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

I Prepare for Escape

Before me now lay the task of concentrating upon some one of several projects for new enterprises in the Ribprom  which would assure me of work in the north at a propitious time and thus give me an opportunity to escape by the route I had chosen.

I did not bother much about the technical side of these projects, but concerned myself with the impression they might make on the GPU—the quintessence of Bolshevism. In order to be successful all my projects had to be framed with a view to the peculiar psychology of those who were to examine them and the technical side was of minor importance.

I was convinced that the GPU would search for some hidden purpose on my part—the desire to escape. I wanted to be sent north, to a sparsely inhabited region relatively near the frontier. This would naturally arouse suspicion; therefore I worked out schemes for the whole year, providing work in the north, the south and also in the open sea. I counted upon the GPU failing to notice that among these I had included one which would allow me to be at the place I had chosen for escape and at the proper time. This ruse succeeded to perfection.

I had already developed six new projects, as follows: (1) Mussels; (2) Lamprey fishing, not yet developed in the White Sea; (3) Salmon fishing in the open sea; (4) Deep sea fishing at great depths; (5) Shark fisheries and (6) The catching of stickle-back for the production of fishmeal and fat.

These I described in the most approved Soviet manner. For instance I chose as the heading for Number (1): "Employment of mussels as an essential food diet." This would sound familiar and satisfactory to the bureaucratic ear of the GPU. I began my exposition from the historical standpoint: Mussels had been brought alive to the court of Catherine II and had, with difficulty, been transported in carts all the way from Murmansk to Petersburg. Then I stated their albumen and fat content and caloric value. The Bolsheviks like to use words they don't understand—no project can succeed without such words.

The next step was to make an "orientative estimate of the raw product"—also a requisite of every project. In capitalistic countries fisheries are organized without first calculating how many fish there are in the ocean,—not so in the U.S.S.R. where there is "planned economy," and where they are afraid of catching less than might be caught. Such a "non-appreciation of opportunities" would be very dangerous. The investigator in the U.S.S.R. finds no difficulty in estimating natural wealth on land, on sea or under the earth. He takes a square meter in a given area where the plant or animal in question is found, counts the number of these plants or animals in that square meter and then multiplies it by the total number of square meters in the whole area. The resulting figure is usually very impressive in its magnitude!

After such a "scientific" determination of natural wealth one can proceed with the planning of any kind of production; he can calculate the cost of a product, the benefits that will accrue to the citizens of the U.S.S.R., making them happier and more prosperous.

To project Number (6)—the manufacture of fish-meal from sticklebacks,—I gave particular attention because I planned to use it as the springboard for my escape. As a matter of fact this project had a real foundation and might have been successfully carried out to yield a profit.

The stickleback is a small fish not more than 9 centimeters long, with sharp spikes on its fins. It is widely distributed and lives in both fresh and salt water. In the White Sea it appears in large quantities, but is considered harmful because when caught in nets it prevents the catching of other fish. My idea was to use it for making fish-meal, as fodder for cattle. An experiment which I had carried out gave 3% of oil and a very satisfactory quality of meal. I wrote a prospectus based on this information, entitled: "The solution of the feed problem in Karelia."

I submitted my projects to Simankoff. He looked at the voluminous material and threw it into a drawer. It was necessary to exert some pressure on him to force him to put my project on the road to realization. I decided to resort to the "public opinion" of the camp. Public opinion in the U.S.S.R. is represented by appointed officials of the state; the press is nothing more than the mouth-piece of these officials. Moreover all public organizations are closely allied with the GPU. In camp, public life was represented by KVO, the Cultural and Educational Department; in its hands was the mouth-piece of public opinion, a little newspaper called the "Work Path." I decided to use this to make the newspaper and public organizations of the camp assist me in my escape.

While I was under "lease" in Kern I had often met a certain comrade Gruzd, the editor of the "Work Path." He was also a prisoner, still quite young; a Communist in the past and a newspaper man, he had been sent to the camp for swindling. Here he was in a privileged position, dressed well, lived outside the camp, drank heavily and consorted with prostitutes among the prisoners. I offered him a series of short articles on the natural wealth of the White Sea. The first one I called "Mussels," which Gruzd printed under the more picturesque title "Delicacies of Catherine II at the service of the Proletariat."

Other articles on lamprey, shark and stickleback appeared and had great success. The chief of the camp himself gave favorable attention to the writings of the reformed counter-revolutionist. It appeared that he was very fond of fried lamprey which he was unable to find in Kem. The article on stickleback was favorably commented on by the agricultural section, which proposed that the Ribprom  finance this enterprise.

Among the prisoners themselves some were critical and said knowingly: "We know what Tchernavin wants by his inventions—a reduction in his term." In order to make my chiefs believe that this was true, I presented my projects, through the office of the Ribprom, to the "Committee on Inventions," a stillborn institution which exists everywhere in Soviet Russia.

By these means I succeeded in my desire; Simankoff was obliged to start my projects moving. He sent for me and told me to make the necessary preparations for the production of stickleback meal and the fishing for lamprey. I proposed to carry out the catching of stickleback in the summer; the fishing for lamprey I put off till autumn, so I centered all my attention on the former and made only slight preparation for the latter. I was certain that September would find me either in Finland—or dead.

The stickleback gave me much trouble in the organization of its transformation into meal. I was well acquainted with the process but I had worked previously on a large scale with the help of complicated technical equipment, while now I had practically no equipment—four old cast-iron vats without covers, three kilograms of nails and one hundred old bags to be used for filters. The question of living quarters for fishermen was not even raised as in camp life this was always the last consideration. We had to gather all the material on the spot. The lumber had to be picked up on the beach and the brick and iron collected from abandoned buildings. In other words, we were to steal everything we could not otherwise obtain; this is one of the firmly established methods of the GPU in building and construction work.

I was given ten fishermen for this work, and two specialists, all prisoners. Under my direction, they were to build the necessary equipment, catch the fish and prepare the fish-meal, and I was to be responsible for the success of the work. I was granted permission to organize for production in two places; in one I intended to produce fish-meal and therefore it must be near a fishing ground where I was sure to find enough stickleback; the other was chosen solely because it was near the point from which I intended to start my escape. This place was near Kandalaksha and is known as the "Narrows." Unfortunately, as far as I could learn, there were few stickleback near the Narrows, but I succeeded in locating plenty of them about 100 kilometers to the south of that point.

The preliminary work was greatly handicapped by the total lack of all necessary materials and also by the severity of the prison regime in Soroka. I expected every day to receive the order to start for the place of my work. At last the chief of the Ribprom  called me and explained rather ambiguously that, because of the lack of success in the herring fishing along Onega Bay, the Ribprom  had decided to fit out a ship to search for herring in the sea and that I was to command the expedition.

"But how about the stickleback? Is that all off?" I asked.

"Oh, that will get along without you, your assistant will manage."

In vain I tried to prove to him that the idea was mine, that I should carry it out and be responsible for the results. I tried also to prove that I would be of no help in finding herring in Onega Bay since that region was entirely unknown to me. He insisted, saying that I would be gone for only a month and could then resume my work.

A month! I would miss the first run of stickleback on which I particularly counted. They would never prepare any meal without me; the Ribprom  would be disappointed and would close up the whole business; I would never get to the north and would not be able to make my escape.

It was necessary to obey. Let them begin the work without me—perhaps the run of stickleback would be later than usual. Besides, I knew those Ribprom  boats; it would be almost a miracle if one of them could stand the sea for a whole month. When I saw how our motor boat was equipped I was sure that something would happen to it. It had to tow eight large fishing dories and, with its 25horsepower engine, would never be able to buck the first fresh sea—some dories would be lost, some sunk and we would have to return. This comforted me.

I will not describe our travels about Onega Bay. Twenty-five fishermen were housed with me in the cold, damp hold, which also contained the nets. Our food was dry bread; there were no facilities for cooking.

We found no herring. On the tenth day the wind rose and toward night blew up a storm. The motor began skipping and the boat made no headway against the wind. Finally the motor stopped. The dories battered against the boat, some capsized and sank. All night long we tossed about the bay. Towards morning we came into the lee of an island and found that the boat was so damaged it could not go on under its own power. I took a dinghy and rowed to the mainland 20 kilometers away where I telephoned from the nearest village to Soroka and asked for a tug.

So ended the herring expedition. Luckily enough several other ships had been damaged during that storm, so my Chief took the loss of some of the dories rather calmly. Simankoff, strangely enough, was in fine spirits.

"I'll have to send you to your stickleback," he said and ordered the office manager to prepare my travel orders to the north. "Tomorrow you must leave and now you may go to pack."

Everyone was so accustomed by now to my travels that it usually took but a few hours to prepare my papers. This time, however, it was different. A day passed and I was not called to the office, so I went there myself.

While I had been away on my trip, all the prisoners working in the Ribprom  office had been changed. A criminal, a former Chekist was now office manager. When I asked for my papers he laughed ironically and said:

"They are not ready. Why are you so interested in your papers that you have come without being called?"

I answered that I was not interested in the papers, but in the work, and walked out. In the corridor I met Simankoff, who demanded: "Why haven't you left for your work?"

"The papers are not ready," I replied.

"Why not ready? Send me the office manager."

The new manager, coming back from the chief's office gave me a wicked look. Soon he was followed by the chief himself, who passed by my desk, pretending not to see me. Something had gone wrong.

That evening, in the barracks, a prisoner whom I hardly knew came up to me and said in a whisper: "The ISO doesn't want you to go. On your pass, which Simankoff had already signed, Zaleskantz, the ISO chief, wrote 'I do not endorse.' You are being watched. Do not go again to the office."

Had I betrayed myself? I carefully reviewed my past year in the camp and my every step in preparing escape. I knew that I had not broken the first and fundamental rule; I had confided in no one, either directly or indirectly. I had received letters and packages from my wife regularly and had written once a month to her and my son. They had come to see me; the ISO could deduce from this that I was attached to my family and would not try to run away. Could our code have been discovered? No; it was so simple and naive that it was entirely safe from detection, and besides if it had been found out I should have been immediately put into the "isolator."

I was no longer the timid prisoner of a year ago—looking in bewilderment and awe at the specialists who ran the camp's affairs. By now I well understood the undercurrents of the camp life. In Kem I could have arranged to stir up things against Zaleskantz through the "camp publicity," but here in Soroka it was impossible. My only hope was in Savitch, chief of the Administrative Department of the Ribprom, an able Chekist who, for some dark affair, had served his term at Solovki before rising to high positions both in the ISO and the fisheries. When he came to the quarters where specialists were working he always spoke in a loud, patronizing tone, telling remarkable stories about himself.

"Could I set him against Zaleskantz?" I wondered.

That very evening he came to our quarters and after talking to another man wandered over to me and said:

"How are your inventions? When do you leave? We are waiting for meal, sharks and broiled lamprey. What do you call those molluscs of yours?"

"Don't you know," I answered, "that Zaleskantz has cancelled all my work? He wrote with his own hand, 'I do not endorse' on my pass."

I knew it was a dangerous thing to say, because I was not supposed to know these details, but I took the chance—and made a direct hit. Savitch was aroused.

"That cannot be," he said reservedly, "the ISO does not decide  these questions, it only expresses its opinion. The man who decides is the chief of the Ribprom." With this he turned and left.

In less than an hour I was called to the office. The manager handed me a paper and asked me frigidly to sign the receipt; the paper was a permit allowing me to go to the north for two weeks—signed by Savitch. I was glad of this, because when the time came for my escape—not during the next two weeks—I wanted to have a permit signed by Zaleskantz, whom I hated most of all.