Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia

Introduction

Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia was born in Odessa in an aristocratic family. Her family moved to Bessarabia where she became a farmer and a veterinarian. After Soviet troops came to Bessarabia, she and her 64-year old mother were removed from their house in 1940, and exiled as landowners [“pomeshchiki”] to Siberia in June 1941. Kersnovskaia escaped in 1942 but was caught and accused of espionage. She was sent to Barnaul and Narym prisons and then to the camps in Novosibirsk and Norilsk.

Arrest

“When I was taken to Krasnozersk (a big town, probably a district center) and interrogated, I didn’t conceal anything. I told who I was, how ended up in exile in Narym and why I left there; how I traveled and where I’d been. Much in that saga seemed improbable, but it happened! In the middle of the night, I was taken to speak to the investigator. He was extremely courteous and, I would say, affectionate. “We need your help. If you could help us…” he began in an ingratiating tone. “You probably know foreign languages?” ... “I am fluent in French, speak Romanian and German well, am familiar with English and Spanish, and know a little Italian.” He beamed. “How wonderful! We intercepted a telegram which we don’t understand. Perhaps you will help?” “With pleasure.” It was simply a collection of English words, the telegram was sent from Cote d’Azur in France, addressed to Delhi, India, and was about relatives. I very carefully composed a literal translation. After that, they charged that a plane transported me from Romania to Turkey and then here, and that I parachuted down to the Kuludinskaya steppe.”

Labor

“From now on I was part of the “BUR.” That is the Maximum Security Barrack for inveterate criminals, who are considered worse than scrap… We worked in a laundry, where we washed bloody linen, brought from the front: camouflage coats and forage caps. I’m sure that all these things would wash much better if rinsed in a river somewhere near the enemy lines. Why transport them for six months and four thousand kilometers, so we could wash them in cold water, and without soap? The only goal was probably mockery. To get 400 grams of bread we had to wash 300 pieces of bloody, linen dried into solid lumps or two thousand—yes, two thousand!—forage caps, or one hundred camouflage coats. For all of that we got one cap of liquid soap. The coats were particularly nightmarish. When wet, they became solid like iron plates, and one couldn’t get the dried blood out with an ax.”

Suffering

“Bread crust is a dream for all prisoners because they are constantly tortured by hunger, and a bread crust is more nutritious than a crumb. A crust has more substance, whereas a crumb has more water. We got bread in the morning. A loaf of rye bread, undercooked and with various additives, was cut into eight portions: first once along, then three times across. We got four crusts and four middle-crumbs. There are always fewer crusts, so the guards take everything that’s better. Instead of 350 grams we got barely 120-150.”

Propaganda

“Bread crust is a dream for all prisoners because they are constantly tortured by hunger, and a bread crust is more nutritious than a crumb. A crust has more substance, whereas a crumb has more water. We got bread in the morning. A loaf of rye bread, undercooked and with various additives, was cut into eight portions: first once along, then three times across. We got four crusts and four middle-crumbs. There are always fewer crusts, so the guards take everything that’s better. Instead of 350 grams we got barely 120-150.”

Solidarity

“As I learned more about the mine I liked it more. Our “working collective” was great—a real working family. We had both politicals and criminals: thieves, embezzlers, and even an armed robber and murderer—a horse thief Kolka Pianzin, a very decent lad. But the majority were politicals, convicted under article 58. And they set the tone. A miner has to be sure that his comrade is near, and the knowledge that in case of danger someone will always help you is a great thing!”

Conflict

“The entire pack of bandits found amusement. Its object was an older intellectual-looking man with a beard, Profesor Fedorovskii. Bandits on the top banks held his legs and swung in the passage between the train cars. He flew in the air as a volleyball, and the pack around him, men and women, laughing with delight, and from time to time pushed him even higher. The old man didn’t scream. He may have been out of breath from hanging upside down, or maybe, he understood that it would be useless. ... Only a miracle (and partly my intervention) helped him to reach Dudinka, instead of continuing his journey along another river, the Styx. ... I was badly beaten. I don’t remember the particulars, I only remember somehow that they beat me with a bucket and the bucket became bent out of shape. ... When I came to, I was already in my corner.”

Guards

Survival

“Another was a third Luba. Her last name escapes my memory, but it would be difficult to forget her because she was so unique: never sad, witty, entertaining, and amazingly talented improviser-storyteller. The three weeks she spent with us were the funniest—yes, funny, she didn’t let us pine away even in prison! She was not at all a beauty: short, with small mousy eyes, thin oily hair, and pimpled face. But as soon as she said, “Oy, girls! Listen to what I dreamt about tonight!”—everyone got up and moved closer, because we knew that she would spin such a yarn that we would listen to her through the night. She also told ordinary fairy tales—with Baba-Yaga, dragons, werewolves, tsars, and princes—she could tell the same tale differently every time.”

Fates

After Kersnovskaia was released she traveled a long way to find her mother—they hadn’t seen each other for 18 years. She and her mother lived in Essentuki. Kersnovskaia left her memoirs. She died in 1994.