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

Priests, Workmen and Poets

The percentage of workmen held in the Shpalernaya prison was negligible as the majority of them when arrested passed through Kresti and suburban prisons. Even in our prison, however, they were well represented as to diversity.

Those workmen who were detained in connection with the case of the "48" were of greatest interest to me. Employees and workmen of the U.S.S.R. had become accustomed to vote with complete indifference for or against anything—as required: against "British lords" who looked down on the workers' state "through their monocles and lorgnettes," as one orator expressed it; against the Pope of Rome, who had proclaimed some kind of incomprehensible "crusade"; against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, in spite of the fact that in the U.S.S.R. scores and perhaps hundreds were being done away with and nobody seemed to be worrying about it. The same indifference was displayed in voting for industrialization, collectivization, "shock" work and many other programs. A certain hopeless resistance was evidenced only when a subscription to a new state bond issue had to be accepted—a subscription which called for no less than a whole month's pay—100 per cent participation—and which reduced yearly earnings by about 15 per cent. But, in spite of such a systematic and lengthy training in directed voting, not all workmen accepted calmly the suggestion of adopting the resolution calling for the death of the forty-eight "wreckers" of the workers' supply organization. As a result many found themselves in the Shpalernaya prison. We had in our cell three workmen belonging to this group. One of them, a Communist and a Czech by nationality, was arrested for saying at the meeting:

"If there existed such wreckers, and if they were carrying on wrecking activities for five years, then the GPU should be disciplined for tolerating such counter-revolution."

Well, he was himself "disciplined," with the prospect of deportation to a concentration camp.

A peculiar case in the prison was that of a poet-proletarian. He did not belong to the type of wily individuals who called themselves proletarian poets, sang the praises of industrialization, joined the Gepeists in their drinking parties, courted the latters' ladies and in general, as it is termed in the U.S.S.R., were "gaining 120 per cent favorable footing." He was a real factory workman, disinterestedly devoted to poetry which he considered a service to truth.

He had written a poem about factory life. He had written poetry before but because of his shyness had never shown it to anyone. This poem, however, had seemed wonderful to him and he took it to the factory committee in order to have it published in the wall-newspaper. The poem in which he told of the hardships of a workman's life, the hunger in the family burdened by a large number of small children, was returned to him with the notation that he should be ashamed to approach the committee with such a "counter" (counter-revolution) and that in general his ideology was rotten and dangerous. The same night a search was made in his room; the returned copy of the poem, its first draft, two or three other poems and the poet himself were all collected and taken to the GPU.

At the cross-examination, crushed by the catastrophe which had befallen him, he completely lost his head. With great agitation and hoping that I might help him with advice he related all the details to me:

"The examining officer said to me, 'You wrote this for the purpose of anti-Soviet agitation!' I explained to him that there was no agitation in the poem, that I took it to the factory committee and had shown it to nobody else.—That's true, I hadn't shown it to anybody," he confirmed, looking honestly into my eyes. "The examining officer listened to me, then took a sheet of paper, asked my name and the other usual information and wrote out a statement as if I was testifying that I had composed this poem with the purpose of agitation against the Soviet Government and had transcribed it for distribution among the workmen of the factory. He handed this statement to me and ordered me to sign it. I started to tell him that what he had written was not true, but he began shouting at me: 'You damned fool, where do you think you are? Do you dare to argue here? Do you think we have time to be bothered by you?' And he went on swearing even more wildly. 'Write,' he said, 'you son of a bitch, once I order you to!'" "Well?" I queried, as he stopped and became gloomily silent.

"Well, I signed."

"But why did you do it?"

"He had ordered me. What else was I to do?"

"If he had ordered you to sign a statement that you had killed your own father, would you have done it?" I asked.

"No—I don't know, perhaps I wouldn't have signed it," he said aghast, "but now, what shall I do?"

He seemed in complete despair, perhaps realizing only now the irreparable consequences of his act and not having the fortitude to resign himself to the inevitable.

"I didn't say it," he continued, "he wrote it all himself. I thought that if I refused to sign he would again say that I was against the Soviet Government. I signed, and now I see that I have destroyed myself. Some advise me to write a denial, that perhaps then they will destroy the first report. The examiner himself knows it is false. Why should he want to destroy me? I'm not a class enemy—I'm a workman."

It was evident that after the signing of such a statement he was lost. The examining officer had drawn from him everything he needed and he did not send for him again. There was nothing for the workman-poet to do but wait for his sentence.

Proletarian origin helped people out only in cases which involved real, and at that, criminal offenses. We had such a workman in our cell. He had stolen sixteen pieces of soap from a cooperative store—a simple case—but the GPU had insisted that the theft, so committed, revealed a definite intent to harm the workmen's supply system. His psychology was completely Soviet but he was nevertheless accused of "wrecking." The laborers in the cell despised him and called him "Soap." The professional thieves teased him, saying that he was degrading their trade. But at length the GPU declined to prosecute and he was told that his case would be referred to the People's Court, where he would be tried as an ordinary thief.

"Hurrah for the Soviet Government!" he shouted, on his return to the cell. "Everything is arranged. 'Taking into account the proletarian origin, sincere repentance and low self-consciousness the sentence is to be considered conditional,'" he declaimed. "To our workmen's Soviet Government—hurrah! Go to Solovki without me! Goodbye!"

There were in the U.S.S.R. periods of special persecution of former functionaries, officers, intelligentsia, peasants and specialists of productive enterprises. These persecutions increased, diminished and again grew in intensity according to the various turns of the political wheel, reaching their climax after the promulgation of the Five Year Plan. The persecution of the clergy, however, which began during the first days of the Soviet attainment of power, never ceased. It continued in spite of the widely-heralded assertions of complete religious freedom which the Soviet Union tried to prove by exhibiting to "illustrious foreigners" like Bernard Shaw some church that had not yet been destroyed. The citizens of the U.S.S.R. knew very well that clergymen were continually being arrested and that it was difficult to find a priest to read the burial service over the faithful. During my stay in the Shpalernaya prison there were always in each cell from ten to fifteen persons held in connection with cases involving questions of religion. And there were some of them in isolation cells, so that their total number must have been about 10 per cent of all the prison inmates. They were formally indicted under Article 58 (Pars. 10 and 11) as being guilty of counter-revolutionary agitation and participation in counter-revolutionary organizations—the penalty for which was from three years in concentration camps to capital punishment with confiscation of all property.

I have already told about the GPU methods of building up accusations and staging trials. The fabrication of religious "cases" was no exception to the general rule. The same wholesale arrests of people who did not even know one another; the same pressure to force them to give false evidence, to sign false depositions, or sometimes only to word their statements in such a manner that the church, for instance, would be called an "organization" without stating, of course, what kind of an organization; the same fantastically concocted accusations of agitation and plotting against the Soviet Power. These were easier for the GPU to build up than any other kind, because a sentence taken at random from any sermon, after misrepresentation by the examining officer, could be construed as counter-revolutionary propaganda. A few simple and devout old men and women, not appreciating the insidiousness of the questions put to them by the examining officers could, while answering quite honestly and sincerely, give material for further indictments. There was such an instance in our cell, a man whose two sons fifteen and sixteen years old were in the same prison, while his wife was detained in the women's section. Their only crime was that they were church-goers, but their position was hopeless because the boys, at the instigation of the examining officer, had signed a statement that they belonged to an "organization." This officer had told them that the church is a group or, in other words, an organization of the faithful and that any member of the church belongs to it. The boys testified that their father and mother belonged to the same organization, and the examining officer construed this statement as counter-revolutionary. Such testimony was more than sufficient to condemn them all to concentration camps, since in the U.S.S.R. any  non-government "organization" is considered counter-revolutionary.

The same methods were used to build up the case of the Cronstadt church, whose clergy, church warden and many parishioners were arrested.

Besides these special cases, the Soviet authorities take advantage of every possibility to molest the clergy, and in nearly every "campaign" they were among the accused. In 1930, for instance, there was a shortage of small change and the government declared a campaign against "speculation in silver." Raids were organized and anyone found with more than 3 roubles in silver was punished. Those who had 20 or 30 roubles' worth of silver in their possession were shot or deported to prison camps. No law had been previously passed forbidding the hoarding of silver; in fact, only a short time before, there had been a government campaign to encourage savings arid the State Bank had issued special small savings banks for change. Now the possession of such a savings bank was considered a crime. This campaign against hoarding silver was very useful in "liquidating" the clergy. This is how it was done:

Immediately after a church service, preferably on a holiday, a searching party of the GPU would appear and, of course, find the change that the parishioners had put on the plate for the use of the church. The priest, the deacon and the church-warden would be arrested and accused of "speculating in silver." The "proofs" being at hand, the case would be settled without delay, the priest in many cases being sentenced to the highest degree of punishment—shooting, the others deported. During this period the list of priests accused in this way of "speculation in silver" was published in the newspapers with the intention of raising popular feeling against them, because, since small change was required of them for all payments to the government (such as street car and train fares, telephone calls and the like) the population was really suffering from the shortage of silver. One of the priests who was detained in the same cell with me (where newspapers were allowed) read his own name in one of these lists, followed by the notation that the sentence had been carried out. Shortly after, he was taken directly from our cell and shot.

Those who were arrested in the religious trials displayed characteristic fortitude. Most of them accepted their arrest as a trial sent by God and as persecution for faith and truth and did not try to resist the examining officer. In some individuals this attitude stood out with special clarity and, of course, did not lend to any lightening of their sentence. On the contrary, the examiner never lost an opportunity to take advantage of it.

Such prisoners did not try to conceal their faith and religion. Every evening they would gather in the corner of the cell farthest from the guards and sing prayers quietly, almost in a whisper. The general noise in the cell would cover their voices and they could not be heard by the guard in the corridor.

Most of the accused in the religious cases in our cell belonged to the New Church, but there were also some representatives of the Old Church. One of the most remarkable men in this latter group was the priest, Father V. A cultured and educated man, he bore himself with such dignity and kindness that even the most worldly-minded people in the cell abstained from mockery and stupid jokes in his presence. He never spoke of his "case," but we knew from others that during his cross-examination he had been very brave and dignified. We knew also that he was in great danger.

One evening in December 1930 at eleven o'clock he was called out of the cell "with his belongings." This usually means execution. Father V. remained as cool and collected as ever, but he paled a little and his eyes gleamed. Quietly, trying not to wake his neighbors, he gathered his belongings, made the sign of the cross, saluted silently those who had awakened and left the cell. We felt sure that he had been shot, but later learned that he had been placed in solitary confinement. What his ultimate fate was I do not know.