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

Gepeists, Spies and Foreigners

Gtu officials and Red Army men of pure "Red" stock could also be found among the prisoners. They were usually accused of discrediting the Soviet Power while under the influence of liquor. It was a transient element which gained release with comparative ease, since examining officers were not interested in building up cases against them. New men, however, were continually replacing those discharged.

Getting drunk in some public place or restaurant frequented by foreigners and Gepeists (pronounced Gay-Pay-ist and means an employee of the GPU), they would start boasting of their positions, thereby attracting attention, and the GPU did not care to have Soviet information carried away to foreign countries.

It also often happened that such men would lose compromising or secret documents. We had in our cell a man held in connection with such a case. He was a "political director," one of those who are attached to army units and whose functions are to "educate" the army and, incidentally, watch over the reliability and loyalty of members of his unit. He was a daring fellow and apparently a confirmed drunkard. In a state of drunken oblivion he had lost his brief-case containing secret documents. He could not remember why he had carried these with him to the party he was attending. He had gone somewhere with somebody in an automobile, had drunk some more and had gone somewhere else—but he absolutely could not remember where and with whom, and he had come to his senses only when he had been put in prison and, at that, not immediately. He knew enough not to attempt any explanations and thereby give into the hands of the examining officer additional material. But he hoped that the latter would understand his plight and discharge the case.

"As if they, themselves, didn't drink," he consoled himself.

There were spies, too, in our cell, whose duty it was to watch the prisoners and encourage them to make incriminating admissions. One respectable old man pretended to be a "literary worker." During the early days of my imprisonment he began to question me.

"My case is simple." I replied. "They want to make me the 49th."

"Yes, so I heard. And don't you think," he began softly, "that it might be wise to admit yourself guilty of some insignificant misdemeanors or mistakes in order to gain their confidence and indulgence?"

"No," I answered. "I have committed no crime and I respect the investigating authorities too much to delude them by false confessions. As for you, I don't advise you to recommend that we lie to examining officers."

He went away with an offended air and left me in peace. I watched him, however, and soon convinced myself that he was starting similar conversations with every new specialist brought to our cell.

One morning Engineer V. was thrust into our midst, apparently very tired, with nerves on edge. He had been arrested at the factory, had been cross-examined all night at the Gorokhovaya and did not know what had happened to his family. General cleaning was under way in the cell and everybody was crowding into one corner. The old man came up to him. I approached them from behind, but my assistance was not needed.

"Don't you feel guilty of anything, even if it is some very small thing?" I heard the old man ask. "I know from experience that a frank confession helps greatly."

"All night long the examining officer urged me to do that very thing," calmly replied the engineer. "I'm tired of such kind advice. Leave me alone."

The U.S.S.R. is the socialistic fatherland for the toilers of the world. This can be dearly seen by studying the men held in prisons and concentration camps of the Soviet Union; one can find there representatives of workers of probably every nationality. And these are true toilers, since the bourgeoisie visiting the U.S.S.R. know what measures to take for personal safety and do not tarry long. The honor and pomp with which important members of the foreign bourgeoisie and aristocracy are treated in the U.S.S.R. were reported by the Soviet press when describing the visits of Bernard Shaw, Lady Astor, Amanullah Khan and others. But the poor who are attracted by the rumor that there is no "crisis" in the U.S.S.R. and who go there to work receive no official reception and often pay dearly for their credulity.

Among those whom I encountered in prison were a Japanese, an Austrian, several Mongols and Czechs, many Finns, Estonians, Letts, Poles, Germans, Chinese and many gypsies.

The majority of foreigners in the prison were Communists or people of extreme radical ideas, who, believing in the achievements of the proletarian revolution, came to the U.S.S.R. to seek protection against what seemed to them oppression at home and who dreamed of realizing their democratic ideals.

Among these foreigners was a member of the Estonian parliament, a Communist. I do not remember his name, but I can yet see his broad figure, fair hair and short-sighted eyes behind thick spectacles. He had been imprisoned already for more than a year and, evidently because of his prominent past, fulfilled the duties of corridor cleaner. I had no chance of talking to him but the other cleaners told that he had fled from Estonia fearing repressions for his communistic ideas and had landed straight in the Shpalernaya prison. The curious part of the story was that before his escape from Estonia he had legally come to the U.S.S.R. as a member of a delegation of foreign Communists and had visited this very prison in the capacity of an honorary and distinguished guest. He was now able to see for himself how much prison reality differed from what he had been shown.

Later in my imprisonment I had pointed out to me a Czech, a member of the Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party. He had been called to Moscow on business connected with the III Internationale but, instead of being sent back home, had been arrested and finally deported to the Solovetski concentration camp.

Another interesting case was that of the former Secretary of Agriculture of the independent Mongolian republic, a real Mongol. He was a cultured man, a graduate of the Moscow Agricultural Academy. He, too, was made to come to Moscow under some pretext and was then sentenced to ten years of forced labor. I could never understand how it was possible for the Soviet Government to deport him, a secretary of an independent state—but it was a fact.

Perhaps one of the most pathetic foreigners in our cell was a workman, an Austrian citizen by the name of Stern whom I met the first night after my arrest. As I have already said, I was assigned a place on the floor between two cots next to the toilet. One of these cots was occupied by a sleeping man, pale, drawn and frightfully dirty. He had on a dark woolen sweater worn next to the skin and almost completely rotted—there was no sign of underwear. Bed bugs in scores crawled over his grey army blanket and over his face and hands. One leg, in dirty worn out trousers and a filthy rotten sock, was sticking out from under the blanket. And such a strong smell emanated from him that I thought he might be dead. I abruptly shifted my position; he moved, turned towards me, opened his eyes and gave me a blank and lifeless stare. I spoke to him and asked him how long he had been here.

"Three years soon. Three years—this cell," he replied in broken Russian with a distinct German accent.

I began talking to him in German. He showed some evidence of life and told me his story, simple for Soviet reality, but one that workmen abroad might find it hard to believe.

In 1925 three Austrians, one of them a Jew by the name of Stern, signed a three years' contract for work as specialists in processing leather in a Leningrad factory. By 1928 living conditions in the U.S.S.R. had changed for the worse and they decided not to renew the contract but to return home. All were then imprisoned at the Shpalerka and informed that they would be released only if they signed a new contract. They would not yield, but the Austrian consul, learning of their plight, intervened though only in behalf of two. Stern—the third—was left to his own devices. He was forgotten.

I gave him a spare suit of underwear and his eyes lit up with pleasure.

"Thanks, thanks! I'll wash now. I didn't want to while I had no underclothes. I'm eaten up by lice."

"Lice?" I asked.

"Yes, lice. When one has no underclothes one is devoured by them. Others get clothes, remittances—I have no one, nothing."

In his excitement he was talking loudly and our neighbors protested.

"This is outrageous," they said. "They won't let us sleep at night. Isn't there enough time to gossip during the day?"

Then came the dry authoritative voice of the foreman: "Stop whispering!"

Later I came to know him better. He was disliked in the cell because he refused to wash and was a burden to all his neighbors. Moreover for days at a time he would not speak a single word. Nobody else in the cell knew who he was or why he was there. Some believed him a madman, others—a spy. It was not hard to take him for a madman. All day long he would walk in the cell, stop, look fixedly at the toes of his shoes and then resume his walk. Sometimes he would sit down on a bench, stare at one point and suddenly burst into laughter. Then, becoming embarrassed, he would try to control himself, hiding his lace in his hands, but to no avail, and he would continue to laugh quietly for a long time. At other times he would burst into tears.

One day two months after my arrest he was called to the corridor bars and told to be ready the next morning with his things—he was being sent abroad. His eyes glistened and signs of color appeared in his cheeks. He talked, walked briskly about the cell and looked for something to do.

In the morning he came up to me, wished me luck and release—release before anything else. He asked for my address in order that he could return the underwear I had given him.

"No, my friend," I replied. "I've only the prison address and there's no need to send anything hack. If we ever meet again, we'll have a glass of beer together."

At that he left.

Writing now I remember him as a friend. It he ever sees these words and writes to me I shall be very glad. He knows what it means to start life anew after one has been through a living death.