Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

Empty Days

I do not know how to describe the days of blank misery that followed my husband's arrest. Arrest in those days was almost equivalent to a death sentence. Every day might also be my last day of freedom. It seemed so much simpler to die but I had to live because two other lives depended on me: a man's life there, in prison, and the life of the child who watched with helpless wonder the disappearance of the dear familiar faces around him.

The newspapers were full of events as in the days of war. First there was the horrible "Industrial Party" trial, when Ramzin, casually remarking that "about 2,000 people were connected with his organization" openly declared at the cost of how many lives he had bought his own. Then there were preparations for the "academic trial", which dealt a death-blow to Russian science, especially to historical research; the fate of the accused was settled by the OGPU behind the scenes, for they obviously lacked the dramatic talent of Ramzin and Co. Finally, there was the disgraceful "Trial of the Mensheviks", when former members of the Communist party made confessions and obsequious apologies, giving each other away. All this increased the sense of utter devastation that had come over the Russian intellectuals.

The more sentences of death and of penal servitude were passed, the more indifferent everyone became. It was no longer a case of individual people perishing, a whole class was being wiped out. It was like an avalanche or a hurricane sweeping everything on its way.

Soon we were going to have a general "sifting", i.e., an overhauling of the personnel of various institutions; the OGPU had not time as yet to take up each case individually.

The sifting was announced by huge placards posted both inside and outside the buildings. They were all after the style of the one that said, "Comrade, denounce your comrades, priests, bourgeois, and other counter-revolutionaries". The wording was somewhat unfortunate, but essentially correct. Under the placards stood a huge letter-box in which the denunciations were to be dropped.

Then, since according to Marx, everything must be based upon "the principle of productive relations", learned and scientific institutions were attached to big factories, and factory hands were put on committees to investigate the "trend" of the work and the suitability of the staff.

Good old workmen who had been minding machines for the last twenty years, and uppish young men of the new type—machinists, electricians, stokers, were brought into laboratories and studies filled with books. They were shy, astonished, interested, and utterly at a loss what to believe. It all seemed to them rather like black magic. It was hard to decide whether all these books and those elderly, spectacled scholars were doing good or harm to the proletarian state.

It looked as though the sifting might prove a failure, and "the class enemies" would not be detected. Then members of the OGPU and the Communist party confined the inquiry to the social origin of the intellectuals, their liking for the old regime and so on. So-and-so had once held a post in such-and-such a ministry, so perhaps he was a friend of the Minister. That man's wife was a countess or a princess by birth, or a general's daughter, or something of the sort. This one, though he was not a gentleman by birth, like the others, continued to write in the old spelling; and that man there said "gentlemen" instead of "citizens" or "comrades".

Such a method greatly simplified matters, and soon most of the experts and specialists received notices of dismissal "in the 1st category"—i.e., without the right to seek employment elsewhere. They looked back in surprise at their fifteen or twenty years of good, useful work, unable to understand what wrong they had done. They did not know which way to turn. All their life had been bound up with the institution from which they were so arbitrarily driven away. The younger men were wondering what kind of work they could adopt instead of their specialty.

The sifting lasted for a couple of months. When it was over, the authorities, after bidding amiable good-bye to the bamboozled workmen, began to understand that the work of the learned institutions could not be carried on. There was no one to replace the highly-qualified specialists who had been dismissed, and so most of them were "temporarily" left at their posts. But time had been lost, work interrupted, people's nerves racked—all for the sake of a show of "proletarian watchfulness". The departments of art and science which so far had been comparatively safe, were gradually being destroyed also: the OGPU was doing away with the more gifted and prominent people, the Party and Local Committees were breaking up the institutions by their "sittings". We watched in misery the devastation all around us, and many whispered in despair that there must be some real "wreckers" in the OGPU or in the Political Bureau, bent on making all cultural work impossible and destroying the intellectuals in order that . . . though no one could surmise what could possibly be the object of it.

But I did not care any longer. All I could think of was that my husband was in prison, that I too might be arrested any moment and our boy would be left utterly alone. It seemed to me at times simply stupid to try and carry on the work which I no longer cared for now that it was deprived of all meaning. It was a desperate struggle to keep it up; winter, cold, hunger were upon us, and it was almost more than one could bear, especially when to one's ordinary duties was added the request to take part in "social work".

Four o'clock, the end of the working day, but there was a general meeting to attend. One way out of the Hermitage was closed and the other was guarded by Communists from the local Committee.

"Four o'clock—the boy has come home from school. The rooms are cold. The stove hasn't been heated. Would he bring in some logs? He does not like going down to the shed, and really they are too heavy for him to carry."

The meeting had not begun yet: the Communists in command were late. Everyone was tired and hungry. The hall was cold. Some walked about, wrapped up in their overcoats, others sat huddled up. Everyone felt wretched, but could not go away.

At last the "chiefs" appeared.

"The work of building up a Socialistic state proceeds by laying the foundations"  . . . the official orator rattled off the hackneyed phrases to which no one listened.

"The child is sure to be famished" came into my mind. "It will soon be five o'clock. I wonder if we have any oil for the primus? He wouldn't think of calling at the shop, and everything will be closed at six."

". . . calls for energetic action, for an effort of our proletarian will . . ."

"He is sure to buy the bread. I left the ration-cards on the table. I hope he won't eat the whole loaf, or there will be nothing left for the morning."

"... with gigantic strides. Industrialization of the whole country . . ."

"I simply must get away before six, or I'll be too late for the Co-op. There's nothing at home except yesterday's potato soup."

"... Boldly overtaking capitalistic Europe decaying under the pressure of the economic crisis . . ." 

"No, I can't stand this any longer. It will soon be six, there will be no time to do his home lessons."

My anxious thoughts kept time with the empty words. We were all bored to death, and he was shouting the same thing for the hundredth time. Everyone was longing to go home but was afraid of being noticed and called to task. At last I could not endure any more. I slipped out and rushed downstairs as though I were chased. In the hall I ran against a young Communist who was on guard there, but I put on my overcoat defiantly before his very eyes.

"Where are you off to, comrade? Surely the meeting isn't over yet?" came the malicious question.

"No, but I have to go to my evening work."

"Oh, is that so?" he drawled spitefully, not believing me. "Don't forget that there's a sifting going on."

I was not listening. I was caught, anyway. It was no use going back. And I wouldn't do it, I was not going to let the child go hungry till night time.

The frost was getting sharper. It was 18-20 R. I walked as fast as I could to be in time for the Co-op.

Empty counters. On the shelves there were packets of mustard and bay leaf. I looked about desperately to see if there was anything eatable—no, nothing! There was a barrel of salted herrings, but one could only buy them on ration-cards, from i/2 lb. to 1 lb., per month. There was a barrel of green salted tomatoes, but they looked so flabby and horrid that one could only buy them from sheer despair.

The shop assistant was wearing his fur coat because the place was hardly ever heated. Blue with cold, bored and cross, he muttered morosely: "What do you want? I haven't got anything."

At that moment I saw ajar of artificial honey in the corner of an empty shelf.

"Honey, please."

Reluctantly he took it off the shelf and pushed it into my hand in silence, without wrapping it up. I paid 2 roubles 80 copecks for ½ lb. of yellow sweetish syrup. Anyway, it would be a treat for the child.

Here was my door. I rang the bell. I heard him running to the door. What a joy it was that I could still hear his footsteps, that I was just going to see his dear little face. But his father? . . . Would he ever see the child again?

"Why, mother, it's six o'clock! Just look—six! I am hungry."

"Have you bought any oil?"

"No. The queue is several streets long. I should freeze to death if I stood there, hungry. There is a little left in the can."

"Have you brought up any logs?"

"No. It's so dark in the shed."

"What a boy you are! We'll perish of cold at that rate."

"And why were you so late?"

"Late! There was a general meeting, and you know there's a sifting going on. I've been caught as it is."

"You can't even run away properly!" he said, laughing, glad to be no longer alone. His little face looked pinched with hunger. It was cold in the rooms and still colder in the kitchen; we did not heat it—fuel was scarce, and we had nothing to cook. We used a primus.

"Well, shall we go down for the logs now?"

"Mother!" he said piteously, "mother, I am hungry! I have had nothing since midday at school, and it was precious little too—just millet porridge and no milk or sugar with it, only dirty-looking gravy."

I gave in, because I too had had nothing since breakfast, and running about in the frost made me giddy with hunger. We went into the kitchen to warm up the soup. "What else is there?"

"Nothing, darling. I haven't had time to go to the market. I've bought some honey at the Co-op."

"Well, never mind, we can have some tea. I brought a loaf, and, you know, it's not very stale. . . . I've only eaten a little piece," he added, catching my look of alarm.

We never had new bread because by the time it was brought from the central bakeries to the depots and distributed among the district bakeries it was a day or two old. There is no need to say that no pure wheaten bread was baked; it always looked greyish.

The boy saw to the primus, chattering all the time like a bird released from a cage, and I cut up potatoes for our second course.

"Well, so they haven't turned you off yet?"

"Not yet."

"What shall we live on, if they do?"

"I'll get some other job. If only they don't lock me up!" The words escaped me. I had no one to talk to. I was afraid of compromising my friends, and indeed I felt far off from everyone, but the boy shared my sorrow and trouble.

"And what shall I do all by myself, mother?" he asked piteously, and tears came into his eyes.

"Go to school. Wait for me. Take food to daddy and me in prison—you know There's no one else to do it. Why, look, the Ivanovs are both in prison, father and mother, and there are five children left. Only the little girl is older than you, but they manage somehow. . . . Better come and have supper."

It is dreadful to think of the number of children left to themselves. A few days ago a young woman who died of consumption was being buried. Her husband was in the Shpalerny prison. A few days before her death he had been sentenced to penal servitude at Solovki. He was not allowed to go and say good-bye to her, and she was too weak to get up. Only two children, a boy and a girl, stood by her grave, holding hands, like the children in some heart-rending fairytale.

Just as we sat down to supper there was a ring at the bell. What new trouble was this? After my husband's arrest no one came to see us.

"From the house-committee." declared a nasty looking, one-eyed old man, former porter at the house next door and now a Communist.

"What is it?"

"Have you two rooms?"


"You'll have to move into one. It's too much for you. What do you want with two rooms?"

"I have a right to them; mother and son are not supposed to share a room."

"Right, indeed! Much I care about rights when there isn't room for people! Would you have me put working men in the basement and leave you gentry nice and comfortable?" he shouted in a horrid, high-pitched falsetto.

"I tell you I have a right to the room, and I will stick up for it."

"We shall see!" he said menacingly. "You'd better remember where your husband is!"

He went away, swearing at me at the top of his voice as he walked downstairs. The boy clung to me in alarm.

"What will he do to us, mother?"

"Nothing, don't you mind him. He is just trying to frighten us, but he can't do anything."

Alas, I knew that he could do a great deal, and not merely by his rudeness and impudence. He guessed that I might be arrested any day and hastened the hour by sending in reports to the OGPU, anxious to let the rooms—the most precious thing in U.S.S.R.; he could easily get a bribe of two or three thousand roubles for them and sell the lease for five or six thousand.

Our soup had gone cold. We no longer felt hungry. Attacks of the house-committee is the worst thing, next to OGPU, because they threaten to rob one of one's home—the last refuge in that dreadful life.

Then there was another trouble.

"Mother, you know, the bath is frozen," sadly said my little boy as though it were his fault.

"When? I had a bath this morning."

"When I came back from school. The water doesn't run."

"Just our luck! Well, put on your coat, let us go and get the logs."

"What about my prep?" he asked timidly.

"There'll be time for that. Hurry up! We don't want to be frozen out."

We went to the shed. The door was frozen so fast that we could hardly push it open. The heavy logs were covered with ice. Bruising our hands we could scarcely manage to drag them up the stairs.

"Daddy would have heated the stove for us!" said the boy.

"Yes, daddy . . . . It's a good thing he doesn't know our troubles."

At last we lit the stove in the room and in the bathroom; the water might melt after all. We sat by the fire boiling a kettle on the embers and doing home lessons. He had to learn a poem.

Machines and sinews

Strained like steel. . . .

With growing zeal

Year by year

The industries flourished and grew. . . .

The boy was dozing. He could not keep his eyes open. Stupid, boring words that called up no images escaped his memory. I could not do anything to liven him up and make him learn, when he suddenly recalled something and his eyes sparkled.

"Mother, your shoes are falling to pieces, aren't they?"

"They are." I showed him my shoes, burst in ten places, with the soles nearly off. I could not get a permit to buy cheap shoes because such permits could only be obtained through one's place of employment and I was despised at my office for my "lack of interest in social work." And I could not buy an ordinary pair or have one made because that would have cost about two hundred roubles, almost the whole of my salary for two months.

The boy ran to the kitchen and brought me in triumph a pair of worn but perfectly sound shoes.

"Where did you get them from?" I cried joyfully.

"Don't you remember? Last year you wanted to give them to that girl across the road, but they got stowed away behind the book-case instead. I found and cleaned them, so here's a present for you."

"You darling! Why, they are lovely shoes."

Cheering up he suddenly recited the poem at one breath, jumped into bed and, as he was dropping asleep, said dreamily:

"Mother, if you manage to get to the market tomorrow, will you buy me an egg? It is seventy copecks, [one and fivepence] that's not too dear, is it?"

"I'll buy you two, but you must go to sleep."

The boy fell asleep and I sat up by myself in the desolate half-empty flat—most of the furniture had been sold piece by piece. The sense of empty blankness descended upon me once more; I felt as though I were alone in the whole world. The houses, the streets, the town, seemed to vanish; there was only deep, unbroken darkness around me, and in the far, far distance a vague outline of the prison. In my mind I drew the walls apart and saw my husband's face as pale as it was during those minutes when we looked at each other for the last time. Was he still living?