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

Face to Face with the GPU

To resume my narrative: we, the "non-party" men, were discouraged and apprehensive as the winter months of 1930 wore on. The working force of the Trust was enormously increased. Two new members of the Board of Directors appeared—Communists, of course. They had no comprehension of our work, acknowledging freely that before their appointment to the Fishing Trust they knew fish only as an appetizer to go with vodka. Now one of them was the head of the rationalization and mechanization of the whole enterprise, while the other was to direct the construction of the trawling base which, according to the Piatiletka, was to be the largest and most up-to-date fish trading harbor in the world. Both brought with them from Leningrad their own staffs complete, from engineers to typists, and went strutting about the base giving orders and loudly criticizing everything.

Our station, which had been successfully accomplishing its practical work, was now to feel the effect of purely fantastic plans. The aim of the new administrators was not the development of the fishing enterprise; their interest was only in construction. How could they now use our refinery for medicinal oil, if its output was only 1,000 tons a year, when the new plan called for a factory with a 15,000 ton output? The newspapers reported every day similar ambitious increases in the plans of other industries. The program of the rubber trust was being increased tenfold; the output of the tractor center eightfold, and so on. News writers and the "directors" of the industries cited these as tremendous achievements, but we knew that it meant only the wrecking of what had already been accomplished. The Piatiletka  was becoming the destroyer of all industry.

It was sad to see our refrigeration plant, which we had begun to build after dreaming of it for so many years, demolished because its capacity planned a year and a half before was now considered too small. The foundations of the barrel factory were abandoned, because the plans were being changed. The wharves under construction, badly needed to serve the increasing number of trawlers, stood unfinished, awaiting new and more grandiose plans. It was heartbreaking to see the chaos. I tried to avoid, so far as I could, the scenes of destructive construction. My days, from eight in the morning to eleven at night, I spent entirely in my laboratory and, as I said at the beginning, my late evenings alone in my room.

After the March night when the search of my little apartment occurred, as I have already related, the rumors that were being whispered everywhere made all of us "nonparty" men feel that our position was fast becoming dangerous. The speed of the work inaugurated under the new Plan was being scrutinized; clearly something sinister was in the wind. The more impossible our task the more clearly we would be marked as the victims of those who set the task. Communists, too, were being questioned; this was their opportunity to even up old scores, to get rid of any possible rivals and by destroying us to improve their own chances of promotion. It was no secret, and soon everyone knew that they were "helping the GPU discover the wreckers."

The system of questioning was quite obvious:

"Do you think that 'wrecking activities' are possible in our Trust?"

Generally the Communist witness thought them quite possible.

"Is it possible that the specialists have an anti-proletarian or anti-Soviet psychology and could, therefore, be 'wreckers'?"

"Undoubtedly, Comrade, the psychology of the specialists is anti-proletarian, and they could certainly be 'wreckers.'"

These general ideas having been entered in the statement, the examining official would adopt a threatening tone.

"You know the punishment for false testimony? Belonging to the Communist party cannot save you. Your words are down in the deposition. Perhaps you can substantiate your accusations with facts?"

The poor witness would willingly accuse the specialists of anything, but he was afraid of being held responsible. The examiner, seeing then that he was ready to sign anything, would help him with leading questions which he was expected to answer in the affirmative.

"Were not the wrecking activities of Krotoff responsible for the poor catch at the fisheries last year?"

"Quite right, Comrade," the witness would answer with relief.

"Did he not hold the trawlers in the harbor intentionally?"

"Yes, Comrade, he undoubtedly did."

And thus the witness and the examiner arrived at a complete accord.

The GPU could and did procure any amount of such "testimony," not only from Communists, but also from some of the non-party men frightened by threats of immediate arrest. I heard, for instance, that one of the old captains, S., gave his testimony in just such a way. This was of great value to the GPU, because the evidence supplied by Communists was rated rather cheaply even by the GPU itself, while S. was an old non-party worker, a specialist of many years' standing. Poor man! He was mentally unbalanced. Twice he had suffered attacks of insanity at sea and both times the ship was brought into harbor by his mate. He could not be placed in a hospital for they were overcrowded; in consideration of his past services he was given a job on shore. He did not believe that he was sick; he still wanted to go to sea and considered he had a grievance. He was terribly afraid of the GPU. I was told that one of his comrades, also an old captain, asked him if he were not ashamed of his testimony.

"But what could I do, if the GPU gave me orders? I didn't want to be shot. Besides, it serves them right for pushing an old man out of his job!"

The situation was made still more hopeless by the fact that "witnesses" were not required to give concrete facts, but rather a psychological explanation whereby any simple act might be interpreted as intended to harm industry. Furthermore, if a "witness" did not categorically deny the possibility of wrecking intentions, the GPU assumed that the intentions had existed.

My turn came at last. One morning I received a notice requiring me to be at the GPU office at six o'clock that evening. I notified the president of the Trust and as many of my co-workers as I could, hoping that, in case of my disappearance, the news would reach my wife. How many people in the U.S.S.R. left home after such a summons and never returned! I found an opportunity also to send a short note to Leningrad, telling my wife about the search and the numerous arrests, so that she would be prepared for any emergency.

Slowly I approached the long building of the GPU. Like most houses in Murmansk it was not fenced in. The dirt around it was as bad as everywhere else; in front of it pigs wallowed in filthy garbage holes.

The anteroom, or room for the orderlies, was divided by a low partition, behind which were two men in Red Army uniforms. One was turning the handle of an ancient telephone. The other one was yawning as he looked me over.

"Who do you want?"

I handed him the summons without a word.

"You will have to wait."

I sat on the bench, gloomily watching the hands of the clock that moved so slowly. The men were talking of what could be had in the cooperative store. At last a Red soldier came up to me.


He walked behind me down a corridor. Was I under arrest already, I wondered.

The corridor was wide, dirty and dark. On the right a row of padlocked doors—the cells where Scherbakoff and Krotoff, perhaps the most respected men in the Trust, must be. At the end of the corridor the guard told me to wait. Then he knocked lightly at one of the doors and led me into an office, with dirty wooden partitions, an unpainted floor, two tables, three chairs. At one of the tables sat a woman—a stenographer, I thought. When she spoke I was astonished, for I could not imagine that the GPU official would be a woman.

"Sit down, Comrade Tchernavin—we have quite a lot to talk about."

She pointed to the chair in front of her table. The lamplight was shining on my face, the woman sat in shadow. She was small, thin, and pale, about thirty years old, with a dark complexion, harsh features and a big, unpleasant mouth. In front of her were two opened packages of cheap "Poushka"  cigarettes, which she smoked incessantly, throwing the stubs on the floor. Her hands were shaking.

It was my first real encounter with the GPU. The conduct of my examiner seemed to me ridiculous, although apparently she was taking great pains when questioning me. At times she spoke in a friendly and sincere way, then suddenly she would search my face with a piercing look. In turn she was threatening and indignant, then kind and almost tender. Afterwards I learned that this is the accepted method of questioning used by the GPU agents. At the time, however, her behavior reminded me of a second-rate tragedienne on the provincial stage. It would have been very amusing if I had not known that I was completely at the mercy of this unbalanced woman and her confederate, a tall Lett in a military uniform, who seemed dull and slow.

The examination continued for six hours and the two examiners twice relieved each other. Four of the six hours of questioning were spent over one sentence: "So much the worse for them; it's all an absurdity, and let them take the consequences."

Who said it? When? In what circumstances? I did not remember ever hearing this sentence and even now I do not know where they got it.

"How do you explain this sentence?" asked the woman. "Don't you see 'wrecking' in it?"

"Wrecking?" I replied, puzzled.

"Of course, wrecking; how can you explain it otherwise? I am very curious to hear your explanation." This was said threateningly.

"I don't understand this sentence," I answered. "It has no meaning to me: I don't know what it is about, or who said it, in what circumstances or on what occasion."

"It's no use, Comrade Tchernavin, trying to evade answering the question."

I can't answer questions I do not understand."

You understand perfectly that the person—I won't name him yet—who said it, referred to the Piatiletka  as the 'absurdity' imagined by the Soviet Government."

"How could I know it?" said I, trying painfully to remember whether I had ever uttered those words. No, I could not have said them; but then, who could? It might have been Mourasheff, the Communist president of the Trust; at one time he had not minced his words about the Five Year Plan.

"Now you can admit that it is  wrecking," insisted the woman.

"Excuse me, why is this wrecking?"

"So you think it is all right?"

"I did not say so."

"Then it is wrong? Answer me! Is it right or wrong?" she insisted, getting angry. "Well—?"

"To say that the Piatiletka  is an absurdity is wrong."

"Only wrong? I think it is criminal."

I remained silent.

"So you don't see wrecking in this sentence," she persisted.

"I don't understand how one can see wrecking in a sentence. I understand by wrecking an action that harms a business and not a sentence taken at random from a conversation of an unknown person in unknown circumstances."

"How well you know what wrecking is!" she exclaimed. "But we shall come to 'actions' later. So you see no elements of wrecking in this sentence?"


"Comrade Tchernavin," said the woman, suddenly changing her threatening attitude to a friendly one, "we value you very highly as a specialist, and we sincerely wish you well. I advise you not to be stubborn. You see"—she pointed to a fat envelope on the table—this is the 'case' of your wife. If you tell the truth now and help us sincerely, we shall destroy it, but if you continue as you began to-day, we shall act on it and then you will have only yourself to blame."

"What nonsense," thought I; "there can be no 'case' in Murmansk against my wife. She has been here only once for ten days about a year ago, she knows nobody here and she couldn't be accused of anything, yet that envelope contains at least a hundred sheets."

In answer to this threat, I shrugged my shoulders.

"I am hiding nothing and I have nothing to hide. I am telling the truth."

Now the man took up the inquisition. He began to enumerate methodically all the mistakes, real or fancied, made by the North State Fishing Trust during the ten years of operations. Most of them occurred before the foundation of the Trust: in 1920 a whaling schooner had been caught in ice fields; in 1921 someone had bought a harpoon schooner in Norway and, in the opinion of the GPU, had paid too much for it. In 1925 the catch of herring had been smaller, he said, than it was supposed to be; in 1927 one of the electric cranes had been out of order for some time. In January, 1929, the trawlers had fished for cod in the Gulf Stream region, when, according to the GPU, they ought to have gone to the region of the Bear Islands. And so on.

He spoke slowly, going into many details, often consulting notes in front of him—evidently accusations or testimony of various people. He seemed to expect to annihilate me with each of these accusations.

"You see what a lot of evidence we have? Of course, we understand that some mistakes could naturally take place in production, but here they seem to be systematic. It is clearly a case of wrecking."

The woman agent came back and they continued the inquiry together.

"But consider," I could not help exclaiming, "the general results of the work of the fisheries! Don't they prove conclusively that there couldn't have been any wrecking activities? The work of the Trust is expanding all the time, the size of catches is increasing, the length of time the trawlers stand idle in the harbor is diminishing. The Trust yields a profit which is turned in to the State. And this enormous enterprise has grown where once there was nothing. How can there be any question of wrecking? For instance, you say that in 1929 fishing was intentionally carried on in the wrong place. To do that the captains and the crews of the trawlers must have been in league with the 'wreckers' in the administration of the Trust; otherwise the crews would never have risked the loss of the premiums awarded them for good catches. Who would believe it?"

"Comrade Tchernavin, we are speaking only about strictly proven facts and in this case we have the testimony of a very competent comrade," said the GPU woman, reprovingly.

"I know of no person more competent than our captains in knowing where to find the fish!" I answered, beginning to get irritated.

"I can name them to you. They are the experts of the Oceanographic Institute working under Professor Mesiatzeff. I have here their testimony proving that the ships were willfully directed to the wrong fishing regions."

"That's absurd! I remember perfectly that in January the results of the trawling were very good. We knew from British trade papers that there were fish near the Bear Islands, even without the help of the Institute, and our captains had been notified. They did not go there because there was plenty of fish much nearer."

I knew of Prolessor Mesiatzeff. His relations with the GPU were not a secret. His professional success was based on his party affiliations and not on scientific ability.

"Perhaps you could find time to give us a written statement of your considerations regarding the work of the Oceanographic Institute?" politely suggested the examiner. "What do you think, for instance, of their estimate of the fish reserves in the Sea of Barents?"

"I am not acquainted with the work of the Institute in this direction," I parried, having no intention of falling into the trap and being caught as a "denouncer."

"And you, personally—what do you think about the possibility of finding in the Barents Sea the quantity of fish required by the Plan?"

This was the main point of the inquiry, I realized at once, and it had been left to the last. Evidently they meant to accuse me of not believing in the Piatiletka. The basis for this accusation might well be an opinion I had given to the Board of Directors that it would be wise to estimate the probable supply of fish in the Barents Sea before beginning to build three hundred or five hundred new trawlers for operations there. . . . Finally, after requiring a written answer to this last question, they solemnly admonished me: "We are astonished at your obstinacy, your obvious wish to shield somebody instead of helping us to expose the shortcomings of the Trust. We are not accusing you of anything, but you must prove to us by your acts your sincerity and loyalty to the Soviet Government. We must be convinced that you are not in sympathy with the wreckers. We expect you to give us important information and to give it of your own free will. We are giving you time to think. You can call us by telephone and we will hear you any day at any time. We don't want to interfere with your work."

They made me sign a promise not to talk about this interview, and then they let me go out into the frosty night. Only then did I realize how tired I was—and how helpless.