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

What Price Fugitives?

To pave the way for my escape I determined to find subjects for experimental work that would justify the Ribprom  administrators in sending me out on an extended mission into the wildest parts of the northern region of the camps, where many small stations of the Fisheries Section were scattered and where supervision could not be rigid.

The only man who travelled around, visiting these stations was the Chief of the Ribprom, S. T. Simankoff, a cunning fisherman turned Communist who, though not an "old Chekist," had assured himself a Soviet bureaucratic career in the wild province of Karelia. When the GPU was organizing the Fisheries Section in Kem, not a single Gepeist could be found who knew anything about the fishing business. Simankoff, then president of the regional executive committee, representing the local authorities, was enlisted in the GPU. Clothed in a long Gepeists' topcoat, patent leather high boots with spurs, a red star on his cap and the insignia of a general on his coat lapel, the new chief was complete. The title of Chief of Camp Section gave him a multitude of material advantages.

To him I suggested that I be sent, before winter set in, to inspect and report upon all the fishing grounds and the Ribprom  stations or points, working out at the same time the possible organization of new kinds of fishing activities such as, for instance, the utilization of fish waste as well as of unmarketable fish. A new expansion of the business ought to tempt them, I thought. I planned to make the survey by using a small row-boat which would make it possible for me to go ashore at any desired spot.

In the "plan for my work in 1931" I intentionally did not indicate the exact region of research work, although it was obvious that a survey of all the stations of the Ribprom  in one summer was impossible—it would have meant a journey of more than a thousand kilometers along the coast line. The points of the Ribprom  are located in two basic regions: in the north—the Kandalaksha Bay, in the south—the coast of the Onega Bay of the White Sea. The latter is 250300 kilometers from the Finnish border, while the northern sections of the Kandalaksha Bay were only 100 kilometers from Finland. The extreme northern section near the village Kandalaksha was mountainous, had no roads, and was almost uninhabited from the sea-shore to the frontier. On the other hand, the region between the Onega Bay and the Finnish border presented a fiat, swampy stretch of land with numerous lakes and considerable rivers which might have presented obstacles for travel. I was not afraid of mountains—the range which stretched along the Kandalaksha was not over a thousand meters above sea level, and I could easily find a way over it.

But the more firmly I made up my mind to choose the northern region the more carefully I must conceal my interest in it. My program was discussed and condescendingly approved, but neither the region nor the day of departure had been fixed.

I was in no hurry myself. In all my enterprise one vital question remained indefinite. I had to know the fate of my wife. So far as I knew she had no "case" of her own, but was still in prison. I was inclined to believe that the examining officer was endeavoring to invent a "case" against her. I was getting most alarming news from newly deported prisoners arriving from Leningrad: many specialists from the Hermitage, Russian Museum, Ethnographical Museum and others had been deported. My wife had worked at the Hermitage and she could well be "added" to those deported.

The cold, rainy June passed, then the clear and warm July and August had begun. Not more than a month was left suitable for work in those northern regions where the snow usually comes early in September and stays on the mountains until the next summer. My colleagues at the Ribprom  were not encouraging. "You won't go anywhere," insisted some of them. "The authorities always have wild ideas! Besides, such a trip depends largely upon the ISO. If the ISO considers you a 'special' prisoner or suspects that you intend to escape you won't be allowed to leave Kem no matter what your chief does."

"No," said others, "that isn't it. The ISO may have nothing against you, but there hasn't been time enough to test you—you've just come. In this camp attempts to escape are generally made during the first year and at the earliest opportunity. The first assignment is usually given to some place nearby where supervision is good. If the prisoner's behavior is satisfactory then he may be sent to a more distant point."

I decided to try for such an assignment—to a station 20 kilometers from Kem where salmon was treated, in the village of Podujemie and reached by the Kem-Ukhtin highway leading to the Finnish frontier. Several villages are located along this highway with a regular line of communication maintained between them by trucks. The highway was patrolled by camp Gepeists and frontier guards. The distance to the Finnish border was 250 kilometers.

The authorities risked nothing by letting me go in this direction. To assure the ISO that I had no thought of escaping I was telling everybody that my wife was in prison and that I had left behind in Leningrad a twelve year old son, whose letters to me—the only ones I received—passed through the hands of the ISO. If I escaped alone, my dear ones would be left to their mercy.

Salmon was brought daily from Podujemie by truck to Kem for sorting and packing in salt or ice destined for "presents" or for export to England through the Gastorg. The experts who treated it complained that the percentage of defective fish from Podujemie was very high. I inspected the loads for several days, determined that this high percentage was due to incorrect and careless killing and handling of the fish, and prepared a report suggesting a new method of killing the salmon.

Simankoff as a former fisherman became interested.

"Send me to Podujemie," I offered. "I will demonstrate the new method to the fishermen and will teach them how it should be done. Your salters can then give their opinion about fish killed in this way and I guarantee that none will be defective."

He approved my proposal and two days later my mission was officially arranged for. The ISO let me go. Another tiny step forward towards my goal.

On a beautiful summer evening—August 10th—I sat beside the chauffeur of a Ford truck going from Kem to the west. At our right was the railroad line—cutting off the coast zone—a magic barrier which held me in captivity. I would have to cross it someday. To the east of it—towns, villages, barbed wire entanglements and guards; to the west—a wild forest, swamps, lakes, with few settlements and scattered lumber camps.

The Kem-Ukhtin highway is built through the forest above the left bank of the river Kem, one of the most tragic enterprises ever undertaken and carried out by the GPU. The natives said that the whole 300 kilometers were paved with human bones. Like everything in Sovietland not meant for display, it was in bad condition; the car swayed and rocked, the bridges were already unsafe. The chauffeur had a watch (a thing forbidden to ordinary prisoners because it might serve as a compass) and by the sign posts we estimated our speed at 30 kilometers an hour. "Ten hours to reach the frontier!"flashed through my mind. But I learned from the chauffeur that fuel was issued under rigid control, and not more than enough to reach the destination.

The sun was low and gilded the trunks of trees and the open spaces of the coast. I thought of my wife in a solitary cell at the Shpalernaya with its foul air and prison stench. I felt ashamed of breathing the fresh forest air, of looking at the beautiful woodlands.

At Podujemie we found one GPU guard and one prisoner, who received the salmon from local fishermen and sent it to Kem. The prisoner's room, hired by the GPU, in a peasant house, served also as an office where fishermen were paid. Before his arrest the prisoner had worked for the GPU as an informer, but for talking too much had been deported for ten years. Nevertheless, to the GPU he was one of "themselves" and so I found myself in the hands of two trustworthy guards. I had to spend the long summer evening with them and gather information, very cautiously, about escapes, while pretending to be interested in something else.

Escapes of criminals no longer interested me as they had when I was in prison. The criminal risks little,—a beating at the time of capture, a month in the isolator or an increase in term of sentence. The political prisoner, however, risks everything. Capture means first a terrible beating, then the isolator, tortures to force a confession of accomplices who never existed and then—a bullet in the back of the head.

The political prisoner, therefore, made his attempt only after preparing for it in every possible way, while the criminal escaped at the first convenient opportunity. The guards did not take the escape of criminals very seriously and did not exert much effort in pursuing them: they would be caught when they came out to the railroad or reached a town. But for the pursuit of political prisoners posses would be organized at once: sometimes all neighboring villages would be mobilized and the frontier guard called to assist. The political prisoner always tried to escape abroad—in his fatherland he had no refuge.

This is what I learned from my guards; it was not encouraging. Attempts to escape were frequent here but seldom successful. The fugitives were always tempted to follow the highway, but this was fatal. It was guarded and all settlements along it were connected by telephone and telegraph with Kem. If the fugitive kept to the forest parallel to the highway the guard could easily get ahead of him and bar the way in places well known to them where swamps, lakes and rivers were impassable. Besides, through the woods, the 300 kilometers to the frontier would be increased to 450 and would take more than two weeks; obtaining and carrying a sufficient quantity of food for such a long time was impossible. Hunger would force the fugitive to come out to a village—where he would meet the Karelian peasants.

These peasants were the chief danger to be encountered. To them the hunting of fugitives was a sport—with a bounty of one bag of flour for every capture. It was rumored that every peasant in Podujemie and the other villages along the highway had received this bounty at least once and some had been rewarded several times.

The escape discovered, all the neighboring country was notified and everyone came out for the hunt. The pursuers were well fed, well shod, armed and familiar with the countryside; the fugitive was hungry, weakened by life in prison and in camp, poorly shod and wandering in a strange forest. Nevertheless it was difficult to find him there, but after a while, at the end of his strength, he would come out in search of something to eat.

"Here live human beings," he would think, "is it possible that they would give me away to torture and death?"

He would be greeted with friendliness and pity, seated at the table, fed; provisions would be prepared for him, he would be urged to stay longer and rest, and while the housewife would be regaling him her little boy would run out to fetch the guard.

Only the other day, my guards told me, the townspeople had caught a young peasant who had escaped from the Solovetzki camp. He had entered one of the houses on the outskirts of the village and had asked for bread. It was given to him and he had returned to the forest, only to fall into a trap. He began running but was struck down by two bullets, brought to the village and locked up in a barn. But he was a man of tremendous strength and during the night, in spite of his wounds, he broke down the door and made his way out. The escape was soon discovered, dogs were set on his trail, he was overtaken, badly beaten, bound and again brought back to the village. It was decided to lock him up in a bathhouse, but as soon as his hands were unbound he attacked his torturers, badly injuring two of them. In the meantime the GPU guard had arrived. The fugitive was overpowered and hung up to the ceiling by his legs. Blood was running from his mouth, he could hardly breathe and begged to be taken down. It was done only after he had lost consciousness—fugitives were supposed to be brought back to camp alive. As soon as he regained consciousness, he jumped to his feet, picked up a stone from the stove and hurled it with such force at the guard that it fractured his chest bone. Again he was beaten, bound, and tied behind a cart which at once started for Kem. When he fell the horse would drag him along the road and the guards would kick him. They dragged him for three or four kilometers—then stopped. The fugitive was dead.

This fearful story, like others similar to it, was narrated calmly by my companions to whom the technical details of the case were absorbing—how the fugitive was caught, how he was beaten, but it never seemed to occur to them that he was a human being. He was only the object of the hunt, who gave them a chance to win a bag of flour and who made an impression on them by his obstinate unwillingness to die.

Next day I carried out my experiments successfully. The fishermen seemed to be interested, but after talking with them and seeing them work, I became convinced that they would not use my method. The reason for this lay in the fact that defective salmon was not officially "bought" from them and was left for their own use, while all good fish had to be turned in to the Ribprom  at a fixed price. For the best quality salmon they were paid from 70 kopeks to 1rouble the kilo, whereas for the defective fish, sold secretly, they could get from 10 to 15 roubles the kilo.

I was brought back to Kem by the same truck late in the evening and immediately went to sleep in my bunk. In a few minutes I was awakened. In the passage stood the assistant foreman with some kind of book in his hands.

What did it mean? Was I being sent away somewhere? To the punitive cell? All prisoners have such thoughts when unexpectedly called out.

"Sign for a telegram."

Hardly controlling my excitement I wrote down my name and took the telegram. What could have happened?

"Returned safely home,"  signed by my wife.

There was still happiness in the U.S.S.R.

The first minute I felt only joy and tremendous relief. She has come out of the prison—the dream of every prisoner—she has seen our son. The boy is no longer alone.

The telegram had been sent August 10th, the day I had for the first time left the camp—it was a good omen.

All my plans of escape now changed and became more simple. My wife and son were free. It was imperative to see them, but according to camp regulations visits are not allowed, under the most favorable circumstances, sooner than six months after the prisoner's arrival at the camp. I could not hope to see my family before November 2nd and then it would be winter. This meant that the escape had to be put off until 1932, but then we could escape together.

I did not sleep all night. Thoughts about the escape filled my brain. The terrible crowding, the stench, dirt and stuffiness, even the bed bugs, I did not notice. From that moment I lived intensively with only this one thought escape. The convict's life went on like a dream. What difference did it make how this accursed time dragged on. There was so much I had to do! Above all, I must regain my strength and train myself in walking and rowing. I must also complete my prospective trip to the north before November and return to Kem for the interview with my wife. Then we could talk over the escape.

The next day I wrote a report. The Ribprom  salters approved the salmon I had prepared. From the authorities I got neither commendation nor reproof. According to my colleagues, this was a good sign.

Two days later the Assistant Chief, Kolossoff, sent for me.

"How are preparations for your expedition proceeding?" he asked, pronouncing the word "expedition" with a sarcastic inflection.

"I have prepared everything I could. I can start at any time."

"From what point do you intend to begin your survey?"

I had a strong desire to say "from the north" but I shrugged my shoulders and said in an indifferent voice: "It makes no difference; I can begin either from the south or the north."

"The south region is of more interest to us. Begin from there. Make a detailed report to the Chief of the Section; he is going to send for you. Be ready to leave."

This was bad for me. How could I get around them? The Chief and his assistants were always in disagreement—could I not make use of this?

When Simankoff summoned me, I ended my report with the following words:

"Your assistant gave me the order to begin the survey from the southern region."

"Nonsense, you will go to the north. You are to start tomorrow for Kandalaksha."

Luck was smiling on me.