I Speak for the Silent Prisoners of the Soviets - V. Tchernavin

Tairoff Alley

The GPU has many methods of trying to wring confessions from its innocent victims. Most of them are threatened with execution, and a great number are kept in isolation cells and deprived of outside communication, exercise and books for well over a year. In many cases even their relatives are arrested, thrown into prison and sometimes sent to forced labor.

Of the people whom I met, V. was subjected to one of the most cruel kinds of treatment. Kept for eight months in an isolation cell without exercise or food parcels, he suffered from a severe attack of scurvy. He had been a healthy and strong man of middle age, but one by one he lost his eight front teeth and those remaining became so loose that he could eat bread only after soaking it in water. Moreover, he had been subjected to one of the most humiliating and disgusting measures—the transfer to Cell No. 16.

Cell No. 16 was known among the prisoners as "Tairoff Alley," the name of the favorite haunt in Petersburg of the city rogues, prostitutes and thieves. Built to contain but ten or twelve men, it actually held forty or fifty—and these, thieves, robbers and vagrants of the lowest type. Borrowed from other detention institutions, they made up a cell which was characterized by its loose discipline; fights and wild rioting never ceased and the air was filled with blasphemy. These prisoners amused themselves by gambling for money, clothes, food and tobacco. Even gold fillings from teeth were lost in this way and pulled out on the spot in the most brutal manner.

Counter-revolutionaries, or "Kaers"  as they were called, who refused to confess were put in this cell and left to the mercy of the regular inmates. Such "Kaers"  were immediately robbed of all their possessions and, if they offered resistance, cruelly beaten. To transfer a prisoner to Cell No. 16 meant that he would be deprived of everything that is most valuable in prison life: clothes, food parcels, pillow, blanket and tobacco pouch.

It was rare for anyone transferred to this cell to remain unharmed. When V. was sent to it he found there one intellectual who in a few days had been completely beaten down morally and physically. All his clothes had been gambled away by the criminals and he was left only partially covered by a filthy rag. But the calm and venerable appearance of V. was so imposing that it impressed even the ruffians. His cleverness and tact did the rest. As soon as he was led into the cell he voluntarily handed over to the foreman everything he had with him in prison except his clothes, and declared at once that he would turn over his food parcels for general distribution. The foreman of the cell, with his usual authority, took him under his own protection and ordered that he should not be harmed. Imagine the surprise of the examining officer when the next day he discovered that V. had not been mistreated in any way. And although he tried to instigate violence by summoning the foreman to tell him that V. had complained of being robbed, the foreman quickly saw through the trick and on his return to the cell told V. about it.

This incident only strengthened the good-will of the criminals toward V. Flouting the prison rules they would see that V. got out into the yard for exercise, guarding him closely as they went and pretending that they were dragging him out by force. A curious picture he presented, this dignified gentleman with a magnificent gray beard and spectacles, walking in the yard surrounded by a crowd of bedraggled thieves, three of whom were entirely naked. It was not long before the examining officer, seeing that he had not succeeded in subduing V., transferred him back to a general cell.

A different type of pressure was exerted upon a man by the name of B. arrested in connection with the "Academic Case" (See appendix). For a year he was kept in isolation without exercise, food parcels or reading matter. Finally he was given an ultimatum—to sign the "confession" or be shot within three days. He did not sign. In the evening he was called out with his "things" and transferred to the death cell where for two days he could listen, day and night, to the groans and screams of those being dragged to execution. At last he was taken under heavy guard into the cellar where, according to rumor, the executions took place. Every moment he expected to be shot in the back, but no—from there he was led up a dark flight of stairs and ushered into a brightly lit room where two examining officers were seated. Then he lost consciousness and could not be questioned.

After this harrowing experience he was transferred to a double cell and given a madman for a companion. This man would throw himself on B. and beat and choke him. Scratched and bruised, and with torn clothing, he was again brought before the examining officer in whose office he found his wife who had also been summoned for questioning. Then, seeing the strong impression this meeting produced upon both of them, the examiner addressed himself to B. with pathetic words:

"Pity your wife! Save yourself! Sign the confession! I offer it to you for the last time, otherwise you will be shot."

B. again had the courage to refuse to give false testimony and was sent to the concentration camp. Had he submitted to the advice of the examining officer, undoubtedly he would have been shot.

The "wet cell" was another means of coercion. Here the floor was flooded with water and the only furniture was a very narrow plank on which one could sit but not lie down. There were no sanitary conveniences and the prisoners were not allowed to leave the cell for any reason. Their feet had to remain in the filthy, putrid water filled with ordure; this developed ulcers. I knew of one prisoner who after six days in this "wet cell" finally signed a false confession. But he left behind him another prisoner who had been there for over thirty days and still refused to sign a false statement.

These cases are but an insignificant part of what I saw and heard of the methods of the GPU, just a few examples showing the conditions under which the Russian intellectuals suffered imprisonment.

Instead of subjecting me to any of the above violent methods, the examining officer got into the habit of sending for me once every week or ten days and keeping me in his office for four or five hours. Each time he would urge me to confess or would threaten me with death, but with decreasing insistence. He would often ask my opinion on some "technical detail," as he called it, for instance, the practicability of manufacturing "fish flour" from fish waste. He would lazily look over a newspaper, while I talked, intentionally complicating my narrative with minute details which I felt sure he did not understand. Now and then his eyes would close, but if I stopped talking, he was wide awake.

"Well, go on!"

Watching him carefully I gradually began to change the subject—describing some unusual characteristics of the various kinds of fishes in the Barents Sea. The effect was extraordinary.

"A perch at a depth of 300 meters! That's wonderful! What kind of perch is it?"

I would explain to him that it is a deep-water fish, of a fiery red color, with enormous black eyes and sharp spikes and that it is viviparous—that made a great impression on him and the subject of the cross-examination shifted to the question of viviparous fish!

He listened with apparent interest to stories about sea-wolves, and toothed whales that swallowed seals, and killer-whales that chase a Greenland whale onto a shallow bank to devour it. Such conversations convinced me that Barishnikoff was a typical Soviet state functionary, unquestionably lazy, who went to the Shpalerka for the same reason that all Communists go to their offices; in order that the number of hours they "worked" might be registered.

I decided to take the offensive. Choosing an opportune moment during our conversation on a subject entirely foreign to the cross-examination, I addressed him unexpectedly in a calm and casual manner:

"May I ask you a frank question?"

He nodded.

"Why are you keeping me here? You know very well that I am not a wrecker, that I have committed no crime. I have the impression that you want at any cost to establish a crime where you know well there is none."

At first he appeared taken aback and then began claiming that the GPU never arrests and imprisons anyone without cause; if I had been arrested, there must be a reason for it.

I shrugged my shoulders. The old story was beginning all over again. He resumed his aggressive tone and continued:

"What do you think, that we decided to expose an 'organization' in your Trust and that I simply picked from the list of employees those names which seemed best to fit into the picture? That I came across your name—a nobleman and a scientist—found it to be well fitted and so got hold of you?"

"Yes, I believe that's the way it was done," I replied, trying to speak calmly and without irritation.

"No, it was not done that way. We have strong evidence against you. You are a wrecker. At Murmansk, during the general meeting at the time of the execution of the '48,' the question was raised as to why you hadn't been arrested. This shows that your wrecking activity was no secret to the workmen."

I smiled and thought to myself: "What strong evidence!"

He noticed my smile and hesitated, knowing as well as I how general meetings were conducted.

"Possibly you engaged in wrecking activity not out of desire of personal gain, but entirely out of class hatred. I'm becoming convinced that this was the case. To some extent this lightens the gravity of your position," he said trying to gain a new foothold.

"Class hatred? Where did you get this from?"

"I sincerely advise you to confess," he repeated, finding no suitable reply. "It will save you. Then, when submitting your case to the council, I will ask for leniency in the verdict."

"Confess what? You know yourself that I've done nothing criminal. Here you have been questioning me for the last two months—tell me of what my 'wrecking activity' consisted?"

"You knew of the 'wrecking activity' of Tolstoy and Scherbakoff."


"But you know they have been shot as wreckers. Working with them you could not have failed to know of their 'wrecking.'"

"I knew their work. I know that all the success of the trawling business is due to the knowledge and energy of Scherbakoff."

"Don't forget that wreckers are cunning," interrupted the examining officer. "Keeping up the outward appearance of excellent work, they know how to ruin it from the inside. Confess that you knew of the 'wrecking activity' of Tolstoy and Scherbakoff and I will accuse you only of failing to report. This would come under another Article and would get you the minimum punishment. This is the most I can do for you."

From then on my "case" was narrowed down to a persistent attempt to obtain confirmation of the wrecking activities of those executed in the autumn of 1930. At first it was not quite clear to me. Evidently they had been murdered not only without being convicted of a definite crime, but also without the observance of those minimum requirements needed by the GPU to "prove" their "guilt." I found out later that this was so. It was not until the winter of 1930-1931 that the GPU actually attempted to collect "proofs" against the "48" who had already been executed.

A few days later the examining officer informed me of the official accusation against me. He was evidently afraid to continue our previous conversation, fearing that it might lead to a final loss of his prestige. I was being accused—according to Article 58, Paragraph 7—of economic counter-revolution, that is "wrecking." The punishment for this crime is from three years of forced labor to the death penalty with confiscation of property.

The examining officer wrote out the accusation act in my presence on a special form. Its formulation was poorly made and, to me, incomprehensible. It was one long sentence containing numerous incidental propositions oddly separated by commas. Its meaning was approximately as follows: I was accused of engaging in wrecking activity from 1925 to the day of my arrest and, concretely, my wrecking consisted of "promoting the rise of prices of materials and production equipment."

"Sign to the effect that the accusation has been read to you," said the examining officer.

"But I don't even understand the accusation," I objected. "How was it possible for me to promote the raising of prices of materials and production equipment?"

"Whether you understand it or not isn't important. Simply sign that you have read the accusation. I don't ask that you agree with it," he grumbled. And I signed.

After that I was not called out for questioning for a whole month and was even allowed to work in the prison library, delivering books to the cells. Life became easier. I had seven companions working there with me and, best of all, I was allowed to read in its spacious room. I still lived in the same cell, but I left early in the morning and returned to it only just before roll-call at night.

It was a mystery to me why my case had dragged on for so long. I was not called out for cross-examination any more. Maybe my "case" was completed and I would soon receive my verdict from the "cuckoo." Perhaps I would even be released.

Meanwhile I had become an "old-timer" with the cell privileges that accompany this status, and I knew the minutest details of prison regulations. I had gathered together a prisoner's kit of forbidden, but extremely useful, articles: a needle which was a gift from a fellow-prisoner who had been deported; a piece of string which I picked up in the prison yard and which served to hold up my trousers; two large nails which I flattened into a knife and a chisel; a pipe which I made from specially processed bread and a game of chess of the same material. I became used to long hair and learned the trick of shaving with a piece of tin or broken glass.

The acute nervous tension and excitement of the first clays of imprisonment subsided. Routine, weariness and oppressive sadness took their place. The third month passed, the fourth began, but no change came. It was as if time had stopped on one dreadful day.