Modern history



Chapter 7


We never asked, on hearing about the latest arrest, “What was he arrested for?” but we were exceptional. Most people, crazed by fear, asked this question just to give themselves a little hope; if others were arrested for some reason, then they wouldn’t be arrested, because they hadn’t done anything wrong. They vied with each other in thinking up ingenious reasons to justify each arrest: “Well, she really is a smuggler, you know,” “He really did go rather far,” or “It was only to be expected, he’s a terrible man,” “I always thought there was something fishy about him,” “He isn’t one of us at all . . .”

This was why we had outlawed the question “What was he arrested for?”

“What for?” Akhmatova would cry indignantly whenever, infected by the prevailing climate, anyone of our circle asked this question.

“What do you mean what for? It’s time you understood that people are arrested for nothing!”

—Nadezhda Mandelstam Hope Against Hope1

ANNA AKHMATOVA—the poet, quoted above by another poet’s widow—was both right and wrong. On the one hand, from the middle of the 1920s—by the time the machinery of the Soviet repressive system was in place—the Soviet government no longer picked people up off the streets and threw them in jail without giving any reason or explanation: there were arrests, investigations, trials, and sentences. On the other hand, the “crimes” for which people were arrested, tried, and sentenced were nonsensical, and the procedures by which people were investigated and convicted were absurd, even surreal.

In retrospect, this is one of the unique aspects of the Soviet camp system: its inmates arrived, most of the time, via a legal system, if not always the ordinary judicial system. No one tried and sentenced the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, but the vast majority of inmates in Soviet camps had been interrogated (however cursorily), tried (however farcically), and found guilty (even if it took less than a minute). Undoubtedly, the conviction that they were acting within the law was part of what motivated those working within the security services, as well as the guards and administrators who later controlled the prisoners’ lives in the camps.

But I repeat: the fact that the repressive system was legal does not mean that it was logical. On the contrary, it was no easier to predict with any certainty who would be arrested in 1947 than it had been in 1917. True, it became possible to guess who was likely to be arrested. During waves of terror in particular, the regime appears to have chosen its victims in part because they had for some reason come to the attention of the secret police—a neighbor had heard them tell an unfortunate joke, a boss had seen them engaging in “suspicious” behavior—and in larger part because they belonged to whichever population category was at that moment under suspicion.

Some of these categories were relatively specific—engineers and specialists in the late 1920s, kulaks in 1931, Poles or Balts in occupied territories during the Second World War—and some were very vague indeed. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, for example, “foreigners” were always considered suspect. By “foreigners,” I mean people who actually were citizens of other countries, people who might have contacts abroad, or people who might have some link, imaginery or real, to a foreign country. No matter what they did they were always candidates for arrest—and foreigners who stood out in any way, for any reason, stood a particularly high chance. Robert Robinson, one of several black American communists who moved to Moscow in the 1930s, later wrote that “Every single black I knew in the early 1930s who became a Soviet citizen disappeared from Moscow within seven years.”2

Diplomats were not exempt. Alexander Dolgun, for example, an American citizen and a junior employee of the American Embassy in Moscow, describes in his memoirs how he was picked up off the street in 1948 and accused, unjustly, of spying; suspicion fell upon him partly because of his youthful fondness for evading the “tails” that the secret police set on him, and because he was skilled in persuading embassy chauffeurs to lend him cars, leading the Soviet secret police to suspect that he might be more important than his rank would indicate. He spent eight years in camps, returning to the United States only in 1971.

Foreign communists were frequently targets. In February 1937, Stalin ominously told Georgi Dmitrov, General Secretary of the Communist International—the Comintern, the organization dedicated to the fomenting of world revolution—that “all of you there in the Comintern are working in the hands of the enemy.” Of the 394 members of the Executive Committee of the Communist International in January 1936, only 171 remained in April 1938. The rest had been shot or sent to camps, among them people of many nationalities: German, Austrian, Yugoslav, Italian, Bulgarian, Finnish, Baltic, even English and French. Jews appear to have suffered disproportionately. In the end, Stalin killed more members of the pre-1933 German Communist Party Politburo than did Hitler: of the sixty-eight German communist leaders who fled to the Soviet Union after the Nazi seizure of power, forty-one died, by execution or in camps. The Polish Communist Party may have been even more thoroughly decimated. According to one estimate, 5,000 Polish communists were executed in the spring and summer of 1937.3

But it was not necessary to be a member of a foreign communist party: Stalin also targeted foreign fellow travelers, of whom the 25,000 “American Finns” were probably the most numerous. These were Finnish-speaking Finns, some had emigrated to America, some had been born there, all of whom came to the Soviet Union during the 1930s, the years of the Great Depression in the United States. Most were factory workers, and most had been unemployed in the United States. Encouraged by Soviet propaganda—Soviet recruiters traveled around Finnish-speaking communities in the United States, speaking of the wonderful living conditions and work opportunities in the USSR—they flocked to the Finnish-speaking Karelian Republic. Almost immediately, they caused problems for the authorities. Karelia was not, it turned out, much like America. Many loudly pointed this out to anyone who would listen, then tried to return—and wound up in the Gulag in the late 1930s instead.4

Soviet citizens with foreign connections were no less suspect. First in line were the “diaspora nationalities,” the Poles, Germans, and Karelian Finns who had relatives and contacts across the border, as well as the Balts, Greeks, Iranians, Koreans, Afghans, Chinese, and Romanians scattered across the USSR. According to their own archives, between July 1937 and November 1938, the NKVD convicted 335,513 people in these “national” operations.5 Similar operations would be repeated during and after the war, as we shall see.

But it was not even necessary to speak a foreign language in order to come under suspicion. Anyone with a foreign connection was suspected of spying: stamp collectors, Esperanto enthusiasts, anyone with a pen pal or with relatives abroad. The NKVD also arrested all Soviet citizens who had worked on the Chinese Eastern Railway, a railway line across Manchuria whose origins dated from the Czarist era, and accused them of having spied for Japan. In the camps, they were known as the “Kharbintsy,” after the city of Harbin, where many had lived.6 Robert Conquest describes the arrests of an opera singer who had danced with the Japanese ambassador at an official ball, and of a veterinarian who attended to dogs belonging to foreigners.7

By the late 1930s, most ordinary Soviet citizens had worked out the pattern, and wanted no foreign contacts at all. Karlo Stajner, a Croatian communist with a Russian wife, remembered that “Russians only rarely dared to have private dealings with foreigners . . . My wife’s relatives remained virtual strangers to me. None of them dared visit us. When her relatives learned of our plan to marry, Sonya was warned by all of them ...” 8 Even as late as the mid-1980s—when I first visited the Soviet Union—many Russians remained wary of foreigners, ignoring them or refusing to make eye contact with them on the street.

And yet—not every foreigner was picked up by the police, and not everyone accused of having foreign connections actually did have foreign connections. It also happened that people were picked up for far more idiosyncratic reasons.9 As a result, asking the question “What for?”—the question Anna Akhmatova so disliked—produces a truly astonishing range of ostensible explanations.

Nadezhda Mandelstam’s husband, Osip Mandelstam, for example, was arrested for his poetic attack on Stalin:

We live, not feeling the land beneath us
We speak, and ten steps away no one hears us
But where there’s even a whispered conversation
The Kremlin’s mountaineer, murderer, and peasant-slayer will be mentioned.
His fat fingers, like grubs, are greasy
His words, like lead weights, are final
His cockroach moustache sneers
His boot rims shine

And all around him, a gaggle of spineless leaders,
Half-humans, serve as his toys
One whinnies, one purrs, one whines
Only he shouts and points
Throwing decrees like horseshoes

Hitting a groin, a head, an eye—
Every death sentence tastes sweet
For the broad-chested Ossete

Although different reasons were officially stated, Tatyana Okunevsksaya, one of the Soviet Union’s best-loved film actresses, was arrested, she believed, for refusing to sleep with Viktor Abakumov, the wartime head of Soviet counter-intelligence. To make sure she understood that this was the true reason, she was (she claims) shown an arrest warrant with his signature on it.11 The four Starostin brothers, all of them outstanding soccer players, were arrested in 1942. They always believed it was because their team, Spartak, had the misfortune to defeat Lavrenty Beria’s favorite team, Dynamo, a touch too decisively. 12

But it was not even necessary to be extraordinary. Lyudmila Khachatryan was arrested for marrying a foreigner, a Yugoslav soldier. Lev Razgon recounted the story of a peasant, Seryogin, who, on being told that someone had killed Kirov, replied, “Damned if I care.” Seryogin had never heard of Kirov, and assumed he was someone who had died in a fight in the neighboring village. For that mistake, he received a ten-year sentence.13 By 1939, telling a joke, or hearing one, about Stalin; being late for work; having the misfortune to be named by a terrified friend or a jealous neighbor as a “co-conspirator” in a nonexistent plot; owning four cows in a village where most people owned one; stealing a pair of shoes; being a cousin of Stalin’s wife; stealing a pen and some paper from one’s office in order to give them to a schoolchild who had none; all of these could, under the right circumstances, lead to a sentence in a Soviet concentration camp. Relatives of a person who had illegally tried to cross the Soviet border were liable to arrest, according to a 1940 law, whether or not they had known about the attempted escape.14 Wartime laws—on being late to work and forbidding job changes—would add more “criminals” to the camps as well, as we shall see.

If the reasons for arrest were many and varied, so too were the methods. Some prisoners had ample warning. For several weeks prior to his arrest in the mid-1930s, an OGPU agent repeatedly called Alexander Weissberg in for questioning, asking him over and over again how he had come to be a “spy”: Who recruited you? Whom did you recruit? What foreign organization are you working for? “He put exactly the same questions over and over again, and I always gave him the same answers.” 15

At about the same time, Galina Serebryakova, the author of The Young Marx and the wife of a high functionary, was also “invited” every evening to Lubyanka, kept waiting until two or three o’clock in the morning, interrogated, released at five in the morning, and returned to her apartment. Agents surrounded her building and a black car followed her when she went outside. So convinced was she of her coming arrest that she tried to kill herself. Nevertheless, she endured several months of this sort of harassment before actually being arrested.16

During heavy waves of mass arrest—of kulaks in 1929 and 1930, of Party activists in 1937 and 1938, of former prisoners in 1948—many knew their turn was coming simply because all those around them were being arrested. Elinor Lipper, a Dutch communist who had come to Moscow in the 1930s, was living in 1937 in the Hotel Lux, a special hotel for foreign revolutionaries: “every night a few more persons vanished from the hotel . . . in the morning, there would be large red seals pasted on the doors of a few more rooms.” 17

In times of real terror, some even experienced the arrest itself as a sort of relief. Nikolai Starostin, one of the unlucky soccer stars, was trailed by agents for several weeks, and became so annoyed that he finally went up to one of them and demanded an explanation: “If you want something from me, call me into your office.” As a result, at the moment of arrest he felt not “shock and fear” but “curiosity.” 18

Still others were taken completely by surprise. The Polish writer Alexander Wat, then living in occupied Lvov, was asked to a party at a restaurant with a group of other writers. He asked the host what the occasion was. “You’ll see,” he was told. A brawl was staged, and he was arrested there and then.19 Alexander Dolgun, the American Embassy clerk, was hailed on the street by a man who turned out to be a secret policeman. When the man called out his name, Dolgun recalled, “I was completely mystified. I wondered if it was some nut . . .”20 Okunevskaya, the actress, was in bed with a bad case of flu at the time of her arrest, and demanded that the police return another day. They showed her the arrest warrant (the one with Abakumov’s signature on it) and dragged her down the stairs. 21 Solzhenitsyn repeats the possibly apocryphal tale of a woman taken out to the Bolshoi Theater by her boyfriend, a professional interrogator, who took her straight from the theater to Lubyanka.22 The survivor and memoirist Nina Gagen-Torn recounts the tale of a woman who had been arrested while taking linen down from a clothesline in a Leningrad courtyard; she was dressed in a bathrobe, and had left her baby alone in her apartment, assuming she would be back in a few minutes. She pleaded to be allowed to get him, to no avail.23

In fact, it seems as if the authorities deliberately varied their tactics, picking up some people at home and some at work, some on the street and some on trains. One memo to Stalin from Viktor Abakumov, dated July 17, 1947, confirms this suspicion, noting that prisoners were routinely “surprised” by police in order to prevent escape, to prevent resistance, to prevent the suspect from warning others in his counter-revolutionary “conspiracy.” In certain cases, the document continued, “a secret arrest in the street is carried out.”24

The most common arrest, however, was one that took place at a person’s home, in the middle of the night. In times of mass arrest, fear of the midnight “knock on the door” became widespread. There is a very old Soviet joke about the terrible anxiety Ivan and his wife Masha experienced when the knock on the door came—and their relief when they learned it was only the neighbor come to tell them that the building was on fire. A Soviet proverb also has it that “Thieves, prostitutes and the NKVD work mostly at night.” 25Usually, these nighttime arrests were accompanied by a search, although search tactics varied over time too. Osip Mandelstam was arrested twice, once in 1934 and then again in 1938, and his wife has described the differences between the two procedures:

In 1938 they wasted no time looking for papers and examining them—indeed, the police agents didn’t even seem to know the occupation of the man they had come to arrest . . . they simply turned over all the mattresses, swept his papers into a sack, poked around for a while and then disappeared, taking M. [Mandelstam] with them. The whole operation lasted no more than twenty minutes. But in 1934 they stayed all night until the early hours.

During the earlier raid, secret police, who clearly knew what they were looking for, had carefully gone through all of Mandelstam’s papers, discarding old manuscripts, looking for new poetry. The first time around they also ensured that civilian “witnesses” were present, as well as—in their case—a “friend” in police pay, a literary critic known to the Mandelstams, presumably told to be there in order to ensure that the Mandelstams did not secretly start burning papers once they heard the knock at the door.26 Later, they did not bother with such details.

Mass arrests of particular nationalities, such as those that took place in what had been eastern Poland and the Baltic States, the territories occupied by the Red Army from 1939 to 1941, usually had an even more haphazard character. Janusz Bardach, a Jewish teenager in the Polish town of Wlodzimierz-Wolynski, was forced to act as a civilian “witness” during one such mass arrest. He accompanied a group of drunken NKVD thugs who went from house to house on the night of December 5, 1939, rounding up people who were to be either arrested or deported. Sometimes they attacked the wealthier and better-connected citizens, whose names were marked on a list; sometimes they simply hauled in “refugees”—usually Jews who had escaped to Soviet-occupied eastern Poland from Nazi-occupied western Poland—without bothering to write down their names at all. In one house, a group of refugees tried to defend themselves by pointing out that they had been members of the Bund, the Jewish socialist movement. Nevertheless, upon hearing that they came from Lublin, at that time on the other side of the border, Gennady, the leader of the NKVD patrol, began to shout:

“You filthy refugees! Nazi spies!” The children began to cry, which further irritated Gennady. “Make them shut up! Or do you want me to take care of them?”

The mother pulled them close to her, but they couldn’t stop crying. Gennady grabbed the little boy’s hands, jerked him loose from his mother’s arms, and threw him against the floor. “Shut up, I said!” The mother screamed. The father tried to say something but could only gasp for air. Gennady picked up the boy and held him for a second, looking closely at his face, then threw him forcefully against the wall . . .

Later, the men destroyed the home of Bardach’s childhood friends:

Off to the side was Dr. Schechter’s office. His dark mahogany desk stood in the middle, and Gennady walked straight to it. He ran his hand over the smooth wood and then, in a moment of unexpected rage, smashed it with a crowbar. “Capitalist swine! Motherfucking parasites! We need to find these bourgeois exploiters!” He smashed harder and harder without pause, making several holes in the wood . . .

Unable to find the Schechters, the men raped and murdered the gardener’s wife.

Those who conducted such operations, often members of the convoy guards—soldiers who manned the deportation trains—rather than the NKVD itself, had far less training than the secret police who conducted “normal” arrests of “normal” criminals. Violence was probably not officially mandated, but, since these were Soviet soldiers arresting “capitalists” in the wealthier “West,” drunkenness, disorderliness, and even rape seem to have been condoned, as they were later on, during the Red Army’s march through Poland and Germany. 27

Nevertheless, certain aspects of their behavior were stringently dictated from above. The Main Administration of the Convoy Guards in Moscow decided in November 1940, for example, that guards doing the arresting should tell their arrestees to bring enough warm clothes and personal goods to last three years, as the Soviet Union was currently experiencing a shortage of such supplies. They hoped the arrestees would sell their belongings. 28 Earlier, soldiers had usually been instructed not to tell prisoners anything about where they were going, or for how long. The accepted formula was, “Why worry? Why bring anything at all? We’re only bringing you in for a short chat.” Sometimes they told deportees that they were only being moved to another area, farther from the borders, “for your own protection.”29 The aim was to prevent arrestees from becoming frightened, from fighting back, or from running away. The result was to deprive people of the basic tools they would need to live in a harsh and unfamiliar climate.


Man Entering His First Prison Cell: a drawing by Thomas Sgovio, completed after his release

While Polish peasants encountering the Soviet regime for the first time might be excused their naïveté in believing such lies, the very same formulas worked equally well on Moscow and Leningrad intellectuals and Party apparatchiks, possessed, as they often were, by the certainty of their own innocence. Evgeniya Ginzburg, at the time a Party worker in Kazan, was told, when arrested, that she would be gone “forty minutes, perhaps an hour.” As a result, she did not take the opportunity to say goodbye to her children.30Yelena Sidorkina, an arrested Party member, walked down the street to prison with her arresting officer “chatting peacefully,” certain that she would be home soon.31

Sofia Aleksandrova, the ex-wife of the Chekist Gleb Boky, was discouraged from taking a summer coat with her when the NKVD came to take her away (“it’s warm tonight and we’ll be back within an hour, at most”), prompting her son-in-law, the writer Lev Razgon, to ponder the strange cruelty of the system: “What was the point of sending a middle-aged woman in not very good health to prison, without even the tiny bag of underclothes and washing things that an arrested person has always been allowed to take with him since the time of the Pharaohs?”32

At least the wife of the actor Georgy Zhenov had the sense to begin packing his spare clothes. When told he would be returning home soon, she snapped: “Those who fall into your hands don’t return quickly.” 33 Her view was close to the truth. Most of the time, when an arrestee walked through the heavy iron doors of a Soviet prison, it would be many years before he or she saw home again.

If the Soviet method of arrest seems to have been almost whimsical at times, the rituals that followed arrest were, by the 1940s, virtually immutable. However a prisoner had come to enter the gates of his local prison, once he arrived events followed a distinctly predictable course. As a rule, prisoners were registered, photographed, and fingerprinted well before they were told why they had been arrested or what their fate would be. For the first few hours, and sometimes the first few days, they encountered no one more senior than ordinary prison wardens, who were completely indifferent to their fate, had no idea of the nature of their alleged crimes, and answered all questions with an indifferent shrug.

Many former prisoners believe that their first few hours in captivity were deliberately designed to shock them, to render them incapable of coherent thought. Inna Shikheeva-Gaister, arrested for being the daughter of an enemy of the people, felt this happening to her after only a few hours in Lubyanka, Moscow’s central prison:

Here in Lubyanka, you are already not a person. And around you there are no people. They lead you down the corridor, photograph you, undress you, search you mechanically. Everything is done completely impersonally. You look for a human glance—I don’t speak of a human voice, just a human glance—but you don’t find it. You stand disheveled in front of the photographer, try to somehow fix your clothes, and you are shown with a finger where to sit, an empty voice says “face front” and “profile.” They don’t see you as a human being! You have become an object ...34

If they were being taken into one of the main city prisons for interrogation (and not put, as exiles were, immediately onto trains), arrestees were thoroughly searched, in several stages. A 1937 document instructed prison wardens specifically not to forget that “the enemy doesn’t halt his struggle after his arrest,” and might commit suicide in order to hide his criminal activity. As a result prisoners were deprived of buttons, belts, braces, shoelaces, garters, underwear elastic, whatever they could conceivably use to kill themselves.35 Many felt humiliated by this edict. Nadezhda Joffe, daughter of a leading Bolshevik, was deprived of her belt, garters, shoelaces, and hairpins:

I remember how I was struck by the degradation and absurdity of all this. What could a person do with hairpins? Even if the absurd idea popped into someone’s head to hang himself by his shoelaces, then how could this actually be done? They simply had to place a person in a revolting and humiliating position, where one’s skirt would fall down, stockings would slip and shoes would shuffle.36

The body search that followed was worse. In his novel The First Circle, Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes the arrest of Innokenty, a Soviet diplomat. Within hours of arrival at Lubyanka, a warder was examining every orifice of Innokenty’s body:

Like a horse-dealer, his unwashed fingers prodding inside Innokenty’s mouth, stretching one cheek, then the other, pulling down the lower eyelids, the warder convinced himself that there was nothing hidden in the eyes or mouth and tipped back the head so that the nostrils were lit up; then he checked both ears, pulling them back, told Innokenty to spread out his hands to show there was nothing between the fingers, and to swing his arms to show there was nothing under his armpits. In the same flat, irrefutable tone, he ordered:

“Take your penis in your hands. Turn back the foreskin. More. Right, that’s enough. Move your penis up and right, up and left. Right, you can drop it. Turn your back to me. Straddle your legs. Wider. Bend down and touch the floor. Legs wider. Stretch your buttocks with your hands. Right. Now squat. Quickly! Once more!”

Thinking about his arrest before it happened, Innokenty had pictured to himself a duel of wits to the death. For this he was ready, prepared for a high-principled defense of his life and his convictions. Never had he imagined anything so simple, so dull, and so irresistible as this reality. The people who had received him were petty-minded, low-grade officials, as uninterested in his personality as in what he had done . . . 37

The shock of such searches could be worse for women. One remembered that the jailer performing the search “took our brassieres, corset-belts which held our suspenders, and some other parts of our underwear essential to women. There followed a brief, disgusting, gynecological examination. I kept silent, but felt as if I had been deprived of all human dignity.” 38

While enduring a twelve-month stay in Aleksandrovsky Tsentral prison in 1941, the memoirist T. P. Milyutina was searched repeatedly. The women of her cells would be taken onto an unheated staircase, five at a time. They were then told to undress completely, put their clothes on the floor and their hands up. Hands were put “in our hair, in our ears, under our tongues; also between our legs,” both while standing up and sitting down. After the first such search, wrote Milyutina, “many burst into tears, many were hysterical . . .”39

Following the search, some prisoners were isolated. “The first hours of imprisonment,” continues Solzhenitsyn, “are designed to break the prisoner down by isolating him from contact with other inmates, so that there is no one to keep his spirits up, so that the full force of the whole, vast, ramified apparatus is felt to be bearing down on him and him alone . . .”40 The cell of Evgeny Gnedin, a Soviet diplomat and son of revolutionaries, contained only a small table, attached to the floor, and two stools, also attached to the floor. The folding bed, on which prisoners slept at night, was attached by a bolt to the wall. Everything, including the walls, stools, bed, and ceiling, was painted light blue. “It gave you the feeling of being inside the peculiar cabin of a ship,” Gnedin wrote in his memoirs.41

It was also quite common to be put, as was Alexander Dolgun, in a boks—a cell “about four feet by nine feet. An empty box with a bench”— during the first hours following arrest, and held there for several hours or even a few days.42 Isaac Vogelfanger, a Polish surgeon, was put in a cell with open windows in the middle of winter. 43 Others, like Lyubov Bershadskaya, a survivor who later helped lead a prisoners’ strike in Vorkuta, were isolated during the entire period of their interrogation. Bershadskaya spent nine months in solitary, and wrote that she actually looked forward to being questioned, just to have someone to talk to.44

Yet to the newcomer, a crowded prison cell could be an even more horrifying place than a solitary one. Olga Adamova-Sliozberg’s description of her first cell reads like a scene from Hieronymus Bosch:

The cell was huge. The arched walls were dripping. On either side, leaving only a narrow passage between them, were low continuous bed boards packed with bodies. Assorted rags were drying on lines overhead. The air was thick with the foul smoke of strong cheap tobacco, and loud with arguments, shouts and sobs.45

Another memoirist also tried to recapture his feeling of shock: “It was such an awful sight, men with long hair, bearded, the smell of sweat, and nowhere even to sit down or rest. You must use your imagination to try to grasp the sort of place I was in.”46

Aino Kuusinen, the Finnish wife of Otto Kuusinen, the leader of the Comintern, believed that on her first night she had been deliberately placed within earshot of prisoners under interrogation:

Even today, after thirty years, I can hardly describe the horror of that first night at Lefortovo. In my cell I could hear every noise from outside. Near by, as I later discovered, was the “interrogation department,” a separate structure which was in fact a torture chamber. All night long I heard inhuman screams and the repeated sound of the lash. A desperate and tormented animal could hardly have uttered such dreadful cries as the victims who were assaulted for hour on end with threats, blows and curses.47

But wherever they found themselves on their first night under arrest, whether in an old Czarist prison, a railway station lockup, a converted church or monastery, all prisoners faced an urgent, immediate task: to recover from shock, to adjust to the peculiar rules of prison life—and to cope with interrogation. The speed with which they managed to do this would then help determine how well, or how badly, they emerged from the system and, ultimately, how they would fare in the camps.

Of all the stages that prisoners passed through on their road to the Gulag, the interrogation is perhaps the one that is most familiar to Westerners. Interrogations have been described not only in history books, but also in Western literature—Arthur Koestler’s classicDarkness at Noon, for example —in war movies, and in other forms of high and low culture. The Gestapo were infamous interrogators, as were the agents of the Spanish Inquisition. The tactics of both are the stuff of popular legend. “We have ways of making you talk . . .” is a phrase children still use when playing war games.

Interrogations of prisoners also take place, of course, in democratic, law-abiding societies, sometimes in accordance with the law, sometimes not. Psychological pressure, even torture, during interrogation is hardly unique to the USSR. The “good cop, bad cop” technique—the nice, polite man asking questions, alternating with the angry inquisitor—has made its way not only as an idiom into other languages, but also into (now outdated) American police manuals as a recommended tactic. Prisoners have been pressured under questioning in many if not most countries at one time or another; indeed, it was evidence of such pressure that led the American Supreme Court to rule, in the Miranda v. Arizona case of 1966, that criminal suspects must be informed, among other things, of their right to remain silent, and of their right to contact a lawyer.48

Still, the “investigations” conducted by the Soviet secret police were unique, if not in their methods, then in their mass character. In some eras, “cases” routinely included hundreds of people, who were arrested all over the Soviet Union. Typical of its time was one report filed by the Orenburg regional department of the NKVD on “Operational measures for the liquidation of clandestine groups of Trotskyites and Bukharinites, as well as other counter-revolutionary groups, carried out from 1 April to 18 September 1937.” According to the report, the Orenburg NKVD had arrested 420 members of a “Trotskyite” conspiracy and 120 “right-wingers”— as well as more than 2,000 members of a “right-wing military Japanese cossack organization,” more than 1,500 Czarist officers and civil servants exiled from St. Petersburg in 1935, some 250 Poles indicted as part of the case against “Polish spies,” 95 people who had worked on the Harbin railway in China and were considered to be Japanese spies, 3,290 former kulaks, and 1,399 “criminal elements.”

In all, the Orenburg NKVD arrested more than 7,500 people in a fivemonth period, which did not allow much time for careful examination of evidence. This hardly mattered, as the investigations into each one of these counter-revolutionary conspiracies had in fact been launched in Moscow. The local NKVD were merely doing their duty, filling in the numerical quotas that had been dictated from above.49

Because of the high volume of arrests, special procedures had to be put in place. These did not always entail extra cruelty. On the contrary, the large numbers of prisoners sometimes meant that the NKVD reduced investigations to a minimum. The accused was hurriedly questioned, and then equally hurriedly sentenced, sometimes with an extremely brief court hearing. General Alexander Gorbatov, an admired military leader, remembered that his hearing took “four or five minutes,” and consisted of a confirmation of his personal details, and one question: “Why did you not admit to your crimes during the investigation?” Afterward, he received a fifteen-year sentence.50

Still others had no trial at all: they were sentenced in absentia, either by an osoboe soveshchanie—a “special commission”—or by a troika of three officials, rather than by a court. Such was the experience of Thomas Sgovio, whose investigation was completely perfunctory. Born in Buffalo, New York, Sgovio had arrived in the Soviet Union in 1935 as a political émigré, the son of an Italian American communist who had been forcibly deported to the Soviet Union from the United States for his political activities. During the three years he lived in Moscow, Sgovio gradually became disillusioned, and decided to reclaim his American passport—he had relinquished it upon entering the USSR—in order to return home. On March 12, 1938, he was arrested walking out of the American Embassy.

The record of Sgovio’s subsequent investigation (which, decades later, he photocopied in a Moscow archive and donated to the Hoover Institution) is sparse, matching his own recollection of the same events. The evidence against him includes a list of what was found during his first body search: his trade union membership book, his telephone and address book, his library card, a sheet of paper (“with writing in a foreign language”), seven photographs, one penknife, and an envelope containing foreign postage stamps, among other things. There is a statement from Captain of State Security, Comrade Sorokin, testifying that the accused walked into the U.S. Embassy on March 12, 1938. There is a statement from a witness, testifying that the accused left the U.S. Embassy at 1:15 p.m. The file also includes the protocols of the initial investigation and the two brief interrogations, each page signed by both Sgovio and his interrogator. Sgovio’s initial statement reads as follows: “I wanted to regain my American citizenship. Three months ago I went to the American Embassy for the first time and applied to regain my citizenship. Today I returned . . . the clerk receptionist told me the American employee in charge of my case was out for lunch and for me to return in an hour or two.”51

During most of the subsequent interrogation, Sgovio was asked to repeat the details of his visit to the embassy over and over again. Only once was he asked, “Tell us all about your espionage activities!” When he replied, “You know I’m not a spy,” they appear not to have pushed him further, although the interrogator was fondling a rubber hose, of the sort normally used to beat prisoners, in a vaguely threatening manner.52

Although the NKVD were not much interested in the case, they never seem to have doubted its outcome. Some years later, after Sgovio demanded a review of his case, the prosecutor’s office dutifully did so, summing up the facts as follows: “Sgovio does not deny that he did make an application at the American Embassy. Therefore I believe there is no reason to review Sgovio’s case.” Damned by the fact that he had confessed to entering the embassy—and had confessed to wanting to leave the USSR—Sgovio received a sentence from one of the “special commissions” of five years of forced labor, condemned as a “socially dangerous element.” His case had been treated as routine. In the crush of arrests at the time, the investigators had simply done the bare minimum required.53

Others were convicted on even less evidence, after even more cursory investigations. Because falling under suspicion was in itself considered a sign of guilt, prisoners were rarely released without serving at least a partial sentence. Leonid Finkelstein, a Russian Jew arrested in the late 1940s, had the impression that although no one had managed to invent a particularly plausible case against him, he had been given a relatively short sentence of seven years, simply in order to prove that the arresting organs never made a mistake.54 Another ex-prisoner, S. G. Durasova, even claims that he was specifically told, by one of his investigators, that “we never arrest anyone who is not guilty. And even if you weren’t guilty, we can’t release you, because then people would say that we are picking up innocent people.”55

On the other hand, when the NKVD were more interested—and, it seems, when Stalin himself was more interested—the investigators’ attitude to those picked up during periods of mass arrest could rapidly change from indifferent to sinister. In certain circumstances, the NKVD would even demand that investigators fabricate evidence on a massive scale—as happened, for example, during the 1937 investigation into what Nikolai Yezhov called the “most powerful and probably the most important diversionist-espionage networks of Polish intelligence in the USSR.”56 If Sgovio’s interrogation represents one extreme of indifference, the mass operation against this alleged Polish spy ring represents the other: suspects were interrogated with the single-minded goal of making them confess.

The operation began with NKVD Order 00485, an order that set the pattern for later mass arrests. Operational Order 00485 clearly listed the sort of person who was to be arrested: all remaining Polish war prisoners from the 1920–21 Polish-Bolshevik war; all Polish refugees and emigrants to the Soviet Union; anyone who had been a member of a Polish political party; and all “anti-Soviet activists” from Polish-speaking regions of the Soviet Union.57 In practice, anyone of Polish background living in the Soviet Union—and there were many, particularly in the Ukrainian and Belorussian border regions—was under suspicion. The operation was so thorough that the Polish Consul in Kiev compiled a secret report describing what was happening, noting that in some villages “anyone of Polish background and even anyone with a Polish-sounding name” had been arrested, whether a factory manager or a peasant.58

But the arrests were only the beginning. Since there was nothing to incriminate someone guilty of having a Polish surname, Order 00485 went on to urge regional NKVD chiefs to “begin investigations simultaneously with arrests. The basic aim of investigation should be the complete unmasking of the organizers and leaders of the diversionist group, with the goal of revealing the diversionist network . . .”59

In practice, this meant—as it would in so many other cases—that the arrestees themselves would be forced to provide the evidence from which the case against them would be constructed. The system was simple. Polish arrestees were first questioned about their membership in the espionage ring. Then, when they claimed to know nothing about it, they were beaten or otherwise tortured until they “remembered.” Because Yezhov was personally interested in the success of this particular case, he was even present at some of these torture sessions. If the prisoners lodged official complaints about their treatment, he ordered his men to ignore them and to “continue in the same spirit.” Having confessed, the prisoners were then required to name others, their “co-conspirators.” Then the cycle would begin again, as a result of which the “spy network” grew and grew.

Within two years of its launch, the so-called “Polish line of investigation” had resulted in the arrests of more than 140,000 people, by some accounts nearly 10 percent of all of those repressed in the Great Terror. But the Polish operation also became so notorious for the indiscriminate use of torture and false confessions that in 1939, during the brief backlash against mass arrests, the NKVD itself launched an investigation into the “mistakes” that had been made while it was being carried out. One officer involved remembered that “it wasn’t necessary to be delicate—no special permission was needed in order to beat people in the face, to beat without limitation.” Those with qualms, and apparently there were some, had explicitly been told that it was Stalin and the Politburo’s decision to “beat the Poles for all you are worth.”60

In fact, although Stalin later denounced the NKVD’s “simplified procedures for investigation,” there is some evidence that he personally approved of these methods. In Viktor Abakumov’s 1947 letter to Stalin, for example, he specifically notes that the primary task of an investigator is to try to get from the arrestee a “true and open confession, with the goal not only of establishing the guilt of the arrestee, but also of uncovering those to whom he is linked, as well as those directing his criminal activity and their enemy plans.”61 Abakumov skirts around the issue of physical torture and beatings, but does also write that investigators are enjoined to “study the character of the arrestee,” and on that basis to decide whether to give him a light prison regime or a strict one, and how best to make use of his “religious convictions, family and personal ties, self-respect, vanity, etc. . . . Sometimes, in order to outwit the arrestee, and to create the impression that the organs of the MGB know everything about him, the investigator can remind the arrestee of separate, intimate details from his personal life, secrets that he hides from those around him, etc.”

Why the Soviet secret police were so obsessed with confession remains a matter for debate, and a wide variety of explanations have been proferred in the past. Some believe the policy came from the top. Roman Brackman, author of an unorthodox biography of Stalin, The Secret File of Joseph Stalin , believes the Soviet leader had a neurotic obsession with making others confess to crimes which he himself had committed: because he himself had been an agent of the Czarist secret police before the Revolution, he had a particular need to see people confess to having been traitors. Robert Conquest also believes that Stalin was interested in forcing at least those he knew personally to confess. “Stalin wanted not merely to kill his old opponents, but to destroy them morally and politically,” although this, of course, applied only to a few out of the millions arrested.

But confession would also have been important to the NKVD agents carrying out the interrogations. Perhaps obtaining confessions helped them feel confident of the legitimacy of their actions: it made the madness of mass, arbitrary arrest seem more humane, or at least legal. As in the case of the “Polish spies,” confession also provided the evidence necessary to arrest others. The Soviet political and economic system was also obsessed with results—fulfilling the plan, completing the norm—and confessions were concrete “proof” of a successful interrogation. As Conquest writes, “the principle had become established that a confession was the best result obtainable. Those who could obtain it were to be considered successful operatives, and a poor NKVD operative had a short life expectancy.”62

Whatever the source of the NKVD’s fixation on confessions, police interrogators usually pursued them without either the deadly singlemindedness shown in the case of the “Polish spies,” or the indifference applied to Thomas Sgovio. Instead, prisoners generally experienced a mixture of the two. On the one hand, the NKVD demanded that they confess and incriminate themselves and others. On the other hand, the NKVD seemed to feel a slovenly lack of interest in the outcome altogether.

This somewhat surreal system was already in place by the 1920s, in the years before the Great Terror, and it remained in place long after the Great Terror had subsided. As early as 1931, the officer investigating Vladimir Tchernavin, a scientist accused of “wrecking” and sabotage, threatened him with death if he refused to confess. At another point, he told him he would get a more “lenient” camp sentence if he confessed. Eventually, he actually begged Tchernavin to give a false confession. “We, the examining officers, are also often forced to lie, we also say things which cannot be entered into the record and to which we would never sign our names,” his interrogator told him, pleadingly.63

When the outcome mattered more to them, torture was deployed. Actual physical beatings seem to have been forbidden in the period before 1937. One former Gulag employee confirms that they were certainly illegal in the first half of the 1930s.64 But as the pressure to get leading Party members to confess increased, physical torture came into use, probably in 1937, although it ended again in 1939. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev publicly admitted this in 1956: “How is it possible that a person confesses to crimes which he has not committed? Only in one way—because of applications of physical methods of pressuring him, tortures, bringing him to a state of unconsciousness, depriving him of his judgment, taking away his human dignity. In this manner were ‘confessions’ acquired.”65

So widespread did the use of torture become during this period—and so frequently was it questioned—that in early 1939, Stalin himself sent out a memo to regional NKVD chiefs, confirming that “from 1937 on in NKVD practice the use of physical pressure [on prisoners] was permitted by the Central Committee.” He explained that it was permitted only with respect to such overt enemies of the people who take advantage of humane interrogation methods in order to shamelessly refuse to give away conspirators, who for months don’t testify and try to impede the unmasking of those conspirators who are still free.

He did, he continued, consider this to be a “totally correct and humane method,” although he conceded that it might have occasionally been applied to “accidentally arrested honest people.” What this notorious memo makes clear, of course, is that Stalin himself knew what sorts of methods had been used during interrogation, and had personally approved of them.66

Certainly it is true that during this period many, many prisoners record being beaten and kicked, their faces smashed in and their organs ruptured. Evgeny Gnedin describes being hit on the head simultaneously by two men, one on the left, one on the right, and then being beaten with a rubber club. This took place in Beria’s private office, in Beria’s presence, in the Sukhanovka prison.67 The NKVD also practiced methods of torture known to other secret police forces in other eras, such as hitting their victims in the stomach with sandbags, breaking their hands or feet, or tying their arms and legs behind their backs and hoisting them in the air.68 One of the most sickening accounts of physical torture was penned by the theater director Vsevelod Meyerhold, whose formal letter of complaint has been preserved in his file:

The investigators began to use force on me, a sick, 65-year-old man. I was made to lie face down and then beaten on the soles of my feet and my spine with a rubber strap. They sat me on a chair and beat my feet from above, with considerable force . . . For the next few days, when those parts of my legs were covered with extensive internal hemorrhaging, they again beat the red-blue-and-yellow bruises with the strap and the pain was so intense that it felt as if boiling hot water was being poured on these sensitive areas. I howled and wept from the pain. They beat my back with the same rubber strap and punched my face, swinging their fists from a great height . . .

One time my body was shaking so uncontrollably that the guard escorting me back from such an interrogation asked: “Have you got malaria?” When I lay down on the cot and fell asleep, after eighteen hours of interrogation, in order to go back in an hour’s time for more, I was woken up by my own groaning and because I was jerking about like a patient in the last stages of typhoid fever.69

Although this sort of beating was technically forbidden after 1939, the change of policy did not necessarily make the investigation process more humane. Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, many hundreds of thousands of prisoners were tormented not with actual beatings or physical attacks, but with psychological torture of the sort Abakumov alludes to in his letter to Stalin. Those who remained stubborn and refused to confess could, for example, be slowly deprived of creature comforts, first walks, then packages or books, then food. They could be placed in a specially harsh punishment cell, very hot or very cold, as was the memoirist Hava Volovich, who was also being deprived of sleep by her interrogator at the time: “I will never forget that first experience of prison cold. I can’t describe it; I’m not capable of it. I was pulled one way by sleep, the other by cold. I would jump up and run around the cell, falling asleep on my feet, then collapse on the bed again, where the cold would soon force me up.”70

Others were confronted with “witnesses,” as was Evgeniya Ginzburg, who watched as her childhood friend Nalya “recited like a parrot,” accusing her of membership in the Trotskyite underground. 71 Still others were threatened with harm to family members, or were placed, after long periods of isolation, in cells with informers, to whom they were only too glad to open their hearts. Women were raped, or threatened with rape. One Polish memoirist told the following story:

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, my cross-examiner became extremely flirtatious. He got up from behind his desk, and came and sat beside me on the sofa. I stood up and went to drink some water. He followed me and stood behind me. I neatly evaded him and returned to the sofa. Down he sat himself again beside me. And once again I got up and went to drink water. Maneuvers like these lasted for a couple of hours. I felt humiliated and helpless . . .72

There were also forms of physical torture less crude than beatings, and these were used regularly from the 1920s on. Tchernavin was early on given “the standing test”—prisoners were told to stand, facing the wall, without moving—albeit briefly. Some of his other cell mates suffered worse:

One, Engraver P., over fifty years of age and heavily built, had stood for six and a half days. He was not given food or drink and was not allowed to sleep; he was taken to the toilet only once a day. But he did not “confess.” After this ordeal he could not walk back to the cell and the guard had to drag him up the stairs . . . Another, Artisan B., about thirty-five years old, who had one leg amputated above the knee and replaced by an artificial one, had stood for four days and had not “confessed.” 73

Most commonly, however, prisoners were simply deprived of sleep: this deceptively simple form of torture—which seemed to require no special advance approval—was known to prisoners as being put “on the conveyor,” and it could last for many days, or even weeks. The method was simple: prisoners were interrogated all night, and afterward forbidden to sleep during the day. They were constantly awoken by guards, and threatened with punishment cells or worse if they failed to stay awake. One of the best accounts of the conveyor, and of its physical effects, is that given by the American Gulag inmate Alexander Dolgun. During his first month in Lefortovo, he was virtually deprived of any sleep at all, allowed an hour a day or less: “Looking back it seems that an hour is too much, it may have been no more than a few minutes some nights.” As a result, his brain began to play tricks on him:

There would be periods when I suddenly knew that I had no recollection of what had happened in the last few minutes. Drop-outs in my mind. Total erasures . . .

Then, of course, later on, I began to experiment with sleeping upright, to see if my body could learn to hold itself erect. I thought if that would work I might escape detection in the cells for a few minutes at a time, because the guard at the peep-hole would not think I was asleep if I was sitting upright.

And so it would go, snatching ten minutes here, half an hour there, occasionally a little longer if Sidorov called it quits before six in the morning and the guards left me alone till the wake-up call. But it was too little. Too late. I could feel myself slipping, getting looser and less disciplined every day. I dreaded going crazy almost worse—no, really worse—than dying . . .

Dolgun did not confess for many months, a fact that provided him with something to be proud of throughout the rest of his imprisonment. Yet when, many months later, he was called back to Moscow from his camp in Dzhezkazgan and beaten up again, he did sign a confession, thinking “What the hell. They’ve got me anyway. Why didn’t I do it a long time ago, and avoid all that pain?”74

Why not indeed? It was a question many others asked themselves, with varying answers. Some—a particularly high percentage of memoir writers, it would seem—held out either on principle, or in the mistaken belief that they would thereby avoid being sentenced. “I’d rather die than defame myself,” General Gorbatov told his interrogator, even as he was being tortured (he does not specify how). Many also believed—as Solzhenitsyn, Gorbatov, and others point out—that a ridiculously lengthy confession would create an atmosphere of absurdity which even the NKVD could not fail to notice. Gorbatov wrote with horror of his prison comrades:

They impressed me as being cultured and serious-minded people. I was all the more horrified to hear that during their interrogations every single one of them had written the most unmitigated rubbish, confessing to imaginary crimes and incriminating other people . . . Some even held the strange theory that the more people were jailed the sooner it would be realized that all this was nonsense and harmful to the Party.75

Yet not everyone agreed that such people were to be blamed. Lev Razgon, in his own memoirs, replied to Gorbatov, whom he called “arrogant and immoral”:

It is wrong to shift the blame from the torturers to their victims. Gorbatov was lucky, that’s all. Either his interrogator was lazy, or he had not been given a firm instruction to “put pressure” on his charge. Doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists have not done enough research to say whether an individual can be tortured into giving false testimony against himself. But this century has provided a vast amount of evidence on the subject. Of course it can be done.76

There are also mixed views, in retrospect, about whether holding out actually mattered. Susanna Pechora, who was interrogated for more than a year in the early 1950s—she was a member of a tiny youth group which was founded, quixotically, to resist Stalin—said, looking back, that “holding out” had not been worth it. Resisting confession simply prolonged the interrogation, she believes. Most were sentenced anyway, in the end. 77

Nevertheless, the contents of Sgovio’s file clearly illustrate that subsequent decisions—about early release, amnesty, and so on—were indeed taken on the basis of what was in a prisoner’s file, including confession. If you had managed to hold out, in other words, you did stand a very, very slim chance of having your sentence reversed. Right up through the 1950s, all of these judicial procedures, however surreal, were taken seriously.

In the end, the interrogation’s greatest importance was the psychological mark it left on prisoners. Even before they were subjected to the long transports east, even before they arrived in their first camps, they had been at some level “prepared” for their new lives as slave laborers. They already knew that they had no ordinary human rights, no right to a fair trial or even a fair hearing. They already knew that the NKVD’s power was absolute, and that the state could dispose of them as it wished. If they had confessed to a crime they had not committed, they already thought less of themselves. But even if they had not, they had been robbed of all semblance of hope, of any belief that the mistake of their arrest would soon be reversed.

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