We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. — Winston Churchill

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




We Move to Kresti

On the morning of January 25, 1931, we learned that five hundred men were to be transferred to the "Kresti" prison. General commotion followed. Many, especially old-timers, were very distressed for with the transfer they would lose all their privileges. We were all grieved at the thought of losing our small but valued possessions such as needles, pieces of string and home-made knives, which would most certainly be taken from us in the search which always accompanies such a transfer.

The disturbance and confusion created by the administration's demand of immediate execution of orders were exceedingly depressing. For hours we were kept standing in the cell awaiting the humiliating procedure of being searched; for hours we were checked, our names entered into lists, counted and recounted; for hours we were kept waiting for the "black crow" which, filled to the utmost, transported us in groups to the other side of the Neva to Kresti. Those who were awaiting transportation and had already been searched, counted and registered were guarded not by the prison guard, whose number had proved insufficient, but by ordinary soldiers of the GPU. They looked at us with curiosity and entered cautiously into conversation.

"What are you imprisoned for, Comrade?"

"Who knows, I don't know myself," was the usual reply.

"That's it, all are like that. Why do they keep people like you in prison? Thieves are free to infest the streets, but good people are kept in prisons."

"Not so loud," another soldier warned him, "don't you see—the spy?" and he nodded towards the approaching prison warden.

At last came my turn. We were pushed into a closed wagon, packed so tightly that the last ones had to be pressed in with the closing door. We were rushed away, the embankment of the Neva whisked by the little window; then came a sharp turn and we entered the prison yard.

Before the Revolution the cells of Kresti had been equipped for one inmate: a folding cot, a table, a chair, a cupboard for food utensils and clothes, a washstand and a toilet in the form of a wooden box with a cover and a pail inside. After the Revolution all this equipment had been broken and destroyed. In place of the cot were rough boards on low trestles, in place of the toilet a dented, unbelievably dirty, rusty pail with no cover whatever. This pail could be carried out for emptying only twice a day; one can imagine the stench that permeated the cell. Moreover, in accordance with the Soviet principle of crowding people together, at least five men were placed in each cell—two of them could sleep on the rough boards and the others on the floor. Six men were placed in many of the cells and in some even ten. With only five prisoners in our cell there was not room to walk around, and the only exercise we had was when we were led out for our one minute washing in the lavatory at the end of the corridor and during the fifteen minutes' exercise in the prison yard.

Besides all these hardships, we were confronted with intense cold and terrible dampness. Water literally ran down the walls in spite of our continually wiping them, the floors were wet all the time and the window panes covered with a thick coating of frost.

My cell-mates turned out to be new ones to me and presented a rather varied assortment. The senior by position and respect was a Professor E. whom I had known previously from his scientific works. He had been in prison for two years and was accused of counter-revolution. For the last three months he had not been taken to cross-examinations and he was expecting to receive his verdict at any time. Then there was an artillery officer of the old army who had been in prison for a long time. The Tartar who was with us had been arrested recently; formerly the head janitor of a big apartment house, he was being held in connection with the case of the Moslem priest Bigeeff, who had escaped abroad. Many Tartars had been arrested in connection with this case. The other member of our group was an old jeweler, an employee of the state jewelry store. He had been in prison four months and was the only one of us who did not know of what he was being accused; up to that time he had not yet been taken to a single cross-examination.

In spite of the diversity of our professions we all very quickly became friends, a matter of great importance because our quarters here were perhaps more crowded than at the Shpalerka. We began by strictly regulating our day.

In the morning before "tea" we had gymnastics under my direction. And before exercise time in the yard Professor E. and I gave something like popular lectures. After dinner everyone kept quiet, busying himself with his own affairs. Professor E. usually formulated chess problems or made some small article for our comfort—a shade for the lamp, a cover for the toilet pail or small shelves. Tools and materials lost during the transfer were again being picked up and utilized with an ingenuity of which only a prisoner is capable. For a long time I occupied myself with modeling chessmen, pipes and cigarette holders out of bread which was previously subjected to a special treatment. All this was, of course, done in secret because the tools—pieces of tin, glass, wire and the like—and the materials which we used, except for the bread, were being obtained in violation of prison regulations. Usually we picked up all our treasures in the yard during exercise or when we were being led to the bathhouse. I have to admit that prison boredom made us so proficient in this respect that once I even succeeded in stealing from the yard a whole log of wood which became for us a source of endless handicrafts.

In the evening we told each other stories, mostly personal experiences, so that we would not discuss "cases" or dwell on prison actualities.

In spite of our miserable existence, the extremely crowded conditions, putrid air, darkness and dampness, I felt that I was resting and that my nerves were becoming calmed. The organization and the friendly atmosphere in our cell had a restful influence after the chaos and noise of the common cell at Shpalerka. The examining officer seemed to have forgotten me completely. Somehow I could not bring myself to believe that I might suddenly be taken to execution or be deported. And what if they released me? What if I were to return home and see my family again? Would I work again—under the constant threat of new imprisonment? Work, and take the place of my executed comrades? Never! In the "freedom" of my native land there was no place for me.