One day in October or November, 1901, Alexander and I were dressed in our warm clothes, and winter boots were put on our feet for our travel to Moscow. We were driven, accompanied by the beloved Freulein, in a horse-drawn carriage over the bridge on the Western Dvina to the railway station. We took our places in the second class compartment in the train that left in the early afternoon that October or November day. There was an exchange of harsh words between our Freulein and two gentlemen who insisted on occupying the same compartment; but then the gentlemen became more agreeable, and entered into an animated conversation with our Freulein. In the evening we reached Smolensk, but all I could see was a pool of water from rain outside our windows. Only many years later, passing through the station in daytime, I saw that, like a fortress, the town nests on an elevation.
In the grey morning I awoke and looked out of the window of the train. In a snowy landscape of fields and forests trees moved and ran swiftly, the swifter of them, those closer to the tracks, overrunning the trees away from the tracks. In my solitary watch it appeared to me that the train was circling for hours as if going up a hill on which Moscow stood.
In Moscow we were met at the station by our mother and our brother Daniel, who was excited to show us the capital. We traveled through to Tverskaya Street, and came to a residential hotel in the business section of the town, the Kitai Gorod, where our parents and Daniel lived. There the Freulein and we occupied a room. In the hotel I spent time looking at the incandescent electrical bulbs with spiral filamentsthis was new to me. In our room Freulein read to us The Prince and the Pauper and the story of Little Lord Fauntleroy. I could already read them myself; I also liked to copy geographical maps, especially of Europe, and color them.
We lived in that hotel for a few months. The summer we spent on a dacha in Sokolniki. I became seven, and I remember well that day. My father, sitting in a hammock in the garden, asked me how many days, in my estimate, I had lived. Having in my memory an inexhaustible store of events, I made a guessa million days; but then, when my father bode me to calculate, I found to my great surprise that all my memories came to me from the experiences of some two thousand days only. For that birthday my father gave me half a ruble, the price of admission to the childrens festival, a big affair that happened to be on that day. This entitled me to participate in track runningand I remember how I ran, the first of the group, probably admired; I was, however, overtaken by one or two other boys, but still felt happy. In the evening there was a lantern festival.
One day boys from the other side of the fence threw stones at us and we three brothers fought valiantly against a superior force, and returned stones. One stone hit me in the temple. My mother saw me through the window, my head covered with blood; but I did not cry, and stood my ground. She ran down the steps and brought me in to wash my head.
That summer, thinking of the little pool not far away from our dacha, I made the following invention, which I explained to my brothersthough, it seems to me, I expressed it as though it were an event that had actually happened. By going very swiftly over the pool, so that before my foot could sink I would move it into a new position on the surface of the water, I would be able to walk on water. This sounded good in principle, but my performance was just wishful thinking, and a bit of a fantasy.
It was the time of the Boer War. My fathers interest in world affairs and even more his preoccupation with the problem of the Jewish peoplewhich must have been already then manifest to memade me, when once asked, Whom do you love more, father or mother? answer father. His idealism, in my consideration, gave him the right to preference.
My father in his unusually pleasant voice sang Hebrew songs at the evening meal with the children on his lap; these were songs of longing for Israel, songs describing Rachel, who cries for her children, or telling of a rose, symbolizing the Jewish people, torn and trodden by the passers by. He had beautiful melodies for his songs.
One day my father called me into his bedroom. There was a steel safe; he opened it and showed me a book by Dr. Joseph Sapir, Zionism, in Russian, and on the introduction page it was written that the book owed its appearance to the munificence of Simon Velikovsky.
My father had been one of the leading members of the Jewish community of Vitebsk. He went to the Second Zionist Congress in Basel as a delegate, and there met Herzl who, impressed by my fathers appearance, approached him to press his hand. My father returned enthusiastic about the new National Bank. He spent many efforts to persuade his friends to participate in purchasing the foundations shares, but found ignorance and apathy among the people he approached. Then he made an offer to the Vilno Zionist Committee, which was the central organ in Russia, to contribute 300 rubles for a literary prize, which was then a large sum. More than twenty manuscripts were sent in; the manuscript of Sapir won the prize. But the committee needed money to print it, and my father supplied an additional five hundred rubles, a matter nowhere mentioned. It was not known that my father gave his last money to make this possible; in his autobiography written many years later he commented, I thought that if everything is fallen, at least this should remain from all my efforts. On this book a generation of Jewry was educated to the national idea. Its preface was written by Moses L. Lilienblum, a noted Jewish figure. The book was also translated into other languages.
In Moscow we rented an apartment on Milutenski Pereulok, off Miasnitzkaya Street. It was one of the most modern houses, six stories high, with an elevator. It had a front staircase with the fashionable embellishments characteristic of French architecture of the turn of the century. There was also a back staircase for the servantsa family would in those days usually have two female servants, a cook and a chambermaid. The older of them were born still in slavery, abolished in Russia one year before it was abolished in the United States. One day crowds filled the streets and the windows, and waited long. First a dog ran by, frightened by the crowds; then Tzar Nicholas II drove by in an open carriage on one of his rare visits to Moscow. I saw that his face was white with fear, since from any place a bomb could be thrown at him, as it had been at his father.
The business of my father was on Nikolskaya in Kitai-Gorod, housed in large flats with numerous workers; one flat was used as a storage-place for fabrics, visited by sales people who traveled to sell the merchandise; another flat was a tea dispensaryimported tea was divided by a dozen or more workers into packages wrapped with lead paper and stamped with the name of my fathers firm. My mother assisted my father, who was always above the details, and easily cheated; but even the careful and exact nature of my mother did not spare the business from a collapse in a few years. No doubt the sales people took advantage of the freedom they had in giving credits; and with the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War many merchants did not pay their debts, and probably also the import of tea from China was hampered. Thus my parents saw their business deteriorating and apparently heading toward an abyss.
Soon after we moved to Moscow, Meta Redlich, who used to tell us stories before we fell asleep, left for her home and sent us her picture; in her stead came Mr. Messerer, a Hebrew teacher from Vilno. He was middle-aged, with a black beard and bald head; he left his family at home, and possessing a diploma, but no knowledge, in dentistry, could live in Moscow, otherwise restricted to the Jews. Since the time the Jews were expelled from Moscow and then selectively readmitted, he was the first and only teacher of Hebrew in the city; he was to act as our educator. He lived with us a few years. When in the summer of 1904 Herzl died, Messerer cried bitterly. On one occasion I remember him explaining to me the creation of the soul by God: a lighted candle kindles more candles without losing its own light.
My lessons in German were displaced by lessons in French. By moving the family to Moscow my mother intended to provide for her children the best possible education; the best gymnasium was considered to be the new Medvednikov, or 9th Government Gymnasium, founded from the bequest capital left by a rich and liberal merchant. There were three preparatoires followed by eight grades. Already in the first preparatoire the knowledge of French was required. I went to exams at the age of seven for entrance to the first preparatoire; I was asked questions, both oral and in writing. I made a favorable impression, and my mother had to decide whether to let me or my elder brother, Daniel, who also presented himself for examinations to the third preparatoire, be accepted: there was only one Jewish vacancy, the governmental rule being that Jews could compose but three percent of the students. She preferred, and justly so, that the elder brother be accepted.
Daniel traveled to the school, rather far away, and I was sent several times a week to a French lady, Madame Chaulet, who lived in the Dolgi Pereulok in the Devitchie Pole on the outskirts of town. She had taught in the Medvednikov Gymnasium in former years, and apparently was recommended to us to be my tutor. She was an elderly noble lady, of the Russian Orthodox faith, as I judged by the many icons in her bedroom. She was very kind to me. Each time I came she would greet me, inviting me to have a cup of sweet tea or chocolate with cookies. She was a good soul.
The way to Mme. Chaulets house was long. In Moscow there were no electric tramways as there were already in Vitebskonly horse-drawn trolleys. I would walk to the Liubianskaya Square, where stood the building occupied by an insurance company, which fifteen years later became the headquarters of the secret police, a horrible place. On the square along the outside wall of the Kitai Gorod were little wooden stores with all kinds of merchandise; I would stop at stationery displays, at bookstores, and loaf. Sometimes I would buy a ball of chocolate with a surprise ring inside; the ring had a stone, and all was for three kopeks.
Daniel impressed on us early that the business of our parents was declining, and that they were having difficult times. Therefore, he told us, we had to save some of the travel money. My way to Devitchie Pole would cost five kopekshalf of the way in a two-story horse-drawn trolley and the second half in a one-story small trolleyto which I had to transfer at the quay of the Moscow River. But traveling only the first half on the open upper deck of the trolley, one paid three kopeks, but had to go afoot the second half. Thus to save two kopeks I would walk for an hour, but often I would save the whole amount by walking the entire distance both ways, which at my slow, loafing pace, took a full two hours. Sometimes I would go by the long park along the high wall of the Kremlin, sometimes through the Kremlin, by the long rows of cannons displayed there since the Napoleonic war. There was one particular cannon, not very big, that I could lift by one end, and I would not miss doing it each time I passed there. The Tzar bell, broken, the size of a house, and the Tzar cannon, with four immense cannon balls, were my permanent interest. But most of all I loafed, going by Volchovka and Mochovaya, with their many bookstores. I would look attentively at the postcards, and sometimes buy a few, with romantic content, such as a nymph at a well; but soon I was more and more interested in the books, and became familiar with many titles and authors. Daniel collected books, and all of us participated in this hobby; the books were mainly works of Russian authors or of foreign authors in translation, as given to subscribers of certain periodicals, usually in covers with gilded imprints.
When one year passed and I again had to present myself for examinations, I was not acceptedmy French was but satisfactory, and not very satisfactory. I went another year to Mme. Chaulet; at the same time I had at home a tutor for Russian and mathematics. He was a medical student named Bialo, and sometimes he used the lessons to practice on me the art of making bandages, a study that I recognized twelve years later when myself a student of medicine.
After another year, at the third try, I had again only satisfactory for Frenchthis was a strategem to keep me out of the quota, promised to somebody else. Madame Chaulet, very indignant, since she knew my knowledge in French was not the reason for my non-acceptance, went to the Gymnasium, where she earlier had taught, to talk to the director. I did not have any feeling of degradation in that as a Jew I repeatedly met rejection, while the Gentile boys found acceptance with no difficulty. But my mother suffered. Once she went to see the director, Vasili Pavlovich Nedatchin, who posed as a liberal yet was of a dictatorial nature with aristocratic aspirations, though a commoner by birth. Suddenly my mother burst into tears. A proud woman, she could never pardon herself this display of human weakness; but she so much wanted me to enter this school, thought to be the best.
Two years we lived in our apartment in Milutinski Pereulok, and then we moved into a more modest place in Obidinski Pereulok. Yet the two years in our first apartmentfrom my age of seven to nineleft many imprints. Our apartment was on the top floor. An attic was over the adjacent part of the building, and there the chambermaids or cooks would hang the washed linen to drythere was no such thing as sending linen to a laundry. One day Alexander, or Lolya as we would call him, and I went to investigate the place. It smelled of pigeon habitats; heavy beams supported the roof, with one or two dormers opening onto the steep metal roof. The domestics who happened to be there, an uneducated folk unable to read or write, thought it a good joke to bolt the door and frighten us by denying us a means of returning. Only with children could the female servants, actually still living in semi-slavery (half-day off every second Sunday) permit themselves such a practical joke; and they laughed behind the door. Without much hesitation, Alexander climbed out of the attic through one of the dormer windows. The opening was close to the edge of the roof and Alexander, holding on with his fingers to the tin of the roof, was moving with his feet towards another dormersix or seven stories above the street. The women seeing him there shouted in fear and opened the locked door and called to me. I, however, was already one leg out of the dormer about to follow my brother and possibly was already crawling along the roofs edge. I climbed back and made my way out through the door.
In 1905 I went for the fourth time for the examinations of entrance. This time Mme. Chaulet went with me to the examinations; I was accepted, at the age of ten, to the first class.
Now that I was enrolled as a student in the Gymnasium, my mother took me to a store of uniforms, and soon I was, like all the others, dressed in the school uniform. It was made of black cloth, and included a black belt with an emblem on the metal buckle, and a military cap, with another large emblem in front identifying our gymnasium. There was also an overcoat in blue-grey, very similar to the one worn by officers in the army in peacetime. For festive occasions we had a short tailless jacket, in a dark color.
Ours was an unusally large classfifty nine pupils; in the following years the number diminished to a little over forty. I still remember most of the names: Adelgeim, Aleksejev, Arkadjev, Armand, Bleklov, Vaganov, Vargaftig, Vasilief, Velikovsky... (In the Russian alphabet the letter V follows the letter B.)
The first, third and fourth, in a year or two, were no longer in the class. Yet very many of those with whom I started at the age of ten in the first class went with me through eight grades and finished, like myself, in 1913, at the age of 18or some at the age of 19; I was one of the youngest in the class, by several months to a year younger than the others. The system required that a student be satisfactory in all subjectsand there was no free choice of subjects, with the exception of Greek, which was not obligatory and was offered in upper classes and taken only by a few students. If a students marks were unsatisfactory in one subject, he had to pass an examination in the fall before the start of the new class; if he did not pass the examination, he would be required to repeat the entire grade in all subjects, joining the younger class. This was a great humiliation, not so much for the loss of a year as for being compelled to part with ones classmates and join the younger boys, for whom there was always some feeling of contempt just because they were younger. With more than two unsatisfactory subjects a boy would automatically remain in the class, without a chance to rehabilitate himself in the fall. Often such a boy would prefer to quit the gymnasium entirely; but some remained and even more than once, so that a few students who studied with Daniel became my comrades.
The year that I entered the class, two more students were novitchki or green ones: Golunsky and Gorbov, both very talented boys; all the others had already spent three years in this group, having started at the first preparatoire. In my class there was one other JewEugene Luntz, the son of a doctor. We were free to abstain from the class of Gods law, or religion, given by a priest.
On my way home from the gymnasium I was often joined by Golunski, whom his mother brought and came to pick up, whereas other students came and went by themselves. His father was a military staff doctor, whom I never saw. His mother was a large woman. The boy was pampered, always warmly dressed, with warm heavy boots long before the winter set in. He was very studious, never participated in any pranks, always knew his lessons excellently, was respectful toward authorities, and showed little imagination. Forty-five years later he was a prominent Bolshevik, a professor of international law, designated by the Soviet Union as Justice at the Hague tribunal. At his visit to the United States I could still recognize him by his picture in the press; but there was no one among the fifty nine students who fitted less the role of a revolutionary or member of the Bolshevik elite.
Gorbov was the son of a Jewish mother, with whom he lived; she was divorced or separated from her husband, a justice in a minor court in Moscow. Gorbov later became a poet, then a Bolshevik; at the height of his career he was denounced and purged.
Vargaftig, who grew into a very strong boy, was a baptized Jew; not a few Jews baptized their children to open them a road in life. Being baptized, they were never again discriminated against. Being strong and big and jolly, he soon dominated the class, and around him several other boys of some distinction grouped themselves. But he did not grow up to what could be expected of him: he later became a tennis player, a boxer, a trainer in sport, but nothing outstanding.
Another group in the upper classes centered around Zavadski, a very tall and lean boy; he was talented in drawing and liked to participate in school plays. In adolescence he was not interested in girls, and in later years became a noted stage director of one of the famous studios of the Moscow Art Theater.
It seems that I hurry to tell of these boys as they grouped themselves in later grades and as they grew up; the fall of 1905 neither showed yet their talents as clearly, nor presaged their future.
I was placed at one desk with a boy of Polish extraction: Sedlezki. He tried by various means to frighten me, but was unsuccessful. Pupils sat two to a desk of good oak. They were placed at the desks according to their height: smaller boys at lower desks in front.
For eight years I would walk in the morning some four or five blocks of Moscows side streets to the Medvednikov Gymnasium and in the afternoon retrace my steps homeward. My way passed a kazienka or a government monopoly store that sold exclusively vodka in bottles of various sizes. Occasionally I would see a man of the labor class come out of the store (it was not permitted to drink inside), slap the bottle on the bottom, thus uncorking it, and drink it on the spot, and stagger on his way, or return to the monopoly for another bottle. Sometimes I would see a drunk lying in the gutter, his broken bottle next to him.
The name kazienka was derived from kazna or State Treasury. Under Tzar Nicholas II every village in Russia had a kazienka, but by no means did every village have a primary or any other school. Russia was held in ignorance and illiteracy but was kept thoroughly drunk, and the government of the Tzar obtained its revenue from a monopoly that kept the peasant and labor classes in dissolution and mental decay. When drafted into the army, some of the men called to the colors had, during the training, straw tied to one boot and hay to the other, marching under the corporals barking, straw, hay, straw, hay! since many of the inducted could not distinguish right from left.
The Russian-Japanese war was started for the protection of the possessions and concessions of the members of the House of Romanov on the River Yalu and in Manchuria. It is true that upon mounting the throne in 1894, Nikolas had an idealistic plan for an international court (the Hague Tribunal), but this idealism did not last. In 1903 a pogrom in Kinishev, in southern Russia, was staged at the directives of the Tzar to frighten the Jewish population of the country and as punishment for their liberal tendencies and spirit of westernization. When the Japanese war was lost in the naval battle off Tzusima, the hero of the prolonged defence of Port Arthur, General Stessel, was sentenced to the Schluesselburg prison, a measure calculated to find a scapegoat outside of the inefficient and corrupt palace.
Workers who went to the palace to ask the Tzars (Little Fathers) protection were shot by artillery, and kossaks with their sabers were let loose into the crowd. In Moscow gendarmes occupied a place across the street from the university and shot at students, but the population of Moscow, undeterred by the black hundreds, the butchers, and similar patriots of Moscows lower places, staged huge marching demonstrations and won concessions from the Tzar: this was the 1905 revolution.
The Tzar was compelled to promise land to the landless peasantry and to grant a constitution and a representative Duma (Parliament), which he disbanded as soon as he felt safe. The members of the Duma, headed by the president, Professor Mouremtzev, gathered in Vyborg, Finland, and wrote the Vyborg declaration, inviting the population to refuse paying taxes; Muromtzev and other signers of the document were sentenced to prison terms.
From one Duma to the next (there were four), the franchise was ever more limited: a rich person voted in a different curia than a poor person and his vote weighed a score of times the vote of the latter. Stolypin, the Prime Minister, gave his name to the Stolypin tie which meant a noose at the gallows. Many revolutionaries spent their lives in Siberia; some great men and women, like Nikolas Morozov and Vera Figner, spent years and decades in solitary confinement.
Nor would the Tzar tolerate the illustrious efforts of some of the nobility, most notably of Leo Tolstoy, to bring about reforms. Tolstoy did not advocate the overthrow of the regime, but he was persecuted by the government for his call to return to the ideals of early Christianity. While he lay dying in the station masters house at Ostapovo, a refugee from his own house and estate, the Holy Synod, dominated by the Tzar, forbade prayers for the octogenarian in any of the Orthodox churches of Russia, and when he died, he was refused a Christian burial. So also was the evil Tzar, who was to meet an evil end.