Today is my 33rd birthday. Gerda, my wife and I, had volunteered to serve on special assignment from the Salvation Army in Sweden, with others to assist in the task of “saving the poor Russians”.
We’d been in Petrograd, Russia for a total of seven months and twenty-two days. The stench and threat of death confronted, and chased all religious workers at every turn, at an increasing tempo, yet when the midnight hour came and with our vows and prayers said, sleep came easily.
None-the-less, the angst is very real.
Just three days ago many Orthodox Church officials were executed just across the River Neva. The terrifying noise coming from the Peter and Paul Fortress where the mass lynching was being unmercifully carried out lifted to the very district where our headquarters and officers’ quarters are established on Voznesensky Prospect 22 (Ascension street). We live in the shadow of the magnificent St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the 4th largest cathedral in the world, completed in 1848. The screaming and reverberating gun-shots coming from across the river’s 440 metres echoed into the early morning.
The harbinger of the Bolshevik’s evil ambitions named the Red Terror campaign has been whispered about. We assumed with most others that it was nothing more than an evil rumour one too malicious and criminal to contemplate.
It had been announced officially six days earlier on Monday September 2, 1918, by Yakov Sverdlov, and its stated purpose was to “combat the struggle with counter-revolutionaries considered to be enemies of the people”. The campaign caught wind and was made livelier when many Russian Communists joined in the chorus and openly proclaimed that Red Terror was needed for extermination of entire ‘elite’ social groups or former "ruling classes," a campaign of mass arrests and executions.
Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinoviev declared a few days later: “To overcome our enemies we must have our own socialist militarism. We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia's population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.”
Whatever the theoretical reason, the campaign was initiated after the assassination of Cheka leader, Moisei Uritsky and the attempted assassination of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.
The first official announcement of Red Terror, was published in Izvestiya (newspaper) and posted conspicuously for all to read, appealing to the "Working Class" the following day on September 3, 1918, It’s our intent to "crush the hydra of counter-revolution with massive terror! … And, anyone who dares to spread the slightest rumor against the Soviet regime will be arrested immediately and sent to a concentration camp." It was during this period the Gulag system came into existence.
Two days later on Thursday, September 5, 1918, the decree "On Red Terror," was issued, by the Cheka. чрезвыча́йная коми́ссия (Emergency State Security Committee, the first of a succession of Soviet state security organizations. – KGB) The Cheka was the much-feared Bolshevik secret police, though to most Russians it was no secret.
Comrades, the Cheka declared, here is our official strategy –:
- · We will hang them (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers.
- · We will publish their names. Single out the hostages per my instructions in yesterday's telegram.
Comrades!… You must make an example of these people. Five hundred "representatives of overthrown classes" were executed immediately by the Bolshevik communists.
|GULAG - LABOR CAMP|
This campaign marked the beginning of the Gulag, ГУЛАГ, the government agency that administered the main Soviet forced labor camp systems, and some scholars have estimated that 70,000 were imprisoned by September, 1921, just three years later.
Conditions in these camps led to high mortality rates, and there were "repeated massacres." The Cheka at the Kholmogory camp adopted the practice of drowning bound prisoners in the nearby Dvina river. Occasionally, entire prisons were “emptied” of inmates via mass shootings prior to abandoning a town to White forces.
On October 15, Chekist Gleb Bokiy, summing up the officially ended Red Terror, reported that in Petrograd 800 alleged enemies had been shot and another 6,229 imprisoned. Casualties in the first two months were between 10,000 and 15,000 based on lists of summarily executed people published in the "Cheka Weekly" newspaper and other official press.
That members of the clergy were subjected to particularly brutal abuse was of utmost concern. Filosof Ornatsky, a priest in Petrograd, was arrested earlier, in the spring of 1918, after giving a public requiem for victims of the Bolsheviks. He and thirty-two others were driven to a cliff overlooking the Gulf of Finland, where the priest was allowed to perform a brief funeral service and bless the victims, before they were all shot and dropped into the sea. And, according to documents cited by the late Alexander Yakovlev, priests, monks and nuns were crucified, thrown into cauldrons of boiling tar, scalped, strangled, given Communion with melted lead and drowned in holes in the ice. An estimated 3,000 were put to death in 1918 alone.
The mass repressions were conducted without judicial process by the secret police, the Cheka, together with elements of the Bolshevik military intelligence agency, the GRU.
September 8 – сентябрь 8, 1918
The daily toil begins as it always does well before sunrise and often ending past the midnight hour. The Russian autumn was announcing its arrival by stealing from our diminishing treasured bevy of daylight hours.
Our routine includes weekly hospital visits including the massive Krasnoye Selo cholera hospital, one of more than 30 hospitals caring for Petrograd’s sick and dying. Cholera had invaded Petrograd straight through to the aristocratic precincts and many sought healing outside the heavily infected areas and made their way to the hospital in Krasnoye Selo.
The Petrograd tram system served us well, particularly if we were southbound. The northbound service was more problematic. The Blagoveshchensky (Annunciation) Bridge is the one we use most often when crossing the Neva River. It connects Vasilievsky Island and the central part of the city, the Admiralteysky raion, where we live. The bridge's traditional opening at 01:35 to allow ships to move up and down the river means that until 04:30 there’s no means to cross the river. Our work in the Vasilievsky Island region and north had to be wrapped up by midnight at the latest!
We set off early on the two-hour journey to the village traveling by tram, foot and horse cart. Our pastoral care duties there never altered. We pray first of all with the nearly dead and then with those less critically ill. There are generally bereaved family members needing counseling on matters concerning the removal of their relative’s remains, nearby coffin craftsmen, undertakers and chapels where funeral services can be conducted.
The daily dead at the Krasnoye Selo hospital, and those transported from the funeral parlors are added to the Petrograd total of 2,500 cadavers in varying degrees of decay collected each week. Hunger is the number one killer with more death by starvation than there are graves.
The dead were collected from the city streets, the river Neva, homes and hospitals. The intelligentsia (literate middle class) are recruited to transport the unidentified and unclaimed dead by a steady procession of horse-carts piled high along the 18 mile trek to the golden leafed fields and forests bordering the Petrograd to Moscow road. Soon snow and bitter cold will come and the frozen cadavers would next be seen in April.
The salary for assisting in transporting the dead is two loaves of dark bread per day, with the promise of work the following spring months. The cadavers will remain covered under the snow, and with the spring thaw mass graves will be dug and the bodies buried before dogs and wild animals begin tearing at the rotting flesh.
The devastation we witness daily; the sights, smells and suffering will turn many a ‘called’ person to rethink their vocation. The repeated exposure to the readily recognized and peculiarly offensive stench of death always remained with us long after we’d left the hospital. Our clothes were permeated by the smell of the dead and dying and would be recognized by anyone with whom we came in contact. Gerda would use a light vinegar/water dampened cloth and rub it lightly into our uniforms and overcoats to remove the smell.
As we walked back toward the Petrograd tram line I always attempted to cheer Gerda by singing the old Swedish Salvation Army song: “O, hur härligt att få vara räknad bland Guds krigarskara, Ej vi fruktar någon fara, då själv Han med oss går” - (Otto Lundahl, Stridsropet (The War Cry) 9/12 1899)
“Oh, how wonderful to be numbered among God's host of the battle corps, Nor do we fear any danger, when He himself goes with us”
Otto & Gerda Ljungholm