Days and Lives :: Arrest

Prisoner: Lev Razgon

“In Moscow, you could see many symptoms. Beginning with the fact that you could walk into an apartment building, go up the stairs and notice the sealed doorways. And you knew that the black plague had passed by there. That someone had been arrested there. In Moscow there were a number of large buildings where the government elite lived. Take, for example, the famous house on the embankment. Walking by at night, I could see how there were fewer and fewer lights on at night and watch how the lights would go out, sometimes entire floors at a time.”

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.