In a Soviet Prison
The prisoners poured out of the cars. Seen in the brilliant early March sunshine, the change wrought by seven days of short rations was astonishing. Some of the young and the fit still wore their caps at a flippant angle, still believed in the future, but with sobriety imposed upon their youthful zest. Others, like Gleb, clearly preserved in dress and mien a look of dignity and proud resignation.
Those who wore the stigma of imprisonment most conspicuously were the former commanding officers. Deep lines furrowed their faces, thick stubble on cheeks and chins dulled their features. Gone was the elegance that once had distinguished them, their swagger and arrogance, the air of authority, they who had once commanded the destiny of men whose welfare and lives had depended on their decisions. Now weariness and hunger and remorse had destroyed their confidence and left them haggard and dispirited.
The men lined up four abreast with their bundles at their feet. Gleb found a small abandoned sled by the tracks and we piled our baggage upon it. No one knew how far it was to the concentration camp, and the effects of the starvation diet could no longer be ignored.
Flanked by the helmeted guards, rifles slung upon sagging shoulders, the long line of prisoners began to move ahead, feet shuffling in the snow. Gleb pulled the sled while I pushed from behind. We were a bedraggled pair. Gleb still preserved a soldierly air; an onlooker would have had a hard time telling whether his companion was a man or a woman. A long leather coat reached below my knees and hid my borrowed breeches. The shoulder strap from Gleb's Sam Browne served me as a belt, and on my feet were oversized Shackleton boots of dirty white canvas with thick corded soles. People in the streets stopped to watch us trudging by. Mingled with their covert curiosity was a look of fear. Yet compassion flickered across some of these faces and set them apart.
The sides of my stomach felt as if stuck together from sheer emptiness. But my attention was soon diverted to the new surroundings. Even in these times Petrozavodsk was an attractive town. On its wide streets, among many trees and open spaces, small houses mingled with larger ones, with enough room between them to provide fine views of Lake Onezhskoye. The municipal buildings had obviously been designed by skilled architects. The golden domes of a multitude of churches gleamed richly in the sun. Passing them, the prisoners reverently crossed themselves.
How far could it be to the concentration camp? Surely, there at last we would eat!
The long lines of prisoners were finally brought to a halt outside the tall ornate iron gates of a large building situated on a height with a panoramic view over the town and the lake. We sank down on our bundles with sighs of relief. The concentration camp at last. Before the Revolution it had been a seminary. An immense Greek Orthodox cross with its slanted crossbar still shed its golden blessing over the Gothic portals. But behind the tall iron fence another brotherhood now crowded the spacious grounds, a brotherhood of suffering, of physical and mental captivity. These men thronged against the fence, clasping the bars with bony hands, to stare at the new arrivals. The expressions on their gaunt, unshaven faces were fright ening and pitiful, some crafty, some depraved, all bitterly hostile. Was the stamp of imprisonment already so plainly written on our faces?
The concentration camp soon refused to admit any more prisoners. The last ones to enter the gates were Nina Aleksandrovna and her husband. We were ordered to march on. Wearily we picked up our bundles. Where to now? Someone whispered, "To the prison of Petrozavodsk ." In my ignorance I hoped that the prison would prove to be a less depressing place than the concentration camp. The forbidding gates of the prison were swung open and banged closed behind us. Prison guards surrounded us on all sides, a dirty- looking crew with high cheekbones and untrimmed whiskers. One was clad in blue breeches, another in khaki ones, one wore a military tunic, the next one a belted Russian blouse, one high boots, another clumsy straw shoes. Only one item was worn by all: a black leather belt with a revolver in a trim holster. Apparently this place too was overcrowded. Again we sat down on our bundles and waited.
The warden appeared. He came into the yard with his hands deeply buried in the slanting pockets of his black leather jacket. The jacket looked new, and so did his khaki breeches. His high boots were polished to a gloss. He was a square, short, powerfully built man, but the shape of his legs suggested a serious bout with rickets in his infancy. His wide-set eyes, high cheekbones, and large mouth contradicted the weakness of his receding chin. Still his face was not unpleasant. Its roughness was relieved by an unexpected glint of humor.
"Hmm, women!" he muttered.
Then I discovered to my surprise that there were other women in our group of prisoners, and I wondered where they had come from. One was a tiny, timid-looking mother with two girls about ten and twelve years old. They huddled close to their father, seeking the protection he was unable to give them.
The prisoners clamored for food. The warden grinned and raised his hand reassuringly. "You'll have dinner in a moment, you're just in time. Now quiet, please!"
Presently the warden separated about twenty of us from the others, including three couples, the two children, and a single woman. The latter was a handsome middle-aged person, her face framed with gray hair. She was wearing lipstick. She looked like an actress, and later I found out that she was one. Actresses in Soviet Russia were a privileged class of people. How she fell in with our disreputable company, I never discovered.
"Gleb, they're not going to separate us, I was so afraid they would!"
"No, darling, just keep calm ; Tout vient a point. . ." He never finished the saying.
Smells are far more than indicators of what may be pleasant or unpleasant. They are also characteristics of lands, people, places, dwellings, and situations, and when encountered they can recall often with wonderful subtlety, sometimes with great insistence, certain situations and events of the past. The smells of Russia were mainly of the good earth, the tangy scents of forest and open steppe mixed with the refreshing essences of water and frost, and the delicate odors of burning charcoal around the ever present samovars. The Revolution added the smells of greased boots and makhorka, a cheap pungent tobacco that impregnated hair, clothing, trains, buildings, the very outside air with its heavy musty odor.
When the door clanged open upon the inside prison passage, the prison stench hit me full in the face. It filled every breath, hesitantly drawn, to sicken the stomach. The walk down that foul passage was an almost intolerable ordeal.
Then dimly, through the haze and the stench, I saw the barred iron doors and behind them crowds of pale-faced disheveled men staring at us with expressions that shocked me beyond words. Surely such faces belonged only to fiction, to antirevolutionary propaganda! These grotesque masks, eyes burning like coals in sunken sockets, possessed something of medieval horror. Brutish yet pitiful, they aroused the most profound compassion. The men began shouting words I could not understand. Gleb's expression hardened as he looked stonily ahead, and his hand in mine shook slightly.
One of the guards touched the gun at his side. "Shut up, you dogs!" His command met with loud mirthless laughter.
Near the end of the passage a key scraped in a lock. An iron door opened, and we filed into a rather large room. The door closed upon us, the key rattled in the lock. Some time later the guards brought an enormous bowl of soup, a pitcher of steaming water, and five loaves of bread. We sat down at a long table. With gluttonous eagerness that not even the stench could dampen, we pounced upon the food. We did not notice the dishwater consistency of the soup, in which an odd small fish floated whole amid strands of green weeds, its glassy eye staring blankly. Neither did the tea seem too weak, brewed as it was from a few tea leaves found in somebody's pocket. With relish we sank our teeth into the coarse black sour dough bread. An Epicurean repast could not have been more satis fying or have tasted better than this first prison meal. For the first time in a week we ate well.
Having finished, we sat back in relaxed contentment and our spirits rose. We even found courage to joke about our predicament. Whatever other drawbacks affected Soviet prison life, we observed, we could at least count on being fed.
In other days this room obviously had been the prison library. We could count the nail holes and marks on the walls where the bookshelves had been. The room was about fifteen by twenty feet, large enough for all twenty of us without being too crowded. The sun shone brightly through the large barred window looking out over the snow-covered roofs of the town to the lake and the horizon beyond. The naked walls had in the course of time become the keeper of records, dealing with personal data, thoughts, and events concerning the occupants. Awkward tracings gave grim evidence of human courage and crushed hopes. Names had been painstakingly inscribed at odd angles together with relevant dates and a cross of finality. A multitude of comet-like strokes drawn with blood where a bedbug had been crushed to death crisscrossed many of these records.
With their usual consideration the men arranged for the mother and her two daughters a good place to sleep off the floor on two benches pushed together. The rest of us camped on the floor. The space under the table was at a premium, as it provided some protec tion from the bedbugs that dropped from the ceiling. Gleb and I found a corner of comparative privacy up against the wall, but there was no escape from the bedbugs. I needed to go to the bathroom. "Gleb, what will I do?"
"Ask one of the women to go with you, call the guard!" He called the guard himself. The key rattled in the door and the actress and I walked down the corridor. At the lavatory a sudden terror seized me. I dashed back to our door and shook it. "Gleb, I daren't. There's a hole in the door!" A guard came up hurriedly. Quietly Gleb explained what was the matter. The guard smiled indulgently and permitted Gleb to accompany us to stand outside the door.
The sewage system of the prison must have been out of order for a very long time. The bowls, mounted on a dais level with the peephole in the door, looked like thrones. A stinking overflow poured in rivulets down from the dais along the walls under the door out into the passage, revealing the source of the unspeakable stench. Sick with disgust, we picked our way between the streams and returned to our room.
In vain we waited for supper. At last we realized that the one midday meal we had devoured was the ration for the whole day. Tomorrow we would know better than to eat so greedily.
When twilight came, lanterns were lit and shone dimly in the cor ridor, but the cells remained dark. A rumbling noise was heard, doors opened and banged closed. An evil-smelling wooden tub sodden with urine was pushed inside our door. The men surrounded it defensively.
"Not here with women. Get it out!"
"Call the warden!"
Shrugging, the guard muttered something about the damned bourgeois. The warden appeared and in a quiet authoritative manner reassured the men. It was not necessary to use the tub, of course. Anyone wishing to leave the cell during the night could just knock on the door. The guard would let him out. Obviously political prisoners were treated differently from criminals, and the Petrozavodsk warden observed the rule. Many of us took this as a promising sign.
The contrast between this practical and efficient man and the deplorable state of his prison was incongruous. Clearly, poor administration was not the reason for either the breakdown of the sanitary system or the starvation rations. The economic chaos that followed the Revolution, the incompetence of a government bent on establishing drastic changes in mores, philosophy, and social order overnight, the political brutalities inevitable with such a course, these and a host of unfavorable consequences made impossible the normal functioning and organization of any part of life, prison management included. Everything had ground to a standstill, repairs, maintenance, the production and transportation of food supplies. The warden worked with existing means under the heavy pressure of extreme overcrowding, filth, and corruption, and under the circumstances his performance was commendable. And with his surprising display of discretion he proved, all evil tales to the contrary, that humane prison wardens did exist in revolutionary Russia .
Appeased, we went to sleep. The faintly snapping sound of vermin dropping from the ceiling, the monotony of the guards' footsteps walking up and down outside the door, the sudden scream of a nightmare-ridden inmate in another cell occasionally broke in upon my sleep.
Two days later, just after we had returned from exercise in the prison yard, a guard ordered the women to pack their things.
"To the warden's office, you and your husbands!"
The sudden possibility of separation terrified me.
"Ask them—beg them for special permission for me to stay with you!"
Gleb's voice was very soft. "Darling, don't you see, we'll still be in the same prison, and they'll let me visit you after a while," he reassured me.
"I can't bear it!"
"This may also mean that they'll put us both in better quarters." Gleb put his hands on my shoulders. "Imagine my Lisa in a Bolshevik prison! What will the aunts and cousins say when they hear of it?" He smiled. But he quickly changed his tactics: "Seriously, Lisa, don't you see that without me you are innocent? Don't you see what that means? They'll have to set you free. While you are in prison you can do nothing—free, you will at least have the chance to work for my release. Your freedom is important for both of us."
Tears dropped wet and warm on my hands as I put my things together.
"Take everything, Lisa. All I need is a blanket and perhaps a small pillow."
Another tear dropped, and the act of putting away into a corner these pitiful items for him, all he would need when I was gone, released a flood of them. And with humility in my heart I realized at last that all my fierce insistence on sharing his hardships could not match in quality the love drawn from his decency and remarkable calm.
In the office the warden sat at his desk, his red-starred helmet on his head. The place was surprisingly neat and dean, the air heavy with tobacco smoke.
"Please, open your bags for inspection." His voice was firm and polite.
So it was not enough for him to separate us? Search, you devils, search! Outraged, I seized the canvas bag, tipped it upside down, and shook out its contents on the floor.
Aghast, I watched my father's precious portfolio with all our love letters and Gleb's manu scripts tumble out on top of boots, sweaters, and shirts. Before I could think of a way to hide them from view, the warden pounced on them. Everybody stood rigid in deep silence.
The warden glanced through the manuscripts and then threw them one by one back upon the pile of clothes. I sighed with relief. Then he picked up the portfolio and with curiosity examined its blazing coat of arms. At length he opened it and slowly turned over the letters.
"With your permission, citizeness, I'll keep these."
I pleaded in French: "They're only our love letters—only our love letters! I swear! Gleb, tell him!" But Gleb stood silent.
"When we have inspected these papers, we'll return them to you."
The warden's manners were faultless, but I knew then that they were lost forever.
"Our love letters, Gleb ..." I could not finish the sentence. His stony face confronted me. Gradually I realized Gleb's hurt and the possible consequences of my rash act. I could not think clearly. But to Gleb with his intimate knowledge of Soviet Russia the meaning of the event presented no mysteries. And yet when he held me close as we took leave of each other, the hard look had vanished from his face.
"Just keep calm, darling! The advantage is all on their side, the disadvantage all on yours. Don't let go of your one good weapon— a level head."