Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin




A Trying Day

It was in February, 1931. The morning was just as usual. It was dark. It was difficult to get up. I felt sick of work and could hardly drag myself to my office. It was more than four months since my husband's arrest; he might be sentenced any day. There seemed to be fewer death sentences, but crowds were sent to forced labor in the penal camps. I could not help thinking of every trifle as a bad omen, and this time, as I came out on to the landing, I saw a large, half-frozen pool of blood. It must have been my drunken neighbor stumbling and damaging his nose as he came home in the night, but my heart sank and I kept seeing red patches on the snow-covered streets all the way.

I did not know in those days that OGPU shoots its victims in the cellars and not in the prison courtyard.

No sooner had I settled down to my work than my colleague at the Hermitage ran into my room.

"Do you know, Mrs. Engelhardt" has killed herself. Her husband has been sentenced to ten years penal servitude at Solovki. When she heard this she threw herself down from the top landing. You remember, he was arrested in connection with the academicians case. [Sister of the well-known writer, Garshin. Her husband was one of the keepers of the Pushkinsky Dom museum. ] Mrs. Engelhardt, whose lovely hair was almost too heavy for her head—so it was she who had been lying in a pool of blood!

An hour afterwards I found that instead of working I was rocking myself to and fro and repeating: "What are we coming to? What are we coming to?"

It was clear enough though—total extermination of the educated class in Russia.

It was more than a year since Platonov and others on the staff of the Academy of Science had been imprisoned; more than six months since the arrest of the Moscow professors of history, four months since the arrest of the remaining assistants at the Pushkinsky Dom Museum. Besides, numbers of people were arrested in between and, if they had any relation to literature or publishing, were included in the "academicians' case"—even though they had never met Platonov or any of the historians. The OGPU had been cooking up the case for over a year, but were not able to present it to the public. They had evidently been given the task of discrediting scholars who held an independent point of view, of proving their connection with the emigres, of frightening the working class with the bogey of "intervention" and "monarchist conspiracy" and providing sensational material for foreign propaganda. The "academicians' case" was to have been tried publicly, but the evidence was faked to such an extent that an open trial would have been unwise: too many famous scholars were involved, and it might alienate public opinion abroad—which the Politburo to some extent considers. The death sentence, usual in such cases, was talked of all the time; but it would have produced a bad impression on foreigners.

On the other hand, it would damage the OGPU officials' career to confess that no trace of the alleged conspiracy, in which more than 200 people were implicated, could be discovered. Angry that the Government was going to deprive them of a sensational trial, the OGPU, to preserve its dignity, decided to wind up the case on the quiet. Breaking up the accused into groups, it shot those whose names were not too well known, sentenced others to ten years penal servitude, sending them off to the camps in groups of thirty or forty. Very few were sentenced to five years, and only the leaders—men of European fame—whose fate hung in the balance for another six months—were given five years "free exile", that is, were banished to obscure provincial towns. No one thought that in spite of the campaign of terror the OGPU would be allowed to deal so cruelly with men whose only guilt could have been lack of interest in politics. It was no wonder that the shock was too much for the wives. Life becomes unbearable when there is nothing but senseless cruelty all round.

At home I heard another piece of news.

"Professor Butenko's wife has hanged herself."

"Why?"

"Her husband has been sentenced to ten years penal servitude in connection with the "academicians' case". All their property is confiscated. The OGPU agents came to make the inventory. She asked them to wait a minute, went to her room and hanged herself. By the time they grew tired of waiting for her and broke the door she was already dead."

"She did it just in time. . . ."

"Yes, it's a pity her husband did not. He doesn't yet know that their daughter is dead. His wife concealed it from him, though she was allowed to see him once since then. He won't last long now."

"No, he won't."

And, indeed, when he heard the news of his wife's and daughter's death he fell seriously ill and died at the penal camp at Solovki.

I do not know whether anyone had told him what touching care his daughter, a girl of sixteen, took of him while he was in prison. After his arrest she kept the family by selling their belongings, looked after her mother, who quite lost her head with grief, wore herself out taking parcels to prison. When she caught typhoid her heart was too weak to fight the disease. In her delirium she talked of her father and worried about one thing only. She kept saying, "Tell me, when is Sunday? Mother must not forget about the parcel. How dreadful that I am ill! Mother does not know how strict they are in prison. She is sure to make some mistake, and they won't take the parcel. Daddy, darling daddy, what will become of you?"

Poor child! Her life too was centered on the prison, the bags with linen and food and the fear of the OGPU. She died thinking of it. Her mother had followed her. It was the father's turn now.

Some months later I heard that the wife of the academician Lazarev had hanged herself, learning that her husband had been sentenced to ten years penal servitude. Two months after her death the OGPU commuted his sentence to exile; they wanted to make use of his name as an advertisement for science in U.S.S.R.

Three victims! . . . And how many more there were, obscure and unknown! . . . There was nothing surprising in the fact that the wives of professors, academicians and other specialists should want to die rather than witness the horrible fate of their husbands, for whom they could do nothing.

Suicide is a selfish action, but it may be an indication of the general state of things: when there is nothing to live for and no strength to carry on, there is nothing left but death.