Modern history

Chapter 8


A Gypsy read the cards—a distant road,
A distant road—and a prison house.
Maybe the old central prison,
It waits for me, a young man, once again . . .

—Traditional Russian prisoners’ song

THEIR ARRESTS AND INTERROGATIONS wore prisoners down, shocked them into submission, confused them, and disoriented them. But the Soviet prison system itself, where inmates were kept before, during, and often for a very long time after their interrogations, had an enormous influence on their state of mind as well.

When looked at in an international context, there was nothing unusually cruel about Soviet prisons or the Soviet prison regime. Soviet prisons were certainly harsher than most Western prisons, and harsher than Czarist prisons had been too. On the other hand, prisons in China, or in other parts of the Third World in the mid-twentieth century, were extremely unpleasant as well. Nevertheless, elements of Soviet prison life remained peculiar to the Soviet Union. Some aspects of the daily prison regime, like the interrogation process itself, even seem to have been deliberately designed to prepare prisoners for their new life in the Gulag.

Certainly official attitudes to prisons reflect changes in the priorities of those running the camps. Genrikh Yagoda issued an order in August 1935, for example, just as arrests of political prisoners were beginning to pick up pace, making it clear that the most important “point” of an arrest (if these arrests can be said to have had a “point” in any normal sense of the word) was to feed the ever-more frenzied demand for confessions. Yagoda’s order put not only the prisoners’ “privileges” but also their most basic living conditions directly into the hands of the NKVD officers investigating their cases. Provided a prisoner was cooperating—which usually meant confessing—he would be allowed letters, food parcels, newspapers and books, monthly meetings with relatives, and an hour of exercise daily. If not, he could be deprived of all these things, and lose his food ration as well.1

By contrast, in 1942—after Lavrenty Beria had arrived, vowing to turn the Gulag into an efficient economic machine—Moscow’s priorities had shifted. The camps were becoming an important factor in wartime production, and camp commanders had begun complaining about the large numbers of prisoners arriving at camp workplaces totally unfit to work. Starving, filthy, and deprived of exercise, they simply could not dig coal or cut trees at the pace required. Beria therefore issued new interrogation orders in May of that year, demanding that prison bosses observe “elementary health conditions,” and limiting investigators’ control over prisoners’ daily life.

According to Beria’s new order, prisoners were to have a daily walk of “not less than one hour” (with the notable exception of those awaiting the death sentence, whose quality of health hardly mattered to the NKVD’s production figures). Prison administrators also had to ensure that their prisons contained a yard specially built for the purpose: “Not a single prisoner must stay in the cell during these walks . . . weak and aged prisoners must be helped by their cell mates.” Prison warders were told to ensure that inmates (except for those directly under interrogation) have eight hours of sleep, that those with diarrhea receive extra vitamins and better food, and that the parashi, the buckets that served as prison toilets, be repaired if leaking. The last point was thought to be so crucial that the order even specified the ideal size of a parasha. In men’s cells, they had to be 55 to 60 centimeters high, in women’s cells 30 to 35 centimeters high—and they had to contain .75 liters of depth per person in the cell.2

Despite these ludicrously specific regulations, prisons continued to differ enormously. In part, they differed according to location. As a rule, provincial prisons were filthier and more lax, Moscow prisons cleaner and more deadly. But even the three main Moscow prisons had slightly different characters. The infamous Lubyanka, which still dominates a large square in central Moscow (and still serves as the headquarters for the FSB, the NKVD’s and KGB’s successor), was used for the reception and interrogation of the most serious political criminals. There were relatively few cells—a 1956 document speaks of 118—and 94 were very small, for one to four prisoners.3 Once the offices of an insurance company, some of the cells of the Lubyanka building had parquet floors, which the prisoners had to wash every day. A. M. Garaseva, an Anarchist who later served as Solzhenitsyn’s secretary, was imprisoned in Lubyanka in 1926, and remembered that food was still served by waitresses wearing uniforms.4

By contrast, Lefortovo, also used for interrogation, had been a nineteenth-century military prison. Its cells, never intended to hold large numbers of prisoners, were darker, dirtier, and more crowded. Lefortovo is shaped like the letter K, and at its center, recalled the memoirist Dmitri Panin, “an attendant stands with a flag and directs the flow of prisoners being led to and from interrogation.”5 In the late 1930s, Lefortovo became so overcrowded that the NKVD opened an “annex” in the Sukhanovsky monastery outside Moscow. Officially named “Object 110,” and known to prisoners as “Sukhanovka,” the annex acquired a horrific reputation for torture: “There were no rules of internal order, and no defined rules for the conduct of investigations either.” 6 Beria himself maintained an office there, and personally supervised torture sessions of the Sukhanovka prisoners.7

Butyrka prison, the oldest of the three, had been constructed in the eighteenth century, and was originally designed to be a palace, although it was quickly converted into a prison. Among its distinguished nineteenth-century inmates was Feliks Dzerzhinsky, along with other Polish and Russian revolutionaries. 8 Generally used to house prisoners who had finished interrogation and were awaiting transport, Butyrka was also crowded and dirty, but more relaxed. Garaseva records that whereas the Lubyanka guards forced prisoners to “exercise” by walking in a tight circle, “at Butyrka you could do what you wanted.” She, like others, also mentions the prison’s excellent library, whose collection had been formed by generations of prisoners, all of whom left their books behind when they were transferred away.9

Prisons also differed from era to era. During the early 1930s, large numbers of prisoners were sentenced to months or even years of isolation. One Russian prisoner, Boris Chetverikov, kept sane for sixteen months in solitary by washing his clothes, the floor, the walls—and by singing all the opera arias and songs that he knew.10 Alexander Dolgun was kept in solitary during his interrogation too, and managed to keep his head by walking: he counted the steps in his cells, worked out how many there were to a kilometer, and started “walking,” first across Moscow to the American Embassy—“I breathed in the clear, cold, imaginary air and hugged my coat around me”—then across Europe, and finally across the Atlantic, back home to the United States. 11

Evgeniya Ginzburg spent nearly two years in the Yaroslavl isolator, deep in central Russia, much of that time completely alone: “To this day, if I shut my eyes, I can see every bump and scratch on those walls, painted halfway up in the favorite prison colors, brownish-red and a dirty white above.” But eventually, even that “special” prison began to fill up, and she was given a cell mate. Ultimately, most of the tyurzeks, the “prison prisoners,” were moved to camps. As Ginzburg writes, “It was simply not practical to keep such multitudes in prison for ten or twenty years: it was inconsistent with the tempo of the age and with its economy.”12

In the 1940s, as the pace of arrests grew, it became far more difficult to isolate anyone, even new prisoners, even for a few hours. In 1947, Leonid Finkelstein was initially thrown into the prison vokzal (literally, “railway station”), a “huge, common cell where all the arrested are thrown in first, without any facilities. Then they are sorted out, gradually, sent to the baths, and then to the cells.”13 In fact, the experience of desperate overcrowding was far more common than that of solitary isolation. To choose a few random examples, the main Arkhangelsk city prison, which had a capacity of 740, held, in 1941, between 1,661 and 2,380 prisoners. The prison in Kotlas, in northern Russia, with a capacity of 300, held up to 460.14

Prisons in more distant provinces could be worse. In 1940, the prison of Stanislawwow, in newly occupied eastern Poland, contained 1,709 people, well above its capacity of 472, and possessed a mere 150 sets of sheets. 15 In February 1941, the prisons in the republic of Tartarstan, with a capacity for 2,710 prisoners, contained 6,353. In May 1942, the prisons of the central Asian city of Tashkent, with a capacity for 960, contained 2,754.16 These crowded conditions had a particularly harsh effect on those under interrogation, whose entire lives were being subject to intense, hostile questioning every night, and whose days nevertheless had to be spent in the company of others. One prisoner described the effects:

The whole process of the disintegration of personality took place before the eyes of everyone in the cell. A man could not hide himself here for an instant; even his bowels had to be moved on the open toilet, situated right in the room. He who wanted to weep, wept before everyone, and the feeling of shame increased his torment. He who wanted to kill himself—in the night, beneath the blanket, trying to cut the veins in his arm with his teeth—would be quickly discovered by one of the cell’s insomniacs, and prevented from finishing the job.17

Margarete Buber-Neumann also wrote that the overcrowding turned prisoners against one another. When prisoners were awoken, at half-past four in the morning, the effect on us was much as though an ant-heap had been turned over. Everyone grabbed her wash things in order to be first, if possible, because, of course, the washing accommodation was not remotely sufficient for all of us. In the room where we washed were five lavatories and ten water taps. I say “lavatories” but they were in reality five holes in the ground and nothing else. Queues immediately formed in front of all five holes and all ten taps. Imagine if you can going to the lavatory in the morning with at least a dozen pairs of eyes watching you, and being shouted at and urged on by others impatiently waiting for their turn . . .18

Perhaps because they were aware of the crowding, prison authorities went to great lengths to break any semblance of prisoner solidarity. Yagoda’s order of 1935 already forbade prisoners to talk, shout, sing, write on the walls of the cell, leave marks or signs anywhere in the prison, stand at the windows of the cell, or attempt to communicate with those in other cells in any way. Those breaking these rules could be punished by deprivation of exercise or letters, or even by being placed in a specially constructed punishment cell.19 Enforced silence is frequently mentioned by those imprisoned in the 1930s: “No one spoke out loud and some of them made themselves understood by signs,” wrote Buber-Neumann of Butyrka, where “the half-exposed bodies of most of the women were of a peculiar greyish-blue tinge from long confinement without light or air . . .”20

In some prisons, the rule of silence remained absolute well into the next decade, in others less so: one ex-prisoner writes of the “complete silence” of Lubyanka in 1949, by comparison to which “cell number 106 at Butyrka seemed like visiting a bazaar after a small shop.”21 Another, in prison in the central Soviet city of Kazan, remembers that when prisoners began whispering, “the lid of the food hatch would open with a bang and someone would hiss, ‘Sssh!’” 22

Many memoirists have also described how guards, when moving prisoners between cells or from a cell to interrogation, would jangle their keys, snap their fingers or make some other noise, to warn off those farther down the corridor. In the case of an encounter, one of the prisoners would be quickly turned down another passageway, or placed into a special closet. V. K. Yasnyi, formerly a translator of Spanish literature, was once placed in a half-meter-square closet in Lubyanka for two hours.23 Such closets seem to have been in wide use: the basement of the former NKVD headquarters in Budapest, now a museum, contains one. The object was to prevent prisoners from encountering others who might be involved in their particular “case,” as well as to keep them away from siblings or other relatives who might be under arrest.

The enforced silence made even the walk to the interrogation rooms unnerving. Alexander Dolgun recalls walking down the carpeted hallways of Lubyanka: “The only sound as we moved along was the guard’s clucking of his tongue . . . all those metal doors were grey, battleship grey, and the effect of the gloom and the silence and the grey doors repeating themselves down the corridors until they merged with the shadows was oppressive and discouraging.”24

To prevent prisoners in one cell from learning the names of those in other cells, prisoners were called out—for interrogation or for transfer— not by their names, but by a letter of the alphabet. The guard would shout “G,” for example, and all of the prisoners with surnames beginning with G would stand and give their first names and patronymics.25

Order was maintained—just as order is maintained in most prisons— through the rigid regulation of daily life. Zayara Vesyolaya, the daughter of a famous Russian writer and “enemy,” described in her memoirs a typical day in Lubyanka. It began with opravka, a trip to the toilets. “‘Prepare for the toilet!’ shouts the guard, and the women would silently line up, in pairs. Once in the toilets, they were given about ten minutes—not only to eliminate but also to wash themselves and whatever clothes they could. Opravka was then followed by breakfast: hot water, perhaps with something resembling tea or coffee mixed in, plus the daily bread ration, plus two or three pieces of sugar. Breakfast was followed by a visit from a guard, who took requests to see the doctor, and then by the ‘central activity of the day,’ a twenty-minute walk in a ‘small enclosed yard, walking single file in circles next to the wall.’” Only once was order broken. Although she was never told why, Vesyolaya was taken onto the Lubyanka roof one evening, after prisoners had already been told to sleep. As Lubyanka is in the center of Moscow, that meant she could see, if not the city, then at least the city lights—which might as well have belonged to another country.26

Normally, however, the rest of the day was a repeat: lunch—prison soup, made of entrails or grain or rotten cabbage—and then the same soup for supper. There was another trip to the toilet in the evening. In between, prisoners whispered to one another, sat on their bunks, and sometimes read books. Vesyolaya recalls being allowed one book a week, but the rules varied from prison to prison, as did the quality of the prison libraries, which, as I say, were sometimes excellent. In some prisons, inmates were allowed to purchase food items from the “commissary” if their relatives had sent them money.

But there were other tortures besides boredom and bad food. All prisoners were forbidden to sleep during the day—not just those undergoing interrogation. Warders kept constant vigil, peeping through the “Judas hole,” the peephole into the cell, to ensure this rule was kept. Lyubov Bershadskaya recalls that although “we were woken at six, we were not allowed even to sit on the bed until eleven in the evening. We had either to walk, or to sit on the stool, not leaning against the wall.” 27

Nights were no better. Sleep was made difficult, if not impossible, by the bright lights in the cells, which were never turned off, and by the rule forbidding prisoners to sleep with their hands under their blankets. Vesyolaya would start out trying to comply: “It was awkward and uncomfortable, and made it hard for me to fall asleep . . . as soon as I dozed off, however, I would instinctively pull the blanket up to my chin. The key would grate in the lock, and the guard would shake my bed: ‘Hands!’”28 Buber-Neumann wrote that “until you got used to it, the night was worse than the day. Try to sleep at night under strong electric light—prisoners are not allowed to cover their faces—on bare planks without even a straw sack or a pillow, and perhaps without even a blanket, pressed against your fellow prisoners on either side.”

Perhaps the most effective tool for preventing prisoners from becoming too comfortable in their surroundings was the presence of informers—who were also to be found in all spheres of Soviet life. They would also play an important role in the camps, but in camps they would be easier to avoid. In prison, one could not walk away from them so easily, and they forced people to watch their words carefully. Buber-Neumann recalled that, with one exception, “I never heard a word of criticism of the Soviet regime from a Russian prisoner the whole time I was in Butyrka.”29

Among the prisoners, the accepted wisdom was that there was at least one informer in every cell. When there were two people in a cell, both suspected the other. In larger cells the informer was often identified and shunned by the other inmates. When Olga Adamova-Sliozberg first arrived in Butyrka, she noticed a free sleeping space beside the window. She was welcome to sleep there, she was told, “but you won’t have the best of neighbors.” The woman sleeping with no one around her was, it emerged, an informer who spent all her time “writing statements denouncing everyone in the cell, so no one talks to her.”

Not all informers were so easily identified, and paranoia was so great that any unusual behavior could spark hostility. Adamova-Sliozberg herself assumed that one of her fellow inmates was certainly a spy, having seen the “foreign-looking sponge she washed with and the lacy underwear she wore.” Later, she came to look upon the woman as a friend. 30 The writer Varlam Shalamov also wrote that being transferred within a prison, between cells, “is not a very pleasant experience. This always puts one’s new cellmates on their guard and causes them to suspect that the transferred prisoner is an informer.”31

Without question, the system was rigid, inflexible, and inhuman. And yet— if they could, prisoners fought back, against boredom, against the constant small humiliations, against the attempts to divide and atomize them. More than one former inmate has written of how prisoner solidarity was actually stronger in the jails than it would be later, in the camps. Once prisoners were in camps, the authorities could divide and rule with greater ease. To alienate inmates from one another, they could tempt prisoners with the promise of a higher place in the camp hierarchy, better food or easier jobs.

In prison, by contrast, all were more or less equal. Although there were inducements to collaborate, these were fewer. For many prisoners, the days or months spent in jail, prior to deportation, even provided a sort of introductory course in elementary survival techniques—and, despite all the authorities’ efforts, their first experience of unity against authority.

Some prisoners simply learned from their fellow inmates elementary ways to preserve hygiene and dignity. In her prison cell, Inna Shikheeva-Gaister learned to make buttons from bits of chewed bread in order to hold her clothes up, to make needles from fish bones, to use stray threads for sewing up the holes ripped in her clothes during the search, as well as other sundry tasks which would also prove to be of use in the camps.32 Dmitri Bystroletov—a former Soviet spy in the West—also learned to make “thread” from old socks: the socks were pulled apart, and the ends of the threads were then sharpened with a bit of soap. Such thread, like the needles he learned to make from matches, could later be exchanged in the camp for food. 33 Susanna Pechora, the youthful anti-Stalinist, was taught “how to sleep while they don’t notice, how to sew with matchsticks, and how to walk without a belt.”34

The prisoners also maintained some control over their lives through the institution of the starosta, the cell’s “elder.” On the one hand, in prisons, in railway cars, and in camp barracks, the starosta was an officially recognized figure, whose functions were described in official documents. On the other hand, the starosta’s many duties—ranging from keeping the cell clean to ensuring orderly marches to the toilet—meant that his authority had to be accepted by all.35 Informers, and others favored by the prison warders, were therefore not necessarily the best candidates. Alexander Weissberg wrote that in the larger cells, where there might be 200 prisoners or more, “normal life was not possible without a cell senior to organize the distribution of food, the arrangements for exercise, and so on.” Yet because the secret police refused to recognize any form of prisoner organization (“its logic was simple: an organization of counter-revolutionaries was a counter-revolutionary organization”) a classically Soviet solution was found, wrote Weissberg: the starosta was elected “illegally” by the prisoners. The prison governor heard about it through his spies and then officially appointed the prisoners’ choice.36

In the most overcrowded cells, the starosta’s main task was to greet new prisoners, and to ensure that everyone had a place to sleep. Almost universally, new prisoners were sent to sleep beside the parasha , the slop bucket, gradually progressing away from it and toward the window as they attained seniority. “No exceptions,” noted Elinor Lipper, “are made for sickness or age.”37 The starosta also resolved fights, and generally kept order in the cell, a task that was far from easy. Kazimierz Zarod, a Polish arrestee, recalled that, while serving as cell starosta, “the guards constantly threatened me with punishment if I did not keep the unruly element under some sort of control, particularly after 9 p.m.; when there was a ‘no talking’ rule after ‘Lights Out.’” Eventually, Zarod himself was put in a punishment cell for failing to keep control.38 It seems from other accounts, however, as if the decisions of the starosta were usually respected.

Without a doubt, the prisoners’ greatest ingenuity was applied to overcoming the most stringent rule: the strict prohibition of communication, both between cells and with the outside world. Despite the serious threat of punishment, prisoners left notes for other prisoners in toilets, or threw messages over walls. Leonid Finkelstein tried to throw a piece of meat, a tomato, and a piece of bread into another cell: “when we were taken to the loo, I tried to open the window and push the food through.” He was caught, and put in a punishment cell.39 Prisoners bribed guards to take messages, although they occasionally did so of their own accord. A warder at the Stravropol prison would occasionally transmit verbal communications from Lev Razgon to his wife.40

One former inmate, a prisoner for fourteen months in Vilnius after the Soviet occupation of the city—it had previously been under Polish rule— described in 1939, in testimony presented to the Polish government-in-exile, how the elements of the previous Polish prison regime had slowly broken down. One by one, prisoners lost their “privileges”—the right to read and write letters, to use the prison library, to have paper and pencils, to receive parcels. New regulations, of the sort common to most Soviet prisons, were brought in: lights in the cells had to be kept on all night, and windows were blocked with sheets of tin. Unexpectedly, the latter created an opportunity for communication between cells: “I opened the window, and, putting my head against the bars, spoke to my neighbors. Even if the sentry in the courtyard heard my conversation, he could not make out where the voice came from as, thanks to the tin sheet, it was impossible to detect an open window.”41

Perhaps the most elaborate form of forbidden communication, however, was the prisoners’ Morse code, tapped on the walls of cells, or on the prison plumbing. The code had been devised in the Czarist era—Varlam Shalamov attributes it to one of the Decembrists.42 Elinor Olitskaya had learned it from her Social Revolutionary colleagues long before she was imprisoned in 1924.43 In fact, the Russian revolutionary Vera Figner had described the code in her memoirs, which is where Evgeniya Ginzburg had read about it. While under investigation, she remembered enough of the code to use it to communicate with a neighboring cell.44 The code was relatively straightforward: letters of the Russian alphabet were laid out in five rows of six letters:


Each letter was then designated by a pair of taps, the first signifying the row, the second the position in the row:


Even those who had not read about the code or learned it from others sometimes figured it out, as there were standard methods of teaching it. Those who knew it would sometimes tap out the alphabet, over and over again, together with one or two simple questions, in the hope that the unseen person on the other side of the wall would catch on. That was how Alexander Dolgun learned the code in Lefortovo, memorizing it with the help of matches. When he was finally able to “talk” to the man in the next cell, and understood that the man was asking him “Who are you?” he felt “a rush of pure love for a man who has been asking me for three months who I am.”45

The code was not in widespread use at all times. By 1949, Zayara Vesyolaya “could find no one who knew the ‘prison alphabet’” in Butyrka, and thought at first that the tradition must have died out. She later decided she was wrong, both because others told her they had used it at that time, and because a guard once burst into her cell when he heard a knocking sound, demanding to know the origins. 46 There were other variations. The Russian writer and poet, Anatoly Zhigulin, claims to have invented a code, also based on the alphabet, which he and a group of his friends (they were all arrested at once) used to communicate during the investigation of their case.47

In certain places and at certain times, prisoners’ methods of self-organization took more elaborate forms. One in particular is described by Varlam Shalamov in his short story “Committees for the Poor,” and also mentioned by others.48 Its origins lay in an unfair rule: at one point, during the late 1930s, the authorities suddenly decided that prisoners undergoing interrogation were to receive no packages from their relatives whatsoever, on the grounds that even “two French rolls, five apples and a pair of old pants were enough to transmit any text into the prison.” Only money could be sent, and that only in round numbers, so that the sums could not be used to spell out “messages.” Yet not all prisoners’ families had money to send. Some were too poor, some too far away, while others may even have played a part in denouncing their relatives in the first place. That meant that although some prisoners had access once a week to the prison commissary— to butter, cheese, sausage, tobacco, white bread, cigarettes—others had to subsist on the poor prison diet, and, more important, would have felt “out of place at the general holiday” that was “commissary day.”

To solve this problem, the prisoners of Butyrka resurrected a phrase from the early days of the Revolution, and organized “Committees of the Poor.” Each prisoner donated 10 percent of his money to the committee. In turn, the committee purchased food items for prisoners who had none. This system went on for some years, until the authorities decided to eliminate the committees by promising some prisoners “rewards” of various kinds for refusing to participate. The cells fought back, however, and ostracized the refusers. And who, asks Shalamov, “would risk placing himself in opposition to the entire group, to people who are with you twenty-four hours a day, where only sleep can save you from the hostile glare of your fellow inmates?”

Curiously, this short story is one of the few in Shalamov’s extensive repertoire to end on a positive note: “Unlike the ‘free’ world ‘outside,’ or the camps, society in prison is always united. In the committees this society found a way to make a positive statement as to the right of every man to live his own life.”49

This most pessimistic of writers had found, in this one organized form of prisoner solidarity, a shred of hope. The trauma of the transports, and the horror of the first bewildering days in the camps, soon shattered it.

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