Tales my father told me...
| During the war we had to make our own entertainment. Television didn't exist and no newspapers were published in Hong Kong. My father did have a shortwave radio but he had to keep very quiet about it since he could have been accused by the Japanese of being some kind of spy. At night, he would sit for hours glued to that radio.
Earlier in the war the news was very discouraging as the Japanese armies swept through Southeast Asia reaching New Guinea in the South, and Burma to the west. Within a matter of months the Japanese had carved out a huge empire for themselves. But as the war progressed the allies gradually started to turn the tide, and, towards the end, allied victories were relayed to my father through that precious radio.
To keep my brother and I amused, my father would tell us stories from his past. I loved those tales although I was never sure how much of what he said was absolutely true or what had been embroidered for our benefit. Since I have no way of checking the veracity of his stories I can only offer them to you as they were told to me. I will leave it to the reader to decide what to believe and what to accept as invention.
Papa was always cagey about his age but he did say that he had been a 15-year-old boy soldier during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. That was confirmed to me by an old friend of his who knew him at the time. Thus my father was probably born sometime in the early 1890s in the Ukraine. The Ukraine was then a part of the Tsarist empire.
He was christened Ivan Stepanovich. The tradition in Russia is to use one's father's name as a middle name. His father was called Stepan (Stephen) and my father was named Ivan, son of Stepan.
The earliest member of the family recalled by my father was my great-grandfather. He had been a professional soldier in the Tsarist army, having spent most of his warrior years fighting the Turks. When he retired from the army as a colonel, the government gave him a grant of land in the rich black soil country of the Ukraine. However, he was useless as a farmer and it was his wife, the pipe-smoking matriarch of the family, who ran the farm and brought up her 11 children.
Great-granddad spent his twilight years in his rocking chair, watching his wife doing most of the work. He apparently lived to the ripe old age of 117, thanks to a healthy diet and not too much exercise. The Ukraine was famous for having centenarians before the Soviet era and Chernobyl.
The matriarch was an amazing woman. She was a staunch Bolshevik, while her husband greatly admired the Tsar. Six of her 11 children were Bolsheviks while the other five were Tsarists. By the end of the Civil War of the 1920s, all 11 of them had been killed. The six Bolshevik ones were killed or died accidentally during the Tsarist era and the other five met their deaths during the Civil War. She gathered 9 of her grandchildren and brought them up to be good little Bolsheviks. Although my father was not in the Ukraine then, (for reasons mentioned below) he became an ardent Stalinist till the day he died. (When I was 14, I was slightly to the right of Lord Baden Powell, having discovered the writings of Ayn Rand, and my father and I often had fierce rows about politics, although that never compromised the great affection between us.)
Since his family was hardly rich, young Ivan received his education in the seminary, learning to be a priest (as did his idol, Josef Stalin). He had a beautiful voice as a boy and he was able to help out the family finances by singing in various religious festivals.
When he was just 14, Ivan's favourite aunt seduced him, much to his delight and without any apparent harm done to his psyche. He admired her greatly. This aunt had been married off as a young woman to a rich old man, whom she detested. When her husband discovered them in flagrante delicto, he ordered his manservants to bounce my father on his bottom down a long flight of stairs, leading from the mansion to the garden below.
Eventually the aunt ran off with another admirer, a Bolshevik agitator, and she then joined the Red Underground. Many years later she would play a pivotal role in my father's life. Unfortunately, she was later captured and tortured to death by the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police.
Perhaps influenced by his rebel aunt's passions, Ivan became politically conscious. One Easter, he was assigned as an assistant to a priest who was going from peasant family to peasant family blessing their homes. Many of the peasants were dirt poor but profoundly religious. They would save for weeks before Easter to prepare various cakes and other offerings to give to the priest who arrived to bless their homes.
At one especially destitute farm, young Ivan could see that the kids of the family were malnourished, and he knew that the cakes given to the priest would have been fed to his pigs. So he whispered to the priest to leave the cakes and other gifts behind. The priest kicked Ivan in the shins and told him to mind his own business. My father responded by swinging his incense burner and hitting the priest on the head with it. That was not such a good idea in Tsarist Russia where priests were considered to be sacrosanct. Assaulting a priest was a very serious offence in the eyes of the law.
Young Ivan was in deep trouble. Fortunately, he was able to escape from the local gendarmes to Siberia. Siberia was then a place where convicts were sent by the authorities, and for them it must have been a terrible experience. However, my father assured me that for people who had arrived there of their own free will, life was pretty good. It was certainly better than in the Ukraine at the time.
Thanks to the fact that he had been educated reasonably well at the seminary, Ivan was able to make a pretty good living by writing reports for illiterate officials who were required to send such reports to Moscow frequently, in triplicate, no doubt. Soon he was able to send regular payments to his grandmother to help her run the family farm.
At the age of 15, at the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, he joined the Tsarist army as a boy soldier and was quickly posted to a Ukrainian regiment. The regiment was dug into bunkers in a hillside which was soon attacked by the Japanese. My father was sent as a messenger to headquarters some miles away. By the time he returned, the hill had been completely surrounded and cut off by the Japanese and he could not rejoin his regiment. The siege lasted for several weeks, seriously delaying the advance of the Japanese army. When they finally overran the Ukrainian regiment, the Japanese were so infuriated by the obstinacy of the defenders that they took no prisoners, and deliberately mutilated the corpses of the dead soldiers. To his dying day my father never forgave the Japanese for this atrocity.
The 1905 Russian revolution, which had been sparked off by the humiliating defeat in that war, did not affect my father directly but it influenced him further to the left. The military defeat had exposed the corrupt and rotten core within the Tsarist regime. The military disasters during the First World War finally polished off a system which was long overdue for the garbage bin of history.
When War erupted in 1914, young Ivan had no intention of joining up, even though there were many who had enlisted, perhaps thinking that the war would be over by Christmas. As a Bolshevik sympathiser, he viewed that conflict as just another Imperial war, fought by the Great Powers for colonial possessions, at the expense of the working people.
However, one night he had been drinking too many vodkas with friends who were leaving for the front the next day. The next morning he woke with a dreadful hangover, and wondered why the room was shaking from side to side. He discovered that he was on a train with his enlisted friends. In his drunken stupor, the night before, he had also signed up for the war.
He was on his way to the Hell which became known as World War One.
(To be continued )