Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

"Inner Emigration"

In prison I fancied that as soon as I was set free life would be full of absorbing work. I longed for work, and thought I would clutch at it greedily. Here I was free at last, and what did I do? I lay on the sofa and thought. Of my five months in prison, one was a means of bringing moral pressure to bear upon my husband, and four were the result of simple negligence on the part of OGPU officials. And I had once imagined that my work was of national importance!

In prison I suffered from lack of exercise: I felt like pacing up and down my cell that was six feet long; now I had attacks of exhaustion, felt giddy in the trains, and all I could do was to lie still, thinking of nothing my head ached so dreadfully.

In prison I hated being waked at seven and wanted to be taken ill, so that at least I should not have to get up at that hour. Now I woke up at seven from a sense of acute anxiety which I could not control. It was probably the effect of my heart disease growing worse.

In prison I thought how lovely it would be to drink some good hot tea out of a china cup instead of an aluminum mug that burnt one's lips. Now I did not want to eat or drink.

I had lost taste for life—1 did not want anything.

Or, rather, the only thing I wanted I could not do. I wanted to throw up everything and go to Kem. But through the wives of other convicts I learned that my husband was not at Kem; he had been sent for a time further north, no one knew where. I had to wait for news and look for a job. The house-committee informed me that if I did not get work I should not receive a bread-card, and my son would lose his—the unemployed were not allowed ration-cards now. That was something new.

My son, too, began to worry and asked: "What about a job? When school begins, they'll ask me who is keeping me."

"All right. I'll see about it."

"Where will you go?"

"To the Hermitage. The examining officer said I was to go back to my old job."

"Will they take you back?"

"I think not. When people are arrested their post is only kept open for two months."

The boy walked with me thoughtfully to the Hermitage doors. We both loved the place; to him it was a fantastic, fascinating world, and to me my work there was my life. I specialized in French Art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it was the only place where I could work.

"Wait for me on the quay, I won't be long," I said, and went into the vestibule.

How familiar it all was—the stairs, the cloak-room, and all that filled the huge house that I loved so much. But my former colleagues looked at me uneasily—they did not know whether I was still one of them or a dangerous outsider.

I went to the director, Legrand. A former Soviet diplomatist, who disgraced himself in the Far East by drunkenness and scandalous love-affairs, he was made, as a punishment, director of the Hermitage. It certainly was a punishment for all the museum workers; he was very rude, and was hand in glove with the OGPU.

"What have you come for?" he asked me. "I came because the examining officer told me to return to my old job."

"Your place is taken and we don't want you anymore."

"Will you allow me to take my papers?"

"Go and take them. Wait a minute! Why did you spend so long in prison?"

"Ask the examining officer. His name is Lebedev. I have signed a promise not to speak about it."

He shrugged his shoulders, and I walked out with a distinct sense of relief. That was over, and it was no good thinking about it. In the office I received my "Work-list", something like a dossier without which one cannot obtain any post. Mine contained a record of all the posts I had held during the twenty-three years that I worked in the Commissariate of Public Education, and ended by saying that I was dismissed owing to my arrest. Had I kept my post for another two years I would have been entitled to a full pension, and now I did not know whether I could find work at all with such a "ticket of leave". On the card given me at the Hermitage office and marked "specialist", I read that I had no right to look for work except through the Labor Exchange. So much the better, I thought: if, after twenty-three years work, they turned me out into the street for nothing, they might as well settle what I was to do.

"Well." my son greeted me, "did they turn you out?"

"They did."

"Where shall we go now?" he asked sadly.

"To the Labor Exchange."

"That's good!" He was glad that some way out presented itself. "Come along, I'll see you off. But they won't send you to a stockings factory or a brick yard, will they?" he asked anxiously.

"No, I have a 'specialist' card."

"Come along, then."

I had one friend and adviser now—my son. He was very grown up, thoughtful and practical, though he was only twelve and looked quite a child.

As though guessing my thoughts he said:

"Don't you worry! In another two years I'll finish school and will go to Fabzavutch (A school attached to a factory). They pay there and give one a 1st category ration-card. You won't have to go to an office then and can go to the Hermitage as much as you like to work on your own. Can't you?"

"Yes, certainly," I said, not to disappoint him, though I knew that at Fabzavutch they paid only 20-30 roubles a month, and that I should never be able to take up my own subject again, because working for one's living meant a whole-time job.

At the Education Section of the Labor Exchange there were not many people—a few teachers and two girls who had just got their certificates for draughtsmanship. I gave the clerk my Work-Record. He read it, glanced at me in alarm, and began reading it again.

"Excuse me, but where can I send you?" he said. "You understand that workers with such qualifications as yours are never asked for at the Labor Exchange."

"I quite understand. But I should like to find work through the Labor Exchange, as I am supposed to."

"But I shall never be able to find the right sort of work for you." said the young man with genuine concern.

"Perhaps you have some other specialty?"

"I am afraid I haven't." I answered sadly. "You see in another two years I would have got my pension."

"But what else can you do?" he persisted. It was an absurd position. I had worked for twenty-three years, I had been the senior assistant of the Curator of the Hermitage, formerly one of the best museums in Europe, and here I stood, wondering what I could do.

"Do you know any foreign languages?" he asked timidly.

"Yes, four modern and two ancient."

He was again completely disconcerted. "What shall I do with you? Where can I send you?"

"Send me to a most ordinary job, forget about the posts I once held."

"But that would be a dequalification, and we mustn't allow that."

"Well, in this case it isn't either your fault or mine." He ran out of the room to ask somebody's advice, came back, turned over all the papers on his table and ran off again. I watched him with interest. I knew that museums were short of staff, that my place at the Hermitage had been given to a girl who had just taken her final, and knew nothing about the work, and had no one to teach her—but what could I do? I had devoted all my energies and all my knowledge to the service of the State, and here I was, thrown out.

"I have an application from a library, but it is quite simple work." he said at last.

"So much the better, as I don't know library work at all."

"You can refuse it. If we offer you a job which is not in your special line, you have a right to refuse it three times."

"But you know that I can't have a bread-card till I find a job?"

"Yes that's so." he answered shamefacedly.

"And so I thank you for your excellent suggestion. I hope I shall give satisfaction and won't have to trouble you again."

In the institution where I was sent, my Work-Record also produced a slight sensation, but I persuaded my future chief to forget about it and believe that I would do my work well.

"But why don't you try to find work apart from the Labor Exchange?"

"Because if I am sent to you by the Exchange, you risk nothing in taking me, but if an institution engages me on its own initiative it may get into trouble for helping me. Don't you see, though I was released from prison, I was dismissed from my former post."

"You are right."

And so I became an obscure and conscientious librarian. The work was easy. I did it quite mechanically, and left at four o'clock. My son was glad because now I was never late coming home. "Dequalification" certainly had its advantages, but I could not help feeling that I had been thrown overboard.

I was far from being the only one. After the "sifting" in all educational institutions, numbers of people were turned out, chiefly because of their "social origin", "absence of proletarian psychology", and so on. They had to find new employment, in which their knowledge of foreign languages and general education could be of use. Thus, for instance, the only U.S.S.R. specialist in carved gems, graduate of a foreign University and author of learned monographs, became secretary to an engineer who was engaged in making musical instruments. A well-known architect was reduced to teaching mathematics. An excellent teacher took a job as proof-reader. Other specialists taught foreign languages, became draughtsmen, and so on. We were in the curious position of "home emigres" an opprobrious term applied by the Bolsheviks to those whom they had themselves thrown out of employment. But whose fault was it? Every one of us was longing to return to the work of which we had been so arbitrarily and senselessly deprived.