Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

The Examining Officer

I went calmly to my first interview with the examining officer. I imagined that it would be businesslike, and might help to clear matters. Though my arrest was a sure sign that my husband's position had changed for the worse, I naively imagined that I could be useful to him by confirming his innocence. It never occurred to me that the sole object of my arrest was to force him to confess something he had never done. I learned afterwards that the examining officer had confronted him with the dilemma of either signing the statement that he was a "wrecker" or of being the cause of my arrest. Nor did I know at the time that after my arrest my husband was presented with another alternative: either he must confess his "guilt" or he would be shot, I would get ten years penal servitude and our son be sent to a colony for homeless children. I knew that wives were often arrested on their husbands' account, but I had no idea that the OGPU so shamelessly used them as pawns in the game. And so I confronted the examining officer with the naivety of a "free" woman. He was a youngish man; his face had a noncommittal expression, as official as his OGPU uniform. He did not say good morning or offer me to sit down. Later on I found out that OGPU manners fall into three categories: drily-formal, like those of the man I was meeting now; hysterically threatening like those of the second official I had to deal with, and caressingly-polite. I did not come across the third variety, but I have been told that that was the most disgusting of all, especially for women. Having once adopted a particular style they do not vary it, and become as stereotyped as bad provincial actors on the stage. I do not know if any of them are sufficiently intelligent to behave differently, but probably this is not necessary: their decisions are settled beforehand and no special subtlety is required of them. To be clever and well-informed would be a needless luxury in investigating made-up cases.

The examination began by the question.

"Your social origin?"

"My father was a University professor. He was the son of a peasant and had nobility conferred on him on receiving his degree."

"So you belong to the nobility?"

"Nobility conferred on individuals was not hereditary. My father was known well enough. You can look up his biography in the Encyclopaedia."

That particular official did not bother me any more about this point, but the next man I had to deal with made a fearful scene. He shouted that I was concealing my social origin, that I obviously did belong to the nobility, that I was a typical class-enemy, and so on. Surprised by his shouting, I said calmly but maliciously:

"Nobility conferred on individuals is not a class characteristic. We are typical intellectuals of democratic origin. At present you are treating intellectuals worse than the real gentry. If you like to consider me as belonging to the nobility, you are welcome to do so. I don't care."

"Aha! You have confessed!" he suddenly yelled in triumph.

I was so surprised that I said nothing, but this incident made me understand how "confessions" may be engineered, and how stupid of me it was to enter into an argument. Every extra word one says may be dangerous, and one must learn to be silent.

The first examining officer went on with the usual questions.

"Have you been in prison before?"


According to a popular Soviet joke every official questionnaire ought to contain the questions: "Have you been in prison before? If not, why not?"

"Have you been tried:?"


I saw that in writing down my answer he made a mistake in spelling. He must have caught a gleam of mockery in my eyes, and that served me a good turn: he let me write down my answers myself, which is allowed but seldom, especially to women. In their version the officials always manage to twist one's answers in the way they want. "What visitors have you been having lately?"

"None of our friends have come to see us, and you know our relations from the questionnaire."

My answer caused the examining officer to make a few edifying remarks.

"Let me tell you that the Soviet Government is severe but just. We know how to value people who are candid with us, but we do not hesitate to apply other measures to those who are not. You have a son. You might consider him."

This phrase is said to all women who have children, but it always sounds like spiteful mockery. What can we do for our children now? Perhaps, indeed, the best thing we could do would be to die so as not to stand in their way.

"I want you to talk of your own accord. . . ."

"I do not know what the charge against me is and cannot tell what would be of interest to you." I answered in the most correct tone of voice, growing more and more uneasy.

Questioned very closely, I maintained that I knew nothing about my husband's case, but I had to admit that one of the "48" who were shot, a friend of my husband's, came to see us a year or eighteen months before his arrest.

Alas, I knew many people exiled to Siberia and Solovki, because their friends who were afterwards arrested happened to call on them; whole families were banished to the remotest parts of the country simply because they had relatives abroad. Everyone in U.S.S.R. may be a source of danger to others, and there is no way of protecting oneself.

There was nothing surprising in my being regarded as a "class-enemy", and yet I could not believe that even on OGPU logic I deserved Solovki. And so I naively asked whether the OGPU had taken into consideration that ever since the Revolution I had had work of my own and just before my arrest had been engaged on an important and responsible job.

The examining officer smiled condescendingly.

"That is of no interest to us," he said.

That was a good comment on the claim that in U.S.S.R. a woman can have an independent position. We were obviously returning to the days of Ivan the Terrible, when families used to be exterminated root and branch.

When I was led back to my cell I very nearly collided with a most unpleasant individual who rushed out of a side door. A puny, crumpled-looking little man with a greyish, twitching face, he might have been cast for the part of Smerdyakov in the Brothers Karamazov.

"Water!" he shouted.

Through the open door I saw an elderly woman, obviously of the educated class. In a fit of hysterics she was banging her head against the table. Her glasses helplessly swayed to and fro on a thin black string. The door was quickly shut again, but I understood something more about the technique of cross-examinations.

A few days later I, too, was brought before "Smerdyakov".

This time I was led into a big room that was probably used for meetings. There was a massive carved oak table with a huge ornamental inkstand and an armchair to match, but it all looked dusty and untidy. The examining officer ran in after me, flung himself into the armchair, and began to toss about like a mad monkey.

"Spy!" he shouted, piercing me with his nasty, furtive eyes. I suppose, according to his program, I ought to have turned deadly pale or blushed, but I was merely surprised.

"Yes, yes, spy!" he shouted, still louder, to be more convincing. "You were in communication with foreign capitalists, yes?"

I should have been much embarrassed if I had had to answer all the idiotic accusations which he showered at me, but apparently his aim was simply to overwhelm me with shouts, gestures and looks. It is beyond my power to describe that wild stream of abuse and threats.

"We shoot spies, we shoot them! We don't pity them! A bullet costs only seven copecks! I'll shoot you myself! Yes, myself, my dear little citizen," he added in a caressing whisper. "With this very hand," he added, displaying a horrid, dirty, twitching hand and a dirty cuff.

I felt disgusted, but not in the least frightened, because it was too theatrical.

"I've been doing it for nine years. Oh, you don't like that? Never mind, you'll get used to it. We'll make friends yet, you and I! You'll talk to me nicely one day! I like people to speak to me candidly!"

I sat there utterly stupefied by all this hideous nonsense; I only knew that I must take as little notice of it as possible. I had heard before that examining officers have a way of shouting and swearing, but I did not know that they began by it.

"Well?" he stopped suddenly and almost lay across the table so as to look at me more closely.

"It's all such nonsense," I said unexpectedly for myself, sadly and with sudden sincerity, I was thinking that shouts and threats were a professional method of intimidation, but that after all there was nothing to prevent him from carrying out any of his threats.

"What!" He nearly jumped off his chair. "So that's the way you speak to me! We are hoity-toity, are we? Very well! I've broken better people than you, and you may be certain I'll bring you to your knees! I know the lot of you, you scurvy intellectuals! Injured innocence, righteous indignation! You do know how to give yourselves airs! And then you crawl on your belly and whine. You ought to be crushed, the whole pack of you, crushed like lice!" he suddenly yelled in an unnatural voice, clicking his dirty nail on the table with an expressive gesture, "Like this, like this!"

I tried to distract my thoughts by examining the inkstand and guessing what metal it was made of, and so on—anything to keep my attention from words which were merely intended to exasperate me.

"And your husband is a nice one! A professor, a scientist! To the devil with your science! I spit upon your science!"

He bit off the wet end of the cigarette he had in his mouth and expressively spat on the floor.

"There! We can do without you! Shoot you, and that's all about it."

He carried on like this from nine in the evening till midnight. I heard nothing from him but threats and abuse—no questions, no definite charges.

After this seance of intimidation my cell seemed to me an abode of peace, the grating of the key in the lock—a lullaby. Broken with fatigue and disgust I lay there, unable either to sleep, or to think, with a sense of utter hopelessness: if this was called "investigation", what sentence could my husband and I expect? So far I had managed to control myself and had not said anything indiscreet, but it was clear that a prisoner was not regarded as a human being and his whole fate depended on the whim of the OGPU.