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

Freedom—or Death

It is hard to describe with what a feeling of relief I boarded the train which took me north the following day. Now I must show results, produce a large quantity of fishmeal and assure the interest of the Ribprom  in my enterprise. What would happen if the run of stickleback did not come? There were still two months before I had planned to escape.

I decided to go to the point near the Black River where there were greater chances for a successful catch. I did not want to be continuously under the eyes of the guard at the "Narrows." On reaching the point I was greeted with good news: the stickleback was already offshore. The day before I arrived a ton of them had been caught. The vats were full and the drying oven working.

At three in the morning I left in a rowboat on a scouting trip. The weather was calm and clear. The fish could be easily observed through the transparent water. The stickleback was coming in from the sea in a ribbon-like stream and was thick along the entire shore. We worked day and night for there was continuous sunshine. Even with our small nets we could catch a ton in twenty minutes and we dried the boiled mass in the open air. I sent enthusiastic reports to the Ribprom  as well as samples of the oil and meal.

For two weeks the work went on. The fish still hung around the shores of the mainland and the islands in a solid mass. With factory facilities enough fish-meal could be produced in two or three weeks to feed all the cattle in Karelia for a whole winter.

On June 15th I returned to Soroka. My arrival was a real triumph. The Agricultural Section had already sent in excellent reports about the meal. I was told that the Ribprom  would discuss the question of expanding the stickleback fisheries immediately and that there would soon be a special conference at which I had to be present. Meanwhile I had to stay in Soroka and wait.

I decided to waste no time in asking permission for my wife and son to come and see me again. My request was referred to Kem and the answer came back quickly. The Chief of Camp granted permission for a visit to last ten days and to take place where I worked. This was a boon I had not even dared hope for. The organization of the escape was tremendously simplified; the most difficult problem to meet at some predetermined place was thus solved easily and simply. About forty days still remained before the appointed day; I did not have to hurry and waited patiently for my chiefs to call the conference.

It assembled on June 25th; everyone was present, Simankoff and his two assistants, and Zaleskantz of the ISO—a charming company. I made a brief report, trying chiefly to impress them with "possibilities"; the figures aroused their appetites. They all spoke, interrupting each other, each presenting his own plan to enlarge the business and produce a thousand tons of fish-meal without factory equipment. Zaleskantz "outstripped" them, for he proposed feeding stickleback to the prisoners as well as to cattle.

From this meeting no practical plan resulted, but I was ordered to return to my enterprise and to find out the best "ways and means" myself, according to existing "possibilities." Since Zaleskantz was present and took a lively part in the discussion, I was convinced that the ISO would not again block my departure.

In the morning came bad news; reports from both my points that the run of fish had ceased. Instructions were asked. Simankoff came in about noon, and growled: "Your stickleback is a bluff."

My papers were not prepared and I did not dare interview anyone that day. By evening the situation became still worse—a telegram arrived from the Murmansk department of the Ribprom;  herring had appeared and men were needed.

Simankoff sent for me.

"You are appointed manager of the herring fishery in Murmansk. Tomorrow you leave for Murmansk."

"I cannot take the management of this work," I said firmly. I knew that, according to camp regulations, prisoners could not be appointed against their will to managerial positions. I knew also that, in the extremely rare cases of refusal, even valuable specialists, regardless of their health, had been sent immediately to "general work"—the heaviest kind of hard labor, felling trees, digging ditches, or logging. I decided, however, to risk everything.

"You will go," repeated Simankoff.

"How about the stickleback meal?"

"That is nonsense. Have you seen the reports? There is no more stickleback, and herring is now more important to us."

"You have kept me here for two weeks in idleness," I said in a rage. "There was enough fish to catch forty tons a day. While you were thinking, we could easily have made five hundred tons. Now the fish has gone. It is not tied up, waiting to be caught. Today it is gone, but tomorrow it may return. Yesterday you were ready to build stickleback traps and today you hear of herring in Murmansk and you want to drop everything and pursue herring. By the time I arrive in Murmansk the herring will have gone from there, and the stickleback returned to my point, and so I will be travelling back and forth. Do you want me to catch fish in the train? What kind of fishermen are you? I will not go to Murmansk. You may send me to general work or put me in the punitive cell if you wish."

He was taken aback. The chiefs here were not used to such expressions of opinion, but this man was a former fisherman and I hoped my arguments might influence him.

"I will give you until tomorrow to think it over," he replied. "You will go to Murmansk."

I went to my quarters and sadly brooded over the whole situation. Only yesterday I had sent the last letter to my wife before our proposed escape. Now there was no time to let her know that everything had changed.

In the morning the Chief greeted me curtly: "Well, have you decided to go?"

"I will not go to Murmansk," I answered firmly.

Without looking at me he sent a messenger to fetch the office manager. I was convinced that he was going to give orders for me to be sent to "general work." The manager came in.

"Prepare a permit for Tchernavin to go north to work on stickleback." Then, glancing at me: "We expect you to produce 500 tons of stickleback. Remember that."

That evening I received my papers, signed by Zaleskantz, as I had hoped. This time I was leaving Soroka forever.

Late one night I arrived at the "Narrows." The plant had been established in the place I had selected, on the very shore of the bay. The equipment consisted of a shed with holes for windows; inside were kettles and home-made presses and the apparatus for drying.

In the morning I investigated the neighboring waters and convinced myself that the stickleback had gone from the shore. Small schools of them, however, could be found in many places. I talked it all over with the fishermen and told them that unless we caught fish during the next few days our point would be closed and we would be sent elsewhere. We must, therefore, catch enough to fill the vats at least once or twice a day.

"We'll do it," they assured me heartily.

As a matter of fact, after much searching and spending the whole day passing seaweed and water through our nets we had caught about half a ton of fish. The vats were filled and the drying apparatus started. I immediately sent back a report that the work had been resumed. I was confident that under these conditions I could drag the work along for the remaining twenty days before the arrival of my wife.

Now came my last preparations for escape. Most important was a boat which I could use without interrupting the daily fishing operations and which I could get under the bridge to the westerly side of the bay. I chose a small dory which had fallen into disrepair; I dragged it ashore and spent my free time mending and caulking it, making oars and piecing together small bits of canvas for a sail. I told the fishermen I needed this dory on scouting trips in search of fish.

Next I had to verify the information I had collected about the paths leading from the westerly end of Kanda Bay towards the frontier and the location of houses and habitations thereabouts. This would require at least a full twenty-four hours absence, managed in such a way that the suspicions of the fishermen would not be aroused. I explained to them that in my opinion the stickleback had passed under the bridge up into Kanda Bay and that I ought to make careful survey of it. Early one morning I went in my dory up into the bay for this pretended investigation.

It was evening before I reached the head of the bay and explored the shore on both sides. At length I found several paths following the left bank of Kanda. Which of them was the main one? I had to find out. At about ten o'clock, after concealing the boat in a dense growth, I started off along a path leading west. This was a risky thing to do: any accidental meeting might mean death. How could I explain my presence on a path leading to Finland—at night? I walked briskly, trying to cover as much ground as possible. The walking was difficult, the forest thick and wild.

On I went for more than an hour until assured that it was the main path I was following—the right one to the west. I stopped to blaze a tree and then turned back, retracing my way to the dory to begin the long row against the wind to my quarters which I reached early in the morning.

Now it was clear in my mind how I would begin the escape: the first twenty kilometers could be made rapidly by boat; before our escape had been discovered we should reach the main path to the west and might continue along it for another thirty kilometers during the first night—at a great saving of our strength because we would not be forced to go through the unbroken forest.

I had rented, in a fisherman's house near the "Narrows," a room for my wife and son to occupy when they should arrive before many days. My preparations seemed complete. The time for action was at hand. Together we would achieve freedom—or suffer death.

My wife has told the story of our escape—how we started in the leaky row-boat, patched by my own hands, how, without compass or map, we walked over wild mountains, through forests and across swamps, to Finland and freedom.

However hard my own experiences may appear, they were less severe than those of the majority of educated people in the U.S.S.R. Many who suffered torture and execution were older than I was and of much more importance to science. My sentence—five years of forced labor—was far lighter than the usual punishment.

The faith of Russians in world justice may be childish, but these prisoners and their families, and the widows and fatherless children of executed "wreckers" still think that the world does not know what is happening to them. They cannot believe that a Christian civilization will knowingly permit such monstrous cruelties to continue.