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

Three Pillars of Solovki

There is a saying at Solovki that the camp rests upon three pillars: foul language, protection and denunciation. In this camp, I think, profanity—in which I include every form of vile speech—has reached its highest development. It is universally employed, by officials—as evidence of their power over prisoners, and by prisoners—as an expression of their contempt for a life of slavery, for all their surroundings, and for themselves.

The subordinate officials, together with the guard and the criminal element, delight in using the word "intellectual" combined with the foulest language imaginable. This practice is undoubtedly the result of "cultural-educational" work which aims to incite the criminals against the politicals and especially against the "intelligentsia"; it is a repercussion of the same campaign against the intellectual class which the Soviet Government has carried on for the last fifteen years.

This attitude is well illustrated by the Solovetzki version of "Little Red Riding Hood," here known as "Shourka Tcheruonchik"—the very name revealing her status as a lady of easy virtue. Wearing a red Komsomol  handkerchief around her head, she sets out for a party meeting of shock workers, but, once outside the confines of the camp, she meets a big, gray wolf who, baring his great teeth, asks her fiercely: "Where are you going, Red Riding Hood?"

"Get away from me you———intellectual," she replies with such a volley of unprintable words that the poor wolf runs away in terror.

Much more important than profanity, however, are the other two pillars of Solovki.

"Protection," meaning, in camp vernacular, the enjoyment of illegal privileges or preferred treatment, has actually been developed into a peculiar system which originated in the GPU, whose employees,—the Gepeists—enjoy in full measure the protection of the Soviet Government. A card bearing those three magic letters opens the door wide to opportunities for obtaining everything of which the millions of working people are deprived. The Gepeist may have his "living space" (apartment and wood for fuel), his provisions and clothing, a theatre seat or a reservation in a train,—all because of this protection and according to his relative position and his connections. And that is not all. He is not subject to the law of the land; he is above it. If he commits a serious crime, such as murder or rape, he is not held for trial by an ordinary court, but is dealt with in a "home" fashion. If he happens to have good connections within the GPU he is likely to get off quite free, if not—his punishment is reduced to a minimum, perhaps a transfer to another place of work within the same GPU.

In the camps, Gepeists thrive on protection in perhaps still greater measure. Their main support is Moscow and those who have connections in the Central Administration of Camps are fortunate indeed, yet even they need also "inside" camp protection for they are never satisfied with their legitimate and generous rations and remittances. Since many commissariat positions are held by prisoners, these in their turn gain protection with the authorities, obtaining from them various privileges, such as the right to live in "free" apartments, to be detailed outside the boundaries of the camp, or to receive permits for long visits from relatives. The life of such favored prisoners differs sharply from the existence of regular prisoners—peasants, workmen and specialists.

Among the regular prisoners, nevertheless, the same system is also widely used, but with much less success. The Gepeist through protection gets a nice apartment, furniture, export salmon, fresh caviar, pork, cream, imported clothes and perfumes: the regular prisoner can only hope to secure a few more centimeters of sleeping space, a chance to buy an extra 200 grams of black bread or a package of tobacco; and if he gets two or three pieces of sugar, or permission to take a walk through Kem unaccompanied by a guard, he boasts of having great protection.

Insignificant though they are, these material benefits are highly valued and their psychological effect, due solely to protection, is significant. The prisoner has a chance to raise himself above the gray subordinated mass, to gain at least a slight superiority over his fellows. This flatters him and introduces a kind of consolation into his cheerless life. For that reason he makes no attempt to conceal the fact, as would seem natural among comrades, but on the contrary in the majority of cases he boasts about it. His reputation for having "protection" makes life easier and further favors follow.

Striving to receive and enjoy this "protection," every prisoner is equally ready to bestow it. This is perhaps even more pleasing to his pride and is often also the result of a sincere desire to help others. A chance acquaintance in the camp, or work in the same group, or previous confinement in the same prison, bind one according to camp traditions to extend "protection" at all subsequent meetings. The cook will pour a few drops of mineral oil into your kasha, the acquaintance in the store will deem it his duty to hand you an extra box of matches, and the friend at the warehouse will pick out for you a pair of better boots.

Officially, to be sure, this system of protection is forbidden. All GPU stores of the Solovetzki camp in 1932 displayed two placards: "Nothing is given out through protection," and "Protection is buried"—to which the prisoners invariably added, "but its work lives on," paraphrasing the famous broadside: "Lenin is dead but his work lives on."

The most extraordinary case of "protection" I ever knew was that of the prisoner Lublinski (not his real name) whom I met at the Section of Fisheries. So characteristic is it of the relationship between the camp Gepeists and the protégés that I cannot refrain from describing it.

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning at the offices of the Ribprom. A gentleman came in, wearing a light black overcoat and carrying a cane. The overcoat was unbuttoned and one could see that under it he had on a well-pressed suit, a starched collar and a tie; around his neck a silk scarf, and across his waistcoat a watch chain. He had enormous horn-rimmed spectacles such as Communists who have been abroad affect. His face was ugly: a large wide nose, sensual open mouth and protruding ears. He took off his gray felt hat and wiped his bald head with a clean handkerchief of fine texture. He was about forty years old. In my inexperience, I decided that he must be some species of Gepeist or official of the Executive Committee. But he shook hands with all the prisoners, came up to me and introduced himself as "Edward Alexandrovitch Lublinski," and then sitting down on a stool with his back to the desk addressed the office manager in a languid voice: "Is Vsevolod Arkadievitch (the chief's assistant) here? No? Too bad! I have hurried to no purpose; I did not even stop to drink my coffee."

Then stretching himself and yawning, he drawled: I would like now to have a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream and a biscuit. Well, there's nothing to be done about it, not everything is possible; one has to suffer. I will take a walk. I'll go up to the lunchroom and have a cup of coffee. Does anyone want anything from the lunchroom for free employees? They have excellent little apple pies there for 25 kopeks each."

After collecting money from several men he strode off swinging his cane.

"Who is he?" I asked one of the prisoners, when he had gone.

"A prisoner, just like you and me. Does it astonish you? He is a 'protégé,' and a swindler. Be careful with him. Don't trust any money to him, not a kopek, he'll swindle you out of it as easy as anything. He has been caught many a time, but always gets out of it. Anyone else would long ago have been rotting in the 'isolator ' but this one, you see for yourself what a dandy he looks. He is close to the authorities; they call him the vilest names to his face but he is received in their homes, plays cards with them, gambles and when necessary loses money to them. He does their shopping, goes to the station to meet Gepeists and their wives, stands in line for train tickets, runs errands for the whole camp administration. It's said that he's an expert in arranging for all kinds of perversions to which Gepeists are greatly addicted. He lives well, too, better than when he was free, has a room in an apartment, takes his meals at the lunchroom for free salaried employees and gets more premium money than any other prisoner. Officially he is assigned to the Section of Fisheries but he does no real work. An extraordinary clever rogue but not an 'informer.' But remember don't trust him with any money."

"But who is he, what was he sent here for?"

"That's hard to say: everything he tells about himself is a lie. He says that he has lived abroad, graduated from Oxford, was director of some big company in America. He can't even do the work of a bookkeeper here but he certainly has other talents. One day we were sitting here, seven of us, hungry and very much depressed. We had tried to get a quart of milk from the Agricultural Section, but the chief refused a permit. Then Lublinski came in and modestly offered his services; he was just a novice then so we explained all about the need of a permit. He insisted, however, and went off with a kettle that would hold four quarts and he didn't ask for permission to leave the building. How we smiled! But very soon he came back and without a word put the tea kettle on the table. 'Well, were you turned back? You didn't have to wait in line?' we taunted him, but when we picked up the tea kettle it was full of milk. Four quarts! 'How did you get it? Who gave it to you?' He only shrugged his shoulders. After that he would bring us milk every day. Once one of us followed him to see how he did it. Very simple. At the milk department there would be a long line of guards, wives and servants, hired employees, nurses from the hospital. He would pass his tea kettle over the rail out of turn and in a calm voice would say: 'Milk, four quarts, for Lublinski.' The man serving milk would take the kettle from his hands respectfully and fill it to the brim. Nobody in the line said a word. Evidently it never occurred to anyone that this mysterious Lublinski was not some important visiting Gepeist."

As my comrade finished speaking Lublinski himself reappeared on the street walking by the side of the assistant chief of the Fisheries Section and nonchalantly swinging his cane. The guards saluted and Lublinski answered with a slight nod of his head.

Once inside the office he addressed the chief with inimitable insolence. "With your permission I have bought pies for my comrades in the lunchroom for the hired employees."

"How much does he charge you for the pies?" the chief asked us. "25 kopeks? This scoundrel is profiteering again. They cost only 20 kopeks."

Lublinski's only duty at the Fisheries Section was to obtain telephone connections with the Section's points located outside of Kem; this was no easy task for the service was poor, but he accomplished it admirably in this manner: "Operator! Hello! Do you hear who is talking? Do you know my voice? Yes, yes, it's Edward Alexandrovitch of the OGPU. I need to get Soroka immediately. The line is busy? Disconnect the party. You have no right to do it? You are going to be responsible for the delay, I have an urgent message from the OGPU. Disconnect immediately. Thanks. Hello?—Soroka? Give me the Fisheries Section. It's Lublinski of the OGPU who is talking" and so on.

He tried this method once too often. The line was busy but he proudly broke in: "You should recognize my voice yourself." Unfortunately for Lublinski, the Chief of the Camp Administration was calling—and for this insolence Edward Alexandrovitch was ordered to "general duty" at a lumber camp, which for the ordinary mortal meant death. Not so for him. He contrived, through protection, to travel without a guard, in all his finery, including gloves and spectacles, and a pile of suitcases. Arriving at the station he demanded horse transportation for himself and his luggage, and so, in state, appeared before the Chief of the lumber camp, who, assuming him to be a secret inspector, did not dare send him to work, but lodged and fed him well. Eventually, someone intervened and he was returned to Kem!

Lublinski is not an exception in the camp—there are many like him. When Soviet writers picture touching scenes of meetings with prisoners in concentration camps their eloquent pens are influenced by encounters with various Lublinskis, some smaller and some greater, but always of the same type.

The third pillar of Solovki—denunciation—is based upon three independent systems of spying which cover all the institutions of the camp, first—the secret agents of the ISO; second—the camp correspondents of the KVO; and third,—the "volunteers." According to prisoners with whom I talked and who had been in the camp many years, the ISO drafts its secret agents precisely as the GPU does "outside," selecting a victim suitable as a spy, usually a respectable political prisoner with a "bourgeois" past. He is promised a reduction of term, and if he refuses, is threatened with the initiation of a new case against him or the arrest of his relatives. His function is to "inform" about questions of general importance: the frame of mind of prisoners, the work of camp's institutions, the instances of "wrecking," and so on. He must inform not only against prisoners but also against free salaried Gepeists. By pure chance, the report of one such agent, included in some business correspondence, fell into my hands. I warned those of my comrades who might have been in danger, but did not speak about it to the "agent" himself. It was better not to expose him for he was less of a menace now that we knew him.

Besides these regular agents, there are always prisoners who are ready, if opportunity offers, to inform against other prisoners in the hope of bettering their own lot. Some of them are afraid of being accused of "failing to inform." Denunciations regarding preparations for escape are especially frequent and dangerous.

In the autumn of 1931 such a false denunciation nearly caused the death of an innocent man. The Section of Fisheries was sending small motor boats from the White Sea to Murmansk to catch herring; crews and captains were prisoners. When one of the boats entered a harbor to take on fresh water, the crew fell upon their captain, bound him and, summoning the GPU coast guard boat from Murmansk by telephone, gave him up, testifying that he had urged them to take advantage of the sea voyage to escape. The captain's situation was hopeless although the absurdity of the accusation was apparent. The captain had already been in camp eight years, had been out to sea many times, and had only a few days left to serve before the end of his term. Nevertheless he was kept in the "isolator" under the most trying conditions and his execution was delayed only because individual members of the crew had contradicted each other. For half a year he defended himself with exceptional courage and coolness, until finally he was set free—an event which was regarded as a miracle. But it was typical of the GPU that his accusers were not punished, in spite of the falseness of their denunciation.

The second spy system is operated by the KVO, the educational department, through its so-called "camp correspondents," already referred to, who, writing anonymously, supply information against prisoners. This is considered as "social work" and for this activity they are enlisted in the ranks of shock workers and receive various privileges. Their identity is quickly discovered in small camps, however, and then their position is not enviable; the prisoners, as well as the camp authorities, do everything in their power to have the correspondent removed to some other point and then warn his co-workers of his pleasing occupation.

The third category of informers is the most numerous and annoying, although possibly least dangerous. They are the so-called "volunteers," who try to gain protection from the authorities by informing about minor violations of camp regulations. Everything is reported: who spoke disrespectfully of the authorities, who is not sufficiently diligent in his work, who procured vodka, who had a conversation with a "free" person and so on.

Foul language, protection and denunciation are organically connected with the GPU system and reflect its moral level: they are the inner pillars of the GPU camp, the basis of that "industrious education" and "reforging" whose praises are being sung today by Soviet writers.