A pogrom in central Russia, by Sophie Gorboff,Yalta,1919

TRANSLATED FROM FRENCH : « Un pogrome en Russie centrale » par Sophie Gorboff, Yalta 1919

Petrovskoe, the  family house. Gorboff Archives(c)

Petrovskoe. The family house of Nicolas and Sophie Gorboff. Archives Gorboff(c)

It started as it had everywhere else: a visit from the soldiers on the pretext of searching for firearms. There were six of us in total, living in the countryside: my sick husband, still bedridden after a very serious illness, my two daughters, my grandson, our nurse and myself. All of our young men were in the army at that time.

It was a November afternoon, a few days after the Bolsheviks coup d’état. I was informed that the yard was full of peasants who continued to arrive in large numbers, wives and children included.

What could they possibly want from us?

Since the beginning of the revolution, they were showing their hostile feelings. During the summer of 1917, the propaganda of the Bolsheviks, supported by the criminal appeals of Tchernof (Minister of Agriculture), the cowardly hesitations of Prince Lwof and the naive chatter of Kerensky, had completely severed the final ties which had united them with our family. And yet these links had seemed solid.  

My husband had worked for twenty years in the formation of rural schools within our district. He was well pleased with the progress of our own; it was considered throughout the district as a model institution. Next to the primary school, a high school had been erected by him. An infirmary, serving several villages, had been founded by his mother, whose house stood next to ours. Former students of our schools had for years consulted my husband about their studies and future occupations. Their fathers respectfully asked him for advice on their commune’s affairs.  In short, there was a constant back and forth between the village and the property owners. But during the summer of 1917, everything changed. The harvest was only brought in with great pains, thanks to the conscientious work of the war prisoners; the peasants, instead of running as before at the first call for daily labor, lingered or asked for unreasonable salaries. The village cattle came to graze in our fields, eating our sheaves and then damaging our lawns and flowers in front of our house. The peasants’ children picked vegetables from the kitchen garden and fruits from the orchard and at the slightest remonstrance, they replied:

  • – Wait a minute! It’s all going to be ours one day. You have enjoyed it enough!

I had to forbid my daughters to ride horses as the other children were throwing stones and telling them nonsense when they passed through the village or met them on their way. We felt like we were caught in a circle that was getting closer and closer. And yet our faith in the good sense of our people was such that many families who would usually leave the countryside for the winter decided not to this year, given Russia’s economic position. This was also our position, confirmed even more by my husband’s illness. And naively, we thought with pleasure of the long winter evenings with the family in the company of the good books from our library.

This crowd of nearly a thousand that now filled the courtyard made a sinister growl that made my heart skip with a bad feeling. Was the beast that had been awakened by the provisional government going to be unleashed by the Bolsheviks and thrown into our path, sweeping everything in its mad rush?

They wanted to talk to me. Three peasants, two middle-aged men, a very young boy, a thief who had served a few months in prison, politely asked to visit the house, as they were looking for a gun. I replied that we had no weapons. They insisted. I had to lead them through the bedrooms, explaining our choices of furniture placement, opening a cupboard door here and there to show what it contained. They seemed to be particularly interested in the number of rooms and their dimensions. When we had finished, the eldest MP’s conclusion made me smile:   

  • – Yes, he said. One could have hidden a cow, not just a gun!

They left the house without having touched anything, but decided they would leave two guards in the courtyard to watch us. However, the crowd was in no hurry to leave. The kids would catch chickens and turkeys; the women went to the farmyard to see how the cows were milked.  Our milkwoman, to her great despair, could only provide us with very little this evening as everything had been taken to the village. 

Nicolas Gorboff, my grandfather, was  the son of a rich merchant.Both were  fond of culture. Far from  the luxury of some family homes, Petrovskoe  reflects the personality of its owner.   

I sent my daughters through the garden to the director of the upper school, a man of good sense who was very devoted to us, to beg him to send some dispatches to warn the government of the danger threatening our property. At the same time, he was given silverware and small items of which were particularly fond. Everything was stolen away at twilight.

The night was quiet enough. But at dawn, the whole crowd thronged back to our house. It was a back and forth of hubbub, laughter, arguments. The women were dressed in their sheepskins, their heads wrapped in a shawl with a large checkered print. They forced open the doors of the kitchen, the dairy, the pantry. We tried to fend them off, but all kinds of small objects disappeared from the tables. The housekeeper and the milk woman, regretfully, shuttled between the house and the outbuildings, complaining of having seen a bucket disappear, or at times a pot, or a lamp. The guards were the first to take advantage of their privileged position. They would sneak in anywhere and demand to have dinner with our people. Yesterday’s delegates were also taking part in the general robbery.

That afternoon, a new deputation arrived. Three of the deputies were old peasants, one of whom was the father of a deaf-mute boy raised by my husband in an asylum. His name was Gregoire. We were always dealing with his wife because he himself, rascal and vagabond, was almost always absent. At each of his visits, he stripped his wife and sons of all he could. At that time, he stood as head of a committee elected by the three villages that made up our parish. The purpose of this committee was « to prevent homeowners from wasting their property. »

There it was, the legal motive we were looking for to explain why there was the burning desire to take everything that belonged to us. We had found it, but we had no idea how to put it into words. 

The conversation took place on the steps. The whole crowd was listening.

  • – Don’t you see that we are wasting our wealth?  I asked. ‘The harvest came in despite all of the difficulties; everything is in order.
  • – You sold cattle in the fall! shouted a voice from the crowd.
  • – You chopped firewood, another shouted.
  • – And you’ve done it every year, added a third voice threateningly.
  • – Wouldn’t each of you do the same for your own property? …
  • – It’s not your property! It belongs to the people! You’ve had enough of our blood!
  • – It belongs to the people! screamed the crowd.

And I saw that those who had shouted perhaps the loudest were men  who had been considered by us to be the most honest and respectable. I understood then why thieves, vagabonds and drunkards were elected to the committees. A remnant of shame prevented these respectable men from entering the house with such unfounded demands. They preferred to hide behind Gregoire’s  back and let them speak with the owners, but their feelings were no less the same.

– Well, continued Gregoire, the Committee has decided. Here is a piece of paper you must  sign. He handed me a shred of grey paper jabbered with illegible words, as it was written in pencil by a kid who was clueless when it came to spelling. I refused to sign it.

I was told that the Committee would have to take possession of the steward’s keys and post sentries near the sheds, cellars and barns. The deputies then left our house, unhappy with me. And the looting began.

The number of official guards who were to « watch » us after this interview rose to eight. Under their leadership, the crowd walked to a small service building set aside and began to demolish it. But one of the guards, wanting to play both sides, came to me to complain of the shamelessness of these « bad subjects.” He offered to drive everyone out immediately if I would let his family stay in the driver’s room. He was then seen dragging planks and beams ahead of the others.

At nightfall, the pyres were lit in the courtyard for warmth. Hedges, benches, doors, everything was used to keep the fire going. All night long there was a continual rolling of wagons, voices speaking, dogs barking. We wondered what it could mean but no one dared to open a door or a window. At daybreak, the servants discovered the cause of all this uproar: the mob had rushed to my now uninhabited mother-in-law’s house and looted it from top to bottom. The last pieces of furniture were still being passed from hand to hand or lying on the lawn when my hastily dressed daughters went to visit their Grandma’s home. They met our parish priest along the way who was trying to convince his parishioners of the evil they were doing; he was showered with mockery and name-calling.

At the same time our old steward, a brave and very honest man, arrived in despair to announce that all our wagons and sleds had been stolen, and the laundry and the dairy looted; only the walls remained. How had all this happened since just the day before! What about our telegrams? No answer. No hope of containing this avalanche which was growing and becoming more and more threatening.

Maria Gorboff, the last daughter of Nicolas and Sophie Gorboff, took some pictures of Petrovskoe with her when she left Russia and settled in the USA (1921). Archives Gorboff(c)

The noise of the pogrom (looting) began to spread in the surroundings. Not only did the headmaster of the highs school come running in the morning, but also a neighbor whose property belonged to another district adjoining ours. We saw him appear on horseback in the courtyard. The principal suggested that we put some students in the house so that we wouldn’t be left alone the following night. There were boys who decided to sleep at the school, as they lived too far to go home. Our neighbor offered hospitality to my husband and grandson in case I decided they shouldn’t remain at home. But I had some hope and  still hesitated.

In the meantime a peasant, a former starosta (sort of mayor) of the village introduced himself along with the three members of the Committee from the day before. The crowd again came and stood in front of the house. They absolutely wanted me to sign this unfortunate piece of paper. Our nurse, who was making her daily visit to my husband, whispered to me: – Just sign it! Don’t irritate them!

I took the paper and wrote: ‘Read’.Then I signed it.   

The former starosta inquired about the health of the barine (master). I knew that a rumor started in the village: they whispered that my husband wasn’t dead but we had hidden him, fearing being chased out. It would be wise to silence this rumor and let it him see our patient at the same time.  I took him to my husband’s room. He was visibly moved when he saw how much he had changed and heard his own weakened voice and even had tears in his eyes.

  • – Well Ivan, what do you advise us to do? Can we stay? Can you promise me that our house will not suffer the same fate as our neighbor’s house?
  • – We feel truly sorry for the barine, replied Ivan. I simply  can’t answer for anything.

All I had to do after that was to accept our neighbor’s offer and hurry to find some refuge in our small town. Our friend had promised to send us his carriage in the afternoon. We had seen him trot out on his horse in the midst of the crowd. I had confided  to  him all the money I had.

The picture of our patient’s departure under the extraordinary circumstances I have just described is difficult to forget. I was afraid the crowd would shout curses at him when he appeared at the door, tottering and supported on both sides by prisoners of war. But one of my husband’s former students, now a soldier on leave, outraged to the bottom of his soul at the conduct of his colleagues, stood beside the carriage. Whether the sight of him was compelling, or if there was some remnant of the old esteem, I couldn’t tell; but dead silence greeted the appearance of my husband. He was allowed to get on. The carriage set off and slowly set off for the front of the driveway that leads to the main road. Would he ever take the path to come home again?

That day was dedicated to sharing our cattle, cows, horses, sheep, and pigs. It got everyone out of the house for a bit after my husband left. I took the opportunity to send my grandson away.

The following night was truly appalling.

The thirst for unpunished carnage grew in the savage crowd around us, as it indulged and intoxicated itself at the same time. Everything was looted around the house. Smashed doors and windows of empty buildings offered nothing but black, gaping holes. But the house was full of attractive things and its master had simply left it. The women were especially delighted in the pleasure of breaking down cupboards full of crockery, and chests of drawers full of linen. They did not want to leave the pyres, which had been lit by the guards. Approaching the windows, they stared eagerly into the interior of the lighted rooms: I had put on all the lamps. We dared not to undress.  Our coats were next to our beds so that we could escape in the event of a fire or sudden invasion. Each time one of us approached a window, you would see a head peel off the pane and disappear into the darkness. It was obvious that the tension in this savage horde was such that if by chance they heard the sound of a broken window echo in the air, they would interpret it as a signal to attack. The boys and their tutor surveyed the property several times. They witnessed figures crouching behind bushes, watching for the slightest opportunity to enter the house. 

That interminable night finally gave way to the light of dawn. And behold, the courtyard was filled with howls ; our beautiful purebred cows had swam across the river to return to our stables after a night spent shivering in the dirty and cold peasant yards. Women and kids kicked them back with sticks. There was even a fight over a little calf forgotten in yesterday’s share. The shrews seized it with curses and the poor beast was torn to bloody shreds amid the boos of the assistants. At this very moment, the steward arrived and was so disturbed that he could barely utter a word. He barricaded his door to save his family from a nocturnal invasion. The water pipe had been completely damaged. Of the three cows left to our disposal, two had just been awarded by the Committee to two families who  considered themselves as deserving of them the day before. 

I had to make up my mind about how to get away; it was essential that we find refuge. I left my daughters with the principal, imploring him to take care of them and perhaps take them to school, if it was safe to do so. Then I went to hitch up and prepare to leave. It turned out that there was no longer a crew available; all the wheels and upper parts of the wagons had suffered the same fate as the little calf. Fortunately, a small cart was found. Though it was springless, it would have to do. A prisoner helped me to harness two horses which had already been spoken for by the owner: a one-eyed horse, and a horse so old that he had been destined to carry straw for the farmyard. We then began to march through frozen mud. The poor horses stumbled and the cart jerked. We took nearly six hours to cover twenty kilometers. My business concluded, I had to sleep in town because the days were short. You can imagine the night I spent thinking of the horrors of the countryside. At dawn, I rented stronger horses and hurried back. Upon my return, against all odds, I found the situation a little more tolerable. There was no longer anything to steal outside. Inside, it was clear we would be more comfortable after the master’s departure. Everyone crowded near the barns, and we began arguing about the agricultural machinery. My daughters had had a better night, and were packing. I busied myself with hiring carts for the luggage transfer; they insisted on only giving me only three.

  • – Isn’t it our right to take our furniture with us? I asked the member of the committee who had given me the order. He became pensive.
  • -The houses are unquestionably ours, he said. You built them with our blood. As for the furniture, you are free to take it wherever you want.
  • – But how can we possibly do that with only three carts?
  • -That doesn’t concern me.

The wagons were loaded and set to go. Now I had to think of the servants; it had been very difficult for them, as they had been shadowed by serving the ‘bourgeois.’ I simply could not leave without assuring their departure. Fortunately, a priest and wealthy land owner who considered himself « bourgeois » , and whose land was close to ours, came to my aid. They lent me their horses and carts for the next day. It was a very generous offer, as they risked vengence from the peasants. They were very courageous in helping me.

Our final departure was therefore fixed. I was naive enough to arrange the house as I always do when I leave. I had the furniture covered with slipcovers; I locked away all the small items, portraits, knick-knacks, etc. We sat down to our last supper when I received word that the three committee members were still asking for me. This time, no one accompanied them. They entered the office and looked somewhat embarrassed.

  • – We came because of the money, said the elder. He was holding something wrapped in a dirty rag in his fingers.
  • – What money ?
  • – The animals that we distributed among us: cows, horses …
  • – You claim to have bought them from me? Keep your money to yourself. I will not enter into an agreement with thieves.  A wicked smile lit the face of the old peasant
  • – Well, if that is how you would have it, we must inform you again that you must leave this place and take your servants with you. You only have three days to do so.

 At his impertinence, blood rushed to my face.

  • – Three more days with you? God forbid! I have already arranged everything to leave by tomorrow. And I turned my back on them.

Five days after our installation in the small neighboring town we had a visit from the director of the upper school. After we left, he had placed students in our Grandmother’s looted house as well as ours. But despite the presence of their own children, the peasants had set it on fire during the night. One of our prisoners saw the fire and woke everyone; without him, there would have been deaths. Thanks to the headmaster’s energy and presence of mind the main house had been saved this time. But it was obvious that something had to be done to save the books from a second attack. There was in Tula a society that protected cultural monuments. We decided to reach out to this company and implore them for help in the matter.

Another telegram! My God, how many had we sent since the spring to these socialist government gentlemen? And we never received a response. However, one had to try again.

Petrovskoe.  Many books  of the magnificent library of Nicolas Gorboff  were stolen  but an important part belongs now to Tula’s municipal archives. Gorboff Archives(c) 

Three days later, our steward sent us the following note: « I have the honor to tell you that it is all over: they made a lottery on your furniture. Except for the books, the house is completely empty”.

He later told us that the « commissioners » who arrived to organize the lottery, after taking the keys from the housekeeper, had been primarily interested in the pantry. Some bottles of vodka had especially attracted their attention. But they feared that suspecting their intentions, we would have poisoned them. They demanded that the oldest of them sacrifice himself: « Taste it first, » he was told; if you die of it, we won’t touch it.  » He did not die. On the contrary, he enjoyed it so much that he prolonged the organization of the lottery with his comrades, had turkeys roasted and omelets prepared by the steward’s wife. And all the bottles of vodka were finished during this feast.

The lottery, however, did not take place. As soon as the doors of the house opened, all the rooms were invaded by the impatient and tumultuous crowd. They pounced on whatever came to their fingertips. Women, holding their skirts, grabbed at crystal and porcelain items, caring little that they would take away only debris. Draperies and rugs were cut to make clothes and blankets. The damaged furniture, too massive for the isbas (wooden peasant’s houses), were dragged through the mud and abandoned in the barns. A peasant woman, succumbing to the weight of an armchair, stopped to breathe near the school and offered to sell it to the principal’s wife. When she refused, she begged her to accept it for free because, as she complained, that damn chair had broken her back, and what would she do with it at home? It wouldn’t even be able to fit through the front door!

  • – Then why did you take it?
  • – Everyone was doing it—I wasn’t the only one!

Petrovskoe was set on fire shortly after the family left. Nothing remains. Maybe it’s best that way.Archives Gorboff(c)

A large ebony cabinet was overturned on its back and placed in a stable to serve as a kneading box for the pigs’ food. A mirror was hung in the vestibule of an isba because it would not fit through the door of a room. In a few days a goat, seeing his image there, rammed into it and broke it into a thousand pieces.

As for my husband’s precious library: over 10,000 volumes, most of them beautifully bound, albums, deluxe editions, all cataloged remained in perfect order. Following our telegram, a young man who looked like a stylish, cheeky, state-of-the-art worker came to our house. He was from the Tula Soviet. The Soviet, which had intercepted our telegram, declared themselves the owner of our library and instructed the young man, under the protection of a few army soldiers, to pack the books and ship them to Tula.

  • – I don’t think our books are of much use to workers and soldiers, observed my husband. They are mostly books on philosophy, theology, art history, and almost completely in foreign languages.
  • – It’s nothing, replied the young man from the Soviet: we are growing fast and soon we will be mature enough to understand everything.

So it was done. The young man, at the head of three or four kids aged 16 to 18 and armed to the teeth, took possession of our house and stayed there for almost eight months. They led a debauched life, eating and drinking at the expense of the peasants who were terrorized by their machine guns, obediently providing them with books and horses for their walks. I was told that whenever they went to Tula, they carried bags of books to sell for profit. I was also told that by the end, the books managed to be packed and shipped. But no one knew exactly what had happened.

Many families who were even less happy than us suffered even worse fates in leaving their properties. I know of a lady who walked twenty kilometers with her daughters in the snow because she had been refused horses. Others were forced to flee at night amid the horrors of fire. They hid with parish priests or compassionate bourgeois who were willing to keep them for a while.And there were cases of atrocious tyranny, though comparatively rare. The main motive of the Russian revolution in the countryside was looting. Envy was the mainstay of all persecution of landlords by peasants.

I must add a few words about a class of people, mostly widows or single women, who, wanting to keep their homes for their children and their parents at all costs, chose a conciliatory line of conduct and submitted to the commissioners from the start. These people then led a pitiful and humiliating existence for a few months. Every egg, every hen, every freshly baked bread passed first through the hands of the commissioners and was often not given without a request being tendered first. If a poor lady needed transportation, she barely had access to a horse whilst the commissioner took advantage of it at every turn. The humiliations did not end there. I know a lady of almost fifty years of age who, having been in this position, one day received a visit from one of her former workers. The unblushing man settled himself in an armchair and said: -Well, I must tell you that I like you. We should get married: will you marry me? After a few months, all of these people were kicked out as just we had been.

Such, or almost such, was the fate of all the estates of central Russia. The castles were set on fire or demolished. Paintings, family archives, libraries, works of art, furniture dating back two or three centuries; everything that several generations of cultural life had amassed, everything was shattered, broken, trampled on in the mud. These things would disappear, never to return, in the whirlwind of unleashed passions by an ignorant and greedy crowd.

The looting of property had other lamentable consequences. As the Russian peasants’ agriculture output had been at a very low level, most of the agricultural produce had been supplied to European merchants from the owner’s land where knowledge of high agricultural regulations spread amongst the peasants. The Provisional Government, by offering the land that had been so ardently coveted by the Russian people, did not think of retaining the methods of working of this land under the conditions which had made it valuable in the owner’s hands. Agricultural machinery which had been appropriated by ignorant people had been damaged. The purebred animals which had been placed in horrible conditions were doomed  to perish. The forests, finally, which the Russian peasant had never known how to exploit, were, for the most part, lost.  

There is no need to go into further details, my aim being to paint the picture of Russian Pogroms. Perhaps this retelling will help foreigners to understand the intellectual and moral value of those who present themselves as masters of Russia.

                                                                 Sophie Gorboff, Yalta, 1919

A pogrom in the central Russia, by Sophie Gorboff, Yalta, 1919.Municipal library. Dijon. Jules Legras Fund. MS 4106/8 (c) 

  • Translated from french by Lindsey Hawley. Special thanks to George H.Jones.

contact: gorboff.marina@gmail.com 


Sophie Nicolaevna Gorboff (1863 – 1949), my grandmother, left Russia in 1920 with her husband and their five children. They settled first in Germany, then in Paris (1934). Like many people in the 19th century, Sophie Nicolaevna wanted to transmit her family’s story to her descendants: on two occasions, in Russia (1885), and in exile (1924), she wrote her Memoirs of a young provincial girl and the beginning of her life as a married woman to a rich Muscovite intellectual (In russian and french versions. See my blog menu ).
In  1954,  my father  Michel Gorboff (1898-1961) also wrote his memories of the Russian civil war of 1918 (see the blog,18/10/2015). Two generations’ archives could not remain unknown; they are the origins of my blog.

In 2015, working on the archives of a great family friend, the professor of Russian literature, Jules Legras (see 10/12/2017), of the municipal archives of Dijon I discovered my grandmother’s unknown last text written in 1919, in Yalta, just before the family left Russia. « The pogrom in central Russia” was is  written in French. That choice was likely intended to fend off political commissioners. Another purpose may have been the publishing of the text in the West, to serve as a testimonial. This never took place, however.
In Yalta, where they had taken refuge after the looting of the family house of Petrovskoe, members of the Gorboff family lived in promiscuity. Sophie Nicolaevna’s work could not have gone unnoticed. I am sure that my grandmother showed it to her husband and to my father when he was on leave from the civil war, where he was enlisted in the White army. For whatever reason, I had never heard of it from my family. So, a century after the writing of the ‘Pogrom’, I had the privilege to discover this text: it was a great moment! I translated  it into Russian  and now the time to translate it into English has come.
My Father’s Memories will be released soon.