Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Boris Chetverikov

Introduction

Boris Dmitrievich Chetverikov was born in Ural’sk, Russia in 1896. Prior to his arrest he was a well-known Soviet writer. In April 1945 he was arrested because of a slanderous denunciation by an acquaintance. He spent eleven years in camps from 1945 until 1956. He worked as a doctor, as a designer in a technical office, and as a night watchman. He recalls: “I’ve been in dozens of camps. I was at Izvestkovaia station, on the current BAM highway, where we built a tunnel two kilometers long near the Dusse-Alin’skii passage. I participated in that construction. Then I was at a camp which was located on the railway line Izvestkovaia-Urgal, and also at a transit camp in Urgal. Later I was at the Alexandrovskii central prison in Irkutsk, in the town of Taishet…”

Arrest

“When my doorbell suddenly rang at night, I somehow understood that they had come for me. I decided to hold them back for a little while. The night was cold, and I didn’t open the door for a long time. They tried to break the door, but couldn’t do it. So they went one floor down to the apartment of Kratt, a writer, to get warm. Finally, I couldn’t bear it longer. “Why haven’t you been opening for such long time?” I said: “I sleep deeply. People with clean consciences sleep well…” The search went all night long. The witness, the wife of writer Peter Kapitsa, was nodding off…”

Labor

“Once I was assigned to a team of grave-diggers. We were brought to a burial site, where I saw a large field pierced with some sticks. These were the graves of our comrades. A stick with a nailed down wooden board marked a prisoner’s grave. The board displayed only a number… These sticks soon fell down and then disintegrated completely…I also toiled at falling timber where in the summer gnats literally ate me up, covering my hands, face, and eyes. I also served as a “transport” moving wooden logs from the forest to the plant. I remember that damned job very well. At minus 60 degrees, we dragged these damned logs, 10-15 of us harnessed together, clambering forth with the ropes in deep snow…”

Suffering

“We were corralled [at the Izvestkovaia-Urgal camp], counted, and put up in cold barracks with bed boards made out of wood strips instead of boards. No beds, of course. The kitchen was not yet set up. Most importantly, no water. Curiously, the camp was located at a steep bank of a clean and clear river, but still there was no water: they didn’t take us there fearing we might escape… In the barrack where I settled my traveling companions, including Aleksandrov, disappeared somewhere. Within a few hours, as soon as I stepped out for a second, thieves searched my suitcase and took a few things. My tattered blanket disappeared …” (p. 102) “We were fed with horse feed, or kaoliang… This grass was similar to buckwheat, but it was so tasteless, disgusting, and nauseating that at first I couldn’t eat it. “Eat, or you’ll die,” my comrades advised me. “Keep telling yourself: this is buckwheat, this is buckwheat, and eat…”

Propaganda

“We were corralled [at the Izvestkovaia-Urgal camp], counted, and put up in cold barracks with bed boards made out of wood strips instead of boards. No beds, of course. The kitchen was not yet set up. Most importantly, no water. Curiously, the camp was located at a steep bank of a clean and clear river, but still there was no water: they didn’t take us there fearing we might escape… In the barrack where I settled my traveling companions, including Aleksandrov, disappeared somewhere. Within a few hours, as soon as I stepped out for a second, thieves searched my suitcase and took a few things. My tattered blanket disappeared …” (p. 102) “We were fed with horse feed, or kaoliang… This grass was similar to buckwheat, but it was so tasteless, disgusting, and nauseating that at first I couldn’t eat it. “Eat, or you’ll die,” my comrades advised me. “Keep telling yourself: this is buckwheat, this is buckwheat, and eat…”

Solidarity

“Suddenly a small window in the door flew open. “Do you want “goroshnitsa”? –a girl’s pretty voice asked.” “Of course!” A female hand flashed, and I got a full bowl of thick “goroshnitsa,” a pea porridge. Apparently, the girl worked in the kitchen. She was a prisoner herself. Like the entire camp, she knew my life story and felt sorry for me. Did she steal a dish of goroshnitsa cooked for her from the kitchen? Did some kind-hearted lady cook give it to her? She rushed to our cell taking advantage of the moment when the guard was busy distributing breakfast. How much did she hurry when, shaking with fear, she opened my hatch? She handed me goroshnitsa (maybe even her own share) and ran away. If she had been caught she would have lost her job at the kitchen. Or, she could have been taken to an isolation cell or beaten… I wished I could meet this kind girl later, when I would be free.”

Conflict

“In those days I directly observed the efficacy of unwritten law, “The daily bread ration is sacred, it is forbidden to take it.” In our barrack someone ate another’s bread at night. The senior criminal had a place right in front of me, and I saw how he was informed about the incident. I was surprised that he paid no heed to the news, acting like he didn’t hear it. It turned out that he did listen and he took action immediately. One might get so envious!...The next morning one young fellow turned out to be painted. The bread ration was covered with chemical pencil shavings. With no mirrors in TsRM, except in the female units, when the thief ate bread at night in the dark he dirtied his hands, cheeks and even nose. No investigation or interrogation was necessary—his appearance spoke for itself. He was beaten. He was beaten not in anger, but in accordance with civic duty. I believe he was beaten to death.”

Guards

“During those days Kulakov introduced a new way of weakening my body. As I had mentioned, during the day it was prohibited to sleep or lie down in prison. Kulakov would send for me in late evening, thus not allowing me to sleep during the allotted time. At five o’clock in the morning I would again be taken downstairs, put near the door of Kulakov’s office, and left alone. I would stand for five hours in a completely empty building. Sometimes I couldn’t tolerate it and lied down on floor. Kulakov would return at ten o’clock and examine each corner because there was a chance that I wouldn’t be able to hold it and would skip the restroom. However, everything was clean: I was on a hunger strike and had no use for a restroom. In the meantime, they could send me to the isolation cell for soiling the room.”

Survival

“When I noticed that prisoners pine away during the day, I decided to organize some activities. I always received black bread and some kind of white loaf in my packages. These lasted for a week, until the next package came, so I gave my prison bread ration to someone else. But I kept two or three rations for myself—I gave away only crusts and used the crumbs to make chess. I worked the entire day. A knight was the most difficult piece to make because I needed to make it durable. I painted chess the way criminals painted everything: used tooth powder for white pieces, and colored black ones by burning some soot at the bottom of a bowl. There was a box with cookies in one of my packages—its bottom served as a chess board. When the figures dried, we had a chess club in our cell.”

Fates

Chetverikov was rehabilitated in 1956. He continued his literary activity and died on March 17, 1981. “It is still important to describe lived experience, to show clearly that a man of firm convictions will not bend or switch sides in any circumstances…. I was rehabilitated, and I came out of all these trials the same Soviet person as I was before. And, however odd that sounds, in some way these years enriched me, I became wiser, reached a deeper understanding of life. To the very bottom of it.”

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