Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Murmansk | March 1918

from “The Reluctant Tourist” by Ronald Barnett

(March 1918)

There were English refugees and Russian refuges, French, Italian, even a few Americans, as well as the Chinese who had been brought in to build the railroads. They were all now marooned in the Murmansk area. They said that inevitably this human logjam would have to move, and Morrie could move with them. But it would probably be several months before that would happen.

“I want to go now,” Morrie said.

“I have it,” said Pike. “I wager the Red Cross people will have an answer for you. They’re mostly Yanks, and they’re good people. There is a Red Cross car just down the tracks, about two hundred meters up to your left. I’m sure they’ll have some good advice for you. At least, they’ll know the situation a great deal better than we do.”

Morrie headed left, as he had been directed, plowing through the snow. Cooper and Pike told him that the Red Cross car was entirely different from the other cars. It had red and gold stripes on the side and, they said, looked like it might have been from the Czar’s private fleet of railroad cars. With that description, it was easy for Morrie to spot it.

It wasn’t one of the boxcars, but a passenger car. There was a door and Morrie stood there, hesitating. He had nothing much to lose. He banged his gloved hand on the door, and it quickly slid open.

“Can I help you?” The man who opened the door was tall, thin, and was wearing rimless glasses.

“I hope so. May I come in?”

“Step right in, young fellow,” Morrie could tell that the tall man was an American. There was no mistaking that nasal, flat speech. He had heard American entertainers on the music hall stages and had met enough Yank soldiers in the pubs to be able to recognize that speech pattern. They all sounded like cowboys.

“I’m Wardwell, Major Wardwell. American Red Cross and who might you be?”

“I’m Alex Chernofsky, from London.”

“What’s a kid from London doing in this God-forsaken spot?”

Morrie told his story. While he related that now-familiar tale his eyes were roaming around the interior of the coach. It was incredibly opulent. The walls were covered in light green satin, not paint or wallpaper, but actual material, and there was gold brocade molding. The chairs were upholstered in rich, dark green velvet, again trimmed in gold. The tables were of a wood that had been polished so highly that it seemed like it had a covering of glass, but when Morrie idly rubbed his hand across the top of the nearest table, he realized that it wasn’t glass but simply the intense polish on the wood. The lamps had shades of silk, with fringes of gold.

“Here, let me take your coat and gloves,” said Major Wardwell, “then we can talk a little more comfortably. Tea?”

There was a samovar on a large table at one side of the car, and it appeared to be solid gold.

“It’s only brass, not gold,” said Wardwell. He could tell from the way Morrie was staring at everything that he was in awe. “This is quite a palace, isn’t it?” We don’t know for certain, but we believe it belonged to the Czar, or at least to somebody in the royal family. Now it’s our little home away from home.”

Wardwell poured the tea. The cups had obviously not come with the car. They were plain official-looking white china. He gestured for Morrie to sit down.

“What can I do for you, young fellow?”

“I need help, Major. I have to get out of Murmansk, but I don’t know where I should go, or how to go about getting there.”

“I think maybe we ought to get the rest of the gang in on this,” the Major said. He got up and knocked at a partition at the end of the car, and asked his colleagues to come in.

“There’s a problem here that needs our help,” he said. Four men followed him back into the main part of the car, and Morrie saw quickly that one was a Russian soldier.

“Your name was Chernofsky, right?” the American asked. Morrie nodded. Then Wardwell pointed around the room. “I’d like to introduce you to Hugh Martin [Lieut Hugh S. Martin], he’s the American passport control officer here in Murmansk. This is Jesse Halsey, Reverend Jesse Halsey of the American Y.M.C.A. This fellow is Major Thomas Thatcher, like me he’s with the Red Cross and this is Captain Ilovaiski. He works with us as our Russian interpreter.

Morrie shook hands with the four men. They all went to the samovar and poured themselves a cup of tea. Morrie would soon learn that no business or conversation was conducted in Russia until the ritual cup of tea was poured.


“Mr. Chernofsky, you must understand that Russia is, in the present instance, full of chaos and upset. There is here today a full-type Civil War. There is no place that abounds in safety.”

“There must be some place for me to go,” said Morrie, making the statement into a question.

“If I were you, young fellow,” said Hugh Martin, “the first thing I’d do would be to get to Archangel. At least there are trains to other places. It’s a much bigger place than here, so there are more opportunities. There are a lot of ships there, and when the thaw comes maybe you’ll be able to find a ship that will take you out of here.”

Morrie didn’t catch all of Martin’s Mississippi-flavored words, but he understood the gist of what he said. At last Morrie had heard something positive.

Martin told the story of his own perilous trip to Murmansk, a few months before. He had been the passport control officer in Archangel, but when winter came and the port froze there was not need for his service there for the time being. He was reassigned to Murmansk, but the Bolsheviks would not issue him a permit to travel from Petrograd, where he had gone to await reassignment.

“So I figured I’d give them a taste of Yankee ingenuity,” he said. “I took the train from Petrograd back to Archangel, where I knew everybody. I hired peasants and their sleighs to take me from village to village until I reached a small city called Soroka, on the Petrograd-Murmansk rail line. I then hopped a freight from Soroka to Murmansk.”

“And here I am. I only went about twelve hundred miles out of my way, and I did it without one of their precious travel permits. But I made it. I think you should do the same thing, only the other way around. Get down to Archangel on sleighs, with the Moujiks. It’s really a great way to see the country.”

“What will I use for money to hire the sleighs,” asked Morrie. “I have a few British pounds, but no Russian money.”

“I tell you what, Alex,” said Hugh Martin, and Morrie continued to marvel at the way the informal Americans used first names so easily. “I’ll make you a small loan. When you get down to Meridian, Mississippi, after this stupid war is over, you can repay me. Have we got a deal?”

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