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

The Death Cell

The examining officer sent for me again exactly one week after our first stormy encounter. He sat at his desk looking sullen and grim.

"Sit down. Well, are we going to shout at each other again today?"

I shrugged my shoulders. "I don't know what method of questioning you are going to use today. It doesn't depend on me."

"Then let's talk peaceably," he said.

The talk soon narrowed to one subject—"confession" of my own "wrecking" or of knowledge of the wrecking activities of Tolstoy and Scherbakoff. There was no shouting or swearing, but it was clear to me that he would not hesitate to use any of the "means of coercion," although as yet he had not decided which ones to apply. It was not long before I heard what I was expecting.

"If you persist, I'll be compelled to use special measures—your wife will be arrested and kept in prison until you sign a frank confession."

I remained silent. It was a cruel blow and not what I had been expecting.

"Well? Does this leave you indifferent?" He spoke slowly, clearly, watching me closely.

"I have told you that I have nothing to confess and I will not lie. I respect the investigating authorities of the GPU too much to make false statements just because of your threats," I replied with a precision that equaled his. I knew that this answer would make him furious. There was nothing he could say to it and it was my only revenge.

He sent me back to the cell. I was in despair. For once I believed the examining officer. He undoubtedly understood that I could not be broken down by threats of execution or by punitive cells; he had now struck at a new, more sensitive point—my family. Long ago I had resigned myself to the idea of my own destruction, but I had consoled myself in the belief that my wife and little son would be spared. Now everything was going to pieces.

Would he carry out his threat? I would find this out only in a week when I received my remittance from home. The list of its contents was always written in my wife's handwriting; if the writing was not hers, it would mean . . .

But I did not have to wait a week; three days later the examining officer sent for me. "Yesterday I arrested your wife. She is now in the Shpalernaya prison."

I was silent, thinking only of how to hide my emotion. He must not notice what an impression his words had made on me. Only by feigning indifference could I now help her.

"What else could I do?" he continued, watching me closely. "All other means have been exhausted. We must force you to confess. For the present your son is still at home. But if you persist in refusing to sign your confession, your wife will be deported to Solovki."

He paused and gave me an inquiring glance: "You, of course, understand what fate awaits a woman at Solovki?"

Another pause.

"You know they're not very considerate of women out there," he went on.

"Well, what can I do about it?" I replied, holding myself in hand as best I could.

"Confess. Confess and your wife will be released immediately."

"I have nothing to confess."

"You won't surrender? We can't be bothered with obstinate enemies. You'll be shot; and your wife will go to Solovki. And just think what will become of your son."

"The Soviet Government will take care of him," I replied harshly.

"Remember, I'm talking to you for the last time. Don't give me your answer now; I see you are too excited."

I shrugged my shoulders and looked at him wrathfully.

"Go back to your cell and think the situation over carefully," he said as he picked up a sheet of paper and a pencil. "I'll wait three days—three full days—for your written confession. Write it briefly: 'I admit myself guilty of wrecking' or 'I knew of the wrecking activities of Tolstoy and Scherbakoff.' That'll be enough. Then hand the statement to the warden on duty. I will get it immediately and at once give the order to set your wife free. Her release depends only on you. Remember this! If you don't send me your confession, I'm telling you for the last time, your next summons from the cell will be a call to execution. We don't joke with wreckers. You'll be shot! Don't forget the fate of Tolstoy. Your wife will go to Solovki, and your son—to the house for waifs. All this depends only on you."

He handed me the paper and pencil.

"I will not take your paper," I cried, "what is this foolish comedy? Shoot me now, do you understand, I'm tired of all this, do you understand, shoot! You have your revolver and I have nothing to confess."

"So you suggest that I take the law into my own hands," he replied sarcastically. "We're in no hurry. Everything will be done in due time, when all the formalities are complied with. I've not asked you to answer me now. You refuse to take the paper—all right. You have only to call the warden on duty and at any moment during the three days you will be given paper and pencil. I give you three full days to think it over, but after that don't expect any mercy for yourself or for your wife. Go back to your cell."

Had he lied or told the truth? Could this really be the end? Was it true that my wife was in prison?

I waited anxiously for the remittance from home, and when it arrived I snatched the note—it was written in my boy's handwriting and signed "Son A. Tchernavin."  What a signature he had invented—"Son!"  Poor little lad! At the age of twelve, instead of playing and going to school you have to be weighed down with remittances and wait around prisons. Where are you getting the money? Are you selling things in the market place? And afterwards—how are you going to live? You don't even know what is in store for you in three days?

As the third day was drawing to a close, I called for the warden on duty and asked for paper and pencil. On one half of the sheet I wrote to the examining officer, on the other I made a copy of my statement for the prosecutor: "I am accused of wrecking. I never engaged in wrecking. I know nothing of the wrecking activities of others; I have received no money illegally from anybody."  This I signed and gave to the warden.

Night came. The command to go to bed was sounded. We put out the light and lay down, but no one slept. If the examining officer had not lied, I would soon be called to execution. About one hour passed. We were talking quietly, our ears on the alert for any sound. At last we heard footsteps in the corridor and the clang of keys. Somebody stopped at our door. The light went on and the lock turned.

"Name?" said the guard pointing his finger at one of my companions.

I loudly called out my name as I knew they had come for me.

The guard immediately turned to me. "First name, father's name?"

I answered.

"Get going, 'with things!'" he said. The examining officer had not lied.

I collected my belongings with indifference. What did it matter what I took with me. I had not far to go. My companions helped me with special care as though trying to show that they did not believe I was being taken to execution. Their faces were pale and serious; they were trying to hearten me, but avoided looking me in the eyes. The guard was hurrying me. How familiar it all was! How many times I had witnessed such scenes of people being led away to execution.

I said good-bye to my companions and went out into the corridor. The door was slammed after me.

"Get going!"

"Where to?" I asked loudly.

"Be quiet, and follow me," said one of the guards. The other marched behind. They proceeded carefully, stepping on the rope matting which covered the floor of the corridor, taking care not to make any noise. We descended to the floor below and into another corridor. There one of the guards spoke in a low voice to the warden, but I could not hear what was said. We moved on and finally stopped at the door of a cell.

"The death cell," I thought. "This means I won't be shot at once."

The lock slid back, the door opened and I went in. It was an ordinary cell, exactly like the one I had just left. It had contained five men, but there were only four left—the fifth having just been taken away "with things."

The following morning the examining officer sent for me. He had evidently tried to play a trick on me and wanted to see what effect it had had. But I had slept soundly all night in my new cell and was well able to give my face an expression of indifference and boredom. He questioned me in the usual manner as though he had forgotten the threat that I was to be shot. But at the end of the interview just before letting me go he asked a most unusual question.

"Well, tell me, what was there in your latest work that could be singled out as useful to the fishing industry? Which of your scientific works have been applied successfully?"

I named several experiments of my laboratory which had received wide practical application. He made some notes and sent me back to the cell.

It was not until a month later, on April 10th, that he sent for me again and informed me that the investigation of my case had been closed. "You will now go and work for nothing in your same Murmansk;" then he checked himself and added: "that is, of course, unless the Council decides to have you shot."

It was the first time since I had been arrested half a year before that I had heard that I might not  be shot. I went back to my cell and awaited the verdict with complete indifference—what did it matter? My only worry was about my wife. Would she be released? I anxiously awaited the remittances from home, but every time the list was in my son's handwriting. Two weeks passed—two remittances—and there was still no news from her.

For six months I had been living in prison, continually battling with the examining officer. It had been a time of extreme strain. Now came the reaction. Sitting idly and waiting for a senseless verdict I was seized by an anger so fierce that it was choking me—I could neither eat nor sleep. After three days of this internal torture I finally forced myself to eat, but I did it with the greatest difficulty and was rapidly losing weight. I was oppressed by the realization of my complete helplessness and hopelessness. I felt like an animal in a cage, an animal which had come to understand that it was useless to gnaw the iron bars of his cage, that he could not break them down and would never again be free. I must  escape—but first it would be necessary to learn where I was to be sent and what was to be done with my wife and son. Then I could work out my plans. The thought of escape became an obsession, I stopped noticing the prison, the people around me—I was now waiting only for my sentence.

The 25th of April, in the middle of the day, the warden entered the cell, called out my name, and read: "Excerpt from the minutes of the meeting of the OGPU Council April 13, 1931. Case No. 2634 of Tchernavin, V. V., accused, according to Article 58, Paragraph 7. Sentence: Deportation to a concentration camp for a term of 5 years. The case to be filed."

"Sign that the verdict has been read to you," he added.

I signed.

"May I send a telegram?" I asked.

"You may, if you have the money."

I wrote a telegram addressing it to my son: "Received sentence. Apply for visit," and gave it to the warden.

The same day I was taken to a medical examination and while the doctor was entering his report I succeeded in reading from the form on which he was writing: "Destination: Solovetzki camp at Kem. Regime: Ordinary."

Strange as it may sound, the news that I was being deported to the Solovetzki camp, famed for its unusual cruelty towards prisoners, pleased me greatly. It was in a country familiar to me from my numerous expeditions: the deep fiords of the White Sea, the archipelagoes, the endless labyrinth of bays and straits, cliffs, granite rocks piled up in disorder, the nearly impassable forests and swamps. If I could only get to the sea there I would be a match for the guards. "How far is it from the frontier?" I speculated, trying to visualize the map. "About 200-300 kilometers of completely uninhabited forest and swamp. Perfect. Just what I need." And at that very moment I made up my mind that I would escape to Finland.

I was a convict now no longer a citizen. From the beginning of the Soviet regime I had carried on my work as usual, striving to be of both scientific and practical assistance to the industry for which I worked, and living only on what I earned for these services—yet here I was, kept in prison for six months and cross-examined no less than seventeen times. They had given me but two alternatives: ten years at forced labor if I "confessed" or execution if I did not. I had not confessed, because I was not guilty; in all their records there was not a hint of any crime committed by me. And yet they convicted me. Five years in concentration camp!

My comrades were congratulating me.

"Only five years! And no confiscation of your property! Surely they'll release your wife now?"

But would they?