Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

The Visit

Twice a year a convict's relatives may apply for permission to see him. Permission may be given or it may not. Application must be made on the spot, and all the penal camps are in remote parts of the country. If permission is refused, they have to go back, not knowing whether they will ever see him again. They may be allowed to see him "in the usual way", or, as an exception, be admitted "on a personal visit". The "usual way" means that they may see him a certain number of times for two hours a day, between two and six, in the office, in the presence of an OGPU agent, who interferes in the conversation, forbids whispering, giving each other anything, speaking about life in the camps, about the details of the "case", and about anything that strikes him as suspicious. "Personal visit" is a rare piece of luck; it means that the convict is let off for several days to the "free lodgings" where his family is staying. True, he has to go to work from, eight in the morning till eleven at night, but all the remaining time and the dinner hour he may spend with his people, without being directly watched. Permission to see the prisoner at all, whether in the "personal" or the "usual way" and the length of time for which visits are allowed, entirely depends upon the arbitrary decision of the official in charge of the particular section of the penal camp in which the prisoner works; it is in his power, too, to cut short at any moment the visit for which permission has already been given.

I am not at all of an emotional temperament, but I confess that I completely lost my head when I finally decided to go. I felt exactly as though somebody had told me that I might see my father, who had been dead for seven years.

I had not seen my husband for over a year; during that year he had lived through his imprisonment, my imprisonment, had more than once been threatened with death, and from a free man had been turned into a convict.

The boy was so excited that we could hardly speak about his father and our visit to him. One morning he said to me that he did not feel very well, and would not go to school. When I returned he was in bed, but I guessed from his face that he had been up to something.

"Did you get up while I was away?"


"Did you go out into the street?"


"What for?"

The boy was no good at telling lies. Besides, he obviously had something on his mind that he wanted to tell me. Without answering, he bent down and fetched something rolled into a tube from under his bed.

"A map?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered shamefacedly. "I wanted to know exactly where daddy was, and how we would go to him. They gave me this huge map; there was no other. It cost three roubles, but it's my own money. Only I didn't think it would be so big."

"And you didn't know where to hide it from me?"

"No. I thought you would be cross because I did not go to school. I would have shown you the map afterwards."

Concealing my agitation, I sat down on his bed, helped him to unroll the map and, closely huddled together, we examined the green expanse indicating the marshes, the two big blue lakes—the Ladoga and the Onega, the black line of the railway that skirts round them and, beside a bay of the White Sea, a black point—Kem.

The boy kept rubbing his cheek against me, kissing and stroking me, glad that I understood and was not cross with him. As a matter of fact, I always did understand him, but when he was faced with something painful or difficult, he wanted to be left alone till he got over it. He declared that he was ill and spent the whole day in bed. That was what he did after his father's arrest—he lay in bed all the following day; he did not weep, nor complain, nor talk—he merely lay there thinking it over.

He was always delighted when I guessed what was on his mind, and said:

"Mother, how do you always know? You must be a bit of a witch, I think."

"Of course. I know when you wash your hands without soap, when you don't clean your teeth, when you get out of bed."

"And how do you know when I tell fibs?"

"Your nose always tells the truth." I caught him looking in the glass at his nice straight little nose, wondering how it could give him away.

We looked at the map, feeling exactly like the people who during the War tried to locate on the map of the front the trench where their loved ones were constantly facing death. Life in Soviet penal camps is no safer than being at the front.

After this incident we both felt a little better, but during the last few days before our departure we could scarcely speak for agitation.

"Mother, how shall we find daddy there?"

"I don't know."

"Mother, when does the train get there?"

"At three in the morning."

"What shall we do in the night?"

"I don't know. Perhaps the train will be late."

"Mother, and will they let us see daddy?"

"I don't know, darling, I don't know. Don't ask me."

We both thought of one thing only—of how we should find him. We had to take with us everything we should want there, because one could not buy anything at Kem, but we could only take as much as we could carry. I was warned that there were no porters at the station and no cabs, and it was two miles to the town. We made ourselves two hempen knapsacks to carry on our backs as peasants do.

The boy knew that he would have to rough it, and was not afraid, but he grew so tired with the excitement that he dropped fast asleep when he lay down to rest before the journey. The train left at one in the morning. I could scarcely wake him; he could not stand up, he was so sleepy.

"Wake up, darling, it's time to go."

"Are we at the station?" he asked drowsily.

"Wake up. We shall be late. It's time to go."

"Three o'clock?" he muttered.

"Not three, but half-past eleven. It's time. We are going to see daddy."

He opened his eyes.

"To see daddy? Of course!" and he seized his huge bag, forgetting his cap and overcoat.

We dressed, slung our knapsacks on our shoulder, and went to the tram, trembling with cold and agitation.

There were hardly any cabs or taxis, and they were fantastically dear, quite beyond our means. I succeeded in selling a few things before going, but even so I had not enough money. The worst of it was I could not buy any galoshes for the boy, and the streets were wet and muddy. He had to wear his old ones that were in holes. I could not get him any gloves either, and he was wearing odd ones one grey and one brown.

But nothing mattered if we only got there and saw him.

Here was the station—the former Nicolaevsky, then Octiabrsky, now Moscovsky; the Bolsheviks like to change names.

The Moscow train was the express, "Red Arrow"; all the Soviet aristocracy and foreigners travel by it. We saw brightly-lit sleeping-cars and carriages with soft seats. The passengers had leather bags and attache-cases. There were several Soviet ladies in 172) ?> sealskin coats with huge fur collars and the fashionable tiny hats.

The train for Murmansk-Kern left from a wooden side-platform. It was dark there and the place was seething with a democratic crowd with sacks, homemade boxes and enormous bundles from which worn boots and patched-up felt overshoes—the owners' last treasures—were sticking out. There were many peasants with saws and axes, many peasant-women with small children in tattered clothes, wrapped up in remnants of old shawls or simply in bits of rag. It was dreadful to think where they were going and what awaited them there. But the policy of exterminating the kulaks as a class, i.e., really of destroying all peasants who fail to fit into the collectivist scheme, has uprooted everyone. People wander over the whole of Russia, because in their native villages there is nothing but certain death to look forward to, and, though in distant parts it is death too, it is not so bad to die on the move. Many are driven out of their homes and deported; many go off of themselves in the hope that in some place they have vaguely heard of, people are given two and a half pounds of bread a day. Their ambitions do not rise beyond that. They do not know that those two and a half pounds of bread have been promised beyond the arctic circle, that they will have to live in dug-outs or in barracks which don't keep out the frost, that the children will all die in the winter—or if they do, they don't care. It's death either way.

The carriages are almost in darkness: there is no electric light, and only a bit of candle in a lantern burns dimly in each compartment. There are such masses of people on the seats and on the shelves for luggage that one sees nothing but heads and feet everywhere. The space between the seats is taken up with baskets, boxes and bundles on which sickly looking, dirty children sleep or sit in a kind of dull stupor.

There is one "soft" carriage (former II class) for the important officials and the OGPU courier who has a compartment to himself, and one "hard" carriage with numbered seats for the smaller officials and relatives of the prisoners going "on a visit"—if they can afford a platzkarte.

When I was preparing for the journey I fancied that I was the only one, but as soon as I entered the carriage I at once saw people of my own sort. Nowadays people talk very little in railway carriages they exchange two or three words, and that's all: there is no knowing to whom one may be talking, and anything one says may be dangerous. It is not as in the old days when everyone talked as hard as he could. Now it is sufficient to say where you are going for people to know what you are going for. Kem, for instance it has only some four thousand inhabitants who have no occasion to go anywhere, and some fifteen thousand prisoners; Mai-Guba is not even a village, but it is one of the biggest centers for the convict timber-works; Medvezhya Gora is the center of a penal camp much bigger than Solovki and the headquarters for building the White Sea-Baltic Canal.

Most of the officials got out at Petrozavodsk and the remaining passengers began a conversation, the essential part of which had no need to be put into words.

"Are you going to Kem?" a thin elderly woman with a cough asked me.

"Yes. And you?"

"To Segozero."

"Segozero?" I repeated, for the name was new to me.

There's a new penal camp there. They say they are getting ready in case of war: the prisoners from Kem are being transferred to different points on the railway. There aren't any barracks even; they'll have to live all the winter in tents. I am bringing all the warm things I could collect. But a warm vest and two pairs of stockings won't save a man if he's got to live all the winter in the frost. They didn't begin building barracks till September and had only time to build two for the overseers. In the summer they will build barracks that will do for soldiers."

"But where will you put up?"

"In the common tent. It's allowed because there is nowhere else to go—no village, not a single cottage, nothing. The camp is three miles from the station."

"How will you get there? The train arrives at night, doesn't it?"

"At one in the morning. Oh, I'll just walk. It's all forest and marsh; There's no one about. I am an old woman. And if somebody did finish me off, I'd be only too grateful. I haven't any strength left. I am sorry for my boy, he isn't twenty yet, or else I shouldn't wait for death."

"Why did they take him so young?"

"He was a student. I don't know what he had been up to, but suddenly they arrested him, said he was a Social-Revolutionary. He got three years of penal camps."

"How long ago?"

"This is his second year. But what's the use of counting the years—they won't let him come home anyway. They'll call it "free exile" and send him to the Northern Urals or the depths of Viatka, where he'll be worse off than here."

Looking at her more closely I found that she was not old at all. She might have been forty-five, but when she dropped asleep her thin, pale face framed with white hair looked so worn that she obviously had little hold on life.

"Have you other children?" I asked her. I felt dreadfully sorry for her and I did not know what to say to cheer her.

"No, I am all alone. My husband is dead. All my hopes were in my son. I am consumptive, and I am so afraid his lungs, too, will give way. Just think of it! He is nineteen; he was sent to the camp at eighteen and imprisoned at seventeen. Social-Revolutionary! A dangerous political criminal at seventeen! He is a clever boy and was doing admirably at school. And the worst and dullest pupils, members of Komsomol (Union of Communist Youth), denounced him to the OGPU saying he was not a Marxist and was opposed to the Soviet power. Ten boys were arrested at the same time and sent to the camps. He won't live through it. Forgive me for worrying you with my troubles. I expect you have enough of your own."

"Yes, I have."

"Is it your husband?"


"How long has he got?"

"Five years."

"Grown up people stand it better than youngsters. You know it simply drives me mad coming here. To see one's son a convict! Good God, and what for? My one dream is to be allowed to stay with him. I would gladly be a convict too if only I could see him. But no! They let me see him for five or seven days and then I have to go back. I am so miserable, I don't know what to do with myself when I return to my work—teaching children just a little younger than he was when they took him. I feel that I teach them merely to prepare the more intelligent ones for penal servitude too! They can't bear people to have a grain of originality."

She grew breathless, and after a moment's pause added quietly and hopelessly:

"I wanted to give up teaching and get a job in the post office, so that at least I need not see those boys but the Labor Exchange won't let me. They haven't enough teachers to go round, and I have had long experience."

I saw that the woman on the top bunk was listening. She differed from us two by being well dressed and looking rather like an actress, but the expression of her eyes, sad and thoughtful, made me at once guess that she was one of us.

"Do you remember Nekrasov's Russian Women?" she asked, bending down to us. "The luxury of it! The Emperor was angry, but those who wanted to join their husbands went. They lived there a real life, perhaps a better one spiritually than in Petersburg. They bore children. . . ." [A poem about the wives of the Decembrists who followed their husbands to Siberia after the abortive mutiny of December, 1825.]

"Don't you go in for monarchist propaganda!" I said jokingly.

"Is it your first visit?"

"Yes. It's not long since I've been released."

"So they sent him away while you were in prison?"


"You lucky woman! I understand how it is you can still joke. It's awful to see them like beasts in a cage. More than a hundred people in the room, all shouting, weeping. OGPU officials pacing up and down, shouting too—it's simply hell. And to see your husband there. . . . It's worse than death. And then to spend almost twenty-four hours in the street in front of the prison to see them being led out. . . . At the station to watch them, through the railings, being shoved into the train . . . oh! Why, to be in prison at the time is as good as being in a sanatorium!"

"Well, perhaps—if it were not for examining officers and the risk of being sent off too and leaving the boy alone."

She raised herself on her elbow and glanced at the boy, who was fast asleep on the bench with his cap under his head.

"One can't have children in these times," she said, looking at him. "Forgive me, I was thinking aloud," she added hastily.

"One can't live at all in these times." the woman teacher answered.

We grew silent. The train rattled on. The old, shaky carriages creaked, the broken pane of the lantern kept clanking.

"Conductor, are we late?" asked a young, almost childish voice next door.

"We were two hours late, but we are catching up. Don't you worry, miss, I'll call you."

"I am not a bit sleepy." the girl's voice answered.

"Have you seen our neighbors?" the lady on the top bunk asked me in a whisper.

"No, why?"

"You go and look. A wonderful old woman."

I went into the passage and sat down on the seat by the window, where I could see into the next compartment.

A tall old woman in a gorgeous black fur coat and a big black silk kerchief pinned over a Georgian velvet cap, sat there, leaning on a stick. Her hands were beautifully white, with heavy gold rings on her fingers and a diamond that sparkled with greenish fire when the light of the lantern fell upon it.

"Granny," said a tall, slim girl, sitting down beside her. "Granny, we shan't be there for another five hours. Do lie down!"

The old woman said nothing and did not stir.

"Granny, we shan't see mother till to-morrow morning. Do have a rest! I am not sleepy, but you will be tired out."

The old woman sat there like a statue of sorrow and did not stir a finger.

The girl got up and folded her hands as in prayer.

"Granny . . ." her voice broke and she could say nothing more. The old woman raised her head suddenly, her sorrowful eyes flashed with anger, and she bent once more over her stick with a silver knob.

The girl buried her face in her hands and lay down. I went back to my place.

"Have you seen them?" the lady on the top bunk whispered. I nodded.

"A queen, isn't she? I keep fancying that she is the last queen of Georgia. My husband is a musician. I believe if he saw her he would set her to music. I can't do it. I feel it. I almost hear it, but I can't express it."

"But what is your husband doing there?" I asked in surprise. I knew that actors were sometimes sent to penal camps, but musicians! Why?

"What is he doing? Playing. Amusing the authorities. Don't you know? There's a whole troupe there musicians, singers, actresses, especially from the music-hall stage."

"Forgive me, but . . . your husband, what reason could there be for convicting him?"

"He went to give concerts abroad."

"And whom is the old woman going to see?"

"Her daughter. The girl told me. The father and mother are in a penal camp; there are only the two of them left. The grandmother had not spoken to anyone since her daughter was taken. And now she has said to the girl, "Let us go, I shall die soon", and so they are going. It's awful for the Georgians in those camps. They can't stand the climate, and all die either of consumption or pneumonia. The Armenians are stronger, but they don't survive it either. I've seen enough sights there."

"Where are you going to now?"

"To Medvezhka. The headquarters have been transferred there and all the musicians, too. What does your boy think?"

"I don't know. I don't conceal anything from him, but I can't imagine how he really feels about it all. One blessing is that children live at a quicker rate than we do, and perhaps get over things more easily."

"He is a fine boy—he hasn't said a word too much all the way."

"We've taught him to hold his tongue."

"What a life—one might as well be dead! That's a wise saying of my former maid. But the trouble is that we mustn't die."

She soon had to get out and we parted like sisters. I felt uneasy about my other neighbor, who left the train at a deserted station in the middle of the night. Only the tragic old woman and her granddaughter were left in the train besides my son and me. The children slept: the old woman sat like an image of stone. I wrapped myself up as best I could and huddled up in a corner of the seat.

Kem. We were standing on an open platform made of planks; before us was a house built of logs with an inscription "Station Kem". What were we to do next? It was three in the morning and pitch dark. The earth was black and the sky was black too. There were a few lanterns on the platform, but night was all around us. The boy looked at me with frightened, questioning eyes.

"Let us go into the station; it will be warmer there." People were going in and out of the creaking station door and immediately disappearing in the darkness. We went in and drew back in alarm, but we were being pushed from behind, and so had to move forward. The whole place was completely filled with people, lying and sitting on their bags and wooden boxes. The foul-smelling air was thick and steamy. A small lamp was burning dimly under the ceiling. People were going through the room, stepping over those who slept on the floor. My son was frightened. He did not know how to move without stepping on someone. In the corner two men were quarrelling, on the point of a fight.

We managed to make our way to another room called the buffet. There were in it several dirty tables without tablecloths, broken chairs and a counter with two plates on it: one had treacle sweets in sticky papers and the other a few slices of black bread. There were fewer people here because those who did not ask for refreshments were driven out.

A fat attendant, sleepy and disheveled, in a red kerchief and a short cotton skirt showing huge shapeless legs, was pouring out of a big kettle a brownish liquid made from baked oats; it was called coffee. The glasses were dull and sticky; there were no saucers. No sugar was to be had.

I took two glasses of the stuff, for anyway it was hot. The boy was trembling all over like a puppy after his sleep. We sat at our table, keeping a tight hold over our things for fear of thieves. Red Army men, civilians, and proud OGPU officials in long coats or leather jackets stood about the room.

A tall, healthy-looking peasant woman in a good coat and a woolen shawl sat down at our table.

"Have you come on a visit?" she asked, bending down to me.


It was useless to deny it. Besides, I was not sure what I was to do and wanted to ask some questions.

"Tell me, please, when does the first motor-bus go?"

"The first bus? At eight or nine in the morning. Only it doesn't go at all now."


"Broken down. It sometimes goes for a day or two, but you can't reckon on it."

"How far is it to the town?"

"Two miles, but the mud is something awful. Will you wait here till morning?"

"I don't know. I've been told that a motor-bus meets the train?"

"It may do in the summer, but not at night, anyway. That doesn't matter. The road is wide and you can't go wrong, only it's muddy and dark. Is it the first time?" she asked me in a whisper.


"Have you a permit?"

"What permit?" I asked in alarm.

"For the visit. The head office is at Medvezhka now and everyone has to go there to get the permit."

I felt that all my plans were upset: I was given ten days leave from my office, the journey took more than twenty-four hours each way; I thought I would go in the morning to apply for the permit and perhaps see my husband in the evening—and what was I to do now? Had I known I would have stopped at Medvezhka that evening and lost twenty-four hours; if I went back now I might lose two or three days. And what was I to do with the boy? Take him with me? I hadn't enough money for the extra fares.

"Is it long since the head office was moved there?" I asked, as though that would help matters.

"No, only a week or two. Of course it used to be better for the visitors; now they have no end of trouble."

"Is there an hotel here?"

"Yes, there is that. Only there's never any room. Communists and officials live there, and visitors can hardly ever get in. And it's dear, too—2 roubles 50 copecks for a bed in the common room and 4 roubles in a separate room. For the three of you they'll charge 12 roubles."

At that moment an OGPU official appeared in the doorway; the fat attendant shouted in alarm to the people in the room:

"Clear out, I am going to close."

"Why, what has happened?" I asked someone in the crowd; they were all making for the door.

"It's the rule. The buffet opens for half an hour when the train comes in and then shuts again."

Once more the boy and I found ourselves on the dark platform. There was not a soul about. The train had gone and the place seemed darker and more deserted than ever. It was unthinkable to stay in the station room—it was filthy and stuffy and there were sure to be lice. It was four in the morning another three and a half hours till dawn. We had to wait.

We sat down on a bench, putting our things down beside us.

"Mother, what shall we do?" the boy asked anxiously. "Who is this woman. Do you know her?"

"No, how should I?"

"But you talked to her!"

"I had to—you see how things have turned out: there is no bus, no room at the hotel, and permits are not given here."

"And you were told it would be all right! Who told you?"

"They told me what it was like a month ago; now it's all different. When it's light we must go to the town and find out what exactly we have to do."

"Mother, I am simply frozen."

"Run about the platform to get warm."

He ran up and down the platform while I sat by the luggage, also shivering.

"Mother, I am still cold; my feet are like ice. When shall we go to the town?"

"When it is light—in another three hours."

"I'll be quite frozen by then!"

"Run about, keep on the move."

I was afraid the boy would catch cold. What was I to do? Perhaps we had better start anyway, we should be warmer. But where could we put up?

When I was in absolute despair, the peasant woman who had talked to me appeared again and sat down beside me.

"Your little lad must be quite frozen." she said.

"He is, but what's to be done?"

"Look here, citizen, I don't know if you'd care to come, but I always take in visitors. I have a nice house in the main street. In the morning your man will have to go past us; you will see him."

"May we come now?" I asked.

"Yes, certainly. Call the lad. We'll settle up afterwards. You won't take advantage of me."

I called the boy.

"Come along!"

"Where to? Mother, what are you doing?"

"It's all right, dear, come, or you'll get your death of cold."

"Never you mind, sonny, put on your bag, it will keep you warm," the woman said.

She took my bag, the boy slung on his, and we set out on the muddy road. It was so dark that we could see nothing underfoot. There were no street lamps. At a distance there were some buildings with lighted windows, but we could not make out their outline against the dark sky.

The woman chatted away.

"I never went to bed at all last night." she told us. "I had a visitor. She too had come to see her husband, such a nice woman, in a lovely overcoat, and good clothes, and so young and pretty. Her husband had got ten years, she said, and quite a young man too. It's no joke! Every time she looked at him she began to cry, and I cried looking at her. So it was nothing but tears. I am a widow, but I do understand how dreadful it is for them. The numbers of people they ruin! It doesn't bear thinking about. How many years has your husband got?"


"That's not so bad, one can live through it. But There's a lot of sickness about, scurvy, and typhus too. You send him parcels, don't you?"

"Yes, I do."

"You must go on doing that, or he'll be sure to die if he gets scurvy or consumption. So many of them die of consumption. . . . I've just seen my visitor off," she went on with her story, "and I was sitting there wondering what to do. I don't like walking home alone in the night. Then I saw you and your boy and thought you must have come on a visit."

"Are there many visitors?" I asked, completely reassured by what she told me. I had been feeling a little uneasy going with a complete stranger to a place I knew nothing about.

"Yes, a great many. They come every day and walk about the village asking to be let in for Christ's sake. One can't take in anyone—There's the house to consider, and one's clothes and other things lying about; and the visitors bring in a lot of dirt too. The OGPU are cross because we take in visitors and don't let rooms to them. But why should we? They don't pay more than three roubles a month and they spy on one all the time. Don't you tell them that I let you in. You'll have to give your address, but you must say that I am a friend and put you up in the kitchen." She paused and asked the question that had evidently been troubling her: "Will you pay me three roubles a day?"

"Yes, certainly."

"Then you're very welcome," she said, evidently pleased. "I've got a bed and I'll heat a samovar for you."

We were very tired and could hardly keep pace with the woman. She strode along in a man's top boots, tucking up her skirt and overcoat above her knees. My feet sank in the mud up to the ankle, but I had overshoes on; the boy's feet must have been wet through.

We were almost exhausted by the time we reached the town; even our landlady became subdued. It is difficult to walk when one can't see. In the town we soon found ourselves in the main street, which stretched a very long way because the town, or rather, the fishing village, was built along the winding shore of the bay. The wooden houses were typical of the rich north country villages: they had two stories and were divided into two parts, "the living-rooms" and the "clean" part, meant for the summer.

"The OGPU," said the woman in a whisper, pointing to a large house of grey stone with big windows. It was in the new style but beautifully designed. One could see at once that it was the work of a fine architect.

"Is it much further?" the boy asked impatiently.

"Quite near now, sonny. Come, let me take your bag."

She flung the second bag over her shoulder and walked still faster so that we had almost to run to keep pace with her. My one thought was not to fall down into the mud.

At last she stopped before a tall wooden gate and opened it by pulling a string. A dog barked furiously.

"Don't be afraid, he doesn't bite. He smells strangers."

At the door of the house she pulled another string, and going through the dark entry opened the door of the kitchen. The dog rushed forward, barking desperately, but did not attack us.

The kitchen was a large room with a low ceiling. By the back wall there was a big white-washed Russian stove; narrow wooden benches ran alongside the other three walls; above the small windows there were narrow shelves full of beautifully polished copper dishes, basins and mugs of the ancient Russian pattern. A huge copper pan, like a gigantic vase, stood by the stove. There were spotless white curtains over the windows, edged with home-made lace. Narrow homespun runners were spread on the wooden floor, clean as a table.

The whole place was so clean that one was afraid to take a step.

An old woman in a black, flower-patterned sarafan, an embroidered head-dress, and a dark apron tied above her waist, was busy by the stove.

"Brought some visitors?" she asked, glancing at us with interest.

"Yes, from the station."

"Shall I heat a samovar?"

"Do, they are very tired. Well, you are welcome!" she turned to us, inviting us to come in.

"Take off your shoes, sonny," the old woman said. "Come and warm yourself by the stove."

He hastily took off his coat, galoshes, shoes and socks that were soaked through with mud and joyfully walked barefoot to the stove.

After the noisy, dirty train, the filthy station, the cold and the darkness outside, it seemed incredible to be in this clean warm room smelling of freshly-baked bread. Everything here was the same as it had been for centuries.

The inner room was also extremely clean. On the wooden bed there was a cotton eiderdown and big down pillows with a white lace coverlet over them. The table was covered with a crocheted cloth; there were a few chairs and a big case with ikons. There were pots of flowers in the windows and a tropical plant in the corner. Everything was as it should be, and the same as it had been for ages.

"Come and have some tea." the landlady called us.

On the kitchen table a big copper samovar was boiling; a tiny teapot with a blue and gold pattern stood on the top. In a sugar basin of coarse bluish glass were a few tiny lumps of sugar. The old woman was taking hot scones out of the oven.

While we were drinking tea it began to grow light. Quick, loud footsteps sounded on the wooden pavement outside.

"That's the prisoners." the landlady said. "Now sit down by the window and look; your man also will soon go past. Where does he work?"

"At the Fisheries."

She cleared the table and prepared to do some washing. I sat by the window and the boy leaned against me. We both looked out without speaking; I could feel his heart beating fast, and mine was throbbing too.

An endless procession of men and women was moving along the narrow wooden pavement and the wide street covered with sticky mud. They did not look like ordinary people, poor or rich, sad or cheerful: they all seemed alike and had the same set, strained expression. All hurried along in silence. They were strangely dressed: all had some "convict" garment—short trousers or a reddish coat or a cap with ears, but nearly all were also wearing some of their own things—a shabby beaver cap, worn town-shoes, a coat with an astrakhan collar with no buttons on, belted with a strap off a suitcase. Women were dressed with more care; almost all had knitted caps or berets, many had woolen scarves, but almost all were wearing men's coats and top boots much too big for them.

"Why are they dressed like that?" I asked the landlady.

"They have to wear what is given them, and there aren't enough things to go round. And they are wearing out what is left of their own clothes."

It was obvious from the faces, the manner, the clothes, that practically all of them belonged to the educated class. One does not come across such a mass of intellectuals either in Moscow or in Petersburg.

"So here are the experts whom the country so badly needs!" I thought. "Those will not return to life after five or ten years forced labor here. . . . No. It is enough to look at their faces."

"How is your man dressed?" the landlady asked.

"He has a brown leather coat."

"Ah, then, he will soon go past," she said confidently. "Those who work in the Fisheries come later; there are thousands of them; it takes nearly an hour for them all to go down the street. They go to offices in the town or to work-rooms. They are not so badly off as the others. But those who do the common work, make roads or cut timber, have to go before dawn, poor things. They go in batches under escort, and those who work in the town are allowed to go by themselves. They are checked in the barracks before they go out, that's all. Not much chance of their running away! There are swamps all round. And besides, everyone has a family at home—if he runs away, they'll seize the family. Ordinary criminals do run away; it's nothing to them; if they are caught, their sentence is increased, that's all. But if a decent man runs away he is shot. Sonny!" she called to my boy, "put on your things and go into the street. Walk to meet your father, but when you see him take no notice of him—they are not allowed to speak to outsiders. Go past him so that he can see you and then turn back and overtake him. Walk in front of him and listen to what he says. He may have applied for a permit for you, and perhaps he's had an answer."

The boy dressed and ran out. I saw out of the window that he did not venture at first to go against the current among all this mass of people, but presently he made up his mind and walked slowly on. Almost all the women turned to look at him, but the set look on their faces did not change—he came from another world which it is too painful to recall. That was how I felt in prison. Many men, too, turned and looked at him as they walked past.

"Is your boy all right?" the landlady asked. "One must be careful; there are no end of spies about. If they say that he spoke to a prisoner you won't be allowed to see your husband."

"Yes, he understands."

I was in a perfect fever. I was just going to see him. There he was! He was walking fast, faster than the others. His face was pale and he had grown a black beard. His hands were thrust in his pockets, his head thrown back as usual. He saw me, nodded and went on faster than before.

I sat there not seeing anything anymore. The hurried footsteps of the late comers sounded in the street, and soon all was still. The street was empty.

The gate banged; my little boy walked in slowly, as though he were in pain. He came up to me and hid his face in my lap.

The old woman was muttering something to herself and wiping her eyes with her apron.

I raised his head. He was not crying, but his first encounter with the convicts left its shadow on his childish face.

"What did daddy say?"

"He said you must go at ten to the commandant's office. Permission has been received."

"What else?"


He again hid his face in my lap. After a while he recovered and said:

"It's time to go."

"It's a bit early yet, but we may as well."

Our landlady told us how to get there. It was in the same street: the OGPU headquarters on one side, the militia-station opposite, and the commandant's office next door to it. We set off.

By daylight the town seemed still smaller; if it were not for the new house of the OGPU all would be calm and peaceful and, in places, beautiful—where one could see the curving line of the shore and the deep bay dotted with small islands. But the whole landscape suggested the desolate North.

We came to the commandant's office: a narrow passage, a wooden partition with a window in it. Behind the window sat an OGPU official, a huge, well-fed creature with a fat, ruddy face and their usual blank expression. They must be specially trained to look like that.

"Where do I get permission for a visit?" I asked him.

"The permits office."

"My husband wrote to me that he has applied for a permit, so perhaps it has already been granted."

"The permits office."

He shut the window with a click. There was no one about whom I could ask where the "permits office" was.

We came out into the street. The few passers-by looked like convicts, and I was afraid to speak to them for fear of getting them into trouble.

"Where shall we go now, mother?"

"Let us go to the OGPU."

We looked at the house. On the ground floor there had been shops and a hairdresser's salon, now closed. Evidently everything had been transferred to the new headquarters at Medvezhka because it only existed for the needs of the higher officials. The entrance was round the corner. On the first floor there was a large office with a wooden partition across and a window in it; over it was written "Permits". Two elderly shabby-looking women of the educated class, a peasant woman with a baby, and a lady in a seal-skin coat were standing there waiting. The lady was soon called to the inner office.

The shabby intellectual in front of me whispered to the other:

"Her husband is a Communist; he was exiled for opposition. He has an important post here too, but the non-party men who served under him in Moscow have all been shot."

Behind the window was a youngish man whose hopeless expression made me guess at once that he, too, was a prisoner. He spoke in a very low voice.

"How do I get a permit for a visit?"

"You must fill up a form."

"But my husband has applied already, so perhaps the permit has been received?"

"You must fill up a form." he said in the same low, even voice.

I knew that I was doing the wrong thing, or perhaps had come to the wrong window. From the other women's conversation I gathered that one of them had been waiting for a permit for a week and another for ten days. Their applications had been sent to Medvezhka, but there was no answer from there.

I filled up the form. The boy was obviously upset, but said nothing till we came out into the street.

"Mother, but daddy said you must go to the commandant's office and get the permit."

"But, my dear, you've heard what the commandant said?"

"And daddy said it would be all right."

"Let's go there again, but mind, we must not let out that you've seen daddy."

We came to the commandant's office again.

"Excuse me, but they sent me to you from the permits office." I lied at random. "Perhaps you have already received the permit?"


"What am I to do then?"


"Where am I to inquire?"

"At the permits office."

The window was shut. A queue was standing there by now, and they grumbled at me for coming to the wrong place.

We went out into the street. The boy's eyes were full of tears.

"Go home," I said to him.

"I won't go anywhere till you get the permit."

"But how am I to get it?"

"You keep saying the wrong thing."

I'll go once more to the permits office and then you can go and talk to the commandant yourself."

He remained in the street and I went up to the office.

"Tell me, what am I to do?" I said quietly to the hopeless young man.

"Wait for an answer to your application." he said aloud, and then added in a whisper: "Call in the evening."

That gave me hope anyway. I went into the street again and told the boy. He was unhappy at the delay and thought that I did not know how to set about the business. But I knew the habits of the OGPU: it was quite possible that the permit was lying at the commandant's office, but he did not want to give it me straight away; it was possible, too, that they had deceived my husband and that there was no permit, and would not be. Men who have unlimited power and no responsibility whatever do many things for no reason at all.

"Let us go and look at the Fisheries," said I. "Perhaps daddy will see us."

We walked the whole length of the street and turned back again. We felt utterly miserable.

Suddenly we heard the familiar, nervous footstep behind.

"Have you got the permit?" he asked without stopping. I shook my head.

"Go to the commandant's office." he said, walking on in front.

"There, you see!" the boy said triumphantly.

My husband walked fast and came to the office before us; we followed him in.

"You see, my wife and son have come to see me. I have been promised a permit, perhaps it has been given to you?"

We stood in silence, not daring to go near him.

"You may talk." the commandant said in the same stony voice, and shut the window.

We sat down on the bench by the window. We did not speak, but just held hands. The boy was stroking his father's hand, his knee, his coat.

"Did you recognize me with a beard?" his father managed to say at last.

"I did," the boy answered seriously. "You smoke a pipe now?"

"Yes. How do you know?"

"Why, you have a pipe in your pocket."

How strange it was. . . . His face was the same and yet not the same. What ages had passed since we last looked at each other! It might have been in another existence. He used to be handsome—they are a good-looking family—he was handsome still, but what a face! Whom did he remind me of? Oh, yes, Surikov's picture, Streltsi before the Execution. He was terribly pale, and his skin was coarsened by the wind and the cold. There were shadows under his eyes and under the cheek-bones. The untrimmed black beard made him look as though he belonged to some other age. His neck was dreadful: thin and withered, it showed above the collar of an old thick shirt with strings instead of buttons, and it seemed as though the head were too heavy for it. His hands too were rough and terribly thin.

When a year ago they took him to prison, he was a young man: though he was forty-two he easily passed for thirty-five. Though he could not be called old now, it was clear that he had not long to live.

The window opened.

"Citizen, your passport."

I gave it.

"Here is your permit for the visit. Sign. You'll receive your passport back when the visit is over."

I signed and carefully put away the permit. Prison had taught me not to show any feelings before the OGPU officials, but I felt as though a weight had been lifted off my heart.

Now we walked down the street together. My husband held the boy's hand, and I walked beside them. He had huge boots on and walked in the mud, as though it were the natural thing to do. Our son, forgetting everything in the world, tried to keep pace with him, chattering away. He talked of his school, of the journey, of me, of how he did not let me go anywhere alone now for fear I would be "lost"—of everything he could think of. I could see that his father was not taking in his words, but merely listening to the child's voice. The boy was bubbling over with joy because he was holding his father's hand and talking to him, while only half an hour before everything had seemed so hopeless.

"How stupid of me to make you walk in this mud!" said his father, noticing that I was lagging behind. "I am used to it. Till quite recently we were forbidden to walk on the causeway so I've lost the habit of it."

"That's nothing, daddy, I don't like walking on the causeway, and it's not very muddy here." the boy said with conviction, getting another galoshful of liquid mud.

"Where are we going? Where did you put up?" my husband asked. "It was so dreadful that I could not do anything for you. We are kept in the camp behind barbed wire and are not allowed to speak to anyone in the town. I simply did not know what to do—and the train arrives at night, too."

"Everything turned out splendidly," I reassured him. "We've put up with some townspeople, very nice women."

"The townspeople are very nice. It's much better than in the hotel, of course, there it's full of spies. But I can't come with you now. I must go back to work. I've been let off on business," he remembered suddenly.

"How? Daddy, darling, why?"

The boy and I were so grieved that he gave in, though perhaps it was not safe for him to do so.

"I'll call in for a minute, then go to work and return by four o'clock; the day will soon pass."

We said nothing. It was dreadful to feel all the time that he was a slave.

"It's a wonderful piece of luck that I got the permit before you arrived and that we met so soon." he said to comfort us. "People often have to wait a week or ten days, and then are only allowed to meet at the office. And at the Solovki Islands visits are hardly ever allowed."

We went in at the gate. The boy was amused at the way it opened: you pulled a string, and that was all. His father followed him more and more timidly. I saw that he had lost the habit of houses and that being constantly forbidden to do this and that had unnerved him.

"Come in, daddy. This is the kitchen and the next room is ours."

The boy had forgotten all his fears. He was happy at being with his father and at the moment wanted nothing more. All was right with the world.

We went into the kitchen, but my husband stopped irresolutely by the door. He certainly did look peculiar: his huge boots of coarse leather clattered as though they were made of stone; his once excellent leather coat was stained, the pockets were torn, the buttons broken or missing; his fur cap was worn and shabby. Holding it in his hands, he shyly bid good morning to our landlady.

"Good morning, you are welcome." said the woman. "Come into the inner room."

"I am very dirty, look at my boots. . . ." He could not bring himself to walk on the freshly- washed floor and the clean bright-coloured runners.

"Oh, that's nothing; it's easily washed off. I haven't yet cleaned the place this morning. Look at the mess the hens have made, a perfect disgrace; excuse me!"

She started catching the hens and the cock who was proudly strutting about the kitchen.

"Wipe your boots with the broom," said the old woman, coming to my husband's rescue.

Sitting down on the narrow bench, he carefully wiped his boots and walked cautiously to the inner room.

His movements were different from what they used to be—slow and awkward; perhaps because he found it so unusual to be in a house.

In our room he quietly shut the door behind him and held out his hands to us. That was how we stood when he said good-bye to us before going to prison. The bitter sorrow of all we had been through during that awful year suddenly rose up within me. . . . . I wanted to be glad—and could not. I wanted to tell him how, in prison, I had lived in the thought of him, how I had longed to see him—and I could not find a word. I wanted to smile and I saw that his eyes were full of tears.

"Daddy, darling, don't cry," the boy whispered, stroking his hand. "You see, we have come to you, and we will come again, poor darling daddy."

We kissed each other and sat down.

"Daddy, would you like something to eat? We've brought all sorts of nice things for you. Will you?"

"No, thank you, dear," his father answered affectionately, gradually recovering his self-control. "It's time I was going."

"When is your dinner hour?" I asked.

"At four."

"And you begin work at eight?"


"Have you nothing to eat till four?"

"No. Yes. We sometimes have something to eat before beginning work."

"What do you have?"

"Oh, something out of our parcels from home—those who get parcels."

"And those who don't?"

"They have bread."

"How much?"

"A pound."

He was looking at me affectionately as he answered, and was obviously not thinking of the dreadful conditions in which he lived. I was questioning him with the burning hatred that was born in me while I was in prison and flared up again when I saw the convicts hurrying to their work.

"Is the dinner worse than in prison?" I persisted.

"Yes, it is," he answered absent-mindedly with a smile.

"What do you get?"

"Oh, for dinner. . . . Well, we don't return to dinner. They give you a mug of soup, worse than any slops: smelly bits of salted horse or camel flesh or rotten cabbage in muddy-looking water. Disgusting. The prison dinner is a luxury by comparison."

"But how do you manage, then?"

As a great favor we've been allowed to receive dry rations. We do our own cooking."

"What do you cook?"

"Oh, anything. Millet porridge."

"There's scurvy in the camps, isn't there?"

"Yes, scurvy, too. Onion and bacon are badly needed. But I expect it costs a lot?"

"No, not much. I've brought you some and will send some more when we get back."

"I don't need any for myself. I have some left from your other parcels. I've been saving it."

"Why? How silly!" I said angrily.

"Don't be angry," he said gently, taking my hand. "You see, I don't know what you are living on, how you manage. It will be many years before I can do anything for you,"

"Well, go on. Do you return to the barracks at four?"

"Some of us have now been allowed not to return, but to remain at work."

"I suppose that's a favor, too?" I asked, unable to control my irritation.

"Of course it is. The work-rooms are also crowded, but it is warmer and cleaner there. The barracks are rather awful: a thousand people herded together, and two rows of wide shelves, one above the other, to sleep on."

"When do you rest?"

"We eat at four o'clock and have a little sleep."


"On the floor, sometimes on the table."

"When do you stop work?"

"At eleven at night. Then we go into the barracks. At midnight we are checked. Those who work in the forest or dig the canal are much worse off," he added in the same calm, gentle voice. "They have to begin work at six in the morning and go on without any break till dark. I was there first, carrying timber, but afterwards they put me in the Fisheries, because I am a specialist. And my health gave way, too."

"What was the matter with you?"

"Myocarditis and . . . my lungs," he answered rather shyly.

A nice state they've reduced him to! I thought indignantly. And he had once been so strong. This was after one year. How much longer would he last? A year? Two years? No, certainly not two.

"But I am afraid I must go." he said apologetically. "I don't want to get into trouble just now. Perhaps they'll let me off early. I will soon be back."

"Come along, daddy, I'll walk with you," said the boy, who had been holding his father's hand all the time and hanging on his every word.

They went away; I remained sitting where I was.

"Excuse me for troubling you." said the landlady, coming in quietly, "but would you mind going and registering yourself? It's not far to go. If you don't the OGPU is sure to turn up here in the night. There's nothing they like better—that's their living."

"I am so sorry, I'll go at once."

"Mind you don't tell them that you have a room; say you put up in the kitchen."

"Yes, certainly."

I came out into the street again. There were no passers-by except an occasional OGPU agent, sleek and well groomed, in a smart long coat of military pattern. A queue was standing outside the vodka-shop. An old woman going past grumbled at them:

"Glad of the nasty stuff, aren't you!"

"Take your turn in the queue, granny!"

"No ration-cards needed, it isn't bread."

"We've been fasting long enough, only the OGPU shop has had vodka to sell."

"The OGPU are sure to have all they want, they are the Soviet gentry!"

"In the old days we hadn't any gentry in these parts and now they've sent us the new sort."

The queue grew more lively.

A tall OGPU agent who stood on point duty in the street, took a few steps towards the queue. There was instant silence. When he was out of earshot one of the men muttered:

"He's got sharp ears, the cur! Spying on the prisoners isn't enough for him!"

I went into the militia-station: the doors were open, the dirty staircase was littered with cigarette ends. The corridor, equally dirty, was dark. There was nothing to direct one anywhere. It was a familiar scene. A yellow-faced official sat at the table. I laid my permit before him; my passport had been taken from me, so that I was a kind of hostage for my husband.

"Register me, please."

"Have you a permit?"

"What other permit do you want?" I was angry and behaved in the Soviet style.

"To hire a room?"

"I haven't hired a room, I put up at a friend's house in the kitchen."

"Bring me the permit."

"Where from?"

"Table number five."

"Number five, indeed! I can't find another room in your place."

"It's next door, come this way," said the official more politely, taken aback by my defiant tone. Everyone comes here as a humble supplicant.

In the next room there was a young man of Communistic appearance in a leather jacket.

"Give me a permit for registration," I said in the same tone.

"We do not allow visitors to hire rooms in the town, there is an hotel for the purpose."

"Twelve roubles a day? I earn a hundred and twenty roubles a month and have a child to keep. I have put up in the kitchen of someone I know."

"I won't give you a permit, citizen."

"I will complain to the OGPU."

I was exasperated and did not care anymore. The Communist probably did not want to have an explanation with his superiors, so he gave me the permit and I was registered.

"They behave like scoundrels about every little thing." I thought. "They are used to people kotowing to them. Well, I shan't."

At home—that is, at the cottage where we found shelter and which I shall remember gratefully to my last hour—I sat down by the window again and watched the street.

A party of young but extremely exhausted-looking men went by. Their faces were grey, their heads and shoulders bent as though under some terrible weight, though they were carrying only half-empty sacks. They were surrounded by an armed escort.

"They are being sent to dig the new canal." said the old woman with a sigh and made the sign of the cross over them. "The Lord save and preserve them, and have mercy upon us! I wonder if any of them will come back alive? Fresh parties are sent along every day and there are no barracks there, no tools to work with they say, they have to dig with wooden spades, and the earth is hard as stone with the frost. If a man doesn't dig as much as is fixed for him he loses his ration; and the ration is only one pound of rye bread and soup with bits of rotten meat in it. And he isn't allowed to sit by the fire, but must stay behind, in the forest. When the frost gets stronger in the night they freeze to death. Many envy them, and no wonder."

The old woman finished washing up, put away the clean plates, cups and spoons on the shelf, drew a clean white curtain over it and sat down beside me.

"Tell me, my dear, why has all this happened? Maybe you are a learned woman and know."

I shook my head.

"You don't know?"


"That's just it—no one seems to know. If one knew, perhaps one might do something about it. The old women say the devil is to blame, but I think it's men's own doing. Some men are worse than the devil."

"Of course, it's men's own doing, granny."

"Men are destroying one another, and why? There's room enough for all. We had plenty of everything in the old days—fish, and bread, and we baked scones and pies every day. And we drank coffee, too the Norwegians brought it over, and our men went by sea into their country. This used to be a rich part. Nearly all the women wore pearls. We have river pearls here, you know."

"Do you get them now?"

"Not likely! They are not easy to find and we couldn't sell them they would be taken from us for nothing. The women who had any, lost theirs—taken to the treasury, they said. Treasury indeed! The OGPU hussies wear them. And what fine clothes we had!" the old woman went on with her reminiscences. "Gold brocade bodices and lovely wide skirts, all sorts of colors, like flowers. On Sundays the girls used to walk down the street and the women sat by the gate. Not much pleasure going out now! only the fat OGPU men stroll about. The young men have all gone where best they could. If they stay here they're sent to the timber works."

Two carts slowly drove down the street. Something long, covered with sacks and strips of tarpaulin lay on them. A sudden jerk made the covering slide off, baring the head of a man who was obviously unconscious; the body of another, lying next to him jolted against him.

"What is that, granny?" I cried in horror, clutching at the old woman's hand.

"Don't be alarmed, my dear, they are still alive. They are men from the canal-works, sick with typhus. There is no hospital there, so they bring them here. There's a lot of typhus among them. But what's the good of bringing them here? They'll die anyway. The Lord help them and have mercy upon us! Go away from the window and put yourself to rights," she said decisively, drawing the curtain. "Your man will come and you don't look yourself. You'll see nothing good here."

The old woman was wise. I went to do my hair and make myself tidy.

My son came in. Lucky boy, he saw nothing but his father. He had yearned for him with all his childish heart and was happy at having found him at last.

"Mother, have you got the food ready? What shall we give daddy? I am soon going to meet him. You know, I saw X,—he recognized me. I did not speak to him but simply looked at him, and he walked past me and said "good day". I thought there would be only strangers here, but there are lots of people I know! Well, get everything ready, I'll go now."

He ran away. I put the food on the table: butter, ham, a cold fowl, white bread, cheese. I bought all this at the cost of an eighteenth-century set of china and a collar of Alengon lace. So long as the OGPU, the flying corps and the heads of the Red Army have all they want, it is possible to buy things, of which ordinary citizens do not even dream. True, there was very little left of my collection of china, but I no longer cared. I wanted to have something that day to remind us of ordinary civilized life.

We felt more light-hearted at our second meeting; the sorrow of all we had been through was giving way to joy. We were sitting at table, the three of us, we were eating together. It is such a simple thing, but it had seemed utterly unattainable when death was threatening at least one, if not two, of the three.

The child was delighted with our festive meal: he had not tasted anything so good during the whole of that terrible year. My husband ate absent-mindedly, smiling happily as he watched the boy. He himself had very little to eat and said that he had had enough.

"Enough! You've only had two sandwiches! Daddy, what's the matter with you?"

"The sandwiches were with butter and ham, and I had a piece of fowl, too. I've lost the habit of eating such things."

"Did you have to go hungry?" the boy asked, and left off eating.

"Yes, it was pretty bad. But I am better now. They sent me to investigate the OGPU Fisheries on the White Sea."

"By yourself?" I asked in surprise.

"Yes, but they gave me a boat and a net."

"That was all your 'technical equipment'?"

"Yes. But I've done a good deal, all the same. I went all over the western shore of the White Sea. It's strange," he added, after a pause, "whatever conditions we are placed in, our mind goes on working all the same. I believe I've made an interesting scientific discovery. . . . I should like to write about it, but I won't be allowed to publish anything while I am here, so I don't know what to do. . . . Are there as many arrests as ever?"

"Not quite. And indeed I don't know who there is left to arrest."

"Oh, they'll find them."

"That's true, though. They've started on translators now. One of them was arrested for having translated Marcel Proust—'a decadent writer'! And of course the translation had been ordered by the Government Publishing Office."

We did not want to talk of prison and exile, we longed to banish if only for a moment the bitter and humiliating memories but we could not; nothing remained of the happy past—and our present was the penal camp.

After the meal the child began to doze. His father made up a bed for him on the floor, tucked him up and kissed him and the boy declared that he had never been more comfortable.

"I should like to try my new pipe. . . ."

"Well, why not? We'll open the window-pane and there will be no smell."

He filled the new English pipe that I had brought him with good tobacco and began smoking with an extraordinary sense of comfort.

"Remarkably good pipe, and tobacco, too. I'll make a present to someone of my old one. I was much envied for it, though I made it myself. But this one is a perfect treasure. What is it called? Dunhill? A dream of a pipe." . . . A little ashamed of his naive joy, he added, thoughtfully: "All these things—a pipe, slippers, food—belong to a world that is hopelessly closed to us. . . . It seems wonderful, for instance, to undress and get into bed. Strictly speaking, I haven't undressed for over a year."

"But surely you did in prison?"

"How could I? In the common cell there were one hundred to one hundred and ten men to seventy square meters of space. We slept in two layers: one on the floor and another on a sort of plank bed over them. At Kresty they put four or six of us into cells meant for solitary confinement. There was nowhere to put one's things down—dirt, lice and bugs everywhere. The most one could do was to take off one's suit. And here one can't do even that. In the barracks we have to sleep on boards side by side; the allowance of space is eighteen inches per man, but the place is so crowded that one has to lie on one's side or we shouldn't all get in; There's no room to lie on one's back. There are a thousand men in a barrack. It's fearfully cold and draughty and snow blows in. The stoves are hardly ever lighted, and there are such quantities of bugs round them that one can't go near."

"Do you all live like that?"

"Yes. No, not all," he corrected himself with a smile. "A 'hostel for specialists' is just going to be opened in the town. The OGPU took a house, ordered plank beds for everyone, engaged a cook and a charwoman. The prisoners will be given special rations and will be able to wash and undress."

"How many will live in the hostel?"

"There's room for thirty or forty."

"Out of ten thousand prisoners?"

"There's only some eight thousand left now, the others have been sent to dig the canal."

"I suppose the hostel will be for show?"

"Probably. Why, Gorki might arrive or Alexey Tolstoy, or some other writer or journalist. And in any case there will be an account of it in the official report. You know, at Solovki they made a film of the camp: prisoners had clothes given them for the occasion and were ordered to walk about and laugh."

Our peaceful and happy mood vanished once more. We felt miserable again. All that I could bring and give was a drop in this ocean of hopeless suffering. Under a slight veil of hypocrisy the whole system was really meant to destroy the prisoners wholesale.

My husband sat there, pale and thoughtful.

"I have a mad idea." he said, almost inaudibly, "to escape. Do you remember how we used to talk of it before my arrest?"


"Is it madness?"

"Perhaps it is, but it may be the only way."

"I have thought it all out. Listen, Give me paper and pencil." Silently and quickly he drew an exact map of the western shore of the White Sea—bays, coves, lakes, the river that flowed from the west, the railway line, several stations.

"In the summer you must come to see me here," he said, pointing to the map. "I shall do my best to get sent to that spot. If I say in a letter something about the south, it will mean that I have had no luck, but if I mention "north" it will mean that all is well. Or I may be sent to another place, there," he said, pointing to the map again. "In that case you will have to get out at the station before and walk some eight miles to meet me. You must both be ready and carry in your hold-alls all that's necessary."

"How should we find the way?"

"It's a straight road beginning just beyond the station. The train arrives at night, but the nights will be light in the summer; it's beyond the Arctic circle."

He told me exactly where we should have to meet.

"How shall I know the date?"

"In my letter I will mention a number, that will mean the date on which you must be on the spot. It must be in July, it's the driest month and there are berries and mushrooms then. But I think I'll contrive to be sent to this place here," he pointed to the point he first indicated, "and get permission for you to come and see me there. That will be much simpler, and then we can set out together. You'd better bring with you a razor to shave off my beard and a change of clothes for me. Everyone would know me with my black beard and in this leather coat. Shall we tell him?" he asked, looking at the boy, sound asleep in his corner.

"No, it would be too much for him. We'll tell him afterwards, on the way."

"But perhaps it's madness?" my husband said, turning pale again.

"No, it's quite right. There is no other way. I can't bear to look on this senseless horror any more. Our lives have been ruined, the boy will be done for, too. We must escape while we can."

"That's all I live by, this thought of escape. I believe that if all one's energies are directed to one purpose, one is bound to succeed."

Now we talked freely and happily, discussing the details of our plan. We recalled the past, told each other of the sad fate of our friends, but our hearts were light because a new force was born in us, raising us above all that we had been through. We felt that we had found a way out and that a new, free and happy life lay before us.

I saw a great deal at Kem. I saw the camp, surrounded by barbed wire, with hideous wooden barracks and turrets on which sentries were posted; all around it there was a muddy swamp. I saw men from all parts of U.S.S.R.—Caucasians, Ukrainians, who sometimes were exiled together with their carts and oxen, Siberians, Tartars from the Volga, peasants from central Russia. I saw several professors, a great number of engineers and doctors. I saw a pitiable group of old priests, bent and white-haired, in torn cassocks belted with a string; they were made night-watchmen, and when all the other prisoners returned to the barracks, they hobbled along, leaning on their sticks, to watch over the property of the OGPU.

I saw an old cathedral, one of the most ancient in this part of the country; it was closed, and badly in need of repair. The parishioners had no longer the means to keep it up, and the Government did not care that the beautiful old building was perishing.

From the cathedral we walked to the churchyard. It had been snowing in the night and now everything was sparkling in the sunshine. The wooden crosses on the graves were painted in bright colors—blue, yellow, red, green—to take the place of flowers in that bare and wintry land. The peace of the past reigned in that churchyard. In those parts people lived to be seventy, eighty and ninety. They were strong and were in no hurry either to live or to die.

At the end of the churchyard we came across a huge open pit; stones and frozen lumps of earth lay round its sides, and it was filled to within three feet of the top.

"What is this?" I asked with instinctive horror.

"A grave." my husband answered vaguely.

"Whose grave? So huge, and open?"

"The prisoners. A common grave, so that it needn't be filled up each time. In winter the ground is frozen and is hard to dig and, besides, there wouldn't be room to bury them separately."

We walked away, overcome once more with gloomy thoughts. A few feet from the churchyard we met a cart with four or five coffins placed in it. Several prisoners, blue with the cold, walked dejectedly behind it, carrying spades. They were followed by two soldiers with rifles.

On the evening of the following day we had to go home. My husband was allowed to see us off at the station—a rare favor, but a perfectly safe one: he could not very well escape with a family at the station full of OGPU officers.

It was dark at the station. We entered an unlighted, half-empty carriage. In another fifteen minutes we should be gone and he would return to the camp.

He was still standing beside me in the dark corridor. Fourteen minutes were left. The hand of the clock moved another minute—now it was thirteen.

I think that if I had had to die in thirteen minutes I should have found words to say good-bye; but when I had to return to what had once been our home and he—to go behind barbed wire, I could not utter a syllable. Twelve minutes were left us.

I heard them tapping the wheels; water was brought into the carriages. A peasant woman with a baby and a bundle was trying to get into the train; the conductor rudely drove her away. Another minute passed. An OGPU officer standing under the lamp on the platform, scrutinized all the passers-by. Ten minutes. . . .

My husband was holding both my hands and saying something, but I did not hear, I could not take it in. Nine minutes. I could see nothing, tears flowed from my eyes like water. I could not control myself. How silly! Breaking down like that, at the last moment. . . .

"What is it, darling? What has happened?" I heard my husband's voice as in a dream.

"Nothing." I just managed to say through my tears.

"This is the last time we part, we shall go away. . . ." All I understood was that the train was just going.

"Good-bye, daddy!" I heard the boy's voice full of tears.

"Good-bye! Good-bye till summer. We shall meet then and part no more."