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

Sold: One Convict

Fortune was still smiling on me in the concentration camp. Not only had I been allowed to work at my specialty, but I had made a long trip away from barbed wire, and had seen my wife and boy after only six months of service as a convict. Now came another stroke of luck; I was "sold" (to use a word commonly accepted by the prisoners as descriptive of this practice of the GPU) for three months.

The sale of specialists, widely practiced in concentration camps during the period 1928-1930, was discontinued in 1931, apparently because of an order from the "Centre" due to a campaign abroad against forced labor in the U.S.S.R. During my stay at the concentration camp in 1931 and 1932 the sales of specialists were very rare; I heard of only three: the first, a lawyer sold as legal adviser to one of the state institutions in Petrozavodsk; the second, K., another specialist in fish culture; the third—myself.

I had just finished working up the materials collected on my trip and writing a report of my survey, when the head of the Ribprom  sent for me. He explained that the Section of Public Education of the Kem Executive Committee was organizing a three months' course for responsible administrators of fishermen's collective fisheries. Everything was ready, the money appropriated and suitable premises provided (it was found out later that they consisted of only one unheated room); even such a complicated problem as the feeding of the students had been successfully solved. There were thirty-five students, all professional fishermen, sent from all over Karelia by their local Soviets. A lecturer on political subjects was available, but there was one serious flaw—there were no lecturers on the main subject of the course—fishing. Simankoff had a prospectus announcing the following special courses: (1) The elements of hydrology in the Barents and White Seas; (2) The ichthyofauna of these basins; (3) The hunting of sea-animals; (4) New technique of fishing, unknown to local fishermen; (5) The elementary preparation of fish products and the organization of fishery enterprises.

All attempts of the Executive Committee to find a lecturer on these special subjects had been unsuccessful. In a week's time the students were to arrive and there was no one to teach them. Consequently the Executive Committee had come to an agreement with the administration of the camp to supply some imprisoned specialists. Simankoff was asked to select them; he chose a learned specialist, K., serving a sentence of ten years as a "wrecker," and me. K. is well known in Russia as an excellent lecturer and the author of a book on fish products which had gone through several editions and had been re-edited by the State Publishing Bureau while the author was in prison camp. I was to give the first three of the courses and K. the last two.

The agreement of "sale" was carefully scrutinized both by the representative of the Executive Committee and by the legal adviser of the Ribprom, Zelemanoff, formerly assistant prosecuting attorney of the Leningrad district. It was drafted with all the customary refinements of legal phraseology and naturally it was of great interest to me when I discussed its details with Zelemanoff. Some of the salient points were as follows:

"Kem—December 1931"

"The Administration of the Solovetzki-Kem Correctional Labor Camps, which hereinafter will be designated as USLAG, on the one hand, and the Section of Public Education of the Central Executive Committee of the Town of Kem, hereinafter referred to as ONO, have agreed as follows:" [So began this remarkable document, and then for two pages followed its various sections:]

". . . USLAG places at the disposal of ONO two professors, the prisoners K., and Tchernavin, who have had considerable pedagogic experience, for the purpose of delivering a series of courses (list follows)."

". . . USLAG reserves the right to recall either of the above-mentioned prisoners at any moment and without any warning, but is bound to replace them by other prisoners of similar qualifications."

". . . ONO agrees to pay USLAG five roubles for every lecture hour" . . . [here followed the enumeration of the number of hours, dates of payment and so on.]

It will appear strange, no doubt, that K. and I were delighted with the deal and that all the prisoners, including those specialists who worked in the administration of the camp and had good "protection," looked upon us with envy. We had been sold to a good master. What could be better for a prisoner, how could he dream of a better fate?

We moved from a dirty, cold barracks to a hotel in the town of Kem. A room was given to us two, alone. Each had a bed. There were two real chairs instead of stools or benches—and books. In addition we had a small table and even a mirror hung on the wall. To cap the climax, we were given a key so that we ourselves might lock our room—we who were accustomed to being locked in by others. Moreover, the Executive Committee bound itself to feed us and we were given a dinner in the students' lunchroom, where, though the food was bad, we sat at a table and ate from plates.

To me the sale was of great importance; for three months I would live under more or less decent conditions and be able to rest and gather strength. Ahead of me was the organization of flight and the escape itself, in which the possession of physical strength, with steadiness of nerves, was a deciding factor.

Certainly there was plenty of work here. To lecture on such diversified and special subjects to such a group of students was no easy task in itself. Furthermore, while my pupils had little education and some could barely read or write, all had had excellent practical training, knew their sea, their fish and their fishing as only human beings can who have spent their whole life at this work. A slight error by the lecturer would be noticed immediately by such listeners and would never be forgiven. Besides, half of my students were Communists, endowed with a great amount of self-conceit, who had gathered bits of information and many slogans, the meaning of which they did not understand. I had come across such students in my work; they had done experimental work in my laboratory, refusing to study but criticizing my methods of teaching in subjects of which they had not even the vaguest notion. In my former position I could cope with them, but now, being a prisoner, a branded "counter-revolutionist," a "wrecker," how could I handle them?

These thoughts were most disturbing as I went in for my opening lecture. After the first hour, however, I found my fears unfounded. My students were peasant-fishermen, totally different from the workmen I had known in Murmansk who had only drifted into the fisheries, and from the Communist students, who had become ichthyologists because they had been designated to that branch by the Communist committee of the university. The men whom I was now teaching had grown up to be fishermen like their fathers and grandfathers before them, loved the work, and were interested in everything that concerned it. Immediately I found that we spoke a common language and that the oldest and most illiterate as well as the boisterous young ones, spoiled by Communist propaganda, listened to me attentively, trying not to lose a single word. At first I avoided certain topics of hydrology which I thought would be tiresome and incomprehensible to them. Soon I found that these questions interested them. In explaining to them the properties of both salt and fresh water I pointed out that their freezing points were different. To my great surprise the whole class was extremely impressed by this fact.

"Now we understand why the water from the melted snow freezes while we are making holes in the salt water ice," some commented.

My remarks, full of technicalities, about currents, the rise and fall of the tide and the history of the White Sea, were listened to with the greatest interest. My course on ichthyology, however, interested them most of all. They asked pointed questions concerning their personal observations on the lives and characteristics of fishes and asked for help on certain complicated biological problems which they could not solve themselves. They were much pleased when I used the blackboard. I drew from memory a map of the White and Barents Seas and each of them tried to find on it the islands and bays where he had fished. They were particularly impressed with my drawings of fish.

"Look at that! The cod is just as though it were alive."

"Look at this salmon! You see its shape has changed; it has swallowed fresh water."

After class they plied me with questions they were too timid to ask during the lecture and some of them wrote me extensive notes upon the subjects which interested them.

The work with these fishermen was a real pleasure. Their attitude was particularly attentive and courteous. To them I was a convict and a counter-revolutionist, but I never heard a single reference to my status; on the contrary they always emphasized their goodwill towards me.

I was convinced that such contact with fishermen who later would become managers of State fisheries was the best kind of influence against the Soviet persecution of specialists and intelligentsia and also against the system of the GPU with its so-called justice. I believe that the majority of my students now know of my escape and are in sympathy with me.

At the end of the course an examination was held in the presence of the members of the Executive Committee. The examination was a triumph for us. The only member of the examining committee who could appreciate the answers and judge how much had been learned was a woman who headed the section of public education and had spent two years in a university. The others could understand nothing, but were greatly impressed by the fishermen's answers.

The students and the representatives of the Executive Committee thanked us and shook hands. All that was lacking was a Soviet journalist to describe the touching scene of the reformation and reeducation of two counter-revolutionists (K. and myself) accomplished by the GPU.

Once again we had to reenter the barbed wire enclosure. April was already at hand. The Ribprom  had been reorganized and transferred from Kem to the village of Soroka, about sixty kilometers to the south. The day following the examination we were sent there.

The Executive Committee paid the Ribprom  the full contract price on time. According to the camp regulations the GPU had to pay ten per cent of the money earned to the prisoners and we should each have received fifty kopeks for every hour of lecturing. We never received a kopek.