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

"Welcome" to Solovki

Popoff Island is attached to the mainland by a low-lying portion of land which is covered with water twice a day, when the tide comes in. The rest of the time it remains a swamp, passable only with great difficulty. Once it had been thickly wooded, but now only a few crooked trees remain; the polar birches spread along the ground and moss bogs alternate with enormous granite rocks polished by ice floes.

The island has a harbor to which foreign ships come for Soviet lumber, an enormous sawmill and, at a distance of two or three kilometers from the harbor, two distribution points of the Solovetzki concentration camp—"Moreplav" and "Kop."

We detrained and marched to "Moreplav" along a muddy road, across swamps and through melting snow. We were even more unsteady on our feet than when we left Kresti; we could not carry our things without dropping them now and then, but the guards drove us onward. For two kilometers we dragged ourselves along until we caught sight of wooden watch-towers, sentinels, a barbed wire fence and a high gate.

"Look up!" said my neighbor, pulling at my sleeve.

Over the gate I saw an arch decorated with branches of fir trees and carrying two placards: "LONG LIVE MAY 1ST, THE HOLIDAY OF THE WORKERS OF THE ENTIRE WORLD!" and "WELCOME!"

I could not help laughing; Soviet hypocrisy and conceit cannot be excelled.

"What do you think," asked my neighbor, "is it a joke, for foreigners or for a moving picture?"

We headed for a small side gate. Two guards on either side would seize two of us by the arms, push us through the narrow aperture and count loudly while a GPU agent checked off the pairs in his notebook.

Again we were counted, our names checked and our papers inspected. At last the formality of delivery was finished the camp had taken us over. We stood in formation, waiting. The short night was drawing to a close; the air was transparent and filled with the familiar smell of sea and forest. My heart was stirred with emotion. I did not care what was going on about me.

"Those who have served in the GPU or the Cheka come forward!" came the command.

Several men stepped out from our ranks. They were led aside. "Our future bosses," whispered my neighbor.

"Those who, when arrested, were serving in the Red Army, come forward!" again came the command.

A few men obeyed. "The future military guard," explained my neighbor. "' Forty-niners' and 'thirty-fivers,' forward!" These are the articles of the Criminal Code covering theft, vagrancy and so on.

"Who will these be?" I asked my neighbor. We could not then imagine that these criminals would become the rank and file of our guards, supervisors, foremen and especially educators.

Now only peasants, intellectuals and workmen were left—they were the real prisoners and would have to work.

After this division into "classes," we were ordered to give up all the money we had with us; it was exchanged for special scrip of the GPU. If the authorities decided that a prisoner had too much pocket money, it was all confiscated and he received no scrip in exchange. Another search followed. It was five o'clock in the morning before we reached the special barracks of the 3rd quarantine company, composed of recently arrived prisoners. It was a low wooden building with small windows, nearly all broken and stuffed with dirty rags. The prisoners' quarters were divided into four sections, each about five meters by thirty meters, the long sides fitted with two tiers of boarding and a narrow passage down the middle. A small sheet-iron stove served for heating. The floors were of thin planks which bent under foot, with large cracks between them. Everything was black with soot and dirt. I climbed on to the upper boarding and lay down against the outer wall. No bedding of any kind was provided; indeed it would have been difficult to use, for each man had only space about fifty centimeters wide. There were a thousand prisoners in the building, two hundred and fifty in each of four platoons. I stretched myself on the bare boards with real pleasure, but almost immediately I was attacked from every side by bed bugs and compelled to start a war against them. Hardly two hours had passed when the command sounded:

"Get going to roll-call! Be quick!"

The former Gepeists and Red Army men who had been deported with us were already dressed in some kind of military uniforms, with the word "guard" on their caps, and were armed with rifles. They were lining us up, ordering us about, swearing, as yet timidly, but trying to imitate their superiors—also criminals who were masters of profanity.

The company commander, a thin-faced professional thief, wearing an elegant military overcoat, strode up and down the line giving orders in a loud voice. After the command "Attention!" he began reading the order of the day from camp headquarters.

"Order of May and, 1931, Moreplav, Solovetzki-Kem Forced Labor Correction Camps of the OGPU." He made a special emphasis on the letter "O."

"For illegal cohabitation on the territory of the camp, prisoner of the 5th company, Ivanoff Vassili, alias Petroff Ivan, and the prisoner Smirnoff Eudoxie are hereby sentenced to solitary confinement for fifteen days, but will not be relieved from work."

"Prisoners Koozmin, Stepanide and Platnikoff Irene for careless cleaning of the building: to be subjected to seven days' solitary confinement." And so on.

We listened with interest, wondering what crimes were committed here and what punishments followed.

The reading finished, our commander addressed us. We found out later that delivering speeches was his weakness, that he took advantage of both morning and evening roll-calls to gratify it, and that these speeches were called "cultural-educational talks with the prisoners."

"Where are you?" he began. "In the forced labor correction camps of the OGPU. Understand? You were sent here as a non-productive, parasite element for correction and acquisition of working habits. Understand? I am your chief and educator. This is not the year 1930 for you! Then it was Camps of Special Designation of the OGPU; that meant destruction of the prisoners, meant swearing and beating. Now it is cultural and working education, literacy, political literacy and so forth. Understand? Instruction is compulsory according to camp regulations. We have a semi-military organization. For instance—the company platoon. We have a citizen company commander and citizen platoon commanders. We have cultural-educational work and discipline. It's no brothel for you here. Breaking discipline means violating camp regulations. Punitive cell. . . . Understand?"

This introduction dragged on for a long time, then came the real speech.

"A fight occurred in the company under my command. I see in this a violation of camp regulation and a class struggle. (Pause)  I have found after investigation that prisoners Petroff and Belovzoroff have beaten up prisoner Gartushvili. This must be looked upon as class enmity and persecution of national minorities, which is class struggle. Understand? And what is the punishment inflicted by the Soviet Revolutionary Criminal Code for the organization of class struggle? The highest measure of National defense! (Pause)

"It follows that those guilty of violating camp regulations will be subjected to . . . I will put you in the punitive cell, you sons of bitches! Understand? This is a working correction camp and not a saloon! I'll inject proletarian psychology into you!"

It was a long time before he was done and let us go back to the barracks, so weak that we were dizzy and so weary that we felt ready to lie down and die. Was it possible that we were not going to be fed? This was our only thought.

The company commander came in and dispatched two prisoners for lunch and two others for hot water.

"Citizen commander, and what about food utensils?—We have nothing to eat from!" rose voices from every side.

"What do you want—the food put into your mouths? If you get hungry you'll find something to eat from," the commander said and went out. Many prisoners ran to the refuse pile and picked out discarded tins.

Two pails were brought in; one contained millet cereal, kasha, thin and watery, the other "hot water" almost cold. A man's ration was approximately 200 cubic centimeters of each liquid (little more than half a cupful) and some bread. Each prisoner was supposed to receive 400 grams (14 ounces) of bread per day, but actually we were getting much less.

"What is this?—But it's death!—Is it possible for a man to live on this?" exclamations rose from all sides.

A few minutes later the company commander reappeared.

"Stand up! Attention! Who complained about the food? Come forward!" he shouted loudly. "No discontented? Take care, I will tolerate no mass action! I will immediately refer those guilty of it to the Investigation Department of the camp. Talk is short there—isolation or death. Understand? What discontent can there be? Kasha  too thin? In the first place it's not kasha, its porridge, and porridge can't be different. Do you understand?" He glowered at us, then sharply turned around and went out.

All those who still had some money began to search for food. We were not allowed to go to the GPU store, but with the help of the guards could buy some spoiled foodstuffs—mildewed herring and fermented preserves. Outside the prison camp such goods could not be legally sold, but here they brought full price from starving prisoners. Through the guards and through criminals, who shared with them in the transaction, we could buy black bread at five roubles the kilo (about two pounds)—its official price was nine kopeks—and also water at fifty kopeks a mug. Suffering as we all were from thirst, even the most destitute of us spent his last kopek for water.

Tobacco could be got for three roubles fifty kopeks the gram and vodka at what price I cannot even imagine.

After the depressing experience of this "lunch" we were taken in groups of thirty to the bathhouse built, of course, by the hands of prisoners on the very shore of the gulf. Each man took all his things: overcoat, cap, blanket and pillow; these together with everything we wore had to be turned in for disinfection. Stark naked, we were lined up before an enclosure in which four barbers, also prisoners-criminals, plied their trade with furious speed; two operated on the head while the others shaved the body. Coming out from behind the partition we were a pitiful sight. Tufts of hair were sticking out; blood ran down our bodies from razor cuts. Trembling with cold we entered the bathhouse, receiving two tin tags which were to be exchanged for water and a tiny piece of soft soap. Inside the bathhouse there was no running water; each prisoner was given two small basins of warmish water which cooled immediately. After bathing as best we could, we filed into the dressing room to wait, naked and disfigured, for our disinfected things to be restored to us. They were hardly recognizable: crushed and smelling vilely, fur coats and caps were completely ruined. We returned a sad procession to the barracks. The weather had changed, a sharp north wind was blowing and large flakes of snow were falling. In the barracks it was terribly cold. I climbed up to my place. The open cracks were letting in the snow and I had to stuff them up with my underwear. In vain we begged our company commander to give us wood for the stove; he refused.

We were very hungry. Dinner was brought in: soup of sour cabbage, smelling horribly, and for a second course the same kind of "porridge" as before. Something had to be done. My neighbor and I together bought one kilogram of mildewed smoked herring. After this purchase I had two roubles left and my neighbor, formerly a well-to-do Petersburg engineer, three roubles and a half—under favorable conditions this money might suffice for two more meals. Starvation lay ahead of us. On the trip from Kem I had developed symptoms of scurvy, bleeding gums and stiff joints. We only hoped that we might soon be sent to work; it was rumored that at work the food was better. While we were sadly discussing the future a commotion arose in the barracks and exclamations of astonishment were heard.

A woman had entered our quarters! She was young, about twenty years old, clad in a prison coat and a very short skirt. Her hair was arranged attractively and her entire appearance and manners left no doubt as to her profession. With her was a young man also in prison dress. Reaching the middle of the barracks and drawing the crowd around her she addressed us as follows:

"Comrades! Subscribe to the loan for the Piatiletka  in four years! Every prisoner must share in the up-building of Socialism. Let each one subscribe as much as he can. I accept subscriptions in installments—to be paid within six months."

We listened to her in open-mouthed astonishment. Here we were, convicts, hungry, reduced to the last stages of poverty—and they were demanding from us "voluntary" subscriptions to the loan! Timid voices, not so much in protest as in bewilderment, were raised from various sides.

"But where shall we get it from? Everything has been taken from us . . . We can subscribe, but how are we going to pay? . . ."

"Comrades," she replied in a coyly offended voice, "this is a very strange attitude on the part of your company. One should be conscious. Where to find money? Perhaps some of you will get it from home."

"They have nothing to eat at home," someone shouted behind her. "Their last kopeck has been taken away for loans."

"Then you will be sent to work," the girl continued, unruffled. "You'll be getting premium money." (Premium money is paid to prisoners who work; for an ordinary workman it never exceeds three roubles a month.)

"What does this mean?" the girl continued in a sulky voice. "What a quantity of men, and no one wants to subscribe! Here I am also a prisoner, I have nothing, but I  have subscribed."

"According to what article are you sentenced, citizen?" came a sarcastic question.

"Article 35 (Theft and prostitution). I am an element close to the masses."

"You'll not perish here, girl, you'll make money" murmured somebody in the crowd. "She'll always have enough for bonds and face powder," added another.

"Men, you should not insult me; you should be conscious." she replied, evidently not offended.

"Comrades," broke in the young man with a voice of authority, "everyone here has to prove his loyalty. Those who don't want to subscribe to the loan, and especially those who agitate against the loan, as is being done here, are inveterate enemies of the Soviet Government who don't desire to undergo correction. Against such enemies special measures are taken here. I recommend subscribing to the loan."

To our great astonishment one of the prisoners who had arrived with us made his way to the girl, took from her hands the lined sheet of paper, and entered his name for fifty roubles—an enormous sum for a prisoner.

"You see," she exclaimed triumphantly, "how conscious this comrade is."

The first one was followed by a second, third, and fourth. Then the beggars fell into line; they hesitated, sighed and finally wrote, some ten roubles, others fifteen roubles. The young man and the girl were working busily.

"Where do you get so much money?" I asked the first subscriber.

"Well, I have donated the exact amount which they took away from me. Let them use it for the loan. Anyhow the money is lost."

"It does not seem to be turning out so well," my neighbor said quietly. "Look, they are all subscribing; we may be the only ones to be ranked as enemies of the Soviet Government."

"Oh, let them go to the devil," I growled, "they will not extend our term because we don't subscribe. What a touching picture this is—prisoners, convicts, incorrigible counter-revolutionists, hungry, bedraggled and degraded, but burning with enthusiasm for the building up of their Socialistic fatherland. Let's try to find out what N. does over there; he hasn't a kopek but he has put his name down for twenty-five roubles."

I quietly spoke to N. "Are you expecting an inheritance, that you squander twenty-five roubles?"

"What can I do, if everybody else is subscribing? Let the devil take them, let them see my consciousness and reformation!"

"But how are you going to pay?"

"I have no idea! I haven't a kopek and no one to send me any and therefore I can subscribe with a light heart. What can be taken from me, my pants?"

More than half the prisoners subscribed. Only the peasants and a small group of intellectuals obstinately held out.

"It makes no difference, comrades, you're going to subscribe!" the young man concluded sarcastically. "As soon as you are taken to work you will give away the first premium money you get."

"All right, let them first give and then take it away. In the meantime we have nothing."

After they had departed, the barber appeared, donned a filthy smock and laid out his tools on the dirty window sill.

"Whoever wants a trim or shave for pay, at a reduced rate, get going, form a line!"

Everybody had been so disfigured that many responded. Undoubtedly this barber would split his fees with those who had maltreated us in the bathhouse—all camp barbers were criminals and strongly organized. He began his job, working quickly and unceremoniously; his charge varied with the individual—for some, one rouble, for others, fifty kopeks. In the midst of his work, when he had just finished shaving one side of a prisoner's face, the platoon commander entered and called out: "Get going to the company commander! He wants to be shaved." The barber collected his tools and disappeared.

So ended our first day at Solovki. I remembered the placard over the gates: