The curious case of the Czar’s missing jewels and Roy’s Communist baptism by fire

With all the diplomatic aveneues shut for them, the Bolsheviks decided to sell the Czarist jewels they had appropriated during the revolution. To sell the jewels and fund the trade delegation, the jewels first had to be smuggled into America.

The curious case of the Czar’s missing jewels and Roy’s Communist baptism by fire
Photo by Vince Gx / Unsplash

Did you know that $500,000 in 1918 would amount to a purchasing power of around $8.5 million in today's times? That is around a whopping ₹60 crore Indian rupees! This was the worth of Czar Nicholas jewels that went missing shortly after the First World War, and by the time they were recovered, Manabendra Nath Roy's Bolshevik associate had nearly been charged with theft and placed before the firing squad for swift justice. This is a tale of a treasure hunt as convoluted as you may not have heard the likes of. This was a treasure smuggled out of Russia, only to be lost somewhere in between; the search for which catalysed the transformation of a Hindu revolutionary into a thoroughbred Communist, and that too with the blessings of Lenin. These jewels belonged to Czar Nicholas and were appropriated by the Bolsheviks after the February Revolution that led to the Czar abdicating his throne. But, how did these jewels go missing, and what role had Roy played in its search?

A Bolshevik comes calling

Now that the socialist conference was over and the World War 1 had ended for all intent and purposes by 1918, Manabendra Nath Roy entered into a phase of propaganda, extolling the virtues of a socialist revolution. The sweet aroma of the October Revolution in Russia had begun to waft through the Americas, with the romanticists biding their time to topple the oppressive regimes in their own land to install a popular government. It was during this time of simmering revolution that a Bolshevik began making enquiries after MN Roy, whose articles in a Mexican socialist mouthpiece had not gone unnoticed. Who was this purported emissary of Lenin? What lofty dream had he come to realise, of all places, in Mexico? Why did he desire an interview with Roy? What joy had a Bolshevik in opening a channel of communication with a Hindu revolutionary, as people of Roy's ilk were known in the Anglo-American circles? A day prior to meeting Mr Brantwein, as the stranger was passing off as, Roy's mind presented all these questions, with none getting answered with any degree of conviction.

The interview

Roy clandestinely followed the man only to decipher that the mysterious visitor was in his 40s; this was all he could garner from his expedition tailing the Bolshevik. When the interview time dawned, Roy was none the wiser than when he had begun. While lunching, Roy could hardly contain the bubbling potion of excitement and bluntly asked what Mr Brantwein knew of him to seek out an interview, and how did he come to know him before landing in Mexico. The answer was as astounding as it was simple. Brantwein did not know of Roy before landing in Mexico, and whatever he had gleaned about Roy was only after landing in Carranza's land. Now, to the question as to why had he singled out Roy. Brantwein had first landed in the US, from where he escaped to Mexico owing to the persecution of the socialists and communists over there. Once in Mexico, he made his own subtle enquiries and decided upon Roy as an ally for what he had in mind.

The offer

After the lunch, the pair decided to continue its talks at Roy's lodgings, where matters escalated. A penniless Brantwein accepted an invitation to lodge at Roy's place, and the very next day moved in. While it was Brantwein who accepted the invitation, the man who came to stay identified himself as Michael Borodin, who had come to the New World as the first emissary of the newly-founded Communist International. Thus began Roy's alliance with Communism and since the time they met in 1918 to the time Roy left Russia for good in 1929, Brantwein aka Borodin remained the former's closest ally.

A Jew and a missing courier

It later emerged that Borodin, a married man and a father of two, had landed in Chicago in 1918 and was immediately identified as a dangerous alien by the US secret service. In Chicago, Borodin, a jew, was passing off as one Michael Gruzenberg. He was expecting a courier to deliver a precious package at his place when he had to escape from the US. As Borodin began trusting Roy, the former let on to the latter the saga of the Czar’s jewels and the great diplomatic heist the Russians planned in the face of universal opposition at the end of the First World War.

The Czarist jewels

In the middle of 1918, the Bolshevik government in Russia sent a trade delegation to Washington. However, soon after the delegation landed in the US, a civil war broke out in Russia. This civil war led to the formation of the Soviet Union, and this development led to the Entente powers blockading Russia from all sides. What this essentially meant was that the delegation was left stranded in a hostile country with little support. The trade delegation made do with the paltry support from the American sympathisers, but the Soviet Russian government had to find a way out to relieve the representatives in Washington. With all the diplomatic aveneues shut for them, the Bolsheviks decided to sell the Czarist jewels they had appropriated during the revolution. To sell the jewels and fund the trade delegation, the jewels first had to be smuggled into America. For this task, the Soviet Foreign Commissariat and the Communist International decided to employ Michael Borodin, who prior to coming to Russia had stayed in the US for a considerable period of time.

The two suitcases and an aristocrat

The jewels were sewn in the sides of two leather suitcases, and accompanied Borodin to Holland, where the underground West European Bureau of Communist International was situated. The Bureau helped Borodin cross the Atlantic Ocean in a Dutch ship. During the journey, Borodin developed an acquaintance with a young Austrian aristocrat, who once was an officer of the Imperial Army. The aristocrat was on his way to South America, as he believed that the era of European domination was over. The ship came in for a thorough check at Haiti, where Borodin and his companion were taken off the vessel as undesirable aliens. The duo was detained pending probe, but Borodin managed to eacape to Jamaica, but not before instructing the aristocrat to deliver the suitcases to his wife in Chicago. Borodin had planned an elaborate mechanism to sell the jewels through his Jewish contacts in America, but the moment he landed in the US he was identified and arrested. The Jewish community helped secure a bail for Borodin, who after his release escaped to Mexico, where he met Roy.

Spying on a hermit in Haiti

Now in the know, Roy smelt an adventure. Roy had till now helped the Bolshevik cause by sending money to Borodin’s wife and the trade delegation using his influence in the Mexican establishment. Roy's proximity to the powers that be in the Mexican set up meant that the land of Carranza was a fertile ground to sow the Bolshevik seeds, and Borodin sent a report to Lenin, who was led to believe that Roy was the go-to man to proselytise a rising wave of socialist in the New World. With jewels worth lakhs at stake, Roy hurried a spy to Haiti. The reports that came were both edifying and disturbing. Edifying because the aristocrat had seemingly given up on the world and was living like a hermit in a hut on a beach. Disturbing because the suitcases were nowhere to be found. Even as months were invested in tracing the suitcases, all efforts were to be in vain. It was around this time that Borodin received a letter from Lenin, inviting Roy and him to Moscow. The duo gave up on the jewels and set sail for the Communist holy land.

The firing squad and a miracle

On reaching Moscow, the matters took a turn for the worse. Borodin was accused of, and charged with, stealing the property of the people. After a partisan hearing, Borodin was summarily to be placed before the firing squad. However, Roy came to Borodin’s aid, and based on his testimony, Borodin was given a longer rope. Even as this life or death development was panning out, a miraculous news came from Borodin's wife in Chicago. The suitcases had been delivered. She was immediately called to Moscow, where the suitcases were operated upon and the precious jewels recovered. Borodin was saved by fate and Roy.

The hermit aristocrat and the missing suitcases

Now, back to the suitcases. Our aristocrat was no nincompoop. When he learnt that various people were enquiring after two suitcases, his interest was aroused. He knew that though valuable, those making enquiries were not enamoured by the quality of the luggage. There was something afoot. He too had heard of the Russians scheming about funding great deeds by selling Crown Jewels. A hermit he had become, but an aristocrat he was. Though not interested in money, the aristocrat determined that the contents of the suitcases were well worth something; moreover he wanted to get back to the powers that had ruined his nation. If he could play even a small role, it would exonerate him from the ignominy of the defeat. Now, where were the suitcases? Roy's agents discovered that the aristocrat had left behind the suitcases at the police station where he was detained upon arrival.

A visitor for Mrs Gruzenberg

In the intervening period, the aristocrat had made a name for himself in Haiti. What with his camaraderie with the natives and his hermit-like lifestyle, the police thought of him as a crank and left him largely undisturbed. Using the indifference of the police to his advantage, the man retrieved the suitcases, and managed to set sail for the US. Needless to say, he reached the country safe and without any hitch. Once in Chicago, he searched out Mrs Gruzenberg and landed at her doorstep with the long-awaited package. Mrs Gruzenberg immediately sent a despatch to Moscow, and that letter and a stranger’s good deed saved Borodin from a sure death.

Last leg of Mexican journey

Strange are the machinations of fate. On one hand we have Roy, betrayed by many he held dear, while on the other is Borodin, who managed to cheat the hangman only because the people he trusted put their lives on the line for him. Now, before elaborating on the Russian leg of Roy's journey, we need to put on record another episode that made Lenin send an invitation to Roy to come to Moscow. That story would form the meat of the next episode, in which we will detail the complete transformation of a Hindu revolutionary into a Communist, the formation of the first Communist Party outside of Russia, and his great journeys in the Bolshevik heartland.

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