Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

In the Cell

"Churches and prisons we'll pull to the ground"

—A Soviet song.

After presenting me with the accusation the OGPU forgot my existence for four and a half months.

In Tsarist prisons preliminary inquiry did not take long and, once the sentence was passed, the prisoner knew that every day brought him nearer freedom. In U.S.S.R. preliminary "inquiry" lasts five or six months and sometimes more than a year. During the most reactionary periods of Tsardom political prisoners were never to be reckoned by hundreds; they all belonged either to revolutionary parties or to more or less active political groups. In U.S.S.R. the total number of prisoners and convicts in penal camps exceeds a million, and with the rarest exceptions, none of them belong to any political organization. Thousands of peasants are exiled without any trial or inquiry; educated men experts and their families are imprisoned for months and months during the fictitious "inquiry" into their case. Of late years, when the Bolsheviks have attacked the intellectuals with special ferocity, such numbers of them were imprisoned that there was not a family left some member of which was not in prison or exile.

When the charge had been presented to me and I had lost all hope of release, prison life began to get hold of me more and more. It was not life but a special regime aimed at destroying one's will, capacity for work, feeling of personal dignity and sense of duty. One's existence was confined to a cell with stone walls and a low vaulted ceiling; it was six feet long and there was a distance of two feet between the iron bedsteads with hard and dirty straw mattresses. An iron stool and a small table, the heating pipe, a wash basin and an open lavatory seat completed the furnishing

The window—our only joy—was placed near the ceiling and covered with a close iron grating. In winter the glass was covered with a thick layer of ice. The pane that opened had a sheet of iron over it, with small holes cut in the iron. What came through it was not fresh air, but heavy steam from the kitchen and a smell of stale cabbage soup.

The iron door was awe inspiring: it seemed unthinkable that it would ever open to let us out, but at night we were led through it to be cross-examined, or might be led to be shot. When at nine in the evening the night wardress locked all doors turning the key three times, saying "Sleep! Sleep! Sleep!" and turned out the lights we heard heavy, menacing footsteps coming from the depths of the prison—the soldier on duty was coming for a victim. Everyone sat up and listened breathless with agitation.

He was on the stairs . . . turning the corner . . . his boot caught at the step and he stumbled . . .he was just coming . . . no—he went past! And sometimes he did not go past but standing at the door spelt out to himself the name written on his list.

There was a click of the switch, a naked light right in one's eyes, the shutter in the door rattled, and a coarse face with a blank expression appeared in it.

"What's your name? You are wanted!"

Interviews with the examining officer might mean life or death to the prisoners, and to the officers they often were a means of relaxation. Cultured, honorable women who had not done any wrong, were questioned for hours by the shameless, demoralized agents of the OGPU, who practiced on us every kind of insult and mockery. They felt more free at night, and the doors of our cells opened for us to be led to this moral torture.

Both day and night prisoners were watched through the "peep-hole" an oval opening in the door, glazed and covered over with a metal shield; it was used two or three times an hour. In the daytime this was irritating, especially when the spying was done not by wardresses but by warders, all of them, as though of design, coarse and impudent men; but at night it was perfect torture. Along all the floors, at the door of every cell the switch clicked twice; the sound grew louder and louder till it reached one's door; a bright light cut one's eyes, the shield of the peep-hole was closed again, the light went out and the clicking continued further off. No sooner had one dozed off than the whole thing began over again, and so it went on all night because the checking was done every twenty minutes and lasted a good ten minutes each time. Everyone suffered from it; some covered their heads with the blanket, which was forbidden and caused altercation with the warders, others tied up their eyes and ears with a kerchief so as to be less disturbed by the light and the noise. It may not have been intended to make us suffer, but it was very bad for the nerves not to have a single peaceful night for months.

And so days, weeks and months passed in that dirty hole between the terrible iron door and the grated window.

Seven o'clock in the morning—getting up time. It is horrible to have to get up when one has no work, no occupation but only fourteen empty hours to live through. A worn brush is thrust in at the door to sweep the floor with; then a piece of black bread is brought one pound per day, and instead of tea, lukewarm water, which is carried about from cell to cell in huge kettles and poured out into metal mugs. Within half an hour all the day's work is finished. A special warder takes two prisoners out of the solitary confinement cells for a walk. The walk is supposed to last fifteen minutes but he takes off two minutes for the journey along the corridors and cuts it short by another three because he is in a hurry to finish and go off to his dinner.

The walk is in the prison yard which is thirty feet wide and sixty feet long; prison buildings, five-stories high, surround it on all sides so that there is hardly any sun there and only a small piece of the sky is visible. The court is asphalt and not a bit of earth shows anywhere. In winter it is covered with dirty snow, completely trampled down.

When I was in prison I happened to see on the wrapper of some Soviet magazine a photograph of a prison-yard in Spain; under it was a grandiloquent inscription about bourgeois terrorism. It was a big yard with shady trees growing around it, and the prisoners—no doubt common criminals—were walking along a path strewn with sand. We kept that picture for weeks and gazed at it dreamily after our walks.

But anyway, a walk was a joy: the door was opened, we were let out of the hateful cell, we saw our neighbors and could exchange a look of sympathy. In the courtyard, other prisoners looked at us from the windows of the common cells—at the risk of being deprived of a walk themselves as punishment; we, too, sometimes saw interesting sights. Two of the women had babies born in prison and they carried them in their arms when walking in the yard. In the spring, when huge parties of prisoners were being sent to parts of Northern Russia that could not be reached in winter, children from outside appeared in prison. The first time that we heard a child's voice in the yard we could hardly believe our ears.

"Is it a boy?" we tried to decide by the sound.

"It is!"

Both my fellow prisoner and I had sons left at home, and it gave us an extraordinary thrill of joy to hear a child's voice, though it was horrible to think of a child being in prison. My neighbor jumped on to the bed so as to peep out of the window.

"It's a boy, a little peasant boy; he's walking with his mother. He bumps into her for fun and then runs away. . . ."

"Let me have a look!" I begged. "Yes, it is a boy! About six, I should think. Funny little thing! He has a huge cap on, his father's probably, and his boots are all torn and patched."

We eagerly watched him all the time he was in the courtyard. After half an hour's walk which was allowed to those kept in the common cell, he went back to it with his mother.

"What does it mean?" we asked each other in surprise.

"I suppose they first exiled the father and then arrested the mother, and she had to take the child with her to prison."

"But it's absurd—a child in prison!"

"He won't be any better off in the penal camps, you know."

I said nothing.

I have no words to tell how I yearned for that child, how sweet it was to hear his voice and footsteps in the yard. He spent about three weeks in prison, and then another boy appeared in his place. The second was a quiet, clean little boy in a neat sailor suit. During the first few days he was afraid of the warder and clung to his mother, but soon a little girl appeared to keep him company. She was about eight, older than he was and more bold: they rushed about the yard, chasing each other, and afterwards sat locked up all day in the stuffy and crowded cell, waiting to be sent to the penal camp.

It was a special favor that the "criminal" mothers "kulaks" and "rotten bourgeois"—were allowed to have their children in prison instead of sending them to an institution for homeless children, where the examining officer threatened to send my son. I do not know how that favor was obtained; perhaps Comrade Krupskaya herself persuaded the OGPU not to part the children from their mothers, but anyway in the spring of 1931 I saw those children in prison—and I honestly could not say whether I envied their mothers or not.

The appearance of children in prison was an exciting event, and the minutes of watching them passed quickly, but afterwards hours again seemed like years. From seven in the morning till two o'clock when dinner was brought there was time enough to get in a good working day, but for us there was only the misery of idleness and pacing up and down the cell like caged beasts.

For dinner huge cauldrons of smelly, over-cooked cabbage soup were brought. It was poured out into aluminum cups, very much like dogs" basins, and thrust into the opening in the door. Sometimes one found in it a piece of stringy meat, the size of a cubic centimeter. "Politicals", i.e.  Communists had meat soup of better quality. For second course all had millet porridge so over-cooked that it was one sticky, dough-like mass.

The food was hideous; not hunger but the feeling that one must eat to live made one swallow some of it. After dinner we were allowed to lie down for two hours. Though sleep was full of sinister dreams and fears, it was better than the emptiness of the waking hours.

At four o'clock came the call "get up!"

But the evening was easier to bear: daytime, in which everyone had been used to work, was gone. We talked and recalled the past which seemed long and rich and vivid. All our memories acquired a new value, as before death. But the thought of death had lost its terrors when life was confined to an empty existence in a stone cage. The thought of exile was more alarming.

Some former occupant of the cell had written on the wall a crude poem that had a very real meaning for us:

And may be in exile

In a barrack of planks

Where icy wind

Drives the snow through the cracks,

We'll look back on the cell

And the bedstead of iron

And the door that shuts so well.

Was it possible that we could sink so low as to regret the prison? We were certainly kept alive and fed, and had no need to work. Our sole occupation was to kill time, as though life were long enough for that!