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

Dynamite and Imagination

Days went by at Kresti much as they had at the Shpalernaya, the only difference being that here the cases of most of the prisoners were nearing completion and, therefore, many were being deported. Our Professor received a sentence of ten years in concentration camp and his place was taken by a young army aviator. Ivan Ivanovitch was replaced by an employee of the Academy of Science. Life took on a routine aspect and human tragedies were now affecting us less, perhaps, than during the first period of our imprisonment, when one night a new inmate was pushed into our cell.

He was quite young, his clothes were torn, his hands trembled and his eyes wandered aimlessly. He was in such a state of agitation that he did not seem to see us or to notice his surroundings. He dropped his things helplessly on the floor and tried to walk back and forth in the cell. But there was no room and he stopped in the corner near the door grasping his head with his hands and muttering incoherent words.

"Forty-eight hours—in forty-eight hours execution. The end. There is no way out. What can I do?"

He turned and twisted as if in the agony of death. We suggested that he sit down on one of the cots, offered to arrange his things for him and get him a drink of water but he did not hear or notice us, seeing before him only his own impending fate. At last in answer to a question from one of us as to who he was and whence he came, he turned to us and started to talk irrepressibly, telling his story and trying to make us understand the unbelievable and absurd course of events which had brought him to this pass.

"You understand," he cried, "I suffer from hysteria. I have a sick imagination and am obsessed by a mania to invent extraordinary stories. But how can I explain that to the examining officers? How can I make them believe that it is all nonsense, that I made it all up? It's impossible. I'm going to be shot in forty-eight hours. And there is no way out."

"But what have you invented?" we asked.

"Dynamite—that I kept dynamite. I never had any dynamite, but I told the girl I lived with while I was a student in Petersburg that I did. I don't know why I told her that. Probably to be interesting. She was frightened and made me swear that I would return the dynamite to the people who had given it to me for safekeeping, and I promised."—He shrugged his shoulders, "There wasn't any dynamite, but I couldn't explain this to her—it would have sounded absurd. But I soon forgot about telling her this. We separated. I finished the Institute, married another girl and went to the South. Life there was boring to my wife. I had to give myself entirely to my work but was earning little. She wanted to live in Moscow, to dress up and go to parties. We often quarreled about little things like a new hat or painted lips. One day she declared she was going away and would not return. She went out, but came back again and started caressing me and asking my forgiveness. Usually she was sulky after quarrels. I began to think that she really understood that she had been at fault, I believed that our life would start anew. In the middle of the night I woke up, my wife was sitting on my bed looking at me strangely. I was frightened.

"'Where,' she said, 'did you hide the dynamite?'

"'Dynamite? What is this nonsense? I don't know anything about any dynamite. Go to sleep.'

"That was all. I couldn't remember when I had told her this nonsense about the dynamite. It must have been that the girl I had lived with in Petersburg had told her—they knew each other. But I paid no more attention to this conversation of ours. A few days later came the search and arrest. My wife was arrested, too. We were taken to Leningrad, separately of course, and I did not see her and understood nothing. I was worried about her because I thought she had been arrested on my account. During the questionings I thought at first that it was all a misunderstanding, a mistake. I was told names of people I had never known, questioned about places I had never been to. And finally the examining officer declared that my persistence would be of no avail as they knew that I had  kept dynamite. I denied this and also that I had told anyone that I was keeping it."

"But why did you do that?" asked one of us excitedly, realizing that here he had lost his only chance of explaining the whole story.

"I don't know myself why I did it. I was upset. I saw all the horror of my position. My wife—it was undoubtedly she who had denounced me, after the quarrel. I don't know why I said 'no.' Afterwards I was afraid to contradict myself, to tangle up the testimony. I was questioned many times and at great length by different examining officers. I firmly maintained that I had never kept dynamite. I said that I had told nobody that I kept it—this was a lie. And it finished me—I will be killed in forty-eight hours. Killed because of a foolish stroke of imagination, because of a desire to make myself interesting to a woman."

Again he became restless, but there was no room to move around; he could only stand in the corner and literally strike his head against the wall.

"Why will you be killed? Why in forty-eight hours?" we asked. It was painful to watch his insane despair.

"Everything came to an end today. There is no more hope. It's the end. Today they took me to the Gorokhovaya. I was kept waiting in a large room beautifully furnished, not at all like a prison. My examining officer ran in several times, asked me something, fussed around. I was excited and completely worn out. Then he ran in again and said, 'Come quickly!' I was taken into a large office with upholstered furniture, rugs, curtains. At the farther end stood an enormous desk, and at the desk sat a man—clean shaven, pale, with a twitching face. Several Gepeists stood respectfully at his side, among them my examining officer. I felt very uncomfortable—I was so dirty and poorly dressed. All eyes were on me; I began taking off my overcoat. 'This is no check-room.' shouted the man at the table. 'Come here!'"

"That was Medved, the GPU representative in Leningrad," interrupted the aviator. "I know him." 

"Perhaps," continued our young friend, reliving the horror of the whole scene.—"I went up to the desk. He was staring at me cruelly, his face twitching. There was complete silence. It was hard to bear. At last he spoke: 'Remember, the time for joking has passed. Have you been keeping dynamite or not?'

"'No.' I said.

"He struck the desk with his fist: 'Are you going to lie to me, you wretch. Answer—did you tell anyone that you were keeping dynamite? '


"'Ah, so! Well, you'll get what you deserve, you scoundrel!' And throwing a paper across the table to me he said, 'Read!'

"I took the paper and began reading, the letters danced in front of my eyes—'Decision of the GPU Council. Examined Case No.—of the accused according to Article 58, Paragraphs 8 and 6. Verdict: TO BE SHOT.' You understand—shot!—I couldn't see or understand anything more.

"He told me to sign that the verdict had been read to me, but my hand trembled so that I couldn't write.

"'You tremble, wretch. You're not afraid of lying, but you're scared to die. Write, I tell you!'—With difficulty I signed.

"'Now listen,' he said. 'Your death sentence has been signed, and I can kill you whenever I please. But I can also pardon you. Tell the truth and I shall pardon you.' He looked straight into my eyes: 'Tell me, did you tell anyone that you were keeping dynamite? '

"I answered, 'Yes—I did.' You understand, I answered: 'Yes, I did.'

"Then he turned to the Gepeists. 'Well? Do you see now how a cross-examination should be conducted?' Then to me, 'What did you do with the dynamite?'

"'I never had any dynamite,' I answered.

"'Again lies!' He struck the desk so hard with his fist that everything on it shook. 'I'll kill you right now, you scoundrel. Tell the truth, what did you do with the dynamite? '

"'I never had any dynamite!'

"'Well, I shall force you to talk! Bring in the witness.'

"The door opened, my old girl-friend in Petersburg was led in. I recognized her at once although she had changed greatly. She sat down on a chair, but did not look at me.

"'Do you know her,' he asked me.

"Yes, I know her.'

"Then he turned to her. Did he tell you that he was keeping dynamite?'

"'Yes,' she replied.

"'Where did you keep the dynamite?' he shouted at me.

"'I had no dynamite, I lied to her.'

"'You are lying now, scoundrel!' he screamed, and then he turned and asked her whether she thought that I might have been lying about it, whether for no reason at all I would invent such a story.

"'Yes,' she replied in a low voice, 'I believe it is possible. He's a sick, hysterical man. I think—I'm sure that he was lying to me then, that he invented the story about the dynamite.' Here for the first time she looked squarely at me with clear, open eyes.

"'Yes, I lied to her,' I cried out chokingly. 'I just wanted to boast. I lied—I don't know myself why I did it.'

"She was then led out of the room, and he turned to me again. 'Don't try staging any scenes, you wretch, this isn't a theatre. I'll make you sing a different tune when we bind your hands and stick this toy to the back of your head.' He grabbed his revolver. His face twitched terribly and he shouted, 'Bring in the next witness!'

"My wife was led in. She looked at me with hate in her eyes. I stared at her: she had on a new coat and a new hat. Where did they come from? She was arrested at the same time I was, and we had no money. She couldn't buy such a coat.

"'Did your husband tell you that he had kept dynamite?' he asked her.

"'Yes,' she replied loudly.

"'Do you believe he might have lied to you? Think carefully before you answer. His life or death depends upon it. If you say that you are sure that he had kept dynamite, we will shoot him.'

"'I am sure that he was telling me the truth,' she said, and jumped up from the chair. 'He was always telling me that he hated the Soviet Government, that he yearned for the coming of the White Army, that it was only because of the Soviet Government that he was forced to live in such a dull hole, that otherwise he would have lived in Petersburg or Moscow, could have dressed well and dined in restaurants.'

"It was unbearable. 'What are you lying for?' I shrieked. 'What have I done to you? You were the one who yearned for life in Moscow, for dresses—not I. When did I speak to you about the Whites? You know well enough that when I told you of my intention of entering the "party" you argued against it. It's you  who spent all our money, you  who insisted that I give up my work in the provinces and move to Moscow.'

"And all the time the examining officer was watching us with unconcealed contempt. 'Here's what I'm going to do,' he said. 'I give you ten minutes to come to an understanding.' Then he addressed my wife. 'After these ten minutes are up you will give me your final answer, whether you consider him to be an enemy of the Soviet Government capable of terrorist acts or whether you think he simply invented the story about the dynamite for the purpose of boasting.'

"For those ten minutes my wife kept on screaming—that I should confess to having had dynamite. She invented absurd conversations that had never taken place to the effect that I had criticized the Soviet Government and that she had tried to change my opinions. I tried to stop her, I saw that I was losing my last foothold. At times I ceased hearing what she was saying, became unconscious of where I was and what I was saying myself. At last the officer interrupted us:

"'Enough, I have heard enough. You've talked fifteen minutes instead of ten. Give your final answer: was he an enemy of the Soviet Government and are you sure that he was telling the truth when he told you that he had kept dynamite?'

"Again she jumped up from her chair, and screamed: 'Shoot him—he kept dynamite! He is an enemy of the Soviet Government!' She tore open her coat. 'Look, I am pregnant, pregnant from him, he is the father of my child, and I swear that he kept dynamite, that he is an enemy of the Soviet Government, that he yearned for the coming of the Whites!'

"Her hysterical screams drove me completely mad. I reached across the desk, grabbed the officer's revolver, stuck it to my forehead and pulled the trigger—but it did not go off. I found myself on the floor, one Gepeist holding me down with his knee on my chest, another wrenching the revolver out of my hand. I remembered nothing; I could hear only her terrible voice and laughter: 'Don't believe him, he is a liar, a coward—shoot him!'

"When I was picked up from the floor, she had already left the room.

"'Confess now that you did  keep dynamite,' the officer said.

"'But I didn't  keep dynamite,' I cried in despair, 'I never had any.'

"'Silence. I give you exactly forty-eight hours, no more—no less. In that time you must tell me from whom you received the dynamite and to whom you gave it. If you don't, you will be taken from the cell and shot!'

"I didn't know what to answer. He did not believe me when I told the truth. I began pacing up and down the office.

"'Stand still, you wretch, this is no parade ground!' he roared as he banged on his desk. I rushed over to him and shrieked something to the effect that if I wanted to walk I would. Then I was seized and led out.

"In the automobile, when I was being brought back here, one of the examining officers asked me why I had lied. He told me that it was clear to him that my wife's testimony had been false, he urged me to tell the complete truth—that way I might be pardoned. But I know it would be useless. There's no way out for me—do you understand—none!"

He stopped talking. In the darkness of the night some of us dozed off, but all night long his desperate moans continued. In less than forty-eight hours he was taken away "with things."