Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

Constant Medical Attendance

The OGPU did not like people to die in prison and tried to prevent it—death was the specialty of the penal camps. It only sought to weaken us morally and physically so that we should have no power of resistance left. In the Press, it is true, the Bolsheviks represented their regime in very different colors; Ramzin, Fedotov and others who figured at the public trial had to declare that their health improved in prison where they had "constant medical attendance." I do not question their statement. They had leading parts to play and before they appeared on the stage they must have been taken care of. But people like myself were not wanted for publicity purposes and so there was no occasion to look after us; though for the sake of appearances there was a medical staff in prison. Indeed, some of the staff were always on the spot in case of attempted suicide, which the OGPU tried to prevent. Besides, it was the chief doctor's special duty to certify that the prisoners who had been shot were really dead.

After my interviews with the "lively" examining officer when I had to strain every nerve to keep my self-control, my health gave out: I developed red patches on my skin that itched, turned wet and wrinkled. It looked rather awful. My neighbor who was fond of repeating a wise saying that "One's own dirt is better than other people's infection", decided that I must have caught something dreadful trying to clean the filthy straw mattress or washing myself in the so-called bath. The bathroom where we were taken once a fortnight certainly was a frightening place. It was an almost square cell without windows or any ventilation. By the back wall stood a huge shapeless copper bath dating back to the times of Alexander II. Its edges were broken and crumpled and it was slimy and slippery inside. It would never occur to anyone to fill it with water and use it as a proper bath, but one had to step into it because the taps were inside and there was a douche over it. The general impression of primeval filth was made worse by the look of the walls: the paint had cracked with the heat and was coming off in bits; the ceiling was almost as black as the asphalt floor. The concentrated stench of the place took one's breath away. But we had to wash somehow and there was nowhere else to do it.

I had to ask for a doctor, if only to make sure that I would not infect my neighbor. A doctor's assistant appeared. She dashed into the cell accompanied by the wardress and before I had had time to say a word she declared "Slight infection, don't wash, I'll send you an ointment", and dashed out again. She carried out in all conscience the rule that members of the medical staff must not talk to the prisoners. A little later the wardress shoved through the slot in the door a packet with some ointment. My neighbor sniffed it: "It is exactly the same that she sent me when I had earache." Afterwards my other neighbors received that same ointment for abscesses, hemorrhoids and many other complaints.

When I was released from prison and went to a real doctor, he was much surprised at the treatment prescribed to me. My trouble, it appears, was nervous eczema which ought to be washed and not anointed.

"But surely there was a doctor in prison?" he asked me.

"Yes, but only his assistant could call him in. She could do so if she felt that she was not competent to deal with the case. Considering the hurry she was in, that was not likely to happen often."

As a matter of fact, I did see the prison doctor on two occasions. My neighbor had an attack of appendicitis. The doctor came, prodded her in the spot where the appendix is supposed to be and asked:


"Yes. Doctor, I cannot . . ." But before she had finished the sentence, the doctor turned round and was gone. The cell door banged and we were left staring at each other in astonishment.

Another neighbor I had, an elderly woman, had a violent attack of angina. That happened during cross-examination and as examining officers do not like prisoners to die before their case is concluded, the doctor was sent into the cell almost as soon as she had been carried into it. He felt her pulse and walked out without saying or doing anything. Evidently there was no immediate danger of death. The wardress and I spent the whole night nursing her as she kept gasping for breath and losing consciousness, but we did not send for the doctor any more.

I have been told that when, in the common cell, this doctor was called to a patient who had been delirious for two days, he declared: "Remember, I come only to the dead and the paralyzed. Don't disturb me for nothing."

Though perhaps it would have been more absurd for doctors to try and cure those whom the OGPU had doomed to death or to Solovki.

That summer, however, when scurvy assumed proportions that seemed alarming even to the OGPU, the prison authorities displayed unexpected solicitude.

At an unusual time of the day we heard keys rattling and doors banging everywhere. Our door also flew open. A doctor came in, an elderly man getting on to sixty, obviously of the old school; he wore a white overall but had a cigarette in his mouth. Without taking it out he commanded: "Eye!" and roughly turned up my eyelid.

"Teeth!" he shoved his finger in my mouth and rubbed my gums.

"Leg!" he felt my knee.

Without washing his hands he did the same thing to my neighbor—this time a common criminal suffering from venereal disease—and sending a whiff of smoke into her nose, went out. His visit may have lasted a minute; then the door next to us banged and he went into the next cell. The quickness of the examination, to say nothing of the simplified hygienic methods, certainly beat all records.

But even if he did infect someone the good result of his visit was that on the next "parcel day" we received what had so far been strictly forbidden: raw carrots, radishes, onions, garlic and fresh cucumbers. Prisoners we had not seen before were taken to walk in the courtyard. What a sight they were! One, quite young, could hardly move and dragged one leg painfully. Another, almost a child, dressed in a girl's blouse with a sailor collar, just managed to walk as far as the warder's stool; she sank on to it, looked at the sky and wept. A third, an elderly woman whose fine, severe face reminded one of an old ikon, was carried out on her bed—she was not able to walk. As she was carried back to her cell she gave one long look at the sky and made the sign of the cross.

Forgetful of all precautions we hung on the window, trembling with excitement: these women came from the "dead" cells, whose inmates had never before been let out into the fresh air. One of them happened to be in the yard while I was there; she could scarcely move, and I was able to overtake her several times so as to express my sympathy, by a look at any rate. She understood me and whispered as I walked past:

"Six months without fresh air, without books or papers."

Six months, one hundred and eighty days in which she heard nothing except the examining officer's insults and jeers—and we had been complaining because we were given only four books in ten days, one of them a "political" book, i.e., some old collection of Communistic speeches or of polemics between Deborin and Axelrod, accusing each other of being idiots and of interpreting Hegel's dialectic in a non-Marxist way.

Plehanov in his article about the Decembrists, says that we must not blame Pestel for his penitent letter to Nicolas I because he had had five months of solitary confinement. But, though it was one of the darkest periods of Tsardom, Pestel, who had raised an armed rebellion, was allowed a Bible, paper and ink; the Socialistic Government of "the freest country in the world" condemned women whose guilt had not yet been established by the OGPU, to an existence that was little better than a living death. If Pestel lost courage, what was to be expected of these women? Some of them went mad, others committed suicide, but the rest remained true to themselves and went into exile with the same quiet fortitude.