Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Vladimir Tchernavin

Introduction

Vladimir Tchernavin was one of the fortunate few to escape the Gulag and reach safety in Finland. Tchernavin was a fisheries expert living in Murmansk, beyond the Arctic Circle, when he was accused of wrecking the Fishing Trust’s Plan. After his arrest he was initially imprisoned at Solovetsky, but was then sent to Karelia to help with the fishing industry. Tchernavin arranged for his wife, Tatiana, and son, Andrei, to come for a visit during which they made plans for their escape. In 1933, they were able to carry out their plan. The family went out for a picnic and got into a boat that Tchernavin had concealed earlier. Each family member carried a backpack with supplies and they camped wherever they could find shelter. After days of walking the family reached safety in Finland and immigrated to England.

Arrest

“Each evening while the boy was in bed, my wife and I would sit together for a long time – waiting. We never spoke of it, but we both knew we were waiting and that these might be our last hours together. It happened at last, and very simply. The bell rang. I opened the door and saw the house superintendent with a stranger in civilian dress. I understood. The stranger handed me a paper – the order for search and arrest. He entered the room which served as both bedroom and study and began the search. It was a very superficial one, only a formality. When my wife came home the search was finished and I was preparing for my ‘journey’: two changes of underwear, a pillow, a blanket, a few pieces of sugar and several apples. ‘I am ready,’ I said to the GPU agent, thinking to myself, ‘ready for death.’”

Labor

“Many went willingly to such work, for owing to the painful monotony of prison life and the enforced, endless idleness even this work seemed a distraction and rest. Besides, in the kitchen one sometimes succeeded in stealing or begging an onion head. The need of raw food was so great among us, suffering from scurvy as we were that every one of us would gladly have worked a whole day at any kind of labor, if by doing so we could only obtain a bit of onion. But the examining officers allowed this kind of escape from the demoralizing prison boredom only when they considered the case completed. Highly qualified engineers competed for the right to do plumbing jobs, repair locks, electric lighting and telephones. Learned professors claimed the jobs of polishing floors and cleaning stairs. One clergyman, until his execution, was for a long time in charge of the boiler.”

Suffering

During an interrogation, Tchernavin was told why he was placed in a specific cell: “’I hope we will come to an understanding and that I will not be forced to change the regime I have ordered for you. The third category is the mildest: exercise in the yard, permission to receive food parcels from outside, a newspaper and books. Remember, however, that it depends entirely on me; any minute you may be deprived of everything and transferred to solitary confinement. Or rather, this depends not on me but on your own behavior, your sincerity. The more frank your testimony, the better will be the conditions of your imprisonment. I placed you in a common cell so that you can get familiar with our regulations. You acquaint yourself, so to say, at first hands with our methods, and I believe….you will become more compliant. We have discarded medieval methods; we don’t hang up by the legs or cut off strips of skin from the back, but we have other means, no less effective, and we know how to force the truth.’”

Propaganda

During an interrogation, Tchernavin was told why he was placed in a specific cell: “’I hope we will come to an understanding and that I will not be forced to change the regime I have ordered for you. The third category is the mildest: exercise in the yard, permission to receive food parcels from outside, a newspaper and books. Remember, however, that it depends entirely on me; any minute you may be deprived of everything and transferred to solitary confinement. Or rather, this depends not on me but on your own behavior, your sincerity. The more frank your testimony, the better will be the conditions of your imprisonment. I placed you in a common cell so that you can get familiar with our regulations. You acquaint yourself, so to say, at first hands with our methods, and I believe….you will become more compliant. We have discarded medieval methods; we don’t hang up by the legs or cut off strips of skin from the back, but we have other means, no less effective, and we know how to force the truth.’”

Solidarity

“This was the beginning of a real friendship with the bandits whose attitude towards me was deeply touching. One of the prisoners brought me some cold soup and some cereal hardened into a gluey mass. I could not eat it. I drew out of my pocket the forgotten apple – to the surprise of my neighbors. ‘An apple? Raw? How did you manage to get it through? It is strictly forbidden.’ ‘I don’t know; they let it pass. I have some more, do you want one?’ ‘Why of course we do,’ Pavel replied, with excitement and eagerness in his voice. ‘We’re terribly in need of something green. Here we are given nothing raw. That’s to produce scurvy. Vania is getting it already.’ Pavel nodded at his companion. ‘We get no fats either and that’s why we have ulcers; sometimes they’re simply terrible, especially on the stomach and back.’”

Conflict

“Although the cell was supposedly settled for the night, no one was sleeping. The foreman was standing by his cot in heated argument with two prisoners at the opposite end of the cell near the window. By the door stood a man in a fur coat holding his things – evidently a newcomer. He seemed completely bewildered; here he was in prison and there was no room for him. He was the 110th occupant of a cell meant for twenty-two prisoners. I stood and waited, listening to a fellow-prisoner who explained what was going on. ‘Those two are criminals – bandits. Their places on the floor next to the window and lavatory are a little wider than those under the boarding, but cold because the window is open all night long. The foreman told them to take in this newcomer, but they refused, claiming that he has no right to put anyone in a place already occupied.”

Guards

As Tchernavin began to formulate a plan to escape, he met a peasant who gave him some potentially valuable information. “’Believe me, my dear man, those guards have everything. They make kasha every day and eat it with butter. Their cabbage soup is made with meat, and there’s so much bread they can’t eat it up. And what easy work they have! A beat of 15 kilometers and they patrol it in pairs. When two return two others start out. Mostly they lie around and listen to the radio. They don’t like to go in the woods. They’re afraid. It is said that there are escaped convicts there who will lie in wait for them and kill them.’ ‘Do they take the dogs with them?’ ‘No, I never saw them taking dogs. Perhaps the dogs are not trained.’ And so I accidentally learned the location of a new frontier post in a region important to me.”

Survival

“The second of November I returned to Kem. There I found a letter from my wife – she had decided to come north and attempt to see me. I knew this would be difficult, but my trip had made a good impression, not so much on account of my official observations as because of the five hundred kilometers in a row-boat. He [chief of Ribprom] was impressed also by my notebook with its daily entries of our activities, plans showing the location of all fishing grounds and Ribprom points with sketches of buildings and structures. It was a real guidebook to the region. He could not hide his pleasure and I decided to take advantage of it by presenting to him a previously written request for a ‘personal visit’ from my wife and son. I was not mistaken, my chiefs were pleased and they granted my request for a visit of five days.”

Fates

“My wife came with our son. We determined to escape together and tentatively made our plan for the end of the following summer. We also decided upon both the location from which we had to start and the exact meeting place. My wife and son were to reach it on a day to be agreed upon; I should then escape, meet them there and lead them to the frontier. We arranged a code for our letters, all of which were read by the censor of the GPU. The five days passed and they departed. I was still a prisoner, but with one solemn purpose during the seven months to come: to live, in order that we might be free – or, if necessary, die – together.” “Without compass or map, we walked over wild mountains, through forests and across swamps, to Finland and freedom.”