Days and Lives :: Arrest

Prisoner: Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia

“When I was taken to Krasnozersk (a big town, probably a district center) and interrogated, I didn’t conceal anything. I told who I was, how ended up in exile in Narym and why I left there; how I traveled and where I’d been. Much in that saga seemed improbable, but it happened! In the middle of the night, I was taken to speak to the investigator. He was extremely courteous and, I would say, affectionate. “We need your help. If you could help us…” he began in an ingratiating tone. “You probably know foreign languages?” ... “I am fluent in French, speak Romanian and German well, am familiar with English and Spanish, and know a little Italian.” He beamed. “How wonderful! We intercepted a telegram which we don’t understand. Perhaps you will help?” “With pleasure.” It was simply a collection of English words, the telegram was sent from Cote d’Azur in France, addressed to Delhi, India, and was about relatives. I very carefully composed a literal translation. After that, they charged that a plane transported me from Romania to Turkey and then here, and that I parachuted down to the Kuludinskaya steppe.”

Arrest and Interrogation

Arrests could happen anywhere, at any time and to anybody in Stalin’s Soviet Union. No Soviet citizen—no matter their power or position, no matter their "loyalty" to the state—could be certain that they were safe from arrest.

But most of the millions of imprisoned men, women, and children fell into four groups. First, the Gulag incarcerated those guilty of crimes (rape, murder, thievery, etc.) that would be punished in any society. Second, it held "political prisoners"—sometimes true prisoners of conscience, but as often, perfectly average people denounced by a personal rival, grabbed to fulfill arrest “quotas” established by the Stalinist leadership or arrested for something as innocuous as telling a joke about Stalin. Third, the Gulag seized members of certain social classes (like the so-called "kulaks" or "rich" peasants) and ethnic groups (such as Soviet Germans, Chechens, and Crimean Tatars) deemed dangerous by the Soviet state. Finally, the Gulag grabbed up the victims of arbitrary legal campaigns that meted out severe punishment for such “crimes” as leaving a job without permission or taking food from a field to feed a hungry family.

Whether arriving at Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka or at some regional prison, the newly arrested entered a basement labyrinth of crowded cells. The mass of suffering humanity inside immediately evaluated the toughness and worth of newcomers, usually forcing them to sit next to the "parasha"—the cell’s waste bucket. Torture and marathon interrogations offered the only respite from the cell, and even the strongest prisoner often broke and confessed to any made-up crime.