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

Assigned to Duty

My first day I started off to work alone. Before my permit was issued, the group to which I belonged had already been led away to Kem. I cannot describe how strange it seemed, after months of imprisonment, to be walking alone along a street without a guard at my heels. I had about two kilometers to go—a half hour's walk. In order to realize my new "freedom" to the full I would walk now faster, now slower and then stop; I could do this of my own free will with no one to shout threateningly at me from behind. I had difficulty in checking a continuous desire to look back in order to assure myself that no guard was following me. I kept to the middle of the street, for I knew that any camp officer or guard who met me walking on the sidewalk in Kem could send me to a punitive cell, but I walked slowly and crossed over from one side of the street to the other several times, taking my time.

The GPU risked nothing in letting me out without a guard; I was dressed in prisoner's clothes, I had neither provisions nor money. Not only the town itself but all the roads about it swarmed with guards. Furthermore, my wife was a prisoner in their hands at the Shpalernaya and my son also was in Leningrad; if I escaped they would be held as hostages.

I was no stranger in Kem for I had been there in other days, doing experimental work in the White Sea. It is a fishing village rather than a town, spread out along the river bank, with one paved street (built by prisoners in 1928) and small, gray wooden houses. In the upper section of the town, on a mound, stands the beautiful old Cathedral built in the l7th century, now in a sad state; from one dome the cross has fallen while from the central dome a radio antenna projects. It is permitted to hold services there once a year but the townspeople are too poor to keep the Cathedral in repair.

Here, in Kem, was the stone building occupied by the Solovetzki Camp Administration, built in the time of the NEP and designed for other purposes. The ground floor, with enormous plate glass windows, had been occupied by a luxurious department store for GPU officials, an elaborate barber shop and a photographer's studio. But the chief pride of the GPU had been a large restaurant on the second floor, with a balcony for the public and a platform for the orchestra. Here the Gepeists revelled day and night—there were also private rooms at their disposal. The GPU used to boast that nowhere else in the U.S.S.R. could better food and service be obtained. There was a reason; here worked the best cooks and confectioners taken from all parts of Russia. Former owners of famous restaurants served as waiters; the slightest error or a word of dissatisfaction from a "customer" meant, for the employee-slaves, a term of solitary confinement or transfer to the lumber camps. The orchestra, too, was first-rate; it was composed entirely of real musicians.

Times changed, the store was abolished and the maintenance of a luxurious restaurant for public revels was inconsistent with the new general policy of the party. Both restaurant hall and stores were cut up into a number of small cages where, packed in like herrings in a barrel, specialist-prisoners created Five-Year GPU production plans and added up the profits of forced labor. But one building could not house the enormous administrative body of the GPU. All the best private houses were confiscated and labeled with GPU signs, intelligible only to the initiated.

My destination was the Section of Fisheries, the so-called "Ribprom"  with its headquarters in one of these houses, where, in days gone by a rich peasant must have lived. I entered it. The small low room was filled with desks of various sizes and shapes so close to each other that one could scarcely pass between them. At these desks, seated on stools (chairs were considered too great a luxury for prisoners), were "specialists" at work writing, reading and calculating. Over some of the desks hung signs: "Office Manager," "Bookkeeper," "Production Manager," and so on. At a small table sat a young girl, in prison dress, before a typewriter. The room was noisy, and the air filled with tobacco smoke.

I was greeted with cordiality by the specialist-prisoners, my colleagues in the new work, all university men convicted as counter-revolutionists, and all dressed as poorly as I was, in a combination of civilian clothes and prison raiment. Their thin, drawn faces and especially their gray complexions were eloquent of their hardships. They seated me at a table, brought me a mug of hot water, a bit of black bread, a few small salted herrings and several pieces of sugar.

"Please eat, don't be shy. The herring is of our own catch, from the fisheries; we got it through 'pull.' The chiefs have not come in yet: only our own people are here; don't be afraid, there are no spies."

I refused the sugar because I knew it was a great delicacy.

"Do eat it! N. got it in his packages from home—we're allowed to receive them here; that is what keeps us alive. They reach us safely—of course they're censored, but everything is untouched—because in the package department here only political prisoners are at work—honest people."

"I have nobody to send me packages," I replied, still declining to accept the sugar. "My wife is in prison, my son is at home alone and has to take remittances to his mother."

I learned from my new colleagues that I had been assigned as an "ichthyologist," and from the "regulations," which they showed me, I saw that my duties were to include research on fish biology and fish breeding. Fate was certainly favoring me.

It was about ten o'clock when the assistant to the Chief of the Section came in to his "office"—in a corner of the same room. He called for me two hours later. I spent the intervening time thinking over what I would say to him and decided that I would ask for research work because it would demand travel at sea and along the shore, affording me a certain freedom of action which ought to facilitate my escape. But I must invent some objective for my research which would be of practical interest to them; I could do only that after I was familiar with their activities. Soviet experience had taught me this.

I was called in to see the chief, V. A. Kolossoff. Let me interrupt my story to tell what I heard, as time went on, about him. By training he was a lawyer and after the Revolution had held the post of prosecutor somewhere in Turkestan,—in Tashkent, I think. A non-party specialist could hold such a position only if his actions had clearly demonstrated his loyalty to the Bolsheviks. In 1928, however, he had made some kind of slip, got involved in a criminal case and had been sentenced by a court, not by the GPU, to three years in the Solovetzki concentration camp and to a further three years of exile in a distant province. He reached the camp during its most terrible period, but he managed to survive and to prosper through his attachment to one man.

Those were the days when the notorious Frenkel was flourishing, then a political prisoner, now a Gepeist. Frenkel, understanding very well that it was impossible to survive under prevailing conditions, presented to the Chief of the camps a project which should transform this losing enterprise into a gold mine for the GPU—namely the maximum use of forced labor in lumber production and road construction. The project was approved and Frenkel became the head of all production activity. It was his organization of the lumber export trade that furnished the GPU with foreign currency needed for its work abroad. One cannot even estimate how many thousands of prisoners were sacrificed to make his career. Among his latest inventions are the White Sea-Baltic Canal and the Moscow-Volga Canal. Chekists came and went in the camp, but Frenkel outlived them all; he is still firmly established in power.

Kolossoff became private secretary to this powerful Frenkel and was immune. He enjoyed telling how once, while still a prisoner, he had drunk himself into complete oblivion, had attacked a sentinel of the guard, had disarmed him and then climbed up, rifle in hand, to the watch tower where he had peacefully gone to sleep. Brought up before the commandant, he proudly boasted: "I am the secretary of the chief camp Jew." That was enough. The drunken Kolossoff was carefully transported to his "free" apartment in Kem. This incident had for him no unpleasant consequences whatever. Next morning when he reported to his chief, Frenkel asked him laughingly: "Is it true that in the commandant's office last night you called me the 'chief camp Jew?'" "I really remember nothing of what happened yesterday," he replied.

At the end of his term, rather than going into exile he had preferred to remain at the camp, as a free hired employee of the GPU. He brought his wife to an apartment in Kem and lived quite comfortably, enjoying all the privileges of his position—the right to receive a variety of provisions, the use of a horse, and so on.

In the section of fisheries this clever and cunning man was in charge of all the production, planning and commercial work, although he knew nothing about the fishing business. That, however, is not unusual in the U.S.S.R. where, as a rule, the chief sits in his office, signs his name, and takes part in meetings and conferences armed with plans and figures prepared for him in each specific case by the specialists. In fairness to Kolossoff it must be admitted that he used these materials quite well and therefore enjoyed, among the GPU chiefs, the reputation of an efficient and experienced executive.

This was the man now sitting opposite me, sprawled in an armchair and contentedly stroking his well-groomed graying mustache. He was looking at my wretched prisoner's clothing, which hung on me like a bag, and at my head with its tufts of hair. From his self-satisfied expression I judged that the superiority of his position gave him real pleasure. I found out later, however, that he was not unkind and that his attitude towards specialist-prisoners was quite decent.

"Well, how are we going to use you?" he began. "I know you are a learned professor, but ours is a production enterprise and I think we will attach you to production work."

"Unfortunately I have never worked directly on production," I began boldly, "and I doubt if my work in that field could be useful to you. My specialty is research. Judge for yourself," and I enumerated the most important research works I had done, carefully avoiding any mention of my work in production. "I believe that good research work would be of greater use to the enterprise than poor production work. Furthermore I would never dare take up work I know nothing about."

"Nonsense," he interrupted. "You know I am a lawyer by training and was once a prosecuting attorney, yet here I am in charge of all the production. We are not going to press you. Look around, rest, acquaint yourself with our enterprise and we will talk it over later. Determine for yourself what kind of work you can do here. You are appointed as an ichthyologist; that's a very indefinite position. We'll be able to use you on any kind of work." And the interview had come to an end.

That very day, sitting on a stool at one corner of a wooden table made from a drafting board, I began the study of the Section of Fisheries as an enterprise. Perspectives were opening up before me: I had already determined to concentrate all my efforts to obtain an assignment to research work in the North with one underlying purpose—escape.