Again, not a Fiddler on the Roof subject, but I finally looked up this incident from The Railway Children, by E. Nesbit, dealing with a British subject's view of Russia. As a child, my only impressions of the Russia of Nicholas II came from picking at bits of books and movies such as Dr. Zhivago and Nicholas and Alexandra, reading a children's short story in which "cossacks" was the worst insult a boy could hurl at bullies, the wedding scene from Fiddler on the Roof, and this passage from The Railway Children, in which the family has found a Russian lost at their local train station:
Later on, when the Russian stranger had been made comfortable for the night, Mother came into the girls' room. She was to sleep there in
Phyllis's bed, and Phyllis was to have a mattress on the floor, a most amusing adventure for Phyllis. Directly Mother came in, two white
figures started up, and two eager voices called:--
"Now, Mother, tell us all about the Russian gentleman."
A white shape hopped into the room. It was Peter, dragging his quilt behind him like the tail of a white peacock.
"We have been patient," he said, "and I had to bite my tongue not to go to sleep, and I just nearly went to sleep and I bit too hard, and it
hurts ever so. DO tell us. Make a nice long story of it."
"I can't make a long story of it to-night," said Mother; "I'm very tired."
Bobbie knew by her voice that Mother had been crying, but the others didn't know.
"Well, make it as long as you can," said Phil, and Bobbie got her arms round Mother's waist and snuggled close to her.
"Well, it's a story long enough to make a whole book of. He's a writer; he's written beautiful books. In Russia at the time of the Czar one
dared not say anything about the rich people doing wrong, or about the things that ought to be done to make poor people better and happier. If one did one was sent to prison."
"But they CAN'T," said Peter; "people only go to prison when they've done wrong."
"Or when the Judges THINK they've done wrong," said Mother. "Yes, that's so in England. But in Russia it was different. And he wrote a beautiful book about poor people and how to help them. I've read it. There's nothing in it but goodness and kindness. And they sent him to prison for it. He was three years in a horrible dungeon, with hardly any light, and all damp and dreadful. In prison all alone for three years."
Mother's voice trembled a little and stopped suddenly.
"But, Mother," said Peter, "that can't be true NOW. It sounds like something out of a history book--the Inquisition, or something."
"It WAS true," said Mother; "it's all horribly true. Well, then they took him out and sent him to Siberia, a convict chained to other convicts--wicked men who'd done all sorts of crimes--a long chain of them, and they walked, and walked, and walked, for days and weeks, till
he thought they'd never stop walking. And overseers went behind them with whips--yes, whips--to beat them if they got tired. And some of them went lame, and some fell down, and when they couldn't get up and go on, they beat them, and then left them to die. Oh, it's all too terrible! And at last he got to the mines, and he was condemned to stay there for life--for life, just for writing a good, noble, splendid book."
"How did he get away?"
"When the war came, some of the Russian prisoners were allowed to volunteer as soldiers. And he volunteered. But he deserted at the first
chance he got and--"
"But that's very cowardly, isn't it"--said Peter--"to desert? Especially when it's war."
"Do you think he owed anything to a country that had done THAT to him? If he did, he owed more to his wife and children. He didn't know what had become of them."
"Oh," cried Bobbie, "he had THEM to think about and be miserable about TOO, then, all the time he was in prison?"
"Yes, he had them to think about and be miserable about all the time he was in prison. For anything he knew they might have been sent to prison, too. They did those things in Russia. But while he was in the mines some friends managed to get a message to him that his wife and children had escaped and come to England. So when he deserted he came here to look for them."
"Had he got their address?" said practical Peter.
"No; just England. He was going to London, and he thought he had to change at our station, and then he found he'd lost his ticket and his purse."
"Oh, DO you think he'll find them?--I mean his wife and children, not the ticket and things."
"I hope so. Oh, I hope and pray that he'll find his wife and children again."
Even Phyllis now perceived that mother's voice was very unsteady.
"Why, Mother," she said, "how very sorry you seem to be for him!"
Mother didn't answer for a minute. Then she just said, "Yes," and then she seemed to be thinking. The children were quiet.
Presently she said, "Dears, when you say your prayers, I think you might ask God to show His pity upon all prisoners and captives."
"To show His pity," Bobbie repeated slowly, "upon all prisoners and captives. Is that right, Mother?"
"Yes," said Mother, "upon all prisoners and captives. All prisoners and captives."