Modern history

Chapter 12

PUNISHMENT AND REWARD

He who has not been there will get his turn. He who has been there will never forget it.

—Soviet proverb about prisons1

SHIZO: PUNISHMENT CELLS

Very few soviet concentration camps have survived intact into the present, even in ruined form. Nevertheless, it is a curious fact that quite a number of shtrafnye izolyhateri—“punishment isolaters,” or (using the inevitable acronym) SHIZO—are still standing. Nothing remains of lagpunkt No. 7 Ukhtpechlag—except its punishment block, now the workshop of an Armenian car mechanic. He has left the barred windows intact, hoping, he says, that “Solzhenitsyn will buy my building.” Nothing remains of the farminglagpunkt at Aizherom, Lokchimlag—except, again, its punishment block, now converted into a house inhabited by several families. One of the elderly women who lives there praises the solidity of one of the doors. It still has a large “Judas hole” in its center, through which guards once peered at the prisoners, and shoved them rations of bread.

The longevity of punishment blocks testifies to the sturdiness of their construction. Often the only brick building in a wooden camp, the isolator was the zona within the zona. Within its walls ruled the rezhim within the rezhim. “A gloomy stone building,” is how one prisoner described the isolator in his camp: “external gates, internal gates, armed sentry posts all around.”2

By the 1940s, Moscow had issued elaborate instructions, describing both the construction of punishment blocks and the rules for those condemned to live within them. Each lagpunkt—or group of lagpunkts , in the case of the smaller ones—had a punishment block, normally just outside thezona, or, if within it, “surrounded by an impenetrable fence,” at some distance from the other camp buildings. According to one prisoner, this stricture may not have been necessary, since many prisoners tried to avoid the lagpunktpunishment cell by “walking round it at a distance, not even looking in the direction of those grey stone walls, pierced by openings which seemed to breathe out a cold dark emptiness.” 3

Each camp complex was also meant to have a central punishment block near its headquarters, be it Magadan or Vorkuta or Norilsk. The central block was in fact often a very large prison which, the rules stated, “should be set up in the place which is farthest away from populated regions and from transport routes, should be well-guarded, and guaranteed strict isolation. The guards should consist of only the most trusted, disciplined, and experienced riflemen, selected from among the free workers.” These central prisons contained both communal cells and solitary cells. The latter were to be housed in a separate, special building, and were reserved for the “particularly malicious elements.” Prisoners kept in isolation were not taken out to work. In addition, they were forbidden any sort of exercise, tobacco, paper, and matches. This was on top of the “ordinary” restrictions applying to those being kept in the group cells: no letters, no packages, no meetings with relatives.4

On the face of it, the existence of punishment cells appears to contradict the general economic principles upon which the Gulag was founded. To maintain special buildings and extra guards was expensive. To keep prisoners away from work was wasteful. Yet from the camp administration’s point of view, the cells were not a form of supplementary torture, but rather an integral part of the vast effort to make prisoners work harder. Along with reduced food norms, the punishment regime was designed to frighten otkazchiki— those who refused to work—as well as to punish those caught committing a camp crime, such as murder, or attempting escape.

Because these two types of crimes tended to be committed by different types of prisoners, the punishment cells had, in some camps, a peculiar atmosphere. On the one hand, they were full of professional thieves, who were more likely to be murderers and escapees. Over time, however, another category of prisoner also began to fill up the punishment cells: the male religious prisoners, as well as the monashki, the religious “nuns,” who also refused on principle to work for the Soviet Satan. Aino Kuusinen, for example, was in a Potma lagpunkt whose commander built a special punishment barracks for a group of deeply religious women who “refused to work in the fields and spent their time praying aloud and singing hymns.” The women were not fed with the other prisoners, but instead received punishment rations in their own barracks. Armed guards escorted them twice daily to the latrine: “From time to time the commandant would visit their quarters with a whip, and the hut resounded with shrieks of pain: the women were usually stripped before being beaten, but no cruelty could dissuade them from their habits of praying and fasting.” They were eventually taken away. Kuusinen believed they had been shot.5

Other sorts of chronic “refusers” found their way into punishment cells as well. Indeed, the very existence of the cells presented prisoners with a choice. They could either work—or they could sit for a few days in the cells, getting by on short rations, suffering from the cold and the discomfort, but not exhausting themselves in the forests. Lev Razgon recounts the story of Count Tyszkiewicz, a Polish aristocrat who, finding himself in a Siberian logging camp, worked out that he would not survive on the rations supplied and simply refused to work. He reckoned he would thereby save his strength, even if he received only the punishment ration.

Every morning before the prisoners were marched out of the camp to work and the columns of zeks were lined up in the yard, two warders would fetch Tyszkiewicz from the punishment cell. Grey stubble covered his face and shaven head, and he was dressed in the remnants of an old overcoat and puttees. The camp security officer would begin his daily educational exercise, “Well you f——g Count, you stupid f——g f—k, are you going to work or not?”

“No, sir, I cannot work,” the count would reply in an iron-firm voice.

“Oh so you can’t, you f—k!” The security officer would publicly explain to the count what he thought of him and of his close and distant relations, and what he would do to him in the very near future. This daily spectacle was a source of general satisfaction to the camp’s other inmates.6

But although Razgon tells the story with humor, there were high risks to such a strategy, for the punishment regime was not designed to be pleasant. Officially, the daily punishment rations for prisoners who had failed to fulfill the norm consisted of 300 grams of “black rye bread,” 5 grams of flour, 25 grams of buckwheat or macaroni, 27 grams of meat, and 170 grams of potato. Although these are tiny amounts of food, those resident in punishment cells received even less: 300 grams of “black rye bread” a day, with hot water, and “hot liquid food”—soup, that is—only once every three days.7

For most prisoners, though, the greatest unpleasantness of the punishment regime lay not in its physical hardship—the isolated building, the poor food—but in the extra torments added at the whim of the local camp command. The communal bunks might, for example, be replaced by a simple bench. Or the bread might be baked using unprocessed wheat. Or the “hot liquid food” might be very thin indeed. Janusz Bardach was put in a punishment cell whose floor was covered with water, and whose walls were wet and moldy:

My underwear and undershirt were already damp, and I was shivering. My neck and shoulders got stiff and cramped. The soggy raw wood was decaying, especially on the edges of the bench . . . the bench was so narrow I could not lie on my back, and when I lay on my side, my legs hung over the edge; I had to keep them bent all the time. It was difficult to decide which side to lie on—on one side my face was pressed up against the slimy wall; on the other, my back became damp.8

Damp was common, as was cold. Although the rules stated that the temperature in punishment cells should not be lower than 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the heating was often neglected. Gustav Herling remembered that in his punishment isolator “the windows in the small cells had neither glass nor even a board over them, so that the temperature was never higher than outside.” He describes other ways in which the cells were designed for discomfort:

My cell was so low that I could touch the ceiling with my hand . . . it was impossible to sit on the upper bunk without bending one’s back against the ceiling, and the lower one could only be entered with the movement of a diver, head first, and left by pushing one’s body away from the wood, like a swimmer in a sandbank. The distance between the edge of the bunk and the bucket by the door was less than half a normal step. 9

Camp commanders could also decide whether to allow a prisoner to wear clothes in the cell—many were kept in their underwear—and whether or not to send him to work. If he did not work, then he would be kept in all day in the cold with no exercise. If he did work, then he would be very hungry. Nadezhda Ulyanovskaya was kept on punishment rations for a month, yet made to work. “I constantly wanted to eat,” she wrote. “I began talking only about food.”10 Because of these often unexpected twists to the punishment regime, prisoners dreaded being sent to the cells. “Prisoners there wept like children, promising good behavior only to get out,” wrote Herling.11

Within the larger camp complexes, there were different sorts of torment: not just punishment cells, but punishment barracks and even entire punishment lagpunkts. Dmitlag, the camp which built the Moscow–Volga Canal, set up a “strict-regime lagpunkt” in 1933 for “work-refusers, escapers, thieves, and so on.” To ensure security, the camp bosses dictated that the new lagpunkt should have two layers of barbed wire surrounding it instead of one; that extra convoy guards should lead prisoners to work; and that prisoners should do hard physical labor on work sites from which it was difficult to escape.12

At about the same time, Dalstroi set up a punishment lagpunkt , which became, by the late 1930s, one of the most notorious in the Gulag: Serpantinnaya—or Serpantinka—located in the hills far to the north of Magadan. Carefully placed in order to receive very little sunlight, colder and darker than the rest of the camps in the valley (which were already cold and dark for much of the year), Dalstroi’s punishment camp was more heavily fortified than other lagpunkts, and also served as an execution site in 1937 and 1938. Its very name was used to frighten prisoners, who equated a sentence to Serpantinka with a sentence to death.13 One of the very few survivors of Serpantinka described the barracks as “so overcrowded that prisoners took turns sitting on the floor while everyone else remained standing. In the mornings, the door would open, and the names of ten or twelve prisoners would be called. No one would answer. The first people that came to hand were then dragged out and shot.”14

In fact, little is known of Serpantinka, largely because so few people emerged to describe it. Even less is known about punishment lagpunkts set up in other camps, such as Iskitim, for example, the punishment lagpunkt of the Siblag complex, which was built around a limestone quarry. Prisoners worked there without machines or equipment, digging limestone by hand. Sooner or later, the dust killed many of them, through lung disease and other respiratory ailments.15 Anna Larina, Bukharin’s young wife, was briefly incarcerated there. Most of Iskitim’s other prisoners—and Iskitim’s dead—remain anonymous.16

They have not, however, been forgotten altogether. So powerfully did the suffering of the prisoners there work on the imagination of the local people of Iskitim that, many decades later, the appearance of a new freshwater spring on a hill just outside the former camp was greeted as a miracle. Because the gully below the spring was, according to local legend, the site of mass prisoner executions, they believed the sacred water was God’s way of remembering them. On a still, freezing day at the end of the Siberian winter, with a meter of snow still covering the ground, I watched parties of the faithful trooping up the hill to the spring, filling their plastic cups and bottles with the clean water, sipping it reverently—and occasionally glancing, solemnly, into the gully below.

POCHTOVYI YASHCHIK: POST OFFICE BOX

The SHIZO was the ultimate punishment of the penal system. But the Gulag could also provide its inmates with rewards too: carrots as well as sticks. For along with a prisoner’s food, his ability to sleep, and his place of work, the camp also controlled his access to the outside world. Year in and year out, Gulag administrators in Moscow would send out instructions, dictating how many letters, packages, and money transfers prisoners could receive, as well as when and how relatives could visit them from the outside.

Like the instructions on punishment cells, rules governing outside contacts also fluctuated over time. Or perhaps it is more precise to say that, generally speaking, outside contacts grew more limited over time. The instructions outlining the prison regime of 1930, for example, state simply that prisoners are allowed to write and receive an unlimited number of letters and packages. Meetings with relatives are also allowed, with no particular restrictions, although the number of them—not stated in the instructions—would depend upon the good behavior of prisoners.17

By 1939, however, the instructions were far more detailed. They stated specifically that only those prisoners who fulfilled the production norm were allowed to meet with their relatives, and then only once every six months. Those who overfulfilled the norm were allowed one meeting per month. Packages also became more limited: prisoners were allowed only one per month, and prisoners convicted of counter-revolutionary crimes could receive a package only once every three months.18

Indeed, by 1939, a whole raft of rules governing the sending and receiving of letters had also sprung into existence. Some political prisoners could receive letters once a month, others only once every three months. Camp censors also explicitly forbade prisoners to write about certain subjects: they could not mention the number of prisoners in their camp, discuss details of the camp regime, name the camp guards, or say what sort of work the camp carried out. Letters which included such details were not only confiscated by camp censors but also carefully noted in the prisoner’s file—presumably because they were evidence of “spying.”19

All of these regulations were continually changed, amended, and adapted to circumstances. During the war years, for example, all limitations on the number of food parcels were lifted: camp authorities seem to have hoped, simply, that relatives would help feed the prisoners, a task the NKVD found extremely difficult at that time. After the war, on the other hand, prisoners in special disciplinary camps for violent criminals, as well as those in the special camps for political prisoners, saw their rights to contact with the outside world shrink once again. They were allowed to write only four times a year, and could receive letters only from close family members, meaning parents, sibling, spouses, and children.20

Precisely because the regulations were so varied and complicated, and because they changed with great frequency, contacts with the outside world were in reality left—once again—to the whim of the camp commanders. Letters and packages certainly never reached prisoners in punishment cells, punishment barracks, or punishment lagpunkts. Nor did they reach prisoners whom the camp authorities disliked, for whatever reason. Moreover, there were camps which were simply too isolated, and therefore did not receive any mail.21 There were camps so disorganized that they did not bother to distribute mail. Of one camp, a disgusted NKVD inspector wrote that “packages, letters, and money orders are not distributed to prisoners, but rather lie by the thousands in warehouses and outposts.”22 In many camps, letters were received months late, if at all. Many prisoners realized only years later how many of their letters and packages had gone missing. Whether stolen or lost, no one could say. Conversely, prisoners who had been strictly forbidden from receiving letters sometimes received them anyway, despite the best efforts of the camp administration.23

On the other hand, some camp censors not only did their duty and distributed letters, they even allowed some missives to pass unopened as well. Dmitri Bystroletov remembered one—a “young komsomolka,” a member of the young communist league—who gave prisoners their letters unopened and uncensored: “She risked not just a piece of bread, but freedom: for that, they would give her a ten-year sentence.”24

There were, of course, ways around both the censorship of letters and the restrictions on their numbers. Anna Rozina once received a letter from her husband which had been baked inside a cake: by the time it reached her, he had already been executed. She also saw letters sewn into the clothes of prisoners being freed from the camp, or smuggled to the outside world tucked into the soles of shoes.25 In one light-regime camp, Barbara Armonas smuggled letters via prisoners who worked unguarded outside the zona. 26

General Gorbatov also describes how he sent an uncensored letter to his wife from inside a transport train, using a method mentioned by many others. First, he bought a pencil stub from one of the criminal prisoners:

I gave the convict the tobacco, took the pencil from him and, as the train moved off again, wrote a letter on the cigarette paper, numbering each sheet. Next I made an envelope of the makhorka wrapper and stuck it down with moistened bread. So that my letter should not be carried by the wind into the bushes beside the railway, I weighted it with a crust of bread which I tied on with threads pulled from my towel. Between the envelope and the crust I slipped a ruble note and four cigarette papers each with the message: would the finder of this envelope please stick on a stamp and post it. I sidled up to the window of our truck just as we were going through a big station and let the letter drop...27

Not long afterward, his wife received it.

Some limitations on letter-writing were not mentioned in the instructions. It was all very well to be allowed to write, for example—but it was not always so easy to find something to write with or to write on, as Bystroletov remembered: “Paper in the camp is an object of great value, because it is badly needed by prisoners, but impossible to get: what does the cry ‘Today is a mail day! Hand in your letters!’ mean if there is nothing on which to write, if only a few lucky ones can write, and the rest must lie gloomily on their bunks?”28

One prisoner recalled trading bread in exchange for two pages ripped out of The Question of Leninism, a book by Stalin. He wrote a letter to his family between the lines.29 Even the camp administrators, in smaller lagpunkts, had to think up creative solutions. In Kedrovyi Shor, one camp accountant used old wallpaper for official documents. 30

The rules surrounding packages were even more complex. The instructions sent to every camp commander expressly stipulated that prisoners open all packages in the presence of a guard, who could then confiscate any forbidden item.31 In fact, the receipt of a package was often accompanied by an entire ceremony. First, the prisoner was alerted of his good fortune. Then, guards escorted him into the storeroom, where the prisoners’ personal belongings were kept under lock and key. After he opened the package, the guards would cut or pry open every single item—every onion, every sausage—to ensure that it did not contain secret messages, potential weapons, or money. If everything passed the inspection, the prisoner would then be allowed to take something from the package. The rest would be left in the warehouse, pending his next permitted visit. Prisoners who were being held in the SHIZO or who were otherwise in disgrace would, of course, be forbidden access to the food products sent to them from home.

There were variations on this system. One prisoner soon realized that if he left his packages in the storeroom, bits of them would quickly disappear, stolen by the guards. He therefore found a way to hang a bottle full of butter from his belt, hiding it in his trousers: “Warmed by my body, it was always liquid.” In the evening, he spread the butter on his bread.32 Dmitri Bystroletov was in a lagpunkt which did not have a storeroom at all, and had to be even more creative:

I worked then in the tundra, on a factory construction site, and lived in a workers’ barracks where it was impossible to leave anything, and impossible to take anything to the work site: the soldiers standing at the entrance to the camp would confiscate anything they found and eat it themselves, and anything left behind would be stolen and eaten by the dnevalni [the prisoner assigned to clean and guard the barracks]. Everything had to be eaten at once. I took a nail out of the barrack bunks, knocked two holes in a can of condensed milk, and underneath my blanket began to sip out of it. My exhaustion was so great, however, that I fell asleep, and the priceless liquid dripped uselessly on to the dirty straw mattress.33

There were also complicated moral issues surrounding packages, since not everybody received them. Should they be shared or not? And, if so, was it better to share only with friends, or with potential protectors? In prison, it had been possible to organize “Committees of the Poor,” but in camp this was impossible. Some gave to everybody, out of kindness or the desire to spread goodwill. Others gave only to small circles of friends. And sometimes, as one prisoner remembered, “it happened that one ate sweet biscuits in bed at night, as it was unpleasant to eat in front of others.” 34

During the hardest war years, in the most difficult northern camps, packages could determine the difference between life and death. One memoirist, the actor Georgy Zhenov, claims literally to have been saved by two packages. His mother mailed them from Leningrad in 1940, and he received them three years later, “at the most critical moment, when I, hungry, having lost all hope, was slowly dying of scurvy . . .”

At that time, Zhenov was working in the camp bathhouse in a Kolyma lagpunkt, being too weak to work in the forest. Upon hearing that he had received the two packages, he at first did not believe it. Then, convinced that it was true, he asked the chief bath attendant for permission to walk the 6 miles to the central camp administrative headquarters where the storeroom was located. After two and a half hours, he turned back: “I had with difficulty traveled a kilometer.” Then, seeing a group of camp bosses on a sleigh, “a fantastic thought crossed my mind: what if I asked to go with them?” They said yes—and what happened next was “as if in a dream.” Zhenov got on the sleigh, rode the 6 miles, got off the sleigh with great difficulty, helped by the NKVD bosses, entered the storeroom, claimed his three-year-old packages, and opened them up:

Everything that had been put into the package: sugar, sausage, lard, candy, onions, garlic, cookies, crackers, cigarettes, chocolate, along with the wrapping paper in which each thing had been packed, during the three years of following me from address to address, had become mixed up, as if in a washing machine, turning finally into one hard mass with the sweet smell of decay, mold, tobacco, and the perfume of candy . . .

I went to the table, took a knife to a piece of it, and in front of everyone, almost not chewing, hastily gulped, not distinguishing taste or smell, fearing, in a word, that someone would interrupt or take it away from me . . .35

DOM SVIDANII: THE HOUSE OF MEETINGS

Letters and packages did not, however, evoke the greatest emotion, or the greatest agony, among prisoners. Far more wrenching were a prisoner’s actual meetings with his relatives, usually a spouse or mother. Only prisoners who had both fulfilled the norm and obediently followed the rules of the camp were allowed such meetings: official documents openly described them as a reward for “good, conscientious, and high-tempo work.”36 And the promise of a visit from a relative was indeed an extremely powerful motivation for good behavior.

Not all prisoners were in a position to receive visitors, of course. For one, their families had to be mentally courageous enough to maintain contact with their “enemy” relative. The journey to Kolyma, Vorkuta, Norilsk, or Kazakhstan, even traveling as a free citizen, required physical bravery as well. Not only would a visitor have to suffer a long train journey to a distant, primitive city, but he would also then have to walk, or hitch a bumpy ride in the back of a truck, to the lagpunkt. After that, the visitor might have to wait for several days or longer, begging sneering camp commanders for permission to see their prisoner relative—permission which might well be refused, for no reason at all. Afterward, they faced another long journey home, by the same tedious route.

Leaving aside the physical hardships, the psychological strain of these meetings could be terrible too. The wives arriving to see their husbands, wrote Herling, “feel the boundless suffering of the prisoner, without fully understanding it, or being in any way able to help; the long years of separation have killed much of their feeling for their husbands . . . the camp, distant and barred off from the visitor, yet casts its shadowy menace upon them. They are not prisoners, but they are related to these enemies of the people...”37

Nor were wives alone in their mixed feelings. One prisoner tells the story of a woman who had brought her two-year-old daughter to see her father. Upon arrival, she told her to “go and kiss Daddy.” The girl ran up to the guard and kissed him on the neck.38 The daughter of the Soviet rocket scientist Sergei Korolev still remembers being taken to see her father while he was in a sharashka. She had been told he was away, fighting with the air force. Entering the prison, she was surprised at the small size of the prison yard. Where, she asked her mother, did Daddy’s plane land?39

In prisons—and in certain camps as well—such meetings were invariably brief, and usually took place in the presence of a guard, a rule which also created enormous strain. “I wanted to speak, to speak a great deal, to tell of everything that had happened that year,” remembered one prisoner of the single meeting he was granted with his mother. Not only was it hard to find words, but “if one did begin to speak, to describe something, the watchful guard would interrupt you: ‘Not allowed!’” 40

More tragic still is the story told by Bystroletov, who was granted a series of meetings with his wife in 1941—all with a guard present. She had come from Moscow to say goodbye: since his arrest, she had contracted tuberculosis, and was near death. Saying her final farewell, she reached up and touched him on the neck, which was technically not allowed. Visitors were forbidden physical contact with the prisoners. The guard roughly pushed her arm away, and she fell to the floor, coughing blood. Bystroletov writes that he “lost his head” and began beating the guard, who began to bleed. He was saved from dire punishment by the war, which broke out that same day: in the ensuing chaos, his attack on the guard was forgotten. He never saw his wife again.41

Guards were not always present, however. Indeed, in the larger lagpunkts, in the bigger camps, prisoners were sometimes allowed meetings of several days’ length, without guards present. By the 1940s, these meetings usually took place in a designated “House of Meetings”—Dom Svidanii—a building especially constructed for that purpose on the edge of the camp. Herling describes one:

The house itself, seen from the road which led to the camp from the village, made a pleasant impression. It was built of rough pine beams, the gaps filled in with oakum, the roof was laid with good tiling . . . The door outside the zone, which could be used only by the free visitors, was reached by a few solid wooden steps; cotton curtains hung in the windows, and long window-boxes planted with flowers stood by the window sills. Every room was furnished with two neatly made beds, a large table, two benches, a basin and a water-jug, a clothes-cupboard and an iron stove; there was even a lampshade over the electric-light bulb. What more could a prisoner, who had lived for years on a common bunk in a dirty barrack, desire of this model petit bourgeois dwelling? Our dreams of life at liberty were based on that room.42

And yet—those who had anxiously anticipated that “dream of liberty” often felt far worse when the meeting turned out badly, which it often did. Fearing they would remain behind barbed wire for life, some prisoners greeted their relatives by telling them not to come again. “You forget this place,” one told his brother, who had traveled for many days in freezing temperatures to meet him for twenty minutes: “It is more important to me that everything should be all right with you.” 43 Men meeting their wives for the first time in years suddenly found themselves beset with sexual anxiety, as Herling recalls:

Years of heavy labor and hunger had undermined their virility, and now, before an intimate meeting with an almost strange woman, they felt, beside nervous excitement, helpless anger and despair. Several times I did hear men boasting of their prowess after a visit, but usually these matters were a cause for shame, and respected in silence by all prisoners . . . 44

Visiting wives had their own troubles to discuss. Usually, they had suffered a great deal from their husbands’ imprisonment. They could not find jobs, could not study, and often had to hide their marriages from inquisitive neighbors. Some arrived in order to announce their intention to divorce. In The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn recounts, with surprising sympathy, one such conversation, based on a real one he had with his own wife, Natasha. In the book, Nadya, the prisoner Gerasimovich’s wife, is on the verge of losing her job, her place in a student hostel, and the possibility of completing her thesis, all because her husband is a prisoner. Divorce, she knows, is the only way to “have a chance to live again”:

Nadya lowered her eyes. “I wanted to say—only you won’t take it to heart, will you?—you once said we ought to get divorced.” She said it very quietly . . .

Yes, there was a time when he had insisted on this. But now he was startled. Only at this moment did he notice that her wedding ring, which she had always worn, was not on her finger.

“Yes, of course,” he agreed, with every appearance of alacrity.

“Then you won’t be against it . . . if . . . I . . . have to . . . do it?” With a great effort she looked at him. Her eyes were very wide. The fine pinpoints of her grey pupils were alight with a plea for forgiveness and understanding. “It would be . . . pseudo,” she added, breathing the word rather than speaking it.45

Such a meeting could be worse than no meeting at all. Izrail Mazus, arrested in the 1950s, recounts the story of one prisoner who made the mistake of announcing to his fellow inmates that his wife had arrived. As he endured the routines required of every prisoner due to encounter a visitor— he went to the baths, to the barber, to the storage room to retrieve some proper clothes—the other prisoners relentlessly winked at him and poked him, teasing him about the squeaky bed in the House of Meetings.46 Yet in the end, he was not even allowed to be alone in the room with his wife. What sort of “glimpse of liberty” was that?

Contacts with the outside world were always complicated—by expectations, by desires, by anticipation. Herling, again, writes that

Whatever the reason for their disappointment—whether the freedom, realized for three days, had not lived up to its idealized expectation, whether it was too short, or whether, fading away like an interrupted dream, it had left only fresh emptiness in which they had nothing to wait for—the prisoners were invariably silent and irritable after visits, to say nothing of those whose visits had been transformed into the tragic formality of separation and divorce. Krestynski . . . twice attempted to hang himself after an interview with his wife, who had asked him for a divorce and for his agreement to place their children in a municipal nursery.

Herling, who as a Polish foreigner “never expected to see anyone” in the House of Meetings, nevertheless saw the significance of the place more clearly than many Soviet writers: “I came to the conclusion that if hope can often be the only meaning left in life, then its realization may sometimes be an unbearable torment.”47

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