I Speak for the Silent Prisoners of the Soviets - V. Tchernavin


Before my imprisonment I had been certain that the alleged "voluntary confessions" of scientists and specialists were faked and the records falsified. I could understand that there might be people of weak will-power who under torture or the threat of death would write any kind of confession; but that men of strong character and unquestionable honesty, like the "48," could do such a thing seemed incredible to me. I was, therefore, surprised to learn how many prisoners do write false confessions and denunciations. There is no doubt that the GPU does not stop at falsification of signatures, or the addition of words which completely change the meaning of a statement, or even the drawing up of entirely false records of investigations, but, hard as it is to admit, there are also people who write shameful calumny against themselves. Only those who have been in the clutches of the GPU can understand how, under the pressure of examining officers, repulsive "confessions" of participation in counter-revolution, espionage and "wrecking" are written, which condemn not only their authors but many other innocent people as well.

Such "confessions," however, are of such usual occurrence that there exists a special term for them in the prison slang. They are called "novels" and those who write them—"novelists." As a matter of fact this forms the basis for dividing all prisoners into two categories: those "confessing" and those "refusing to confess." I belonged to the latter group and deeply sympathized with my comrades, but the psychology of those who did "confess" was of vital interest to all of us. Finding out what were the forces which compelled them to capitulate to the examining officer, to accept the guilt of a base crime, to become betrayers of their relatives, friends and fellow-workers, meant delving into the very depths of prison misery. We, the "unyielding," had one consolation left—our honor; they, on the other hand, had lost even that.

After a closer study of these individuals I came to the conclusion that they had become "novelists" from various motives, but the thing which struck me most was the fact that there were some who "confessed" consciously for practical purposes. These were men of mature age, the majority of whom had formerly held positions of social and official importance. This group consisted almost entirely of engineers, well-known specialists and some professors and scientists. Many were men of wide practical experience, strong character and high ethical standards. Before the Revolution many of them had been men of irreproachable integrity, and now they openly told of giving false testimony and denouncing their friends and associates, arguing that to have done otherwise would have been impossible and unwise. Some of them even looked down upon the "unyielding" and brazenly urged them also to "confess." But there were others who talked about it with repulsion and horror, endeavoring by means of words to alleviate their consciences.

At the Shpalerka, as an example to those refusing to "confess," a special cell, No. 23, had been set aside. It was occupied by nine important engineers who had "confessed." There were ten cots in the cell; in the middle stood a big table over which hung a bright lamp with a shade and each prisoner had a stool. They were taken separately to the bathhouse and given better food. We saw their cell when passing along the corridor and met these engineers at exercise in the yard.

I recall one of these men with whom I argued the subject of "confessions," but to no avail.

"No, my friend," he continued, "we have become accustomed to make deals with our conscience, we have become hardened to the fact that without lying one can't live through a single day in Sovietland, and we have long ago lost all our principles. Why then now, when the threat of an infamous death hangs over us and our families are threatened with poverty, hunger and even deportation, should we not do everything possible to alleviate our fate? The GPU demands that we confess to wrecking and espionage—all right, we are  wreckers and spies. They demand denunciation of our friends—all right, we'll denounce them. If I don't, somebody else will. We cooperated with the Soviet Government when it required that we formulate and approve absurd plans which ruined the industry and impoverished the people, and now again we cooperate with it when our 'confessions' of wrecking are needed to cover the shame of its failures. In both cases we are risking our lives for the sole purpose of putting off the inevitable and of saving, for a time at least, the lives of our relatives and ourselves."

"No," I argued, "you are wrong. I have always fought my utmost against plans I knew to be unfulfillable. Here in prison, having lost everything, I am still able to say that I did no harm by my work, even that perhaps in peace time I would not have worked with so much zeal nor served my country more diligently. No, I shall never denounce myself or anybody else."

"But what will you gain by your stubbornness? You will get into open conflict with the examining officer and his report to the Council will be unfavorable to you. The GPU Council will also be 'sore' at you because the GPU must necessarily disclose plots in order to justify its enormous appropriations and expanded staffs—and that means you can't expect mercy from them. I am not forgetting, either, that the Soviet Government needs our 'confessions' with which to explain why our country is suffering poverty and famine instead of the promised well-being and prosperity. With matters as they are, you'll get the heaviest punishment and probably be shot. They don't need your 'confession' in order to convict you. Don't forget that there is no trial, you will not see the council, the examining officer can forge your signature or even force others to give incriminating evidence against you."

"Let him do what he likes! I will not assist him in this dirty work."

"This may be very honorable, but in our times—pardon me—it's ridiculous! Our times are times of realistic politics and not of knighthood or quixotism."

"And are you sure that your confession will save you?" I asked. "Remember the case of the '48'; they 'confessed' and the next day the GPU announced the executions. You see, the GPU has its own peculiar kind of logic."

"Even so we do gain by confessing. First of all, our relatives are not imprisoned as a means of forcing us to be more compliant. Then, we ourselves avoid torture and other means of coercion. The prison regime is made lighter for us and therefore we have more chance of leaving the prison without entirely ruining our health."

One of the younger men in prison, a radical who openly sympathized with the Bolsheviks, broke in on the conversation. He, too, was being accused of "wrecking."

"But it's terrible to realize what harm you cause by your false confessions. Put yourself in the position of the examining officer to whom you've confessed and the GPU Council that reads your 'novels.' You're forcing them to believe in wrecking which does not exist, to search for it and ultimately destroy us who are indispensable to the country."

"Oh no! They're not as naive as all that. My examining officer knows very well that I've never wrecked and that in general we never had any wrecking activity at our factory. It's all their own invention anyway. How much my examining officer believes in wrecking activities can be seen from the following incident. He forced me to sign a deposition that I had engaged in wrecking and that I received money for it from abroad. Then he said, 'Write how much.' How much? The devil only knew! All the money I saw was what I was given by the factory. I thought for a long time and figured out how much might be required to bribe an engineer of my position who received, as I did, one thousand roubles a month. Finally I wrote down that I had received during the five years 200,000 roubles. 'What are you writing?' he cried. 'What do you mean by 200,000? What idiot would give you that? Cross out one zero, make it 20,000. No, even that's too much! You'll have to write the whole statement over. Say that you received 10,000 roubles.' 'But—' I replied, 'that makes only 2,000 a year. And what person would believe that I had taken this risk for only 2,000 roubles? Why, by consultations or prospecting work I could have earned more than that at any moment, but I didn't take advantage of this opportunity for fear of being accused of grabbing too much work for myself.' 'Don't argue, write down 10,000 roubles.' What could I do? I wrote it down. And you insist that I should have risked getting a bullet in my head to avoid tempting this scoundrel to believe in the existence of wrecking activity!"

The subject of "confessions" was discussed a great deal in prison because it represented both the basic point in all our "cases" and the "work" of our examining officers.

It was very hard to control one's indignation against those who were "novelists" from principle. As for those who had surrendered to the examining officers because of direct torture or even the fear of it, they presented an extremely pathetic picture: men of weak will and confused old men—complete moral wrecks.

In the winter of 1930 an old man, Professor Z., was transferred to a common cell after half a year of solitary confinement. I saw him when he was taken out into the yard for exercise for the first time. He was completely broken, his back was bent and he moved about with the greatest difficulty. There had been rumors that he had denounced a large number of people, and the minute he entered the yard prisoners rushed to him from all sides.

"I'm sorry, friends, sorry!" he was saying in a trembling voice. "Yes, I have denounced you. Yes—you, too. And you. . . . And him. I couldn't hold out. They forced me to do it. I'm old—I couldn't hold out. I also have been denounced. Do you know Professor N.? It was he who denounced me. They arranged a meeting and he shamelessly denounced me to my face. What could I do?"

"Professor," said one of them with indignation, "you didn't know me at all, you had no connection with my work, you scarcely knew me; why did you bring false accusation against me?"

"And what have you written about me?" interrupted another excitedly.

"I don't remember, friend. I forget. . . ."

"Old ass!" said somebody. "He already has one foot in the grave, and in order to get a sentence of ten years in concentration camp, which he will never outlive, he not only sells his good name, but ruins everyone whose name he remembers. What a despicable coward!"

Meanwhile the old man was telling of some of the testimony he had given against them. It was a painful scene. Here was a formerly respected professor ending his long life in infamy.

Many of the "novelists" made attempts to conceal their "confessions," but it was almost impossible. The examining officer does not make a secret of such "confessions," but uses them as a means to coerce others. So many people are involved in each "case" that the news spreads rapidly and widely, is long remembered and follows the "confessors" even into exile. The attitude of the other prisoners toward these men is not one of outward hostility but rather of distrust. It is at the hands of the examining officers that they get the worst treatment. Having squeezed from the "novelists" all the testimony they need, these GPU officials invariably drastically change their attitude toward them and begin to ill-treat them. More than once I have heard examining officers shouting: "Intellectual scum! Just scare them a little and they crawl on their bellies denouncing everyone!"

After the "confession" had been made and the usefulness of the "novelist" exhausted, he lost most of his privileges and advantages. We were, there in the prison, primarily interested to learn if "novel writing" really brought a lighter sentence, as promised by the examining officer and as often believed "outside." In our time prison practice did not confirm this. I know of cases where those who had "confessed" were shot, while those whom they had falsely denounced—and who had remained firm—were sent to concentration camps.

Reviewing the GPU "cases" which I encountered in prison, I came to the conclusion that "confessing" gave the prisoners no advantage either during the investigation or later and that their subsequent loss of self-respect must, in the majority of cases, have caused great mental torture. I feel very sure that there were only a few who "confessed" for pure gain. It is only the man himself who, knowing the horrors which the examining officer devised for him, can judge his own case. How can one accuse Professor T. of weakness, when he surrendered only after being shown, through the porthole of the hot cell, his wife and daughter gasping for breath, lying on the floor and striving to get air by pressing their mouths against the crack under the iron door? What one of us could be sure of having the strength of A. B. Ezerski, executed in connection with the case of the "48," who was carried out on a stretcher after two cross-examinations lasting 100 hours each still refusing to sign the lie which they tried to make him endorse?