Days and Lives :: Arrest

Prisoner: Anna Larina

“In December 1938, I was returning to an ‘investigative prison’ in Moscow following a year and a half of arrests and imprisonments. First came exile Astrakhan, then arrest and imprisonment there; next, I was sent to a camp in Tomsk for family members of so-called enemies of the people; on the way, I was held in transit cells in Saratov and Sverdlovsk; after several months in Tomsk, I was arrested a second time and sent to an isolation prison in Novosibirsk; from Novosibirsk, I was transferred to a prison near Kemerovo, where after three months I was taken out and put on the train for Moscow.”

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.