It is so hard to find out the truth by looking at the past. The process of time obscures the truth and even contemporaneous writers disguise and twist out of malice or flattery. — Plutarch

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




The Term Goes On

The attitude of prisoners towards forced labor is adequately expressed by one of their favorite maxims: "the term goes on." Whether one works diligently or loafs, whether the task is well or poorly done, time takes its course and the term of sentence comes to an end. This attitude is no secret to the GPU which has developed its own "methods of compulsion."

Until 1930, in "camps of special designation" these measures were very simple: prisoners were given assignments and those who did not fulfill them were starved, beaten, tortured, killed. Now in the "industrious correction" camps these methods are of a more varied nature, but the use of physical force still persists. For example, wherever the nature of the work permits, daily assignments are still given out and the penalty for non-fulfillment is a reduction of food rations. The basic food is black bread; at heavy physical jobs the prisoner gets 800 grams per day. If he does not accomplish his assignment, his bread ration is reduced to 500 grams or even 300 grams, depending upon the percentage of the unaccomplished work. A daily ration of 300 grams of bread, in work of this sort, when the rest of the food has no nourishment, approaches starvation, and so the first means of compulsion remains as before—hunger. If this does not succeed, the prisoner is kept all night long in a punitive cell under frightful conditions; in the daytime he is led out to work. The next step is transfer to the "isolator" as an "incorrigible." I never was in the isolator myself, but I have observed prisoners being led from these isolators under heavy guard; mere shadows they seemed—no longer men.

For specialists and office workers, the first method of compulsion is "general work"—hard labor; the next measure is an accusation of wrecking and confinement in the isolator where the offender stays, usually, until he is shot.

Other means of compulsion are more subtle. Prisoners who accomplish their assignment are given "premium compensation" in special GPU scrip—manual laborers 3 to 4 roubles a month, specialists of exceptional qualification up to 25 and even 35 roubles. With this money they can buy "premium products," in the GPU stores only, from a list which changes every month. The quality of the products is getting worse every year. In 1931 one could buy, during a month, about 200 grams of sugar, 100 grams of biscuits, 2 to 3 packages of low grade tobacco, 2 to 3 boxes of matches, and sometimes 200 grams of melted lard; in 1932 sugar, biscuits and lard were omitted from the list. Furthermore, the prisoner could purchase on his premium card 200 extra grams of bread per day, but even this extra ration—highly valued by the prisoners—could not be relied upon since the stores were very often short of bread. However small this premium compensation might be, it was a powerful incentive to hungry prisoners.

There were far stronger inducements, however, which cost the GPU nothing. First of all—the visit. If for half a year  the prisoner had irreproachably accomplished his work, he might obtain permission for his closest relative to see him at the camp. Visits are of two kinds: "on general grounds" and "personal." If "on general grounds" they take place at the camp commandant's building, in the presence of the officer on duty, and last not longer than two hours a day for one to three or four days. They differ but little from those in prison: in a narrow dirty corridor full of officials, the prisoner sits down on a bench beside his wife or mother. With the constant barking of the supervisors—"Talk louder! Don't whisper! No remittances!"—such interviews are not cheerful. It is for this that the prisoner has worked to the point of exhaustion for six long months.

The "personal" visit is the dream of every prisoner. Then he is allowed to live in a "free" apartment, that is, in a room or corner of a room which the relative who came to see him has to find and rent. If the prisoner is in a camp within whose limits there are no villages or free inhabitants a corner of the barracks is reserved; at Solovki there is a special room so set apart. The prisoner is not exempt from work, so that he can see his relatives only during the dinner recess and at night. In spite of these limitations a "personal" visit is regarded as a great privilege; to gain it a man will go to the limit of his endurance, although such a visit lasts but three or four days and is granted only to those who have strong "protection" in the administration of camps.

But the lure of "visits" was not sufficient, because there are so many prisoners whose relatives are penniless, imprisoned or in exile. The inventive genius of the Chekists devised another method, a new ''privilege" which the GPU announced with pomp and ceremony in the summer of 1931. Prisoners must be made to realize that this was no mere routine order but a real event, an unprecedented instance of special clemency—as explained by a high official who addressed them at a meeting. Prisoners who had an unblemished record for behavior and accomplishment of assignments would be granted a reduction in the term of their sentence, as follows: every three working days could be counted as four days of the sentence. Those who would enlist in "shock brigades," i.e., exceed their quotas and also demonstrate their political reliability by active participation in the social work, could have two working days counted as three. Thus a prisoner who had irreproachably accomplished his daily assignments during three years was considered as having served four years of his sentence; if, in addition to this, he had been a "shock worker," his two years of work counted as three years of his sentence. These reductions of sentences were to be computed three times a year and the order itself would take effect on August first, 1931.

The "educators" responded on behalf of the multitudes of silent prisoners, voicing their gratitude to the benevolent GPU and promising in return that they would give all their efforts to the "reforging" of themselves and to striving for the "over-fulfillment of plans" and so on. Meanwhile, we stood in line and listened, some believing, others doubting, but all wondering what real purpose was concealed behind the words of this new order.

It was very soon followed by "technical interpretations." Persons who had been deprived of their rights before the arrest, former merchants, the clergy and other "non-productive elements" could have four working days counted as five, but could not join the "shock brigades." Furthermore this reduction of the term was not to be automatic and equal for everybody, but would be granted only by special commissions which could deny it even to the most conscientious workers if they were found deficient in "social activity" or "proletarian psychology."

Such interpretations somewhat weakened the appeal of the order to the prisoners but in general it had the desired effect because freedom is the goal of every captive. "When is the day?"  is the first question asked in camp. Every hard monotonous day has its significance; it brings nearer the hour of liberation—"the term goes on." And so the prisoner, however skeptical he may be, is ready to believe any rumor if only it gives him a hope of earlier freedom. Life in camp would be impossible without hope.

The new order strengthened that hope. A man whose term was five years, and who had already served two, would do everything in his power to be admitted to "shock brigades "and so reduce the remaining three years to two. A whole year saved! Freedom suddenly seemed so real and close at hand. It was as if he had grown a year younger. He did not stop to reason that in those "shock brigades" he might be digging his own grave, not paving the road to freedom. Hardly anyone could resist the temptation of the dream.

I was one of the few pessimists, perhaps chiefly because I did not wish even to think that I might stay in camp until the end of my term. The pessimists insisted that the GPU could never be trusted to keep its promises, at any rate to political prisoners, and that the terms of our sentences were so long that the GPU would change its policies more than once. But even if the decree remained in force (having proved its effectiveness as a means of compulsion), why think about it at all when everyone well knew how the GPU had treated those whose terms had come to an end? If their sentences had been imposed by a court—not by the GPU—they were freed on time, as in the case of criminals (such as murderers, swindlers, professional thieves) . These made up no more than 10% of the prisoner personnel. The great mass of convicts—the remaining 90%—had dreamed their dreams of liberation on "the day," and then what happened?

Let me describe such a "release"; I had watched it more than once. The prisoner's term had reached its end. His comrades gathered around him, chaffing him in a friendly way about his impatience and his timid plans for a free life. Trying to conceal his emotion he would go to the Registration Department and, with sinking heart, approach the window marked "Discharges," there to stand until the tired prisoner-clerk found his papers in the files. "The reply about your case has not yet been received; come again in a month." A second month would pass, and then a third—sometimes a year. And still he remained a convict, driven to work, threatened with the punitive cell and isolator. At last his "papers" would arrive and, very often, with them a new sentence. There were but three alternatives for political prisoners who had finished serving their terms: (i) a new term in the concentration camp; (2) exile to a far-distant village in the extreme North; (3) in very rare cases, "minus 6" or "minus 12," which meant that the prisoner could himself choose the place of his exile in the U.S.S.R. with the exclusion of six or twelve larger cities and towns and their adjacent districts. All the border regions were likewise excluded—such as the whole of Karelia, Murman, the Caucasus, the Crimea and so forth, so that in the vast expanse of the Union not many places were left to choose, particularly for a man trained in some definite and narrow specialty.

I remember well the tragedy of Gamid, the messenger in the Fisheries Section, who had come from Trans-Caucasia and spoke Russian badly. He was exceptionally honest and diligent in his work, bearing his imprisonment with a truly Eastern fatalism and an exceptional gentleness. Everybody at the Ribprom  loved him and joked about his queer Russian and his unsuccessful efforts to improve it. As the expiration of his term approached he was in a fever of excitement. On the great day, he took from the little box he had brought from home a clean silk shirt, a Caucasian belt and well-shined high boots; during all the years of his imprisonment he had never shown them to anybody. Early in the morning he reported to the Registration Department. He returned in tears. His "release" proved to be only another sentence—three years of exile in the Archangel District, which to poor Gamid, a southerner whose health had already been affected by the north, might prove a greater tragedy than his first deportation to the concentration camp. He took leave of us as if departing for his grave.

With such incidents in mind why should we work to win a reduction of term as promised by the new order of 1931?

This attitude the GPU understood and therefore, beginning with the summer of 1931, prisoners began to get releases after but short delays of a few days or at most a few weeks. And they were "complete" discharges instead of additional terms of exile. The prisoner was given his documents and could choose without restrictions the place of his future residence. And this was not all: the camp paid his railroad fare from the camp to the town he had chosen.

The first releases of this kind produced a great impression. The most inveterate pessimists were ready to believe that the GPU was actually changing its policy, while the prisoners themselves were overwhelmed. Some even felt embarrassed when they returned from the Registration Department with a complete release: how could they tell their comrades, for a release had heretofore been given only as a reward for denunciations. Soon, however, such discharges became the normal thing and political prisoners began to leave even for Leningrad and Moscow. Our spirits rose: the hope of freedom was being realized and for its sake men were ready to work until they dropped.

Not a month had passed, however, before ugly rumors began to spread about the camp: that released prisoners had hardly reached their homes before they had been arrested again without accusation and had been deported to some other concentration camp or exiled to northern provinces. Confirmation of these rumors followed soon. About two months after the release of B., my neighbor of the barracks in Veguerashka, the wife of one of the prisoners came for a visit to Kem. She knew B. in Leningrad very well and told of his fate. He had safely returned to his wife and son in Leningrad, where he obtained work and was happy. After a few weeks, a soldier came one day to his apartment and presented a summons to the police station. B. had gone there without taking anything with him, confident that he had been sent for just to straighten out some formalities regarding his papers. But he did not return from the police station and his wife had found him a few days later in the Nijegorodskaya Street prison, a transient prison of the GPU. A week later he had been deported directly from there to the northern part of the Archangel district—and no accusation had been formulated against him.

Still more convincing was the somewhat later case of one of our co-workers in the Ribprom  who, as a reward for exemplary work and behavior, had been discharged under the provisions of the new "order" before the expiration of his term. A month after his "complete" release we received a note from him: "I am in Veguerashka in a barracks with criminals; I am going to be sent to 'general work'; help me to get back to the Fisheries Section."  Through the Registration Department we learned that he had been given a new three years' term in a concentration camp. No new accusation had been made against him but a slip of paper had been added to his papers in the files as follows: "Excerpt from the minutes of the meeting of the OGPU council. Case of N. who had completed his three years' sentence in the concentration camp. Decision: extend his term for 3 more years." 

And so the prisoners in the camp were convinced, as these cases multiplied from day to day, that the "complete release" was but another GPU trick. Depression followed this conviction, more intense, I believe, than their former rejoicing, and they returned to that old attitude—"the term goes on"—under which they might at least preserve the last remnants of their strength.

But the GPU did not stop there. Knowing the weakness of prisoners for any kind of rumors of amnesty, it began again to let them spread.

It must be remembered that every political prisoner has, at the bottom of his heart, the faint hope that politics will take a new course, that the senseless accusation against him will be rescinded and that he will return to normal work. This hope has some justification; individual prisoners were sometimes freed for no apparent reason. In my time several prominent engineers who had been deported in 1931 to the Solovetzki camp with long sentences were suddenly freed. In the autumn of 1931, during one of the disputes with Japan, no less than twenty officers who had formerly served in the Red Navy were released. All such cases were heatedly discussed by prisoners and accepted as indications that their turn might also come. The Gepeists periodically spread rumors of amnesty in connection with some big undertaking.

In the Fisheries Section, for instance, rumors always circulated that in case of a good catch and the fulfillment of the Plan those who had worked "hardest" would be freed. More than once I observed how the authorities stimulated such rumors, for example, when fishermen were sent to catch the herring that appeared unexpectedly on the barren Murman Coast. There, beyond the Arctic Circle, they lived and labored, without sparing themselves, through the autumn and winter of 1931-32. Badly clothed and poorly shod, with rotting tents for shelter, mildewed bread arid herring for food, they brought in a thousand tons of fish—but not a man was freed.

I ought to mention here the famous case of "amnesty" granted upon the completion of the White Sea-Baltic Canal (begun in December, 1931)—a case loudly proclaimed throughout the world by the GPU and the Soviet Government. At the beginning of this gigantic operation there were rumors of an amnesty for the two hundred thousand to three hundred thousand prisoners assembled at a special camp for that undertaking. In the autumn of 1932 the Soviet newspapers announced that the work was not yet done. On January 1, 1933 the order granting a reduction of term for blameless work (to which I have already referred) was repealed—the prisoners who had created this miracle of engineering with their own bare hands were cheated because the repeal was retroactive. Then came, in the summer of 1933, the transfer of 85,000 of them, a majority, to a new camp for the construction of the Moscow-Volga Canal. Some new stimulus was needed to arouse enthusiasm for work among those that remained to finish the White Sea Canal. At that moment, August 1, 1933, the GPU proclaimed its "amnesty"; some of the workers were freed, the others actually had their terms reduced a total of about 70,000 in these two classes. Obviously there was no real amnesty; it was only as if the repealed decree had been restored. In effect, therefore, only one-fourth of the total number of prisoners originally working at the White Sea-Baltic Sea camp were benefited by this amnesty.

All these things which I learned about the system of the camp and the treatment of prisoners by the GPU served but to strengthen my determination to escape. So obsessed was I with this idea that when the "International" was sung, I could hear only one line of it, and repeat every word of that line with keenest pleasure and without risk:

"We will gain freedom by our own hand."