Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

A Bad Night

The cell was cold and damp. Water was dripping from the frozen window high up in the wall, and the asphalt floor was wet as after rain. The straw mattress on the iron bedstead was damp and dirty. Mustering my courage I made my bed and lay down in my clothes, covering myself with my overcoat. I wanted to shut my eyes and see nothing.

There was another woman in the cell. She lay on a bed by the door. When I was brought in she did not stir beneath her magnificent fur coat, from under which I could see only her lace night-cap.

It seemed strange—the hideous, smelly cell and these furs and lace. But people are brought into prison just as they are; it is only in the concentration camps that all are reduced to the same dead level.

When the warder walked away from the peep-hole, satisfied that I was not going to do anything desperate, my neighbor raised her head and looked at me attentively. I saw a young and very beautiful woman. Her face was so pale and thin, her big, dark-rimmed eyes were so full of sorrow that she looked like an actress made up for the last act of a tragedy.

"When?" she asked in a whisper, addressing me as though we had known each other for years. Prison brings people closer together than any friendship.

"Just now."

"And I've been here exactly a year."

"A year?" I sat up to look at her.

"Yes, a year to a day. It is bad luck for you to have been put into my cell."

I stared at her and did not venture to say anything. A year of prison, a year in this horrid, damp, stinking cell! How had she survived it? And did she think I, too, would have a year of it?

"Your husband is in prison?" she asked confidently.


"Is he an engineer?"

"No. He is a scientist, a University professor."

"Mine is an engineer. Has your husband been in prison long?"

"Four months."

"You took parcels to him in prison? Tried to intercede for him? Applied to Moscow?" she asked, with a kind of malice.


"I too. We oughtn't to have done it. They don't like it."

"The OGPU, you mean?"

"Yes. Now your husband is done for, and you too. We are wretched fools, that's what we are."

"But could we have done anything different?"

"No, we couldn't."

She spoke no more and lay down. The shutter over the "peep-hole" rustled slightly; an unfriendly eye scrutinized us intently. She pretended to sleep, but as soon as the footsteps died away she resumed the conversation.

"Have you any children?"

"One boy."

"I too. Whom have you left yours with?"

"Alone. The people living in our flat are mere acquaintances," I said miserably, dreading to think of how he was feeling alone in the night for the first time in his life.

"Mine is with his granny, but she is seventy. I can't think what they are doing. My God! My God! A whole year. What they are living on, how they manage to exist—I know nothing, nothing at all!"

We were silent: both were choking with tears. In prison one must not think about one's children, must not recall their dear little faces with frightened eyes it is unbearable.

Tears slowly trickled down her cheeks, but her face remained fixed like a mask.

"We ought to die," she said decidedly, almost aloud.


"We did not watch over our children. We ought to have deserted our husbands at once for the sake of the children. Now they will destroy us all."

She always said "they" instead of the OGPU. It was like the Fate of the Greek tragedies, inexorable and remorseless.

"But why would it be better for them if we died?" I asked indignantly. I had always imagined that I was essential for my son's happiness, but my neighbor spoke with such conviction that her judgment seemed final.

"It would be much better. They would be orphans then. A father and mother like us are simply a millstone round a child's neck."

Perhaps she was right. I recalled that children of men sent to penal servitude have difficulty in finishing the secondary school and are not allowed to go on to the Universities. If they become factory-hands they are not allowed to specialize, but must always remain unskilled workers. It is all very well for Krupskaya to write that all children have a right to be educated; words do not commit her to anything, and her name is an excellent advertisement for naive people. The children of the "48" who were shot were expelled from everywhere, even from classes of foreign languages. Perhaps our children really would be better off if we died and the OGPU forgot about us.

"I have tried." she went on in a calm, businesslike voice.

"Tried what?"

"To die. Three times."

"Yes, and what happened?"

"I haven't succeeded, but I will; one must only have patience."

Her face was calm, her eyes were intelligent, and yet she talked in this wild way.

"It is difficult to cut one's veins," she continued. "One cannot get enough warm water and blood congeals. I cut myself very thoroughly and lost no end of blood, but I didn't die; I only grew very weak."

"What did you do it with?"1 asked, adopting her tone in spite of myself.

"Glass. I broke the window-pane. I still keep a few pieces by me, in case." She fumbled for the pieces of glass hidden inside her mattress.

"To hang oneself is very difficult—they watch me; but once I very nearly did it."

As I listened to her I felt that she was introducing me to a new, special world, created by the prison, and our conversation no longer seemed mad to me.

"I asked for some bandages, twisted them into a rope, tied it to the lavatory tank, put the halter round my neck and jumped off the seat. I quite enjoyed it at the moment."


"My neighbor woke up when I began to choke. I am very tall, and I suppose my feet got in the way when I lost consciousness so that I did not die at once," she said with annoyance. "But it's very horrid."

"What is horrid?"

"The coming to. Usually they carry people to the hospital, but they thought I was dead already, so they threw me down on the floor, just as I wasin my shift."


"Just at the bottom of the stairs, where the warder on duty sits."

That was the place where I was so foolishly frightened of the noseless wardress. Now I was listening to something really frightening, but I no longer minded. I asked her where she hanged herself.

"In this cell. Over there," she pointed to the lavatory tank to which she had fixed the rope.

So evidently it was the same in prison as out of it only here death was not so easy.

"The thing is to starve oneself to death," she went on. "That's the most certain of all."

"Why, do they allow it?"

"Oh, that's all right. I starved for twenty days before they noticed it. They are afraid of hunger-strikes in common cells, but here I was alone. I used to pour the food down the drain. But one day they called me to the examining officer and I was too weak to walk. Then there was a lot of fuss. They dragged me to the hospital, the doctors took no end of trouble and pulled me through. But you can't think how nice wine tastes after fasting!" she added, with sudden animation. "A tiny glassful is as good as a bottle of champagne."

There was a spark of long-forgotten gaiety in her eyes.

"I did enjoy having a good time, sinner that I am! But surely There's nothing wrong in that? My husband worked day and night, they themselves paid him thousands, and now they ask where did we get the money from, why did we twice have dinner at the Hotel d'Europe! Damned hypocrites! They fling money about, open expensive restaurants—and then we have to pay with our lives for having had a bit of fun. 'Bribery by foreign capitalists' indeed! Why, I've never set eyes on one. I only read about them in English novels. No, I cannot endure this any longer. They have promised me to let me see my son; I'll have a last look at him and die. My heart will not stand another long fast."

"Is it painful to starve?"

"No, only the first days. Afterwards one just feels weak, and only half awake. And one has such nice dreams: freedom, real life, my own precious darling boy. Ah, if they'd let me out I would live for him alone."

"But perhaps they will let you out. Your case must end someday."

"No," she said sternly. "You don't know them. They won't let me out because I'd rather die than tell the lie they want me to tell."

Towards morning I got warm under my coat and dozed off. I dreamt that I was at home, that I had dropped asleep on the sofa and had forgotten to put out the lamp. I put out my hand to do it, and woke up with the cold.

"What is it?" my neighbor asked. She was sitting on her bed and looking at me attentively. Days and nights were merged for her into one blank succession of moments to which there was no end.

"The light. I dreamt that I had forgotten to put out the lamp."

"They don't put it out in my cell; they are afraid of what I might do. Sleep, they'll take you to the examining officer to-morrow."

But I could not go to sleep any more. In my dream I had had for the last time a feeling of home, and waking up I understood that my home was lost forever.