Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin


On September 22nd, 1930, the Pravda  came out with the ominous headline "The discovery of a counter-revolutionary organization to wreck the workers "food supplies". There followed column upon column of incredible, overwhelming "confessions". Specialists at the head of the main branches of food supply, of the meat a fisheries and vegetable trusts well-known scientists and the best practical workers all were declared to be "wreckers", confessed it and signed their confessions. All the representatives of the biggest concerns dealing with food-supplies were included in the list, as though it were a case of elections for some congress or conference.

My husband and I sat over the paper feeling utterly overwhelmed. Rumors about arrests of specialists had been accumulating all through the summer, but most of the people had been seized during the last few days. We had been afraid to think where this was leading, but now the whole ghastly plan was suddenly unfolded before us. All the best workers were handed over to the OGPU—evidently, in order to stop somebody's mouth and to involve hundreds of others.

"But where are the facts?" I cried out at last. "What proof is there of their 'wrecking'? No one has ever heard of it! Why, many of the trusts mentioned here did remarkably well and actually made profits!"

I was choking with indignation at the cruelty and the shamelessness of it all, and at the same time I was horrified.

"Facts! It isn't a question of facts!" my husband said jerkily. "They wouldn't scruple to invent them. Such absurd accusations . . . 'criticizing the rate at which the work was proceeding' . . . 'having no faith in the Soviet Government's economic policy' . . . These are crimes indeed! But that's not the point." he concluded gloomily.

"What is it then?"

He passed me the paper and began nervously underlining with his nail separate words and phrases:

Ryazantsev . . . "I have always been an enemy of the Soviet Government." Karatygin . . . "I have been drawn into the 'wreckers' organization by Professor Ryazantsev." Levandovsky . . . "before I say anything about the 'wrecking' . . . Kuranov . . . "passing to my activities as a wrecker" Drozdov. . . "I belonged to an organization of 'wreckers'" . .

"They go on like this, every one of them! They've all been made to say the same thing." said my husband.

"But it's too silly and ridiculous! Who would believe that people could of their own will write or sign such confessions? And put it in such formal language, too."

"The OGPU doesn't mind whether it is believed. The sentence will be the same for all, anyway just as their confessions are the same."

"Still, I can't understand how they could confess. Even under the threat of death. To make such confessions is as good as signing one's own death sentence, I said, trying to shut out the obvious reflection that the whole point was the impudence with which the thing was stage-managed.

"One's own death doesn't matter, but what about one's family?"

"How do you mean? They are not after the families, surely? What use are we to them? And what can be more terrible for a family than to lose a father?"

My husband shrugged his shoulders.

"No." I went on, trying to find comfort in words in which I was losing faith, "it's impossible that they should shoot an old man like Ryazantsev, a professor, such an expert. . . ."

"But all those on the list are experts, all admirably qualified. The Communists themselves used to sing their praises and say they could not be replaced."

"Surely they can't shoot them!" I persisted. "Even if Ryazantsev gets ten years penal servitude, others will get five, and the rest may be simply sent into exile; after all, most of them were as good as in exile before at Murmansk or on the Caspian—they can't send them much further, can they?"

"Yes, they can—to the next world."

We were both silent. I saw the truth but I did not want to see it. It was clear from the choice of names that they had all been marked down as victims, that the defiant and pitiless tone of the newspaper was not an accident, and yet I could not reconcile myself to the obvious. One may very well know that terrorism is part of political tactics, but it is unthinkable to take it for granted.

"But why? What sense is there in destroying people who worked, invented new methods, created new branches of Soviet industry?" I asked helplessly.

"Why? To begin with because the Five Year Plan cannot be carried out and they have to justify themselves somehow in the eyes of the workmen and the foreigners, and secondly, the OGPU has been hard hit by the timber works being closed; they can't get credits if they don't frighten the Government. Or perhaps they simply want unpaid labor—I can't tell, I know nothing about politics."

"But why should they shoot them?"

"I don't know. We do not know how many have been arrested besides those whom they forced to sign the confessions—or whose signatures they forged. It is obviously only the beginning."

At work everyone was excitedly arguing about the same thing, trying to keep out of earshot of the Communists and spies: everyone was conscious of the approaching catastrophe and tried to find comfort in arguing that reason and justice were on our side.

After office hours in all Government institutions, factories and even schools, compulsory meetings were held at which "unanimous" resolutions demanding death sentence for the accused had to be passed. After the meetings the people were made to march in rows along the streets carrying placards hastily made of red cotton bearing inscriptions in black:

"The verdict of the working class is unalterable—the wreckers must be wiped off the face of the earth." "Death to the wreckers!" "Death to the counter-revolutionaries!" "Death to all the enemies of the Soviets!" At those meetings wives, sisters, fathers, brothers, even children, had to vote for the immediate death sentence on their near and dear ones who had been arrested in hundreds during the preceding few days. Those who ventured not to hold up their hands in favor of the death-sentence were immediately summoned to the "local committee", cross-examined and told that they would have to leave their posts.

"Remember, those who are not with us, are against us." was the concluding remark of the examining officer.

Several workmen and simple-hearted Communists asked whether there would be a legal trial for the accused, and wondered why "the wreckers" had been tolerated for so many years. They were at once summoned to the "party committee", then sent to prison and afterwards into exile. All the others kept a frightened silence as though they had themselves been sentenced to death and with pale, resigned faces marched behind the blood-red placards.

There were two more days of ominous newspaper hysteria, ferocious speeches at the meetings "to stir up public opinion", and OGPU motors hooting day and night as they rushed about the streets collecting their victims and terrorizing the population. On September 25th the awful list was published:

  1. A. V. Ryazantsev, professor, gentleman by birth, member of the board of directors of the Central Cold Storage Trust , . . founder of the counter-revolutionary organization.
  2. E. S. Karatygin, professor, chairman of the Agricultural Section . . . leader of the counter-revolutionary organization.
  3. M. Z. Karpenko, gentleman by birth, head engineer of the Cold Storage Centre . . . organizer of wrecking activities at the Cold Storage Centre.
  4. S. P. Nikitin, deputy-chairman of the Volga Caspian. Fisheries Trust . . . leader of counter-revolutionary activities there .
  5. P. I. Karpov, technical director of the Net and Tackle Trust . . . organizer of wrecking the work of the Trust .
  6. Shcherbakov, managing director of the Northern Fisheries Trust . . .

and so on, forty-eight names—forty-eight men full of life, men of exceptional knowledge and experience and one short phrase "to be shot".

There was still a tiny, faint hope that the death sentence had been commuted to penal servitude—but no!

"The sentence has been carried out,

"Chairman of the OGPU Menzhinsky".

We felt exactly as though the OGPU agents had suddenly walked into the various offices and shot those who were in charge of the work. There were no bloodstained bodies on the floor, but essentially it was just the same. The empty desks of the murdered men stood in the usual place; their papers had for the most part not even been disturbed by the OGPU who had "documents" of their own to incriminate them. Those who had not been arrested as yet wandered about the office in utter bewilderment. All felt that death was near and there was no escape.

In prisons the shootings continued on the quiet but OGPU published no more lists of victims. It was said that the death sentences had made a bad impression abroad. Arrests went on at such a rate that in some departments of the main Government institutions there were only typists and caretakers left.

Two days after the shooting of the "forty-eight" a little girl, the step-daughter of one of the victims, ran to us in alarm.

"Mother has sent me. Yesterday they came and made a list of all our things and to-day they've come to take them away. They've taken all we have, everything . . ." her lips trembled, her eyes were full of tears, but she was in a hurry to give her mother's message. "Mother has just received a notice, they are sending her into exile, she has to go somewhere very far, and she asked perhaps I could live with you for a time. Mother thinks perhaps they won't exile me because daddy was not my real, I mean, not my own father." She corrected herself and suddenly burst into tears. "But I loved him very much, and I do love him still, and the girls in our class voted that daddy should be shot. I won't, I won't go to school anymore." she cried through her sobs.

"There, there, pull yourself together. Where is your mother now?"

"She's gone to . . .", the child's eyes opened wide with terror, "mother said she was going to the OGPU. They'll shoot her there as they shot daddy!" she sobbed.

"Nonsense, they won't touch her. Why, you saw that she went there herself, she wasn't taken like daddy, expect she wants to ask them if she may leave you behind."

"I don't want to be left, I want to go with mother."

The child wept so bitterly, hiding her face in my lap, that my hands and dress were wet with her tears.

"Of course you will be with mother, only you will go to her later, when she is settled. Listen: mother will get there, find a room, find some work, then write to us here and you will go to her. Just think, other people are worse off than you: There's one mother who has two small children, and she isn't allowed to leave them here—and in the place to which they are sending her there are no hotels, and she doesn't know a soul there and will have nowhere to go from the station. It will be much nicer for your mother to travel by herself, and I will soon send you to her. And you need not go to school here." I was trying to comfort the poor child with the misfortunes of others.

"You know, they are sending into exile that mad woman, too."

"Surely not?"

"Mother said so. Her sister will go with her; she can't travel alone."

"Well, you stay here and I'll go and see your mother," I said, freeing myself from the child's grasp as I saw that she was getting calmer. I could not imagine what her mother's state must have been.

It was too outrageous. Women, stunned with grief, and frightened children who could not grasp what had happened and watched, horrified, their mothers' despair, were being sent into exile, robbed of all they possessed except a change of clothes. Within three days of the fathers' execution the families had to leave for remote little towns, with no money, no help of any kind, not knowing where to put up, for it was extremely difficult to find living room anywhere. Perhaps it was the very depth of their despair that saved these unhappy women. They signed notifications of exile and protocols of confiscation, hardly grasping what it all meant, and, taking their children, set off in utter hopelessness into the unknown. Their fate created perhaps even more panic than their husbands' death, and apparently this was precisely what the Government wanted for their campaign of terror.

In the meantime, people who were not directly threatened with anything, broke down in the general atmosphere of strain and fear, and committed suicide. Learned experts, some of the honest Communists, museum and scientific workers, for the most part comparatively young people, hastened to take their own lives. The numbers of suicides increased so rapidly that the papers were forbidden to mention them. Elderly people died a natural death, but a sudden one: their hearts nurtured on Liberalism and Tolstoy could not stand this new "Communist offensive".

No more than a week had passed after the execution of the "forty-eight", but one might have thought that the intellectuals had been stricken by plague: thousands were in prison, and those that were still free were a pitiful sight. No one argued any more or talked of justice or felt secure in the sense of his own rectitude. Prison, death or exile were the fate of all; it would have been shameful to expect mercy, when one's friends lay buried in a nameless grave, and their widows and children suffered in far-off exile.