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

Cell 22

It was almost dark in the cell. At the noise of the opening door a man in underclothes got up from a nearby cot and, without paying any attention to me, spoke reproachfully to the warden.

"Comrade, you promised not to give us anymore; I have nowhere to put them. There are less than a hundred men in No. 20, and here we have a hundred and eight."

"We are also adding to No. 20," replied the warden indifferently, turning the key in the enormous lock.

The man in the underclothes turned to me. "Take off your things, Comrade, and hang your coat over there." he said, pointing to a nail near the door, already overloaded with coats and jackets.

I took off my overcoat and threw it in a corner near the grill.

As soon as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness I looked about the cell. It was a large, almost square room with a floor area of some seventy square meters. The ceiling, slightly arched, was supported in the middle by two thin, metal columns. Opposite the entrance were two grilled windows.

A platform raised about forty centimeters from the floor covered the entire cell. On this platform lay sleeping figures: along the side walls two rows with heads to walls and feet inward, in the middle two rows with heads to the center. Between every two rows was a narrow passage, but in places where tall men lay there was no way of getting by. At right angles to these a fifth row lined the wall adjoining the corridor. No passageway whatever was left here.

Some of the men raised themselves and stared at me with curiosity.

"In this passage, to the left, under the boarding, the third place is unoccupied. Lie down there," said the man in the underclothes. "If they won't let you in, insist. There's room enough."

"What do you mean, under  the boarding?" I asked him.

"Why yes, on the floor under the boarding," he repeated.

I took a few steps forward to the spot pointed out to me and was amazed to find that on the floor there was a lower layer of sleeping bodies. To squeeze myself into it seemed impossible; I decided to return to the door.

"What's the matter, Comrade?"

"If you permit I will stay here till morning. It's too crowded there and I don't want to disturb the sleeping men."

"Well, we must think up some arrangement for you. Have you just come from freedom? It shows. I've been here nine months already. Engineer L—," he introduced himself.

I also gave my name.

"By the way, I'll enter you in the book," he said, "I had thought I'd wait till morning. I'm the foreman of this cell and I've kept this book for four months. See how many names! Thousands have passed through the cell."

"A curious document," I remarked, "a good memorial for posterity."

"Remember your number, you are 109th, and now come, I will show you a place, but it's near the toilet. And please be quiet. Not even whispering's allowed at night. Rules are posted on the column, read them to-morrow or you may be fined."

We squeezed our way along the rows of men to the very wall. In the corner, next to the toilet were two cots, close together, occupied by two sleeping men.

"Lie down here," said the foreman, "it's a good place; the toilet is near, but the windows are open all night."

With difficulty I crawled underneath the cots, arranged my pillow on the floor between them and stretched myself on my back. The two cots above almost touched each other; it was possible to pass one's head between them but not the shoulders. To sit up was impossible. A heavy, disgusting smell was spreading along the floor from the toilet seat which was not more than a yard from my head; a pile of stinking sawdust almost touched my pillow. Several men stood in line in front of the toilet.

I felt very badly, a degrading helplessness was overcoming me. It was impossible to sleep, impossible either to get up or sit up, and there was nowhere to move as the whole floor was taken up by sleeping bodies. To save my pillow I pulled it down onto my knees, stuck my head out between the cots and leaned my shoulders against the wall. Dark, crawling dots were moving over the pillow in all directions.

So began my prison education. For a novice it was quite enough.

Morning came at last. The cell began to wake up. Those who occupied the twenty-two cots were getting up cautiously and approaching the lavatory in a line. All the others remained in their places, although apparently the majority of them were awake. Evidently everything was being done according to a strict routine.

A command resounded from some distance along the corridor.

"Get up! Get up! Time to get up!" And as it was repeated, it came nearer.

The foreman got up and in a dry voice commanded: "Get up! Smoke!"

The cell became alive with motion and noise: talk, laughter, quarrelling. Smoke from hand-rolled cigarettes—no others were permitted—rose on every side. Long lines were formed in front of the toilet and lavatory. Now I could see how such a quantity of people had found room there during the night. It certainly was a clever arrangement.

The whole cell, except where the twenty-two folding cots were disposed at opposite walls, was covered by wooden boarding, the ends of which rested on low supports. On the top boarding slept the upper layer, under it, on the floor, a similar layer. All had straw mattresses—a luxury in prison. It was impossible for those lying underneath to turn over, much less to sit up. Only after the top row had risen and the boarding had been removed could those beneath begin to move about and stretch their cramped bodies.

When morning came the boards and mattresses were taken up and stacked. Then the general confusion became such that it seemed utterly impossible that order could ever be restored. The boards and mattresses were taken out for the day into an empty passage-way adjoining the cells. This was done by the prisoners themselves with extraordinary efficiency and speed. Once these were removed the chaos subsided somewhat; there remained, however, 109 men in a cell seventy meters square, part of which was taken up by the toilet, lavatory, cupboard for metal mugs and soup bowls and the personal belongings of the prisoners.

I attempted to approach the washstand, but was told that I must wash last in accordance with the order of entry into the cell. Evidently everything here required special training and exact determination of rights and duties, but before I had time to learn and understand the rules of the cell I was summoned to my first examination.