A room on the Moika
When revolution rages, stumbling upon a few thousand dollars is a risky business.
The room was filled with the sweet smell of candle smoke. Despite the tall, broken windows offering grandiose views of decorated façades across the Moika’s frozen waters, the high-ceilinged room was dark. The sun had set long before dinnertime, and Oleg’s candle was the sole source of light.
The grand bedroom was bare. Oleg, a short man in his thirties whose features had long vanished beneath a scraggly beard, had come late to the party. The November frenzy had come and gone; now the January winds rushed through the empty halls of erstwhile palaces. Petrograd had precious little left to loot.
In the once-busy house, all that could be heard were Oleg’s restless footsteps and his stomach’s low growl. Filling up your bowl at the soup kitchens put together by the people’s commissars required a work permit, and Oleg had not been given one. Shops were gone, the black market required something to trade.
The room contained nothing save for a fireplace adorned with soot-stained ceramic tiles, probably foreign-made. Some showed violent cracks but most were intact, if filthy. If Oleg could pry them out of their casing, he could get a good deal for them, he thought. He took out his hammer and chisel and got to work.
He spent most of the night hammering away at the tiles’ edges, breaking more in the process. Clearly, there was a reason why these had not been stolen yet. But Oleg could already picture the juicy, red sausage he would barter for these. He persevered. By the time the day’s first streetcars clanked their way through the street below, he had five tiles in his bag.
When he went for a sixth, it shattered to reveal a hollow. Oleg poked his chisel inside, in case a rat had made the hole its home. If he was quick enough, perhaps he could impale it and cook it. He could not quite believe when he heard not a squeak, but the unmistakeable ruffle of paper money.
Once home, Oleg laid the banknotes on his cot, his arms shaking. He lived in a cramped room under a zinc roof, a former servant’s quarters. He had no water or stove, nothing but his own body to heat the draughty room.
He had only returned to Petrograd a few weeks earlier, after his battalion’s train had derailed on the way back from the front, and he had been lucky to find such accommodation. Many of his brothers-in-arms roamed about the city every night in search for somewhere to shelter from the cold. In fact, when their train had reached the city’s edges, the Cheka had kicked them out into a vast rail yard and left them to fend for themselves. They did not trust those men who, in October, had been away fighting in the name of a bourgeois government.
The notes were American, all identical — fifty-dollar bills. Four hundred of them. That morning, in the deserted palatial bedroom on the Moika, Oleg had hurriedly shuffled twenty thousand US dollars into his tired army rucksack.
Sitting on the floor beside his bed, Oleg laughed nervously. He could not imagine that a single person could ever hold so much money. This meant freedom from hunger for the rest of his days.
But what could he do with it? Possession of foreign currency had become a criminal offence under the Bolshevik government. If he was caught with this cash, he would be arrested, perhaps executed on the spot. As he had walked home that morning, carrying the American notes, he had felt all of the city’s eyes on him, as if every passer-by could have seen right through the cloth of his bag. Who knew if the Cheka had not come into possession of one of these Röntgenograms that German prisoners said can see bone through flesh? When he had finally closed the door behind him, he had been shaking uncontrollably.
Oleg felt trapped. He knew what this money could accomplish abroad, but here it could drag him down to untold depths. No-one knew what the Cheka did once they got a hold of you. Those who were caught never came back.
For a moment, Oleg thought of turning it in. He had found an émigré traitor’s hidden stash, he would say, and was returning it to the rightful ownership of the people. Surely he would be safe then, perhaps they would even give him a medal or, better yet, a work permit.
But what then? Having held a fortune in his hands, he would have to eke out a meagre living in the city’s factories, breaking his back pouring molten steel into rifle-moulds, before being called back to a new front, Russians fighting Russians, with those very same arms? He had seen the headlines: he knew that the “treacherous Whites” were massing troops in Ukraine and on the Volga.
Oleg knew war too well. In the fields of Latvia he had cowered for days under German shelling. He had been left for dead, buried under the lifeless bodies of his friends. He had to run for the nearest border. Finland! He had seen Pravda raging against the “imperialist Finns” advancing to Lake Ladoga, mere miles from Petrograd. Finland was independent now, and only some of it was Red.
If Oleg could just get to Finland, greenback magic could take him far away from misery, madness and war.
In the dark of night, Oleg set off eastward. For the five ornate tiles he found a wooden sleigh and a reasonably healthy horse from a discreet old man on the outskirts of Petrograd. He carried all his possessions with him: pelts to keep himself warm, his old army papers, and twenty thousand dollars sewn into the lining of his coat. Soon he reached the smooth, frozen surface of Lake Ladoga and headed north.
Oleg knew the Ladoga well. As a child, he had often gone fishing through the ice with his father. He remembered which way the winds blew — always east or west, back and forth across the isthmus between the lake and the Gulf of Finland. If he kept the air beating one of his cheeks, he should be facing north.
Oleg rode for hours, slowly making his way across the ice. He could no longer feel his face, battered as it was by the freezing gale. Only his stomach still broke through to his brain, howling to be filled. He slipped in and out of consciousness, and each time it seemed the sleigh had stayed in the same place, even though the slow, exhausted horse soldiered on ahead.
As the sky grew pale, he was woken by the sleigh’s rough bouncing: he was nearing the edge, where the ice’s slow-motion crash against the sloping earth created a messy boulder field. Eventually the horse crept onto shore and made to start across the flat landscape. Suddenly a gunshot rang. The poor beast cried and collapsed, its shoulder red with blood.
“Stoy!” a voice shouted. Alarmed at first, Oleg now broke down, weeping under his covers. This order, barked in his mother tongue, could only mean one thing: he had failed. After enduring the harrowing nighttime crossing, he had fallen right back into Russian hands. Someone grabbed at the pelts and uncovered Oleg’s tear-strewn face. “Do you have any weapons?” asked the man in heavily accented Russian.
Oleg looked up and froze. The soldier standing before him with alarm was not wearing the uniform Oleg had seen so often printed on Pravda’s front page. It had no red star, no hammer-and-sickle. The soldier grabbed Oleg, threw him onto the ground and kicked him, asking the same question again, louder. Oleg could not speak, he was too cold and too ecstatic to mind the soldier’s frustrated beating: he had reached the right shore after all.
Oleg was brought to an interrogation room in a prisoners’ camp near Oppola. Facing him was a smart officer from Finland’s newly-formed army. The man was quiet, spoke good Russian, and wrote down Oleg’s answers diligently in a small, black leather-bound notebook. When he saw Oleg fidgeting he offered him a cigarette.
Oleg could tell from his questions that the officer’s benign demeanour belied the profound suspicion that his duty demanded he observe towards his captive. Who was to say that this Oleg Vorotnikov (or whatever his real name was, the officer doubtless thought) had not been sent to spy on army positions? You couldn’t put anything past the Reds, after all.
Oleg the prisoner, stil wrapped in his woollen coat, told the officer how after returning from a war he had not believed in, the country he had fought for had left him and his comrades to starve on the street. How he had had to fight and steal just to get a piece of bread. How, one day, he had seen an unattended sleigh in a quiet side street and decided to try his luck across the ice. All of this the officer took down in his black notebook.
Not once did Oleg mention the foreign money he was carrying wrapped around his body. He had struggled to hold his nerve when the soldier frisked him on the Ladoga shore, then again when guards searched him at the camp’s entrance. But they had not noticed the thin layer of dollars in the repulsive, unwashed coat. They held their noses while they looked for weapons, and did not look further once they had found none.
Oleg knew that the notebook was the key to his future. He made sure to repeat every detail, to profess at length his gratitude to the generous Finnish army, his contempt for the Bolsheviks. The man he was facing remained expressionless. He did not make decisions, Oleg thought, but he sent his notes to those who did. What mattered was not what was said, but what was written down.
Two agonising months passed. Oleg paced across his cell, his eyes buried in the Finnish phrasebook his guard had given him so he could make basic requests. Oleg was fascinated by the little volume. It used the same sleek, attractive alphabet as his dollar bills did.
Eventually the officer came to Oleg’s cell. Oleg could see the outline of the black notebook in the man’s breast pocket. “You speak some Finnish now?” he asked sternly, in Russian. Oleg replied with an enthusiastic “Kyllä!” — “Yes!”
“Good,” said the officer. He paused to take papers from inside his jacket. Handing them to Oleg, he told him in simple Finnish words that the Republic of Finland had granted him asylum, and that he was to depart for Vaasa.
Overcome with emotion, Oleg bowed deeply and repeated the emphatic kiitoksia he had practiced from his phrasebook. The two-day train journey to the port of Vaasa, on the Gulf of Bothnia, came and went as in a dream. He checked into a hotel with a view of the harbour, and for the first time since leaving Petrograd, he unsewed his coat lining and cast his eyes on the thin, green paper that had changed his life.
Taking a few notes out, Oleg bought fresh clothes and a third-class ticket on the next outbound ship. He spent over a year in rainy Southampton, learning English from drunk dockers while he waited for demobilised liners to set sail once more across an ocean now at peace. Finally, in June 1919, he boarded RMS Aquitania and set off for New York.
He had thought long and hard, after leaving Finland, about where he should settle. Europe was in tatters, there was nothing for him here. Leant against the railing, Oleg looked west to his new homeland, where new lives could be built: the country of his coat-dollars.
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