Boris Begichev, a good-natured, bold and intelligent young Russian who knew English, spent the year 1929 as an assistant operator at the radio station set up by the Soviet government on Franz Josef Land, about 700 miles from the North Pole.
Life became deadly monotonous there – until one day in October, when the following amazing message came over the airwaves: ‘This is from the American expedition in the Antarctic. … Repeat your signals. … Where are you? … That means you’re near the North Pole. We’re not far from the South Pole. This is perhaps the longest shortwave radio communication in history. I will try to reach you again. My name is John Tenner. What is yours?’
Boris Begichev could hardly believe that he had received a message from such a distance, but twice – later in the autumn – he again exchanged greetings with Tenner. Then, on 31 December, Begichev again caught the friendly signal from the Americans in the Antarctic.
Tenner told Begichev that he lived in San Francisco. The Russian asked him about Jack London, whose stories he knew almost by heart. Tenner said that he, like Jack, had grown up on the Oakdale waterfront, and that he too loved London’s tales. Begichev said he would like to visit the United States, and Tenner invited him to San Francisco.
‘To identify yourself,’ John Tenner said, ‘start your conversation when you call me by saying: “Is it true that you’ve read Jack London’s Scarlet Plague eleven times?”’
‘OK, that will be the password,’ Begichev replied.
During the Second World War, Boris Begichev became an officer in the Russian Army. He hated Stalin’s tyranny, however, and he deserted with General Vlassov and joined the Russian Army of Liberation, which fought against the Communists. In the spring of 1945, after Germany’s collapse, his unit retreated westward, hoping to find refuge with the American forces. Boris soon learned, however, that the Americans, fulfilling one of the agreements made with Stalin at Yalta, were handing over Army of Liberation escapees to the Red Army. He knew very well that being caught meant either death or a concentration camp.
News soon came that General Vlassov had been captured, and that they were surrounded by Soviet tanks. From then on, it was every man for himself. Begichev fled westward, alone, walking by night and hiding during the day. At dusk one evening, he came upon an American tank stopped on an old lumber road in a forest. A sergeant standing beside the tank said: ‘Are you Russian?’
‘Yes,’ Begichev answered, and explained that he was fleeing from the Communist troops. Just then two Soviet military police drove up in a car. The American tank captain asked them, in sign language, whether they would take the escapee with them. The Soviet policemen made it plain that they would be glad to do so. One of them drew his pistol, and said to Begichev: ‘Get in the car.’
As Begichev was about to obey, he heard the American sergeant say: ‘Captain Tenner, what’s wrong with the Russians? A lot of them don’t seem to like each other.’
The captain shrugged: ‘Who can understand the Russians?’
The Soviet military policeman aimed his pistol at Begichev, and shouted: ‘Get into the car.’
Without taking his eyes from the weapon, Begichev said in English: ‘Is it true, Captain Tenner, that you have read Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague eleven times?’
Tenner stared at him for a second, then said brusquely to the military policeman: ‘Nyet – I’ll take charge of this man.’ He motioned to Begichev, and said: ‘In – quick.’ Tenner and the sergeant followed Boris into the tank, and slammed the turret shut.
While the tank rolled off, Begichev explained to Captain Tenner why he was fleeing from the ‘Scarlet Plague’ of communism.
Finally Tenner said: ‘Let’s stop here.’ He smiled, handed Begichev a carton of cigarettes, and said: ‘Mr Begichev, we must turn back now. I think you can make it safely from here. If you ever come to the United States, don’t forget to look me up.’ The two men shook hands, and Begichev struck off through the woods.
Begichev succeeded in escaping, for I saw him in Rome a year later, and he told me this story. I do not know, however, whether he made it to the United States.