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

"This is No Trial"

The first night we kept awake for a long time. The light was out, but our Tartar continued to tell his stories in a low voice and we were following with interest his narrative of how people used to live. Suddenly we heard footsteps, then the clinking of keys. The light was turned on and a voice called out:

"Name?"—the guard pointed his finger at each of us in turn. He came to me and I replied. "Initials?" "V. V.," I said.

"Initials in full!" he growled threateningly.

"What do you mean, first name and father's name?"

"Of course!" he snapped. I told him.

"Get going, quickly!"

I began to dress. My cell-mates were looking at me with compassion and concern.

"Shall I put on my overcoat?" I asked. "Nothing has been said about it," he answered, "it means without overcoat."

I went out and followed him; we descended steep iron stairs to a lower corridor where he stopped me and left me shivering in the gloomy silence of the prison night. When I had become thoroughly chilled he returned and growled, "Get going!"

I entered an office. Facing me was a new examining officer, his face cold and repulsive. He was a young man of slight build and dark complexion, with a narrow forehead and small cruel eyes. There was a general's insignia on the coat of his military uniform. My former examining officer had been a colonel. Evidently this one was the chief.

"Sit down," he said glumly. "What were you questioned about at your last cross-examination?"

"About the possibility of utilizing the fish waste from the Murman Coast."—It was the first thing that came to my mind.

"Tell about it," he said in an ominous voice.

I began speaking slowly in order to collect my thoughts. It was very cold in the office; the examining officer had on a heavy top coat. I could not help shivering and this distracted my thoughts. It was stupid of me—this scoundrel might think I was shaking with fright. He gazed at me piercingly—annoyingly—but did not say a word.

Suddenly he interrupted me sharply: "Enough! Stop stuffing our heads with your stupid technicalities. Remember, this is no trial. The Comrade who conducted your case came to the conclusion that you ought to be shot. I agree with him. You ought  to be shot!" He was not speaking but shouting angrily and wildly.

"Well, what's the matter—shoot!" I replied, controlling my anger with difficulty.

"M. and T. visited you at your home!" he said, naming two women of my acquaintance. "Yes," I replied.

"They are prostitutes!" he shouted at the top of his voice.

"No, one is the wife of a professor and the other of an engineer. You know it."

He jumped from his chair and began pacing up and down the room, and for some reason of his own he continued shouting loudly.—"The cross-examination is going forward in enormous strides!"

I burst out laughing. As I was trembling all over with anger the laugh came out loud and insolent.

"What are you laughing at?" he cut in.

"It's funny and that's why I'm laughing," I replied provokingly.

It would be hard to reproduce the content of the subsequent cross-examination. He shouted at me and I at him. The door of the office would not stay shut and every other minute he would run to it and slam it closed, but it would open again and our voices resounded throughout the entire prison building. Doubtless the whole prison was listening to us with apprehension. He threatened me with execution, shouted fantastic abominations about my life and repeatedly accused me of having received money from abroad. I was so overcome with anger that I scarcely knew what I answered. His insolent manner, his face and his voice, all were driving me wild. "I must not hit him," was the only thought that remained clear in my mind. We stood facing each other—our fists clenched.

"Who is the examining officer, I or you?" he shrieked.

"You are! Do you think I would engage in such work?" I shouted in reply.

"We'll shoot you! And there won't be any less fish in the sea for it," he yelled. "We've shot Tolstoy, we've shot Scherbakoff—and there's no less fish in the sea. And we'll shoot you too!"

"Good! Shoot everybody, there'll be more fish in the sea when there's no one left to catch it."

"Wrecker! Tolstoy testified that you were a wrecker."


"You say the GPU lies?" he shouted threateningly.

"Lies! Lies!" I screamed, completely losing control of myself.

"Get out of here! Go to hell!"

I rushed out of the office and bumped into the guard, who because of the shouting had stationed himself at the door ready to spring to the assistance of his chief.

The examining officer rushed out after me. "Where are you going?" he shouted.

"To hell!" I shrieked.

"Only death will correct you!" he snarled angrily, and addressing the terrified guard, "Take him to his cell."

I ran up to the fourth floor several steps at a time, stamping on the iron stairs, paying no attention to the guard who could barely keep up with me. He made no attempt to stop me, and in my excitement I ran up the wrong stairs and could not find my cell. This cooled me off; I controlled myself and let the guard find it for me.

Nobody was asleep in our cell, and as soon as the warden had locked me in everybody began questioning me anxiously as to what all the shouting had been about.

My anger had subsided. I saw all the absurdity of the scene and hilariously began to describe it.

"Does it pay to behave like that?" asked Professor E. "One should control himself. You shouldn't act that way with them. You'll only make a worse enemy out of him."

"But, my friend, what can I do—if I have such a stupid temper? God be praised that I didn't hit him in the face. At any rate, he didn't succeed in frightening me."

E. was much concerned about me. He, himself, was an admirable example of self-control and his attitude towards the guards and prison administration most exceptional. His large, heavy figure, his serious yet kindly face, his self-confidence and long-standing habit of authority—all these presented such a complete picture of dignity that even the jailers felt uncomfortable in his presence. I greatly envied him that self-control and dignified bearing, but for me it was unattainable.

Then he related in his interesting manner the story of his first cross-examination at the Shpalerka. The examining officer had asked him how old he was. He had replied with perfect politeness and immediately added: "and how old are you?"

The examining officer became confused. "And what has that to do with the case?" he asked.

"Nothing, of course. I just asked out of curiosity. If you find my question out of place, please don't answer."

"Well, twenty-five." modestly replied the officer.

"Twenty-five," the professor sighed with sympathy. "How young you are! You weren't even born when I was imprisoned in this very prison for opposing the Tzarist regime. You see how times change!"

"Education?" drily interrupted the examining officer. The other replied and immediately asked: "And what is your education?"

"I studied in the Pedagogical Institute, but I didn't graduate."

"You see," mused E., "I gave a course there. If you had only stayed longer you would have listened to my lectures; you would have become a teacher. It's good, useful work. You didn't graduate—and now you are working here. A pity! What a pity!"