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


Specialist I might be, but as a convict I had to report to my new chiefs. In prison clothes—cheap cotton shirt, pants and cap, a well-worn army coat and old shoes—I marched through the mud, an armed guard beside me, to the railway station of Popoff Island. I scarcely noticed the drenching rain. Convict though I was, Fortune had begun to smile on me.

The guard sat down beside me in the car, keeping his rifle between his knees. There were many passengers: workmen from the saw mill, peasants, women and children, free people who were carrying on the casual conversations of ordinary life. I had not seen children for a long, long time. I wanted very much to talk to a small, light-haired boy who sat opposite me and who was slyly looking me over, but I could not—"illegal intercourse with free people" would have brought me to a punitive cell.

Through the open window I could see swamps and thin forests, but not a single human being—a dreary and dismal landscape. I turned over in my mind the chances of escaping from the train . . . perhaps one could jump off while it was moving . . . probably the guard would not follow . . . he would shoot, but the motion of the train would spoil his aim . . . the forest nearby was thin but still it afforded sufficient cover . . . At that moment I noticed a road alongside the track and a man on horseback, with a rifle, following our train. When we came to a stop he would overtake us and slowly move ahead; when we passed him he would change to a gallop, be left behind and then catch up with us at the next stop. Undoubtedly he was doing this for some reason: he could easily detect a fugitive and capture or shoot him. No, one must be more cautious, I thought, they are not so careless.

At the last stop before reaching Kem my guard gloomily commanded: "Well, get going, get out!" We were bound for Veguerashka.

Two kilometers to the west, on the shore of the gulf lay the low, gray little town of Kem; to the east was a section of the Solovetzki camp—Veguerashka, built in 1930. After the transfer of the camp administration from the Solovetzki Islands to Kem, Veguerashka was under the eyes of the higher command and prisoners here were said to live under better conditions than elsewhere.

Veguerashka stretches along the left bank of the river Kem and is encircled on the land side by a high barbed wire fence, equipped with watch towers for guards. Inside the barbed wire are two-story log barracks for the prisoners, built with a certain pretense to style. The window frames are very large, but set at wide intervals and covered by close lattice work. (In 1930 it had been impossible to obtain panes of glass of any considerable size.) The roads leading to the barracks are muddy and the buildings stand on swampy ground. Narrow wooden boardwalks are laid alongside the barracks. Nearer the river bank many other buildings had been erected without any system whatever—the kitchen, bathhouse, two stores, the printing house, bakery, electric power station and hospital.

A few prisoners in gray garb were visible on the boardwalk near the buildings, wandering about aimlessly and slowly; they were the sick, who had been relieved from work, and a few men just arrived from other camps and not yet appointed to any work. The building nearest the entrance was the women's barracks; political prisoners and criminals were quartered in it together—elderly women of refinement, mostly wives of professors, young girls, students, nuns, peasants, gypsy women who had not yet lost their proud, free bearing even in prison and, most conspicuous of all, the representatives of the Leningrad underworld.

I was assigned to the barracks of the third company, considered to be the best and the cleanest; it contained educated men exclusively: doctors, engineers, agronomists, technicians, bookkeepers and so on, all holding responsible positions in the various departments of the camp administration. But the barracks differed but little from those on Popoff Island; the same dirt and crowding—a thousand men, five hundred on each floor, in double bunks.

Each prisoner had the same fifty centimeters' width of bare boards on which to sleep, eat and spend all his free time during the long years of his absence. The lighting was poor—small, unshaded electric lamps fixed on the ceiling, shining all night long into the eyes of those on the upper tier of bunks, while those below were almost in darkness.

I had become hardened to everything, I thought, after ten months of imprisonment, but here the overwhelming stench was unbearable. The toilets for a thousand men were inside the building and had no running water. Every night they were bailed out and we would literally gasp for air. Sleeping men would moan and toss about; I had acute attacks of sickness and in search of a little fresh air would cautiously step past the dozing guards to the stairway, trying to remain there the whole night, pressing close against the wall to escape detection.

The day's routine began at seven. A thousand men in one washroom without soap or towels, for half an hour, and then out into the yard where the line formed for rations—in the rain or snow. Kasha  from boiled millet or barley, and bread—the basic ration—were issued according to the "groups" to which a prisoner belonged. First group, 800 grams; second group—including specialists in production—500 grams; all others, 400 grams. The first group—manual laborers—were given a few drops of vegetable oil in their kasha. Those who had tea-kettles could get a little hot water. Everybody hurried because of the long procedure which followed before one could leave for work outside the camp. First a "work book" had to be obtained from the company commander in the barracks, then this book had to be presented at camp headquarters, where a permit was issued to leave the camp. Those who had received their books and permits were lined up on the boardwalk and led to the gates, where the sentinel counted the prisoners and checked the permits. Outside the fence the prisoners were again lined up into formation and then led away under guard to their places of work. Eight o'clock was the hour of departure and by nine o'clock all prisoners had to be at their posts in the many camp institutions distributed over the whole town of Kem.

Some of the guards were exacting service men and required us to keep a military formation, but we were miserably shod and many of us ploughed through the sticky mud nearly at the end of our endurance.

"Don't break the lines!" the commander of the guard squad would shout, halting us and lining us up. "I'll keep you standing here till evening!"

"What do we care!" would be heard from the lines. "The term still goes on!" Then the guard would rush to find the offenders, collect five or six documents and note down the names—that meant five to ten days in punitive cells for the offenders.

There were other formalities upon arrival at the place of work and then it was work the whole day through. At five came a recess, the formation in the street, the assembling of the various detachments, and the march of two kilometers back to Veguerashka, another roll-call and the surrender of documents before the hungry workers dragged themselves to the kitchen windows for a dinner at six—soup with a few leaves of rotten cabbage and a small piece of salted horse or camel's meat and a spoonful of the morning's boiled millet. At seven it was time to "take out the documents" once more and march off to night work which began at eight and ended at eleven. It was midnight before we returned to the barracks, received another spoonful of kasha  and some hot water, and lay down upon the bare boards, tortured by bed bugs and the prevailing stench.

There was scarcely time to fall asleep when the night inspection began; and although we were not forced to get up for a roll-call, there were always errors in the lists and all would be awakened.

There was no heat in the barracks unless the prisoners collected rubbish to burn; wood was not supplied—and yet this was winter in the Far North.

So would life go on—and still goes on for thousands of Russians—for the five or ten long years of prison terms,—hopeless, monotonous days and restless, troubled nights.