Prisoner Of The Bolsheviks: The Ordeal Of Henry Pearson

The newspapers and magazines of previous eras provide us a window on the age.  One gets a sense of the mood and odor of the times.  Personal accounts are better still, especially when the writer has endured a direful or traumatic experience.

I discovered the following account in the pages of a now-defunct literary magazine called The Living Age.[1]  Originally called Littel’s Living Age, it was published in America from 1844 to 1941, and contained selections from American and British writers; this particular narrative describes the arrest and imprisonment in 1918 of a British subject in Petrograd named Henry Pearson.  Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in August 1918 was a ferment of disorder, revolution, and counter-revolution.  Armed factions of various types and political inclination vied for control of the city, and for Russia itself; and foreign powers, anxious to prevent a communist takeover of the country, even mounted a failed intervention at Archangel.  The mood was grim and violent.  Chekists (members of the Bolshevik secret police) in black leather coats arrested and detained anyone who might be a threat to the revolution.  Summary executions of tsarist loyalists, or of anyone suspected of being a “counter-revolutionary,” “reactionary,” or “spy,” were common.  And here Mr. Henry Pearson, a British subject living and working in Petrograd, begins his story:

During the twenty-five years of my life in Russia I frequently gazed at the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul, and listened to the tales of horrible deeds perpetrated within those grim gray walls. But little did I think that I, a peaceable British subject, would ever be one of its tenants.

On August 31, 1918, Pearson was walking to the British Embassy to conduct some business there.  He was carrying a packet of sandwiches.  Arriving around 4:15 p.m., he finished his chores; but just as he was preparing to leave, he heard “a great hubbub and shouting.” A number of armed sailors, waving revolvers and led by shouting Chekists, burst into the room where Pearson was speaking with two consular officials.  Everyone was told to put his hands up, or they would be shot; the group was then led to a different part of the building.  Suddenly a volley of shots rang out, interspersed with shouting and crashing noises.  Pearson would later learn that this shootout had been British naval attaché Captain Francis Cromie’s struggle with the intruders.  Cromie, who was thirty-six years old, was the head of British intelligence at the embassy and apparently had been wanted by the Bolsheviks for some time.  As Pearson explains:

For some time previous the Bolsheviki had been in search of Captain Cromie, but he seems to have borne a charmed life, and until this time had managed to evade his pursuers.  He was in the Embassy at the time of the raid, a fact of which his enemies, well-informed by their spies, seem to have been aware.  They are desperate men, many of them criminals of the worst type, and they stick at nothing.  It is supposed that the sailors, at the command of the commissaries, attempted to arrest the Captain.  It is not definitely known who fired the first shot, but, in consequence, the Captain was killed and his body mutilated by these ruffians.  Their own report says that Captain Cromie shot three commissaries, one of whom was killed.

Captain Francis Cromie, who died while defending the British Embassy in Petrograd in 1918.

Pearson and several others were dragged out of the embassy with revolvers pressed to their temples and led out to Suvorov Square.  He was then put in a waiting car and taken to No. 2 Gorokhovaya Street, a location which was functioning as a Cheka office.  All the while, his Chekist guards shouted anti-British obscenities at him:

In the confusion I had left my hat behind, and must have presented a weird spectacle to the onlookers, as I sat in the car, with hair flying in the wind, and a mad sailor raving at me and waving his revolver about.  Seeing my parcel of sandwiches dangling by a string from my finger, he suddenly snatched it from me, screaming “That’s a bomb!’ When I tried to explain that it was no bomb, but plain sandwiches, he crushed them in his hand and threw them in my face.

When Pearson arrived at the Cheka office, he was separated from his comrades and interrogated at length.  The commissars demanded to know why the British were “making war” on the Bolsheviks with the landings at Murman and Archangel; what he himself was doing in Russia; why the British were associating with White Russians and the Czechoslovaks, and similar questions.  Pearson emphatically told them he was a British subject working in Russia, and had been in the country for twenty-five years.  He was not involved in politics, he told them, and had no knowledge of the activities they had mentioned.  The Chekists screamed that he was a “liar,” and that he “had been seen shooting” at the Bolshevik security services.  Then followed more choice words:

He [the Chekist] was in an absolute rage, and behaved like a mad man, flourishing his revolver, and threatening to shoot me on the spot, asserting that all British people were deceitful and cunning swine, and finally assuring me that the Bolsheviki intended to organize a rising in England.  He swore repeatedly, that within an hour I should be shot like a dog, and, in proof of this, wrote out my death warrant in red ink, a sure sign of smert (death).

One cannot help admiring Pearson as he relates these scenes with such cool—indeed, almost bemused—detachment.  One wonders how present-day consular officers might hold up under similar circumstances.  He was then thrown into a small, makeshift detention room in the building near its top floor, a filthy, miserable room containing about twice its natural capacity.  In this room, murderers, thieves, and riff-raff of all types rubbed shoulders with aristocrats of the tsar’s army, White Russians, intellectuals, and educated men who were guilty of nothing except the crime of being educated.  Pearson was kept in this wretched place for several days, and provided with no food other than the sandwiches he had been carrying when arrested.  And then the worst happened:  they were moved to a true prison:

On Tuesday all the British and French, along with some of the Russian aristocrats, were ordered to assemble for removal elsewhere; and then we learned that we were to be marched, guarded by a strong force of Red Guards, to the much-dreaded Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul.  All the tales of horror, suffering, and inhumanity, which I had heard and read of, in the dreaded dungeons, rose before my mind like an awful nightmare; and I asked myself, could it be possible that a body of free-born Britons were to be subjected to such cruelty and ignominy?  However, we determined to show them we were not afraid of anything they might do to us, and we tried to laugh and joke and keep a cheerful countenance.

As he was being marched off to prison, Pearson managed to see his daughter along the side of the road; she was able to approach him and give him some much-needed food.  He noticed that local Russians sympathized with their fate, too.  Some of the older women held their hands up to cover their eyes, as if to shut out the terrible sight; but they lived in fear of the Cheka, and knew that any sign of overt pity would mark them for persecution.  The commandant of the prison, whom Pearson judged from his accent to be a Lett from the Baltic, ordered the group to form into columns of twos.  They were then moved to the Troubetskoi Bastion, and conducted to their cells.  When the door was opened for Pearson, he was confronted with a ghastly sight:

Fifteen men, all Russians, were lying on the cold, damp floor, and we were nearly suffocated by the foul air of the place.  Can you imagine a cell originally con structed for one person, measuring ten feet by twenty, and about eight feet in height, with a small barred window set near the ceiling; a little door, with a peep hole near the centre, just big enough for a head to pass through; one small iron bedstead, minus mattress, bedclothes, or pillows; a little iron table riveted to the whitewashed wall; and floor of cement.  Twenty men were confined in this small space!  The only place to lie or sit was on the cold floor, swarming with vermin of various kinds. Most of the Russians had been months in this prison, and were mere skeletons, too weak to stand up, having tasted no food for four days.  They were utterly dispirited and broken down, and dirty and filthy in the extreme, and what crime had they committed?  Some had been officers in the former army; some had refused to join the Red Army.  They were all intellectuals, who had had the misfortune to spring from good families.  None had been guilty of taking up arms against the Bolsheviki.

Most of the men, incredibly enough, spoke English, noted Pearson.  They were all educated intellectuals.  Their only question for him was this:  when will the British intervene and save them from the communists?  But Pearson, knowing nothing himself, could provide them nothing in the way of consolation.  The food he and the others received, when they did get food, was hardly worthy of the name:  a bowl of dirty warm water, in which floated bits of cabbage and rotting fish.  Pearson has words of the warmest praise for the wife of the Dutch consul, a woman named Mrs. Oudendyk.  “Had it not been for her energy and insistence,” Pearson bluntly states, “most of us assuredly would have been shot.”  She brought food parcels to the prisoners in person on a regular basis, defying the contempt and abuse of the guard, and spoke on their behalf to the prison commandant.  One day even more terrifying news arrived.  They were to be taken down the Neva River to the dreaded Kronstadt prison.  As Pearson and the other Russian prisoners were led out, they were beaten with rifle butts and threatened with shooting at every turn by the commissars.  Some of the prisoners were old men in their seventies and eighties; such abuse was particularly hard on them.  At the last moment, the British and French prisoners were ordered back to their cells; but the Russians were sent off to the Kronstadt.  Pearson later would discover that they had all either been thrown overboard on their way there, or were shot upon their arrival.

A photo taken in Petrograd in 1918. The banner reads: “Death to the bourgeoisie. Long live the Red Terror!”

Pearson and his remaining comrades did what they could to clean their cell, and made some progress with the limited tools available.  To keep their morale up, they sang “God Save The King,” and “Rule Britannia”; this enraged the guards, of course, but the prisoners refused to stop. The men were not allowed any reading material that might allow them to learn of outside events.  The following quotation is revealing, and should serve as a warning to posterity:

All the other [news] papers have been suppressed long ago, their offices and printing machinery taken over by the Bolsheviki, and their editors put in prison, and many of them are lingering there yet.  And these, the Bolsheviki, are the very people who not long ago were inviting the sympathy of the world in their struggles for a free press and freedom of speech! What a travesty!

Pearson noted that the Cheka reserved its most sadistic cruelty to the older, educated Russians, men whom they believed represented the old order.  On one occasion, he notes, they herded Russian prisoners into a hermetically sealed room and kept them confined there to the point of suffocation:

At the end of two days the few women whose business it is to take round the soup begged the commandant to open the cell, when they found most of its occupants unconscious, and the rest unable to stand.  They had crawled up to the cell door, trying to save their lives by breathing the little air which came from underneath.  Truly it has been said that the Bolsheviki are devils in human form.  No one was allowed to visit us, nor were we ever allowed outside for a breath of fresh air. Sometimes once in a week, sometimes once a fortnight, we were let out in the corridor for about five minutes, but as the corridor was dark and damp and foul in the extreme, it did us no good, but we were glad of it as it gave us a chance to talk things over with our comrades from the other cells.

Pearson learned that the Cheka had invaded and robbed his personal residence as well.  They burst into his home, threw his daughter against the wall and threatened to shoot her, and proceeded to ransack the place, apparently looking for evidence of his involvement in activities against the revolution.  Yet no matter how hardy a man may be, he eventually reaches the limits of his endurance.  Extreme conditions cannot be tolerated indefinitely.  After weeks of suffering with no end in sight, Pearson’s health broke down.  He began to manifest the symptoms of bronchitis and other respiratory problems from the prison’s dampness and malnutrition; and by his own testimony, his “nerves gave way,” a result of living under the constant fear of execution.  And then, suddenly, his terrible ordeal came to an end.  On October 20th, around noon, he heard his name called out by a guard in the corridor.  He was conducted to an office and given his release papers.  Then, after fifty days of rotting in a dungeon, he was pushed into a marvelous daylight.  “I stumbled along,” he writes, “with head nearly bursting from the effects of fresh air.”  But he lived to tell the tale.


[1] 8th series, Vol. 30 (1919).



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