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

A Bullet in the Head

For a whole week I had not been taken to another examination. This did not surprise me because in the cell I had very soon found out the habits of examining officers. The Golden Rule for a Soviet prisoner is this: Do not trust the examining officer. He always lies. If he says: "I will send for you tomorrow" it means that he will let you alone; if he threatens: "I will forbid remittances," it means he has not even thought of doing it. However, knowing all this, it is still hard not to believe him sometimes.

At last the guard called out my name.

The examining officer, Barishnikoff, was sitting at his desk looking very morose.

"Sit down. How are you?"

"All right."

"I haven't sent for you for a long time; I'm very busy. Did you make any acquaintances in the cell?"


"Did you find anyone you knew there?"


"With whom have you made friends?"

"With the bandits. Nice fellows—Sokol and the others. Do you know them?"

"With whom else?"

"With nobody else."

"It's time to stop dodging and answer properly."

I shrugged my shoulders.

"Your crimes are known to us. Drop your independent manner. You are a wrecker!  Yes, you're a criminal and I speak to you as a criminal."

"I am not convicted, I am under investigation."

"No, you are a criminal. It's not a court trial here. Your dodging and cunning will only lead you to a bullet. I'm tired of bothering with you. Are you ready to immediately write out the confession? No? We will talk to you in another way. Well? I am waiting for your confession."

"Of what?"

"Of wrecking. You are a wrecker. You were in contact with the international bourgeoisie and the wreckers of the Soviet Government and you received money from abroad for your base activity."

I laughed.

"You laugh? Wait a while and you will see nothing funny."

"I can't help laughing in spite of the tragedy of my position. We are mature men and I have to listen to your accusations which can only be termed ridiculous. You know perfectly well that what you are saying is not true. You have searched my apartments in Murmansk and Leningrad; you have been censoring all my correspondence, have had every man I met under observation, have watched my income and expenditures; you know, as well as I do, that I haven't received money, nor even a single letter from abroad since the Revolution."

"You refuse to confess?"

"I have told you and I repeat again, I have never been a wrecker; I have never been in contact with any international bourgeoisie; I have never received money illegally from anyone."

He struck the desk with his fist and cried: "You lie!"

I kept silent.


"I have no intention of carrying on a conversation in this tone. As long as you behave this way I am not going to answer you."

"You refuse to confess? We will enter this into the record."

"I refuse to answer to rudeness and shouting. You may enter that into the record."

"Intellectual's whim," he grumbled and changed his tone. "I can't waste so much time on you," he continued, getting out a sheet of paper for the record. "I will write down in brief your confession and you may go back to the cell. We will continue tomorrow."

This comedy was beginning to make me angry. I kept silent in order not to say something rude. It was not to my advantage to have him lose patience and so I held myself in hand.

"Well?" he said. "I am ready to write."

"I told you already that I have nothing to confess to."

"Why then do you make me write your confession?"

"I don't make you do anything. Write whatever you please, if you need it. I will sign no 'confessions.'"

"And tomorrow  you will not sign?"

"Certainly not."

"And the day after tomorrow?"  he continued threateningly.

I shrugged my shoulders.

"And you will never sign?" he snarled in a menacing whisper, piercing me through with his eyes.

"I will never sign it, I have told you that already."

"Then—a bullet in your head! Do you understand? A bullet! A bullet in the back of your head, into the back of your head—a bullet!" He was almost shouting.

"Go ahead and shoot," I replied calmly. "I have nothing more to say."

"We will send you 'to the left,' we will liquidate you. Do you understand? We will write you off."

I kept silent and he continued, showing the richness of a special GPU vocabulary in its figures of speech describing the death penalty: "the highest degree," "to be shot," "to be sent to the moon," "to be written off the books," "to be sent out without a transfer," "a friendly slap," "to the wall," "to the left," "to spend seven kopeks," and so on. Evidently in this he considered himself an expert. He rehearsed these phrases, combining them in various ways. All this lasted for a long time, perhaps an hour. He was beginning to repeat himself; I was feeling terribly bored. Finally he stopped and said with special significance: "You are wasting time in vain. You will confess. I have broken down better men than you!"

"I think it is not I who am wasting time, but you!" I exclaimed in complete anguish. "I have told you that I never 'wrecked.' I have nothing more to add. If you find it necessary, shoot me; what's the use of all this delay?"

"Not so fast. We are in no hurry," continued the examining officer, subduing his voice. "Nobody can overhear us and there are no witnesses to our conversation. Admit orally that you are  a wrecker and I will promise to have your life spared. Later you can repudiate your statement and there is no need of entering it into the record. I only want to see your sincerity, to see that you have surrendered. That will suffice me."

I kept silent and looked at him in astonishment. What was this new move?

"I'll tell you frankly," continued Barishnikoff, "we, the examining officers, are also often forced to lie, we also say things which cannot be entered into the record and to which we would never sign our names."

"Everything I say," I replied, "I am ready to enter into the record and subscribe to. I am not going to lie to you either orally or in writing."

"Well, we are going to see about that later," and again he changed to an offensive. "You have stated in writing that you were a friend of both Tolstoy and Scherbakoff. Didn't you have a quarrel just before their arrest?"


"They had, therefore, no reason for denouncing you?"


"Well then, be it known to you that I have here," he tapped his brief-case, "confessions, written in their own handwriting, destroying you. All your wrecking activity has been disclosed by them and they have stated precisely when, from whom and how much money you have received. Two witnesses testify that you are a wrecker, and these witnesses are your friends. This testimony is quite sufficient for us to have you shot. I give you a way out—confess frankly and wholeheartedly and you will save your life. If you confess—you get ten years in concentration camp; if not you go 'to the left.' I am waiting."

"All this is not true," I said with difficulty, keeping myself under control and choosing my words carefully.

"What isn't true?"

"I don't believe that Tolstoy and Scherbakoff testified that I am a wrecker," I answered.

"Let me ask you," he began with ironical politeness, "what grounds you have for not believing it?"

"Only those which I have already mentioned: we were friends; I know these men as having been absolutely honest and will never believe that they could falsely denounce me. Moreover, you have yourself warned me," I added with a laugh, "that you don't always tell the truth."

I saw that he was hesitating whether to display indignation or turn my words into a joke.

"Nevertheless, their depositions are right here," he laughed cruelly and again tapped his brief-case. "Do you want me to show them to you?"

"Don't take the trouble, I still won't believe it."

"You don't believe in documents?" he exclaimed with simulated indignation, and ended much more sincerely: "Your faith is of no interest to us. The 'Council' will believe and we shall shoot you."

"Well, go ahead and shoot, the sooner the better."

"Don't be in such a hurry. First you are going to write for us what we need. Your confession now can still save you, but later—no. You might write, beg, implore, but we will still shoot you. We won't tolerate enemies who resist us."

Again the same thing, I thought, "we will shoot," "we will shoot," but, when the point is reached they linger—"We are in no hurry." How could one find out what they really intended to do with me? I shall not let them beat me, they will have to bind me first.

As if in reply to my thoughts he continued: "I see that I am really wasting too much time on you. I am busy. I have to leave now and you shall wait for me, do you understand? You shall wait right here, standing in the corridor. I will return when I see fit; maybe in this way you will become more compliant. You shall return to the cell when you have written out your confession and a detailed statement not only of your own crime but also of the wrecking activities of Tolstoy and Scherbakoff which are well known to you."

Saying this he donned his overcoat and cap. Then he opened the door of his office.


I went out.

"Stand here, so. Near the wall, but don't lean against it. Did you take sugar in your pockets? No. It's a pity, it would have come in handy now. Stand and think. I am busy. I will come back, but I warn you that I will not waste any more time on you."

As he left, a guard made his appearance and began pacing up and down the corridor.

So, I was given the "standing test."

In our cell were several men who had been subjected to it. One, Engraver P., over fifty years of age and heavily built, had stood for six and a half days. He was not given food or drink and was not allowed to sleep; he was taken to the toilet only once a day. But he did not "confess." After this ordeal he could not walk back to the cell and the guard had to drag him up the stairs. His whole body was swollen, especially his legs; he stayed in the hospital for a month and could hardly walk at all thereafter.

Another, Artisan B., about thirty-five years old, who had one leg amputated above the knee and replaced by an artificial one, had stood for four days and had not "confessed."

Engineer T., sixty years old, had stood for four and a half days and had finally signed the "confession."

"Well, it's interesting to test oneself," I thought as I stood there in the corridor.

In about two hours Barishnikoff returned and entered his office without saying a word, but casting an enquiring glance at me as he passed. I put on an expression of complete indifference and pretended not to see him.

In about ten minutes he came out and stopped in front of me.

"Have you done any thinking?"

"I have nothing to think about."

"Are you going to confess?"

"I have nothing to confess. I have told you that I have committed no crime."

"Does that mean we should release you?"


"We should shoot  you! Do you understand? A bullet in your head; remember that: a bullet in your head"  and then after a minute of silence, "Go!"

I went along the corridor, the guard behind me.