By GEORGE SCOTT I was able to book a seat in a rickety Benz car run by an Armenian. I was glad it was a Benz, as they are short in body, and so, better equipped to negotiate sharp and perilous .turns. (Some moneyed American had the year before presented the Grand Duke Nicholas, to whose staff I was attached, with seven Rolls-Royces for his journeys to and from Erzeroum. They were quite useless on the winding mountain roads.) That run over the Georgian road still lives in my memory. Rarely, in a life adequately jewelled with tense moments, have I been so truly scared.
All went well until we reached Mshet, the first stage of the journey—Mshet, the ancient capital of Old Georgia, which goes back to the time of Mithridates, when Claudius ruled in Rome, and Herod Agrippa was king. At least so far, if not earlier. It harbours the tombs of the kings of ancient Georgia, who claimed descent from the House of David. In Tiflis I had met the Princess Liza Orbeliani, the one surviving granddaughter of the last king. She was a remarkable old dame with snow-white hair—snow-white, except in front, for she had a trick of blowing the smoke from her cigarette into it whenever she brought off a witticism, and as she could not open her mouth without uttering a caustic remark her " front " had taken on a permanently ginger shade. She regarded the Romanoffs as barbarians of yesterday, and the Grand Duke, ever courteous, and possessed of an unexpected sense of humour, invariably called on her. She would never dream of calling first.
It was after we had passed Mshet that the journey became eventful. For one thing, we learnt at Mshet that the mountain tribes, the Ingoosh and the Ossetine, were on the war-path. They were quite determined that none, whether Red Army, Cossack or German, should use the road, but were quite prepared, for a con- sideration, to issue passes to private persons. In the meantime our driver had had a good gin-up—" to steady my nerves," as he put it. We were held up several times along the road. The patrolling hillmen who stopped us did so by letting fly at the car with their rifles, and we limped into the village of Kazbilt that nestles at the foot of the mighty mountain of that name with two punctured tyres. After that, we began to climb steadily, and the road became more and more dangerous where masses of falling rock had damaged it, leaving it wide enough for the car to pass by a margin of inches only. That was the part of the journey that gave me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. At one hairpin-turn the car skidded badly on the loose surface, and looking over the side, I could see the thin glittering thread of the wild Terek river below— a sheer drop of a thousand feet or more. I was glad to reach Ordzhonikidze that evening. Again, I pity the Germans should they try that road. The defenders would need to waste no bombs. Boulders from a convenient height would do the trick equally well.
When I arrived there, the Red Army held Ordzhonikidze. Then there was a good deal of street-fighting, which left the Cossacks and the hillmen—who had temporarily buried an ancient blood- feud for the purpose of ousting the Reds—again temporarily, in charge. A month later, after yet further street-fighting, the Soviet troops were back. Which brings me to place-names. I find I have difficulty in not giving Ordzhonikidze its original name of Vladikavkaz, literally, Dominate-Thou-the-Caucasus ; for the name Ordzhonikidze does not recall to my mind a well-planned rectangular town with a spacious park through which runs the Terek ; a town built by the Tsar who had conquered the Caucasus. Rather am I reminded of a smallish sallow man—a kinsman of Premier Stalin—with a mop of unruly black hair, an ill-kept imperial, and the dark fiery eyes of a visionary. Indeed a picturesque figure, with his flaming red, collarless shirt, his baggy blue trousers tucked into top boots, and over all, a rusty fin-de-siecle frock coat two sizes too big for him ; for it was he who at long last ordered my arrest " as an Imperialist and one who consorted with Imperialists." Having sentenced me to death he at once insisted that I should be escorted to Moscow " to have the sentence confirmed by higher authority." I often wish we could have met in happier circumstances, as he was a delightful sincere little man. His attitude was quite im- personal. He would have treated my chief, Lieut.-Colonel—now General—Wavell, in exactly the same way, had not the latter, fortunately for England and unfortunately for Graziani, been recalled some months earlier to join Allenby, and so increase his knowledge of desert-warfare.
Vladikavkaz was a comparatively modern town, and there was no particular reason why, when Ordzhonikidze died, the Soviet Govern- ment should not have bestowed upon it his name. It is also proper that the sleepy little old Volga town of Tsaritzin, which has since developed into a mighty city of steel, should have been renamed after the Man of Steel who had so much to do with its growth. But why change Nizhni-Novgorod, and in changing it to Gorki rob Russia of an historical background in favour of an extremely vain, vulgar, rather second-rate artist? There is no precedent for vulgarity necessarily to be associated with Socialism in its most extreme form. My guards, throughout my difficult trek across the Astrakhan Steppe in the winter of 1918-1919, were invariably courteous and considerate.
At that time, the railway ended at Sviatoi Krest, Holy Cross, in mid-steppe, not far from Piatigorsk. The platform at Piatigorsk was crowded with soldiery, all slightly crazed with their new-found freedom. They pulled the driver out of his cab and themselves ran the train up and down the line like a school of mischievous boys whom none controlled. They swarmed on the roof of our carriage. and tried to break in. The guard in charge of me stood there ready to lose his life in my defence. Fortunately the day was drawing in ; the riotous soldiers wearied of the game, and we were allowed to proceed to Holy Cross, famous for its monastery, a place where the Southern Armies of • Old Russia had been buried over and over again: for battalions of black crosses stretched as far as the eye could see, towards a blood-red horizon that heralded an early and bitter winter.
I was in the country of my birth. I knew intimately every township and village of that area, as far as the Volga, on whose banks I was born. I speak Russian like a native. Why then, did I not slip away? Was it out of consideration for those in charge of me, who shared my hardships, and insisted on sharing any food and drink they were able to acquire in a starving land? Or was it because, as we sat round the great brushwood fires in mid-steppe, in the steely night, with the thermometer ever falling, falling, I caught sight of moving pin-points of green beyond the farthest rim of the fire's light? I often wonder how those gaunt grey wolves of the steppes are faring throughout these murderous mechanised days. This winter will be a harder one than ever, both for Russian
and German, and I cannot but think that the wolves, whose melancholy song I used to hear as a child, and later, as a grown man, will be permitted to feast to their hearts' content. Unless, indeed, before spring again transmutes, with magic touch, the barren steppe to a land of beauty and plenty, they themselves be devoured of wolfish men.