Days and Lives :: Arrest

Prisoner: Evgeniia Michailovna Peunkova

“I was arrested on a street. A car pulled over, the door opened, then somebody called me. Two men grabbed me by my arms on each side. They drove me to the “Grey House” [the Secret Police Headquarters in Yaroslavl] and put me in a jail cell. It happened on March 5, 1948. Two days later I was transferred under guard to the ‘big’ house in Leningrad.” Peunkova recalled her experience at the court. She and her friends had been sentenced to death. However, the court substituted 25 years of camp for the death penalty. The court’s decision put her in a state of deep shock. “Our trial included no defense or witnesses. The “troika” faced the four of us: Volodia Kushnir, Vitia Solenyi, Alexander Saprin, who was older than others, and I. The same number of guards stood next to us. Another two held ward near the gate. The case plodded along until 2 p.m. Only after lunch did we hear the verdict. Taking into account articles 17, 58.10, 58.11 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federal Soviet Republic we were sentenced to death… However, after an intentionally long pause a clarification of the decision was announced. Because of the abolition of the death penalty and based on such-and-such articles the sentence was substituted for 25 years of imprisonment in special camps with subsequent deprivation of civil rights for 5 years.”


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.