MIA > Archive > A. Ciliga > In Stalin’s Prisons
Published: 1938, in Paris, under the title Au Pays du Grand Mensonge.
Source: The New International, Vol. X No. 3, March 1944, pp. 84–88.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
[Continued from Last Issue]
To close this chapter, I will describe briefly the men who were my prison comrades for eight months.
In Hall No. 12, the first three bunks from the door were occupied by Yugoslavs. The fourth by the right-wing Trotskyist Akopian, former political commissar of the Red Army. He came from a family of workers and had a communist brother. Although he followed the political discussions with interest, he took no active part in them, occupied as he was with perfecting his knowledge of mathematics, physics, etc.
His neighbor – the Georgian, Shaliko Gochelashvili, member of the Comsomol and son of an old non-party miner was a young man of lively and serious mind who devoted himself zealously and skillfully to the study of labor problems. It was all the more striking to see him defend obstinately the conception of the dictatorship of an elite minority.
The space on the side was reserved to Cherepakhin, the only supporter of Zinoviev in our prison. A former Leningrad worker, he had been a political commissar in the Red Army during the civil war. At the time of the activity of the Zinoviev group, he was studying at the Tolmachev Political and Military Academy in Leningrad. He claimed that the dictatorship of the proletariat had given way to a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.”
“A dictatorship, no doubt,” I objected, “but wherein is it democratic? Besides, this dictatorship is not exercized by the workers and the peasants, but to their detriment.”
But he explained to me unshakably that the correct, dialectical analysis confirmed his theory. He occupied himself a great deal with philosophy, with Hegel in particular. According to Hegel, Lenin and Cherepakhin, there was a democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants in Russia – and so much the worse for the facts.
There were also two “Decits” in our hall – Prokopenya and Fateyev. The former had been a worker in Moscow, the latter a worker at first and then a student. In the neighboring hall there was a third Decist – Mikhail Shapiro, a Kharkov factory worker. The Decists had split into two opposing groups at the time: the “state capitalists” which claimed that the regime of the USSR was state capitalism and that the bureaucracy formed the ruling class in it – and the petty bourgeois, who regarded the Soviet regime and the bureaucracy as the expression of a petty bourgeois state.
My Decist neighbors belonged to this second category. They were congenial fellows, but I did not succeed, in spite of many discussions, in understanding how they harmonized their theories with the obvious facts – with the open warfare of the bureaucracy against the petty bourgeoisie (collectivization and “de-kulakization”). “Thermidor,” the counter-revolution of the petty bourgeois, had triumphed, to hear them, at the moment when the opposition was expelled from the party, that is, in the winter of 1927. Yet, two months later, the bureaucracy declared war upon the peasants ...
The young sailor, Vigon, former member of the Comsomol, was a Trotskyist of the left. Too young to bear up under several years of privation, he left prison half unbalanced.
I have already spoken of the two left Trotskyists, Densov and Gorlov.
Khashchevatsky, the official representative of the right Trotskyists in our walking group, was a perfect pedant; what made up the capital of Bolshevism – audacity and sweep – were obviously alien to him. Quite different was another Trotskyist, still further to the right, Kiknadze. An old Bolshevik, the latter had long been a revolutionist, whereas Khashchevatsky had never been one at bottom. Another “rightist” who made up our walking group, Tsivtsivadze, had once been assistant chief of the GPU of Georgia, which was headed by the renowned Kote Tsintsadze, who had since come over to the opposition. Tsivtsivadze had retained the haughty demeanor fitting for an ex-representative of authority. It was with the severity of a superior that he addressed the inspectors and turnkeys, and I am not too clear as to why they tolerated this attitude.
In the neighboring Hall No. 11, the tone was set by the “center,” under the leadership of a Kharkov Trotskyist, Abramsky, an alert and cultured but fairly superficial person.
As to Antokolsky, relative of the celebrated sculptor, and Lobkovsky, former secretary of Rykov, they were modest, hard-working and self-effacing men. They were constantly occupied with copying documents: Antokolsky for the right and the center, Lobkovsky for the left.
Out of the seven workers in the adjacent hall, there was only one convinced “rightist”: he was Rappoport, a tailor, sympathetic and poised, forty years old, tuberculous. Doro-shensko, a Leningrad worker, and Yoffe, an émigré worker from Lithuania, belonged to the left, but each in his own way: Doroshensko was always ready to make a tumult, whereas Yoffe regarded everything with a serenity tinged with skepticism. Fomkin, a young textile worker from Ivanovo-Voznesensk, represented the rebel worker type whom the weighty industrial machine had not yet broken. He was of course of the left.
There were three other workers whose names I have forgotten. One of them was from Leningrad, the others from White Russia. The first did not belong to the opposition, but had got himself sentenced to a year in prison for complaining to a comrade, during the military maneuvers he was taking part in, of the tough life of the workers. The two workers from White Russia took an active part in the discussions and disputes that took place during the walks. One question was close to their hearts: why does the Opposition occupy itself so little with workers’ problems, why is it so permeated with the bureaucratic spirit? The reproach in itself was warranted, but they surrounded it with fairly suspicious commentaries. It was only later, in exile, that we understood the reason for it: the two cronies were common agents provocateurs.
In connection with agents provocateurs, a right Trotskyist – let us call him N., for I do not remember his name – former member of the Comsomol in the Ukraine, then a student in the University of Moscow, began to develop a theory that no comparison ought to be made between the agents provocateurs of the bourgeois police and members of the Opposition who, after having capitulated, reported everything they knew to the GPU or even proceeded to “work” in the Opposition upon the orders of the Chekists. Stalinists and Trotskyists are at bottom two factions of the same party, which is not the case with communists and the bourgeois power. Don’t we find it normal when a Stalinist comes over to the opposition and tells us everything he knows and sometimes even remains in the ranks of the Stalinists so as to be able to keep us informed?
This philosophy deeply moved my friend Dragich. “That’s spy-Bolshevism. What has that to do with the revolution!” he exclaimed. What revolted him above all was that N. claimed that “that’s how it always was.” During the civil war the same tactic is supposed to have been applied to the Social-Revolutionists, the social democrats and the anarchists. Dragich declared war upon the theories of N. and addressed himself to the Old Bolsheviks of the Opposition, asking them to settle the debate in its “historical” part. They replied that in their time it was never a question of anything but a political evolution, that newcomers were never asked to engage in the trade of stool-pigeons and provocateurs. As to the internal affairs of their former party, they told only what they wanted to. To be sure, there were cases where shifters accepted the task of working in their former organizations for the benefit of the Cheka – the GPU of the time – but those were individual, and moreover, rare cases. There was no system and provocation in the days of the civil war.
After this declaration, Dragich demanded the expulsion of N. from the ranks of the opposition, for such theories threatened to demoralize it. The “Right Collective” to which N. belonged, refused, claiming that while N.’s opinions were wrong, they nevertheless remained within the limits of a “tolerable deviation.”
Of course, we had the right to suspect N. of acting on behalf of the GPU in sowing moral confusion in the Opposition. But nobody had proof – Dragich no more than the others – nor even any indications. In the long run, it was perhaps nothing more with N. than an abstract theory developed to its extreme consequences. In any case, the episode explains many things in the life of the All-Russian Communist Party and its opposition. Let us not forget, by the way, that in those days capitulators and stool-pigeons were not yet asked to supply fraudulent “information,” as it is practiced today in the most monstrous manner.
Among the members of the Opposition who belonged to ous walking group, there were two former factory directors of working class origin. Lokhmacnev had been at the head of a metal works in the Donbas, and Marcus, of a small plant in White Russia. They belonged to the Trotskyist right wing group, but they were so imbued with the bureaucratic spirit that I was quite surprised to find them in the ranks of the Opposition. It took me many years of cohabitation to resolve this enigma: Marcus was too humane to accept the unspeakable sufferings that the regime imposed upon the workers. From his somewhat primitive conception, the regime should have been able on reconcile the interests of the bureaucrats with those of the workers. It was the only motive that impelled him to the ranks of the Opposition.
As to Lokhmachev, he belonged to the “Workers’ Opposition.” In 1929, the local group to which he belonged displayed some activity by allying itself with the “Decist” group: that’s what brought Lokhmachev to prison. He soon “capitulated” and his prison sentence was commuted to a sentence of exile. The philosophy of Lokhmachev, like that of all the leaders of the “Workers’ Opposition,” could be summed up as follows: “All is lost, the working class is silent, we too must be silent.” In the spring of 1931 we saw the arrival in prison of the first group of “capitulators” who had proved unable to “adapt” themselves entirely. Two of them – Sadovsky and Lozovsky – were part of our walking group. These people continued to regard themselves as “capitulators,” supporters of the general line, and so we demanded that they separate from us; which they did. They soon reached the figure of twenty to thirty, and formed a walking group of their own. I had the impression that a part of these “capitulators” systematically practised hypocrisy: having renounced the open opposition of the Trotskyists, they seemed to think it necessary to disguise their secret activity by public and solemn testimonials of loyalty to the general line. This was the tactic of the I.N. Smirnov group.
The pacific course of our political discussions, of our splits and new fusions, was abruptly interrupted by a sharp conflict with the administration that absorbed all our strength for several months.
It was toward the end of April. The Ural winter storms which made all walking impossible, even in the well-sheltered prison court, had just abated. The snow fell, the days grew longer, the sun began to shine. It was spring. Prison life became more bearable. Suddenly, several rifle shots were heard. ... A Red Army sentinel had just fired on the prisoner, Gabo Yessayan, standing near the window of his cell. Yessayan’s lungs were pierced. The Isolator stirred and throbbed like an anthill. Everybody immediately agreed that such an act could not be tolerated. Indignation waxed greater when we learned the antecedents of the affair, which proved that the attack was premeditated. In fact, for some weeks the sentinels had been threatening to shoot at prisoners at the slightest occasion. The latter had sent one of their “elders” to complain to the prison director, who replied: “It’s the only language you understand,” thus showing that the sentinels had only conformed to the director’s orders.
One after the other, the walking groups decided to begin a hunger strike that very evening as a protest. A strike committee was elected, composed the the right Trotskyist, Dingelstedt, the left Trotskyist, Kvachadze (who, afflicted with dysentery, was later replaced by Densov), and the “Decist,” Sayansky. We proclaimed our strike aims:
The hunger strike began that very evening. We sent back to the administration all the food that we possessed. The strike committee received dictatorial powers; it immediately telegraphed Moscow and decided that some fifteen comrades, seriously ill, should begin the strike only three days later. All private correspondence between the prisoners or with relatives must cease. All the necessary steps were taken to inform the oppositional circles in Moscow.
More than a hundred and fifty prisoners participated in the strike ... Some of the sick began the strike at the same time as the others, out of solidarity. Three days later, all the communists, amounting to 176 prisoners, were on strike. The socialists too issued a protest against administration abuses. Some anarchists participated in the strike out of a feeling of comradeship.
On the third day the prison doctor presented himself, but we refused to receive him. Some of the prisoners fell gravely ill: cardiac crises, dysentery, etc. The day after the proclamation of the strike, bad news stirred the entire prison: one of the prisoners, Vera Berger, at the end of her strength, had gone mad. The following day she was taken out for transfer to the insane asylum in Perm. That made one victim more ... The strike continued, with clenched teeth, in silence and in order. The fifth day, second case of madness. But it stirred us much less than the first, for the madman, or alleged madman, Victor Krainy, had been a little under suspicion before this. Was it staged by the GPU to demoralize us and to collapse the strike? Krainy was taken away, but we knew nothing of his destination, which only strengthened our suspicions. Naturally, I cannot say anything definite, for it is quite possible that the unfortunate was a victim and not an agent of the GPU.
There were eleven or twelve of us fasting in our hall. Some continued to read, to speak, to move about, others remained abed. I noticed that hunger depressed the active and resolute people much less than it did the others. My subsequent experiences with hunger in the USSR confirmed my opinion that resistance to hunger is primarily a question of will power.
The administration took a temporizing attitude. At the end of a week the director showed the strike committee a telegram from Moscow announcing the early departure of an inquiry commission of the GPU. It would take it a good eight days to reach our forsaken corner, so the director proposed that we stop the strike while waiting.
The proposal was accepted almost unanimously by the “strikers.” There were only two or three who suspected a maneuver on the part of the administration.
The strike suspended, we were put on a special feeding regime before returning to the normal. This brought us to May First, which we celebrated with meetings and songs, each walking group on its own. We stuck up pictures of Trotsky surrounded by all sorts of political slogans. The inspectors protested against such heresies, we had to come to blows in the prison court under the uneasy eye of the prisoners glued to the windows, but everything ended all right. The various Trotskyist groups wanted to telegraph their best wishes to their leader in exile, but the sbirri refused the dispatches, saying: “We do not transmit wishes from counter-revolutionists.”
Of course, the socialists and anarchists also celebrated the revolutionary holiday. All the windows were draped with red flags, the prisoners had made up red insignia that we wore in our buttonholes. The paradoxes of Soviet life: one holiday, under one flag, on two sides of the barricade ...
The May First celebrations and the supplementary rations we received on this occasion were drawing to a close. Days and weeks passed. No inquiry commission ... The administration claimed that the commission had been kept back by an unforeseen affair. At the end of two months, the prisoners lost patience: at the beginning of July, we declared a second hunger strike. To the astonishment of the GPU, it was carried out with just as much unanimity as the first. The objurgations of the director, who brandished a new telegram announcing that the inquiry commission was already on its way, did not change our views. The seventh day of the strike, the commission finally arrived, but we continued the strike nevertheless, firmly resolved not to interrupt it before having received satisfaction.
Two of our comrades – in good health – who had ceased the strike on their own initiative, were excluded from our little society. One of them, Avoyan, ended by “capitulating”; the other, Assyrian, promised that in the future he would give proof of a model solidarity and after three months we allowed him to return to the communist “collective.”
The behavior of another prisoner, Kiknadze, deserves being noted. Even though he was not in agreement with the second strike, he behaved in a model manner and fasted like the others. Meanwhile, his wife arrived from Moscow and transmitted a message from Ordjonikidze, his old comrade in battle. Upon receiving this message, Kiknadze decided to “capitulate,” but waited loyally for the strike to terminate, and participated in it to the very end ...
The inquiry commission was composed of three persons. Andreyeva, sub-director of the secret political section of the College of the GPU, was in high charge of political prisoners.
She had the peculiarity of remembering the biography of several thousand militants belonging to various communist and socialist parties. She persecuted them with an obvious pleasure and managed almost always to separate husbands from wives, children from parents, in prison or in exile. The second member of the commission was named Popov. He was chief of the penitentiary section of the GPU. His brigadier mustache was in harmony with his function. The third – I do not remember his name – fulfilled the functions of an attorney-general. He was a Polish communist, former railroad worker, who was distinguished from the other commission members by his more polite, more “European,” manners.
Andreyeva began by declaring that the GPU recognized no collective organ as representative of the communist prisoners and refused to deal with our committee. Dressed in the Chekist uniform, shod with heavy boots, wearing a stern air, she entered the halls of the striking prisoners her hair in the wind. But instead of discussing with her, the prisoners referred her back to the strike committee. Next day, Andreyeva changed her tactic. Dressed elegantly in a suit of black cloth of the best cut, perfumed, wearing stylish shoes and flesh-colored silk stockings, she tried to begin negotiating with each one of us separately. This succeeded no better than before, and weary of it all she began negotiating with our committee.
The negotiations dragged on for days. Andreyeva declared that most of our demands would be satisfied, but that the hunger strike would have to be stopped first: the GPU cannot give in to coercion. The prison director, Bizyukov, would not be removed, but the soldier who had fired would be turned over to the courts. She promised to publish an order authorizing us to stand in the window embrasures. She promised several other improvements in the regime, especially better food. She promised, finally, that the victim of the shooting, Yessayan, would have his prison sentence commuted to the penalty of exile and that he would be given medical treatment.
The strike committee demanded further that it be specified that no reprisals would be made against any of the prisoners for participating in the strike. Andreyeva promised this orally but refused to do it in writing. One last question remained to be solved: should we insist on the recall of the prison director? The opinion of the committee was divided. It was decided to proceed with a vote of all the “strikers.” The majority expressed itself in favor of conciliation, the minority bowed, and our second strike, which had lasted eleven days, ended as disciplinedly as it had begun.
The GPU kept the promises made by Andreyeva, but it knew how to take its revenge in another way: six weeks later, thirty-five prisoners who had participated in the strike were transferred to the Suzdal Isolator. Among them were adherents of the three main political groups of our prison: right Trotskyists, left Trotskyists, and “Decists.” The left Trotskyists – who had showed themselves especially resolute during the strike – had to suffer more than the others. The most noteworthy among them, Densov, Kvachadze, Pushas, Dvinsky, were transferred to Suzdal. The same with the members of the strike committee, with about one exception. As to Yessayan, the wounded man, who should have been freed, we learned later that he had simply been transferred to the political prison of Chelyabinsk.
Six months later, the GPU began to exercise its cruelties at Verkhne-Uralsk itself ...
The hunger strike of the summer of 1931 had unfolded calmly and had gained a certain success. This was an exceptional fact in the chronicle of Verkhne-Uralsk. The attempts to fight which had taken place before, in the summer of 1929 and in February 1930 as well as that of December 1933, which I still have to mention, were repressed by force.
It would be well to give the reader a rounded idea of the political repression that raged in the USSR: the arrest of oppositional communists represented as a matter of fact only a stage in the history of this repression. The communists were after all the victim of the regime that they themselves had installed. The revolution had begun by destroying its enemies, the bourgeois and the landed proprietors, then it assailed its socialist and anarchist allies, and to finish off, it began to strike at its own children, the communists.
I was not a little surprised to learn that the penitentiary regime at Verkhne-Uralsk had constantly grown worse for the past several years. The socialists who had already been imprisoned once in 1925 told me that at one time the cells remained open the whole day, so that the prisoners could visit each other, go for walks in the court whenever they pleased, and hold meetings there. It was the prisoners themselves who regulated what they did with their time; the visiting hours and the hours of silence had to be respected. The prisoners were separated from the world, but kept a certain liberty. In all, it was the regime set up in 1850 by Napoleon III at Belle-Ile, a regime that Blanqui knew before his celebrated escape. Then the GPU introduced the “new regime” and closed the cell doors. The prisoners, socialists and anarchists, promptly called a hunger strike, but it was repressed by force. Stalin proved less liberal than Napoleon III. But Stalin is not the only one involved. Little by little I learned that in the days of Lenin and Trotsky the repressions aimed against the socialists and anarchists had grown to the extent of the advance of the country’s pacification and that during the worst dangers of the civil war they had been much more benign. It is beginning with 1921, when the civil war ended and the NEP began, that the revolution, finally triumphant, established the regime of limitless persecution. What is the logic of this reverse evolution?
The words “political repression” of “political” prisoners or exiles applies in the USSR only to socialists, to anarchists, to oppositional communists. They alone have the right to a political prisoner’s regime. But they make up only an infinitesimal minority, several thousands, a few tens of thousands at the most, compared with the millions of prisoners or exiles all sentenced on political grounds even though the state power does not acknowledge this quality. These millions of condemned are treated like common criminals and they are sent to forced labor. If there is any modification of this regime it applies only to the intellectuals who are called upon to direct the servile labor.
These condemned may be divided into six fundamental categories: the former rulers, people punished for sabotage, the peasants, the “religious,” the members of the national oppositions, be they democrats or communists, and finally the workers.
The first category embraces the members of the former families of the aristocracy, of the bourgeoisie, the tradesmen, the ex-officers, the former police commissioners, etc. During the Five Year Plan a hundred or two hundred thousand of them were deported, maybe more. In any case, the figure I give is a minimum.
The few dozens of thousands condemned for sabotage were non-party intellectuals.
The complete collectivization and the “de-kulakization” yielded three hundred thousand collective farms on the one hand, and on the other, several million exile peasant families. In our prison, the number of peasants deported was estimated at between five and ten millions. The real “kulaks” among them hardly represented a fifth of that number, the remainder being in reality peasants in moderate or proletarian circumstances who had manifested their discontent in one way or another. This mass increased further during the “purging” of the frontiers of the USSR. All along the western frontier, a zone fifty kilometers deep was almost entirely emptied of its inhabitants; all along the frontiers of Manchuria and of Korea, whole districts were deported to the Siberian back country.
There was no driving out of masses of workers during the Five Year Plan. During the spontaneous demonstrations in the factories, the GPU would seize the most active individuals and send them to forced labor or into the concentration camps on the charge of “economic counter-revolution” or by declaring them “bandits” or “kulaks.” It is thus that after the “hunger march” organized by the workers of several textile factories of the Ivanovo-Voznesensk region, of Vychug and elsewhere, it was considered enough to exile two workers, one of whom was secretary of the Comsomol cell and the other non-party, and to send a score of others to a concentration camp. As a preliminary precaution, the demands of the workers were satisfied. Izvestia published an article “unmasking” the calumnies of the English paper that had dared to speak of a hunger march in Ivanovo-Voznesensk. Two months later, we welcome to our prison comrades who came from exile and who had seen there with their own eyes the unfortunates sentenced for having taken part in this very march ... The number of these workers exile for “individual crimes” may be estimated at several tens of thousands.
A foreigner would find it hard to understand the attitude of the victims themselves. They did not in any way pose as champions of a political cause, still less as opponents of the regime. On the contrary, they dreamed of nothing more than getting themselves readmitted to the society as it existed, to find work, to earn money, to deserve being set free. This tendency led to the following paradox: the workers and peasants remain at the lower rungs, while the members of the classes designated as “abolished” or “hostile” receive favorable treatment, enjoy privileges, and are on good terms with the representatives of the state power.
Let me cite two examples. In the Ukht-Pechersk concentration camp, those sentenced for sabotage – engineers, doctors, economists, agronomists – live in comfortable villas, alongside of the communist authorities, and enjoy a food supply that is adequate, even if not variegated. The workers, miners and masons, the former peasants and those sentenced for common crimes live like animals in mud huts and eat just enough to keep alive. They are overloaded with work and die like flies of scurvy and other illnesses.
Here is another example. A superb automobile highway is being built “according to the last word in American technique” across the terrible taiga, or virgin forest, from the Bay of Nogayev on the Pacific Ocean to the Kolima River, which flows into the Arctic Ocean. At the same time, the river is being straightened out and rendered navigable in order to assure a link between the two oceans. Under the surveillance of the GPU, engineers condemned for sabotage direct the labor done by deported peasants as well as by a certain number of free workers. The engineers receive high wages. Thus, in 1935, the head engineer received 3,000 rubles a month. The condemned engineers live with the heads of the GPU and the party, and together with them form a sort of elite caste in this Arctic desert. This elite does not mingle with the “middle layer,” composed of functionaries and condemned; as for the humble workers of peasant origin, be they free or prisoners, they have no contact with their superiors.
This little world had to receive, following the killing of Kirov, a group of “ci-devant” exiles who included some former princesses of the highest rank and other members of the old aristocracy. They were immediately received into the elite, employment was found for them as secretaries and stenographers, they were invited to the family evenings and the pleasure parties. Soon to arrive was the renowned singer, Utesov, of Leningrad, condemned for reasons of a private nature; he promptly organized a theater with the aid of the “ci-devant.” This theater absorbed the funds allocated to “cultural needs” of the colony. Who should have the right to culture if not the authorities? At the end of six months, most of these “ex-ladies from on high” had remarried – for the third or fifth time – with “sabotagers” or functionaries of the GPU or the party. One more year and they would be eligible for freedom. After my liberation from Verkhne-Uralsk, I had the occasion to meet one of these ladies. She described to me, not without pleasure, the pleasant life that high society led in this lost corner of the Far North. But when I questioned her about the conditions of the peasants who worked there, she had nothing to tell me; it had never chanced for her to mingle with them.
I learned what interested me from the mouth of workers who had worked from 1932 to 1934 on the Kolima River. One of them was assigned, with six hundred exiled peasants, to the work of constructing a wharf midway along the river. At the end of two winters, a score of peasants were the sole survivors, the others having died of cold, hunger, scurvy. There was nothing exceptional about this. In another section of the interior, almost all the exiles were dead within a single winter, the GPU “not having had the time to provide adequate nourishment.” As to the free workers who had hired out of their own accord, they were systematically robbed of their wages, and their demands remained without effect. It is on the backs of these workers that the administration sought to realize its savings ...
As to the “ci-devant,” if they, even though condemned, found a way of joining up with the communist directors and the technician-elite, what can be said of those among them who remained at liberty? From what I saw in the USSR, I can state that if one-third of the ruling classes of old Russia perished or emigrated, the two-thirds amalgamated themselves with the new ruling class born out of the revolution.
[Continued in next issue]
Last updated on: 15 October 2015