Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

Order for Search and Arrest

It happened on a Saturday in March. It had been a good day—the day of giving in parcels. And the evening, too, had been peaceful. I wanted to go to bed, but the boy's knickers were torn and I had to patch them up so that he could wear them in the morning; he had only one pair. I finished my work about one in the morning when there was a loud ring at the bell. I opened the door: the house-porter and two OGPU agents in military uniform stood before me.

So this was the end.

I had kept hoping it would not happen. It was so dreadful to think that my husband would be left without any help in prison and my little boy alone with strangers.

I had made several attempts to arrange for someone to take care of him in case I were arrested. But all my husband's friends were shot, and all my friends were being imprisoned one after another. Three people who had promised to take charge of my son were arrested in succession, and I did not dare to ask for help any more. Besides, I knew that it would not be safe for anyone to give a home to the child, for people were frequently arrested for assisting the families of those who were already in prison. In a case of a certain family that I knew twenty persons were imprisoned for helping them.

My poor, darling, rosy boy, how could I go away from you, leaving you alone in the night! I think death will be easier than was that parting with the child. . . .

I could hardly stand on my feet, but I had to control myself. I was not going to break down before the OGPU men. We went into the room. The senior OGPU agent gave me a pinkish paper, "Order for search and arrest."


The house-porter stood there in silence, looking away. He was an old man; he was sorry for me and ashamed to be present at the final break up of my home. The younger OGPU agent eagerly looked about him, not venturing yet to set to work—like a dog who has not yet been told "fetch it". As soon as his senior got up he rushed into the boy's room.

"That's my son's room. Perhaps you'll leave him in peace for the moment and begin here. It will be more convenient for you," I added, seeing that they hesitated.

They gave in sullenly and in silence.

The senior agent motioned me to a chair by my desk and began turning out the drawers, while the other tackled the bookcase. Neither of them spoke. With cinematographic rapidity the room was reduced to a state of indescribable chaos. No Soviet propaganda picture of e a search in 1905 could equal it.

One after the other the books were chucked out of the bookcase. Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio—objects of my youthful enthusiasm; Rousseau, Voltaire, Delille—but those were in too many volumes, so only some of them were picked out. What joy it had been to discover at some second-hand book shop old editions in fine leather bindings! On the lower shelves stood valuable illustrated books—landmarks of years gone by. The OGPU agent flung them open, breaking the backs, and chucked them on the sofa, from which they slid on to the floor. He probably thought that books existed for the sole purpose of hiding money or letters in them.

The turn of music came next. They opened the top of the piano and books of music fell on the floor, breaking up into separate leaves.

The other man was busy with the shelves containing my card-index. Cards with various quotations and references, collected in the course of many years and carefully sorted out according to subjects in alphabetical order, flew on to the table and were scattered on the floor—white, blue, yellow. The intricate work of a lifetime was instantly transformed into meaningless rubbish. Soon the floor was littered to such an extent that one could hardly step on it, but the agent's eye fell on my work-basket with rags and undarned stockings. Opening the lid the smart-looking OGPU man said to me scornfully: "Turn it out."

I threw the rags and the stockings on top of the books and papers. Let them amuse themselves! The longer this senseless business goes on the better—I need not wake the boy as yet. He was asleep and little knew what awaited him.

The OGPU agents might chuck things about and spoil them as much as they liked. The only pity was that it all went on the floor and not straight into the fire. I would have liked to burn everything, just as my love for home, and books, and work was burning to ashes in my heart. To the devil with all our culture! So long as Russia is ruled by the OGPU no one wants it, and it only leads people to prison and exile.

The devastation was complete. I had to wake the child.

My darling boy, with candid friendly eyes, how hard it was to wake you!

He did not in the least want to wake up. I kissed him, caressed him, but he closed his eyes and turned away, not understanding what I wanted of him. But OGPU hasn't much patience: the men waited for a minute and then burst into the room. The boy turned pale with fright in his sleep and woke up.

"Mother, are they taking you too?"

"Yes, darling."

He did not weep or complain. He only clung to me, throwing his soft little arms round my neck, and watching with frightened eyes the OGPU agent rummaging in his table, among his ink-stained copybooks.

"Get ready, quick."

Disentangling myself with difficulty from the boy, I began collecting a change of linen in the chest of drawers that had been turned inside out.

"Sign the protocol."

I signed the statement that nothing had been taken from me during the search, and that I had no complaints to make.

"Call your neighbor and ask her to take charge of the boy."

He must have known that I had no one to turn to. My neighbor came to live in the flat after my husband's arrest, when it was very painful for me to meet fresh people, and I did not know her at all.

"Come along."

That was the end. I kissed the child for the last time, walked for the last time through the devastated rooms, stepping on the books and the music, looked for the last time at the light in my windows.

How one has the strength to go through it all, I don't know.

In the streets stood the closed prison car, a gloomy-looking contrivance. Big, empty, completely closed, with narrow benches along the sides, it resembled the van for homeless dogs caught in the streets at daybreak. It shook, rattled, dived, as it were, among waves of stone, because snow was being cleared from the streets and frozen lumps lay in heaps everywhere. The noise, the jolting, the piercing shrieks of the hooter made one sick and giddy. At last we stopped. I could hear the gates open; the car drove into the prison courtyard.

It was a sinister place, surrounded by tall, dark buildings. A dirty gloomy staircase, worn down by the warders' heavy boots, a door behind iron bars, the impudently staring faces of the keepers, bad, sour air smelling of stale tobacco it all was hideous, but I no longer cared. A dull calm descended upon me: prison was before me, and there was no going back.

I was told to sit down on a bench in the office. A fat OGPU agent sat at the table, yawning and picking his nose. A sleepy disheveled young woman with painted lips, manicured nails and ink-stained fingers, was yawning at another table. They were both sleepy and had not the energy to tackle me. It must have been very boring for them: the same thing every night, and so many times in the night, too!

Ten minutes passed, twenty. It would soon be three in the morning. At last the fat man bestirred himself and gave me a questionnaire to fill up. Nothing is done without a questionnaire in U.S.S.R.

I filled it up and sat there again, waiting—or perhaps no longer waiting for anything.

The clock struck three. The OGPU clerks were dozing. Another ten minutes passed. So many useless minutes, and at home they hurried me so . . . . It is always like this in prison: everyone is expected to obey orders instantly, but the authorities waste hours which mount up to months and years.

At twenty minutes past three the fat man stretched his arm lazily to the telephone receiver. . . .I had been sitting there for over an hour already.

"Are you ready? . . . Directly."

He yawned, sat down again, had a smoke, and getting up heavily pointed to the door into the corridor. There with a lazy gesture he handed me over to the sleepy warder. We walked on, I in front and he behind, directing me from time to time:


"To the left."

"To the right."

It was a hideous sensation—to walk hearing behind me the steps of the warder who drove me down dirty stairs and corridors that grew narrower and darker as we went on. On the ground floor I suddenly lost my self-control: senseless, panic fear possessed me so completely that for a moment I saw dark. There was nothing terrifying before me: a long, dirty corridor with a black asphalt floor, along the wall a thick pipe of the central heating that made a low humming sound—that was all. And yet horror of prison, of death—not for myself, but for my husband and perhaps my abandoned child, suddenly overwhelmed me, and I had an immediate sensation of how huge the prison was.


We entered a low, cool corridor. A ventilation-pane must have been opened somewhere. My heart began to beat more evenly and I felt normal once more.

Another staircase and I was brought into a curious place. At the bottom there was an asphalt court; on the right a blank wall three stories high; on the left three tiers of galleries, like hanging iron balconies communicating by means of iron stairs. The iron doors of solitary confinement cells, set deeply in the wall opened on to the galleries. Above the iron ceiling in which there was an opening for the stairs there were two more stories. The massive walls were painted the color of lead; everything else was iron.

Dead stillness reigned in this sinister place. Electric light had been put out and an oil lamp was burning dimly on a little table. The warder on duty in soft slippers walked noiselessly to meet me. He silently dismissed my escort and said in a stern whisper:

"Take off your coat."

I took it off; he examined it.

"Your hat, your galoshes, your shoes."

He examined these too.

But at that moment I again lost my head for a moment. A woman had noiselessly walked up to me from behind; I could barely hear her steps. When she was beside me I instinctively turned round to look at her. In the dim light of the kerosene lamp I saw her head tied with a bright red handkerchief with the Soviet emblem over the forehead, and her pale face without a nose. At the same instant this woman passed her hands over the whole of my body so shamelessly that I almost fainted with horror and repulsion.

Later on I learned that this woman was one of our best wardresses. She had been a prostitute all her life, and when she had ruined her health she took a post in the prison. She was rough and often swore at the prisoners in her nasal voice, but she was kind to them in her simple-hearted way. She spied on us in so far as it formed part of her duties, but without special zeal; she dealt with offences against discipline at her own discretion and did not complain to the superior officers about every trifle. But I grew to appreciate all this only much later. That night her deformed face encircled by a red Soviet kerchief seemed to me a symbolic mask of evil and corruption with which the Soviet prison greeted me.

I heard the rattle of the key in an iron lock. The door of the cell opened heavily, letting me in and immediately shut behind me. The key was turned three times and all was still. I was in the cell at last. It was high time. I was very nearly fainting with fatigue.