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

The Spread of Disease

In January, 1931, a noticeable activity pervaded the administration of the Shpalernaya prison—as if an inspection was imminent. Cells were being emptied; prisoners in batches of 20 or 30 men at a time from the whole corridor were being called out "with things" and were evidently being transferred to other prisons. Common cells became less crowded: only 60 or 70 men were left in our cell. Cell No. 19 was completely emptied and transformed into a "distributing cell"; all the newly arrested were placed in it and, before being transferred to common cells, were taken to the bathhouse. Prisoners who did not get remittances from home were given prison underwear. The disgusting mattresses stuffed with straw dust were replaced by others filled with fresh straw. All this excited the prisoners and rumors spread that a delegation of foreigners was going to visit our prison. This surmise changed into assurance when a painter, also one of the prisoners, made his appearance and filled all the cracks in the walls with plaster, immuring thousands of bed bugs. On January 24th, when everything seemed to have been completed, the prison was inspected by the representative of the GPU, Medved "himself," with a whole retinue of attendants. In spite of our isolation, rumors spread very quickly in prison and the same day everybody knew that Medved had been dissatisfied, had found the cells too crowded, the place not ready for demonstration and had ordered that the prison be immediately—tomorrow—"cleaned out," that is, that we be transferred to another prison. Alarm was general. However bad it was at the Shpalerka no one wished to be transferred to another prison where conditions might be still worse.

No one believed that all these improvements could mean a change in the prison regime in general. We had already experienced something of this kind, but to a lesser degree, in November 1930, when the prison was threatened with an epidemic of typhus. In our crowded condition, infested by lice, a single case of typhus would have necessarily developed into an epidemic which could have easily spread to the city. Then, for the first time, we were given a chance to wash ourselves properly in the bathhouse. Usually we were allowed only 15 minutes for washing in the bathhouse, less the time spent to reach it and to undress; a group of 20-35 prisoners were crowded in a room meant for 20. No hot water was available; soap was not supplied. Only the most aggressive minority succeeded in washing themselves after a fashion, but even they did not get rid of lice. One of the causes for the spread of these vermin was the "disinfecting" process, which meant that all the underwear and clothing of those washing in the bathhouse was stuffed into two enormous bags which were then slightly heated by steam. Ten minutes later the bags were brought back and their contents emptied onto the dirty floor of the dressing room. Perhaps part of the clothing nearer to the sides of the bag got warm, but in the middle everything remained cold and the disturbed lice ran actively over all the clothes.

We did not doubt that the lice regime was one of the means of coercion for we were well acquainted with the favorite threats of examining officers: "I'll rot you in the lice cell!"—"After a year of feeding lice you'll confess!" A man who is dirty and infested with lice loses his self-respect and offers less resistance to the threats of the examining officer.

The only real way of fighting lice in prison was to hunt for them, and every day we engaged in this occupation while the light was sufficient near the windows. Moscow residents, who came to us from the Butyrki prison told us that the prisoners there had established a daily "hour of fighting lice." But there were always people who had become indifferent to everything and who could not be forced to give time regularly to this task.

In November, with only the very slightest help from the prison administration, we succeeded in overcoming the lice, but as soon as the threat of the typhus epidemic lifted, we were again returned to the old regime.

Besides lice, the GPU had another ally which was still more effective—scurvy. The special prison diet, the forbidding of fruit and vegetables in prison remittances and the lack of fresh air, led to almost general sickness. Comparatively young men lost their teeth and nearly everybody suffered from bleeding gums or sore joints, especially in the legs. It is a known fact that the typical symptoms of scurvy are lack of energy, apathy, depression. This was widely made use of by examining officers and in January, having temporarily destroyed bed bugs and lice, they continued to permit scurvy, furunculosis, anemia and tuberculosis to flourish.

I have not mentioned the wide spread of nervous and mental diseases. After half a year of solitary confinement almost everyone begins to suffer from hallucinations; many lose their minds completely and become violently insane.

Cases of sudden insanity often occur at the moment when the prisoner after a long spell of solitary confinement is placed in a common cell and is unable to withstand the shock of transition to the crowd and noise. At night we would often hear heart-rending screams. The whole prison would become silent and listen in suspense trying to make out whether someone was being tortured, dragged to execution or had become insane. Some of the prisoners could not bear it and would call the warden on duty. If he happened to be a good man, he would honestly reassure them.

"But no, this is not in the examining officer's office. Don't you hear,—the screams come from upstairs. It's just somebody gone crazy. He'll soon be taken away."

This was the life at "Shpalerka," and nevertheless we dreaded the prospect of a change to another prison.