting to make plans without the plans going straight to the Okhrana, yet we don’t know who half of them are!”
You have heard of the Okhrana, comrade, the Tsar’s secret police? Yes it’s true they were everywhere, more than most of us realised, and they were pretty clever; but they were never quite as clever as Soso thought. Time and again they let Soso and the Old Man slip through their fingers. But Soso was convinced, and when he was convinced of something, that was that.
“I’d let my boys off the street deal with traitors,” he said. “And it’s better to wipe out two or three people too many than to risk letting one get away. I’d rather lose a couple of mice than miss one rat.”
I told him I thought that was unkind, but I remember he spun me round to face him, and began to talk quietly and vehemently.
“You can’t run an empire on kindness, Tania. And believe me we are going to run a whole empire. We are going to take it right out of the lifeless hands of the ones who are currently running it. There is a war going on. No one has declared it, but it is raging. And in wars people get hurt, people die, wives lose husbands, mothers lose sons, children lose fathers. But the war goes on. It’s like amputating a leg. If you cut close to the gangrene then you might leave rot on the stump. You have to cut away good flesh with bad. And another thing, the more people die, the harder things get; the harder things get, the madder people get; the madder people get the more politicised they get. It doesn’t matter whether they’re politicised our way or our enemies’ way, it matters that they are politicised. The whole thing feeds on itself. And in the end, so long as more of them die than us, who cares? Wars are about killing more of the enemy than they kill of you. But you can’t be sentimental about your own people. You don’t win a revolution by counting the cost. Everyone is expendable, except perhaps the Old Man.”
“And perhaps you, comrade Soso.”
He chuckled. “Yes, perhaps me too. Because I know things, I understand how things must be, and it’s like I said – you can’t run an empire on kindness.”
I have never forgotten that phrase.
Hey – here’s something you won’t believe, if Soso is who you think he is. He was a poet. He dragged me into his room a couple of times to recite to me. And he would do the same as we walked those streets. I think he had written them in his own language when he was younger, but these were Russian versions he recited to me. I can remember one…
When the lantern of the full moon swings and drifts
across the heavenly ceiling above me
and its light shining out traces pale fingers
on blue horizons
when the clear trilling of the nightingale’s song
starts the leaves softly fluttering in the air
and the pan-pipe’s notes away in the mountains
sing of sad yearning
when snows melt and rains break the cluttering dam
and the spring breaks free to wash away the tracks
and there is a rustling as the breeze wakes
tossing the trees’ heads
when the patriot who was driven away
by the enemy becomes worthy again
and when the sick man who lives in the darkness
sees the sun and moon
(How did it go? How did it go?)
Then I who have been oppressed begin to feel
the mist of sadness break and lift and recede
and up rises hope for a good life to come
in my grieving heart
As I am borne up and away by this hope
my soul rejoices and my heart beats softly
but is there a small doubt dragging at hope’s heels
is this not the time?
Yes, he was telling me that one – I think I got it right, it’s not wonderful but it has something – he was reciting that very one as we walked along through the fog. I remember hearing the slight scrape of a footfall somewhere behind us, and then I realised I had been hearing it all that evening but it hadn’t registered.
“Soso, we’re being followed!”
“Didn’t you know?” He looked a little startled. “He hasn’t exactly been concealing himself. Isn’t he your back-up? Isn’t this part of the Old Man’s arrangements? He’s been following us for the past two nights.”
“No it isn’t. And I had no idea he had been with us that long.”
“A damn fine bodyguard you are, comrade Tania Petrova!” Soso hissed to me, and we started to walk a little faster.
We turned into an alleyway, but found it blocked at the far end by three or four men. We looked back into the dim street we had just left, and saw several more converging on the mouth of the alley. We were trapped. And lagging at the rear of the gang was the man who must have been following us, a man I recognised from the conference. No I don’t know his name… it might have been Pavlov or Popov or Pachenko for all I know… don’t interrupt, this is my story and we’re getting to a good bit. We were trapped in this alley, and one of the men at the far end spoke to me in English.
“You slip away young feller, and pretend you ‘aven’t seen nothin’. We want a word with Ivan Skavinsky Skavar ‘ere.”
“Less of the young feller!” I said, reaching inside my coat and pulling out my revolver. Soso did the same, moving round so we were back to back. The men on each side of us had already rushed in to attack us, and realised their mistake to late, as my first shot caught one of them in the chest. He fell, and two of them tripped over him. I shot the fourth as he skidded to a halt, before he could turn back and run, and then I shot the other two before they could get up. I think I was lucky. All my shots were killing shots, and if they hadn’t been I believe they would have rushed me. I turned round and fired my remaining two shots over Soso’s shoulder. I don’t know whether any of the men who attacked from that direction had already run off, but three were motionless on the ground, and the man from the conference had only just turned tail. Soso levelled his gun and fired. The man dropped. Soso turned to me.
“Thanks for deafening me,” he said. And as we went over to where the man from the conference lay, he added “Did you know I was a hunter as well as a poet and a seminarian?”
The man from the conference was lying on the ground, groaning. Soso turned him over with his foot, and looked down at him. Then he checked the chamber of his revolver, and patted his pockets.
“Well, Pasha,” he said to his fallen enemy, whose name he seemed to know. “Who would have thought it of you – an arselicker of the autocratic system. Who are you working for? Who are your accomplices? I don’t have time to beat it out of you.”
The man said nothing, just shook his head and made a face because of the pain. I could hear running feet somewhere, but I couldn’t tell whether they were running towards us or away from us. I remember tugging at Soso’s sleeve, and that he looked at me, nodded, and shrugged his shoulders. Then he levelled his revolver and calmly executed the man on the ground.
Looking round he said, “Damn, we’ve made a mess. This could have been ignored in Batumi, but not in London. Let’s go… young feller!”
So we went, as quickly as we could without looking like two murderers on the run, back to his lodgings. Before, it had felt like we had been wandering for hours, zigging and zagging through a maze. But Soso seemed to know a route back to our starting point with hardly a corner of a kink in it. On the way we threw the revolvers into a culvert. We didn’t want to get caught with them. That was the last night-time walk with Soso. The conference broke up, the Old Man relieved us of our babysitting duties, and I hardly saw Soso from that moment until he left. He did say good bye to me, though. I’m sure he did. Ilya and I travelled back together with false passports which said we were sisters. We even got a cabin together thanks to a donation from one of the Old Man’s bourgeois British admirers. Oh how bureaucrats will believe pieces of paper! Ilya was Polish, and yet they took us for sisters at every border we crossed. But she and I got to sleep together all the way home. Sleep was what we did too. Mostly.
No, I never saw Soso again. I never saw Ilya either. She disappeared years after that in one of the first party purges I’m sure. After the revolution I drove a tractor. And I have done my duty as a Soviet citizen. Dyke or no dyke, I was already a grandmother by the time I drove one of the last ammunition trucks to reach Stalingrad during the siege. And no, I am not going to say Soso was Stalin, and I am not going to say he wasn’t. This is my story, and I have told you all I am going to tell you. Ask me again tomorrow and I will deny it all. I am a good Soviet citizen, a good Communist. I am old. I am tired. Piss off. Leave me alone!