Armenia minute by minute

At the Kutaisi airport, just like at this time last year, we each receive a bottle of Georgian wine along with our stamped passports. We say thanks with madlobat, the passport controller accepts it with a grateful smile. They start to distribute the Saperavi at Christmas, by the tourist season it runs out, so it serves as a reward for the courageous, who set out to discover the Caucasus during wintertime. Which, for the time being, does not seem foolhardy, as in Kutaisi we are received by a warm spring night, and the daytime temperature rises above twenty degrees. We go into the city by marshrutka, a young father sits next to us with his little daughter, they have also come to discover the country, the mother with the two other children will arrive on the next flight. He is for the first time in Georgia, but he is surprisingly well acquainted with the sights. They want to follow more or less the same route as we with the fellow travelers of río Wang. He asks for help, how to get to different places, what to see. I give him advice, I recommend the blog for more details. “I know it”, he looks at me in surprise, “I picked up there what I know of Georgia.”

In the Soviet republics, the post-modern style which denies the past arrived together with the collapse of the system, so a good part of their contemporary public sculpture come across as infantile gags conceived as a rejection of the heroic monuments of socialism. No pathos, no lofty message. However, their sculptors also need some model, and where else could have they turned for inspiration but to the heritage of socialism. The care-free dancing and singing girls and boys, who used to proclaim from the friezes of Soviet schools and cultural centers that it is day by day better to live here, have now descended to the squares. And although they are conceived as art without message, nevertheless they apparently bring with them their original meaning, the unbearable lightness of being.

The level of Rioni falls a lot in the winter months, when no new supplies come from the mountains. The river reveals the white bones of its rocky bed. We walk along it. Its bank was once lined by wealthy merchant houses with balconies overlooking the river, the palace row was the pride of the city. After the disappearance of their former inhabitants, the city also turned away from the river, the theater of representation became the main square rebuilt in Stalin Baroque style. The merchant houses have not been maintained for almost a hundred years, their existence will soon come to an end. And through the increasing gaps-in-the-teeth, you can glimpse sights that were buried and preserved for a hundred years in the bourgeois quarter which became the backyard of the city, the archaeology of fin-de-siècle Kutaisi.

The architectural focus of the hill rising above the city is the 12th-century Bagrati Cathedral, but the center of its everyday life is the small anonymous triangular square with three old horbeam trees that developed at the intersection of Debi Ishkhnelebi Street, named after the four singing sisters of Kutaisi, and the Kazbegi Street which bends up from the river bank, and on the hilltop leads to the cathedral. During the settlement of Kazbegi Street, its level has sunk by about a meter, but the triangle between the trees has remained at its original level. It has become a raised podium, on which the locals have installed benches and an umbrella. All day long you can see four or five people sitting here, taking Nescafé in plastic cups from the adjacent small shop, chatting with each other, and, like the cats, watching from this high-up observation point the traffic in the streets, and the panorama of the city opening up to the Lesser Caucasus.

By public demand, a recording from the Ishkhneli sisters of Stalin’s favorite song, Suliko. The recording was made in the 1950s, probably during the life of Stalin

The weather in Kutaisi is mediterranean, while towards Tbilisi it is already raining, and the Khashuri Pass is covered with a thin layer of freshly fallen snow. As we are heading to the Armenian border in the dawn twilight, it starts snowing, first hesitantly, and then with more and more resolve. In the next two days, about a meter of snow falls upon Armenia, which deletes access roads from the map, blocks the roads leading to the monasteries in the highest mountains, and transforms our car into a train-car running between tire ruts in the ice. However, it also changes the mountain landscape into a dreamlike scenery which is never seen in the summer photos. “Armenia receives its dear guest with freshly fallen snow”, consoles us courteously the taxi driver in the shop at the border, where we enter for an Armenian phone card.

The monastery fortress of Akhtala was built in the 13th century by Ivane Zakaryan, the powerful general of Tamar, Queen of Georgia. Its Orthodox church, dedicated to the Holy Virgin, is not used by the Armenians, who follow a different – Gregorian – confession. Nevertheless, over the past five years, the locals have repaired the crumbling buildings, had the beautiful medieval frescoes restored, and they apparently hold worship services in the church. “Who uses the church?” I ask Volodya, the Armenian taxi driver living in the neighborhood, who with his wife takes care of the church, has the key, and runs a coffee shop and grocery store for the tourists in the ground floor of their home. “The Greeks.” In the 18th century, several skilled Greek workers were recruited to work in the local copper mines from the Black Sea, whose descendants still speak the archaic Pontic dialect. “They are also Orthodox, like the Georgians. They are several hundred, they fill the church on Sunday. They even had a priest brought in, he lives down in the town, next to the cable car of the mine.”

A curious modern sculpture stands next to the gate of the monastery fortress, which looks like two bicycle tires leaning to each other. “What is this?” “Two wedding rings,” explains Volodya. “The newly wed couples go through it. It is believed that the couples who went through it, will never divorce. When Russian couples visit the monastery, I often encourage them to go through it. They laugh, but they don’t go. Among them it is not usual to get married for a long time.”

In the canyon all along the river Debed, copper mines operate, once a quarter of Soviet copper production came from here. The town of Alaverdi had been founded in the 1780s for their exploitation by the Argutinsky-Dolgoruky family, the descendants of the Zakaryans, and the town was developed into a huge industrial city by the Soviet system. The literature deduces its name from the Arabic term Allah-verdi, “blessed by Allah”, but Armenian pride traces it back to the Armenian term Ալ-վերտ, Al-verd, “red stone”. Although its cliffs are not red, the river once flowed red from here, one of the most polluting of Soviet industrial cities, toward the Kura and the Caspian Sea. After the disappearance of Soviet industry, the river became clean, but the city dead. We approach it on the road clinging to the wall of the canyon, high above the river, we look down upon it from the edge of the road. The city is lying beneath us, like the decomposing corpse of a huge dragon fallen in the riverbed, with bizarre cliffs towering above it like protruding ribs, the empty eyeholes of its factory buildings have been blackened, many parts of the former industrial city fabric are dissolved in ruins. In some places, a patch of life has remained, a dilapidated Soviet housing estate where people still live, those who have managed to keep some work at the here and there still fuming factory chimneys, or those who simply had nowhere else to go.

The only surviving monument of the old Alaverdi is the stone bridge built in 1196 over the Debed river, on whose side rails four lazy stone cats bathe in the February sunshine. On the hill above the town stands the royal monastery of Sanahin, built in 996, its columns are also flanked by stern-looking cats. Alaverdi apparently used to be the city of cats. Whether they left the city because of the downturn, or on the contrary, their departure caused the end of the city’s prosperity, we will never know. In Alaverdi today there are no cats. Hungry stray dogs roam the abandoned squares of the city.

The monastery of Haghpat was a center of medieval Armenian church. The monastery, founded in the 10th century by the kings of Armenia, was the burial place of the Northern Armenian branch of the Bagratuni dynasty, a famous monastic school and library, as well as a singing school, where Sayat Nova, the legendary 18th-century Armenian poet and bard served as a priest. The monastic community survived the Khorezmian, Mongolian, Uzbek, Turkish and Persian invasions, they only disappeared in Soviet times. A friendly young man comes up from the village with the key, he saw the car stopping in front of the monastery. He happily explains how they managed to organize a community for the restoration of the church and the monastic buildings over the past ten years. They have done a huge labor indeed, more or less professionally. “What time is there worship in the church?” “Every day at ten a.m. and at five p.m.” “So often?” I say in surprise. “Will you have it today at five p.m. as well?” “I do not know. It always depends on whether the priest comes up from the village. I am here every afternoon at five o’clock, I open the church, ring the bells, and wait. If he does not come, I close the doors, and go home.”

At the side of the road between Kobayr and Vanadzor, Armenia, we come to a shack advertising food, a steamy one-room eatery smelling of ash, smoke, mutton and cabbage. We step inside and find the only available table next to a wood-burning stove, and we sit down in the sphere of its heat. Two pots sit on the stove, one with a block of butter melting into some peas, the other covered. Three men are playing cards at the only other table, grumbling out their bids and arguing over each other’s playing, while a woman prepares their food. We order coffee and discuss tomorrow’s itinerary.

Recording by Lloyd Dunn

From the valley of the Debed river a steep serpentine takes you up to a plateau overlooking the gorge, to Odzun, the Village of Snakes. At the pass, an old khachkhar stands on top of the vertical cliff, from here you can see the whole valley, from the bend of Sanahin to the monastery of Kobayr. On the riverbank, small buildings, a railway station, blocks of flats. They were already there in Gábor Illés’ photo of forty years ago, but then they were much more orderly, now you can see the signs of disintegration even from this height. Huge birds circle above us. Griffon vultures, the dwellers of lonely cliffs, we will meet with them many more times in the Armenian mountains. At first only the male appears, he describes broad circles above the gorge. Then, when I photograph him using zoom, suddenly his mate appears as well, and as if they felt that a recording is going on, they perform a superb, precisely coordinated, dance in the air. In the end, the female flies to the south, towards Odzun, and the male comes toward me, passing quite low, exactly over my head, as if winking at me, to find out whether I loved the show.

(to be continued daily until the end of the journey)


Just now I read the report of the Hungarian portal Index about what I read two days ago here on the German sites: that the German government parties have finally agreed on the asylum law reform. I did not pay much attention to the news either then or now, because as the German public opinion is changing minute by minute, just like the position of the German political parties struggling for survival, by the time I finish reading, the events have gone beyond them. But there is something that captures my attention much more, and also its obsolescence can be measured in centuries: the wonders of grammar.

In the picture in the lead of the article, obviously taken in Germany, a four-language inscription welcomes the newcomers, in German, English, Arabic and Persian. All four have their own charm, but now we look at the fourth. It says: آمدید خوش, âmadid khosh. Which does not mean anything. In Persian, the two words of greeting, which have welded together in an inseparable idiom, follow each other in exactly the reverse order: خوش آمدید, khoshâmadid. Feel free to copy both into Google Translator, and see what it yields.

“Be kelâse-ye dovvom khosh âmadid!” – Welcome in the second class! (underline added)

However curvy these letters are in comparison to those familiar to us, the mere graphical form shows the difference.

Khosh âmadid! Resounding, like the welcome in Germany, but grammatically correct

What is the reason of the blatant error? Someone obviously knew it well, entered it in the text editor, and sent it over to the graphic. And in the editor of the graphic designer, the right-to-left text stubbornly changed order, as it often happens in various word processors, we have also seen it. If it happened so, sag schon, we cannot place a Persian policeman next to every designer. A bigger problem is that it did not catch the attention of either the committee preparing the eminent event, or any of the participants or the public. The blooper emblematically symbolizes the fundamental shortcomings of the German preparations to receive people from other cultures. Moreover, by searching for the occurrences of the photo in the net – fortunately, at the moment there are only thirty-eight –, Getty Images, surely the ultimate source of the picture, advertises the picture with the motto find the perfect Persian Script stock photos.

The Arabic formula is correct: أهلاَ وسَهْلاَ ahlān wa sahlān, to good people, on a rich pasture. This one has been checked and the correct word order restored. To the Iranian and Afghan refugees, however, the sad âmadid khosh anticipates, how much understanding they should expect from the Indo-European relatives. As if we said venu bien in French. Or rather saying in German, instead of willkommen: kommen will. Which of course absolutely makes sense in the given situation. So we can downgrade the status of the blooper from mistranslation to a Freudian slip of the tongue.

Times and timepieces of Wolf Pruss. 1. Coming of age in Russia

V. O. Pruss teaching watchmaking to orphanage boys.
Ogonyok, Feb. 19, 1928
Wolf (Vladimir Osipovich) Pruss was a very talented and unruly kid from a Hasidic Jewish shtetl, a dreamer who left comfortable family life in Geneva to pursue his vision to establish watchmaking industry in Russia – with homeless children educated to become the first watchmakers. The storyline traverses from Siberia to Switzerland, with a surprising set of American personalities in it, along with Lenin, Trotsky, and, ultimately, Stalin.
First Soviet watches from Pruss’ factory. Pravda, Dec. 20 1932
V. O. Pruss was executed in the 1937 terror, and erased from the official history. But his memory is coming back…

I’m going to split this story, which I have been researching for years with the help of relatives and friends, into 3 chapters: Russia, emigration, and return to Russia. Much has been invented about the supposedly decades-long personal connections of Pruss and Lenin, and much needs to be debunked, but you’ll need to wait for the next chapter for this. In the 2nd chapter I search for evidence, and find a proof of their acquaintance only for a time period of less than 2 years, when Lenin was stuck in Bern, struggling financially, in a messed up menage-a-trois kind of a relationship with Nadya & Inessa, and needed every sandwich and every cup of tea his better-off comrades could give him.

The story begins in the three sleepy county seat towns of Vitebsk Gubernia, now straddling Russia-Belarus border, at the northernmost fringes of the Pale of Settlement, the area in Western Russia to which the Jews were restricted after the Czarist government's efforts to convert or expel them fell through. 12% of Vitebsk Gubernia population were Jewish at the time. A year before Wolf’s birth, pathologically anti-Semitic Alexander III ascended to Russian throne, and made most places even within the Pale off-limits for the Jews to live, sending most of traditional Jewish towns on a death spiral of overcrowding and poverty.

Map of the Jewish Pale, adopted from Wikipedia, with the Nevel, Gorodok, and Velizh marked by red dots.

Wolf Pruss was born on February 18, 1883 in Gorodok (which just means “Little town” / “Shtetl”). There, he began learning watchmaking from his maternal uncle. As Wolf told it, at the age of 12 he was caught fixing a neighbor’s clock using tools “borrowed” from the uncle. As a punishment, he was sent away from town to apprentice with a rich family, but it didn’t work out. The family lore adds more about the reasons for Wolf’s banishment. Joseph, his strict father, couldn’t stand the kid’s disobedience, but his mother Evgeniya kept finding good people to take care of her young “Wolya” (or Velvl as other relatives preferred to call him in Yiddish). His mother hailed from a more educated family in a larger city of Vitebsk, and didn’t fit in well with the ultra-religious Hasids of Gorodok. Like his mother, Wolf didn’t particularly respect traditional customs. He had to attend kheder (a traditional religious school), but managed to offend an influential rabbi at the school so greatly as to be damned (along with his descendants, Wolf’s oldest daughter, my grand-aunt Rachel hastened to add).

After this, the young man couldn’t find shelter anywhere close to home, and was sent to a railroad junction town of Nevel, a county seat (uezd) town 40 miles away, to apprentice at a workshop of Master Zukerman. At first Wolya worked without pay, just for room and board, but he soon proved to be a skilled student, and Mr. Zukerman signed him on on a 2-year contract. But it wasn’t to be. The young apprentice started reading pro-democracy pamphlets and grew increasingly insubordinate, and the boss kicked him out.

The next stop was at tiny Velizh on the banks of Dvina river, a county seat populated by some 2,000 Jews & best known in history as the location of the first blood libel case ever to be overturned by the Russian Imperial court system (the court even reprimanded a local drunkard prostitute for filing a false police report – back in the 1830s!) Wolf Pruss was to apprentice with the stark and controlling Master Prupas on a punishing 2 and a half year contract, which involved not only 12-14 hour shifts in the workshop, but also numerous household duties, including feeding the cows, cleaning the yard, carrying water from the river, and so on. After a year of such work, and much beating and cussing, Wolf attempted to run away but was caught and returned. But then, in 1900, a disaster changed everything. Mr. Prupas’ 10-year old son misbehaved at the time of a Shabbath prayer, and his father violently threw him across the room. The boy’s body slammed against the wood stove, and he died within a few days.

This horrible experience changed the old watchmaker from a rage-prone brute into a timid, thoughtful teacher, who now cared earnestly about the studies of his apprentice, and never even raised his voice when Wolf would stay up after a day of work, reading illegal anti-monarchy literature. Once the contract was over, Mr. Prupas begged the teenager to stay with him. But once he understood that Wolf Pruss was determined to strike on his own, the teacher gave him not just clothes and money but also the Watchmaker Guild membership. It was Wolf’s ticket out to the wider world, because skilled craftsmen with guild credentials were allowed to move anywhere in the Empire, even if they were Jews. (He was really lucky because the government disbanded the guild system in Vitebsk less than a year later, closing the loophole). Now the young watchmaker journeyman could find jobs anywhere, even beyond the Pale of Jewish Settlement.

And off to the Russian hinterland he went, joining the thriving business of Mr. Kryuchkovich in Belgorod, repairing watches primarily for sugar factories across the surrounding Kursk and Kharkov gubernias.

Machurin Barracks, the home of the 31st Artillery Brigade in Belgorod, still houses a military unit in 2013 (photo from ts58 photoblog)

First battery of the 31st Artillery Brigade went East in July 1903. Czar Nicholas II came to Belgorod to send two more batteries off to the Japanese theater of war in this May 1904 photo

Irkutsk Railroad Station (this and following railroad pictures are from R. Berestyonev’s paper)
Now in the company of revolution-minded college students, Wolf Pruss continued to radicalize. But Wolf was caught agitating the soldiers of the 31st artillery brigade in their Belgorod barracks and expelled from the town, so he decided to try his luck thousands miles away, at the newly constructed Trans-Siberian Railroad in Irkutsk. Possibly he expected a lot of watch-repairing business at this booming Siberian city, or perhaps he chose Irkutsk because the 31st Brigade was being sent to the Eastern Siberia as well, in the run up to the soon-to-flare Russo-Japanese War.

“Korolonets”, Yakov Frizer’s 30HP steamboat on Vitim River. The gold mines’ seasonal supply routes included 1500 miles by riverboat in summer, or 600 miles overland by camel-drawn sleigh in winter

Frizer’s sluices in the forbidding Korolon Gorge
Wolf got a job and a room at the compound of a gold mining executive there, likely Yakov Frizer, the discoverer of the fabled gold of Korolon. Irkutsk had a vibrant and tight-knit Jewish community at the time, many of them 2nd and 3rd generation Siberians, descendants of the exiles of the Polish Uprisings. The clans intermarried; the party loyalties were a crazy quilt. In August 1903, Yakov Frizer’s cousin, Moshe Novomeysky, the future founder of Israeli chemical industries, went to represent Irkutsk at the 6th Zionist Congress, debating whether Russia’s Jews should escape Czarist pogroms in… Uganda, while Mandelberg, his brother-in-law and a future Russian MP, represented Irkutsk at the founding congress of the Social-Democratic Party in London.

Frizer’s Irkutsk compound today

The Trans-Siberian Railroad reached Irkutsk and Lake Baikal in 1898, but the railroad around the giant lake’s cliffy shoreline wasn’t completed until 1904 (and remained vulnerable to landslides even then), so for several years the trains had to cross the inland sea by ferry in summer, or to be pulled on sleighs for crossing in winter.

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Irkutsk with a pontoon summer bridge over mighty Angara. With the arrival of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the city’s population mushroomed to 75,000.
Wolf Pruss remembered coming to the rapidly militarized city in 1903, agitating on the military train transports passing through Irkutsk before being caught again. But the Czarist secret service (Okhrana) archives tell a slightly different story. Apparently Pruss was snapped up by the Okhrana on Dec. 3, 1903 almost by chance, owing to his association with Isaak Gershevich Goldberg and his Irkutsk high school-based circle of Zionist-Socialists (who were into reading and arguing rather than into the revolutionary action stuff like guns and bombs). The Brotherhood, as the circle was known, consisted mostly of smart kids of well-off local Jewish merchants. They hatched a plan to publish an illegal newsletter, mimeographing or typing it 5 copies at a time, with the hope of turning it to a Pan-Siberian literary and scholarly magazine of liberal Jewish thought.
Irkutsk Gymnasia (high school). Most of the Brothers were VII grade students there.
But timing was rather inauspicious. Easter 1903 brought the bloody Kishinev Pogrom; the Czarist authorities were widely blamed for the massacre, and cracked down on the Jewish organizations in response. In May, the new Governor of Eastern Siberia banned local Zionist organizations (the largest of which, a 500-strong union, was run by Goldberg’s older brother Iona), and in July the police started an investigation of Zionist sympathizers. Alas, one of the Brotherhood members, G. Levenson, wrote too effusively about their grand plans in letters abroad, which were intercepted by the secret services. Arrests soon followed – and the authorities quickly realized that their net had caught a bigger fish than they planned, when a search of Wolf Pruss’s home turned up a huge stash of illegal revolutionary literature.

The mimeographed issue #4 of Brotherhood, dated January 20, 1903 opens with an ode to the freedom of speech:

Ты чудо из божьих чудес
Ты мысли светильник и пламя
Ты луч нам на землю с небес
Ты нам человечества знамя;
Ты гонишь невежество, ложь
Ты вечною жизнию ново
Ты к правде, ты к счастью ведёшь
Свободное слово

You are one of God’s miracles,
You are the flaming beacon of thought
You are a shining ray of light from the skies
You are the banner of the humankind
You banish ignorance and lies
You are forever renewed and immortal
You show the path to truth and happiness,
Free Speech!

Irkutsk Prison Castle, as seen in 1885. In 1904 the same two-story building, by then nearly 50 years old, housed the inmates. It is still in use for pretrial detention, although one of the cells, where the Supreme Ruler Admiral Kolchak was kept before his 1920 execution, has become a museum.
While the rest of the Brotherhood kids were quickly released, Wolf Pruss ended up stuck in the Irkutsk Prison Castle for nearly a year. His charges included membership in an illegal subversive organization (article 318 of the 1866 penal code, later dropped for insufficient evidence), making or distributing illegal anti-government literature (article 251), as well as creating anti-government texts for one’s own use (just recently criminalized under article 132 of the new 1903 Criminal Code). In fact the Gendarmerie’s own 1907 post-revolutionary review, armed with the benefit of hindsight, made a pretense that the Brotherhood arrests were an operation against the Social Democrats.

Martov (seated on the right) and Lenin (seated in the center), still close allies in Russia’s original Social-Democratic league, in this 1897 photo from Wikipedia
In Soviet historiography, much has been made of the splinters of the Russian Socialist movements and on being on Lenin’s side of the Social Democracy. Lenin’s faction has just adopted the famous nickname “Bolsheviks” when they formalized the split with the more mainstream faction of Lenin’s archrival Julius Martov in the summer of 1903. In Bolshevism’s official legend, its origins are linked with Lenin’s firebrand newspaper, Iskra (“The Spark”) – and reprints from the Iskra were among the items confiscated from Wolf. No wonder that later Soviet authors pounced on this tidbit and declared that “of course” the young Pruss must have been a Bolshevik! Nothing could be further from the truth; these articles reprinted from the Iskra were in fact penned by Martov, and called for moderation and a gradual systematic buildup of the revolutionary movement. Other publications of Martov’s were in Pruss’s stash as well. And indeed, the Siberian Social-Democratic Union, then centered in Irkutsk, has been a firmly anti-Bolshevik organization siding with Martov’s “Mensheviks”. So we can clearly identify the party affiliation of Wolf Pruss as a mainstream Social-Democrat.

Isaak G. Goldberg, 1884-1939

Isaak Gershevich (Grigorievich) Goldberg is the most famous of Wolf’s friends from this Russian chapter of his life. Isaak was born in Irkutsk to an exiled Jewish blacksmith father, whose children stayed behind when their father returned home, and started successful businesses in mechanics and hardware. Isaak, the youngest, was already a fledgling author whose first novel appeared in 1903. Like most of the rest of the circle’s participants – Levenson, Feinberg brothers, Levenberg, Eliashevich, Preisman, Winer, Azadowsky, Winik – Goldberg was only further radicalized after the Brotherhood arrests and joined armed cells of the “Esers” (S.-R’s, Socialists-Revolutioners). He ended up exiled to even more remote regions of Siberia for his activities in the 1905 Revolution and returned to Irkutsk only in 1912, soon publishing a book of short stories from his exile. After the fall of the monarchy he served on the city council on the PSR ticket. Over time he became an influential author and literary society organizer; arrested in 1937, executed. Recently there has been a great investigation of his life by a local journalist and blogger, Maksim Kudelya.
Wolf wasn’t offered bail until July 20, 1904, and at 1,000 rubles (some $14,000 in today’s money) he couldn’t make it. Summer was turning to fall when he finally got a glimmer of hope. The birth of the heir to the Russian Imperial throne was celebrated with a general amnesty for all political offenses and the remaining charges were to be dropped. The gears of the bureaucratic machinery were grinding slowly, and it took time to act on the throne’s manifesto, but Wolf was eventually released, and finally, in mid-December, allowed to leave town. He told the authorities that he was returning home to Vitebsk Gubernia, yet his comrades knew that he wasn’t going to stay there for long, that he had decided to leave Russia. But by then, the situation in the country was quickly spinning out of control. The war with Japan was lost; Russia’s principal base in the Far East, Port Arthur, fell in late December; and the workers’ mutual aid societies, at first supported by the government as a bulwark against the socialist influences, were becoming bolder and more radical by the week.

Wolf Pruss in 1904, before leaving Irkutsk. The picture is inscribed “To dear Israel from W.” on the back

In early January, over 100,000 workers in St. Petersburg went on strike, and 150,000 turned out for a rally on Sunday, January 9th, 1905 to petition the Czar for freedoms, an 8-hour work day, and Constitutional Assembly. The petitioners were met with gunfire, hundreds were killed, and in the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday the whole nation exploded with the First Russian Revolution.

The Bund’s heyday was during the 1905-1907 Revolution, and then its significance faded, but Belostok remained a Jewish Bund stronghold all the way until the Holocaust. Here is a May Day 1934 Bund rally in Belostok

Interestingly, this backwater Jewish town has already been featured in my other blog as the capital of Russian and Polish tango and waltz under Soviet occupation in the opening years of WWII
It appears that Wolf arranged to be smuggled across the German border using the Social-Democrat connections, but, due to the chaos, ended up stuck 50 miles away from the border in Belostok, a large Jewish county seat town in Grodno Gubernia (now Białystok in Poland). Wolf wrote that he couldn’t stay in town legally because Belostok and the whole North-Western Krai (region) have become engulfed in a general strike; so he used another young man’s ID and stayed in a clandestine safe house. The flames of the revolution in the northwest were being fanned by the Jewish Labor Bund, a powerful Social-Democratic faction which was also originally a project of Julius Martov, and had also split from the Bolsheviks in 1903.

After only a week in Belostok, Wolf Pruss was arrested again in a safe-house sweep which also turned up a weapons cache. After several nights in crowded local jails, he was transported to Wilno, the capital of the North-Western Krai (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania). The authorities still didn’t know his real identity. While Wolf Pruss was languishing in Wilno prison incognito, the Belostok uprising grew in strength. Nikolay Yelchin, the 53 year old police chief, was killed Feb 21 1905, near Belostok, by a member of the united committee of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Polish Socialists. The armed Anarchists grew in strength and secured whole neighborhoods of Belostok. Although it is most likely that Wolf was connected with the Bund, one can’t exclude a possibility of a PSR or the Anarchist link. The comrades finally secured Wolf’s release on Feb. 25, 1905, and he was eager to scrap his emigration plans. The excitement of the revolutionary struggle at home was impossible to resist, he wrote.

But in April 1905 the Irkutsk connections backfired again, when a police operation breaking down socialist cells led to the arrest of his older Irkutsk comrade, Vladimir Fedorovich Hardin. They found with him a letter from “W. P.” mailed from Wilno on Feb. 26, 1905. On April 29 1905, Okhrana concluded that “W. P.” was Wolf Pruss who left Irkutsk supposedly for his hometown on Dec. 15 1904. (V. F. Hardin, an ethnic Russian from Sorochinsk, a Cossack outpost in the foothills of South Ural mountains, was 6 years older than Wolf, and stayed on in Irkutsk. Later on, he owned a publishing house there producing local guidebooks and directories before the 1917 Revolution. He was executed in Irkutsk during the height of Stalin’s terror in 1938). His cover finally blown, Wolf Pruss now had to flee Russia and seek refuge in Switzerland – a country which would nurture both his passion for social justice and for watch-making.

Scenes of Wolf Pruss’ early years in Russia