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

Part III:
We are Convicts of Solovki

[Illustration] from I Speak for the Silent by V. Tchernavin


The Convict Train

The turmoil of departure began early next morning. We were led downstairs and lined up in military formation. The prison administration was delivering us to the guard which would accompany us to the concentration camp. They called us out, one at a time, to a desk, asked us our names, the Article under which we had been convicted, and the term of our sentence, and then handed us over "in person," together with an envelope containing our "case," to the convoy guard.

There were many misunderstandings—the GPU lists were full of errors. Names and sentences were incorrectly entered; we knew already that a similarity in name had often sent the wrong man to Solovki.

Those who had been checked off were taken into another corridor where they were searched again and this time all tobacco taken from them—precluding any possibility of the prisoner throwing it in the eyes of the guard and thus attempting escape. Criminals often tried to effect such escapes and they were therefore forced to undergo a particularly thorough search, during which they were completely undressed and fingers shoved into their mouths.

At last, several hours later, we were all again assembled, counted once more, lined up in pairs and led to the exit, where each of us was given one kilo of bread and two herrings—provisions for the journey of eight hundred kilometers to Kem. We were all carrying our things in our hands, and since we were not allowed to halt in order to pack away the food issued to us, many were not able to take these rations. Little did we dream that we should be six days on the road!

The commander of the guard addressed us:

"You are to march in military formation! Obey all commands! One step out of line to the right or left will be looked upon as an attempt to escape! The guards will fire without warning!"

Then to the guards:

"Load rifles!"

Bolts clicked.

"Watch closely! Fire without warning!"

The gates were thrown open and we were led out onto the embankment of the Neva. It was a warm spring day. The Neva rolled wide and peaceful. Many of us were seeing it for the last time. On the sidewalk near the prison gates and opposite them stood small groups of people huddled together, mostly women and children, relatives who had come to get one final glimpse of their kin. Pale, emaciated, poorly clad, they differed but little from us, the prisoners. Soldiers of our guard were swearing at them, chasing them away and threatening to throw them all into prison. But the women outwitted them, running ahead and returning along the other side of the street in order to exchange just once more a scarcely perceptible smile, nod or glance. There was no one to see me off: my wife was still in prison.

"Get along! Don't lag behind!" we heard continuously. Walking, in an overcoat and carrying one's belongings, was extremely hard after half a year of imprisonment. I felt dizzy, my face burned, my heart beat violently. The old men suffered most; they gasped for air and stumbled; the guards swore at them and forced them on. Passers-by looked at us with lazy indifference.

We were herded along small side streets towards the yards of the Finland Railway, although the Kem-Murmansk trains left from the former Nikolaevski Station. In other days, prisoners were taken by way of the Liteini and Nevski Avenues, but during the mass deportations of 1930 this was considered to be too conspicuous a route—they might be seen by foreigners.

We were packed into so-called "stolipin"  carriages—third-class passenger cars with bars in the middle and barred windows and doors—sixty men to a car intended for twenty-eight. Only those who had upper berths or baggage racks were able to lie down; the rest sat up for the whole journey, in great discomfort; walking in the car was forbidden. Sentries were stationed outside and inside the doors. Eight cars were loaded in this fashion, one of which was reserved for the women. Criminals and political prisoners (counter-revolutionists by Article 58) travelled together and lacking the discipline which we had succeeded in maintaining in the cell, these criminals were hard neighbors.

Until darkness we were kept on sidings, during the night we were transferred to the Murmansk railroad and only in the morning were we started on our way. We did not stop at stations, but were held up for long periods at semaphores and on sidings. Evidently even here there was the risk that some foreign observer might see us. As a result of this we could not get water and suffered intensely from thirst. The small tank of water in the car was drained the very first day. As the ration given us consisted of black bread and herring, the thirst caused by such food was unbearable. Moreover, the windows were double and closed, the weather was warm and it was unspeakably hot and stuffy in the car. We begged for only one thing—water. We were told that hot water was allowed once a day and then only if the train stopped at stations where it was available. Only once during the whole journey—the first day—were two pails of hot water brought for all sixty of us. For the remainder of the trip we were without water.

We concentrated all our efforts on opening the windows which were screwed down tightly. One of the criminals had a knife but it broke. I worked for half a day thinning a copper coin while the criminals scoffed at my labor—an "intellectual" trying to be a burglar—but when my screw driver actually opened the window they decided to make friends and to show me their skill. "Longy," a strong fellow about twenty years old, placed his finger across a big lump of hard sugar and with one blow of his fist smashed it to bits—his finger, to be sure, started bleeding. "Lively," a youthful thief, extracted from my pocket my purse containing three roubles (with which I was entering my life of forced labor) and with equal artistry restored it again. "Sashka-the-Jew," apparently not more than fifteen, sang all his repertory of waif's songs for me—inimitably, with feeling and musical sense. These people were all past redemption, but their endurance was amazing; they were able to sleep, almost naked, in any position without suffering, and could endure hunger equally well. From the very first moment of deportation they watched diligently for any chance to escape.

On the fourth day of our journey, as I remember, in the car next to ours, criminals had managed to saw out an opening in the floor through which a man could crawl: it was discovered only when everything was ready for an escape. Their plans showed forethought: Petrozavodsk was behind us and our train was passing Vigozer and Segozer, approaching the White Sea. Around us—a forest of evergreens. The days were warm, but the swamps still frozen. The snow had melted almost everywhere and it would be easy to find last year's moor-berries and bilberries.

The criminals in our car were greatly excited by the news of the unsuccessful attempt.

"Where did they want to escape to?" I asked them.

"To Leningrad, certainly. There is no other place. One would have to walk through the woods to Petrozavodsk as far from the railroads as possible and from there one could even take a train if one had the money."

"Why would they have to walk as far as Petrozavodsk?"

"One can't board a train here; special men of the camp guards search the trains and examine all papers. From Petrozavodsk back to Leningrad there is no control."

"But in Leningrad they would be caught again."

"Let them catch us! Such is our fate. We'll escape again. And it's not so easy to find us in a city."

"It's hard in the woods just now," I went on, trying to learn all I could about escaping. "There's nothing to eat. Nights are cold."

"And at the camps it's going to be warm and there will be plenty to eat!" they rejoined sarcastically. "We're hardened to cold and hunger."

"Why don't you escape abroad?"

"They've plenty of their own riff-raff there; we're immediately caught and sent back. 'Politicals' should escape abroad. They can't conceal themselves here. But if they're caught in the act of escaping, it's the end for them. They're killed. If we're caught escaping we only get an extension of our term—for one or two years, that's all."

I shall never forget one monk who was with us, condemned to 10 years at hard labor. He was still young, but frightfully thin and pale, with sunken eyes and a racking cough—evidently in the last stages of tuberculosis. While the criminals argued and quarreled, jested roughly and fought, he sat unmoved, looking out of the window upon the Karelian woods and swamps from which it was clear he would never return. Did he really see the cold, dismal landscape with its gnarled sickly birches and windblown firs, or did it glide by unnoticed before his eyes? During the whole journey he did not once lie down—nor would he eat or sleep. Through all this tormenting time he sat huddled on a narrow bench beside the grated window.

Of quite a different type was another monk, likewise on his way to serve a 10 year term at Solovki, a sturdy old man about sixty with coarse features, bald head and a shaggy gray beard. His voice was loud, confident and even gay, his laughter infectious. Evidently prison life had not broken his healthy and carefree nature. His various friends had outfitted him for the journey with warm clothes, boots and provisions. Probably they would not forget him in prison; someone had helped him to procure a good place in the car.

"Don't be downhearted, brothers," he encouraged us loudly and cheerily. "People live in Solovki, and we shall be able to. The will of God is in everything. Fate willed that we suffer for our Lord and we will bear it. I shall accept it with joy."

He was going to Solovki as if on a pilgrimage—it was his duty to go.

A year elapsed before I met him again in the Solovetzki concentration camp. It was winter. He was painfully plodding along, with the aid of a stick, in a group of watchmen—all old men like himself, all hunchbacked and covered with ragged remainders of their old clothes and a few convict jackets. Some had coiled pieces of rope around their shivering bodies—for warmth. Their hair and beards, matted and tangled, were blowing in the wind; their faces were weather-beaten and red from the cold. Every night they were on duty at the supply stores.

The once cheerful old monk was the tallest among them but nothing was left of his health and strength. His eyes were dim, his face lined with deep furrows. I saluted him but he answered indifferently without looking up. He also had been broken by Solovki.

We discovered among us a criminal who had escaped from Solovki but had been captured and was now returning there with an extended sentence. Although only about thirty-five, he looked like an old man. He made faces and acted like a clown.

"Hey, you!" a workman addressed him, "what will life be like in Solovki?"

"You'll see for yourself; it's fun there!" replied the other, laughing and showing his pale, toothless gums. "See what beautiful teeth I have? I got them from eating kasha  at Solovki, working in lumber camps and sitting in 'isolation' cells."

"Is it scurvy?" asked the workman, looking at him with horror.

"That's it. What was left in my mouth by the 'stick' came out from scurvy."

After this conversation we felt still more depressed.

By the fifth day no one had any food left. All were hungry and suffering from thirst. Only sixty kilometers to Kem, but the train was standing at sidings more often than it was in motion.

Toward the end of the sixth day of our journey—on May first, the holiday of toilers all over the world—we reached Kem and our train was switched to a siding. Each of us received a mug of hot water, but no food. That night and the whole of the next day we remained on the siding without food or water. I doubt if cattle could have survived under such conditions—but we lived on.

On the evening of May 2nd we were transferred by a railway branch to Popoff Island, the Central Distributing Point of the Solovetzki prison camps.