Modern history

Chapter 26

THE ERA OF THE DISSIDENTS

Do not rejoice too early
And let some oracle proclaim
That wounds do not reopen
That evil crowds don’t rise again.
And that I risk seeming retarded;
Let him orate. I firmly know that
Stalin is not dead.
As if the dead alone had mattered
And those who vanished nameless in the North.
The evil he implanted in our hearts,
Had it not truly done the damage?
As long as poverty divides from wealth
As long as we don’t stop the lies
And don’t unlearn to fear
Stalin is not dead.

—Boris Chichibabin, “Stalin Is Not Dead,” 1967 1

THE DEATH OF STALIN really did signal the end of the era of massive slave labor in the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet Union’s repressive policies were to take some very harsh forms over the subsequent forty years, nobody ever again proposed to revive concentration camps on a large scale. Nobody ever again tried to make them a central part of the economy, or used them to incarcerate millions of people. The secret police never again controlled such a large slice of the nation’s productive capacity, and camp commanders never again found themselves acting as the bosses of enormous industrial enterprises. Even the Lubyanka building, the postwar KGB headquarters, ceased to be a prison: Gary Powers, the American U-2 pilot whose spy plane was shot down over the USSR in 1960, was the last person to be incarcerated in its cells.2

Yet the camps did not disappear altogether. Nor did Soviet prisons become part of an “ordinary” penal system, organized for criminals alone. Instead, they evolved.

To begin with, the nature of the political prisoners evolved. In Stalin’s era, the repressive system had resembled a vast game of roulette: anyone could be arrested, for any reason, at any time—peasants, workers, and Party bureaucrats alike. After Khrushchev, the secret police still occasionally arrested people “for nothing,” as Anna Akhmatova had once put it. But most of the time, Brezhnev’s KGB arrested people for something— if not for a genuine criminal act, then for their literary, religious, or political opposition to the Soviet system. Usually called “dissidents,” or sometimes “prisoners of conscience,” this new generation of politicals knew why they had been arrested, identified themselves as political prisoners, and were treated as such. They were kept separate from criminal prisoners, given different uniforms, and were subjected to different regimes. They would also be marked as dissidents for the rest of their lives, subjected to discrimination at work, and mistrusted by their relatives and neighbors.

There were also far fewer political prisoners than there had been in Stalin’s time. In the middle of the 1970s, Amnesty International estimated that no more than 10,000 of the Soviet Union’s one million prisoners had political sentences, and most of them were incarcerated in the two “political” camp complexes, one in Mordovia, south of Moscow, and one in Perm, on the western edge of the Urals.3 In a given year, there were probably no more than a few thousand openly political arrests. Although this would have been a high number in any other country, it was certainly low by the standards of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

According to former prisoners’ accounts, this new sort of prisoner began appearing in the camps as early as 1957, in the wake of the Hungarian revolution of October 1956, following the arrests of Soviet soldiers and citizens who had sympathized with the rebellion.4 At about this time, the first tiny wave of “refuseniks,” Jews who were refused the right to emigrate to Israel, also appeared in Soviet prisons. In 1958, Bym Gindler, a Polish Jew who had been left on the Soviet side of the border after the war, was refused the right to be repatriated to Poland, on the grounds that he would take the opportunity to emigrate to Israel.5

The late 1950s also saw the arrests of the first groups of Soviet Baptists, who would quickly become the largest single dissident group behind barbed wire, as well as members of other religious sects. In 1960, the dissident Avraham Shifrin even encountered a group of Old Believers, followers of the older rites of the Orthodox Church, in a punishment cell in the political camp at Potma. Their community had emigrated to the virgin forests of the northern Urals in 1919, and had lived there in complete secrecy, until a KGB helicopter discovered them fifty years later. When Shifrin met them, they had become permanent residents of the camp punishment cells, having refused categorically to work for the Soviet anti-Christ.6

Shifrin himself also represented a new category of prisoner: the sons and daughters of “enemies of the people,” who found themselves, in the late 1950s, unable to slot easily into the routines of Soviet life. In subsequent years, a striking number of the members of the dissident generation, particularly the human rights activists, would turn out to be children or relatives of Stalin’s victims. The twin Medvedev brothers, Zhores and Roy, are among the most famous examples. Roy, a historian, became one of the best-known underground publicists in the Soviet Union; Zhores was a dissident scientist, who would be locked up in a psychiatric hospital as a result. Both were the sons of an “enemy of the people”: their father had been arrested when they were children.7

There were others. In 1967, forty-three children of communists, all repressed by Stalin, sent an open letter to the Central Committee, warning of the threat of neo-Stalinism. The letter, one of the first of many open protest letters to the authorities, contained several names of underground publishers and dissident leaders, many of whom would soon be in prison themselves: Pyotr Yakir, the son of General Yakir; Anton Antonov-Ovseenko, son of the Bolshevik revolutionary; and Larisa Bogoraz, whose father was arrested for Trotskyite activities in 1936. A family’s experience of the camps could be enough, it seemed, to radicalize its younger members. 8

If the prisoners had changed, so too had some aspects of the legal system. In 1960—the year usually remembered as the height of the Thaw—a new criminal code was established. Without question, the new code was more liberal. It specifically abolished nighttime interrogations, and limited the powers of the KGB (who conducted political investigations) and the MVD (who ran the prison system). It mandated the greater independence of prosecutors and, most of all, abolished the hated Article 58.9

Some of these changes were rightly dismissed as mere camouflage, linguistic change instead of real change. “You are mistaken,” the novelist Yuli Daniel wrote a few years later, in a letter from prison smuggled out to a friend. “You are mistaken if you thought I was sitting in prison. I was being ‘held in an investigative isolator,’ whence I was not thrown in the cooler, but was ‘installed in a punishment isolator.’ And this was done not by jailers but by ‘controllers,’ and this letter is not being sent from a concentration camp but from an ‘institution.’” 10

Daniel was also right in another sense: if the state authorities wanted to arrest someone on suspicion of thinking differently, they still could. In place of Article 58, the code created Article 70, on “Anti-Soviet Agitation and Propaganda,” and Article 72, on “Organizational Activity of Especially Dangerous Crimes Against the State and Also Participation in Anti-Soviet Organizations.” In addition, the authorities added Article 142, on “Violation of Law on Separation of Church and State.” If the KGB wanted to arrest someone for his religion, in other words, they still could.11

Yet not everything was exactly the same either. In the post-Stalin era, the authorities—prosecutors, prisoners, camp guards, warders—were far more sensitive about appearances, and really did try to adhere to a semblance of legality. When, for example, the language of Article 70 proved too loose to convict everyone whom the authorities felt it necessary to put behind bars, they added Article 190-1 to the criminal code, which forbade the “dissemination by word of mouth of deliberate fabrications discrediting the Soviet political and social system.” The judicial system had to look like a judicial system, even if everyone knew it was a sham.12

In what was also a clear reaction against the old system of troikas and special commissions, the new law stipulated that arrestees must be tried in a court of justice. This, it turned out, would inconvenience the Soviet authorities far more than they could have anticipated.

Although he had not been condemned under any of the new, anti-dissident laws, the trial of Joseph Brodsky was in many ways a harbinger of the new era to come. The fact that it was held at all was a novelty: in the past, people who irritated the state had not been tried in public except in pre-arranged show trials, if they were tried at all. More important, Brodsky’s behavior at the trial was enough to prove that he already belonged to a different generation from Solzhenitsyn, and from the political prisoners of the recent past.

Brodsky once wrote that his generation was “spared” the experience of indoctrination endured by those just a few years older. “We emerged from under the post-war rubble when the state was too busy patching its own skin and couldn’t look after us very well. We entered schools, and whatever elevated rubbish we were taught there, the suffering and the poverty were visible all around. You cannot cover a ruin with a page of Pravda.” 13

If they were Russians, Brodsky’s generation typically arrived at their critique of the Soviet status quo via their literary or artistic tastes, which could not be expressed in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. If they were Balts, Caucasians, or Ukrainians, they were more likely to have got there through nationalist sentiments, inherited from their parents. Brodsky was a classic Leningrad dissident. He rejected Soviet propaganda from a very early age, and dropped out of school at fifteen. He worked in a series of temporary jobs, and began to write poetry. By his early twenties he was well known in the Leningrad literary world. The aging Akhmatova made him her protégé. His poems were circulated among friends, and read aloud at secret literary gatherings, another new feature of this era.

Predictably, all of that unofficial activity brought Brodsky to the attention of the secret police. Brodsky was first harassed, then arrested. The charge was “parasitism”: since Brodsky was not a poet licensed by the Writers’ Union, he qualified as a vagrant. At his trial in February 1964, the state produced witnesses, mostly unknown to Brodsky, who testified that he was “morally depraved, a draft-dodger, and a writer of anti-Soviet verses.” In his defense, there were letters and speeches from famous poets and writers, including Akhmatova. To all of this, the prosecution witnesses responded angrily:

This is nothing but his fancy friends ringing all the bells and demanding, “Save the young man!” But he should be treated with forced labor, and no one will help him, no fancy friends. I do not know him personally, I know about him from the newspapers. And I am acquainted with the certificates. I’m suspicious about the certificates which deferred him from service in the army. I’m not a doctor, but I’m suspicious about it.14

Clearly, the trial was directed not just against Brodsky, but against the remnants of the independent intellectual class, with their connections, their suspected opposition to Soviet authority, and their scorn for “labor.” And, in a certain sense, those who organized the trial had hit an accurate target: Brodsky did oppose Soviet authority; he did feel scorn for pointless, fruitless labor; and he did represent an alienated class, a group of people deeply frustrated by the clampdown which followed the Thaw. Knowing this perfectly well, Brodsky was not astonished or surprised by his arrest, and was not flummoxed by his trial. Instead, he sparred with the judge:

JUDGE: What is your occupation?
BRODSKY: I am a poet.
JUDGE: Who recognized you as a poet? Who gave you the authority to call
yourself a poet?
BRODSKY: No one. Who gave me the authority to enter the human race?
JUDGE: Have you studied for it?
BRODSKY: For what?
JUDGE: To become a poet. Why didn’t you take further education at a
school where they prepare you, where you can learn?
BRODSKY: I didn’t think poetry was a matter of learning.
JUDGE: What is it then?
BRODSKY: I think it is . . . a gift from God.

Later, asked if he had any petitions to make to the court, Brodsky said, “I would like to know why I am arrested.” The judge responded, “That’s a question, not a petition.” Said Brodsky, “In that case I have no petitions.”15

Technically, Brodsky lost the argument: the judge condemned him to five years of hard labor in a prison colony near Arkhangelsk, on the grounds that he had “systematically failed to fulfill the obligations of a Soviet citizen, failed to produce anything of material value, failed to provide for his own upkeep, as is evident from his frequent change of jobs.” Citing statements made by the “Commission for Work with Young Poets,” the judge also declared that Brodsky—who would later win the Nobel Prize in Literature— was “not a poet.” 16

Yet, in another sense, Brodsky “won” in a way that previous generations of Russian prisoners could not have done. Not only did he publicly challenge the logic of the Soviet legal system, but his challenge was also recorded for posterity. A journalist took surreptitious notes at the trial, which were ultimately smuggled to the West. Thanks to this, Brodsky immediately became famous, in Russia and abroad. His behavior at his trial not only became a model for others to follow; it also inspired both Russian and foreign writers to petition the government for his release. After two years, release was granted, and he was eventually expelled from the USSR.

Nothing like this had happened while Stalin was alive. “People are as ever thrown behind bars and as ever transported to the East,” wrote Valentyn Moroz, a Ukrainian dissident historian, shortly afterward. “But this time, they have not sunk into the unknown.”17And that, in the end, was to be the greatest difference between Stalin’s prisoners, and the prisoners of Brezhnev and Andropov: the outside world knew about them, cared about them, and above all could affect their fate. Nevertheless, the Soviet regime was not growing more liberal—and events moved quickly in the wake of the Brodsky trial.

In the same way that 1937 stands out as a special year of persecution for the Stalinist-era intelligentsia, so too does 1966 stand out as a special year for the generation of the Thaw. By 1966, it was clear that the neo-Stalinists had triumphed. Stalin’s reputation as a flawed but still admirable leader had been officially restored. Joseph Brodsky was in a labor camp. Solzhenitsyn was a banned author. Khrushchev had been ousted and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who openly made statements designed to refurbish Stalin’s reputation. 18 Within a year, Yuri Andropov, who had just been appointed Chairman of the KGB, would make a speech to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Cheka. He would praise the Soviet secret police, among other things, for its “implacable struggle against state enemies.”19

In February 1966, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel also went on trial. Both were well-known writers, both had published their work abroad, and both were found guilty, under the terms of Article 70, of “Anti-Soviet Agitation and Propaganda.” Sinyavsky received seven years of hard labor, Daniel received five.20 This was the first time anyone had been put on trial not just for vagrancy, but because of the actual content of their literary work. A month later, in significantly greater secrecy, more than two dozen Ukrainian intellectuals went on trial in Kiev. One was accused, among other things, of owning a copy of a poem by the nineteenth-century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, after whom streets are named in Moscow and Kiev. Because the poem had been printed without the author’s name, Soviet “experts” classified it as an anti-Soviet poem by an unknown author.21

In a pattern that would soon become familiar, these trials spawned other trials, as other outraged intellectuals began to use the language of the Soviet legal system and the Soviet constitution to criticize the Soviet judiciary and the Soviet police. The case of Sinyavsky and Daniel, for example, made a great impression on another young Muscovite, Aleksandr Ginzburg, already active in “unofficial” cultural circles. He compiled a transcript of the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial, the “White Book,” which he distributed around Moscow. He and three alleged collaborators were arrested soon afterward. 22

At about the same time, the Kiev trials made a great impression on a young Ukrainian lawyer, Vyacheslav Chornovil. He compiled a dossier on the Ukrainian judicial system, pointing out its internal contradictions and establishing the illegality and absurdity of the Ukrainian arrests. 23Afterward, he was quickly arrested.24 In this manner, an intellectual and cultural movement, begun by writers and poets, became a human rights movement.

To put the Soviet human rights movement in context, it is important to note that Soviet dissidents never started a mass organization, as did their Polish counterparts, and they cannot receive full credit for bringing down the Soviet regime: the arms race, the war in Afghanistan, and the economic disaster wrought by Soviet central planning must receive equal credit. Nor did they ever manage more than a handful of public demonstrations. One of the most famous—staged on August 25, 1968, to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia—involved only seven people. At noon, the seven gathered in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, and unrolled Czech flags and banners marked with slogans: “Long live free and independent Czechoslovakia,” “Hands off Czechoslovakia, for your freedom and ours.” Within minutes, a whistle blew and plainclothes KGB rushed at the demonstrators, whom they seem to have been expecting, shouting, “They’re all Jews!” and “Beat the anti-Sovietists!” They tore down the banners, beat up the demonstrators, and took all but one—she was with her three-month-old son—straight to prison. 25

But small though they were, these efforts caused a great deal of trouble for the Soviet leadership, particularly given its continued commitment to spreading world revolution and its consequent, obsessive concern about the USSR’s international image. In Stalin’s era, repression on a massive scale could be kept secret even from a visiting American Vice President. In the 1960s and 1970s, news of a single arrest could travel around the world overnight.

In part, this was thanks to improvements in mass communication, the Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and television. In part, it was also because Soviet citizens found new ways to transmit news as well. For 1966 also marked another milestone: the birth of the term samizdat. An acronym which deliberately echoed the term Gosizdat, or “State Publishing House,” samizdat literally means “self-publishing house,” and figuratively refers to the underground press. The concept was not new. In Russia, samizdat was nearly as old as the written word. Pushkin himself had privately distributed manuscripts of his more politically charged poetry in the 1820s. Even in Stalin’s time, the circulation of stories and poems among friends was not entirely unknown.

But after 1966, samizdat grew into a national pastime. The Thaw had given many Soviet citizens a taste for a freer sort of literature, and at first samizdat was a largely literary phenomenon.26 Very quickly, samizdat came to have a more political character. A KGB report which circulated among Central Committee members in January 1971 analyzed the changes over the previous five years, noting that it had discovered more than 400 studies and articles on economic, political, and philosophical questions, which criticize from various angles the historical experience of socialist construction in the Soviet Union, revise the internal and external politics of the Communist Party, and advance various programs of opposition activity.27

The report concluded that the KGB would have to work on the “neutralization and denunciation of the anti-Soviet tendencies presented in samizdat.” But it was too late to put the genie back in the bottle, and samizdat continued to expand, taking many forms: typed poems, passed from friend to friend and retyped at every opportunity; handwritten newsletters and bulletins; transcripts of Voice of America broadcasts; and, much later, books and journals professionally produced on underground typesetting machines, more often than not located in communist Poland. Poetry, and poem-songs composed by Russian bards—Alexander Galich, Bulat Okudzhava, Vladimir Vysotsky—also spread quickly through the use of what was then a new form of technology, the cassette tape recorder.

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, one of the most important themes of samizdat was the history of Stalinism—including the history of the Gulag. Samizdat networks continued to print and distribute copies of the works of Solzhenitsyn, which were by now banned in the USSR. Varlam Shalamov’s poems and stories also began circulating in the underground, as did Evgeniya Ginzburg’s memoirs. Both writers began to attract large groups of admirers. Ginzburg became the center of a circle of Gulag survivors and literary figures in Moscow.

The other important theme of samizdat was the persecution of the dissidents. Indeed, it was thanks to samizdatand particularly to its distribution abroad—that the human rights advocates would gain, in the 1970s, a far wider international forum. In particular, the dissidents learned to use samizdat not only to underline the inconsistencies between the USSR’s legal system and the KGB’s methods, but also to point out, loudly and frequently, the gap between the human rights treaties that the USSR had signed, and actual Soviet practice. Their preferred texts were the UN Declaration on Human Rights, and the Helsinki Final Act. The former was signed by the USSR in 1948 and contained, among other things, a clause known as Article 19:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.28

The latter was the end result of a Europe-wide negotiation process, which had settled a number of political questions left open since the end of the Second World War. Although they were hardly noticed at the time of its 1976 signing, the Helsinki Treaty also contained some agreements on human rights—part of the so-called “Basket Three” of the negotiations— which all of the participating nations signed. Among other things, the treaty recognized the “freedom of thought, conscience and belief”:

The participating States recognize the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms . . . they will constantly respect these rights and freedoms in their mutual relations and will endeavour jointly and separately, including in co-operation with the United Nations, to promote the universal and effective respect for them.

Both within the USSR and outside it, most of the information about the dissidents’ efforts to promote the language of these treaties came from the house journal of the Soviet samizdat networks: the Chronicle of Current Events. This newsletter, dedicated to a neutral recording of otherwise un-publicized news events—human rights abuses, arrests, trials, demonstrations, new samizdat publications—was founded by a small group of acquaintances in Moscow, including Sinyavsky, Daniel, Ginzburg, and two dissidents who would become famous later, Pavel Litvinov and Vladimir Bukovsky. The tale of the Chronicle’s further evolution and development is itself worthy of a book the length of this one. In the 1970s, the secret police conducted a virtual war against the Chronicle, organizing coordinated searches of the homes of anyone who was suspected of being connected with the journal: on one memorable occasion, an editor plunged a set of papers into a pot of boiling soup while the KGB searched her apartment. The Chronicle survived the arrests of its editors, however, and managed to reach the West as well. Eventually, Amnesty International would publish regular translations.29

The Chronicle played a special role in the history of the camp system too. Very quickly, it became the main source of information about life in the post-Stalinist Soviet camps. It published a regular feature, “Inside the Prisons and Camps”—and, later, “Inside the Punishment Cells” as well— which recorded news from the camps, and published interviews with prisoners. These startlingly accurate reports of events in the camps—the illnesses of various dissidents, the changes in regime, the organized protests—drove the authorities wild: they found it impossible to understand how the information got out. Years later, one of the editors explained:

Some [information] is carried when a fellow is released from the camps. There would be contact somewhere along the line after he left. Or you could bribe prison guards so that when you met with relatives, you could pass written information and verbal information. Then the relatives might stop in Moscow and pass on what you said. You could bribe guards, for example, in Mordovia. These [the Mordovian political camps] were all new camps, organized in 1972, and there were all new guards. They would pass notes sometimes when they became sympathetic to our situation. There was a mass hunger strike in the camps in 1974, and when they saw that, the guards were sympathetic.

You can also corrupt guards. They don’t earn much. They don’t have much. They come from provincial areas. You might, for example, get something from Moscow—a cigarette lighter—and bribe a guard. Or he would give you an address. The bribe—the goods or the money—would be sent there in exchange for passing information ...30

There were also methods of concealment. One ex-prisoner described one of them:

In minute letters, I write out my latest poem on four centimetre-wide strips of cigarette paper . . . These strips of cigarette paper are then tightly rolled into a small tube (less than the thickness of your finger) sealed and made moisture proof by a method of our own devising, and handed on when a suitable opportunity presents itself.31

However they did it—by concealment, bribery, or flattery—the information that the Chronicle managed to extract from the camps remains significant today. At the time of the writing of this book, post-Stalinist MVD and KGB files remain largely closed to researchers. Thanks to the Chronicle, however, to other samizdat and human rights publications, and to the many, many memoirs which describe the camps of the 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980s, it is nevertheless possible to reconstruct a consistent picture of what life in the Soviet camps was like in the years after Stalin.

“Today’s camps for political prisoners are just as horrific as in Stalin’s time. A few things are better, a few things are worse . . .”

So began Anatoly Marchenko’s memoir of his years in prison, a document which, when it first began to circulate in Moscow in the late 1960s, deeply shocked the city’s intelligentsia, who believed the Soviet labor camps had closed for good. The working-class son of illiterate parents, Marchenko’s first prison conviction was for hooliganism. His second conviction was for treason: he had tried to escape the Soviet Union by crossing the border into Iran. He was condemned to serve his political term in Dubravlag, Mordovia, one of two notorious, strict-regime political camps.

Many elements of Marchenko’s prison experience would have been familiar to people used to hearing stories of Stalin’s camps. Just like his predecessors, Marchenko rode to Mordovia in a Stolypin wagon. Just like his predecessors, he received a loaf of bread, 1.5 ounces of sugar, and a salted herring to last him the trip. Just like his predecessors, he found that his access to water depended upon which soldier was in charge of the train: “If he’s a good one he’ll bring you two or three kettles, but if he can’t be bothered to fetch and carry for you, then you can sit there until you die of thirst.” 32

Upon arriving in camp, Marchenko found the same generalized hunger, if not the starvation, that there would have been in the past. His daily food norm contained 2,400 calories: 25 ounces of bread, 1 pound of usually rotten vegetables, 3 ounces of usually spoiled cod, 2 ounces of meat. By contrast, the dogs guarding the prisoners got a pound of meat. As in the past, not all of Marchenko’s ration actually ended up in his food, and there were few extras. “During the six years in camp and jail I had bread with butter twice, when I received visits. I also ate two cucumbers—one in 1964 and another in 1966. Not once did I eat a tomato or an apple.” 33

Work still mattered to some extent, although it was a different type of work. Marchenko worked as a loader and as a carpenter. Leonid Sitko, also in Dubravlag at this time, built furniture.34 Prisoners in the Mordovian women’s camps worked in factories, often with sewing machines. 35 The prisoners in the other set of political camps, near the city of Perm, in the foothills of the Urals, also worked with wood. Those confined to isolation cells, as many were by the 1980s, sewed gloves or uniforms. 36

Over time, Marchenko also found that conditions slowly deteriorated. By the mid-1960s, there were at least three categories of prisoner: privileged, ordinary, and strict regime. Very soon, strict-regime prisoners—which included all of the most “serious” political dissidents—were once again wearing black cotton uniforms instead of their own clothes. Although they could receive unlimited letters, as well as printed materials—if they were of Soviet origin—they could send only two letters per months. If they were on strict regime, they could receive no food or cigarettes.

Marchenko had served time both as an ordinary criminal and as a political prisoner, and his descriptions of the criminal world have a familiar ring. If anything, criminal culture had grown baser and degraded even further since Stalin’s death. In the wake of the thieves’ war of the late 1940s, the professional criminals had split into further factions. Zhenya Fedorov, a former prisoner arrested in 1967 for theft, describes several groups, not only “bitches” and “thieves” but also svoyaki, whom he explains were apprentice thieves, and “red caps,” thieves who followed their own law, probably the intellectual descendants of the “red caps” who emerged in the camps after the war. Other prisoners also grouped themselves into “families” for self-protection and other tasks: “When someone had to be murdered, ‘families’ would decide who would do it,” said Fedorov.37

The violent culture of homosexual rape and domination—evident earlier in some descriptions of conditions in juvenile prisons—also now played a far greater role in criminal life. Unwritten rules now divided criminal prisoners into two groups: those who played the “female” role, and those who played the “male” role. “The former were universally despised, while the latter went about like heroes, boasting of their masculine strength and their ‘conquests,’ not only to each other but to the guards,” wrote Marchenko.38According to Fedorov, the authorities played along, keeping the “unclean” prisoners in separate cells. Anyone could wind up there: “if you lost at cards, you could be forced to ‘do it’ like a woman.”39 In the women’s camps, lesbianism was equally widespread, and sometimes no less violent. One political prisoner wrote later of a prisoner who had refused a visit from her husband and small child, so greatly did she fear reprisals from her prison lesbian lover.40

The 1960s were the beginning of the plague of tuberculosis in Russian prisons, a scourge which continues today. Fedorov described the situation like this: “If there were eighty people in a barrack, then fifteen had tuberculosis. No one tried to cure them, there was just one kind of tablet, for headaches, whatever. The doctors were some kind of SS men, they never talked to you, didn’t look at you, you were nobody.”41

To worsen matters, many of the thieves were now addicted to chifir, an extremely strong form of tea that produced a narcotic high. Others went to greater lengths than ever to get hold of alcohol. Those who worked outside the camp, as some did, developed a special method of smuggling it back in, past the guards:

A condom is hermetically attached to a long piece of thin plastic tubing. The zek then swallows it, leaving one end of the tube in his mouth. To avoid swallowing by accident, he wedges it in the gap between two teeth: there are not likely to be any zeks in existence with a full set of 32 teeth. Then, with the help of a syringe, up to three litres of spirit are pumped into the condom via the plastic tubing—and the zek goes back to his zone. If the bonding has been badly done, or if the condom happens to burst in the zek’s stomach, that means certain and painful death. Despite it, they run the risk: three litres of spirit makes seven litres of vodka. When the “hero” returns to the zone . . . he is hung headdown from a beam under the barrack roof and the end of the plastic tubing is held over a dish until every drop has been retrieved. Then the empty condom is hauled out . . .

The practice of self-mutilation was equally widespread, except that now it took even more extreme forms. Once, in a prison cell, Marchenko watched two thieves swallow first the handles of their spoon, and then, after stamping on them to make them flat, the bowls of the spoons as well. After that, they broke a pane of glass and began swallowing pieces of it, before the warders managed to drag them away.42 Edward Kuznetsov, condemned for having taken part in an infamous attempt to highjack an aircraft at Leningrad’s Smolny airport, described dozens of methods of selfmutiliation:

I have seen convicts swallow huge numbers of nails and barbed wire; I have seen them swallow mercury thermometers, pewter tureens (after first breaking them up into “edible” proportions), chess pieces, dominoes, needles, ground glass, spoons, knives and many other similar objects. I have seen convicts sew up their mouths and eyes with thread or wire, sew rows of buttons to their bodies; or nail their testicles to the bed . . . I have seen convicts cut open the skin on their arms and legs and peel it off as if it were a stocking; or cut out lumps of flesh (from their stomach or their legs), roast them and eat them; or let the blood drip from a slit vein into a tureen, crumble bread crumbs into it, and then gulp it down like a bowl of soup; or cover themselves with paper and set fire to themselves; or cut off their fingers, or their nose, or ears, or penis . . .

Kuznetsov wrote that the convicts did such things to themselves not in protest, but for no particular reason at all, or just “to get into the hospital where the nurses swing their hips, where you get your hospital ration and you’re not forced to work, where you can get drugs, diets, postcards.” Many of the mutilators were masochists as well, “in a permanent state of depression from one blood-letting to the next.”43

Indisputably, the relationships between the criminals and the political prisoners had changed greatly since Stalin’s time too. Criminals did sometimes torment or beat up politicals: the Ukrainian dissident Valentyn Moroz was incarcerated in a cell with criminals who kept him awake at night, and finally attacked him, cutting his stomach with a sharpened spoon.44 But there were also criminals who respected the politicals, if only for their resistance to the authorities, as Vladimir Bukovsky wrote: “They used to ask us to tell them what we were in jail for and what we wanted . . . the only thing they couldn’t believe was that we did all this for nothing, and not for money.”45

There were even criminals who aspired to join their ranks. Believing that the political prisons were “easier,” some professional thieves attempted to get political sentences. They would write a denunciation of Khrushchev or the Party, sprinkled with obscenities, or make “American flags” out of rags and wave them out of windows. By the late 1970s, it was very common to see criminals with slogans tattooed on their foreheads: “Communists drink the blood of the people,” “Slave of the Communist Party,” “Bolsheviks give me bread.”46

The change in the relationship between the new generation of politicals and the authorities was even more profound. In the post-Stalin era, the politicals were prisoners who knew why they were in prison, who expected to be in prison, and who had already decided how they would act in prison: with organized defiance. As early as February 1968, a group of prisoners in Potma—Yuli Daniel among them—went on a hunger strike. They demanded an easing of the prison regime; an end to compulsory labor; the removal of restrictions on correspondence; and, in an echo of the early 1920s, recognition of their special status as political prisoners.47

The authorities made concessions—and then slowly withdrew them. Nevertheless, the politicals’ demand to be kept separate from criminal prisoners would eventually be met, not least because the camp administrators wanted to keep this new generation of politicals, with their constant demands and their penchant for hunger strikes, as far away from ordinary criminals as possible.

These strikes were frequent and widespread, so much so that the Chronicle, from 1969 on, contains a record of almost constant protest. In that year, for example, prisoners went on strike to demand the reinstatement of concessions made a year earlier; to protest at being forbidden visits from relatives; to protest after one of their number was placed in a punishment cell; to protest after another was forbidden from receiving a parcel from relatives; to protest against the transfer of still others from camp to prison; and even to mark International Human Rights Day on December 10.48Nor was 1969 an unusual year. Over the next decade, hunger strikes, work strikes, and other protests became a regular feature of life in both Mordovia and Perm.

Hunger strikes, which took the form of short, one-day protests, as well as agonizing, drawn-out bouts with the authorities, even developed a wearisome pattern, as Marchenko wrote:

For the first few days, no one takes a blind bit of notice. Then, after several days—sometimes as many as ten or twelve—they transfer you to a special cell set aside for such people, and start to feed you artificially, through a pipe. It is useless to resist, for whatever you do they twist your arms behind your back and handcuff you. This procedure is usually carried out in the camps even more brutally than in remand prison—by the time you’ve been force-fed once or twice you are often minus your teeth... 49

By the mid-1970s, some of the “worst” politicals had been removed from Mordovia and Perm, and placed in special high-security prisons—most notably Vladimir, a central Russian prison of Czarist origins—where they occupied themselves almost exclusively with their struggle against the authorities. The game was dangerous, and it developed highly complex rules. The aim of the prisoners was to ease their conditions, and to score points, which could be reported, via the samizdat networks, to the West. The aim of the authorities was to break the prisoners: to get them to inform, to collaborate, and above all to publish public recantations of their views, which could appear in the Soviet press and be repeated abroad. Although their methods bore some resemblance to the torture carried out in the Stalinist interrogation cells of the past, they usually involved psychological pressure rather than physical pain. Natan Sharansky, one of the most active prison protesters of the late 1970s and early 1980s—now an Israeli politician—described the procedure:

They will invite you for a talk. You think nothing depends on you? On the contrary: they will explain that everything depends on you. Do you like tea, coffee, meat? Would you like to go with me to a restaurant? Why not? We’ll dress you in civilian clothes and we’ll go. If we see you’re on the road to rehabilitation, that you’re prepared to help us—what, you don’t want to squeal on your friends? But what does it mean to squeal? This Russian (or Jew, or Ukrainian, depending on the situation) who’s serving time with you, don’t you realize what kind of nationalist he is? Don’t you know how much he hates you Ukrainians (or Russians, or Jews)?50

As in the past, the authorities could grant or withdraw privileges, and exact punishments, usually a term in a punishment cell. They could regulate a prisoner’s living conditions by making minute but critical changes to the prisoner’s daily life, shifting him between ordinary and strict regimes— always, of course, in rigid accord with regulations. As Marchenko wrote, “The differences between these regimes might seem infinitesimal to someone who hasn’t experienced them on his own back, but for a prisoner it is enormous. On normal regime there’s a radio, on strict regime not; on normal regime you get an hour’s exercise a day, on strict regime half an hour, with nothing at all on Sundays.”51

By the end of the 1970s, the number of food norms had grown from a handful to eighteen, from 1A to 9B, each with a specific number of calories (from 2,200 to 900) and its own selection of foods. Prisoners would be assigned one or another according to minor changes in their behavior. The contents of the lowest food norm, 9B, given to prisoners in the punishment cells, consisted of a small piece of bread, a spoonful of kasha, and soup which theoretically contained 200 grams of potato and 200 grams of cabbage, but often did not.52

Prisoners could also be thrown in punishment cells—the “cooler”—a form of punishment which was ideal, from the authorities’ point of view. It was completely legal, and could not technically be described as torture. Its effects on prisoners were slow and cumulative, but since no one was rushing to complete a road across the tundra, that did not worry the prison authorities. These cells were comparable to anything invented by Stalin’s NKVD. A 1976 document, published by the Moscow Helsinki group, described with great precision the punishment cells of Vladimir prison, of which there were about fifty. The walls of the cells were covered with cement “fur,” bumps, and spikes. The floors were dirty and wet. In one cell, the window had been broken and replaced with newspapers, in others, the windows were blocked with bricks. The only thing to sit on was a cylinder of cement, about 25 centimeters across, ringed with iron. At night, a wooden bunk was brought in, but without sheets or pillows. The prisoner was expected to lie on bare boards and iron. Cells were kept so cold that prisoners found it difficult to sleep, even to lie down. In some cells, the “ventilation” brought in air from the sewers.53

Worst of all, for people accustomed to active lives, was the boredom, described by Yuli Daniel:

Week after week Dissolves in smoke from cigarettes In this curious establishment Everything’s dream or else delirium . . .

In here the light doesn’t go off at night In here the light isn’t too strong by day In here silence, the managing director, Has taken me over.

You can choke with nothing to do, Or beat your head against the wall, Week after week Dissolves in blue smoke...54

Punishment-cell terms could last indefinitely. Technically, prisoners could only be confined for fifteen-day periods, but the authorities got around this by putting prisoners in, letting them out for a day, and then throwing them back in again. Marchenko was once kept in a cell for forty-eight days. Each time the fifteen-day limit was reached, his guards let him out for a few minutes—long enough to be read a directive confining him, again, to a punishment cell.55 In the camp Perm-35, one prisoner was held for nearly two months before being taken to hospital, while another was held for forty-five days, after refusing to work in any job except his speciality, which was metalworking.56

Many of those sent to the cells were being punished for crimes even more insubstantial than that: when the authorities truly wanted to break someone, they deliberately doled out harsh punishments for very minor infractions. In 1973 and 1974, in the Perm camps, two prisoners were deprived of the right to relatives’ visits for “sitting on beds in daytime.” Another was punished because some jam in a parcel he received was found to have been cooked with alcohol as a flavoring. Other prisoners were punished or reprimanded for walking too slowly, or for not wearing socks.57

Sometimes, the prolonged pressure succeeded. Aleksei Dobrovolsky, one of the co-defendants in the trial of Aleksandr Ginzburg, “broke” very early on, requesting in writing that he be allowed to testify on the radio and tell the whole story of his “criminal” dissident activity, the better to caution young people against following his own dangerous path. 58 Pyotr Yakir also broke down under investigation, and “confessed” to having invented what he wrote.59

Others died. Yuri Galanskov, another of Ginzburg’s co-defendants, died in 1972. He had developed ulcers in prison. They went untreated, and eventually killed him.60 Marchenko also died, in 1986, probably from drugs he was given while on hunger strike.61Several more prisoners died—one killed himself—during a monthlong hunger strike in Perm-35 in 1974.62 Later, Vasil Stus, a Ukrainian poet and human rights activist, died in Perm in 1985.63

But prisoners also fought back. In 1977, the political prisoners of Perm-35 described their form of defiance:

We often go on hunger strike. In the punishment cells, in transport wagons. On ordinary, insignificant days, on the days of the death of our comrades. On days of unusual activities in the zona, on the 8th of March and the 10th of December, on the 1st of August and the 8th of May, on the 5th of September. We go on hunger strike too often. Diplomats, civil servants sign new agreements on human rights, on the freedom of information, on the banning of torture—and we go on hunger strike, since in the USSR these things are not observed.64

Thanks to their efforts, knowledge of the dissident movement was growing all the time in the West—and protests were growing louder. As a result, the treatment of some prisoners took on a new form.

Although I have noted that few archival documents from the 1970s and the 1980s have appeared in public, there are, in fact, some exceptions. In 1991, Vladimir Bukovsky was invited back to Russia from Britain, where he had been living ever since he had been expelled from the country (in exchange for an imprisoned Chilean communist) fifteen years earlier. Bukovsky had been designated a “court expert” in the “trial” of the Communist Party, which took place after the Party had challenged President Yeltsin’s attempt to ban it. He arrived at the Constitutional Court building in Moscow carrying a laptop computer with a hand scanner. Confident that no one in Russia had ever seen either machine before, he sat down and calmly began copying all of the documents that had been brought as evidence. Only as he approached the end of his task did those around him suddenly realize what he was doing. Someone said aloud, “He’s going to publish them, there!” The room fell silent. At that point—“like in a film,” Bukovsky said later—he simply closed his computer, walked to the exit, went straight to the airport, and flew out of Russia.65

Thanks to Bukovsky’s efforts, we know, among other things, what happened at the 1967 Politburo meeting which took place just before his own arrest. Bukovsky in particular was struck by how many of those present felt that bringing criminal charges against him would “cause a certain reaction inside the country and abroad.” It would be a mistake, they concluded, simply to arrest Bukovsky—so they proposed to put him in a psychiatric hospital instead.66 The era of the psikhushka—the “special mental hospital”—had begun.

The use of psychiatric hospitals for the imprisonment of dissidents had a prehistory. Returning from Western Europe to St. Petersburg in 1836, the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadaev wrote an essay critical of the regime of Czar Nicholas I: “Contrary to all the laws of the human community,” he declared, at the height of the Russian imperial regime, “Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighboring peoples.” In response, Nicholas had Chadaev detained in his home. The Czar was certain, he declared, that once the Russians learned that their compatriot “suffers from derangement and insanity,” they would forgive him.67

In the aftermath of the Thaw, the authorities began once again to use psychiatric hospitals to incarcerate dissidents—a policy which had many advantages for the KGB. Above all, it helped discredit the dissidents, both in the West and in the USSR, and deflected attention away from them. If these were not serious political opponents of the regime, but merely crazy people, who could object to their hospitalization?

With great enthusiasm, the Soviet psychiatric establishment participated in the farce. To explain the phenomenon of dissidence, they came up with the definition of “sluggish schizophrenia” or “creeping schizophrenia.” This, scientists explained, was a form of schizophrenia which left no mark on the intellect or outward behavior, yet could encompass nearly any form of behavior deemed asocial or abnormal. “Most frequently, ideas about a ‘struggle for truth and justice’ are formed by personalities with a paranoid structure,” wrote two Soviet professers, both of the Serbsky Institute:

A characteristic feature of overvalued ideas is the patient’s conviction of his own rectitude, an obsession with asserting his trampled “rights,” and the significance of these feelings for the patient’s personality. They tend to exploit judicial proceedings as a platform for making speeches and appeals.68

And, by this definition, just about all of the dissidents qualified as crazy. The writer and scientist Zhores Medvedev was diagnosed with “sluggish schizophrenia” accompanied by “paranoid delusions of reforming society.” His symptoms included that of a “split personality”—meaning he worked both as a scientist and as a writer. Natalya Gorbanevskaya, the first editor of the Chronicle, was diagnosed with sluggish schizophrenia with “no clear symptoms,” but which resulted in “abnormal changes in emotions, wills and thought patterns.” The dissident Red Army General Pyotr Grigorenko was diagnosed with a psychological condition “characterized by the presence of reformist ideas, in particular for the reorganization of the state apparatus; and this was linked with ideas of overestimation of his own personality that reached messianic proportions. ”69 In one report sent up to the Central Committee, a local KGB commander also complained that he had on his hands a group of citizens with a very particular form of mental illness: they “try to found new ‘parties,’ organizations, and councils, preparing and distributing plans for new laws and programs.”70

Depending on the circumstances of their arrest—or non-arrest—prisoners deemed mentally ill could be sent to a variety of institutions. Some were assessed by prison doctors, others by clinics. In a category of its own was the Serbsky Institute, whose special diagnostic section, headed in the 1960s and 1970s by Doctor Danil Lunts, was responsible for assessing political offenders. Dr. Lunts personally examined Sinyavsky, Bukovsky, Gorbanevskaya, Grigorenko, and Viktor Nekipelov, among many others, and clearly had high status. 71 Nekipelov reported that he wore a blue uniform with two stars, “the insignia of a general in the MVD troops.” 72 Some Soviet émigré psychiatrists would claim that Lunts, and the others at the institute, were sincere in their belief that their patients were mentally ill. Most of the political prisoners who met him, however, have characterized him as an opportunist, carrying out the work of his MVD bosses, “no better than the criminal doctors who performed inhuman experiments on the prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.” 73

If diagnosed as mentally ill, patients were condemned to a term in a hospital, sometimes for a few months, sometimes for many years. The luckier ones were sent on to one of the several hundred ordinary Soviet psychiatric hospitals. These were unhygienic and overcrowded, and often staffed by drunks and sadists. Still, the drunks and sadists were civilians, and the ordinary hospitals were generally less secretive than prisons and camps. Patients were allowed to write letters with greater freedom, and could receive visit from people other than relatives.

Those deemed “especially dangerous,” on the other hand, were sent to the “special psychiatric hospitals,” of which there were only a handful. These were run directly by the MVD. The doctors in them had, like Lunts, MVD ranks. These hospitals looked and felt like prisons, and were surrounded by watchtowers, barbed wire, guards, and dogs. A photograph of the Oryol special psychiatric hospital taken in the 1970s shows patients exercising in an internal courtyard, indistinguishable from a prison exercise yard.74

In both the ordinary and the special hospitals, the doctors aimed, again, at recantation.75 Patients who agreed to renounce their convictions, who admitted that mental illness had caused them to criticize the Soviet system, could be declared healthy and set free. Those who did not recant were considered still ill, and could be given “treatment.” As Soviet psychiatrists did not believe in psychoanalysis, this treatment consisted largely of drugs, electric shocks, and various forms of restraint. Drugs abandoned by the West in the 1930s were administered routinely forcing patients’ body temperatures above 40 degrees centigrade, causing pain and discomfort. Prison doctors also prescribed tranquilizers which caused a range of side effects, including physical rigidity, slowness, and involuntary tics and movements, not to mention apathy and indifference.76

Other treatments included straightforward beating; the injection of insulin, which sends nondiabetics into hypoglycemic shock; and a punishment called the “roll-up,” which Bukovsky described in a 1976 interview: “It involved the use of wet canvas—long pieces of it—in which the patient is rolled up from head to foot, so tightly that it was difficult for him to breathe, and as the canvas began to dry out it would get tighter and tighter and make the patient feel even worse.”77 Another treatment, which Nekipelov witnessed at the Serbsky Institute, was the “lumbar puncture,” the thrusting of a needle into the patient’s spine. Those who returned from a lumbar puncture were put on their sides, where they lay, immobile, their backs smeared with iodine, for several days.78

Many people were affected. In 1977, the year Peter Reddaway and Sidney Bloch published their extensive survey of Soviet psychiatric abuse, at least 365 sane people were known to have undergone treatment for politically defined madness, and there were surely hundreds more.79

Nevertheless, the incarceration of dissidents in hospitals did not, in the end, achieve everything that the Soviet regime had hoped it would. Most of all, it did not deflect the attention of the West. For one, the horrors of psychiatric abuse probably inflamed Western imaginations far more than had more familiar tales of camps and prisons. Anyone who had seen the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest could imagine a Soviet psychiatric hospital all too well. More important, though, the issue of psychiatric abuse had a direct appeal to a defined, articulate group that had a professional interest in the subject: Western psychiatrists. From 1971, the year that Bukovsky smuggled out over 150 pages documenting such abuse in the USSR, the issue became a perennial topic for bodies such as the World Psychiatric Association, the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Britain, and other national and international psychiatric associations. The braver groups issued statements. Others did not, but were then condemned for their cowardice, generating more bad publicity for the USSR.80

Eventually, the issue galvanized scientists in the Soviet Union. When Zhores Medvedev was condemned to a psychiatric hospital, many of them wrote letters of protest to the Soviet Academy of Scientists. Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who was, by the late 1960s, emerging as the moral leader of the dissident movement, made a public statement on Medvedev’s behalf at an international symposium at the Institute of Genetics. Solzhenitsyn, by now in the West, wrote an open letter to the Soviet authorities protesting Medvedev’s incarceration. “After all,” he wrote, “it is time to think clearly: the incarceration of free-thinking healthy people is SPIRITUAL MURDER.”81

The international attention probably played a part in persuading the authorities to release a number of prisoners, among them Medvedev, who was then expelled from the country. But some in the upper echelons of the Soviet elite felt this had been the wrong response. In 1976, Yuri Andropov, then the chief of the KGB, wrote a secret memo, describing fairly accurately (if you ignore the snide tone and the anti-Semitism) the international origins of the “anti-Soviet campaign”:

Recent data testify to the fact that the campaign has the character of a carefully planned anti-Soviet action . . . at the present time, the initiators of the campaign are trying to draw in international and national psychiatric organizations as well as specialists of good reputation, to create a “committee” designed to monitor the activity of psychiatrists in various countries, above all in the USSR . . . An active role in building up the anti-Soviet mood is being played by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Great Britain, which is under the influence of Zionist elements.82

Andropov carefully described the efforts to get the World Psychiatric Association to denounce the USSR, and revealed quite extensive knowledge of which international seminars had condemned Soviet psychiatry. In response to his memo, the Soviet Ministry of Health proposed to launch a massive propaganda campaign in advance of the upcoming congress of the World Psychiatric Association. They also proposed to prepare scientific documents denying the charges, and to identify “progressive” psychiatrists in the West who would back them up. These “progressives” would, in turn, be rewarded with invitations to the USSR, where they would be taken on tours of specially designated psychiatric hospitals. They even named a few who might come. 83

Rather than retreating from the political abuse of psychiatry, in other words, Andropov proposed to brazen it out. It was not in his nature to concede that any aspect of Soviet policy might be wrong.

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