One hundred years ago, my grandfathers Ilya Eduardovitch Katel and Boris Isaakovitch Gessen tried to make sense of the new world emerging from the ashes of World War I and the flames of the Bolshevik Revolution – events that had upended their lives.
The two of them were old-fashioned liberals. At the time, liberalism (in the European sense: Capitalism plus political pluralism and civil liberties) seemed to have a fighting chance, even in their civil war-torn Russian homeland.
Seemed, at least, to political amateurs like Ilya and Boris. They didn’t understand that the Bolsheviks weren’t interested in conventional measurements of progress. The Bolsheviks saw themselves as the vanguard of a world revolution. Ilya and Boris don’t seem to have grasped that frame of mind. But incomprehensible doesn’t mean impossible. The 20th century was supposed to have taught us that, but the 21st is teaching the lesson all over again. Would Ilya and Boris have anything to add? Maybe this: Keep a close eye on the Kremlin; don’t trust its boss.
Ilya and Boris never met, as far as I know. Both were educated, non-religious Jews born in the late 19th century. Past the surface similarities, they were very different kinds of men. Boris (I’ve kept the Russian version of his last name, which is Hessen in the West), achieved far greater success early on; he was a bon vivant and risk-taker with an eye for long-range business trends, and – for a while – an impulse for political action. Ilya was more practical-minded in his business affairs, and limited his political activity to writing.
The impetuous Boris hooked up with some unsavory company when he tried to put his anti-Bolshevism into practice. In 1919, he joined the civilian leadership of one of the anti-Soviet “white” armies, while financing and producing a movie designed to stir revolt against the fledgling Soviet regime. The film was shot in Finland, where Boris had fled from St. Petersburg only days after the Leninists seized power. His family went with him. Among them, the newest member, my mother, who was born only weeks before the Bolshevik coup; her sister and brother were brought out as well.
While Boris was making the movie, Ilya – my father’s father – was in Sweden. There, he wrote a short book, published in Berlin, that argued that the United States and President Woodrow Wilson would lay the foundations of a just and peaceful postwar world. The President, Katel wrote, “was a definite foe of imperialism and interest-driven politics and stood up for every nation’s right to live independently and under a regime in which the nation feels free.”
Well, it was a nice thought. Ilya almost certainly knew nothing of Wilson’s bone-deep racism, nor of the anti-black massacres in Washington DC and other U.S. cities, that peaked in 1919. And, of course, he knew nothing of the deep-rooted isolationism that would doom Wilson’s internationalist vision. All this might have tempered his admiration for the United States, where he wouldn’t set foot until two decades later.
An engineer specializing in sound- and vibration-proofing, Ilya had left Kharkov, Ukraine, for Sweden when his marriage to my grandmother fell apart. World War I was raging and my father and his sister never forgave Ilya for deserting his wife and two small children in wartime. Nevertheless, when Ilya moved to Paris in the 1920s, he acquired French citizenship, and was able to pass that nationality along to my father, and ultimately to my mother, once my parents got married. That move likely saved them when World War II erupted.
As for Boris, who by conflicting accounts was either a commercial school graduate or an engineer, he spent the early years of the 20th century in Kishinev, now Chișinău, the capital of Moldova. There, he survived the infamous 1903 pogrom which has stained the city’s name ever since. That would not be his last encounter with murderous antisemitism.
By the time he plunged into propaganda filmmaking, Boris had left behind a lucrative business career in late-czarist Russia, where he founded an insurance company and a steamship freight line on the Volga. The jewel in his crown was KAMVO, a company he started in 1913 to ship goods from London to Persia via Russia, using the firm’s own ships, barges, warehouses, cranes, and repair shops. The petroleum age had dawned in Persia, but the British owned the country’s nascent oil industry. Boris saw a promising future in transporting the industry’s supplies, and bought Anglo-Persian Oil Company bonds.
At some point, he donated money to Lenin’s Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. But Boris had changed his mind about the Bolsheviks before they seized power.
After fleeing Russia, Boris set his family up in a mansion on Finland’s Karelia Peninsula, where the anti-Bolshevik movie was conceived and filmed. At the time, Boris was a leading civilian supporter of the White army commanded by Nikolai Yudenich. Within a year or so, Boris and his brother and business partner, Julius, realized that the Yudenich forces were Jew-hating bandits – something of which Ilya and many others were well aware by 1919. Boris’ alliance with the Whites seems to have been a classic case of political expediency. His heart was with Alexander Kerensky, the liberal who led the first post-Czarist government, the one that the Bolsheviks toppled.
Boris’ political instincts weren’t always reliable, but he sensed the power of cinema early on. I found out about his brief movie career from Ben Hellman, a Russian literature scholar at the University of Helsinki. He uncovered a wealth of documentation of Boris’ movie, though not the film itself, which vanished long ago. Hellman’s research, distilled in an article published by the University of Gothenburg, added to a portrait of Boris by Valeri Gessen, a distant cousin of mine in Moscow. Valery Bazarov, then of HIAS and a brilliant researcher and writer, put us in touch.
Under the Yoke of Bolshevism, according to its script summary, was a melodrama exactly as subtle as its title. Its main villain is a commissar who sends patriotic young Russians to the firing squad. The hero escapes to Finland. There, the official script outline says, “He swears an oath to take revenge on the enemies of Russia, his ravaged native country.”
Boris, who had discounted or overlooked the Whites’ antisemitism, must have come to realize that he had also underestimated the Bolsheviks’ capabilities. Still, he held out hope a while longer for a Bolshevik collapse. Shortly after the movie project, he wrote – I don’t know for whom – a seven-page report on how to improve Russia’s transportation network. “We are resolute advocates of private initiative in the business of transportation and the establishment of insurance business,” he wrote. “Now, when all the means of transportation and its use are in the hands of state power, transportation should be at the peak of perfection; yet we have an absolute failure, a lifeless corpse.”
In post-World War I Berlin, Ilya wrote in similar terms. “There are a number of signs pointing to the fact that the Bolshevik rulers finally are beginning to understand that their regime is bound to be bankrupt, so let’s hope that they have courage and sanity to lay down their weapons before the eternal principles of democracy, which benefit all.”
Ilya’s optimism was born of what seemed to be the defeat of German militarism and the dawn, so he believed, of an age of self-determination for peoples including the Armenians and the Jews. Kharkov, where Ilya had lived, was a Zionist center and the point of origin for the first modern Zionist pioneers to travel to Palestine. Ilya seems to have absorbed their spirit. One of the epigraphs to his book was the famous line by Theodore Herzl, the founding father of modern Zionism: If you will it, it is no dream. Referring to a Zionist delegation’s 1919 proposal for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Katel wrote that a favorable reception for the idea at one of the postwar peace conferences “signifies the actual start of a new epoch in world history, for the new spirit has so deeply touched the people who are most persecuted and most deprived of rights.”
But Ilya retained great affection for Russian culture. He dedicated a companion volume of commentary on the League of Nations treaty, not only to the “Russian intelligentsia but also to every Russian citizen who pursues the triumph of justice and peace on earth.” After all, “in no other people does the feeling of international solidarity live so deep as in the Russian one.”
After that 1919 burst of optimism, Ilya seems to have abandoned his hopes for Russia, as well as his sideline in political analysis. A reconciliation with my grandmother failed – after she exited the new Soviet state for Berlin – and he emigrated to Paris, where he started an engineering firm that became successful. From then on, he limited his writing to engineering topics, such as “How to Combat Industrial Noise,” published by the French Society of Civil Engineers.
Still, Ilya’s earlier faith in the United States wasn’t entirely misplaced. When World War II broke out, Ilya made his way to Marseille – then under Vichy control – and ultimately found shelter in the United States thanks to HIAS, the refugee-aid organization where my parents worked. HIAS was headed in France by yet another liberal Russian Jewish refugee, Wladimir Schach, whose son married my mother’s older sister. To digress, Schach was a largely unsung hero who directed efforts that saved thousands from the Nazis. Schach survived the war along with his extended family, including my grandmother, Boris’ wife. He had another connection to my family. Back in prerevolutionary Russia, he had been a lawyer for Boris’ companies.
Ilya went back to France after the war, and died there in 1972. My father, who saw Ilya only a few times in the United States, never took me or my brother to meet him, so deep was my father’s contempt. I could have looked Ilya up after my father died in 1965, but I never gave it a thought. I’ve only seen one photograph of Ilya, and now I can’t find it.
My father, even though estranged from Ilya, in effect acted on Ilya’s faith in the United States. Though my parents had been Trotskyists in the 1930s, dissident communists on the same side as Stalin’s victims, once settled in the United States, they became U.S. patriots and democratic socialists, of the kind who opposed Soviet totalitarianism because they were socialists.
Boris, for his part, also gave up political activism after his brief involvement with the Whites. But he knew better than to believe Soviet promises. Not so his brother Julius. In the ‘20s, Julius accepted an invitation to return to Russia as an infrastructure consultant. An official of the Peoples’ Commissariat for Transport told Julius early in negotiations “that his activities as an enemy of the Bolshevik regime were well known, but that F.E. Dzerzhinsky trusts him,” Valeri Gessen writes. This was none other than Felix Dzerzhinsky, who founded the Cheka, first of the Soviet and post-Soviet spy and secret police agencies. The invitation was a trap, of course. After traveling to Moscow, Julius was arrested in 1929 (Dzerzhinsky, whatever his word would have been worth, had died by then). Interrogated for months, Julius was sentenced to death as a foreign agent. Execution was postponed so that Julius could be charged in a new case, but he died in prison before another trial could be mounted.
Meanwhile, Boris established himself in Warsaw, while his family was in Paris. His marriage to my grandmother wasn’t much happier than my other grandparents’ union. As war looked certain, he apparently didn’t attempt to flee west. But his survivor’s instinct was strong enough that he survived World War II in Poland. My mother heard after the war that he had hidden with peasants in the countryside. His survival must have taken considerable skill and luck. (The remaining Gessen brother, Alexander, who had run the Riga, Latvia branch of the family business, had headed west after World War I and eventually wound up with his daughter and son-in-law in Forest Hills, Queens).
For whatever reason, Boris stayed in postwar Poland, which the Soviet government turned into a vassal state. He had fled the Soviets in 1917, but the USSR caught up with him after all. Were there political consequences for him? I don’t know. This much I know: His last business venture was selling jars of mushrooms that he pickled in a bathtub. And those Persian, now Iranian, oil bonds? There’s a lesson there as well: They were stored in an attic somewhere where rats ate them.
© Peter Katel. All Rights Reserved.
Featured image at top of post: Boris in 1919. It is inscribed to my aunt Yevgenia (Zhura) “Dear Zhura, a keepsake from Daddy.” Photographer unknown.