Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

The Last Interview with the OGPU

Summer passed: June, July. We were perishing with the heat and the stuffiness. The thick stone walls exuded moisture that had been accumulating for years and years. The cells were hot and damp, like a bad cellar. Though we had no exercise and scarcely moved at all, we were bathed in perspiration day and night. All were getting thinner and paler than in winter, while the wardresses looked jolly and sunburnt.

It was nearly five months since my arrest; four months since the accusation was shown to me, and almost ten since my husband was taken. I knew nothing of what was happening outside the prison, and could not understand when our "case" would end.

"You must wait." the old wardresses said. They had grown used to me and were sympathetic. "It's always like that with us: if they don't let you out at the end of two months, you must wait five. And it's a good sign that they don't call you up to be questioned."

Almost all the women in solitary confinement had been sentenced to five or ten years of penal camps. They were waiting for the sentence to be confirmed by the Moscow OGPU, which settled their fate without having ever heard their own evidence. A dull indifference descended upon them during those last days before exile into the cold and hunger of the penal camps. The woman whose cell I shared on my first night in prison had been sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to ten years penal servitude at Solovki. For me, too, the days dragged on dully and aimlessly.

Suddenly I was called before the examining officer. That meant the end. What was it?

It is impossible to describe what I felt as I went to hear my verdict. A blind fury of indignation was welling up within me. To think that I should have to submit in silence to an absurd sentence passed on me and my husband and my child by the dullards of the OGPU!

It all seemed like a bad dream: the examining officer's study, the branch outside his window, though this time its leaves were dusty and withered. The same horrid, hysterical man.

"Take a seat."

He looked me up and down.

"You are looking very well."

"And so are you."

"Yes, you know I have been away on leave. I have kept you waiting. Were you bored?"

"It's not particularly cheerful here."

A wry smile.

"Quite so, quite so." He opened his cigarette-case: "And your dear husband has been sent to penal servitude. Yes! We don't want wreckers. Certainly not!" he shouted.

So that was the end. They have sent him away.

"Where to?" I asked, speaking with difficulty.

"I don't know. To the north, I believe, to the penal camps. Let him knock about for two or three years there and learn to work, instead of wrecking. It will do him good."

"When was he sent?" I asked calmly, though I felt sick and dizzy.

"I don't know. How should I know? It was not my case," he said carelessly, watching me with interest. "Well, what about you? Where shall we send you? We thought of Solovki. What do you say to that?"

He kept his eyes on me, waiting to see the effect. I said nothing.

"Yes, yes. We thought of Solovki. It's a fine place. The sea, forest all round."

He went on chattering. I did not hear and could not force myself to listen or to think of my own fate. They have sent my husband away. He doesn't tell me where nor when. I haven't been allowed to see him, they didn't let us say good-bye.

"We thought of Solovki, but we took pity on you. You have a son, you know. We've been keeping an eye on him. He is not a bad boy, but we don't want homeless children. So you'll have to work for the present, yes, to work."


"How do you mean, where? At your old job. You are of no interest to us now. What did you think? They showed you some sort of charge against you, didn't they? That's nonsense! We just write out those charges when necessary. You can forget about that. I repeat, we are no longer interested in you and you are no use to us. It's true. I was very much annoyed with you and seriously wanted to send you to Solovki. I have no patience with the way one has to wring out every word from you. It's beyond everything! However, We've decided to let you off and you may go. But I don't advise you to return to us, I certainly don't. Next time we should have a different sort of talk. I don't believe you understand what I am saying—1 tell you, we are letting you go. I am just going to sign the order. It has to go to the office, and to-night, or to-morrow morning, as soon as the formalities are finished, you may go home! I have kept you here a bit too long, but never mind, you'll have plenty of time to get over it. Take care you don't fall into our hands again! We won't stand on ceremony with you then."

I sat there wondering how much longer he would go on. Was he expecting me to thank him for having sent my husband to penal servitude, kept me in prison, and spoiled the boy's life?

"Go and wait."

At last! I came out feeling quite broken and could hardly crawl back to my cell. They did not come to release me that evening. I did not mind. I felt that by myself I could master my sorrow better; I dreaded returning to the home which my husband would never see again.

I did not sleep all night—the same hopeless thoughts haunted me. One good thing about prison is that it makes everything stand still; it frightens one to return to the wreckage of the life outside.

Morning came. I was taken for my walk. Other prisoners looked at me in surprise—1 looked so ill. I cannot think what I had been hoping for, but the future seemed to me terrible.

"What has happened?" whispered the women from the cell next to mine, overtaking me.

"My husband has been sent to a penal camp. When, where I don't know."

"I am going to be released." I added as I met them on the second round.

They were delighted. It was a joy for all to hear that someone was released.

The day dragged on. There had never been a longer day.

Another sleepless night. I kept thinking that I would not have time to see my husband before he died in the penal camp. What he must have felt going there and leaving me in prison!

Another morning. My neighbor, the pretty girl from the streets, laughed at me.

"Your eyes have sunk in, you look older by ten years. The examining officer must have given it you for your nice goings-on if you look such a sight."

I said nothing. I had no thoughts to spare for her. Another walk. The others looked at me in alarm. They all knew that prisoners are sometimes promised freedom simply in order to disturb the routine of their prison life and make them lose their nerve more easily when they are cross-examined again. None of us could know, of course, that my "case" had been concluded in April, and that I had really been forgotten by the OGPU for four months.

Another dinner. How sick I was of it all!

Two o'clock. I lay down to rest. Perhaps the man really had changed his mind?

Three o'clock. The key was quietly turned in the lock and the wardress said: "Get ready. Pack your things."

These words may mean moving to another cell, going to be shot, or being released.

"Where is she going?" my neighbor cried excitedly.

There was no answer. The wardress stood by me while I packed my things.

"Be quiet!" she warned me, leading me out of the cell. It was all to be done secretly, but I wanted to give a treat to my neighbors, though I did not know them even by name: I stumbled, dropped my suit-case, and uttered an exclamation. That was my friendly greeting to give them hope that it was possible to leave this cursed house of the dead. The wardress shook her head reproachfully, but I was no longer in her power. The chief warder led me along the familiar gloomy corridors to the office with which my prison life began.

In the office all was dull and sleepy as before. A thin man instead of the fat one sat smoking and yawning. I was told to sit down on the bench and forgotten there. A good ten minutes passed. The thin man motioned carelessly to a disheveled girl in a low dress, with painted lips and red-stained nails on her coarse, dirty fingers. She lazily handed him a book. He took a long time examining it. I was in no hurry either. I did not long for freedom. There can be no freedom in U.S.S.R. You go away from one prison to get into another, bigger one; you escape from the OGPU, but are surrounded in every place of work by its secret agents.

The clock ticked slowly on. At last I was handed a paper on which it said that I was kept in the House of Preliminary Detention from March, 1931, till August, 1931, that is, for more than five months. That was all.

"May I go now?"

"No, wait for the pass."

Again they lazily wrote something out on a form, and made an entry in a book. I recalled how one of my neighbors who indulged in fancies to escape from the misery of the prison asked me once:

"Tell me, would you walk through the town if they let you out naked? And if it were wet and cold and muddy?"

"Tarred and feathered." I answered jokingly.

"No, don't laugh. I am serious. Or if they made you walk on all fours? It's silly, but I can't help thinking about it."

She was a young woman and was imprisoned because her address was found at a dressmaker's who, in her turn, had been arrested on account of some other client. And indeed if the OGPU could keep a woman for six months in prison because in 1923 she had a skirt made for her by somebody who was arrested in 1931, they might with equal reason make her walk on all fours. But they like to give a bureaucratic form to all their absurdities. An official paper is all-important.

It was a quarter to four. It took them twenty minutes to write out my pass. I had to sign my name once more, and then the grated door of the prison was opened before me. But I went out with a heavy heart now that I knew by experience in whose hands lay the fate of us all.