Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Dimitri Panin

Introduction

Dimitri Panin graduated from a technical school in 1928 and worked at a cement works in Podolsk, less than 30 miles from Moscow. In 1940, an engineer who had worked with him for two years informed on him, and he was arrested in July. Four months later he was transferred to Lefortovo Prison and charged with treason under Article 58. Again, four months passed, and he received his sentence of 5 years. He was transported to Butyrki, where he spent another four months. On August 28, 1941 Panin arrived at Vyatlag where he remained several years before being transported to Vorkuta. In 1947, he was taken to the scientific research Gulag camp, the sharashka described in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, before finally heading off to a hard labor camp, Ekibastuz. Eventually, he made his way to Karaganda where he finished his sentence and was then exiled to Kazakhstan.

Arrest

“I was placed in the corner cell, Number 196, on the fourth floor [at Lefortovo Prison]; directly beneath was death row. A woman down there was wailing without end like a wounded animal. We were forbidden to sleep during the day; anyone who disobeyed could wind up in the isolation cell. Interrogations were conducted only at night. Even when a man was spared this ordeal, he still slept badly, his senses always on the alert. Each prisoner thought they were coming for him; he listened with strained attention for footsteps, rustlings, the clanging of doors being opened. Screams frequently resounded through the prison. In the early hours of the morning it was not unusual to hear the howling of a man being taken out to be shot. Once in a great while there was a prisoner who, out of weariness and desperation, kicked up a row, vowing that he would not go to another interrogation.”

Labor

At Vyatlag. “Work in the shop was conducted in two shifts, each lasting twelve hours with a thirty-minute break. I wound up on the night shift. I was required to file the edges of wrench screws down to twenty-two and twenty-seven millimeters at a rate of seventy pieces a shift. Even by transforming myself into a robot, I could not manage more than fifty pieces a night. For my failure to meet the quota, they could have placed me on a penalty ration of three hundred grams of bread, but every day Boris brought me six hundred. After twenty days at this job, I realized that my strength would not last very long—I was beginning to ‘wear out’.”

Suffering

“We were driven in a Black Maria from the Kirov Transit Prison to a train, where we were installed in a Stolypin coach…One of our number, however—a Kuban Cossak, who recounted endless tales of his hunting and military exploits—continuously sang the praises of the regime…I was never in the least surprised by acts of lawlessness and oppression on the part of the regime. For this reason, I never got into an argument with either the camp authorities or our guards—except in cases of really exceptional highhandedness…But those who still regarded themselves as loyal Soviet citizens were constantly kicking up a fuss over something or other…Our friend from the Kuban had a set-to with one of the guards during an evening visit to the toilets. He was so insolent that the guards threw him into a punishment cell. There, after putting him in special handcuffs, they beat the daylights out of him. The handcuffs tightened at the slightest movement, thus impeding the blood circulation and causing such pain that the Cossack screamed his head off. This sort of punishment was just the right medicine for him. It helped him see things as they really were.”

Propaganda

“We were driven in a Black Maria from the Kirov Transit Prison to a train, where we were installed in a Stolypin coach…One of our number, however—a Kuban Cossak, who recounted endless tales of his hunting and military exploits—continuously sang the praises of the regime…I was never in the least surprised by acts of lawlessness and oppression on the part of the regime. For this reason, I never got into an argument with either the camp authorities or our guards—except in cases of really exceptional highhandedness…But those who still regarded themselves as loyal Soviet citizens were constantly kicking up a fuss over something or other…Our friend from the Kuban had a set-to with one of the guards during an evening visit to the toilets. He was so insolent that the guards threw him into a punishment cell. There, after putting him in special handcuffs, they beat the daylights out of him. The handcuffs tightened at the slightest movement, thus impeding the blood circulation and causing such pain that the Cossack screamed his head off. This sort of punishment was just the right medicine for him. It helped him see things as they really were.”

Solidarity

“I encountered a prisoner called Zaitsev. Before my arrest we had lived in the same engineers’ barracks, although I do not recall that we had ever engaged in conversation. But now he joined me as I was walking about the camp one day. No doubt I presented such a pitiful sight that he was quite overcome. He asked me to come inside. I replied that the five steps up were too much for me and suggested that if he had something to show me, I would be better off waiting for him on the bench outside. A minute later he came back out, holding a small package that turned out to contain bread. The compassion of this virtual stranger so impressed me that, in my weakened condition, my eyes filled with tears. I whispered, “What marvelous people there are in this world.” With perfect clarity I saw how the power of goodness was uniting the two of us in that single moment of time, how it ignited the spark of love. This is what holds the world together.”

Conflict

“One day, two of the prisoners broke into a fierce quarrel. Suddenly one of them, a well-educated young man, went down on all fours like a dog. He darted nimbly toward the other man, bit him in the leg, and just as quickly sprang back. Everybody, including the victim, was so taken aback that they were rooted to the spot until the whole pantomime was over—then they all burst out laughing. In that gloomy extremity when one is near death, when death has already started creeping into all the cells of one’s body, some savage force within the spirit suddenly asserts its control and impels one to some monstrously absurd or irrational act.”

Guards

“My interrogator at Lubyanka had been a young man, about thirty, by the name of Tsvetayev. It seems that he had been an engineer before the Chekists had recruited him. Obviously he had only recently completed his course in this new job, and my “case” was in the nature of an exam for him. I felt no ill will toward him, nor do I feel any now. He diligently carried out instructions that his superior had written down for him on a piece of paper. Exactly as they had trained him to do, he conscientiously swore, shouted, and threatened, but without real malice. During my interrogation at Lubyanka he had offered a fresh appearance; he had an attractive face, fair and with a soft rosy hue. There was no sign of brutishness in it. When I saw him again at Lefortovo, I involuntarily thought of Oscar Wilde. Before me was the portrait of Dorian Gray, a face vitiated by evil doing and depravity. Tsvetayev’s face had turned yellow, fat, and flabby, with deep wrinkles and brown pouches under his eyes. He was unrecognizable.”

Survival

Being taken to Vyatlag. “Our fraternity” had used its time to good advantage back in the transport cell. We came to the camp with a very clearly defined attitude toward forced labor. We all agreed on the following maxims: a day of shirking guarantees a longer life; don’t put in a single day’s hard labor if you can help it; work is not a bear—it won’t run off to the forest and disappear; even horses will die if they’re overworked…We agreed that we would serve out our sentences, but not to end them prematurely along with our lives.”

Fates

“My six-month journey as a shtrafnik, my stay in the punishment cells at Spassk, and further run-ins with interrogators, my encounters with ordinary working people, and my eventual transfer to a “peaceful” camp at Karaganda; my release from camp and banishment for life in northern Kazakhstan (which fortunately turned out to be only three years, owing to Stalin’s death), all will be described in a second volume of the Notebooks, provided that I am granted the strength and time.” (Panin, 319) Panin never did write a second volume, and as it turned out, “The ‘Organs’ waited eleven years, until 1955, before giving me a certificate of rehabilitation which stated than order dated August 19, 1944, had been rescinded and all charges against me dropped for lack of evidence.”

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