Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

Parcels for the Prisoners

Troubles at the office, endless struggles for every piece of bread, for every log of wood, for every moment of existence, are hard to bear at all times and become unendurable when the family is broken up and the threat of death hangs over it. But the succession of empty, depressing days held one bright spot—the day of taking parcels to the prisoners.

The parcels contained a change of linen and a specified quantity of food-stuffs, enumerated in the official list. One could not send a single word of greeting, no message of any description—not even to say that all at home were well. But for the prisoners this parcel, every detail of which reminded them of home, was their sole link with life; for their families, preparing the parcel was the only thing really worth doing. All the prisoners and their wives, mothers, children, lived for the "parcel day" and looked forward to it as though it were a day of meeting.

One might think it was all quite simple—you collected the linen and the food, passed on the parcel, and that was all. But in truth it was by no means simple.

To begin with, you had to get the food-stuffs: meat, eggs, butter, apples, dried fruit, salted cucumbers, tobacco, tea, sugar. All these things could perhaps be bought at the shops for OGPU agents; ordinary Co-ops hardly ever had them in stock, and then only in very small quantities—and for prison-parcels you had to have them every week. "

At home Soviet citizens feed on potatoes, flavoring them with herrings, onions, and any stray products that happen to find their way into the market. To find the rare food-stuffs needed for the parcels was rather like a task that witches set people in fairy tales. We could not have done it at all but for the wretched, dirty, free markets; the Soviet Government has had so far to tolerate small private dealers who often help the shop assistants to steal from the Co-ops. The prices on those markets were such that a parcel cost more than half of one's monthly salary, i.e., 60-70 roubles. It was vexing to see what poor stuff that money bought: stale bits of meat, butter mixed with margarine, wizened apples, doubtful eggs. And to buy these things you had first to sell some of your remaining possessions. Clothes, clocks, books, crockery, furniture was sold for next to nothing; we had to break up our homes in order to keep alive the men whose hard work had once built them up.

Two days of anxious running about were barely sufficient to do the selling and the buying. It often happened, meanwhile, as though to spite us, that some tinned goods—fish, lobsters, etc., would be rejected for export, and, not being good enough for the "European bourgeois" would be sold comparatively cheaply to Soviet citizens. Everyone rejoiced and feasted, but none of it could be sent to prison, for the articles in question were not mentioned in the official list of the OGPU. Only ordinary criminals could receive almost anything; every time we went to the prison office we read enviously the long list of things allowed them.

Then it had all to be packed in one bag: underclothes, eggs, meat rissoles, apples, salted cucumbers, tobacco, etc. The paper in which things were wrapped had to be without any letters or signs on it, and cotton bags containing tea and sugar could not be tied since everything of the nature of string was strictly forbidden in prison. Owing to the paper crisis the Co-ops did not wrap up a single article, but simply weighed things out loose in the scales; on the free market purchases were wrapped up in old newspapers. Without a special permit you could not buy paper in a shop. If in packing the parcel you failed to observe one of the rules, all the contents were thrown out and the prisoner received nothing.

All this was difficult, but Soviet citizens, especially women, are resourceful. The thought that everything we had cooked and collected would be taken to the prison and that our men were looking forward to it as to a holiday, made everything seem easy; though I admit that to obtain the right kind of paper we sometimes had to steal. The worst we had to go through was outside the prison.

Parcels were accepted from nine in the morning, but as I had to go to my work afterwards I had to be in the queue quite early. I left home about seven, when it is still quite dark in winter. The heavy bag kept slipping out of my hands; the tram-car was packed. It was damp and cold; everything one touched was wet and dirty. I was so tired and sleepy that all my inside seemed to be trembling. At the prison gates one had to slip unobserved into the gateway of the house opposite. It is not forbidden to walk past the prison, but if the sentry sees women with sacks he rudely drives them away and threatens them with his rifle—there must be no queue outside a prison, though their sinister closed car rushes about the town collecting victims day and night.

In the Butyrki Prison in Moscow things are far worse. Many women there come in the evening and spend the night in the porches of the neighboring houses: there are so many prisoners, and the queue is so long that a woman who arrives by the first morning car may be too late to give in her parcel that day. In Petersburg the queue formed in the evil-smelling gateway. It consisted almost entirely of women, most of them over forty and some quite sixty. Almost all were of the educated class: wives of engineers, professors, academicians. They were badly dressed: shabby overcoats, old hats, leaky shoes. All their better clothes had been sold. All looked with anguish at the cruel grey walls behind which were their nearest and dearest.

What was happening to them? Were they alive? No one could tell . . . . It was rumored that at Butyrki parcels brought by the parents for their son had been accepted for a whole month after the young man had been shot. When at last the prison authorities bestirred themselves to notify the father and mother of his death, the old people could not survive the shock and hanged themselves. Here the other day, they shot a man by mistake, because the prison-officer misread the name. Other prisoners had read their own death sentence in the papers, but were waiting for their turn, as there were too many victims to be dispatched in the prison cellars.

We knew nothing about the fate of our men. Tired and cold, we stood there whispering.

"How long is it since your husband was taken?"

"It will soon be a month."

"Oh, that's nothing! Mine has been here a year."

"A year? How? Who has been here a year?" everyone was alarmed.

"Ah, yes, of course, he is an academician! Yes, yes!"

All were reassured. It was nothing new.

"And yours?"

"Three days."

This one had quite a frightened look. She did not seem to have recovered since the night of the arrest. She was only about twenty. Her girlish face was plump and round.

"You know," she could not resist telling us, "Valya, my husband, came home in the evening and said, 'you know, darling (she blushed at the word that escaped her), they are taking young men now, so you must be ready. Don't be alarmed.' I did not believe him and took no notice of what he said, and in the night they came for him. I was so frightened that I have been trembling all over ever since."

It certainly was rather like conscription in war-time, only they began with the old and ended with the young.

"I am afraid I don't know what to do." she complained.

"Never mind, you will see for yourself when we go in," I reassured her.

"But tell me, what have you put in your parcel?" someone asked sympathetically.


"That's good."

"A lemon. . . ."

"No, no, you mustn't! Lemons are not allowed! Make haste, take out the lemon." Everyone was alarmed as though something dreadful had happened.

"But why? Why may I send an apple and not a lemon?" she protested.

"You mayn't, you mayn't. It's not in the list. They'll throw away the whole of your parcel."

Her hands trembled. The lemon could not be discovered in the big bag. She very nearly wept. Others helped her. At last the lemon was found. But now the whole list of the contents had to be re-copied, for no corrections in it were allowed.

"Never mind, we'll find some paper for you directly." we comforted her.

We gave her paper and indelible pencil—almost everyone carried that in case of emergency. The girl had to write, but her hand was shaking. She tried to control herself, remembering that there must be no corrections or erasions on the list, but suddenly she dropped a big tear right on to the paper and made a big smudge.

"No, they won't accept it now, that official is a horrid man. Write it out again," the others said in answer to her pitiful glance.

That was how we all had to be trained, and we did it all obediently, anxious not to anger the OGPU agents, who would make our dear ones suffer for it.

"I wish they'd make haste and open the doors," said a tired, sick-looking woman. "It is past nine."

"I hope they won't be long, my feet are simply frozen." There were about forty of us by now. There was very little room in the gateway and we could no longer stand one behind the other. We were tired; our bags seemed heavy and we could not put them down anywhere—it was wet snow and mud underfoot.

"We can go in!" someone in front cried joyfully. The prison gates opposite were slowly opening. We all ran across the road. It was light by now. People were going to work. Free men. . . . And our husbands? What was awaiting them—death or forced labor?

The room where parcels were given in was small. Its two windows had iron bars; the panes were so dirty that they looked like greased paper. The hanging lamp with a white shade was covered with thick black flakes of dust. The grime on the walls and ceiling completely obliterated their original color. The air was stale and sour. Every day from morning till three in the afternoon the room was crowded and it was never ventilated, not even in the summer. There was nowhere to sit down—not a single chair or bench, and so all leaned against the filthy walls. There was a wooden partition across the room and in it two openings closed with shutters. Behind the partition were those on whom our joy or grief depended that day OGPU agents in charge of the transfer of parcels. We stood and waited again.

In front of me stood a nun, thin but well-made and strong, and a pale, grey-haired, elegant-looking old lady. She was trembling with nervousness and muttering like one insane. "Forty years, forty years . . ."

"Forty years of what?" I asked.

"We've lived together for forty years. . . Good God, what is it for, what is it for? . . . He is an architect. You know him, don't you? Everyone knows him."

Yes, thought I, that was true. So much the worse for him, his name might be useful to the OGPU.

"I know," I said. "He created a whole school. His textbooks are used everywhere."

"There, you see," she said joyfully. "Surely, they can't shoot a man like that? If you only knew how he worked, day and night. Why, why did they take him?"

I said nothing. All were silent. Why did they take all the others?

Only two or three ladies chattered. Their husbands were dentists. Those are imprisoned simply to wring money out of them. If they have not any, they are kept longer, but on the whole, are released fairly soon.

It was getting on to ten o'clock. The room was crowded, the last arrivals were standing outside, but the windows in the partition were still closed.

"How much longer will they be? They should open at nine?" all said in timid whispers.

At last the windows opened noisily. An OGPU official could be seen sitting at the table, a box with a card-index of names in front of him. His face looked quite wooden, as in a caricature: low forehead with a dent in the middle into which the peak of his cap seemed to fit.

He roughly seized the paper handed him by the nun: the name was written at the top, then followed the list of contents of the parcel. He spent a long time fumbling in the card-index. The men behind him were sorting out bags with the return parcels of soiled linen. There was a smell of disinfectants and a sour smell of dirty clothes. The official was laughing and talking to someone, forgetting the name, beginning to look for it again. We all stood with beating hearts: would the parcel be accepted? . . . . It was the one thing that mattered at the moment.

He underlined the name with a blue pencil, wrote down the number of the cell and threw back the list to the nun.

"It's accepted." she sighed joyfully, crossed herself secretly and went to the second window. "Next!"

The poor grey-haired lady, trembling, gave him her list crumpled by her nervous hands. He immediately flung it back to her. "There's no such man here."

"How do you mean? Where is he, then? Where?"

"I tell you, he isn't here."

"But they told me he was here, I inquired at the OGPU headquarters," she said breathlessly, gasping with agitation.

"Citizen, go away!" the flat-headed OGPU agent roared menacingly. "The next!"

"But where is he? Where?" the old lady cried in despair, beating her head against the window-frame. "Go away or you'll be led out," the man growled. We led the poor woman aside, soothing her, advising her in which prison she had better look for her husband—Kresty, Nizhegorodsky or Gorohovy. Everyone was afraid that he might be angry. Though officially he is supposed to do no more than look up the names in the card-index, we all fancied that the permission to give in the parcel depended upon his good or bad will. And as a matter of fact a good deal did depend upon him.

For instance, for two weeks in succession he drove away a mother who could not discover her son, a boy of eighteen, in any prison, though he had been arrested. When at last she fainted on the spot, we all begged him to look through the card-index once more; he did, and found the boy's name right enough.

"The cards had stuck together," he said airily. "Well, citizen, give in your parcel."

But the citizen had first to be restored to life. To spend a fortnight looking for one's son in OGPU offices and prisons, fearing that perhaps he had already been shot, was enough to drive anyone to despair and all through the carelessness of an official of whom it is no use to complain.

And so the queue moved on: two or three were refused and walked away distressed and bewildered, others were allowed to give their parcels in and felt happy as on Easter Day. Only some twenty-five per cent of the prisoners receive parcels, others have to live on prison rations, without a change of linen, without any link with their home; it is like being buried alive. When parcels are forbidden it means that the examining officer is "putting pressure" on the prisoner, trying to wear him out. It is a bad sign.

When permission had been given at the first window, things were easier at the second, though there, too, there was some risk because the second OGPU man also wanted to exercise his power.

"Why is your bag wet?"

"Because it's raining."

"I shan't accept it next time."

That was how he went on about every trifle. Tears and entreaties were of no use—his decisions were irrevocable. If peasant women came, they fared worst of all: they could not be made to observe the rules, and OGPU is equally cruel to all.

"Citizen Ivanov!"

"Yes, brother" . . . an old woman in huge felt-boots and a sheepskin coat, her head wrapped in a shawl, made her way through the crowd.

"Why did you put a newspaper in? I can't accept your parcel."

"Why, brother, it's not for reading, it's just to make into cigarettes, only half a sheet. We can't read or write; we are country-people. Have pity, brother!"

"Citizen, take away your parcel!" and the sack was flung back. The old woman wept and entreated, ready to fall at the man's feet, but the burly official, who probably himself had come from the country and had a mother like this old woman, would not even look at her. He did not care whom he drove away an illiterate old peasant or a little boy, left fatherless and motherless, as perhaps my son would be soon.

And so every week there was this secret joy bought at the cost of humiliation before the unbridled brutality of those who carry out "the dictatorship of the proletariat".