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

Part II:
We are Prisoners in Leningrad

[Illustration] from I Speak for the Silent by V. Tchernavin



After the execution of the "48" I knew that sooner or later I too would be arrested. In the order for their execution V. K. Tolstoy, my best friend, was designated as the "leader of wrecking activities in the North Region," while S. V. Scherbakoff, the man closest to me among the workers of the Trust, was described as "the head of the counter-revolutionary organization in the North State Fishing Trust." And now that these accused "leaders" had been done away with, the "organization" itself must somewhere be found. Since it did not exist, the most likely people in the opinion of the GPU would be accused. Besides Scherbakoff, the only arrest yet made in the North State Fishing Trust had been that of K. I. Krotoff who had been in prison now for more than half a year—but this was evidently not enough for an "organization." There remained four specialists holding executive positions: Scriabin, the engineers K. and P., and myself. Scriabin might possibly be spared since his father, a peasant, had once been exiled by the Tsarist Government. The engineers K. and P. did not quite fit the role of members of the "organization" as they were already serving a sentence of hard labor, having been sold to the Trust by the GPU. And since the GPU was receiving income for their work, it would have been foolish to lose it by accusing them for a second time.

It was therefore clear that I would be the next victim. I would either be sent to Solovki or executed—there could be no other alternative. Life was finished for me. What would happen to my wife and my boy—eleven years old—for whom there had been tragedy enough already?

Bewildered and not knowing what I should do, I decided definitely not to go back to Murmansk. What had I to lose? I might look for work in the provinces, take my family with me and try to escape across the border. In applying for such work I must, if possible, make it appear that I did not want to be assigned to a frontier region; otherwise the GPU would never permit me to work in such a place. I discussed this with my wife. It seemed the only way out. But the accomplishing of such a scheme took time and dismal days of waiting followed.

I shunned mankind. Any contact with a man in my position might prove dangerous. If by chance I met acquaintances, they passed me by in a panic. The few who did stop to assure me of their sympathy stressed the fact that in spite of everything they were not avoiding me.

Each evening, when the boy was in bed, my wife and I would sit together for a long time—waiting. We never spoke of it, but we both knew for what we were waiting and that these might be our last hours together. Nearly a month had elapsed since the executions. Many people had been imprisoned. Why was I being spared? Sometimes I even felt ashamed that I had not yet been arrested. How had I earned the mercy of the executioners, I who had not taken part in a single meeting at which the so-called "wreckers" had been denounced?

It happened at last, and very simply.

I was at home alone. My son had gone to the "movies"—he, too, was restless and nervous. My wife had not yet come home from work.

The bell rang. I opened the door and saw the house superintendent with a stranger in civilian dress. I understood.

The stranger handed me a paper—the order for search and arrest.

I let him in.

He entered the room which served as both bedroom and study and began the search. It was a very superficial one, only a formality. From the mass of papers and manuscripts in my desk he took only one notebook lying on top.

When my wife came home the search was finished and I was preparing for my "journey": two changes of underwear, a pillow, a blanket, a few pieces of sugar and several apples there was no other food in the house. I changed my clothes.

"I am ready," I said to the GPU agent, thinking to myself, "ready for death."

It was a long time before they took me away. The prison vans were so busy.

I will not attempt to describe those last minutes—I cannot, even now.

In the prison van I was alone, though ten or twelve people could easily have been placed in it. I must be an important criminal. Through the small barred window in front I could see the backs of the chauffeur and the guard and catch glimpses of familiar houses and streets which I was seeing for the last time.

Here is the Palace Bridge. Now comes the decisive moment—where am I being taken—to the prison on the Gorokhovaya or to the Shpalernaya? We stop. The van doors are opened. Now I will be dragged out! The street is empty. At the gateway stand two men in leather jackets; their loud voices echo down the street. The air is warm and damp—a light breeze coming from the sea. We halt for some time. We must have stopped for another passenger. He is hustled in and we start again. The new one sits opposite me all hunched up, holding his belongings in his lap. His face is drawn and frightened.

We are taken along the Millionnaya, the quay. We turn to the Shpalernaya and stop in front of the "House of Preliminary Detention." The gates are open; the guards interrupt their rough talk to order us out.

"Get along!"

We climbed out and up some stairs. The office of the prison was dirty and reeked of tobacco. I waited while my companion filled out his questionnaire. The GPU clerk put the questions lazily and indifferently; my companion answered in the manner of a diligent pupil—loudly and with great readiness, looking his inquisitor straight in the eyes. From his tone it was clear to me that he was sure of his innocence and convinced that his arrest was a misunderstanding.

"How many times have you been arrested?" growled the clerk.

"This is the first time."

"Have you been in court before?"

"No, no, of course not!"

He sounded excited, nearly joyous, as though he thought he could never be held after such good answers.

He was led away. No attention was paid to me and I waited a long time. At last they gave me a questionnaire to fill in by myself. This is better than answering oral questions—one has time to think. I was especially glad of this because I had on my mind one sin against the Soviet authority—I had concealed the fact of having seen military service. I must not give myself away.

"Did you serve in the Old Army?" "No."

"Have you served in the Red Army?" "No."

In answering the first question I lied, as I had  served during the War. I signed under the statement that I knew the penalties for false testimony. What did it matter? Things could not be worse and I must fight to the end.

I was taken upstairs to the fourth floor and on the landing they searched me and took away my necktie, braces, garters and shoe-strings—to prevent suicide. It was disagreeable to be left in such an untidy state. After all, one can hang himself with trousers more easily than with a necktie.

One of the men who searched me was good-natured and treated me with some sympathy. He saw the apples I had brought.

"These aren't allowed, but, well, keep them. How about your bag? Well, take it, and get into your cell quickly!"

The other warden returned.

"Take him to No. 22."

The clock in the corridor showed 3 A.M. It would soon be morning.