Days and Lives :: Arrest

Prisoner: Nina Pavlovna Aminova

Aminova was arrested at work. “On March 18,1953 a man in boots and a light coat came to the laboratory. He informed Olga Preobrazhenskaia and me that we were being summoned… I thought, where could I possibly be summoned. Then I remembered that the day before there was a meeting on the occasion of Stalin’s death and thought, maybe they want me to give a speech at another meeting… We got to the entrance… The man sent Olya and me in opposite directions. I entered the room… They told me, ‘You’re under arrest.’ I asked, ‘Why?’ They didn’t reply… They took me to the next room and searched me; put me in a car and took me to the dormitory to get my things… [They] took my only watch and a gilded powder case… It was springtime… They took me to the ‘Grey House’ [The Secret Police Headquarters] in Yaroslavl and put me in a cell meant for two prisoners.”

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.