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

On to Moscow

Next morning, when I entered the office of the president of the Trust, Communist Mourasheff, he was savagely ringing the telephone bell and shouting:

"Hello! I can't speak! Every time you tap the line to listen in you disconnect it! . . . Do you hear, Comrade? . . . Why don't you answer? . . . I know you are there! . . . If the GPU has no electrician capable of fixing your line so you can listen in, I'll send you one from the Trust! . . . No—it's hopeless!" He threw down the receiver and turned to me.

"Hell! Since the last arrests I can't use the telephone. When they tap my line I can't hear a thing. . . . Good morning. You have been to confession; tell me all about it; nobody will hear us."

"I signed a pledge not to speak of it."

"What nonsense! With me it will go no farther! What did they ask? Did they mention my name?"

"They wanted to know details about the ship-building and about your journey abroad." I knew that was his weak spot.

"The cads! I'd like to see these scoundrels do any real constructive work. I'll have to go to Leningrad. No one here can think of anything but arrests and grillings. Nobody is doing any work. Damnation! And you will have to go to Moscow. You're wanted by the United Fisheries to confer with them about the Plan."

"The GPU will not let me go."

"We can arrange with the GPU."

In spite of this assurance I was still afraid that the GPU would prevent me from leaving Murmansk. Two more cross-examinations followed in which they threatened me because of my "insincerity," as they termed it, meaning my refusal to make false accusations against my friends and co-workers. Nevertheless, a few days later they did let me go, although I did not feel sure, even aboard the train, that I would not be arrested before it left the station—for that was a common practice of the GPU. But at last I heard the whistle and the train began to move. Through the window I could see the miserable buildings of the town. Approaching the GPU barracks the train slowed down to allow one of their agents to jump off the mail car where he had been sorting out letters for the censor. That was my last impression of Murmansk. The train took on speed and I could settle down in peace.

The first stage of the journey would carry me to Leningrad; this would take two days and during that time at any rate I would surely be free from arrest. Nor did I think I would be arrested upon my arrival. I could see my wife and boy again. The Soviet citizen is not exacting! For the moment I was almost happy.

I still cherished the vague hope, shared by all my fellow workers, that in Moscow we would find protection from the stupid tyranny of the Murmansk GPU, that the Communists at the head of the United Fisheries—the central department of the whole country's fishing industry—having known the accused men and their work for so many years, could not suspect us of wrecking activities. Besides, I was sure they would understand how these arrests were upsetting the entire industry.

Fortunately for me our train was fifteen hours late, so that I missed connection with the train for Moscow that evening and was able to spend a whole night and day at home. But the news I heard there was not cheerful. From my wife I learned of the senseless and cruel mass arrests of the intelligentsia both in Leningrad and Moscow. Young and old alike were being swept into prison; those who were well-known before the Revolution and those just out of Soviet universities. No distinction seemed to be made between those who had refrained from politics and those who had been active in the Bolshevik campaigns, nor between the men engaged in pure science and those working as scientists in industries. Among the arrested were historians of world-wide reputations, many museum workers, engineers of every specialty, doctors and, as always, many former army officers and members of the clergy. These victims had one thing in common—they were all intellectuals. Without the slightest doubt it was a campaign against the educated. Two years before, the world had heard of the "liquidations of the kulaks  as a class"; now it was the turn of the intelligentsia. Our position was in a way even worse than that of the kulak. The prosperous peasant could leave his house and land, go to a town or another district, become a proletarian and lose himself in the mass. We could not. Our capital and property was our knowledge, our training, our education—and it was just this that made us envied and hated by the Bolsheviks no matter where we were or what we did. Only death could deprive us of this property, and so we were made to suffer more cruelly than the kulaks.

My home in Leningrad had not been searched. The GPU are never logical; in Murmansk they had investigated my supply of sugar and flour and had raked out the ashes of my stove; in Leningrad they paid no attention to my real home. I knew, however, that sooner or later they would come, so I carefully looked over everything I had—old letters, photographs, manuscripts. I saw nothing that could possibly be incriminating, but I burned everything, even the photographs of my boy, to prevent their falling into the hands of the GPU.

I went on to Moscow without difficulty. Three trains left every evening and arrived in Moscow the next morning, equipped with many upholstered cars and a few international sleeping cars. On the train one could get bed linen, and tea with rusks, articles which had long disappeared from the general market. Most of the passengers were government officials but there was a scattering of foreigners. It was chiefly for their benefit that the station was kept in order—sometimes, when some important foreigner was passing through, the station was temporarily decorated with palms and laurel trees to give an effect of prosperity.

Two or three years before, on your arrival in Moscow you would have been met at the station by a double line of hotel agents vying for your patronage; and outside the station there had stood a long line of taxis. But in 1930 all these had disappeared. It was nearly impossible to find a hotel room and nobody dreamed of looking for a taxi. Everyone struggled for a foothold on the street cars, and the only way to spend a night was with friends, if only in a chair or on a chest.

Moscow always affected me by its special, quite individual, atmosphere; this the Bolsheviks could not destroy, however hard they tried. The Red Gates were standing at this time, though marked for removal. The Miasnitskaya was still the same, although nearer the center of the city the crowd was so big that the sidewalks could not hold it and pedestrians overflowed into the middle of the street. The street cars were filled to the utmost and many were always left waiting at every stop. There was little other traffic; occasionally an old, decrepit horse-drawn carriage or an official automobile speeding by with loud blasts from its horn. In spite of all the Bolshevik boasts about the motorization of Russia, there were very few busses even in Moscow. Taxis could never be found at their stands, for they were always being used by government organizations.

The old and the new buildings of the GPU stood as monuments of Socialistic construction in the large space between the Lubianka and the Miasnitskaya. Never before had such a prominent site been chosen, or so much money spent, to house the secret police. The old Butyrki prison, accommodating 15,000 had proved quite insufficient for the purposes of the GPU and so they built the immense "Inside Prison" within the square formed by their other buildings. Here, close to headquarters, prisoners could be examined with the most up-to-date technique. No foreigner would ever guess that this place of terror flourished there, right in the heart of the old city.

From the windows of the street cars the inhabitants of Moscow watched with interest the long lines in front of some shops.

"What are they giving out today?" one would ask.

"Vodka. See the people standing with bottles—one must bring one's own."

"It would be better if they sold some food," said another gloomily.

The Iverskaya chapel was demolished, but the inscription on the former town hall opposite it still remained: "Religion is opium for the people." A bright French correspondent at one time glibly rendered this: "Religion is the opinion of the people," and quoted it as proof of the Bolshevist broad-minded view in religious matters.

The gates of the Kremlin were closed and guarded by strong detachments of soldiers, and when they were opened for the passage of a government automobile one got a glimpse of the empty and lifeless Kremlin Square. Behind the strong walls and bayonets hid the "People's Government" by whose will and behest many of the worthiest people of the country were put behind other strong walls where they too were guarded by sentinels and bayonets.

The University and the Rumiantseff Museum were untouched and in good repair, especially outside, to show the respect in which culture is held. The Church of the Saviour was still standing at the time of my visit, but was already doomed. Behind it, on the other bank of the Moskva River, an immense building was being erected—the "House of the Government." While still under construction its purpose had been changed several times. The architect and several firemen had been shot because of a fire which started once in the scaffolding. In front of the "House of the Government" a new stone bridge was being built. The embankment was piled with marble slabs procured in Moscow cemeteries, on some of which one could still see parts of inscriptions such as "Here rests," "buried," "loving memory." It was said that these slabs were to be used to beautify the square.

On the Prechistenka in the house of F. B. Chelnakoff was the famous Tolstoy Museum, and in Morosoff's house the museum of new French paintings to which had been added the Schukin Collection. Some of the pictures had been sold, and the people of Moscow were sure that these collections would soon share the fate of the many others which had been liquidated. Already gone were the museum of rare china, the museum of furniture in Nescoutchnoe, the museum of the "forties" on the Sabatchi Place and many others. The era of Soviet liberalism and regard for the Fine Arts had ended.

When I went to Moscow I always stayed with V. K. Tolstoy, a great friend of mine who lived on Zuhoff Square. We had grown up together from childhood and had been brought still more closely together by our interest and work in the same field of science.

Tolstoy came from a poor family not belonging to the nobility. His father was a physician and had no other income than that which he earned by his modest practice. He had had five children and it was all he could do to provide for their education. They had lived very plainly and even the furnishings of their house consisted of nothing but beds and just the indispensable number of chairs and tables.

While still a student at the University, Tolstoy became interested in ichthyology and after graduation made it his specialty. He became well known for his serious and scientific research work. After the Revolution he gave himself with the same enthusiasm to practical work on a large scale and for eight years was director of the State fishing industry of both the Azof-Black Sea and Northern regions. During this time he published numerous articles on questions of fishing activity which showed that he had not entirely given up research; he also lectured from time to time on fishing at the Petrovsky Agricultural Academy. In 1929, when the direction of the fishing industry was transferred from the Fishing Union to the Political Bureau, a change which was decidedly leading the industry to its ruin, Tolstoy succeeded, after great difficulty, in being transferred from the Fishing Union to the Scientific Institute of Fishing Economy, where he engaged in purely theoretical work.

Tolstoy was not capable of simulating or of adapting himself to the requirements of the moment. With great persistence, intelligence and knowledge he approached the problem of planning for the fishing industry, patiently and insistently striving to introduce reason and sensible restrictions into the wild experiments of the Bolsheviks. He was in despair every time Party directives tended to destroy that which had been built up with such effort, threatening by their unfulfillable requirements to ruin the whole work. He would then go to the chiefs and insist on proving to them the folly of their orders and the injury they might cause the business, without ever stopping to consider the effect his persistence might have on his own position.

When the Bolsheviks preplanned the 1,500,000-ton catch for our North State Fishing Trust, Tolstoy undertook, by assignment from the Scientific Institute, an enormous and highly interesting research study on the basis of which he proved the inefficiency of using more than 125 trawlers in the restricted region of the Sea of Barents. When Tolstoy read the report on the results of his research at the Scientific Institute and later before the Technical Council of the Fishing Union none of the Communists present raised any objections. How much courage was needed to present such a report can be seen from the fact that many of the Communists were afraid even to go to the meeting, and those who could not avoid going remained silent, although they clearly understood that the Government assignments were unfulfillable and perhaps they even hoped that Tolstoy's report would cause these to be modified. Not one criticized the report, but neither did anyone uphold its author.

Tolstoy lived alone and very poorly. Even during the period of the NEP he never had money enough to be properly dressed even by Soviet standards, and would joke good-naturedly about the holes in his boots.

Upon my arrival in Moscow, I was very glad to find him at home. I immediately asked him what steps were being taken in Moscow to obtain the release of Scherbakoff and Krotoff, my associates in Murmansk, and what were the general conditions.

"My dear friend," said Tolstoy, "we have done everything we could, but we understand nothing. We have had a vague sort of promise that the GPU would set Scherbakoff and Krotoff free, but arrests are going on everywhere and no one feels safe. Here in Moscow Patrikeeff of the Fishing Union has been arrested, probably because he once served in the army. Frumkin has just returned from the Far East where he found everything in good order; but, in spite of this, arrests are taking place there; yet he, the chief, does not interfere with them. Something incomprehensible is going on. And it's fearful to think what will happen at the end of the year, for in all the regions, the same as in yours, impossible assignments have been given. In the Far East, for instance, they've included in the program the construction of two hundred trawlers, where now they have only one boat, and that from Germany. They don't know even where to look for the fish or what kinds to catch. They don't know whether they should fish in the Japan Sea, the Bering Sea or the Sea of Okhotsk. They seem to be in a worse position than your Trust. Neither the Japanese nor the Americans have ever used trawlers in that region, and now we are going to build two hundred. There are no men, no wharves, no base—but the order is to build at any cost."

Tolstoy shook his head in despair and then continued: "The general assignment for this year for the whole industry is 1,900,000 tons of fish; we shall be lucky if sixty per cent of this is filled. That means more arrests! Next year the order is to catch 2,200,000 tons. Pure madness! I'm so glad I gave up work in the industry and have nothing more to do with planning. It's enough to drive anyone crazy! Scientific work is much more peaceful."

As soon as he had finished talking I told him in detail about how things stood in Murmansk, how our Vice-President, Gasheff, had decided that we could increase production by 25% and so attempt to fulfill the plan by salting the cod with their heads on, and what arrests had been made. I also informed him about the perquisitions and cross-examinations. We seemed able to talk only of unpleasant and terrible things, in spite of the fact that we had rejoiced at meeting one another again.

The following day I accompanied Tolstoy to the Fishing Union where Kryshoff, the senior director of the Fishing Industry, offered me the position of President of the Commission developing the plan for the Northern Fishing Region. Knowing, as I did, that the plan could not possibly be finished in the time allowed I refused this offer, but as I had no desire to return to Murmansk, I agreed to remain in Moscow as a consultant.