Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin




Last Days

Only Soviet citizens know what it means to wait for arrest, prison, and almost certain death when one has not done any wrong.

After the shooting of the "forty-eight" life went about as though we had been poisoned, looking round at every step, starting at every sudden noise, alarmed by everything. The day dragged on wearily. There seemed to be no strength left for work, though sometimes one did it with a kind of desperate energy, to try and forget one's thoughts. Four o'clock brought a certain sense of relief: we had not been arrested at the office, that meant we would be able to go home once more. And at home one felt more wretched than ever: the rooms and the furniture seemed hostile in their cold sameness and indifference.

My husband and my son came home, and it seemed as though this were our last evening, our last meal together; I could hardly swallow any food, thinking either of the friends who had perished so suddenly, or wondering how much longer my husband would still be with us.

The boy was watching us with frightened eyes. He knew that friends who had such a short time before been well and cheerful, had been to see us, had joked with him, were now killed—but he could not understand why and how. The little girl who sadly sat beside him was a living reminder of their dreadful and incomprehensible fate.

He felt nervous when it was time to go to bed.

"Will you sit beside me?" he asked pitifully.

"Yes, of course. You get into bed."

He hid under the bedclothes; we talked of various things, then were silent, trying to hide our thoughts from each other. The child seemed more grown-up every day.

"Mother, why were people so cruel in the old days?"

"How do you mean?"

"They persecuted Galileo and Copernicus."

I explained to him how far the story he had heard at school of Copernicus and Galileo was true. He had been told that both men were simply fighting against religion and the Church and—for the sake of simplifying matters—that both were burnt at the stake by the Inquisition.

"And now?"

"Now?" I repeated, though I knew perfectly well what he meant.

"Why do they shoot people now?"

Poor, poor boy, whose childish mind had to ponder such problems!

"Go to sleep, darling, it's late. I'll tell you another time." Obediently and wearily he closed his eyes, guessing that I had no answer to give him.

I understood what his question meant: he thought that if he knew why people were put to death, he might find out whether his father would be shot. His father was still at home, but we dared not believe in his safety. We were glad of every day that passed hoping that time might save him.

"Mother, how many Decembrists did they shoot in 1825?"

"Five?"

"And when Lenin's brother tried to kill the Tsar?"

"Also five. Only they were hanged and not shot."

"Does that make any difference?" I said nothing, because I had not the strength to speak.

"Mother, and why was it so many this time—forty-eight?"

"Times are different. You'll understand some day; it's not so simple."

Not so simple! As though human life had grown cheaper and killing meant something different!

When the boy dropped asleep, time dragged on more slowly than ever. My husband and I had nothing to hide from each other: we sat on the sofa and waited. What were we waiting for? There is only one thing that everyone waits for at night, when every minute is filled with the strain of expectation—the OGPU.

Ten o'clock. It was too early for them. We were talking of something else, but more and more slowly and absent-mindedly.

Eleven o'clock. They might come soon now. Loud steps were heard in the yard . . . on the stairs. . . . My heart throbbed desperately. No, it was not here. Twelve o'clock. They might come any minute.

"That was how they took F.," my husband recalled. "He had just come home from the office—he had some work to finish and stayed there till midnight. What donkeys we are! How we have worked—and all to earn a bullet through, the head!"

"Poor, dear F.! How kind he was, and naive as a child! He trusted everyone."

We could scarcely hold back our tears. It seemed unthinkable that that man whom everyone had loved for his sweet disposition, who had never hurt anyone, had been disgraced as a "wrecker" and killed.

Time crept on more and more slowly. Every minute seemed to drag. There were footsteps in the yard: people were returning from evening work, from the theatre. . . . Some came up our stairs, others walked past, but I listened breathlessly to them all. My mouth was parched; I felt cold and then hot all over. There was a pain at my heart as though it had been bruised.

One o'clock in the morning. The yard was growing quiet; the gates were locked. Half an hour passed quietly. Suddenly there was a sharp ring at the gate. There they were . . . sure to be. Thud of footsteps and loud conversation. No, two drunken men.

Two in the morning. The trams stopped. Everything seemed still. . . . No! There was the hoot of a motor car . . . the OGPU car. The revolting, piercing sound came nearer and nearer No, it went past.

Every time my heart throbbed, ready to burst; I listened, trembling. When danger was over, I felt limp and cold and weak. Was it because we were cowards? No, it was not death we feared; it was unbearable to feel oneself at the mercy of a stupid, cruel tyranny from which there was no defense, no escape.

Three in the morning. It was late, but they still might come. The OGPU had so much "work" just now that they were at it all night. And so we sat up till daybreak. If one dropped asleep, dreams were worse than reality. In sleep one loses one's will-power and suffers more acutely and hopelessly.

"People are afraid of wild beasts, of bears." said my husband, following his strange, weary thoughts. "But a bear doesn't attack one, if he has had enough to eat. And one doesn't go empty-handed to fight a bear. But they will goad me like a beast in a cage. Oh, if only the end would come soon!" he cried out suddenly.

"Hush, you will wake the boy."

That was how we, women, tried to slur things over: telling the boy "go to sleep, it's late" and the father, "don't wake the boy".

We had a month of it, night after night. Sometimes, in utter exhaustion my husband said: "Let me die. It will make things simpler: they won't touch you and the boy if I am gone."

"You mustn't talk like that. Let us think of something else." We took an atlas and looked at maps. A free, wide world was unfolded before us, calling us away. There people might be poor, might be suffering from the economic crisis, but anyway they were free. In the map of U.S.S.R., from Yakutsk to Karelia all the swamps, tundras and wild forests were centers for penal camps. Their population numbered over a million although the mortality in them was more than sixty per cent a year.

"If they send us to the Far East, we might try to escape just here," said he, pointing to the map" "And then to Japan—they won't give us away there."

"Not much chance of being sent there, and from Yakutsk it is far to the frontier. I only hope it won't be to Solovki."

"You are wrong there. The only danger in Karelia is the swamps."

We long gazed at the map trying to think of future ways of escape.

"The Caspian is the worst of all." my husband said. "They are making penal camps there, too."

"Why is it the worst?"

"Sea, sandy desert, and they say that Turks give away the escaped prisoners. But still it may be possible even there. We'll escape, won't we?"

"We will," I answered firmly.