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

The Black Crows Move

The summer of 1930 was full of disquiet. The effects of the unsuccessful Piatiletka  experiment were felt everywhere. Food was becoming scarce. One by one the necessities of life were disappearing from the market—galoshes, soap, cigarettes and even paper. In Moscow, where I was staying, expensive, decorated cakes were on display in the show windows of State confectionery stores, but bakeries had no bread. It was quite impossible to buy underwear or shoes, but one could get a silk tie and a hat. Food stores carried only caviar, champagne and expensive wines.

Hungry citizens spoke openly and sarcastically about the results of the "Plan." Who was at fault? Some explanation of this state of affairs had to be given immediately.

The official answer was naive: the shortage of foodstuffs and items of general necessity was caused by the growth in purchasing power of the masses and the rise in the cultural level of the workman and peasant! This was repeated over and over again in the official press. The slogan was "Difficulties of Growth."

According to the Soviet reports the fulfillment of the Piatiletka  was proceeding much faster even than anticipated, production in all branches of industry was increasing with marvelous rapidity and it was this very success which furnished more "difficulties of growth." Such explanations might have seemed quite convincing to visiting foreigners or to foreign readers of Soviet newspapers—but to no one else.

Government reports announced that the 1930 production of cotton and sugar-beets was twice that of pre-war days yet there was no cotton cloth for sale and sugar was a great luxury. A notable increase in the production of all earthly blessings was being promised for 1930-31.

The same newspapers, however, with their boastful articles, published the gloomiest reports of "breaches" on all fronts: the coal front, the metallurgical, the lumber, rubber, chemical, footwear, and others. These failures were attributed to the "wrecking activity" of individual experts, to campaigns carried on by foreign elements and to the bureaucracy of old-regime state functionaries.

Lines which stretched along whole blocks formed wherever anything was being sold. They were becoming a sore spot. In the attempt to find scapegoats the GPU spread the rumor, immediately taken up by the press, that there was fraud on a large scale in the distribution of food cards. The acute shortage of meat was explained by failure to follow the "directives of the XVI Party Congress," and by the "wrecking activity" of veterinaries who, it was said, gave poisoned injections to pigs. Daily articles appeared with ostentatious captions: "Vegetables perish by fault of producers" "Who interferes with the supply of vegetables?" "Call to answer for the unsanitary storage and handling of vegetables and foodstuffs."  There was a shortage of vegetables in August when all truck gardens should have been full. The papers, however, failed to mention that in the spring of that year all the larger vegetable gardens had been taken away from private owners, and the cooperative work groups and other new fiat organizations could not cope with the job.

The situation in the fishing industry was disastrous. Men, fishing tools, ships and materials were lacking. But in spite of such conditions the authorities continued to increase the plans for the industry, thereby rendering utterly impossible any satisfactory fulfillment of the assignment.

The methods offered for correction of the hopeless situation were of truly Bolshevik character. On August 7, 1930 there was published the resolution of the Council of People's Commissars regarding the steps to be taken to increase the fish supply.

"Point one: All work to be carried out in 'shock tempo' and in the autumn to cover the deficiency of the spring catch."

Then followed seventeen points of the same nature, of which the seventeenth was the most extraordinary. "Within two months work out instructions for deep sea fishing and the improvement of processing fish; take measures for the amelioration and the breeding of fish. Signed—Rikoff." 

The editorials of all papers recommended applying the following most important measures under all circumstances: "Fight for the extreme development of counterplans," "stimulate social competition and shock work," "form shock brigades, planning groups, rationalization brigades," "organize light cavalry attacks" and so on, without end.

Under all these measures, offered by the government and by alert reporters, actually lay the same idea of "shock work"—overtime work of hungry and exhausted people.

"Counter-plan" meant an irresponsible increase of already impossible assignments. "Brigades," "cavalry" and so forth were similar evidence of interference in the business by completely ignorant but extremely self-assured "Komsomoltsi,"  who did no work themselves, but engaged in "self-criticism," which was directed to those who really worked under insuperable difficulties.

Then came the arrests of specialists of all ranks and classes, in all branches of industry, in the provinces and at the "Centre"—arrests carried out at such a pace that the GPU appeared to be accomplishing its own Piatiletka  at "shock" speed and to the full capacity of the prisons. The papers seldom wrote about the arrests, but everyone knew that under the headings "Who interferes with the supply of vegetables?" "Why is prosecution inactive?"  were concealed arrests of scores and hundreds of people. Electrical engineers, chemists, experts of any prominence in rubber, agronomy and geology, all were being arrested. In August almost all the staff of the Gosplan  (State Planning Commission) were arrested, and at the head of the list was the first vice-president, Professor Ossadchim, who at the "mine trial" had been the public prosecutor.

In this way, by the fall of 1930, the end of the second year of the Piatiletka, the country had been reduced to such a shortage in consumers' goods, man power and the necessities of life, that not only the development of construction activity was unthinkable, but it was becoming impossible to live or work normally. Everyone felt that the impossible pace adopted would bring ruin. The Government, however, instead of realizing this and calling a halt to try to find some reasonable way out of the situation, strove with hysterical outbursts and relentless obstinacy to increase the pace still more, hiding behind knowingly false figures of fictitious "attainments" and "victories." Its wrath, fanned by the consciousness of its own helplessness and defeat, was directed against the peasantry and those experts who were working most actively. The shortages and all other failures were laid at their door by the authorities in an effort to incite the workmen against them. But the workmen remained indifferent to this campaign. The country, to the victorious cries of "fulfillment" and "over-fulfillment," was plunging into complete poverty and disastrous famine.

Everywhere the approach of something ominous was being felt. Communists and experts close to Communists who held positions of importance in the fishing industry were hurriedly leaving Moscow. They sensed something, or rather knew something, about the impending destruction of their comrades, and somebody's benevolent hand led them away from the place which was destined to be shelled.

Kryshoff, a Communist and senior director of the fishing industry since the beginning of the Revolution, found time before his departure to publish an interview in the "Izvestia"  of August 2, 1930, obviously meant for the enlightenment of the GPU. In this interview, without mentioning him by name, he clearly pointed to Michael Alexandrovitch Kazakoff, accusing him of favoring the idea of privately owned fisheries and, by the measures he put through for fish preservation, of intentionally interfering with the development of the State fishing industry. It had been Kazakoff, one of the leaders in the fishing industry, whose offer that I take charge of the planning division had resulted in my being engaged in the work at Murmansk. Kryshoff knew well that under Soviet conditions it was impossible for Kazakoff to refute such a libel as his. It is quite possible that this denunciation of Kazakoft was in its way a bribe which Kryshoff gave the GPU, in order to be allowed to leave the business which he himself had headed for so many years and for which he should have been the first to be held responsible.

Kazakoff was an outstanding man. Long before the Revolution he had worked for the preservation of the natural fish resources of the country. He was the chief factor in all the fishing conventions drawn up with other countries. To his brains and energy alone was due the arrangement that the Bolsheviks succeeded in making with Japan in regard to fishing rights—and this in spite of the impossible behavior of the Bolshevik diplomats. He was an expert on fishing law and had lectured on the subject in the Petrovsky Agricultural Institute in Moscow. It was my good fortune to be his closest assistant and to work with him in those conferences on the fishing industry to which he was called.

The Communist rulers needed someone on whom to blame the growing shortage of food and so they accused Kazakoff of being the leader of "wreckers" in the fishing industry. They could, of course, give no proofs of these alleged wrecking activities and, therefore, had to resort to the favorite GPU method of "voluntary confession of the accused." No one with the slightest knowledge of the facts believed this confession, but the desired result was obtained—an honest and incorruptible man, devoted to his work and his country, was removed from the path of those in whose way he stood.

On September 11th I met him. He asked me: "Aren't you afraid for yourself? Almost all the prominent experts of the fishing industry are being arrested and, you know, you are very much disliked by the Communists." Just a few hours before his own arrest, it did not enter his mind that he also might be in danger.

In the same issue of "Izvestia"  August 2, 1930, the Red professor, Communist T. Mesiatseff, tried to prove on the ground of scientific investigation that the Piatiletka  drawn up for the northern fishing industry was entirely possible and that up to that time the trawlers had been bringing in only 5% of the potential catch. Moreover, he telegraphed the Fishing Union that fifteen million tons of fish were available in the fishing region of the Barents Sea alone. These "discoveries" gave the GPU ample material to consider as "wreckers" all those who spoke of the impossibility of fulfilling the Piatiletka  in the north. This blow was directed chiefly against my friend, V. K. Tolstoy.

Then began a series of arrests of members of the Fishing Union and the Scientific Institute of Fishing Economy. The first one in the latter organization was that of seventy-year old T. G. Farmanoff, a scientist and expert of the Institute and professor of the Agricultural Academy.

His arrest happened as this kind of thing always happens in the U.S.S.R.—One day the expert does not turn up at his office, and the more apprehensive of his co-workers immediately begin to worry. The optimists are reassuring: "What of it? Perhaps he's only sick." His home is called on the telephone, and the answer comes in ambiguous terms: "He can't come." Then it is clear—he has been arrested. After that everyone refers to him with a certain wariness and avoids his unoccupied desk, which alone serves as a reminder that the man is still living and as yet not even dropped from the list of employees. His wife or mother waits in vain at the closed door of some influential Communist in the naive hope of finding in him a protector for the husband or son arrested by the GPU.—"He knew my husband so well; he visited us. It's impossible that he will do nothing. . . ."

[After the arrest of T. G. Farmanoff, in the summer of 1930, I heard nothing of him until the summer of 1931, when at the Solovetzki concentration camp I found out that he was there on Popoff Island serving a sentence of ten years in connection with the case of the '48.' His name had never been mentioned either in the newspapers or in the text of the arraignment and sentence. During his first days in prison he had been stricken by paralysis and lost the use of his legs; he was not present at his own 'trial,' and was sentenced to ten years' hard labor without any charge having been made against him.]

Then followed, one after the other, the arrests of many more. Rumors were circulating of the complete havoc caused in all regional fishing trusts.

In the Scientific Institute one of the first to be arrested was the scientist P. M. Fishson, a prominent expert in fishing economy. Calm, controlled and loyal to his work, he had kept entirely away from politics, avoiding even the most ordinary conversations on political subjects. A few days later his brother, G. M. Fishson, one of the foremost workers in the Fishing Union, was also arrested. In contrast to his brother, G. M. Fishson was full of life and energy; he worked with flaming enthusiasm and never spared himself, in spite of being ill with tuberculosis. I met him on the eve of his arrest. He was depressed by his brother's arrest, was thinking only of him and had given no thought to the danger with which he himself might be threatened.

And still the arrests continued. As soon as night fell the "black crows" (large closed GPU automobiles) would rush roaring through the streets in all parts of Moscow. But later, in order to be less conspicuous to the terrorized population, the GPU devised a new system of procedure whereby at nightfall the "black crows" would be sent to the various district police stations and there hidden in back yards. The GPU agents would then go out in groups, pick up their victims and bring them one by one to the station. When a party of about thirty prisoners was thus collected, they would be packed into the automobile and the "black crow" would rush them to the Lubianka or Butyrki prison, unload the spoil and hurry back for its next load of victims.

Strangely enough, those who had not been arrested were allowed unbelievable freedom of movement in the U.S.S.R. Thus, in August 1930, my good friend Tolstoy left on a business trip for Baku, whence, if he had so wished, he might easily have escaped to Persia. During his absence the GPU visited his apartment, not knowing that he was away. Evidently they had not been watching the movements of this "state criminal connected with the international bourgeoisie," were not worried about his possible escape, and were in no hurry to detain him after his return to Moscow, where he continued to work in the Scientific Institute up to the very day of his arrest, September 12th. And even during his last days of freedom, Frumkin, the chief of the Fishing Union, was constantly calling on him for advice. At that very time the GPU had already prepared "testimonies" dated September 9th which "exposed" Tolstoy as the initiator and leader of "wrecking activities" in the Northern and Azof-Black Sea regions.

S. D. Shaposhnikoff, engineer and expert of the Scientific Institute, the foremost authority in the U.S.S.R. on refrigeration for the fishing industry, was about to leave for America to study the refridgeration business there. The GPU gave him a permit to leave and then arrested him at the railway station.

Arrested during these same days was Professor M. T. Nazarevski, and a little later A. A. Klykoff, a well-known expert in the field of marketing.

So many arrests were being made in the fishing industry that by the middle of September there was nobody left to do any work. In the Fishing Union the experts were replaced by workmen; in the Scientific Institute the desks were left unoccupied and there were some offices left without a single occupant. Those who remained wandered around aimlessly, expecting to be arrested at any minute.