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

Second Inquisition

It was my second day in prison—my second cross-examination. I was called before the tea ration was given out and had only time to eat an apple.

"How do you do?" the examining officer asked, scanning me attentively to see if I showed signs of a sleepless night.

"All right."

"It isn't so good in your cell. You are in 22?"

"A cell like any other."

"Well, did you do any thinking? Are you going to tell the truth today?" 

"Yesterday I told only the truth."

He laughed. "What will it be today—not the truth?"

Then he returned to the subject of the cell.

"I tried to chose a better cell for you, but we are so crowded. I hope we will come to an understanding and that I will not be forced to change the regime I have ordered for you. The third category is the mildest: exercise in the yard, permission to receive food parcels from outside, a newspaper and books. The first two categories are much stricter. Remember, however, that it depends entirely on me; any minute you may be deprived of everything and transferred to solitary confinement. Or rather, this depends not on me but on your own behavior, your sincerity. The more frank your testimony, the better will be the conditions of your imprisonment."

He lighted an imported cigarette and passed the box to me.

"Do you care for a smoke?"

"No, I just had one."

"I placed you in a common cell so that you can get familiar with our regulations. This is possible only in a common cell; it initiates you right away into the whole organization. You acquaint yourself, so to say, at first hand with our methods, and I believe . . . that you will become more compliant. We have discarded mediaeval methods; we don't hang up by the legs or cut off strips of skin from the back, but we have other means, no less effective, and we know how to force out the truth. Remember this now, and you will hear in the cell that this is no mere threat."

He spoke slowly, looking me straight in the eye, emphasizing his words with evident pleasure and relish, watching for their effect.

"Did you know Scherbakoff? He was a strong man, but I broke him and forced him to confess."

With great difficulty I controlled myself before replying.

"I don't doubt for a minute that you use torture, and if you believe that this assists in discovering the truth and speeding up the investigation, and since Soviet laws permit its use, I would suggest that you don't give up mediaeval methods: a little fire is a wonderful measure. Try it! I am not afraid of you. Even with that you can't get anything out of me."

"Well, we will see about that later. Now let's get down to business. Let's talk about your acquaintances. Did you know V. K. Tolstoy, the wrecker, executed in connection with the case of the '48'?"

"Yes, I knew him. How could I not know him when he was the director of the fishing industry in the north?" I replied in frank astonishment. "We both worked in it for more than twenty years."

"And did you know him well?"

"Very well."

"How long did you know him?"

"From childhood."

His manner changed completely; he hurriedly picked up a statement sheet and placed it in front of me.

"Write down your confession."

"What confession?"

"That you knew Tolstoy, that you were in friendly relation with him from such and such a time. I see that we will come to an understanding with you, your frankness will be appreciated. Write."

He evidently was in a hurry, did not quite know what he was saying, afraid that I might reverse my statements.

I took the sheet and wrote down what I had said.

"Excellent. Let's continue."

Then followed a barrage of questions about Tolstoy, about Scherbakoff and other people that I had known. He did not find me quite so tractable and we launched into a battle of wits that kept up hour after hour. He questioned me with insistence and in great detail, trying without success to make me give dates.

"You'll not succeed in outwitting me," he snapped sharply. "I advise you not to try. I am going home to dinner now and you will stay here till evening. This examination will continue—not for a day or two, but for months and, if necessary, for years. Your strength is not equal to mine. I will force you to tell us what we need."

After threatening me still further he handed me some sheets of paper.

"You are going to state in writing your opinion regarding the building of a utilization factory in Murmansk, its equipment and work in the future. I'll soon be back; when I return, your comments on these questions must be completed."

He put on his overcoat and left. His assistant took his place, and I busied myself with my writing. It was three or four hours before he returned, already evening.

Although I had eaten almost nothing for three days, I was still in good fighting form. He questioned me about the buying of a ship from abroad, trying to make me say that here was "wrecking," because the price had been exorbitant and the ship itself had proved unsatisfactory. It was most confusing and his questions far-fetched. We talked and we argued, but I would not give the answers he wanted.

He began on another tack.

"Well, and the wrecking in the filter factory? Didn't you notice that?"

"No. I had nothing to do with its work, but as far as I know, the factory functioned normally."

I certainly did not understand what he was driving at until he finally exclaimed:

"Well, and do you also think that the floor at the factory was normally laid? Did nothing happen to it? Wasn't it necessary to rebuild it in half a year?"

At last he had disclosed his secret. The circumstances were as follows: the floor in the cold room of the factory, where the filter-press stood, was covered with "linolite"—a special composition material used in the U.S.S.R. because they could get nothing better. One night, owing to the negligence of the manager of the factory, a Communist, the tank with cod liver oil was overfilled and many gallons ran out onto the floor. The "linolite" warped and had to be replaced. The new flooring had cost 20 roubles—the spilt oil more than one thousand.

I tried to explain to the examining officer what actually happened.

"Well, and in this case, you maintain, there was no 'wrecking'?"

"On whose part?" I asked. "On the part of the man who spilt the oil?"

"Certainly not. On the part of the engineer who intentionally covered the floor with a material which deteriorates from oil?"

My patience was getting exhausted. "May I ask you," I said, "what I have got to do with all this? What connection have I with the vessel you questioned me about, or with this floor, oil and factory? Is it because my laboratory was located there?"

"I need your opinion about these facts and your willingness to help us. And so you don't see any 'wrecking' in it?"

"No. I don't."

"All right," he said. "And what is your attitude regarding the subject of the fish supply in the Sea of Barents in connection with the construction of trawlers as provided for by the Five Year Plan?"

Now he had broached a subject with which I could have a direct connection. The evening was already changing into night, but I was still sitting in the same chair. I was becoming unconscious of time; was it my second day in prison or my tenth? In spite of the depressing weariness, mental and physical, which was taking hold of me, I told him that I thought the fresh fish supply should be minutely and thoroughly investigated. I tried to make him see the hazards of the fishing industry in Murmansk and the enormous equipment that would be necessary to meet the proposals of the Five Year Plan.

"And thus you confess that you doubted the practicability of the Five Year Plan?" he said with a smile of smug satisfaction.

What could one say? I believed, as did everybody, that the plan was absurd, that it could not be fulfilled. For exactly such statements—no, for only a suspicion of having such thoughts—forty-eight men had been shot.

"No!" I quickly replied, "I only point out the necessity of investigating the fish supply of the Barents Sea. I fail to understand why you  think that such an investigation would lead to a curtailment of the Plan and not to the contrary?"

"Make a written statement of your conclusions regarding this subject. I have to go now." he said with importance.

He left me with his assistant and again I wrote.

When he reappeared, I had finished. He picked up the sheets.

"Think over carefully everything we talked about today. Tomorrow I'll send for you early in the morning. Go back to your cell."

It was late at night. Everybody in the cell was asleep. Sokol awoke and insistently advised me to eat something, but I dropped on my straw mattress, asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.