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.”

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.