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

Old Men and Boys

I became acquainted with everyone in the cell, knew all of them by sight, learned the names of many, what they were accused of, how long they had been in prison, what kind of "pressure" the examiners used, and so on. I collected a lot of new information which I only vaguely suspected when free. I also learned quite a few lessons: how the investigation is conducted, what methods are used to obtain a confession. I saw the results of submitting to the will of the prosecutor and becoming a "novelist," that is to say, writing fantastic confessions according to directions given by the GPU.

To understand the life of those imprisoned in the U.S.S.R. while their cases are under investigation it is necessary to realize fully that the prison regime is intended, first of all, to weaken the prisoner morally and physically and break down his resistance, thus making easier the task of obtaining from him "voluntary confessions" of crimes he had never committed. The examining officer not only determines the prisoner's regime—allowing or forbidding exercise, remittance of food parcels, visits with relatives, reading of books—but he also has the right to transfer the prisoner to the dark cell or to punishment cells—ordinary, hot, cold, wet and so on.

The punitive cell in the prison of preliminary detention in the U.S.S.R. has lost its initial function as a punishment for breaking prison regulations and serves only as a means of coercion during the conduct of the investigation. The prison administration has no power over the prisoners and only fulfills the orders of examining officers.

The purpose of solitary confinement is to force a man, who is depressed by threats of violent death and torture, to remain alone with his fears, without any possibility of distraction or moral support and encouragement from others. Those confined in solitary cells often lose their minds and after six months of this regime the majority suffer from hallucinations.

The "double cell" (single cell into which two men are placed) is perhaps the easiest form of imprisonment, but in this case the welfare of the prisoner is entirely dependent upon the companion assigned to him by the examining officer. Sometimes his companion is a man violently insane who attempts to do him harm and beats him, or else one afflicted by melancholia, who is continually attempting to commit suicide. In other instances he may be a criminal who causes annoyance by his rough behavior and profanity or a man suffering from venereal disease, or even a spy who in the cell keeps up a conversation bearing on the subjects covered at cross-examinations and who persistently advises compliance with the wishes of the examining officer and the signing of the "confession."

The common cell depresses by its filth and vermin, but more than anything else by its crowded condition which forbids eating or sleeping in peace, and does not allow a minute of real rest. The prison diet serves the same purpose—the weakening of the prisoners. Although sufficient in quantity it is intentionally lacking in vitamins and contains almost no fats—hence scurvy and boils. Sufferers from scurvy are more compliant, more amenable to the "exhortations" of examining officers than healthy ones, and can be made to sign anything.

The people in the cell knew that I had been arrested in connection with the case of the "48" and that I was threatened with execution. I saw much sympathy from everyone. They taught me how to behave, gave me all sorts of advice. In prison nobody was afraid to talk of his "case," of the questionings, tortures, falsification by the GPU of cross-examination reports, forgery of signatures and the like—topics which outside the prison could only be discussed with a most intimate friend, behind closed doors.

What was striking at first was the extreme pallor of the prisoners, the result of a long sojourn in prison—their colorless faces, overgrown beards and hair, dusty and shabby clothes. In the filth of the cell they could not look otherwise. And yet, the majority in this cell were not only intellectuals, but foremost specialists in their lines, men with well-known names and reputations. For instance, there were two professors of the Petrograd University, several professors and instructors of technical and engineering schools, many engineers in different lines, technicians, railroad men, aviators, artillery officers, naval officers and, finally, clergymen. We had representatives of most of the largest factories, such as Putilov, Obouhov, Prohorov, and also many men of purely scientific careers, who had spent all their lives in laboratories, or in university chairs. Unfortunately I cannot speak of them here, for men of important individual ability cannot be described as a group. To tell of their work and its significance for Russian science and culture and to unfold the grippingly tragic picture of the transfer of the Russian intelligentsia into prison and penal servitude remains for another. Only he who gains admission to the secret archives of the GPU will someday reveal the unbelievable history of the destruction of a whole generation of men of science.

"In no other place in the world is the work of scientists valued so highly as in the U.S.S.R.; in no other place in the world is the work of specialists the object of such care as in the U.S.S.R." So speak the Soviet statesmen and the Soviet press.

In order to appraise these words I would suggest that they cast a glance into the prison kitchens in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Kharkov and other cities of the Union. There, huddled together on narrow wooden benches, with thin, sharpened-down dinner knives in hand sit professors and other educated and cultured men. In front of them are bags with dirty, rotten potatoes which in "capitalistic" countries would not be used even to feed pigs; and here these men sit diligently, seriously and clumsily peeling such potatoes for the prison soup.

But many went willingly to such work, for owing to the painful monotony of prison life and the enforced, endless idleness even this work seemed a distraction and rest. Besides, in the kitchen one sometimes succeeded in stealing or begging an onion head. The need of raw food was so great among us, suffering from scurvy as we were, that every one of us would have gladly worked a whole day at any kind of labor, if by so doing we could only obtain a bit of onion. But the examining officers allowed this kind of escape from the demoralizing prison boredom only when they considered the case completed and had ceased to exert pressure. Highly qualified engineers competed for the right to do plumbing jobs, repair locks, electric lighting and telephones. Learned professors claimed the jobs of polishing floors and cleaning stairs. One clergyman, until his execution, was for a long time in charge of the boiler. Literally hundreds of men of the highest education and with a knowledge of foreign languages registered for work in the library. But the GPU adhered firmly to the principle that the prison regime exists first of all for the purpose of exerting pressure on the prisoner and it was only the examining officer who could grant these greatest of privileges. One of these was the right to work in the packing-box shop. This shop was located in the yard out in the open, and work was carried on there in every kind of weather. Clothes were not supplied for this work, so that those who had no warm coat or footwear were unable to work there in winter. All this was not easy and the working day was twelve hours long, but the "boxes" afforded a chance of remaining out of doors and in addition this was the only work for which money was paid. After having acquired some experience it was possible to earn about one rouble a day. Of course, in prison one could spend money only on newspapers, but everyone was faced with deportation and forced labor and many could not count on any help from "outside," so that the prison rouble represented a real treasure.

The only ones who did not aspire to work were the old-timers of the prison. There were only a few of these, but one of them had been in prison already for over two years. We could not discover exactly why they were being held so long or of what they were accused. The case of one of them apparently had been hopelessly complicated owing to a mistake in a name. He had been sentenced to ten years in concentration camp and then had been returned from Popoff Island, the distributing point of the camp, but his case was still dragging along. Others had either been forgotten or had ceased to interest the examining officers. Having outlived all excitement and fear they had now become apathetic and indifferent to everything except the trifles of prison routine which for them had taken the place of real life.

"You are too young, you still know nothing," an old German liked to say. "Stay as long as I have and then you will learn. Two years and a half! Is that the way to sweep the floor! Here's how it should be done."

And he would pick up the broom and explain to the novice the principles of sweeping the floor which he had worked out for himself. Others would expound in a didactic manner the rules for washing, exercise and meals. Keeping strictly to the established prison routine these old-timers nevertheless spent the day according to a special system of their own. They got up before the official time and, without hurrying, thoroughly washed themselves, unceremoniously splashing the novices who slept on the floor. Then they carefully folded up their bedding and cots, timing this task so as to finish it exactly at the moment of the general "getting up." And during the ensuing commotion and forming of lines they leisurely stood to one side smoking rolled cigarettes in home-made holders.

Their attitude towards food was original. Provisions which they received in remittances were divided into daily rations and wrapped in a special way in paper or packed in small bags. They would drop a small pinch of tea into their mugs, then carefully cover them up with a piece of paper cut out in advance and wait with a dignified air for the tea to steep. They even ate the prison kasha  seasoning it with butter received in remittances. The prison soup they improved by adding to it small pieces of bread or salted cucumber—one of the favorite remittance items. They had their own favorite soups and kashas:  some preferring barley cereal, others millet. There were no other varieties. They had already been eating these for a year or two, yet still continued to discuss their merits and drawbacks.

All day long they played chess, checkers or dominoes, giving themselves with such earnestness to their games that they considered everything else a hindrance to what had become their calling in life. With difficulty would they tear themselves away from the game to eat or go out for exercise and they were greatly annoyed when preparations for the night halted their games.

Their eccentric egoism, possible only under prison conditions, expressed by a complete indifference to and disregard of all the hardships experienced by other prisoners, had reached such proportions that they would not even stop their game of dominoes when men were being led out of the cell to be shot. The harsh voice of the guard would be heard from the other side of the bars: "Well, get going, hurry up!" The victim would collect his things with trembling hands and murmur his last "Good-bye, comrades," and still they would continue slapping down their home-made dominoes.

Yet once these men had been human beings! Were they by nature sullen and serious, thoughtful only of themselves, or was it that the GPU had changed a group of lively, energetic men into such miserable caricatures?

Many men over seventy years of age passed through the large cell in which I was confined. One of them especially attracted attention. He was extremely thin, delicately built, with hands and feet so fragile that it was frightful to look at them. He could not bend his knees and his legs, encased in puttees, looked like those of some strange bird. His head, completely bald and covered with yellowish skin, was unsteady on a long, thin neck. He wore huge, dark-rimmed spectacles that made his eyes enormous; his sharp nose almost touched his chin across a toothless mouth. His eyesight was poor and he was almost deaf. Eating was most difficult for him; he would lose his spoon and then his bread, while both lay right under his hand. He would search for something in his bag, grumble that everything was done wrong and then forget what he was looking for. Sometimes he would fall asleep while sitting up; at other times he would have fainting spells and we would ask for the doctor, but by the time the doctor's assistant could arrive, usually in about two hours or more, he would suddenly sigh and come to life.

He had been accused of espionage, because his married niece, who lived in Vladivostok, escaped abroad. He himself had not left Petersburg and had forgotten when he had seen her last. I do not know his final destiny.

During our walks in the courtyard of the prison I noticed another old man of striking appearance—also not less than seventy years old. He wore an amazing old black coat patched with all sorts of materials, including red velvet draperies. Accused of having been the leader in some "espionage organization," he was later shot.

There were boys, too, in the cell, really mere children. Two of them, a German and an Armenian, came from educated families. The German, pale, thin and awkward as youths often are, a dreamer, wished to see the world about which he had read in books or perhaps in Soviet periodicals such as "The Pathfinder" or "World of Adventure." The Armenian—practical and gay, wanted to make his fortune in the despised "capitalistic" world. Both chose the classic way of escape, they were stowaways in the coal bunkers of a foreign steamer. Discovered by the secret police, they were arrested and sent to the headquarters of the GPU. What they went through they never told. Now they were in prison, while the GPU was compiling a "case" of espionage against them. Very likely they would have to go to a prison camp. According to the Soviet Criminal Code the punishment for illegal crossing of the frontier is three months' imprisonment. But these crimes are always taken up by the GPU and not by the court, and the punishment becomes five to ten years in prison camp. The GPU reasons as follows: any attempt to leave the country must be espionage, because if it succeeded the fugitive, even though a child, would tell of what was going on in the U.S.S.R.— and foreigners must not know.  The reality of Soviet life must not be published or advertised.

Three other boys in our cell were guilty of a domestic crime. They were children of workmen, fifteen to sixteen years old, pupils in a secondary school. Boys of that age are always hungry, and in the U.S.S.R. they are obliged to be satisfied with lean soup, potatoes and cereal—in a very restricted quantity. When returning from school one day they passed a market in front of which a man offered quite openly to sell them extra bread-cards at a very low price. They yielded to the temptation, bought the cards and joyously entered the cooperative store to buy the bread, delighted at the thought that they would no longer have to be satisfied with the stingy slices given them by their mothers. No sooner had they made their purchases than they were arrested by agents of the GPU.

"Eh, boys, wasn't the man who arrested you the same one who sold you the cards?" jokingly asked one of our cell-mates.

The boys were embarrassed and did not know what to say.

"That's it, you should be careful from whom you buy," added one of the workmen in a fatherly tone.

These boys behaved very timidly while in the cell, as if they felt embarrassed that they were placed together with grown-ups, mostly educated, "important" people.

"If we were only set free," said one of the boys excitedly, "we would immediately find him at the market, the one who sold us those cards. It was his fault, and not ours—and we said so to the prosecutor."

"Of course, we would find him," added the other.

A few days later it was published in the newspapers that, owing to the energy of the GPU, a large organization had been disclosed which speculated in bread-cards.

"Well, boys, you are not the only ones caught," said a workman trying to comfort them. He understood these boys in torn pants, worn shoes and shabby coats. "You're not the only fools. They must have arrested some forty people and are boasting of it. Just the same, boys, don't expect to go home. We will probably have to journey together at the expense of the State—rather, at that of the people."