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

Daily Life in Prison

I was not sent for the next morning, and day after day passed without my being summoned to another cross-examination. So it was that my acquaintance with prison life really began on the third day of my imprisonment. The first two had been passed in the examiner's office. I knew only that in a cell meant for twenty-two prisoners were herded one hundred and nine men, and this number soon increased to one hundred and fourteen.

There was insufficient air; a dense cloud of tobacco smoke hung over the room so that windows had to be kept open, and a strong draft blew continually between the windows and the grilled door which opened into the corridor. Many suffered from colds, and quarrels about the opening and closing of windows never ceased.

When people are compelled to live together for a long time they usually irritate each other and hatred follows. In common cells strangers were forced to live together for months, sometimes even for years, in conditions so crowded that for each person there was only about one-half square meter of floor space. Only the high general level of culture of the prisoners in our cell and the strict regulations devised and enforced by them made life at all possible. They had regulated everything: the order of getting up, washing, using the toilet, walking in the cell, opening of windows, cleaning of the cell, keeping of clothing, bedding and food, order during dinner and tea and the use of newspapers and books from the library.

In command of the cell were a foreman and his assistant, elected by the prisoners. These men maintained general order and enforced the established rules; offenders were punished by being detailed out of turn to clean the cell or wash the floor. The foreman kept a list of prisoners and had to know at all times the number of inmates present in the cell, taken out to cross-examination, punitive cells, hospital and so on. He chose men for the various details: kitchen work, cleaning potatoes, stuffing mattresses and the carrying out of other prison chores. He was the intermediary between the prisoners and the administration and the arbitrator in disputes among the inmates. The foreman and his assistant were privileged to sleep on cots, sit at the table, wash and use the toilet out of turn. Their duties were varied and most unpleasant, their privileges insignificant.

Seniority is of great importance; the novice gets the worst place, he eats standing and is the last to wash. In every cell one is supposed to begin one's "career" from the bottom and, therefore, those who had already spent several months in one cell, when transferred to another, have to crawl for the night under the boarding and suffer the disadvantages of a newcomer. The examining officers know this rule and, when wishing to make conditions worse for the prisoner, transfer him without any reason from one cell to another. In our cell the question had been brought up several times of changing this regulation so as to have the length of the entire stay in prison and not that in the given cell taken into account. Every time, however, the suggestion was voted down because of the advantage such a change would give to those transferred to other cells for disorderly conduct and to the "spies" who are continually being moved from one cell to another.

Two or three of these spies are always placed in each common cell—sometimes they are prisoners themselves. They listen to conversations and pass them on to examining officers, but usually they do not stop there. Simulating sympathy they strive to find out various details relative to the case, family and personal circumstances and other useful information; and they urge the inmates to "confess." But a spy is very soon discovered and then he goes to another cell where he finds himself again in the least privileged position.

The day in the cell began at seven o'clock when the monotonous command of the guards "Time to get up! Get up! Get up!" resounded in the corridors. Before seven o'clock, but not earlier than six, the twenty-two senior prisoners were allowed to get up. Each had thus three minutes for washing—a great privilege. The remaining ninety prisoners must wash during the one hour, from seven to eight, before "tea time."

As soon as the order to get up was given, noise, talk, coughing, loud yawns and the creaking of lifted boardings filled the cell. Cigarette smoke rose from every side. The air became thick with dust from the dirty straw mattresses which were being folded. Long lines at once formed to the toilet and lavatory.

After the mattresses and boarding had been taken out and the cots folded up, preparations for "tea" were begun. The foreman detailed four men for bread and two for hot water. The bread, of poor quality similar to that found everywhere in the U.S.S.R., was brought to the cell cut into rations of four hundred grams each. Those who were receiving food remittances from outside did not always eat their ration; for the others it was insufficient, especially for the workmen and peasants who were used to eating much bread.

"Tea," or rather hot water, was brought in two large copper kettles—remnants of the luxury of Tsarist days. Tea and sugar were not supplied to the prisoners, only to those who were ranked by the Bolsheviks as "political prisoners," that is those who belonged to the Communist Party and were detained for "deviations" and "leanings."

Everybody would then rush to the cupboard where, in twenty-two slots, utensils for more than a hundred men were stowed away. Each of us had a tin bowl, a mug and a wooden spoon, but one was fortunate if at meal time he could find his own. Finally everybody would get settled at the tables in strict order of seniority and from ten to twenty would be left standing. Those who received food parcels would drop into their mugs a small pinch of tea, a luxury even outside the prison. "Tea" drinking lasted until nine.

Then came the call for general cleaning and the resulting confusion. Tables, benches, personal belongings, everything would be moved to one side; and with them, all but three men. The cleared side of the cell was cleaned by the man appointed to this duty and his two assistants. The floor was sprinkled with sawdust and swept, and twice a week it was washed. When one side was done everything would be moved over there and the other side cleaned.

The general cleaning lasted until eleven. During the period from eleven to one the prisoners from the common cells were led out into the yard for exercise scheduled to last half an hour for each group. Subtracting the time spent for roll-calls and passing through corridors it actually lasted only fifteen or twenty minutes, and took place in the inner yard surrounded on all four sides by the walls of the prison building. On account of the overcrowded condition of the prison the inmates of three common cells—about three hundred men—were simultaneously led out together, producing a great congestion in the limited space. But exercise meant a great deal to us; even fifteen minutes in the fresh air was refreshing after the terrible stuffiness of cells; moreover, we were permitted to talk at this time with prisoners from other cells. Examining officers realized how much prisoners valued even this short period and, therefore, as a means of coercion, exercised their power of permitting and forbidding exercise.

About twelve o'clock newspapers and magazines were brought to the common cells; those in solitary confinement usually being deprived of them. One of the prison superintendents acted as distributor of papers and he made a fair profit on the job. Formerly newspapers could be bought in any quantity, but now, with the acute paper shortage, they were scarce even "outside" and for the prison the number of copies was extremely limited. Speculation arose among the prison guards who began buying up old, discarded magazines and papers and reselling them to prisoners at the regular price. We bought these back numbers because we were willing to read anything to make life less monotonous, and we were badly in need of paper of any kind. Newspapers were, of course, always a cause of great excitement and were read through from top to bottom, including all the advertisements.

About one o'clock preparations for dinner began. This meal consisted of soup and cereal. There were two kinds of soup: sauerkraut or barley with potatoes. It was supposed to contain beef, but the meat itself never reached the prisoners; it was thoroughly scraped from the bones and used in preparing various delicacies for the GPU lunchroom. (I know this because at one time I worked in the prison kitchen.) Only the "political" prisoners received a small piece of meat for dinner.

The second course was a cereal, kasha  : poorly shelled barley (nicknamed "shrapnel"), millet or sometimes buckwheat. Both the soup and cereal were cooked by steam in special boilers under high pressure, transforming the former into a malodorous, muddy liquid and the latter into a sticky substance void of all nutriment.

Dinner time for so large a number lasted for more than an hour, although ten minutes would have sufficed for each man to consume his portion. Then the table boards were again removed and those who had cots lay down, the rest of us trying to find some more comfortable place on benches near the wall where one could lean back. It was the "dead hour" and we were not allowed to move about or talk. This was no easy time—two hours on a narrow bench; many preferred to crawl under the cots and lie on the floor. At about four o'clock the command came to "get up" and the preparations for the evening meal of cereal and "tea" began.

So passed the whole day in petty bustle, endless moving about and waiting in line. The quietest time was between six and nine when it was possible to squeeze into a seat at a table and read by the dim light of one of the two 25-watt lamps in the ceiling or else get into a corner for a talk with someone.

This was also the hour fixed for lectures or discussions to divert the thoughts from prison actualities. Among the prisoners were many men of diverse specialties. I remember listening to lectures on "The Manufacture of Glass," "Iron," "Contemporary Views of the Structure of Matter," and many other topics. I was asked to speak on geographical and biological subjects, and I tried to tell in the most interesting manner about the different countries I had visited during my numerous expeditions, recalling incidents, types of people and anything that would at least for a time cause prison life to be forgotten. Sometimes I succeeded. The whole cell, including the workmen, peasants and criminals who could not understand many of the other talks, listened attentively.

The common people were always friendly to me. I never felt that animosity between the intellectual and the man from the crowd which Dostoevski describes in his "Memoirs from the House of the Dead" and which is also described by others who had formerly been in exile. I often met with a thoughtfulness and kindness on their part which touched me deeply.

During my first lecture, the subject of which was my expedition into Western Mongolia to the sources of the Irtish, I noticed with surprise that the criminals listened to me with excited attention. My young bandit friend, Vania Efimoff, who was unable to say anything without swearing, looked straight at my mouth, afraid to lose a word. Once in a while he would let out a cry of enthusiasm which he could not restrain.

"Ah, son of a bitch, how he speaks! You could not read the like even in a book!"

This lecture of mine appealed to his adventurous heart and he became touchingly devoted to me. He liked to sit down on the floor near my bench, to put his head on my knees and dream and plan that, in case we both were freed, I would go on an expedition again and take him along. Alas! He knew too well that these were only dreams.

One day, sitting near me thus, he told me the story of his short life—he was only eighteen years old. His father, a peasant and a poor one, was left a widower with five children, the oldest of whom, Vania, was then seven. Later, the father took a second wife, a rich widow, but in doing so deceived another woman about whom Vania knew. So at the age of nine he left his father, whom he now despised, and went away with his two brothers aged seven and five. He left the girls with his father, but the boys he decided to take care of by stealing in the market. Thus began his thief's career—prison colonies for young criminals, escapes, new imprisonments, gradual specialization in theft and, finally, the accusation of banditry. None the less he cherished a firm belief that there should be in man justice, truth, principles and honesty which he demanded even in prison life.

For example: once it so happened that the task of washing the cell fell to a tradesman imprisoned with us. Washing the cell is dirty, disagreeable work; only the old and the sick are freed from it. This tradesman made an arrangement with a workman, imprisoned for stealing soup from a cooperative store, who agreed to do his task for one rouble. Efimoff found out about this agreement, and as soon as the workman began washing the floor he dashed at him and in a voice vibrating with rage declared that he would not let him do it, that it was cowardice for prisoners to employ each other. Seeing that the affair was going to end in a fight—Vania was strong and agile—the workman backed out and returned the rouble to its owner.

"If you have no money, ask for it and we will gladly share, but do not sell yourself in prison," grumbled Vania.

Vania rendered me many a service, but one was especially touching. In one of her early packages to me my wife sent a little tobacco in a pouch made from a piece of an old silk dress of hers. I lost it one day when we were taking our mattresses out of the cell. Vania noticed that I was grieved and insisted on finding out what the matter was. He crawled all over the cell, looked under every plank, quarrelled with half of the people, but found the pouch and brought it to me with a victorious and joyful air, as if it were a happiness for him, too.

"I understand," he said, "it comes from home."

I carried this pouch with me through all my prison life.

Undoubtedly Efimoff could have been developed into a steady, strong man. But the Soviet system, which likes to boast of its ability to reeducate people, preferred to "liquidate" him, in spite of his eighteen years.

One evening, as we all were going to sleep, Efimoff and Pavel Sokol were called out "with their belongings." Near the door of the cell stood several guards and the assistant commissar of the prison. There could be no doubt—execution.

Vania had hidden a knife which the criminals used for shaving.

"Hey! Shall we?" he asked Pavel. "It's easier to die in a fight."

"Leave it!" answered Pavel with artificial calmness. "The devil take them!"

He spoke slowly and evenly, but the cigarette between his lips, his last one, trembled and would not light. Pavel walked out slowly, bent over, as if with great effort; Vania with quick steps, his eyes shining. As he reached the door he shouted loudly:

"Do not remember me unkindly, comrades! Good-bye!"