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

I Go Exploring

Before starting I had to spend two days collecting documents and certificates as follows: (1) a military railroad ticket given me by order of the GPU; (2) a certificate authorizing me to wear civilian clothes (which would otherwise be a crime); (3) a certificate written rather curtly: "The ichthyologist, prisoner Tchernavin, is despatched to the Northern Section for survey work for 10 days;" (4) detailed instructions written by me on Ribprom  paper and signed by Simankoff, providing for a two months' trip by row-boat. The contradiction in these last two documents was obvious. Camp rules prohibited the issuing of such a certificate for more than ten days, after which, if necessary it might be extended on the spot, after telegraphic communication with Kem. In any locality the chief of the guard could detain and return me under guard, if I was under suspicion or made an unfavorable impression. Finally the chief of the Northern Region in Kandalaksha had the power to prevent me from going any farther, so I carried with me from Simankoff a paper in which the latter evidently explained in his own way why I should be allowed to proceed on my travels.

My equipment for work was not very complete: a small drawing compass of Soviet make and of such poor quality it was impossible to measure anything with it, two iron boxes for the collection of fish and a kilo of formalin. Besides these I had obtained, through "protection," a ruler with a scale and a couple of test tubes—to convince the guards that my work was both serious and scientific. As a means of catching fish for specimens and food I was given a small draw-net.

I boarded the train for Kandalaksha at the very last moment. The car was overcrowded. Most of the passengers were peasants, largely from the Ukraine and Northern Caucasus, with their wives and children and carrying their nondescript household goods in bags and small home-made trunks. They were dressed in worn-out homespun clothes, patched and torn. On their feet they wore bast shoes (lapti). The local fishermen looked at such footwear with curiosity; they had only seen it worn by prisoners. The children of the travellers were dirty, thin, pale and practically naked. This peasant crowd that filled the trains came from the North Caucasus and the Ukraine and, after being held up for days at dirty stations, were on their way to Karelia in search of bread. The proximity of abundant Finland and the difficulty of guarding this extensive frontier forced the Soviet authorities to give a larger bread ration in Karelia in order to prevent a mass escape of Karelians into Finland. The confiscation of the kulak's  property was also carried on here with greater caution. Rumors about these regions of "plentiful" bread spread speedily over the U.S.S.R. and the peasants who had lost their all, where formerly there had been abundance, dragged themselves to this region of stones and swamps and withered trees, hoping to be fed by the rations given out by the State.

Many of them were contract laborers. There is so great a shortage of labor for the great "constructions," such as the chemical works of Kandalaksha, the electric power plant at Kniaje Bay and others, that these enterprises had to send out labor recruiting agents who were promising a kilo of bread a day and high boots. The hungry barefoot peasants agreed to go anywhere for these things, but once in the north, suffering from the cold and finding themselves in freezing, lice-infected barracks, they would begin to creep homeward. They had received, in general, not even the much-desired boots, while all their papers had been taken from them by the recruiting agents. Having no money to pay for their return fare they became tramps, often barefooted and in rags, walking from station to station in search of food. In the official Soviet language this was called "the fluidity of labor." One should witness the depth of misery of this "labor" in order to understand the reason for its "fluidity."

The crowding, the filth, the crying of hungry children in the car was trying even to me—a convict. I went out on the platform and spoke to a thin peasant dressed in rags. He coughed continuously, his face was green and his eyes were sunken. Unquestionably he was in the last stages of tuberculosis. He had spent three months at his former job, but had been cheated at the pay-off and so had started off to find another. His wife had died and he was dragging with him five children, all hungry, dirty and sick.

"I worked for the GPU. I built a house for them at the frontier and there I was cheated out of my pay," he began.

"Where did you build that house?" I asked.

"Oh, about fifty miles straight west from station X."

"Was it a large house?"

"For about fifteen guards."

"Were you pretty well fed?"

"Well, they eat well themselves, but they fed us worse than their dogs."

"Do they keep many dogs there?"

"Three dogs. Believe me, my dear man, those guards have everything. They make kasha  every day and eat it with butter. Their cabbage soup is made with meat, and there's so much bread they can't eat it up. And what easy work they have! A beat of 15 kilometers and they patrol it in pairs. When two return two others start out. Mostly they lie around listening to the radio. And then," he added, laughing sardonically, "they don't like to go in the woods. They're afraid."

"Afraid of what?"

"Just imagine, there are two of them, each with a rifle and still they are afraid. It is said that there are escaped convicts there who will lie in wait for them and kill them."

"Do they take the dogs with them?"

"No, I never saw them taking dogs. Perhaps the dogs are not trained."

And so I accidentally learned the location of a new frontier post in a region important to me.

I had travelled often on the Murmansk railway and both scenery and stations were familiar to me, but now I looked at everything with new eyes. Someday I  would plod along with a stick and a bundle: a beggar, a runaway convict, but free and no longer a slave of the GPU.

About 15 kilometers before reaching Kandalaksha the lay of the land was of particular interest to me. Here the railway goes around the northwesterly corner of Kandalaksha Bay, cutting off a deep fiord of this bay which extends westerly for about 20 kilometers. If I could begin the escape by boat up this fiord not only would I save 20 kilometers of walking, but pursuit would be made more difficult since the dogs would have no scent to follow.

Engrossed in these thoughts I did not notice that we had arrived in Kandalaksha. On the platform I met the searching gaze of guards, both in uniform and plain clothes, on duty in the station. I found myself in a place well known to me because of former expeditions to the White Sea. Below me, along the bay on both shores of the turbulent river Niva was spread the old fishing village. The sea was calling me, but I had to go up a hill about a kilometer to the north where one could see barbed wire, watch towers and barracks. At the gate I was stopped by a sentry who verified my papers and examined all my belongings, even searching my pockets. In the commandant's office my documents were again scrutinized and my bags searched.

Until the spring of 1931 Kandalaksha had been the center of the northerly section of the lumber business of the Solovetzki camp around which a number of stations were grouped. Now the barracks were practically empty. I had to await further formalities, with nothing else to do but spend the whole day wandering about the enclosure and looking at the mountains and the bay spread below me. Far beyond Kanda Bay, which I had tentatively selected as the starting point for my escape, rose the naked summit of Gremiakha with the purple silhouettes of other mountains fading into the west. How far away were they? Perhaps 50 or 60 kilometers—and still the frontier was beyond them. Selecting one of the highest peaks I determined, with the help of a clock hanging in the commandant's office, the direction of the line joining Gremiakha and that distant peak. This might be useful to me if I should have to escape without watch and compass. Gremiakha once reached, I would scale its peak and choose another peak on the horizon to the west as the next point to aim for.

On the third day I received permission to go to the village for an inspection of the pier and the trans-shipping facilities for fish products. I was searched both when I went out and when I returned to the camp. On my pass the time of my departure and return were noted. I was allowed three hours, no more; if I overstayed this time any guard could arrest me. What strange conditions for research work, when the GPU loves to boast that specialist-prisoners are always employed along professional lines!

A week passed before the chief of the Northern Region decided to sign my permit for inspection of the Ribprom  establishments. Again I was searched, put into a skiff of the GPU and taken across the bay to the nearest Ribprom  station known as "Palkin Bay," on a wooded promontory on the Karelian or westerly side of Kandalaksha Bay, not far from Palkin Bay which runs inland a considerable distance. Here fifty prisoners live in one log barracks. Barbed wire and watch towers were lacking and there were only two guards to check up on the prisoners morning and evening and to organize pursuit in case of an escape.

The chief means of preventing escape at such camps was a detective system among the prisoners themselves by which the necessary preparations were discovered; the prisoner usually gave himself away by saving provisions or by an unguarded word. Moreover a system of mutual responsibility had been introduced recently; if, on a fishing ground, one prisoner escaped, the others were considered as accomplices.

To me these conditions were novel and strange—to be surrounded, not by barbed wire, but by the forest and the sea. Boats lay on the shore. Had it not been for my wife and son I might have yielded to temptation and escaped on the first day of my arrival.

Next morning I decided to test the force and weight of my documents and my degree of freedom. I went to the guard highest in rank, showed him my instructions, on which were several seals, and told him that according to my orders I would begin my investigations on the following morning at seven and would not return until eight or nine in the evening. I talked to him for an hour about the usefulness of science and the enormous practical significance of my investigations. He asked several questions which showed that he was properly impressed by my learning, among them why a blackberry ripened before a bilberry, although they grew next each other.

"What do you think?" I answered quite seriously. "Comrade Lenin at ten years old was clever enough to govern a country, while some other chap even at fifteen doesn't know how to care for a pig. It's the same with berries. They don't come alike." And I suggested that he try brewing a "tea" by cooking the berries together and adding sugar. This pleased him immensely; he would try it the next morning—and I could go into the woods for the whole day.

I took a basket with me on the following morning, carrying my test tubes for the benefit of the guards so that they might know my intentions were serious and scientific. Entering the forest I followed a path along the shore, wondering whether I was being followed. In a thicket I circled and came back upon my trail to inspect the footprints, but found only my own. I went on in peace, enjoying the quiet of the forest. Soon my basket became filled with the caps of edible mushrooms. Several times I startled woodcocks, black-cocks and partridges feeding on berries. I was so overwhelmed with this freedom, the joy of being alone, that time, fatigue and hunger passed unnoticed, though my strength had been severely undermined by prison and camp regime.

The sun was in the southwest when I came to rest beside a noisy brook and decided to eat some berries. The forest was extremely beautiful; through the trees shone the waters of the bay and I could hear the roar of the surf. I could have gone on through the woods to the purple mountains in the west, but like an obedient slave I "had" to return.

I went back in a roundabout way in order to study the country. I scaled a mountainside and climbed its highest tree. The bay of Kandalaksha lay before me like a map. In the west rose my guidepost, Gremiakha.

For five days I lived at Palkin Bay, taking walks every day. I often met local peasants going out to the fishing grounds, waiting for the run of herring. At every opportunity I approached them and made inquiries. Near Prolif, where the railway passed, I found an old man.

"Tell me, grandfather," I asked, "I suppose before the railway was built the salmon used to run up Kanda Bay?"

"Why shouldn't it have run up there?" he replied. "At the very head of the bay the river Kanda flows in. See," and he pointed to Gremiakha, "on one side of it flows a river called Kanda and on the other a brook called Gremiakha, too. There are also other brooks coming down and the salmon went there for fresh water—lots of salmon until the causeway was built. Now it cannot get through. They left an opening under the bridge, but at low tide you can't get through even in a rowboat. The salmon tries, however, but few succeed."

"Where does it spawn?"

"In the Kanda. It goes up the turbulent water into the rapids."

"Is it far to the lake?"

"Well, about forty versts   (verst=two-thirds of a mile) from the head of the bay, keeping to the northwest of Gremiakha. From there to the Finnish frontier it is about fifty versts."

"It must be hard to go through the forest carrying provisions," I remarked.

"We're used to it. There is a path there. We start at daybreak, rest and eat at noon, and before the sun reaches the north we are there. Sometimes we carry more than forty pounds on our backs."

"It must be hard walking. Aren't there marshes?" I inquired cautiously.

"You've spoken truly, there are soft places, very soft to step on."

"Tell me, grandfather, is it by that path that they carted guns from Finland during the war?" I asked, remembering an old story.

"Oh! you're all mixed up. It wasn't by this path, but by a winter lumbering trail on our side of the frontier about forty versts along that lumber trail—only Finns live there. Also there's a frontier outpost."

"And what are they watching for, grandfather?" I smiled.

"How do we know? I suppose they try to catch smugglers and runaway convicts. There are about fifteen men there."

"Is it possible that convicts wander there?"

"We don't know, maybe they do. How could we know? Since lumbering stopped, there are few convicts hereabouts."

My inquiry proceeded slowly, but the information collected was reliable and most valuable to me. I had learned from him the location of a second frontier guard post and now knew I had to beware of a path which was short and clear, but dangerous.

Since the idea of starting my escape by boat had got firm hold of me, I decided to investigate the passage under the railroad bridge. I took a boat from the fishing point, pretending to make soundings, spent a whole day on the water, and arrived at the conclusion that for an escape it would be necessary to have a boat on the inner side of the bridge.

I could not get permission to continue my expedition alone and had to stay on at Palkin Bay until a suitable companion was found for me. Thus I was able to make a detailed study of its surroundings. I could now find my way to any place within a radius of 1 5 kilometers either by day or by night. About more distant places I gleaned everything known to the local peasants. In order to systematize all this information I drew maps, which I memorized and then destroyed. I came to the definite conclusion that this region would be favorable for escape. But how to get my wife and son across the border was a hard problem.

The thought came to me that it might be possible to organize a joint escape. The more I thought of it the more it appealed to me. My plan would not have to be changed; it would only be necessary to arrange the time and place of meeting. Success would be more likely if I could escape directly from this region and therefore I must invent something to interest the Ribprom  so that it would send me where I desired. I must find pretext for such an assignment during my present investigations. Time was flying; it was the end of August; frosts would begin in September.

At length my companion arrived—a young university graduate who had been sentenced for three years. His term was nearly up. At home he had a wife and two small children. He brought with him a pile of documents and also an extension of my permit. On the following day we were given an old rowboat with four oars and a small primitive sail.

It is impossible here to describe this unique voyage of exploration; two convicts in an open boat, dressed in primitive clothing, without compass or any other instruments, traveling in the autumn on the White Sea, north of the Arctic Circle, without a tent or even a piece of canvas for protection against the rain. When we arrived at some camp point all depended upon the temper of the guard. At times we would find ourselves in strict solitary confinement. At other times, when overtaken by storms, we would spend several nights in the woods like the freest tramps in the world. We suffered often from hunger, we were always soaking wet and many a time, after a night in the forest, our clothes would be coated with ice. There were good days, too, when we caught fish in abundance and feasted before the fire, devouring fat autumn herring and rosy-meated trout. Mushrooms and berries also provided some sustenance.

Our boat leaked, and twice we were caught by a fresh off-shore wind and only succeeded in reaching the shore after a terrific struggle. Nevertheless, we traveled five hundred kilometers, sounded the fishing grounds off shore and made a description of fourteen Ribprom  points. We also discovered several new species of fish not yet reported from the White Sea and, what was of far greater importance to me, made observations on the basis of which I would be able to suggest to the Ribprom  the advisability of a new enterprise here, which would give me the chance of carrying out my plan of escape.

The second of November I returned to Kem. There I found a letter from my wife—she had decided to come north and attempt to see me. I knew this would be difficult, but my trip had made a good impression, not so much on account of my official observations as because of the five hundred kilometers in a row-boat. My weather-beaten face, overgrown with a wild beard, my clothes and shoes in a state of complete disintegration, produced an effect upon the chief of the Ribprom. He was impressed also by my notebook with its daily entries of our activities, plans showing the location of all fishing grounds and Ribprom  points with sketches of buildings and structures. It was a real guidebook to the region. He could not hide his pleasure, and I decided to take advantage of it by presenting to him a previously written request for a "personal visit" from my wife and son. I was not mistaken, my chiefs were pleased and they granted my request for a visit of five days.

My wife came with our son. I shall not describe our meeting since my wife has done that in her book. We determined to escape together and tentatively made our plan for the end of the following summer. We also decided upon both the location from which we had to start and the exact meeting-place. My wife and son were to reach it on a day to be agreed upon; I should then escape, meet them there and lead them to the frontier. We arranged a code for our letters, all of which were read by the censor of the GPU.

The five days passed and they departed. I was still a prisoner, but with one solemn purpose during the seven months to come: to live, in order that we might be free—or, if necessary, die—together.