Days and Lives :: Arrest

Prisoner: Vladimir Tchernavin

“Each evening while the boy was in bed, my wife and I would sit together for a long time – waiting. We never spoke of it, but we both knew we were waiting and that these might be our last hours together. It happened at last, and very simply. The bell rang. I opened the door and saw the house superintendent with a stranger in civilian dress. I understood. The stranger handed me a paper – the order for search and arrest. He entered the room which served as both bedroom and study and began the search. It was a very superficial one, only a formality. When my wife came home the search was finished and I was preparing for my ‘journey’: two changes of underwear, a pillow, a blanket, a few pieces of sugar and several apples. ‘I am ready,’ I said to the GPU agent, thinking to myself, ‘ready for death.’”


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.

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.