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

Part I:
We are Workers at Murmansk

[Illustration] from I Speak for the Silent by V. Tchernavin


Open! This is the Gpu

I could not sleep. It was a night at the end of March in Murmansk, far up beyond the Arctic Circle. The wind howled outside my lodgings—one room and a tiny kitchen—and a frozen rope, put up to hang the wash on, banged against the wooden wall of the house. The Northern Lights played in the sky and, as if in answer, the electric wires sounded, now with only a quiet hum, now with the roar of a steamboat siren. My wife and little son were at our home in Leningrad and as usual I had been spending the evening alone in my room. It was not a gay apartment; two tables, three chairs, a bookshelf and a sofa comprised all of its furnishings.

On the sofa which was my bed I had been trying to sleep. Suddenly I heard a noise in the house, and loud footsteps. Something must have happened at the wharf, I thought, and the sailors have come to get the assistant manager of the trawler fleet. The poor man never had any peace, day or night. I listened. Yes, the knocking was at his door.

It ceased. Two hours passed. Then came a loud knocking at my own door. I hated to get up—it must be a mistake, I thought. Perhaps some drunken sailor has come to the wrong door. The knocking continued. I got up from my sofa, and without putting anything on over my nightclothes went to the door.

"Who's there?" I asked.

"Open!" a voice commanded.

"Who are you, and what do you want?"


"What is this nonsense? Trying to get into a strange apartment at two o'clock in the morning! Who are you and what do you want?"

"Open at once! This is the GPU." [GPU are the initials of the Russian words meaning State Political Administration, a Soviet organization of secret political police which succeeded the Cheka (and predated the KGB). Although similar in some respects to the secret service of other European nations, the GPU has functions of a far wider scope both as to authority and administration of power in the U.S.S.R. GPU (or Gay-Pay-Oo) is an abbreviated form of the official title, OGPU, or Central State Political Administration, and although commonly used in referring to the OGPU, it is the correct title of the branches of this organization in the provinces, which branches often act as quite independent units. OGPU refers to the headquarters of this organization in Moscow and is used in all formal orders and announcements coming from there and in speeches when a note of authority is desired.]

"Oh! Well,—please come in. If you had said so at first, I wouldn't have kept you waiting."

Three men came in, two in the military uniform of the GPU and carrying revolvers, the third a Red guard with a rifle. I stood before them in my night shirt and bed slippers.

"Have you firearms?" they asked.


I could not help smiling—how could I hide firearms under a night shirt!

I let them search me, then dressed and sat down on a chair in the middle of the room. The Red guard stood leaning against the door, while the GPU men began to go through my things. I watched them. What could they be looking for? They turned over everything on my table, which was littered with manuscripts and notes which they could not have understood. They put these back, however, with some care; it seemed that my papers did not interest them. Then they searched through my wearing apparel and raked all the ashes out of the stove. I wondered what they expected to find hidden in a stove that was still warm.

They ransacked my bed; they looked into every book. On my shelf were several little bags of grits and sugar from the cooperative store. These they carefully emptied and looked through the contents.

What were  they looking for? They had now been at it for hours, searching one small room with scarcely anything in it, and they had not even read my papers. It was beginning to get tiresome and I stopped watching them. I was thinking that if they arrested me now and began dragging me from prison to prison, I should not be able to let my wife know what had happened to me and she would be distressed and anxious. At last one of the men turned to me and asked if I had an axe.

"What for?"

"We must tear up the floor." he said in a businesslike manner.

This puzzled me. It seemed strange to enter the house of a scientist in the middle of the night, search for something in little bags of sugar, rake hot ashes out of his stove and as a climax wreck the floor of a building which belonged to the government.

"I can find an axe," said I, and brought it from the kitchen myself.

But now, to my surprise, their energy seemed to leave them. After consulting for a few minutes, they decided to let the floor alone. This was the end of the show. They wrote out a statement to the effect that nothing incriminating had been found during the search and then departed. They had not arrested me after all. I was completely at a loss as to the meaning of the whole procedure.

It was now six o'clock in the morning. What ought I to do? Now that they had gone I became nervous and angry.

"Idiots!" I cried aloud. Whatever did they want? What a stupid comedy!

I was not sleepy now, but I was shivering from a sleepless night. I felt that I needed a drink. I looked on the shelf, but there was no vodka, so I lit my camp stove to make some tea. As I was doing this my next-door neighbor knocked lightly.

"You are not sleeping? May I come in?"

"Yes, indeed! Come in! Glad to see you. I was just making some tea. I'm almost frozen and have no vodka."

"Let me bring you some. I'd like a drink, too. I haven't slept all night."

He came back with a pint bottle. "I'm sorry, but there isn't much in it for two," he said.

"It will do. You will have to excuse me, I've nothing to go with it."

"We need nothing—we shall drink it in the Murmansk way with 'salt tongue ' for an appetizer."

In Murmansk provisions were very scarce and hard to get, and when they had nothing else, the inhabitants would put a pinch of salt on their tongues after drinking and jokingly say they were eating salt tongue with their vodka.

After we had finished our vodka and hot tea we grew warm and calmer.

"I had visitors to-night," said my neighbor looking at me significantly.

"I had some, too," I replied. "They stayed about four hours and have just gone. You see the disorder."

"They visited everybody in the house except Daniloff; they must have left him alone because he is a Communist. You know my room—there is nothing in it except a bed and a stool, so they tore up the floor. They took my silver watch that I bought in 1910 in Norway. They took Vasily Ivanovitch's old sweater and a pair of stockings from his wife, saying these things were contraband. He was too frightened to protest, but his wife tried to argue, saying that the things were not contraband—that she had bought the stockings a year ago at an auction in the custom house and that the sweater had been given her husband three years ago by the Trust. Still, they took the things. I was given a receipt for my watch. What do you think—will I get into trouble over it? Everyone here knows I had it before the War."

This story made me feel better; perhaps after all they were only looking for contraband. Of course it was stupid and provoking, but we were living near a port where foreign ships came in, bringing coal and salt, so that smuggling was possible. And the raid was so strange; they did not take a single paper and had only glanced at the manuscripts on my desk. Oh, this everlasting Soviet suspicion!

Alas! Within a few hours I knew that my optimism was groundless. Scherbakoff, who had actually created the enterprise which had come to be designated as the North State Fishing Trust, and Krotoff, a member of its board of directors and manager of the fleet of trawlers—both of them my close associates here at Murmansk—had been arrested during the night. The houses of all the non-Communist employees of the Trust, regardless of the length of their service, had been searched and in most cases the GPU men had been very rough; in two places they had torn up the floor.

It was clear that the Murmansk GPU was staging a big "case." The thoroughness of the search and the tearing up of floors was meant to show that the GPU had strong evidence against those whose apartments had been searched. The large number of raids indicated that our whole organization was to be involved. The arrest of the heads of the Trust proved that the GPU was out for something big. In the U.S.S.R. everyone knows that he may be put in prison even though he is not guilty; therefore, we all lived with the same thought in mind—when would our own turn come? This attitude very naturally tended to lessen the efficiency of our work. We had a faint hope, or rather deluded ourselves into hoping, that these raids and arrests were being carried out by the Murmansk GPU on its own initiative and that, when the case came to the attention of Moscow, it would be ordered dropped so that it would not cause a disruption in the work of the fishing industry.

In the meantime, however, the GPU was very busy. All the employees of our Trust—the North State Fishing Trust, of which I was Director of Research—were questioned in turn and, in spite of the signed pledge of secrecy that was required of them and the threat that any disclosure of the subject of the inquiries would lead to one's commitment to the convict concentration camp at Solovki, the news spread quickly.

Within only a few days everybody knew that the GPU was looking for proof of "wrecking" activity.