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

48—To Be Shot

I have no power to describe what I felt after the arrests of my fellow-workers. I knew that I was standing over an abyss and that there was nothing I could do. The fact that I was still free was pure chance and could only be explained by inefficiency on the part of the GPU, which did not have my name on its lists merely because I had just recently arrived in Moscow from the provinces.

Not knowing which way to turn in the midst of this confusion, I demanded a leave of absence. Evidently the Communist chiefs must have been affected by the general confusion arid have let their natural suspicions lapse, for I was granted this leave and went at once to Leningrad to rejoin my family.

I had no hope for a favorable outcome of the cases of my associates and co-workers in the fishing industry, for I knew that the GPU, in depriving the country of indispensable specialists, was acting according to instructions received from the Political Bureau. Nevertheless, it was a shock to me when I saw in the morning paper on the 22nd of September the following headlines printed in huge letters:


And below in smaller, but sufficiently prominent type:

"The GPU has disclosed a counter-revolutionary, wrecking and spying organization within the system supplying the population with the most essential food products (meat, fish, canned foods, vegetables), which had for its aim the producing of famine in the country and the causing of dissatisfaction among the workers—thereby attempting to precipitate the downfall of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The following institutions were contaminated by this wrecking activity: the Meat Union, Fishing Union, Canning Union, Vegetable Union and the corresponding branches of the Commissariat of Trade.

"The counter-revolutionary organization was headed by Professor Riazantseff, former land-owner and Major-General, and Professor Karatigin, before the Revolution chief editor of the 'Trade and Industrial Paper' and the 'Financial News.' The members of the counter-revolutionary organizations in their majority belong to the nobility, are former Tsarist officers and supply corps men, former fishing industrialists, manufacturers and Socialists-Mensheviki.

"This counter-revolutionary wrecking organization was in close contact with the White emigration and representatives of foreign capital, receiving from them financial aid and directions. This organization is now completely exposed.

"The case has been handed over to the GPU."

Below this announcement followed the "confessions" and "testimony" of the accused men, in which the most prominent professors, scientists and specialists of the country told in an incoherent and contradictory manner of the "wrecking" activity, of their attempt to produce famine in the country, of receiving for their "wrecking work" money from abroad in mysterious and incomprehensible ways. These statements were simply incredible. From the point of view of evidence they were absurd.

In that part of the "incriminating" material, presented by the GPU, which dealt with the leaders of the "organization" there was not a single document proving the stated "facts"; everything was based on "voluntary confessions," but these not only did not confirm the "facts," but on the contrary contradicted them as well as each other. At the same time one could not find in any of the "confessions" an indication of the slightest desire on the part of the "guilty" to reduce the extent of their "crime" or to shift it to others; on the contrary, every one of them sought to emphasize that he had played an important, leading and active role in this "wrecking" organization. Each one, apparently, endeavored to do everything possible to further his own conviction and execution and made no attempt to shield others—they all named many persons and gave many "facts."

It is difficult to say by what means such "confessions" and "testimony" were obtained. Although the true picture of this terrible case will probably never be revealed, one thing is clear—that all the information published by the GPU bore the unmistakable sign of careless and cynical falsification. The "testimony" of the rank and file members of the "organization" is of such chaotic nature, that not only is it hard to analyze, but in many instances it is incomprehensible. Evidently, its main purpose was to show concretely what "wrecking" was and to explain the reason why the country suffered famine when the Piatiletka  was supposed to be progressing so successfully.

Deprived even of a chance of defending themselves in a Soviet court these scientists had been blamed and arrested because of the very apparent failure of the Five Year Plan in the food industries. After the publishing of the incoherent and contradictory materials everybody expected a summing up by the prosecution and a report from the GPU which might throw more light on the whole case. But events moved too swiftly. The very same day that the "materials" appeared in the papers, workmen and employees of all enterprises and institutions of the U.S.S.R. were ordered to attend meetings at which they were forced to vote for resolutions calling for the execution of "all the wreckers."

At such meetings not only the voicing of a protest against possible injustice in the accusation or the expressing of a doubt as to the fairness of GPU procedure, but the merest question which might seem suspicious or the failure to vote for the resolution submitted invariably led to loss of work and often to imprisonment and deportation. Therefore, the resolutions concerning the "wrecking organization" were unanimously approved, although it must be said, to the honor of Leningrad workmen, that all the meetings did not proceed smoothly. I later met one of these workmen who was serving a prison term because his behavior at such a meeting had been judged unreliable by the authorities.

On September 23rd and 24th the newspapers were filled with the resolutions so heartily approved at the meetings, as well as with disgusting articles, rhymes and cartoons all demanding the death penalty. Obviously the GPU was preparing for an execution.

On September 25th appeared the announcement from the GPU:

"The Council of the GPU having by order of the U.S.S.R. Government investigated the case of the counter-revolutionary wrecking organization in the field of public supply of food products, the materials on which case have been published in the 'Pravda' on September 22, 1930, condemns . . . . .(then followed a list of the names of forty-eight professors, scientists and experts) . . . . TO BE SHOT.

"The sentence has been carried out.

"President of the OGPU—Menzhinsky."

Such a monstrous slaughter was beyond belief—forty-eight of Russia's foremost scientists had been shot without trial. The most pessimistically inclined could not have imagined anything so horrible.

All those who had been executed were without exception "non-party" experts of the food industries, holding positions of responsibility in the central institutions in Moscow and those who had been directing the activity of Trusts and other big enterprises in the provinces. It was a list of administrative posts rather than of private individuals. Those in high positions who were spared were Communists. If a certain important position was being held by a Communist, the "non-party" expert who had held it previously was executed. If the post had been occupied by a Communist for a long time, he had been replaced just before this case came up by a "non-party" man who became one of the "48."

A large number of those executed I knew personally, others I knew by reputation. Among my friends and coworkers prominently associated with the fishing industry and shot as members of the "48" were the following:

V. K. Tolstoy—The former director of the Northern and the Azof-Black Seas regions, whose story I have already given. (The Communist who held this position at the time of the arrests was spared.)

M. A. Kazakoff—An outstanding leader in the fishing industry whose record and achievements I have already stated. He was accused of being the "leader of the wreckers in the fishing industry."

P. M. Fishson—Inspector of the State Fishing Industry. (The senior director in the production department of the Fishing Union, the Communist G. A. Kryshoff, whose work Fishson had often done, was spared. )

G. M. Fishson—One of the foremost workers in the Fishing Union.

N. A . Ergomysheff—A prominent expert and director of the Far-Eastern Region.

M. P. Artsiboosheff—An expert who was made director of the Volga-Caspian Region just before his arrest.

P. I. Karpoff—The foremost Russian expert in the manufacture of fishing equipment, who for many years had directed the manufacture of fishing nets for the whole of the U.S.S.R. and was the technical director of the Setesnast  (Fishing Equipment Trust) . Although his name was not mentioned in the "materials" published on September 22nd, he was executed as one of the "48" seemingly because of his past.

S. D. Shaposhnikoff—The most prominent refrigeration specialist in the Russian fishing industry. His name was not inserted in the "arraignment," and in the official list of those executed, instead of a statement of his crime, the following short announcement was made: "Engineer, former owner of a refrigeration enterprise." In sentencing such prominent experts to death the GPU did not even deem it necessary to mention a reason for their execution.

S. V. Scherbakoff—The creator of the northern trawling enterprise and leader of the men working in the North State Fishing Trust. He had been arrested in March at the time when my quarters in Murmansk were searched.

Krotoff, who had been arrested with Scherbakoff in Murmansk in the spring of 1930, could never have been guilty of any crime. A more honest and conscientious man was not to be found and he never concerned himself with questions of general policy. However, as he was the second in command in the North State Fishing Trust, he had to be removed to strengthen the accusation of 'wrecking activity.' After the execution of the '48,' he was held for another half year in prison and subjected to the most cruel tortures in an attempt to force him to denounce those of his fellow-workers who were still alive. He became very sick with scurvy, suffered from hallucinations and was almost insane. I was told that under the strain of terrible suffering, completely exhausted and yearning for death he finally wrote the fatal words. "I admit myself guilty." The cross-examiners could not force him to denounce others. He was shot in April.

I cannot think of Scherbakoff without emotion. No one who worked with him can ever forget him. Here is his story:

Of peasant origin from the Astrakhan district, Simeon Vassilievitch Scherbakoff learned to read and write in a village school and at the age of ten got a job as "boy" in one of the fisheries owned by the big firm of Bezzubikoff. There he rose to the position of manager of the northern section of the firm. Calmly and confidently he conducted this large fishing business, no part of which belonged to him and from which he received only a very modest salary. He accepted the Revolution as calmly as he met everything else in life. He had begun life too early and had seen too much of it to be moved by anything that could happen. After the Revolution he accepted new work without loss of time, because work in the fisheries was his only interest.

Industrious and endowed with exceptional ability, he was a man of the highest character in every way. He had no personal ambitions or interests; at home and in his office he lived exclusively for his work. Although he had received no education, he was able to solve in his head the most complicated problems; he understood perfectly the intricacies of bookkeeping; he kept up-to-date in his reading of specialized literature, sensed by extraordinary intuition what of it was valuable and then boldly introduced it into his own enterprise. While directing the whole business and rebuilding it, he never lost touch with the production end and knew the current life of the entire enterprise down to the last detail.

He was the only one who was able to go on working with two Communists continually on his neck—the president of the Trust and his assistant—with incessant interference into his business matters by the GPU, and with every disgruntled workman using libel and false accusation against him as weapons of revenge. All this he was able to regard coolly as unavoidable difficulties of the trade, like the bad weather and storms which forced the trawlers to remain in the harbor. It must be said that the Bolsheviks forgave those of us for our education received in a formal way much more easily than they did him. It was unpleasant for many of them to come into contact with his sound mind and clean conscience; therefore, he was one of the first to perish at their hands, although he could in no way be ranked as a "class enemy."

In every section of the industry one non-party expert, the most prominent, had been shot and, in the published list of the executed, after each name, stood the notation: "Leader of wrecking activity in such and such a Trust. . . ." This left the way open for a further "uncovering" of their "followers." But there were twelve experts who, in the testimony, had figured as participants in the wrecking organization, whose names did not appear in the fatal list of the "48." Concerning these the GPU made no comment; they did not feel obliged to explain in any way why these men, previously accused of being "wreckers," had been replaced by others at the time of execution.

By the execution of the "48" the Soviet Government demonstrated to the whole world that there is no justice in the U.S.S.R., that whenever it finds it suited to its wishes it can send anyone to death and that the citizens of the U.S.S.R. not only will not dare to raise their voices in protest, but at a word of command will give their votes of approval of such slaughter and of their gratitude to the GPU.

The day after the executions I met one of the technical experts of the fishing business. He was very depressed. As nobody could overhear us we spoke openly of what lay on our minds.

"Whose turn is it now? I feel it will be mine. Well, let them go ahead—I'm only sorry for the children," he said, as he looked at his watch. "I must be going now."

"Where to?" I asked.

"General meeting—to express contempt for the executed, to voice disapproval of wrecking activities and to vote that the GPU be awarded the 'Order of Lenin' for its good work! You'd better come, too."

I expressed my thoughts with a glance and shrugged my shoulders.

"I advise you to go," he said seriously. "Why be quixotic? Believe me, your absence will be noticed."

We parted. I never saw him again.