Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin


"Loud speaking, singing and tears are forbidden."

—One of the prison rules.

In their anxiety to reduce our inner life to nothing, the OGPU went so far as to forbid us to cry, although in our state of nervous exhaustion many found it impossible to refrain from tears. Of course one could cry quietly, closing the eyes or pretending a headache, but as soon as the wardress noticed it through the peephole, the slot in the door went up and there followed rude remonstrances that there was nothing to cry for, that we mustn't, that it was forbidden.

When old wardresses shouted in their rough but simple-hearted way, "What's the good of blubbering, stop it, now!" it did not sound half so offensive as the remarks of the young Communists with painted lips and plucked eyebrows, who had just been promoted to the rank of wardresses. They said with a snort of contempt, "For shame! You should have more self-respect. Stop; or I'll tell the chief warder!"

But some of the prisoners were too ill and nervous to control themselves, and then there was trouble.

At dusk, when darkness gathered in the cells, but for the sake of economy no lights were lit, one felt particularly miserable. Nothing could be more depressing than that cold sepulchral darkness; the cell seemed like the grave. Everyone felt wretched during that last half-hour before the lights were turned on. I remember I said once to the old wardress:

"If ever I hang myself, it will be at dusk."

"Oh, don't say such things!" she said in genuine alarm. "I should be pleased to turn the light on, but it's not allowed," she added apologetically. "We have to save on lighting. As it is, I light up five minutes earlier than I ought. If only Number Two doesn't begin to cry! That will be more trouble than it is worth."

In prison we were known by our numbers, not by names. We never saw Number Two, because she was not let out for walks, but we knew her voice very well—she could not endure the dusk and often wept.

She wept quietly, though sometimes a sob escaped her, and if she was left in peace she gradually calmed down. But prison discipline demanded that measures should be taken at once, and then there was a scene. It began with the wardress's running up and down the iron stairs, opening the slot in her door and speaking to her in a menacing voice, which was answered by bitter sobs. Then the chief warder's boots were heard thundering up the stairs, and he roared threateningly:

"I'll put you in a punishment cell!"

She cried more bitterly, like a child who cannot stop. In the dead stillness disturbed only by the rattle of keys and the steps of the warders, the sound of this unfortunate woman weeping in her solitary cell, made us feel as though she were lamenting over all of us, buried alive in the prison.

The chief warder went to fetch two heavy-footed assistants.

"To the punishment cell!"

The woman's weeping became a wail; the key rattled, the door opened with a sinister noise and the place rang with heartrending screams:

"Leave me, let me be! There are rats there! I'm afraid of them! Don't take me there!"

They dragged her by force, pulling her along the floor, while she struggled and screamed, wild with despair, choking with tears and the horror of the rat-infested punishment cell. All the five stories of the prison resounded with her cries, and then came a stillness that was even more terrible. No one ever heard how she came back to her cell. Intimidated by the punishment, she would sometimes control herself for a week or ten days, but sometimes the fits of weeping recurred almost every day and with the same results.

One evening-when I was led back to my cell after a cross-examination I saw a dreadful scene: in the narrow corridor on the ground floor this woman, worn out by sobbing and struggling, was being pushed into the door of the punishment cell. The broad back of one of the warders shut her off from my view, and I only saw her head, with lovely fair hair that fell in disorder on her deadly pale, tear-stained face. She was groaning but still trying to resist, though her arms were held by two burly men.

"A rat!" she screamed, panic-stricken, and the heavy iron door shut her in.

There were huge rats in the prison. At one time the authorities tried to exterminate them and put down poison; the rats came out of their holes to die in the courtyard, and their hideous reddish corpses with bare tails could be seen by the walls, on the half-basement window-sills and in the middle of the yard.

It may be very foolish and feminine, but the sight of a dead rat spoiled all the pleasure of the walk in the courtyard. I dread to think what it must have been like in the punishment cell, the ceiling of which was said to be so low that one could not stand up, and where the warders could put out the light, leaving their victim in darkness alone with the rats.

Another prisoner who was constantly punished for weeping was probably half-insane. She often began by singing, which was strictly forbidden. She had a beautiful voice and had obviously been trained for operatic singing, but her style was very peculiar: she sang the most cheerful songs to funereal tunes, and sad ones such as Lisa's aria in the Queen of Spades—like a chansonette. She did it admirably, and her voice grew louder and louder; the wardress interposed and threatened her, then she cried and sobbed hysterically. Sometimes she began by crying, but she did it in her own way: she cooed in a sad little voice like a turtle dove, then the sound grew stronger, and she wailed in a sing-song voice louder and louder, but always very musically.

Then we heard the wardress's remonstrances and the chief warder's threats, which she answered by wild screaming and cursing. But evidently she was regarded as insane, because instead of locking her in the punishment cell they put her in a strait waistcoat and tied her to her bed. Worn out by crying and struggling, she gradually subsided.

The prison authorities hated her, probably because they could not deal with her in their own way; they kept her in one of the darkest and dampest cells on the ground floor, and did not allow her out for walks; only once in the summer she was taken out into the courtyard. She proved to be a young woman, tall and well-made, with charming manners; she stepped along the yard as though it were a ballroom, spoke pleasantly to the warder in charge of her, and burst into song as soon as she was brought back to her cell. She was not let out any more.

It was a mystery what the OGPU wanted with this poor mad woman, whom they kept for nearly a year in prison; they do not hesitate to fake evidence, and could have done so in her case instead of driving her to hopeless insanity. We were, of course, unable to do or say anything; we did not even know her name, and could never discover what was finally done to her.

The third woman who attracted attention by her weeping was the common criminal who at one time shared my cell. With her, tears were a means of obtaining favors from prison authorities. It generally happened when she was short of cigarettes. Longing for tobacco she wandered aimlessly about the cell, killed flies, scratched the paint on the walls, and then announced to me:

"I am going to set up a concert and get some cigarettes." She sat down on her bed and began rocking herself to and fro, wailing piteously:

"My poor, poor mother! What are they doing to me! Mother, mother! Why did you bring me into the world! Poor, unhappy me!"

Upset by her own words, she began shedding real tears, entering into her part more and more thoroughly.

"l shall die, I shall die, never see you again!"

She put in a line from a popular song and broke into loud sobs.

The wardress's remonstrations were of no avail, because only the chief warder could get cigarettes from the OGPU buffet. When he appeared and sternly asked: "What is it now? What do you want, citizen?" she calmed down, gave him a sad, appealing look—which suited her young and pretty face very well and whispered, "A cigarette!"

Surprised by such an easy solution of the trouble, he grinned, and pulling out a smart cigarette-case adorned with monograms, provided her with cigarettes.

"Don't you receive any parcels?" he asked sympathetically.

"Yes, but I never have enough," she complained. "It's so dull here. Send to buy me some more, dear!"

She begged a rouble of me on the spot and made the chief warder promise that he would have some cigarettes bought for her—an unheard of concession, which only she knew how to obtain.