Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

The Charge

After seven such interviews in succession, I felt more bewildered than ever. The examining officer threatened me with death, talked humiliating nonsense, but he never told me what the charge against me was. Under those circumstances I was just as likely to be shot as to be set free. The most sensible thing for me would have been to admit that the whole of the OGPU procedure is absolutely arbitrary, but ideas of justice and of rational motives inspiring the activity of State institutions had too firm a hold on my mind. And so I tried to discover the general trend of the OGPU policy by watching the treatment of other prisoners, whom I mentally divided into various categories. It was not easy for me to make observations because I was supposed to be in solitary confinement. But as the prison was overcrowded, I either had to share somebody else's cell, or other women were put into mine. They brought a supply of news and information which we eked out by what we could see through the prison window when prisoners kept in common cells were taken to walk in the yard.

The biggest category was that of "wives", which included also sisters, nieces, mothers and sometimes even grandmothers. Several families were represented by three generations and many by two. Imprisonment of relatives was called "bringing social pressure" to bear upon the head of the family; in themselves they were of no account. The wives were sometimes cross-examined, but other relatives were simply kept in prison. This was done to harass the head of the family and also to deprive him of any outside help. When sentence was passed on him, his wife generally received a sentence one degree lighter than he—even though she had nothing to do with his case. If the husband was sentenced to ten years penal servitude, she was sentenced to five; if he got five years, she got three. Other relatives were as a rule banished to distant parts for five or three years.

The second category included women who had been abroad since the Revolution, though they had gone with full permission of the Government. Most of them were being punished for going abroad in 1925-6, when, thanks to NEP the rouble stood high and foreign passports were issued comparatively easily, especially if one left good hostages behind. Many were imprisoned for having in the past unsuccessfully applied for a foreign passport. Others were imprisoned for succumbing to the temptation of buying from private dealers foreign stockings, scent or powder (these goods were often sold by OGPU agents). They were all of them accused of "espionage" (article 58, 6 of the Soviet Code). At best they were sentenced to exile to remote parts of the country—the Urals or Siberi—but generally to five or ten years penal servitude in Solovki or other concentration camps. Those to whom friends or relatives abroad sent money, letters or parcels also came under the charge of espionage, though they received it all through perfectly legal channels.

Women belonging to this group were hardly ever released.

The third category, which also had no hope of release, included those who suffered for their religion—nuns from the convents that had been closed, pious women who helped churches or priests, wives and daughters of the clergy. Most of them regarded their imprisonment as a punishment from God or as part of the persecution of the faithful foretold in the Revelation. The examining officer took little interest in them and practically all of them were sent to penal camps for five or ten years. Struggle against religion forms part of the Government program; it has never ceased, and now that most of the important people are dead or in exile, the OGPU has to be content with "small fry".

Common criminals were in a different position. There were comparatively few of them, only some ten per cent. Dressed in skirts that did not reach to the knee, disheveled, with big busts and loud voices, they swore at the wardresses, gibed at everyone, continually quarreled among themselves and sometimes fought, clutching desperately at each other's hair and doing their best to scratch each other's faces. They had the greatest contempt for us, stole our things and played us nasty tricks not so much out of malice as because they thought us stupid and helpless. They jeered at us for being no good at telling lies, for being in prison "for nothing" and especially for our politeness. In many ways they were probably more sensible than we, because they fought for their rights and secured every advantage they could; but it was very trying to live with them, especially when in common cells a hundred prisoners were crowded into a room meant for twenty.

I remember thinking what a bitter mockery it was for the Soviet newspapers to attack Polish prisons where, they said, political prisoners were treated like common criminals. The OGPU's method was much simpler: they regarded us all as common criminals and therefore did not bother to give us any advantages over thieves and prostitutes. Indeed, those who were guilty of some real offence received the lightest punishments: three or five years of concentration camps, where their sentence was speedily reduced. Many of them ran away, certain that they would find refuge in the big towns until they were caught at some fresh theft. Used to defying social order they felt thoroughly at home in prison: they laughed at the OGPU and were so enterprising that once they managed to steal a suitcase from the prison office. The man in charge of the office had to spend a month in his own prison as a punishment for his negligence.

The only political prisoners who had individual charges brought against them were Mensheviks, Trotskyists and former Social-Revolutionaries; sometimes respectable Party workers of the period of 1905, whose names were entered in the History of the Party. Those of them who had been in the Tsarist prisons amused us very much by their indignation at the present penal system. They occasionally indulged in fine speeches about "freedom", "rights of the individual", "humaneness" and other things which sounded more naive than any fairy tale. The OGPU regarded them as "politicals", i.e., gave them a piece of meat in their soup, but treated them sternly; for the most part they were sent to Moscow where some of them had already been in the "Polit-Isolator", a special place in the Lubianka for erring Communists, social-revolutionaries, and anarchists. From there they were transferred to a special concentration camp in the Northern Urals.

The charges against the first three categories of women prisoners—the "wives", those who had been abroad and religious women—were absurdly out of keeping with the actual reason for their arrest. Thus, purchasing silk stockings was described as "espionage on behalf of foreign capitalists"; belonging to an aristocratic family figured as "monarchist propaganda"; being related to an engineer meant "helping and abetting the wreckers' activities"; receiving letters from relatives abroad or writing to them was classed as "furthering foreign intervention" and so on. The sentences were almost invariably five or ten—seldom three—years of penal servitude in the concentration camps. "Free exile" to East Siberia, Northern or Southern Urals and Viatka often proved to be even worse than the camps, because it was impossible to find work in out-of-the-way villages, and the exiles were given neither money nor rations. Solitude in those wilds was to some people more terrible than the crowded camps.

Apparently, the same fate awaited me, and it was only a question of the number of years. Five or ten years was no joke, especially when they might be my last years. But other women were worse off than I, for they went into exile leaving several children behind. My fellow prisoners kept telling me that there was still hope, for I had not yet received my "accusation". It was supposed to be handed to the prisoners not later than a fortnight after the arrest, but was always delayed, generally for two or three months, or more.

I received mine very soon. Three weeks after my arrest I was taken again to the examining officer who interviewed me in the first instance. He had just come into the room and was unlocking his case, pulling out of it bundles of pinkish papers. These were the "accusations" which, to save time, were prepared wholesale. He silently handed me one of them. It was marked by a number exceeding a thousand, though we were still in the third month of the year; it had written on it that I was accused of "furthering economic counter-revolution".

"What is required of me?" I asked, understanding that there was no point in speaking about the accusation, which I simply did not understand; neither of the OGPU officers who examined me ever asked me a single question relating to it.

"Sign that you have been informed of the charge against you."

I signed as firmly and clearly as I could. "Go back to your cell." I did as I was told.

I was not called up for any more interviews. Everything seemed to have been settled. No explanations were required; no defense was possible. I had now to wait for the verdict, which would no doubt be as absurd as the charge.

I could not have explained what "economic counter-revolution" meant, to say nothing of my "furthering" it; history, literature and art were the subjects at which I had worked all my life. But charges against other prisoners were just as senseless, so that I was no exception.