Days and Lives :: Arrest

Prisoner: John Noble

John Noble and his father, who owned a camera factory in Dresden, were taken to NKVD headquarters for questioning. The Nobles initially believed that they would be questioned and released. “I was called down to one of the NKVD offices, presumably for my leave-taking. A Captain Pankov was waiting for me. He greeted me with a smile, then got down to business, which I assumed would be a final routine questioning. ‘Let me have your papers,’ he said. He took these and made a little pile of them. My passport was there, my driver’s license, birth certificate. ‘You will be taken to prison,’ he announced routinely. He must have seen my face tighten in alarm, for he explained the situation in a casual way: ‘You are to be called as a witness in your father’s trial and then you will go free.’”


Soviet citizens during Stalin's reign lived in constant fear of arrest, interrogation, and imprisonment. Once arrested, the accused had no rights to protest their incarceration and no access to a fair trial. Prisoners were either sentenced to death or to years of hard labor in the Gulag.

Listen to the sound or read transcript below.

Movie Transcription

When citizens of Stalin’s Soviet Union climbed into bed at night, an uninterrupted sleep was never a guarantee. The secret police’s sharp 2 a.m. knock often launched an odyssey into the hellish depths of the Gulag. Many would never return alive.

When that 2 a.m. knock came, only one set of lights burned in an entire apartment building—that of the arrested man or woman. In cramped communal apartments, nothing remained secret, and neighbors would peek furtively out their door trying not to be noticed, trying not to be next. Frightened family members would watch as the secret police searched for potentially incriminating materials—anything that might indicate independent thought. Most new prisoners believed their arrest to be a mistake.

The Soviet police operated unpredictably, arresting people not only in the dark of night but also in the light of day. No matter when or where arrest occurred, special trucks outfitted with tiny prison cells hauled the new prisoners to their tormentors in an interrogation prison. The crushing loneliness of solitary confinement awaited some. Crowded cells smelling of sweat, urine, and feces greeted others. Prisoners only escaped their cell for marathon interrogations, enforced sleeplessness, and other forms of torture designed to elicit their “confessions” to often invented crimes. Interrogations concluded with a farcical trial that lasted perhaps several minutes before pronouncement of a predetermined verdict. For many, this was the end—a death sentence carried out almost immediately. The “lucky” found themselves boarding a stinking, crowded cattle car with just a hole in the floor for a toilet. Days or weeks later, they arrived to begin their sentence in a Gulag labor camp, usually with a weakened body and confused mind.