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

"You Will Be the 49th "


My name was called loudly from the other side of the grill. A passage-way was made for me and as I walked through the cell the eyes of my companions followed me with curiosity—a newcomer. At the door stood a prison guard, a Red Army soldier. He repeated my name.



"First name and father's name?"

"Vladimir Vyacheslavovich," I replied.

"Get going!—to the examining officer!"

One of the prisoners stopped me and whispered hurriedly, "You are being taken to examination. Take some food with you, and remember one thing—never believe the examining officer."

I went back and put an apple in my pocket.

"Well, get going!" hurried the guard.

Out into the corridor I went.

Again—along stairways, through grilled partitions in each story, with clanging bolts and grinding doors which guards shut noisily behind me. The second floor—the lunch-room for examining officers and on the counter imported cigarettes, cakes, sandwiches and fruit. Such a lunchroom could be found nowhere in the U.S.S.R. except in the GPU and Kremlin offices. Through another grilled corridor which led from the lunch -room we marched, the guard following at my heels until he stopped me before a door and knocked. An indistinct answer came from within.

"Get going," the guard commanded.

I opened the door and entered the office. It was a small room, the size of a solitary cell—plain painted walls, a small office desk in the middle with a chair on either side. On the desk was an electric lamp with a strong light directed toward the chair to be occupied by the prisoner. It was morning, but inside the room the dawn could not yet be felt.

"Good morning," the examining officer greeted me, calling me by name. "Sit down." He was a young man of about thirty, fair, pink-cheeked, well-groomed and well-fed.

"Well, let's talk," he began. "Why do you think you were arrested?"

"I don't know."

"How is it you don't know? Don't you even have an idea?"

"I have no idea."

"Think well. Is it possible that you never even thought you would be arrested? No? Try to remember."


I was looking straight and firmly into his eyes. I was thinking—no, my friend, you will not catch me on this, it's too simple.

"No," I repeated again. "I haven't the slightest idea. I had hoped that you would give me some explanation."

"In good time. Meanwhile, remember that we are in no hurry; we have no reason for hurrying. An investigation rarely lasts less than six months, usually nine months, very often a year. You'll have plenty of time to think things over.—And so, you will not tell me that you were expecting your arrest?"

"No, I didn't expect it."

In this fashion we argued for a long time, still with the same result.

"Well, maybe later you will become more compliant. Let's get on to the questionnaire."

He went over all the questions that I had answered the night before and I replied firmly without contradicting what I had written—he would not trap me here.

"Well! well! a hereditary nobleman—and I, the man questioning you, am a hereditary proletarian," he drawled, accentuating these words with a ridiculous emphasis as he lolled in his chair.

I was looking at him and thinking: "probably the son of a merchant; the face—smooth, hands—well kept, not those of a working man; you have never seen work in your life, and I have had to work with both my head and hands since I was sixteen."

"Your attitude towards the Soviet Government?"


He laughed.

"Why not tell the truth? You might better say 'loyal'—this is false."

"I say—sympathetic."

"No, I won't enter it on the questionnaire, it's too absurd. Listen, this is a little thing, has no importance. I am asking this question only in order to verify your sincerity. Tell me the truth and I will deal with you in the future with full frankness. Believe me, I sympathize with you sincerely. We value and take care of specialists, but you do harm to yourself from the very beginning . . ." he was speaking in the light tone of a man of society.

I have heard all this already at the cross-examinations in Murmansk—I thought—and repeated with insistence; "Sympathetic. On what grounds don't you believe me?"

"I could refuse to answer your question, but to prove my sincere good will towards you, I will answer. You are a nobleman, the Soviet Government has deprived you of all privileges; this alone is sufficient to make you a class enemy, even disregarding your convictions which are well known to us in every detail."

"You are wrong. I have never had a chance to make use of any privileges of the nobility. I lived on what I earned myself; my scientific career was not interrupted by the Revolution. I want to remind you that this same nobility, his rank of a General and a high position, did not prevent my own uncle from becoming a loyal servant of the Revolution and a member of the Revolutionary War Council. You must have heard of him."

The examining officer kept silent, not knowing how to parry this unexpected move. He waited a few minutes, then filled in the questionnaire, "Is in sympathy."

Here at least was one small victory for me.

I understood why he was insisting. If it could be established that I belonged to the nobility and was not in sympathy with the Soviet Government, "wrecking activity" would be a logical deduction.

He made another attempt.

"But you have  criticized the actions of the Soviet Government!"


"Again you don't want to be frank, even in a small matter like this. I will not conceal from you that your situation is very serious, the evidence against you is very strong, you are in danger of being shot, but I am sorry for you. Be frank and I will endeavor to come to terms with you. Is it possible that you can assert that you never criticized the actions of the Soviet Government?"

"Yes, I can."

"What are you doing this for? We Communists, we the GPU workers, don't we criticize the actions of the Soviet Government?"

"I don't know. But I never did."

"Let's take an example: didn't the bread lines ever arouse your indignation?"

"I believed the bread lines were not 'actions of the Soviet Government.'"

"All right. Let it be as you please." He picked up his pen. "No, we will not put this down."

"As you see fit."

And here again his way of procedure was quite clear to me. If I had admitted that I had "criticized" he would have forced me to say that it had happened more than once, would have questioned me regarding when and with whom I had carried on such conversations, and this would give material for a "frank confession" which would have been classed according to Article 58, Paragraph 10 as "counterrevolutionary agitation" punishable by three to ten years in a concentration camp. The persons I might have mentioned would become the "counter-revolutionary organization," to which would be added the names of those at whose homes we could have been meeting, and this in its turn would be interpreted, according to Article 58, Paragraph 11as "counter-revolutionary propaganda"; the two points combined would call for the death penalty.

He thought for a while and decided to make one last attack in the same direction.

"Is it also possible that you never told any anti-Soviet jokes?"

"No, I don't like jokes."

"And you never heard any?"

"No, I never listened to them,"

The face of the examining officer was becoming cruel and cold. He was looking straight into my eyes, watching every movement I made.

"And do you know that one should not lie at a cross-examination?"

"I know. I didn't tell and didn't listen to anti-Soviet jokes."

We looked at each other suspiciously.

This time my lie was quite apparent: there is not a single man in Sovietland, high or low, who does not tell such jokes. It is the only bit of freedom of speech left in the U.S.S.R., something that cannot be throttled by any censorship or any terror, in spite of the fact that the spreading of such anecdotes is punishable as counter-revolutionary agitation by sentences of ten years in a concentration camp.

"Very well. Your character and your 'sincerity' are clear to me. We will take it into account during the further conduct of the investigation. But—" he suddenly again changed his threatening tone to an expression of friendly and frank advice—"I advise you to give good thought to the way you behaved at this cross-examination. You are bringing about your own destruction. You belong to the nobility. We are not persecuting for social origin, but it is clear to us that you are our class enemy if only on account of your parentage. We need proofs of your sincere desire to go with us and not against us," recited the examining officer repeating words he had probably said hundreds of times before.

I replied coldly and with reserve that I was guilty of no crime, that I was quite certain that it was all a misunderstanding which would soon be cleared up and that I would be released.

"The GPU," he said, "never makes an arrest without sufficient grounds, especially in the case of an important specialist working on production. It was only after the evidence had been thoroughly checked and all the facts against you well appraised that I received authority from the Council for the search and your arrest."

It was true. My arrest was at least a month late.

"I am not going to submit these facts to you now, because I want to give you the opportunity to sincerely repent and yourself give us all the information in detail. Only under this condition will your life be spared, but in any case you get ten years in a concentration camp this has already been decided. You see, I conceal nothing from you, I give you time to think it over. It's hard to act more humanely."

I kept silent.

He also stopped talking; then, looking me straight in the eye, he said harshly:

"You will be the 49th."

Evidently the first part of the program was completed. The examining officer looked at his watch. I had completely lost track of time: the gloomy autumn day was well advanced. I did not feel hungry, only tired, although I had had nothing to eat or drink for twenty-four hours.

"Unfortunately I have to leave now. Sign your deposition."

I carefully read over the scant information entered on the official questionnaire, drew lines through all the empty spaces and signed my name directly after the last word of my testimony. I knew that empty spaces in lines could easily be filled in.

He folded the sheet I had signed and put it in his briefcase.

"I will be back soon. In the meantime prepare a report on the privileges and duties you had at the institution where you worked. Then state the most important works you have recently completed in your laboratories."

He put on his coat and went out, and his place was taken by his assistant, who had directed the search in my apartment and conducted me to the prison. He read a paper, while I picked up a pen and enumerated my former privileges and duties. This was only a pretext to keep me longer and subdue me by exhaustion. Obviously the initial stage of the examination was over. They had not bothered to obtain exact information about me. That was clear. For some reason they needed my "testimony" and "confessions"; they would endeavor to force these from me, but would not forge them. This also was of importance.

The short autumn day was over long ago. Lights were turned on again, but I was still sitting in the same chair I had taken in the early morning.

At last my first inquisitor reappeared.

"Well, have you finished?"

"I have written down the privileges and duties; I have not made out, however, the list of my works, because I published an article in a technical magazine a month ago where such a list was given. I have nothing to add; it's difficult to reproduce it exactly from memory I might make a mistake. You may get my article and add it to the case, if that is necessary."

For some reason this did not please him.

"Remember once and for all," he said in a voice of sharp reprimand, "we don't believe in any printed material. You might have written anything there."

"The article is signed by me and I am responsible for it. I can't write anything different."

"Then you must write it down again."

I was obliged to pick up the pen and write, although I was beginning to feel very tired.

He kept me for about two hours more and then told me I could go back to my cell.

"I advise you to remember what I have told you and to think it over carefully. Behavior like yours today will lead to nothing good."

My mind was incapable of realizing anything but the fact that at last I was permitted to go.

Again the lighted GPU lunch-room, where examining officers in military uniforms were eating at small tables, and with them girl employees in short skirts and with painted lips. Beyond—the now familiar staircase with grills, and the cell. I already knew where to go; the guard marched indifferently behind. In the cells lights were dimmed. Everything was ready for the night, so it must have been after nine—I had been summoned shortly after seven in the morning.

My first examination had lasted fourteen hours.