Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

"Burn Everything"

"The happy time" lasted about five years. In 1925 the Government failed to get from the peasants as much grain as they had reckoned upon. The peasants as a class have a strong sense of property; hard-working and obstinate, they felt themselves to be masters of the land they had obtained through the Revolution. The Government decided that they were an obstacle to the "development of Socialism" and that the less amenable ought to be exterminated.

The struggle which the "Socialistic" Government has been waging against the main bulk of the Russian population has assumed such proportions that the horrors of the Great War pale by comparison with the destruction wrought by the Soviet's agricultural policy.

The towns caught only the echoes of it, though these began to be pretty menacing as early as 1928. There was less food to be had, ration cards were re-introduced, prices began to soar, money decreased in value, the simplest objects such as paper, glass, nails, string, shoes, clothes, disappeared from the market.

"Another famine! If only death would come!" people said.

There were mass arrests once more, at first of the so-called "speculators" and "hoarders", i.e., of people who were found to possess more than three roubles (six shillings) in silver or some jewelry, as though that were the cause of the country's economic difficulties. Then came the turn of the "experts". The Government was determined to put upon someone the blame for the famine and general disorganization which ushered in "The Five Years Plan". It took us some time to grasp that we were doomed, in spite of all the work we had done utterly regardless of our own interests, and the fact that there was no one to take our place. It was obvious that the whole cultural life of the country would be undermined if qualified workers were exterminated, but arrests and sentences of exile went on at a faster rate than ever.

At that time I was assistant curator of the Hermitage in the Section of Applied Arts. After several years of practical and organizing work I was given at last a chance of devoting myself to study, but the order of the Commissariate for Public Education dashed my hopes to the ground. We were commanded in the shortest possible time to reorganize the whole of the Hermitage collection "on the principle of sociological formations". No one knew what that meant; nevertheless, under the guidance of semi-illiterate half-baked "Marxists", who could not tell faience from porcelain or Dutch masters from the French or Spanish, we had to set to work and pull to pieces a collection, which it had taken more than a hundred years to create.

This was worse than the supervision of thievish overseers who, at any rate, did not interfere with museum treasures.

Hitherto, for all Russian intellectuals, life meant work and work meant life. The more destructive the Government policy was, the more strenuously we worked to save what we could in our unhappy country. Now things were getting beyond us. Blind terrorism was the reward of thirteen years of labor under the most trying conditions. OGPU reigned supreme everywhere, either openly or through party committees interfering with all one did and striving to fit everything into the narrow and often senseless framework of party instructions enforced by utterly ignorant people. Everything had to be rearranged on "Marxist" lines. The way it was done can be judged from the following conversation between the members of our staff at the Hermitage.

"Do you know in what year feudalism came to an end?"

"In what year? What are you talking about?"

"We've just been to a committee meeting for furthering Marxism and have been informed that feudalism came to an end in 1495."

"What nonsense is this?"

"Don't you see, it was the year of the discovery of America!"

"Is it supposed to have been the same in all countries, then?"

"The same everywhere. It was settled at the committee."

"That's worth knowing!"

Another conversation, a month later.

"Have you heard the latest?"

"No, what?"

"Feudalism came to an end in 1848."

"Another committee meeting?"

"Yes, and it's been settled for good. Keep it in mind."

"And what about the discovery of America?"

"That's been cancelled. It's out of date, and to attach importance to it is 'opportunism'."

"And how long will the decision of your committee be in force."

"Till the next meeting, let us hope. Perhaps by then our Marxists will have read some other pamphlet."

This was how young Communists implanted Marxism, while old and intelligent experts helplessly watched them do it. Everyone who protested was immediately declared to be a class-enemy and a "wrecker".

The Marxist authorities did not last longer than six months. They were replaced by others of the same stamp; the learned experts who happened to come into conflict with them were dismissed from their posts or found themselves in prison.

In that general atmosphere of strain and hopelessness I find it hard to remember what exactly happened in 1928 and in 1929. Everything was bad and growing worse until at last in 1930 there was such an outburst of mass terror aimed at "the destruction of the intellectuals as a class" that all was forgotten and only one word—death—loomed before us.

For us personally the first warning was the delay of letters from Murmansk, where my husband was working at the time. Letters began to be seven or ten days late—the OGPU was reading them. It does not stand on ceremony or trouble to conceal its activities.

At the end of March I received a note from my husband that did not come through the post:

"S. and K. are arrested. My room was searched. I cannot understand what they are after. Burn everything."

Burn everything? Why, were we conspirators or criminals? What does it mean—burn everything? There is as much sense in burning tables and chairs as in burning letters and photographs. The letters were a record of friendship with people of high culture, the only photographs I had were of those dear to me, my family and friends of childhood and youth. Which of them was I to burn? My father? I could not conceal who he was even if I tried: he was one of the most popular professors, an explorer of Siberia, a friend of Nansen, the author of many scientific works whose name—Professor V. Sapozhnikov—could be found in every encyclopaedia. My uncle? He, too, was a well-known professor, and many generations of students have been brought up on his textbooks. My sister? She was lecturer in two University schools. What could they find out about our life if they examined every day and hour of it? Work almost since we were children. Hard work and service to our country, without any personal advantage. And here now we were "suspects", as the aristocrats had once been. It was too stupid and revolting!

Very well, I would burn everything I could, including books with inscriptions from the authors, so as not to compromise anyone by chance. If it had not been for the boy who loved his home I think I would have destroyed everything, so hateful was it to feel that any day the OGPU agents would come and rummage among my things, and look into all that was personal and intimate.

Curse that Murmansk! I wished my husband had not gone there. I have never seen a more gloomy and desolate place. The train journey of about a thousand miles takes more than two days and two nights. Wrecked railway carriages can always be seen lying beside the line—accidents are so frequent that there is not time to clear away the wreckage. At all the earthworks one sees groups of ragged and exhausted-looking exiles watched by an armed escort.

Murmansk is not a town but a bare, stony hollow in which are scattered some workmen's barracks, a few official buildings and the miserable wooden shanties of the local inhabitants. For eight months of the year the place is buried in snow-drifts, for two months in impassable mud and for another two in blinding dust. There are no fences, no causeways, no streets—or if there are, there is no understanding in what direction they are supposed to run, and it seems that privies and cesspools are in front of the houses and not behind them. At the bottom of the hollow one can see the ink-black water of the bay of Kola which never freezes in its rocky ice-bound banks. For more than two months in winter the town is plunged in polar darkness. There is not enough electricity, the lamps flicker and burn with a horrid reddish light that hurts one's eyes and makes one feel still more depressed.

And people consented to live in that cold, wretched hole because the first trawler industry in Russia was being organized there! I do think that devotion to one's work is a dangerous and incurable form of insanity. And what different kinds of people it attacks!

S. to whom my husband referred in his note was Shcherbakov. Solely owing to his exceptional intelligence he had risen from a "boy" in a fishing business to be the manager of the northern section of a big fishing firm, and after the Revolution became one of the directors of the Northern Fisheries Trust. He had no family, no possessions; he lived as though the world held nothing but his beloved Fisheries Trust. One would have thought, the Government would value a man like that—but here he was the first to be arrested.

K. was Krotov, once an owner of big fisheries in the North. As soon as the Whites left Archangel, he gave to the Soviet Government all his property and set to work in the Fisheries as an ordinary employee. He, too, was in prison.

My husband's turn would evidently come next. He had indomitable energy and the mind of a true explorer; he always wanted more scope for his activities and was eager for new ventures. He might have quietly lectured at the University or at the Zoological Museum of the Academy of Science, but no—he would go to Murmansk to organize new scientific laboratories there! And now he would end in prison and exile, because the OGPU never spare a man who is above the average.

After those arrests my husband came to Petersburg in connection with his work and was able to live at home for a time. But he was so worn-out by the cross-examinations the OGPU had put him through that the words "burn everything" seemed to overshadow the whole of our life and work. A reign of terror such as we had never seen before was drawing near. Not only we but all the intellectuals as a class were doomed.