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.’”

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.