F.F. Raskolnikov

Tales of Sub-Lieutenant Ilyin

Men in Matting


Three destroyers swam, like black swans, over the broad, high waters of the River Kama.[At this time -October 1918 -all the waterways of the Volga- Kama basin had been placed by the Soviet Government under Raskolnikov’s authority.] Carefully skirting the frequent sandbanks and shoals, keeping close now to the right, the higher bank, now to the left, the lower one, they hastened toward Red Sarapul, which had been taken by Comrade Azin’s Iron Division.

The sharp iron stems of the narrow-built destroyers made a murmurous purling as they cut through the smooth, dark-blue water. They were in line-ahead formation, with Prytky leading, then Prochny, and Retivy bringing up the rear. The dark autumn night shrouded the river in impenetrable darkness. From time to time there was a flicker of reddish light from the villages on the banks. The steel hulls of the warships trembled silently. In the stuffy, dirty boiler-rooms the shirtless stokers, muscular as circus strong men, vigorously and deftly threw heavy shovelfuls of small coal into the open fire-chambers and, bathed in sweat, fed the fiery furnaces. Slowly and cautiously, the engineers poured warm, thick, heavy lubricant from the long, narrow necks of oil-cans on to the swiftly plunging pistons. After wiping their hands on greasy, black rags, with a confident air they turned small wheels and operated long, awkwardly protruding levers.

Beside me on the high bridge of the leading destroyer, grasping one of the spokes of the helm and peering out into the blackness, stood our navigator. He was an old pilot with a long, grey beard that reached to his waist, and wore a shabby black cap and a long-skirted overcoat, like an Old-Believer Biblereader.[Those members of the Russian Orthodox Church who refused to accept the reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon in 1653-1676 broke away and were thereafter known as the Old Believers’, or raskolniki (schismatics).]

‘Couldn’t you increase our speed, Grandad?’ I asked him, impatiently.

‘No, indeed, comrade commander,’ the old man replied gloomily. ‘This is a difficult reach, the buoys aren’t alight and the night is dark. I don’t know how we’re going to get by.’

His serious tone and quavering voice betrayed uncertainty and anxiety. In all his many years as a pilot he had never before had to undertake such a risky voyage as this. We must at all costs get to Sarapul. Closely pursuing Admiral Stark’s White-Guard flotilla, we had forced them to turn into the River Byelaya, blocked the mouth of that river with small, oblong whiskered mines of the ’Rybka’ (Fish) type, and left almost all the vessels of our own flotilla behind to guard this minefield. The army commander, the energetic Shorin, had ordered the destroyers to break through to Sarapul and bring help to the Red land forces there. The large, rich, grain-trading village of Nikolo-Berezovka, which lay between us and our objective, was occupied by the Whites. On the bank near this village stood a battery of three-inch field guns. Consequently, we were going to be able to get through only by night, when conditions for navigating were extremely difficult. Fortunately, the waters of the Volga and the Kama were unusually high in 1918.

Amid the dense darkness golden sparks were flying from the destroyer’s funnels and fiery-red columns blazed up from them. Through the speaking tube I told the stokers about this, and within a few minutes thick black smoke was pouring out of the wide, sloping funnels. We had to creep along quickly and inconspicuously, lest the Whites should spot us and open fire. Our lights were extinguished. All the hatches were battened down and the portholes tightly closed with their heavy covers. None of the crew was smoking on deck. Those smokers who could not hold out had to go below, and in that stuffy atmosphere inhale their strong-smelling mak/zorka. ’We’re getting near to Nikolo-Berezovka,’ the pilot warned me in a half-whisper. On the right the huts of a sleeping village were dimly visible. In the strained and eerie silence the ship’s engine was working dully and rhythmically like a great iron heart. Our speed caused the stern to quiver gently: behind it rose a frothy heap of water churned up by the blades of our screws. The deep silence of the sleeping village was suddenly broken by the loud, jerky barking of dogs. Just opposite Nikolo-Berezovka there was a steep, dangerous sandbank. Luckily, we managed to get round it all right. After that, the reach became less difficult, and we could use the middle of the river. A sigh of relief broke from the hollow chest of the old pilot when the dangerous place had been left behind. He lifted the shabby black cap from his grey head, turned up to the heavens his sad, grey eyes and, with a sweeping gesture, crossed himself, to the amazement of the smiling sailors.


All the authorities of Sarapul had assembled on the covered floating landing-stage, to greet our flotilla: the secretary of the local Party committee, the chairman of the executive committee of the soviet, the garrison commander and the commanding officer of a regiment. On the shore, in front of a throng of workers, a Red Army band, dressed in long grey overcoats, their brightly-polished brass trumpets gleaming in the sunshine, were playing a cheerful march. The destroyers, dragging behind them a long sheet of dark-brown smoke, passed under the high, still-unfinished railway bridge and were moored, one after the other, beside the crowded landing-stage. The comrades who had come to meet us stepped forward, in their light sheepskin coats and black leather jackets, to introduce themselves and shake our hands.

‘Where is Comrade Azin?’ I asked, because I particularly wanted to meet him.

‘He’s at Agryz—that’s where divisional headquarters is now,’ they replied.

I clambered up a steep slope and made my way to the office of the local soviet, a two-storeyed stone house with a balcony, looking out on the dirty market square. In the tiny rooms, furnished with plain, unpainted wooden tables, some visitors, young workers from Izhevsk, were scurrying about. Members of the Soviet were patiently giving them the information they wanted.

A tarnished samovar bubbled in the small canteen, sending out a trickle of steam from the hole in the top. On the counter lay plates with slices of black bread and yellow Dutch cheese.

Sitting before a glass of hot tea I learnt that, not far from Sarapul, in the village of Galyany, some workers from Izhevsk who had been captured by the Whites were imprisoned on a barge and in danger of being shot. There were numerous Communists among them.[1]

‘We must rescue them all,’ I thought. However, the barge lay behind the White-Guard lines: the front ran between Sarapul and Galyany. This meant that we should have to get through into the enemy’s rear, which would call for some military cunning. I hurried back to the ship. The Sarapul comrades shook our hands concernedly and wished us success.

When I was once more on board Prytky, I gave this order to all three destroyers: ‘Haul down the red flags.’ Everyone was surprised, but obeyed unquestioningly. ‘All hands on deck! Weigh anchor!’—the brisk command rang out, and everyone fell to.

At last the destroyers moved off, carefully detaching themselves from the landing-stage. We were going into battle. Our masts, bare like giant barge-poles, looked lonely without their flags.

Immediately beyond Sarapul, which occupied a fine position on the high bank, lay yellow fields of stubble and well-mowed meadows. Suddenly, ahead of us on the right bank, we observed a small group of armed men. This was the front line. Lying all alone on its side, on a shoal, was a black, tarbesmeared fishing boat. We drew near to the bank and, after switching off our engines, entered into conversation with the men in military uniform, who wore epaulettes.

‘Who is the senior officer here?’ demanded our officer of the watch through his megaphone, his manly voice ringing out over the quiet river.

From the group of soldiers stepped forward a thickset, broad-shouldered fellow in a neat, new khaki jacket and riding-breeches tucked into glossy leather boots.

‘I am,’ he replied in the usual smart military manner.

‘And who are you?’ came the voice, again, from our destroyer.

‘Sergeant- Major Volkov,’ was the brisk reply from the man on the bank, as he squared his broad shoulders.

‘The fleet commander, Admiral Stark,’ I said to the officer of the watch, who repeated my words through his megaphone, ‘orders you immediately to come on board this destroyer.’

Sergeant-Major Volkov hesitated. After thinking for a moment, he went up to the fishing-boat and tried to launch it into the water, but then, suddenly, with a suspicious glance at the destroyer, like an animal scenting danger, he rushed back in the direction from which he had come. The Maxim gun on my destroyer rattled loudly, firing at him as he ran, but he succeeded in taking cover behind a high, green mound.

The destroyers glided on further, quickly and smoothly, cutting their way through the calm waters of the river.


To our left, on a hill, stood the white stone church of Galyany village. Below the church, in the middle of the river, a blackened wooden barge lay at anchor. Sitting or standing on the barge were armed men in black sheepskin coats and shaggy caps. Beside the church a three-inch field gun showed grey, and a machine-gun projected from the embrasure of the belfry. Not far from the church a broad-beamed, clumsy-looking paddlesteamer lay beside a landing-stage.

To the right of this, on the lower bank, from the bushes that covered a sloping sandbank, soldiers in greenish jackets and breeches tucked into high, tight-fitting leather boots were gazing at us with curiosity. The relaxed bearing of these soldiers, standing with their hands in their pockets, was redolent of the peaceful placidity of the rear.

When Prytky had drawn level with the floating prison, I issued this command: ‘His Excellency, Admiral Stark, orders you to get ready. We are going to take. this barge, with the prisoners, in tow and bring it to Ufa.’

The morose faces of the guards beamed with pleasure. Proximity to the front evidently caused them anxiety, and the news that they were to be moved into the deep rear was cheering to these prison-warders.

‘But what about the Reds?’ one of them asked, uncertainly. ‘They’re at Sarapul, you know.’

‘Sarapul was captured this morning by our valiant troops. The Reds have fled to Agryz,’ the officer of the watch replied through his megaphone, following my instructions.

Joy shone from the faces of the guards. Evidently they had been dreaming day and night of the capture of Sarapul by the Whites and of moving to distant, secure Ufa, and so they easily, eagerly believed what I told them. They brightened up, assumed a dignified air, and, cheerfully bustling about and shouting, began, swiftly and deftly, to raise the heavy iron anchor by hand. My destroyer approached the paddle-tugboat that lay, all by itself, beside the landing-stage, laden with a small stack of birchwood.

Our young, ruddy-faced officer of the watch, with a soft down on his cheeks, lifted the megaphone to his lips and, prompted by me, shouted loudly and clearly: ‘Tugboat!’

After a short pause a hoarse voice answered: ‘Aye, aye!’

‘By order of the fleet commander, Admiral Stark, you are to take in tow the barge with the prisoners and bring it to Ufa. We shall give you protection.’

‘We haven’t enough fuel,’ an elderly native of the Volga country, with a a curly brown beard, answered from the bridge of the tugboat.

‘That’s all right, we’ll pick some up on the way,’ shouted back in an authoritative tone, through his megaphone, the former Sub- lieutenant who had graduated from Naval College two years before.

‘Aye, aye!’ was the obedient reply from the tugboat’s captain, and he briskly pushed off from the landing-stage, fastened a tow-rope to the barge, and began slowly pulling it along after his own vessel.

The White-Guard soldiers standing on the bank watched with calm curiosity the destroyers, the tugboat, the barge and all our manoeuvres. No danger was to be expected from them. All that I was afraid of was that the guards on the barge would, at the last moment, realise what was happening and, in desperation, would throw hand-grenades into the hold and blow up our imprisoned comrades.

However, the guards, suspecting nothing, sailed off on the prison-barge, which from that moment became their own prison. An elderly warder, sitting on a coil of thick rope, was Peacefully and unconcernedly smoking his pipe. When Prytky drew alongside the barge, without getting up he took the pipe out of his mouth and gaily made a quick, rotatory movement with his arm, as though to say: ‘Roll on faster, lads!’

The autumn twilight descended and the damp coolness of the river was felt in the air. In Sarapul a swarm of bright lights were shining. Under cover of darkness we passed unnoticed through the front line. On the deck of the dimly perceivable barge the guards’ cigarettes were points of light like glowworms.

Soon we arrived at the Sarapul landing-stage. The WhiteGuard prison-warders, taken by surprise, were arrested without difficulty and brought ashore.

In the depths of the dark and dirty hold, in a stinking, fetid atmosphere, huddled a company of half-naked men, barely covered by torn pieces of matting. How glad these captives were to have been set free! Many of the workers wept for joy, unable to believe their good luck.

The men we had saved from an agonising death numbered 453.

I asked the comrades to spend one last night on the barge, so that in the morning they could be given a ceremonial welcome in the town.


The garrison commander asked me to come and see him. A brave, resolute man with a glass eye which made him seem to squint, he lived in a street in the centre of the town, in the flat of a bourgeois who had run away.

In his spacious and bright dining-room, furnished simply but with taste, before a glass of tea and to the soft humming of a cosily seething samovar, the garrison commander told me that Vladimir Aleksandrovich Antonov-Ovseyenko was now at Agryz and intended to be at Sarapul next day.[Antonov-Ovseyenko was at this time a member of the Supreme War Council.]

The slim young mistress of the fiat, who dispensed our tea, told me with a naive air that her husband, an. engineer who sympathised with the Whites, had fled with them to Ufa. She had wanted to leave with her husband, but they would not let her bring on to the barge in which the refugees were escaping the goat with long white hair and hooked nose which nourished with her milk this young woman’s new-born daughter, and the mother could not go without her wet-nurse nanny-goat: the doctors had absolutely forbidden her to feed the child herself. For this reason she had stayed behind in Sarapul, and was very pleased when she found that the Bolsheviks were not at all as frightful as the terrified imagination of the philistines had depicted them. She soon forgot her husband, and consoled herself by becoming the wife of the garrison commander, who had by accident come to live in her flat. It is in ways like this that people’s personal fate is sometimes determined.[The last two sentences, except for the words she soon forgot her husband’ were omitted from the 1936 edition, but restored in that of 1964.]

Early next morning, when the low sky was covered with leaden clouds that hung over the town, the great exodus began. Pale, emaciated, exhausted, half-naked, clutching to their chests some torn pieces of matting they had thrown round their shoulders, the released prisoners walked barefoot into the market square. Their naked bodies showed white through big rents in the matting that covered them. The men in matting made a long procession. The workers and craftsmen of Sarapul -tanners and cobblers—watched with sorrowful sympathy this sombre parade and emotionally waved their handkerchiefs. The sailors pf the Red fleet greeted the liberated men with a welcoming ‘Hurrah!’ Women in coloured head-scarves turned away to wipe tears from their red, swollen eyes.

‘There you see it, the uniform of the Constituent Assembly!’[The White forces on the Eastern front fought at this time under the banner of the Constituent Assembly, which they claimed to be the legitimate Parliament’ of Russia, arbitrarily suppressed by the Bolsheviks.] was the bitter remark of someone in the crowd.

A tribune of planks, with a railing, had been erected in the market square, and from this I delivered a short speech of greeting to the comrades we had freed. Other comrades spoke after me. No-one said much. The procession of barefooted men in matting spoke more strikingly and powerfully against the Whites than any inflammatory speech could have done.

In conclusion, one of the men in matting spoke, telling of the dreadful conditions on the prison-barge: he ended by saying that he was going to join the Red Army. Other ex-prisoners followed his example. Gripped by enthusiasm, the crowd warmly applauded their revolutionary impulse.

At the end of the meeting the men in matting were invited to take tea in a restaurant in the market square. Their faces shone with pleasure: they felt that they were men who had been in the jaws of death and had been restored to life. They had been given new hope. Hastily and joyfully they threw off their dirty, ragged matting and put on human clothes. Many of these workers went straight out of their matting into Red Army uniform and were immediately sent off to the front. On November 7 1918, the anniversary of the great proletarian October, the Izhevsk works was captured by Red troops after a violent assault.

Many of the ‘barge-men’ took part in this assault. Some of them met before Izhevsk the death of the brave, laying down their lives, which they had devoted to the revolution, for the well-being of the working class, for the Communist Party.[The raid on Galyany was carried out on October 17, 1918. On October 20 the three destroyers were sent to Astrakhan to reinforce the Bolsheviks’ flotilla on the Caspian Sea.]


[1] It is not clear whether these men were ‘workers from lzhevsk’. The workers of the factories at Izhevsk and Votkinsk, who were under SR influence, had rebelled against the Soviet Government in August 1918, and joined the Whites. According to Larissa Reissner, who was with Raskolnikov on this voyage, the prisoners were Bolshevik sympathisers among the Sarapul population whom the Whites carried off with them when they withdrew from that town, and were being taken to Votkinsk. She mentions that there were several Chinese among them—presumably captured Red Army soldiers. Some of the prisoners may have been workers from Izhevsk and Votkinsk who, after serving in the ‘People’s Army’ which the rebels had formed to fight against the Bolsheviks, had become disaffected and subjected to arrest for unreliability.