Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin


Our only joy in prison were the pigeons. In the spring there were many of them. With a soft rustle of wings they flew over the stone walls of the prison, alighting on the dirty melting snow of the yard, where everyone during the walk tried to leave for them some bread crumbs or lumps of porridge. Cooing they walked about on the roof, and we heard their feet pattering on the iron window-sills of the prison windows.

On Easter Day someone managed to leave in the corner of the yard an egg with "Christ is Risen" written on it; the egg was painted, in prison-fashion, with indelible pencil and coloured threads, probably pulled out of a dress. An Easter egg would not have been allowed in a parcel from home. Pigeons crowded round it, and pecked at it busily, scattering bits of coloured shell. This is how people in Russia greet their dead on Easter Day—by leaving coloured eggs on the graves for birds to peck at.

How strange that after two thousand years mankind was still the same—Judases and Pilates, executions, martyrdom!

On Easter Monday there was torrential rain and wild wind. Windows in the OGPU agents' flats, above the common cells, flew open and bits of paper fluttered about. The following morning we found in the yard a blue flower made of fine shavings—a Soviet invention, since paper and rags are much too dear. It looked lovely, but no one dared to take it; we were not allowed to pick up even pigeons' feathers.

In a semi-basement window that we had to pass on the way to the yard lay some freshly-sawn logs that had a delicious smell of the forest. It gave one the illusion of being really out in the open, but the rude shout, "Go on, what are you stopping for!" brought one back to the sour stench of the prison.

These were chance incidents, but the pigeons came continually, pecked the bread crumbs on the window-sill, and peeped into the cell, stretching their necks and holding their heads on one side as though surprised by what they saw.

Feeding the pigeons was strictly forbidden; both the wardresses inside the prison and the warders outside, who could see on whose windows the pigeons settled, persecuted us for it. But it was very hard to part with our only visitors!

Not to be caught at these forbidden trysts, I fed my pigeons at a quiet secret hour. When lights were put out for the night I stealthily got up from my bed, stole up to the window and, opening the ventilation pane, strewed bread crumbs on the window-sill. At daybreak when, after a disturbed night, everyone dozed off at last—the wardresses, the sentry in the yard, and even the most nervous and restless of the prisoners, pigeons cheerfully flew to my window. They pecked greedily, fighting and pushing each other, cooing contentedly when there was enough and peeping at the window with a request for more.

I listened to them through my sleep, sorry that the hour for getting up was drawing near and another senseless day would soon begin. The sound of their cooing that came into the cell, together with a whiff of fresh morning air not poisoned as yet by the kitchen fumes made one think of freedom. Summer, sunshine on the free blue sea, a far-off, cloudless sky. My little boy is swimming and diving in shallow water like a white puppy, and sharp-winged gulls are flying over him. He screams with joy and laughs, spitting out the salty water. Was he laughing now, left alone among strangers?

"Dear, friendly birds, it's time you flew away! You little care that the sentry is waking up, that the wardress begins her walk down the corridors, but I'll get into trouble."

I was sorry to drive them away and hear no more of their cooing, I never fed them in the daytime, though they came to the window and scolded me in angry, loud voices.

But soon the OGPU destroyed our harmless, charming friends. Orders were issued that they were all to be caught and killed. A trap was put in the yard and the tame, friendly birds were almost all caught within a few days. A pigeon and two doves still came to my window, but I did not feed them any more in spite of all their grumbling and complaints. I wanted them to lose the habit of coming and fly away to safety. But no! Soon I found the pigeon lying dead in the trap; the doves disappeared. The courtyard grew still and empty; only the prisoners dejectedly paced to and fro on the black asphalt.