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

Bandits Have Rights

Although the cell was supposedly settled for the night, no one was sleeping. The foreman was standing by his cot in heated argument with two prisoners at the opposite end of the cell near the window. By the door stood a man in a fur coat holding his things—evidently a newcomer. He seemed completely bewildered; here he was in prison and there was no room for him. He was the 110th occupant of a cell meant for twenty-two prisoners.

I stood and waited, listening to a fellow-prisoner who explained what was going on.

"Those two are criminals—bandits. Their places on the floor next to the window and lavatory are a little wider than those under the boarding, but cold because the window is open all night long. The foreman told them to take in this newcomer, but they refused, claiming that he has no right to put anyone in a place already occupied. He's a little at fault; he ordered instead of requesting them and this made them angry. They're not bad fellows, although real bandits, store robbers. The shorter one is Pavel Sokol, Sokoff, or Smirnoff—he's the active leader. The second one, Vania Efimoff, is from his gang. There are nine of them in prison: two here, six in adjoining cells and one works in the kitchen and sleeps in the workmen's cell. The examining officer deprived them of the privilege of exercise in the yard so that they couldn't talk to each other, but just the same they talk through the grill. They're quite reckless. You'll see, even the cripple will come. He's in the opposite cell, No. 21. His two legs are cut off above the knees. He was their scout and receiver of loot—their spiritual leader. In the cell they behave excellently although they were put in here with us purposely. Attempts are made to incite them against us by telling them that we report their conversations. But they can't be taken in by such nonsense: they understand men better than the examining officers."

"Examining officers have no need of understanding," commented someone. "They sentence you to be shot—and that's all."

"Yes, it's certain they will be shot; it's a pity though, they're good fellows, not like petty thieves."

While we were talking the quarrel was still going on. Sokol's voice carried loudly and clearly across the cell.

"Comrades, you are wasting time. We have as much right to our two places as you have to yours. It's true that we are bandits, plain people, uneducated and you are professors and engineers; but we also are able to stand up for our rights. We won't give in. The foreman has no right to order us. I'm going to call a general meeting of the cell to discuss his action. I'm going to insist on his removal. In the meantime you'd better find another place for this newcomer."

I decided to intervene, feeling that I could come to some understanding with these bandits. I asked the foreman in a low voice whether he had any objections.

"You can try, but I doubt if you succeed—you can see for yourself how stubborn they are."

I made my way to the window and in the same low tone said to Sokol, "Let me in with you. My place is next to the toilet; I can't sleep there. I've spent all day at a cross-examination and had no sleep last night. We'll give my place to the 'novice.'"

"Well—all right. Vania, shall we let him in?"

Vania growled sulkily: "Oh, let him in."

Then in a somewhat milder tone, he said to me, "It's cold here, you'll catch cold. The window is open all night. We're hardened to it."

"I'm also hardened," I replied and, gathering up my belongings, moved over to my new place.

"Lie down in the middle," invited Pavel. "It will be warmer and in the morning, when they come to wash, it won't be so wet."

I thanked them and lay down. This was the beginning of a real friendship with the bandits whose attitude towards me was deeply touching.

One of the prisoners brought me some cold soup and some cereal hardened into a gluey mass. I could not eat it. I drew out of my pocket the forgotten apple—to the surprise of my neighbors.

"An apple? Raw? How did you manage to get it through? It is strictly forbidden."

"I don't know; they let it pass. I have some more, do you want one?"

"Why of course we do," Pavel replied, with excited eagerness in his voice. "We're terribly in need of something green. Here we are given nothing raw. That's to produce scurvy. Vania is getting it already." Pavel nodded at his companion. "We get no fats either and that's why we have ulcers; sometimes they're simply terrible, especially on the stomach and back. Vania—show your back! See!"

Vania turned up his shirt. All his back was covered with dark purple circles the size of a pre-war five kopek piece.

"Have you been long in prison?" I asked.

"Oh, some time."

The wind was blowing straight on us from the window and was drawn along the floor to the barred wall opposite. There was no smell from the toilet here. I rolled myself in my blanket and fell asleep.

I was awakened by my neighbor raising himself up and calling:

"Pavel Constantinovitch."

At the bars stood a guard. It was still night.

"Come on, to cross-examination!"

Pavel began to dress leisurely.

"Vania, you'll be called out too. Remember what we agreed—not a word. Let them talk themselves." And he added something in thieves' argot unintelligible to me.

The guard spoke to him impatiently.

"All right, there's plenty of time, it's not a fire alarm," Pavel replied and continued to dress carefully.

He was about thirty-five, of medium height, well-built, broad-chested. His features were regular, his face very pale, with a black, curly beard and small mustache which did not hide the outline of his upper lip. His black, soft, curly hair was carefully combed and trimmed—a thing very rare in prison. With his dark eyes and shapely eyebrows he would have been quite handsome except for his apparent shortsightedness and his lips which were too soft and full. His whole appearance was that of a stage villain. And to my surprise he even dressed to fit the role: black, well-pressed pants, good shoes and a dark red satin shirt.

He combed his hair, pulled down his shirt, tightened his belt and made his way lightly to the door.

Vania was of a more ordinary type: very tall, extremely broad in the shoulders, a youngster who had become emaciated and pale from prison life. He also was smoothly shaven and dressed with some elegance.

I had scarcely time to fall asleep again—not more than ten minutes having elapsed—when Pavel returned, undressed quickly and lay down beside me.

"Well, how did it go?"

"All right."

"Why did they let you go so soon? I was questioned for fourteen hours!"

"Yes, it surprised us. Apparently they're taking your case seriously. But why question us? I refused to answer questions. Let them tell what they know—then I will speak."

"And how was the examining officer?"

"He?—well, he asked: 'Who are you?' 'I am so and so: Sokol and Sokoff and Smirnoff.' 'What have you to say for yourself,' he says. 'Not a damn thing—nothing.' Then of course he says, 'Don't be a fool, tell what you know about such and such a case.' 'Nothing, not a damn thing!' He gets mad and says, 'I need to make an entry on the record and I can't put down that kind of answer.' 'What you have to do is no worry of mine. I also need a lot, but I'm not asking you for it.' 'Formulate your answer so that it can be entered into the record.' 'Well,' I said, 'you're paid money for it, formulate it yourself.'"

"What did he say to that?"

"Nothing. He laughed, picked up the sheet of paper and wrote: 'Refuses to testify,' and handed it to me to sign. 'You see,' says I, 'you've formulated it; if you'd done it long ago, there'd been no need of talking.' I signed. 'Go back to the cell,' he says. That's all. They seldom try to frighten us; they know it won't go over."

"And whom do they try to frighten?"

"Those who've had no prison experience: workmen and peasants are always treated that way. They also try it out on intellectuals, if they see the man is scared and that he can be impressed by shouting and swearing. Some are badly beaten, too. But our kind will never let them get away with this, we're ready to do some swearing ourselves and we won't allow them to beat us up—so they don't try. If the person's scared, however, they certainly abuse him, especially if it's a woman. With some they can do whatever they please at cross-examinations, however learned and educated they may be, but with us"—he laughed—"they know we understand all their dirty tricks."

"In spite of all this I'm surely going to be shot," he added dreamily, "and he will be shot too," nodding towards Efimoff.

"What for?"

"We're being accused as bandits, that's why we were transferred to the Shpalerka, to the GPU. At first we were in the criminal prison. We robbed Cooperatives; broke into the buildings and carried away goods. That's only theft, punishable according to the Code by not more than five years at a concentration camp, but they want us sent to the 'left' (to death) , and so they transferred us here to be dealt with directly by the GPU, without trial: Article 59, Paragraph 3 and it's done—banditry, armed robbery. We're not bandits; we never went armed, it's not our specialty. You know, everyone has his job. We worked in stores. I have been working at this for a long time; I got used to it and can't stop it. How many times I have wanted to stop, but I can't! There's a gamble in it: a chance comes along—it's hard to pass it up, especially if one has had a drink."

"Did they catch you at work?"

"No, they aren't bright enough. They were looking for me for a long time and never would have caught me but for my wife. They arrested her and tried to scare her, but it didn't work. Our women aren't easily scared, you know. Then they showed her pictures of different women and my letters to them and said, 'Here you are suffering for him and he's unfaithful to you.' This worked: from jealousy she gave away my hideouts and our storage place. She was released. How she cried later, but it was too late, nothing could be done. Many were arrested, and finally I was taken. If they don't shoot me, I will yet enjoy life. I'll escape, I won't be a prisoner, no matter what the sentence may be—five or ten years in concentration camp,"

"But if they keep you in prison or send you to Solovki?"

"All the same I will escape. A man can't be kept in prison if he's determined to get away. Perhaps if in a fortress or chained to a wall, but from an ordinary prison you can always escape. If it's deportation, there's a way to do it during transportation. From the concentration camp it isn't difficult. We've had some experience."

"Why don't you escape from here, once you are threatened with execution?"

"It's difficult to do it from the Shpalerka, almost impossible, unless some opportunity turns up. From Kresti it is possible. Vania led three condemned criminals out of it. His specialty is locks, but he also understands plumbing. Did you ever notice the grilled sewer pipes which come out into the Neva? Well, such a pipe leads from Kresti. A man can easily crawl through it and the sewage flow is small; one would not drown. It's only difficult to reach it because it's necessary to open and close several locks in order to destroy all traces. Vania did everything perfectly: he led them out and stayed behind. The locks weren't broken—the escape wasn't discovered for some time; later, he himself escaped."

"It was a fine job," he added. "If my life is spared I'm not going to stay and rot in prison."

Over and over again I repeated to myself, "If my life is spared I'm not going to stay and rot in prison,"—and so fell asleep.