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

"Never Trust the Examiner"

I returned to the cell in a depressed frame of mind. In the presence of the examining officer I had felt more anger than fear; now, left to myself, I lost my assurance.

There was no doubt that I would be killed as all my friends had been. My wife and son would be deported. This had happened to the families of the "48." I would have to await in silence the day when I should be called out "with things," led along corridors down into the cellar where my hands would be tied, a bag thrown over my head and one of these scoundrels would send a bullet through the back of my head.

Well, this would not happen! I would not surrender and die like a calf in a slaughter-house. I thought it all over and decided that at my next cross-examination I would kill the examining officer. The necessary weapons could be obtained from some of my crafty cell-mates: a table knife which they had sharpened for shaving, a file which could well serve as a dagger, or a small steel bar. I decided upon this bar. It could easily be concealed in the sleeve and was heavy enough to fracture the skull with one blow. But I must hit with accuracy; I must not miss. Of course, Barishnikoff carried a revolver with him but he was careless, especially towards the end of a cross-examination. When he took his overcoat and cap from the rack his back was towards me. This would be the moment for striking. He would fall to the floor, I would grab his revolver, rush out into the lunchroom and, if favored by luck, kill two or three other examining officers.

I would be killed myself during the fight, but the picture appealed to me. At least my family would learn how I had perished—a more glorious death than execution.

I lived with this idea for several days and it was not until I had talked with one of my neighbors that I realized I had not sufficiently absorbed the Golden Rule of the Soviet prisoner—never to trust the examining officer. This cell-mate was an engineer of renown, accused of espionage, wrecking and assisting intervention. He had been imprisoned for about six months and had been cross-examined fifteen times. But with his experience he looked at my case from an optimistic point of view.

"You're getting along excellently," he exclaimed when I told him about my situation. "There is nothing to be gloomy about! I'm sure that the examining officer has absolutely no material against you. That he scares you with execution indicates that this is his only trump card. The 'standing test' has also evidently proved a failure. As for the punitive cell and the 'conveyor,' such tortures are only for those who are frightened and wavering. He might transfer you to a solitary cell but he probably knows it wouldn't work in your case. And you've been here long enough to know how to get along if he forbids exercise and food remittances. It's an excellent sign that he has resorted to the verb 'to shoot.' If he really had any incriminating material from your two friends, he would have dealt with you differently, keeping this as his final trump card instead of threatening you with execution. There may even be a chance that you'll be released. Certainly this happens in extremely rare cases, but it does happen.

"Remember Engineer D. from cell No. 20? He was threatened for two months with execution and was thoroughly exhausted. The last time he was sent for, the examining officer, a burly ruffian, literally picked him up by the collar of his coat and put him on a chair. 'Stand,' he shouted, 'you son of a bitch, I will kill you! Confess! We will shoot you anyway!' D. remained standing on the chair for two hours, and the next day was called out 'with things.' Later he sent us a conventional sign—he had been set free.

"You'll see that the examining officer will change his manner towards you, but don't yield. Stay calm and don't let him get the better of you. For some reason or other they need your authentic 'confession'; that's your  trump card."

After this conversation I made up my mind to hold myself in hand. There was always time to kill the examining officer, I thought. Day after day went by and I was not called out for further questioning.

Meanwhile another confirmation of how impossible it was to believe the examining officer was afforded me by the case of the young man who had been put in the van with me when I was being taken to prison. After the first cross-examinations he had been extremely depressed and discouraged. He was accused of espionage, an accusation with no foundation, but none the less the examining officer threatened him with Solovki. Although he belonged to the nobility and had been an officer in the army during the War, his ideas were very radical and apparently he sincerely sympathized with the Bolsheviks.

A few days later he came out for exercise with a cheerful face—the examining officer had told him that he was convinced of his innocence, had offered apologies for his arrest, permitted him to buy anything he wanted in the GPU lunch-room, had allowed him to write his wife to let her know that he would soon be set free and asking her, therefore, not to send him any more food parcels.

Then, as a surprise, the examining officer invited the wife to come and visit her husband, and during the interview had ordered tea and cakes, remarking jestingly that he was sorry he could not provide champagne to celebrate the happy occasion. They had been allowed to talk for two hours and, although the examining officer had been present all the time, he had behaved like a kind friend. The wife had asked him to let her husband go home then, but the examining officer had laughingly replied: "Not so soon, wait until Thursday"—promising to have all the necessary papers ready by that day.

There were five days left—five more terrible days in prison. But he was completely transformed—like a new man. Yes, the GPU was a wonderful organization; the way they understood men was surprising! I had on the tip of my tongue the words: "Don't trust the examining officer!"—but I did not want to destroy his cheerful disposition.

Came Thursday. He was so excited that he sat all day "with things" awaiting the call to freedom. He was not called out until evening. At eight o'clock the "cuckoo" made her appearance in our corridor. He was called out and given a sentence of five years in a concentration camp. The next day he was deported: he was not allowed to take leave of his wife, received nothing from home for the journey and left the prison completely crushed by the sentence.

"So you see," said my adviser, the engineer, "better let them threaten you with execution than offer good things from the lunch-room. But what a scoundrel! The sentence had been passed two weeks before, and the examining officer, knowing this to be the case, had arranged all this as a joke."

"But why? What was the sense of it?" I questioned.

"Sense? Pleasure, my dear friend! They are sadists! He sent for the wife, arranged the interview for them and delighted in visualizing how carefully she would be preparing for his home-coming and how he, in the cell, would be counting the hours and minutes. And then—the blow! Deportation! And she would learn that he had been sent to the concentration camp without proper food and clothing."

"Just like them," said another well-known expert and prison old-timer who had joined in our conversation. "And do you know the way in which a commutation of the death sentence is made known to the prisoner? The examining officer sends for him and then pays no attention to the prisoner when he is brought in. Then he searches among his papers and picks up the sentence, looks at the prisoner for a long time and finally gets up and begins to read loudly and slowly: 'Excerpt from the minutes of the meeting of the GPU council. The case of so-and-so accused by so-and-so was heard and the sentence passed. . . . ' Then comes a long pause. You can imagine the effect it has! Then still louder, emphasizing every syllable he utters the words: 'TO BE SHOT.' Deathly silence follows—and he gloats over the effect produced; then a few minutes later he adds: 'but the Soviet Government is lenient even to such criminals and the sentence of execution has been commuted to confiscation of all property and ten years in a concentration camp. Go!'

"The examining officers, at least many of them, revel in such scenes. Others don't bother with such details and have the sentences read by the 'cuckoo' in a solitary cell or even in the corridor. The examiners get great pleasure out of bullying a man as much as they can. I can just imagine how they act during executions!"

"You see," concluded my first companion, "how can one believe them? The examining officer lies to get you confused, lies for pleasure, having unlimited power over the prisoner, and lies aimlessly from habit. Our only defense and weapon is, as I have said before: don't trust the examining officer."