The Essence of Liberty
Welcome, comrades in misery!"
These words, uttered with studied dramatic effect, came from a large formless woman in striped prison garb, standing in the bare cheerless kitchen of the annex where the women prisoners were held. A hardened harlot might well have possessed that face of coarse features, flushed blotchy red. Upon her ample heaving bosom a rosette of red ribbon was prominently displayed. She stood there and with obvious relish and considerable dignity performed her self-assigned role of welcoming committee of one.
Following so close upon the ordeal at the office, the comedy of the scene caught us unprepared and we burst out laughing. For an instant the woman looked perplexed. Then, resuming her role, she advanced one step, her face wreathed in the smile of the charming hostess. But the words she was about to utter died on her lips as the matron intervened impatiently:
"What are you doing here, Manya? Back to your cell, quick!"
Thus abruptly stripped of her role, the woman scuttled sheepishly down the corridor to the right.
The women's section of the prison was housed in a low, broad- beamed bungalow built of sturdy logs, stained brown inside and out. Before the Revolution it had been the prison hospital. The passage to the right led to a row of cells, some of which faced south, with the sun streaming through regular-sized windows. To the left was a small apartment, formerly used for the isolation of patients. A short passage led to two rooms. At the end of the passage was a cramped lavatory, the cleanest we had encountered so far. A stout door closed off this part from the rest of the house.
The matron ushered us into these rooms with the fussiness of an annoyed hen mustering around her a flock of wayward chicks. In the stark prison environment this tiny round matron seemed a quaint figure. Framed by a somber silky kerchief, its ends wound around the neck, her gray steady eyes looked out from a wrinkled unemotional face. A black shawl was crisscrossed over her breasts.
The eleven women taken into the apartment to the left were either wives or relatives of counterrevolutionary Whites or simply former residents of the conquered territories, all detained for political rea sons. We soon discovered that the matron carefully discriminated between the common lawbreakers in the cells and the victims of political vicissitudes. We enjoyed free use of the whole apartment, and the door leading to the other part of the house was not locked in the daytime. Tacitly the matron put us on trust, and we were careful not to take undue advantage of her confidence. Only at night, after she had removed the last samovar, we heard the key turn in the lock and the heavy sense of imprisonment descended upon us.
The rations given us were also of a different class. At breakfast each of us received a pound of heavy black bread brought in on a wooden tray scrubbed white. By dividing it into three equal parts, we checked any temptation to gobble up the day's ration at once, although it took some self-control not to filch from the portions set aside. Dinner at noon provided the single variation of the menu: a green fish soup, served day after day. A simmering samovar ac companied each meal. Prisoners were supposed to provide their own tea. Having no friends or relatives in this strange town who might bring some welcome variation to the frugal diet, we soon used up every scrap of tea we possessed, and nothing remained for us to do but to let our imaginations create tea out of the hot water.
One day I was called upon to bandage the finger of an inmate in the other part, who had cut herself. She was a thin dark creature by the name of Anyuta. Two enormous brown eyes glowing from hollow sockets illuminated her pale emaciated face. She shared a small cell with Manya, the woman who had greeted us on our arrival. At the sight of me Manya went into a dramatic emotional display.
The cut in Anyuta's finger was trifling. A little blood trickled from it upon the dirty floor. But Manya and Anyuta made the most of it. Turning reproachful eyes heavenward before one who might listen, they called upon God with loud cries, thus relieving themselves of their accumulated burden of suffering and humiliation.
"She cut herself," wailed Manya, wringing her hands. "Look— the blood! My God!" And she heaved another sigh that shook her whole gelatinous body.
"Shut up!" came the matron's crisp command. "Let the lady attend Anyuta! Step aside!"
Manya heaved another deep sigh and reluctantly retired into a corner. I began bandaging Anyuta's finger. She oh'd and ah'd and her large velvet eyes eloquently expressed her woe. I told her that the cut was not serious and would soon heal. Like a stray whose injured paw is being tended, she abandoned herself to the small portion of sympathy that was hers at long last.
While we were thus occupied, the inmate on kitchen duty pushed a bowl of soup and two mugs with hot water inside the door. The matron left to supervise the serving of the food. I glanced at the soup. It was black. Manya emerged from her corner.
"Look, this is the soup they give us!" she hissed, seizing the bowl with her two hands and carrying it over for my closer inspection. "It's black, cooked blood. Blood," she repeated, and her voice be came loud and strident. "This is what they give us to eat—soup of blood! Taste it, smell it!" She held the bowl up under my nose. "My God, what times! Starvation! Soup of blood!" The red rosette on Manya's bosom shook as she delivered herself of this im passioned speech with all the skill of an accomplished tragedienne.
"But you get bread also, don't you?" I said in an effort to lead the conversation away from the nauseous soup. "And tea?"
"Warm water, tea never. Three-quarters of a pound of bread. And those of us who have no one in the whole world to help—oh, my God, take pity upon us, for we are starving!" Anyuta's big eyes bore mute witness to the truth of Manya's pronouncement.
The return of the matron put an abrupt end to our conversation, and I left Manya and Anyuta to live out their sentences of miserable starved prison life.
The days dragged by almost tracelessly. A pack of cards tucked away in the top of my stocking, having passed through the search at the office undetected, proved a merciful diversion. Once again shuffling the cards and laying out another solitaire filled many a tedi ous hour. The actress became my interested watcher and adviser. At the sound of steps in the passage we quickly swept the cards under the blanket. The matron never spotted the strictly forbidden cards— or if she did, she gave no sign.
Had it not been for the gnawing hunger pains, our life in the prison might have been quite tolerable. But starvation upsets the emotional balance, nerves become abnormally sensitized, the mind becomes depressed. Hunger pains came in waves, never allowing forgetfulness. Sometimes, with almost masochistic enjoyment, we would indulge in animated conversations about fine foods and delicacies. The women who were blessed with phlegmatic dispositions bore it best, for they took things quietly, exerting themselves as little as possible. But those whose temperaments were high-strung suffered from fits of sobbing that alternated with hysterical gaiety. Occasionally I caught myself standing by the window, tears running down my cheeks. At other times I would fly into a rage directed at no one and nothing in particular other than our predicament.
About this time, I believe it was, feelings of bitter hatred began to pervade my thoughts. At first it took the form of impatient disgust with a people who allowed themselves to be pressed into accept ing without protest the destruction of ordinary civilities in the name of the proletariat. These feelings of repugnance were not concerned with the general political situation, with the hostility of a despoiled upper class set against the triumphant masses, or with simple resistance against a ruthlessly aggressive revolution and the emergence of a new order. Mine was an entirely private and personal hatred that emanated directly from my own personal experiences and outrage.
It came to life during the nights when I heard the two little girls whimpering from hunger, and their timid mother—hungrier than they, for she had given them much of her own ration—trying to whisper soothing words to them while sighing softly over her own helplessness. It overwhelmed me as I lay thinking of Gleb, of his patient courage, of our enforced separation, and of the unthinkable dangers facing him. From these feelings it was a short step to seeth ing rage at the mere sight of a red star, a red flag, the hammer and sickle, a black leather jacket. Hate is a disease that invades the body and the mind, causing acute physical malaise. It is like a poison spreading and embittering the thoughts, destroying all rationality, defying intelligence and judgment.
But these feelings were not yet fully crystallized or completely understood. Like a sickness that passes and then recurs again, they vanished for a time and then returned. Adjustment is a compulsive reaction that seeks to maintain balance in defiance of the pressure to yield and give up. And thus, almost without realizing it, I gradually learned to endure the confinement and the short rations. Having reached this stage, I found relief in the ability to laugh at various comic and absurd incidents, even at my bursts of anger.
Once my fellow prisoners and I overcame our objections at being forced to chop wood, we began to look forward to these half hours of exercise every day outside in the bright sunshine of the early spring. At the matron's command we would rush out and begin swinging our axes with an alacrity that was almost too strenuous for our starved bodies. The resurging appetite led us to commit acts that would never have entered our minds otherwise.
Thus, on my way through the kitchen after one such session of wood chopping, I spied a small pile of cooked potato peelings on the table beside the stove. Alone for a brief instant, I pounced on them and greedily devoured them before anyone discovered the theft. Another day the matron, frying pancakes with the gray prison cat sitting watching on the table by the stove, left just as the actress and I came walking through the kitchen. The fragrance from the pancake spluttering softly in the pan was too much. One look at each other was enough. The sizzling pancake was seized, torn in two, and swallowed before it had time to burn our fingers. At this instant the matron returned. We stood rigid. Had she seen?
"Who took it?" she demanded.
The actress pointed a slender finger at the cat, her face a study of innocence. "The cat," she whispered accusingly, as the animal blinked its green eyes and licked its chops.
But as we quickly withdrew to our own quarters, we heard the matron muttering, "Have to watch everything in this place or it disappears the moment your back is turned."
Every so often the matron ordered us out to carry water from the well just outside the wall of the main prison. This was fun. We swung along in single file, carrying between us on our shoulders a long pole from which a bucket danced on a rusty chain, with the matron bringing up the rear. A scaffold with a winch served to lower the bucket noisily into the well. Spring-clear water splashed from the returning bucket and it froze around the well head, making the ground slippery.
One day we met some of the men from Archangel on the same errand. Suddenly the idea struck me that the next time I might perhaps meet Gleb. And it did happen. Catching sight of him from a distance, I left everything and rushed to him. No one could have stopped me. The unbelievable joy at the mere touch of him drowned all planned questions.
"Are you well?" I repeated breathlessly, quite unable to think of anything else to say.
"Don't worry about me. Quick, now back to the others! We don't want any trouble," he whispered, smiling, as he tore himself away from me.
The men helped us to fill our buckets, but I had no eyes for anyone but Gleb. In a moment he stood beside me again.
"Arrange with your matron to send messages to me every night. She's doing it for some of the others. Send a pail of soup, slip a note with it. I'll return it." He fell back into line with the others.
"Come on, there!" With a jolt the command brought me down from the clouds. I joined the actress and we marched off, the bucket swinging between us and spilling much of the water.
That afternoon my playing cards remained idle under the pillow. I was too busy. I found a tin can and made a handle out of a piece of wire. I filled the little improvised pail with some of my fish soup, and one of the women who had a little flour left gave me half a teaspoonful with which to thicken the soup. A piece of paper served as a lid tied on with string. Under the string I slipped a small note written with indelible pencil in my tiniest hand.
In the evening, when the matron came in with the samovar, I followed her out into the passage with the pail in my hand.
"My husband—please, milaya!" I begged her in halting Russian.
She looked at me searchingly. Then she gave an almost invisible nod and took the pail.
"Thank you, oh, thank you!" I was so relieved I could hardly pronounce the words. She pushed me roughly aside, but I seemed to detect the glimmer of a smile in her gray eyes.
Nervous and excited, I brought out the cards. The actress edged over, the others gathered around. "You forgot the queen—see, over there!" Oh, yes. My hand shook slightly. What would happen to my note? Would she report our illicit attempt at communication to the warden? Nine on the ten. Would Gleb ever get the soup? Five and six up. Success! Everybody laughed. But the next play went wrong. Shuffle the cards thoroughly! The sound of steps in the passage, away with the cards!
The matron came in and handed me the pail without a word. When she had gone, I loosened the paper covering it and a tiny slip of paper folded over many times fell into my hand. The note ended: "I know how fond you are of sweets, so I am sending you two pieces of sugar. We sometimes get sugar with the Red Army rations. Chin up, dearest, tout vient a point a qui soit attendre." In the bottom of the pail, folded neatly in a piece of paper, were two cubes of white sugar.
Two pieces of sugar! Tears streamed down my cheeks as I held his priceless gift in my hand. Two pieces of sugar!
The next day I did business with the actress. We closed an important deal, my two cubes of sugar in exchange for four tablespoon-fuls of rolled oats. With infinite care I cooked a mess of porridge that filled Gleb's pail almost to the top. With my note tucked into its hiding place, the matron carried it to Gleb. His note came back:
"Wherever did you get that good porridge? I do hope you did not deprive yourself of anything? That you must not do. It was the best porridge I have ever eaten. I ate and ate until my stomach was full.
About this time the men succeeded in persuading the warden to allow them two hours' visiting time with us once a week. They arrived Friday afternoon, accompanied by two guards. The meeting took place in the kitchen. Each family sat grouped by itself, but the emotional excitement of being together blotted from memory most of the things carefully planned for discussion during the preceding endless week of separation, and we sat there in silence, just holding hands.
Four weeks passed. With the approach of the vernal equinox, the sun shone strongly. The snow melted slowly and left small piles of sawdust and birch bark outside our windows were we had cut the wood, riding on mounds of unmelted snow. A rumor penetrated to us that the female political prisoners were soon going to be taken before the Petrozavodsk Cheka, the dreaded secret police. Gleb's notes came full of advice.
"Don't let on you speak Russian! When they find you are a foreigner, they will not bother to question you too much. I am sure you will soon be free. As for me, there will be no greater happiness than to know you are safely out of this prison."
The day finally came. In the late afternoon our group was ordered outside with our belongings. Surrounded by guards, we were marched along many streets. The two little girls kept fearfully close to their mother.
They took us into a bare stuffy waiting room in the Cheka build ing, impregnated with stale makhorka. One of the women, starved for a smoke, wheedled some tobacco from a guard. She picked a piece of newspaper from the floor, rolled her cigarette, licked the edges together, and began to puff nervously. A name was called. The timid mother quickly straightened out the crumpled dress of the elder girl before the trio went in through the double doors to face the commissar. When she came out again, her face was paler but she looked relieved. The actress was next. She returned with a small derogatory smile on her lips. Now it was my turn.
The square room was brown, tobacco brown. A few chairs stood scattered around the bare walls, and across one corner a large desk littered with papers spread itself. A regiment of rubber stamps on moist ink pads occupied an entire corner of the desk. Behind it sat the commissar under the benign surveillance of a large portrait of Lenin, draped in red.
The commissar's sharp features suggested keen intelligence. Almond-shaped eyes and pale olive skin betrayed his southern origin. The soft silky blouse he wore would have looked better on a dashing Cossack. A sly expression came into his eyes and my nervousness increased.
The secretary, a fair pleasant-looking young man, placed a sheaf of papers in front of the commissar. He leaned forward, arms resting on the desk.
"Your name, citizeness!"
Meeting his piercing glance, I shook my head. The commissar and the secretary exchanged puzzled glances, then looked at me sharply. I shook my head again.
"Nie ponyemayo," I said. "I don't understand."
"Sprecben Sie Deutsch?" asked the secretary. That didn't suit me at all, so I shook my head again. By this time I heartily disliked being left alone with these two, and I wished I could get the actress in to help me.
"]e parle francais." With a series of gestures I got them to under stand that out there in the other room was a woman who also spoke French and could act as interpreter. The commissar and the secretary debated the problem at some length. I followed their conver sation with smug joy, almost forgetting my nervousness. Finally, with a wave of the hand, the commissar ordered the actress brought in.
She was given a chair beside me and the questioning began. My name? Where did I come from? Why had I gone to Archangel ? To join my husband? Why was he there? I heard all the questions, and while the actress translated them to me in French there was time to think over the answers and quickly discuss them before she began translating them into Russian. When questions touched upon Gleb we knew almost nothing. As an interpreter the actress was perfect. With her ability to act she easily gave herself an air of being entirely trustworthy and plausible. We found our play-acting very enter taining.
Soon it was all over. We were dismissed and with smiles of relief withdrew from the presence of the Cheka. After the rest of the women had been interrogated, we were kept waiting for another hour before the secretary appeared.
"Grazhdanki, the commissar has found no cause for detaining you. You are all free to go.
Free to go! Warily, lest the reality vanish, we slowly crossed the threshold to liberty. Personal freedom now seemed to me a gift, a special privilege, its full meaning never before fully understood.
But no sooner had this freedom been bestowed upon us than it turned into a liability. What were we to do with it? How were we to benefit from it in this alien place? Dusk was falling, but for us there was no place to go. We stood bewildered.
"We're free to go out in the street without provisions or a place to sleep?" the actress said as though she could not quite comprehend what was happening.
The young secretary looked bewildered. Never before had prisoners just released quarreled with the gift of liberty.
"Let's go back to the prison," someone suggested. "The warden may let us back in."
"How will we find the way? It's getting dark," said someone else. The situation was absurd.
With a persuasive smile the actress turned upon the perplexed secretary. "Young man, you'll have to order the guards to take us back to the prison."
The secretary, relieved to find so simple a solution to the problem, smiled back at her. The unbending guard smiled. Everybody smiled.
"Convey these citizens back to prison," the secretary ordered the guard.
We trooped out of the grim building, surrounded by the relaxed guard. We chatted and laughed slightly hysterically. The sensation of personal mastery suddenly regained was like a heavy wine.
We crowded into the warden's office, taking him by surprise. Perhaps it was his humor that allowed him to waive any objections to our irregular request. Without much hesitation he accorded us the privilege of remaining in the prison as unpaying guests until we found other lodgings.
Once again we took possession of the rooms to the left in the women's part of the prison. The uninviting cells with their barred windows now seemed to us a haven of security and refuge. Again we spread our blankets on the rough boards with a feeling of comfort and lay down to sleep.
I felt strangely elated. What wonderful things I could now do for Gleb! The power of this freedom seemed to me unlimited. Wherever Gleb was taken, I would follow. I would buy his freedom at whatever price. I would never, never let him out of my sight. I would work to secure his lost freedom in all possible ways. Tenacity of purpose was mine, his the patience to endure. By sheer willpower I would force the fulfillment of these dreams.
That night we listened as for a familiar friendly knock for the sound of the matron's key turning in the lock of the door. But it never came.