EVGENIA SHELEPINA AND THE OCTOBER REVOLUTION
Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina was born on the 10 April 1894 in the small town of Gatchina, situated, some twenty-five miles south south-west of St.Petersburg. Her father, Peter Shelepina, was thought to be a gardener in the Tzar's service, but his precise occupation was unknown. So with this in mind, searches were made of all the Tzar's archives of residences covering the Gatchina area in the hope of finding out exactly what the nature of his occupation was, and where the family may have lived at the end of the nineteenth century. His details were eventually found by Greg Palmer and Tatiana Verizhnikova at the St Petersburg archive and they revealed that he was not a gardener, even though this was one of his interests, but was the curator of the Tzar's Imperial Hospital and Charity Institute under the Imperial Court at Gatchina. This was quite an important position and carried entitlement to accommodation. The family occupied a large flat conveniently located in a side road adjacent to the hospital, and from there, it was only a short walk to the centre of the town.
The hospital building is still in existence (1996). The interior of the front middle section consisted of a hall with a balcony around part of it, which was sometimes used as a church, while the main section behind and in the wings housed the hospital part. There is a small woodland in front of the building these days, such has been the tree growth in the last hundred years, but in Shelepina's day, it was gardens.
The Shelepina family grew up in Gatchina, and both Evgenia and her sister did their schooling here. They were privileged in being able to attend the local grammar school - one of the best grammar schools of the period, and both graduated under the Empress Maria - Governess of the school. The school quite amazingly, still survives in its original building.
As the years went by and the girls became of an age, their thoughts turned towards the kind of careers open to them for possible employment. When they finally came to look for work, it seems probable that a close neighbour of the Shelepina's, who worked in one of the main Government ministries in St Petersburg, may have advised or assisted the two girls into their first Government jobs!
Evgenia's first address on leaving home, as we can see from her passport at Abbot Hall, was at Sadovaya 65, Petrograd. This location was within walking distance of the railway station for journeys home, but quite a long tram ride away from the Stenography College at 106 Nevsky Prospect, where she was a student. This college advertised itself as the only institution in the Capital providing courses suitable for students who wanted to be correspondents, work in local government, state councils or the Duma etc. etc.. The college year, which was spent at this address, was from September through to May, but some weekends, the period June to August and any short holidays, were spent at home in Gatchina.
In early 1915, and now working for the government, Evgenia moved north of the Neva River to another flat on Vasilievsky Ailend, Line Nil, house 52, (flat number unknown). It was on a direct tram route into the city. She was now aged 21. Her last address, before the Bolshevik Government vacated Petrograd in March 1918, was a little further up the road, still on Vasilievsky Ailend, at Line N8, house 49. She took possession of this flat, which was shared with her sister, on the day before the October Revolution. Ransome was certainly a visitor to this last address, but almost definitely not to the previous two.
In the period leading up to the Revolution, Evgenia worked for the Ministry of Trade and Industry as a clerk/typist - the only form of employment she had had since leaving secretarial college. Although not strictly a political person, she did, as sometimes happens with young people, have an open approach to politics. Her ideas, probably formulated during the 1916 - 1917 period, pointed her towards the direction of the Bolshevik movement: a movement which she thought, from their propaganda, was the one most able and capable of providing fair government for all the people. Of all the political groups, they were the most committed towards wanting peace with Germany. In sympathy with their objectives she joined the party. It is not known how long she had been a member at the time of the Revolution, or whether this interest was shared by others in her work place, but it seems unlikely that many in her Ministry would have shared her strong Bolshevik view of politics. Government departments still carried on as if the old order still existed, and this, in spite of the Tzar abdicating earlier in the year and the weak coalition in the Duma.
In 1918, when the Government moved to Moscow, Evgenia went too. Trotsky was appointed to a new position as Minister for War, while Evgenia remained within Foreign Affairs under the new minister, Chicherin. Either just before the move to Moscow or just after, Evgenia set down in various notes her experiences and feelings about the early days of the Revolution and her subsequent employment as Trotsky's secretary. These notes dated Moscow 18 March, together with those about the subsequent journey to Brest were written down to be a record and intended as information for Ransome. These notes were created on Ransome's own typewriter which suggests that she dictated and he typed. The originals are mixed up and out of sequence, perhaps they were written down as she remembered each event. With a few slight adjustments they form the basis of what follows. (Please note - the style and punctuation are exactly as in the originals). Ransome, in handwriting on the front of these notes records, 'Very good account of what it looked like to a young honest Russian.'
Eroida (sister) and I were still living then at Gatchina with mother, and the question of each day was, would it be easy or not to get a place on the train back there at night. The day before the revolution, we had taken a room together on the Vassilievsky Ostrove (Ailend 8, 49), and we sat there a little and drank tea, and thought what fools we had been not to have done so earlier, and so escape the difficulty of travelling in and out of Petrograd. But we had not moved in, and on the morning of the revolution we came in together from Gatchina as usual.
On that first day I remember seeing the sailors and workmen with their flags crossing over the bridge. Everybody crowded to the windows of the Ministry to look out. But they were not at all pleased. I was very pleased. They crowded to the window and then drew back again when they heard the shooting in the town, and were telling each other that the crowd would come in and shoot them next. They were sure that the people would come in and kill everybody in the Ministry, but they dared not leave because of the shooting.
I tried to telephone Eroida, because we had agreed to meet at the station at six o clock to go home by train together. The telephone was not working. So I went to the station. I was never under fire. I have always had bad luck. I have never once been under fire all
throughout the Revolution. Of course I heard firing all the time. Sometimes it was in the next street. Sometimes it was far away, but I got the whole way to the station without being in any danger at all. I was pleased to see the workmen and sailors and excited and happy, because I wanted them to win.
I waited at the station for four hours not knowing what had become of Eroida. Then, thinking that perhaps she might have gone home earlier, I got into a train that was just leaving and went home. I found mother in Gatchina in great anxiety. She accused me of deserting Eroida, and asked me how I could have come home without her. There were tears and cries and general disturbance. Mother had heard all sorts of rumours and no one knew what was happening. She was angry with me because I could not tell her. I did not know myself although I had come from Petrograd. I put on my coat and was for going back to town, but mother would not have that either.
Eroida got back early the next morning. She had gone to a friend's rooms when the fighting began, and the fighting had come to that very street. People were firing up and down the street so that she could not get out. It was just like Eroida to have all the experience when I really wanted to have it. At last when things were quieter, she and another girl who lived in Gatchina also, went out. Almost as soon as they were in the street they had to lie flat on the ground because someone with a machine gun was firing at anything that moved in the street. They had to lie down six times before they got to the station.
For the next three days I was ill, and then for two weeks the trains were not running between Gatchina and Petrograd. Kerensky was in Gatchina and every day we expected troops from the front, but I was hoping they would not come. We used to send messengers to the station every day to know if a train was going. Then I heard that everybody in my Ministry had met and passed a resolution not to work for the Bolsheviks, but to go on strike. I asked whether anybody had voted against the resolution, and was told that only two had refused to vote, but all the rest were for striking. I wished I had been in Petrograd so that there should have been at least one vote against striking. Ours was a very black hundredish ministry.
Nearly everybody had worked there during the old regime, and under Kerensky, and they all believed that the Bolsheviks would only stay in power a few days, and that if they went in with the Bolsheviks they would presently be left between two stools. I used to go to the station myself to ask about trains. Perhaps you will understand. Quite there too. I could not find one. There was a crowd of students and girl students and others, and so I waited with them.
I was asked 'What recommendations have you?'
I said, "I have no recommendations at all, but I worked in the Ministry of Trade and Industry for so long.'
I was asked, 'What can you do?'
I said, I could do anything they wanted, that I could typewrite, and take shorthand notes, and knew a little book-keeping, that I was willing to do anything they thought useful.
They asked what party I belonged to, and I showed them my card of membership of the Bolshevik party. Then they gave me some typewriting to do in the Ministry of Labour. I set to work at once, and so on the evening of the day I left Gatchina, I was already at work. The Marble Palace, which is the Ministry of Labour, had magnificent rooms, and its' beauty and the feeling of solidarity in it had a quieting effect upon me. I felt better already, as soon as I was at work there.
The person in charge of the department where I worked was a young woman, not very well educated. She knew I had worked in a Ministry before, and perhaps for that reason made a particular show of friendliness for me, though being laughably careful not to let me forget that she was in charge and that I was under her supervision, though she could make no pretence of understanding the work. Every day fresh people came in to work, and as all applications passed through the Ministry of Labour, I used to go every day to look at the lists to see if any of the people from the old Ministry of Trade and Industry had come in, because I was always hoping that I should get back to my old place and be part of the old machine that I knew, and see it working as before. But not one of them came in.
The man who was at the head of what they called the Committee of Mobilisation which dealt with the organisation of work and finding workers for the Ministries used to laugh at me for being so anxious to get back to my old post. We used to talk together, and I told him how I looked at things. One day he came to me and said, 'We want people for the Foreign Office. Do you know any foreign languages?" I said I could tell one from another, but I could not talk any of them. He said, 'That is unfortunate, but it cannot be helped, and we can get no one at all. Trotsky wants some practical sensible person for a secretary, and we can trust you, and you belong to the party.' I told him I wanted to get back to my old place in my old Ministry, and he promised that this work should be only temporary, and that I ought to do it. I was anxious to do something more than write on a typewriter, so I agreed, and went off to Smolny. I found Trotsky in that same room where I used to see him, at the end of the corridor on the third floor. It was differently furnished then. There was just one table in the corner by the two windows. In the little room partitioned off was some dreadful furniture, particularly a green divan with a terrible pillow on it. You see it had been the room of the resident mistress on that floor of the Institute when it was still an Institute for girls. Trotsky sat on one side of the table and I sat on the other. I did not hide from him that I was quite unfit for the work, but that I wanted to do anything I could.
It was settled that I should begin at once. The first work I did was to make that dreadful room into a place fit to work in. Trotsky gave me a paper to take to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get a good typewriter, instead of the broken one that was in the room for show, and telephoned for his motor car to take me there and bring me back with the machine and some furniture. He gave me two soldiers to help in getting the furniture. I remember we had to wait a very long time before the motor car was ready.
We went to the Foreign Office, and there found Zalkind (who was for a time assistant Commissary for Foreign Affairs, and afterwards was sent as Russian Minister to Berne) in his room, which was just as you saw it, if not worse. Zalkind was half dressed, his hair wanted combing, the room was like a lumber room. The sofa where he slept was still like the nest of a wild beast. The big table with its red felt top was dusty and piled with papers, and inkpots which had been used for ash trays, and glasses with the dregs of coffee in them, and old bits of bread from the day before. There were half a dozen people in the room, and Zalkind took the note I had brought him from Trotsky, read it aloud, and said, pointing at me, 'We have destroyed secret diplomacy and come to that.' I did not like his manner. He told me to find the sailor Markin who knew where everything was. Then I met a very neatly dressed sailor.
Markin was not at all so anxious to look proletarian in the first days as he was later. Then he was dressed very carefully in a neat uniform, and his beard properly trimmed. Markin had very little education, but had a most amusing way of saying 'surprising', 'extraordinary' and 'astonishing', not like most people say those words, but as if they were newly forced out of him by his real feeling of the sensations that they suggest. In those days he was very elegant. He took me to the room where I afterwards went to livef, where we found the machine we wanted, and a table and some good chairs, all of which I took back with me to the Smolny, so that next day room 67 was already a place where it was possible to work.
The rear of room 67 was screened off as a private quarter for Trotsky. In this room one day, there was a young girl with hair cut short like a boy. She was sitting at the table doing nothing, and afterwards went with me to the refectory downstairs. This was a big barrack of a room with sawdust and spilt soup all over the floor, and bare tables. You bought tickets at a side table, and then took your place in a long queue, and when your turn came, received a bowl of soup, very hot, and, as you passed by grabbed a wooden spoon out of a basket. The soup was very hot, the plates very deep, and the spoons so large that sometimes it was impossible to get the soup into them at all. Then there was dark coloured tough macaroni, which I did not know how to eat. I could not pick it up on the big wooden spoon, and I did not see where forks were to be had. Most of the soldiers sitting about were eating with their fingers. A few had forks, but I thought they had brought them with them, and decided to bring a fork myself next time. I asked the short haired girl what work she did, and she answered that she did no work at all. I said I thought that was bad, but she explained that she was Trotsky's daughter, and was studying. She was about sixteen, very like Lev Davidovitch, with fine eyes, and a rather malicious expression. Trotsky has been married twice, and this was one of the children of his first marriage.
f Probably a room in The Commissariat of Foreign Affairs fronting Palace Square.
Downstairs in the refectory there was a woman serving out food. I think she had served there in the time when Smolny was still an institute for girls, and she was always thinking of old times, and comparing the comrades with the noble young ladies whose places they had taken.
At first I did not know how to talk to Trotsky. I thought of him as of someone so great, and so high, all of whose time was given to the work. It was almost a shock to me to find that he had a daughter. I did not think of him having any human relations at all. I did not know how to address him. Once only I called him Comrade Trotsky. It came out very funnily, and he immediately called me Comrade Shelepina, and we both laughed. After that I always called him Lev Davidovitch, and he called me Evgenia Petrovna.
I with my long training in a Ministry under the old regime, was offended somehow, for the dignity of the Ministry, when I found Trotsky himself taking thought about the arrangement of his room. This table was to be in that place, and this chair here. It seemed to me that there ought to be a whole corps of people to think of all these things, and that Trotsky should have no attention to spare for such matters. I always remember the affair of the phonograph. He asked me if I could write shorthand. I was terribly ashamed because I could not. He said, 'In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs there is a phonograph. We will use that.' So I went off to the Ministry and found Markin, and after a long hunt we found the phonograph and brought it back.
Trotsky never used it, but we fixed it on the table by his desk. There it stood always, and had a most imposing appearance. Perhaps that was all he wanted it for. It was only just before we left Petrograd that we found out how to work it. Everything was almost packed, and we were in a cheerful mood, expecting every day that the Germans would come in and hang us all, and make a good end of it. Soldier Jukov took the phonograph, and got it to work. He shouted English songs into it. You know how he talks English. Then I shouted into it. Then we made it shout back. On that last day three young people from one of the guerrilla detachments came in to look for Trotsky. They found us playing with the phonograph, and they shouted into it too, all kinds of rubbish, songs, and German swear words. If the Germans find it and turn it on thinking to discover state secrets, they will be surprised by a funny medley of cheerful noises.
At first very few visitors came to room 67. They were mostly foreigners asking for passports to go abroad. Russians too. I used to let almost all of them see Trotsky, particularly the foreigners. I was a little more careful with the Russians. But at first I had no idea what was important and what was not. For example, I tore up and threw away all the replies of the Foreign Embassies to Trotsky's note inviting them to join in discussions of general peace.
The first real bit of Foreign Relations we had was with the King of Sweden. There came along a certain Svanstrom or Swenstrom, from the Swedish Red Cross, with a letter from Charles (Prince?) suggesting the making of a neutral zone so that the exchange of invalid prisoners could go on directly through the front instead of by the roundabout way through Torneo. Svanstrom spoke to me in French, and I was ashamed at having to reply in French, and was still more ashamed when it turned out afterwards that he could talk Russian. I was ashamed, not for myself, you understand, but for the dignity of the Commissariate of Foreign Affairs. I did not think that they ought to know that Trotsky had not been able to get a secretary who could talk French. Well, worse was to come.
Svanstrom was to leave for Sweden in two days time, and Trotsky promised an answer to take back to the king of Sweden. Well, the first day passed, and Trotsky did nothing. I could not think he had forgotten it, and I did not like to remind him. Then Svanstrom came for it, and I told him it was not quite ready but would be ready in time, and that it would be sent to him. Still Trotsky did nothing. The next day was Sunday. Trotsky wrote the reply on a scrap of paper, and gave it to me to have it properly typewritten so that it could be given to Svanstrom for the king. Our typewriter, which wrote with English or French characters was a very bad one, so I sent it to the Foreign Office.
It was Sunday and no one was there. At last very late it came back. It was written on beautiful paper, but dirty, you should have seen it. It was full of mistakes which had been rubbed out with indiarubber, and the indiarubber still showed. It was not that it was to be handed to the King that gave cause for concern. It was that any foreigner should think we were such a set of uneducated barbarians as to be unable to send out a neater looking document. I did not know what to do. So I tried to make a cleaner copy on the old English machine in room 67. Its ribbon was full of copying ink, so that it smudged, and the machine itself was filthy. It had not been used for I don't know how long. My first copy was worse than the original. The second was not much better, and I spent hours over them, because I was accustomed to write on a Russian machine, and all the letters were in different places, and I had to look at each letter, because I did not know how the French words were spelt. And I did not know how to put the accents on. Then Trotsky came in, and I told him the whole story and showed him the three copies to choose from. He chose the first, and laughed and told me to put it in an envelope. Nor was even that the end. We were to give Svanstrom a pass and also a Swedish officer who was to go with him. And we sent neither the passes nor the letter. They came for them themselves early in the morning. I nearly died of shame when I handed them the envelope, and then, to make things worse, the Swedish officer kissed my hand. It was so unexpected, for one thing, and there were a lot of people about, and I thought it would seem to them altogether like bourgeois times and the old regime. Altogether it was a most unfortunate incident. And with that began Bolshevik dealings with foreign powers.